As most commentators agree, the political discourse in America has risen to levels of paranoid partisan disdain not seen in a many a generation. The level of anti-Obama rhetoric coming out of the Republican party is pretty worrying (if not hilarious in it’s inarticulate nature) and the Democrats are being pretty timid in trying to combat it – relying mostly on talk show hosts and comedians to highlight the cracks in right-wing talking points. It is interesting then to see a film released that looks back at an earlier time of political anger, perhaps indeed the moment when politics became indelibly ugly…
A new film from the filmmakers Penny Lane (Director) and Brian Frye (Producer) has used unseen footage filmed by Nixon’s political advisors to create a fascinating insight into the people that were at the heart of the Nixon white house. The very people that obsessively recorded themselves and their surroundings on 8mm film were the very same people that were drawn into a historic global scandal based on recorded material – the infamous Watergate recording scandal.
Penny and Brian were kind to answer a few of my pretentious questions – (I think Brian specifically had had a long day of questions…)
1. The intro of the film with the music feels like a ‘70s family sitcom. I assume that is done on purpose. What did you want to achieve with this introduction of the film?
Penny Lane: We wanted to do a few things with the opening credits. We wanted to establish that this film was going to look and feel very different from most historical documentaries. We wanted to establish to the viewer that it was okay to laugh. But we weren't just being flip in that sequence; Tracey Ullman's rendition of "They Dont Know" might be kitschy, but it's also a genuinely great song that resonates on multiple levels, emotionally. We were also trying to represent something of the excitement and vigor and spirit -- and yes, perhaps some naivete -- of the early days at the White House.
2. The Nixon administration has a terrible reputation (obviously). Are you in any way trying to change that by telling the story of his advisors literally through their own words?
Brian L. Frye: Absolutely! The terrible reputation of the Nixon administration is totally undeserved. It's not like they broke the law or anything. Luckily, everyone loves Nixon's aides - especially Haldeman & Ehrlichman - so allowing them to speak for themselves wins everyone over right away.
3. The film moves from the relative highs of the china visit and the moon landing down to the Watergate scandal and interviews. How did you craft the narrative and how long did the process take?
Penny Lane: It took about two years all told to finish the film, which isn't very long, I don't think. Brian and I edited for about a year on our own, just working through what kind of story the home movies seemed to want to tell. I think Brian and I knew that the story was always the same, because it was the story that the Super 8 home movies just so clearly wanted to tell: we knew it would be about the three cameramen, and how they got from young idealists walking into the White House in 1969 to men who went to prison for their involvement in one of America's greatest political scandals. The trick was figuring out how to actually communicate that story, which took time. We slowly added elements, like the news clips and TV interviews, which helped a lot. We brought in our editor, Francisco Bello, for the last six months of the edit, who just took the whole thing out of our heads and really brought it out into the world.
4. I kept watching the film and being reminded of the Zapruder film, surely the most famous super 8 film of all time. Is there something about the colouring or the detail of the film that you’re drawn to? I assume that it was all digitized and edited at home.
Brian L. Frye: You bet. 8mm is great because it is so easy to manipulate. And this was a piece of work! Just like the CIA erased the other two gunmen from the Zapruder film, we had to optically alter every frame to hide Nixon's third eye.
5. How did you hear about / collect the footage?
Penny Lane: All originating credit has to go to Brian. He had known about the home movies long before we even met and had wanted to do something with them for quite some time. When he told me about them, what sparked my interest was 1, the fact that hadn't really been seen, and 2, the sort of implicit juxtaposition of the banality and silliness of home movies and the darker, much more serious image many people have of the Nixon administration. We both figured there would be something interesting in that. Brian had orignally heard about the films from a friend named Bill Brand, who had been hired to preserve the material by the National Archives about a decade ago. Because the material is public domain, anyone could have done what we did, which was to make high resolution scans (using a Kinetta scanner) of the Super 8 films.
6. Do you fear that in a hyper-partisan American climate this film will be misunderstood? Do you believe in the conventional wisdom about the modern death of bipartisanship?
Brian L. Frye: No way! The message of "slack" is pretty hard to misunderstand. And in any case, bipartisanship isn't dead, it's just resting.
7. The film is currently touring the indie film circuit – what do you think will be the place for this film in years to come?
Penny Lane: We are still playing film festivals at the moment, which is just a ton of fun and super rewarding. Later this year, the film will be broadcast on CNN and will be released theatrically, digitally and DVD by Cinedigm across North America. Internationally, Autlook Filmsales is doing a bang-up job placing it in film festivals and on television (many of those sales are all pending, so I can't quite announce them yet; suffice to say, it will be seen all over the world!). In years to come, who knows? I hope the fact that it's not a "ripped from the headlines" kind of film might mean it has some staying power. I don't sense any waning interest in Richard Nixon, that's for sure.
8. The film is entirely made as a collage. Was there ever any temptation to secretly film original material to include in the film?! If you could have had a recent revelation or contemporary riposte – what would it be?
Brian L. Frye: It's more about what we had to leave out! Unfortunately, the tapes of Nixon talking to his alien commander just didn't fit into the story.
Thanks to Penny and Brian for talking to me – the film is a fascinating insight into Richard Milhous Nixon, a true political bogeyman...