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Five Questions with Our Nixon Director Penny Lane and Co-Producer Brian L. Frye

While it’s widely known that Richard Nixon was an obsessive self-documenter, what is less well known is that three of his top aides – H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin – were as well. Mad for Super 8, the three men obsessively documented their everyday lives as they toiled away, unaware that their idealistic zeal for a corrupt administration would land them in prison. Directed by Penny Lane and co-produced by Brian Frye, Our Nixon is an all archive documentary that uses this footage to create a complex portrait of one of the most notorious administrations in the history of the American presidency. It premieres at SXSW tomorrow.

Filmmaker: How did you find out about Nixon footage? 

Frye: I learned about the National Archives and Records Administration’s Nixon Staff Super-8 Collection from Bill Brand in the fall of 2000. At the time, Bill was preserving the films by creating a 16mm internegative. I have long been interested in amateur film, so Bill described the project to me and showed me a couple of test reels. I was intrigued by the possibility of acquiring copies, but the cost was prohibitive and law school intervened. When I met Penny in 2008, we decided to invest in the project, hoping that it would result in a movie, and invested about $15,000 in making the initial video transfers, largely sight unseen. Luckily, the Super-8 films were every bit as interesting as we’d hoped, albeit not always for the reasons we’d expected.

Lane: We had no idea what kind of film it would be, but we knew there was a film in there. How could there not be? The tension between the historical weight of the Watergate trauma (not to mention the Vietnam War) and the lightness of the home movies was bound to lead somewhere interesting. Also, we were attracted to the tragic irony that Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin filmed all these reels of film because they wanted to be able to show their grandchildren that they were part of this amazing story, this presidency that would change the world forever.

Filmmaker: Super-8 is an incredibly nostalgic and personal format. Did you find yourself inherently empathizing with people you might not have otherwise empathized with? 

Lane: Oh sure. Spending lots of time with the home movies absolutely humanizes them. There’s no question. I think I had always thought of Nixon and his men as these dour, gray men in suits conspiring over sweaty glasses of scotch in smoky secret chambers. The Super-8 looks more like a bunch of dorks, who wear Bermuda shorts, young guys who love each other and work very hard for a President they believe in. I absolutely grew to care about them and identify with them, first with the home movies, and later with all of the other research I did. That being said, it’s not as if this empathy led to a film that presents the points of view of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin as “correct.” We absolutely wanted to humanize these men, but the film presents a panoply of points of view, many of which contradict each other.

Frye: While Super-8 feels nostalgic and intimate, home movies are often quite opaque and anonymous. The Nixon staff Super-8 films are silent, providing a window on life in the Nixon White House but without any context. When you see Nixon’s aides sitting around a table working, they could be plotting the Watergate break-in, or planning a holiday party. There’s no way to know from the movies alone. Ironically, the secret White House recordings often feel much more intimate than the home movies, because they provide context in a way that the home movies cannot. That said, one really interesting thing about the home movies is that they are difficult to reconcile with the conventional wisdom of the Nixon White House as a den of conspiracy and intrigue. While that characterization may very well be accurate, there are no villains in home movies, and the tension between the lightness of the home movies and the darkness of the tapes is important to the film.

Filmmaker: What did you find that you weren’t expecting to find?

Frye: The personalities of Nixon’s aides were much more complicated than I expected and they were very different from each other, which was nice because it allowed us to present the Nixon presidency through three very different sets of eyes. It was also interesting to see how hard it is to know what history will remembers. Many things that people initially thought were important are largely forgotten today.

Lane: It’s not exactly something that I learned per se, but I really feel that I gained some kind of new perspective by spending a lot of time considering that period in history from the point of view of Nixon’s supporters, rather than the point of view of his detractors. I think I had never really considered the fact that most of America was more like Haldeman, Erhlichman and Chapin than the counterculture figures that have proven so enduring in pop culture. Nixon’s enormous landslide reelection in 1972 was certainly evidence of that. Rick Perlstein’s amazing book Nixonland really helped drive this home for me.

Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about how you found a through line that would carry the viewer for the film?

Lane: Our Nixon is a uniquely constructed film in that it is composed entirely of archival material, most of it rarely or never seen. The Super-8 home movies are at center stage, but they are contextualized, complicated and challenged by a wide array of other archival media. The three main characters – Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin – come to life through clips taken from dozens of oral histories, television interviews and other public appearances. And then there are of course Nixon’s White House Tapes. The tapes are funny, mystifying, creepy and sad. They are – perhaps more than anything else – humanizing. They offer a view the most shockingly (often hilariously) unedited President we are likely to ever experience. The film shuttles between “then” ­– the Super-8 home movies and White House tapes, a world where the events of Nixon’s presidency are experienced in the present tense, with complete dramatic irony  – and “now,” the world after Watergate, where the events of Nixon’s presidency are reflected upon with the knowledge of how it all ended.

Filmmaker: One of the difficulties of making a historical film is trying to figure out how much information to include so that the audience can follow what was going on. How did you decide how much background information to include?

Frye: The kind and amount of additional archival material included changed as the film developed. We chose to include enough information to ensure that a lay audience with no substantial knowledge of the Nixon presidency could understand and follow the film, without trying to present a comprehensive history. One of the challenges of making a historical film relating to a notable subject is that audience members tend to overestimate their knowledge of the subject. As a result, it can be tricky to manage their expectations.

Lane: We were very clear that we weren’t trying to provide a big historical overview of his presidency. We wanted to show a more intimate slice. We also weren’t that interested in Nixon’s presidency per se as much as these intellectual questions about history.  We wanted to explore the disconnect between how one experiences history in the moment as opposed to how history is experienced in retrospect. But as far as what information to include, while the film includes lots of catnip for Nixon obsessives (i.e., “Hey, that’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan!”), we were careful to include the basic information that anyone would need to enter the story. We had a lot of test screenings, some with college students, which really helped us figure out what that information was. In the end, Our Nixon is not an attempt to write a tidied-up history with only one ultimate meaning, nor an attempt to convince you of some particular own point of view. Rather, the film asks you to sift through the fragments of history in order to reach your own conclusions.

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