On paper, it sounds like an idea for a vintage Saturday Night Live sketch: While the paranoid and Machiavellian Richard Nixon was busy secretly taping everything that happened in the White House, three of his top aides and future convicted Watergate conspirators, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, enthusiastically ran around with their new Super-8 cameras documenting everything that happened around them.
In fact, it’s all true, and those home movies, held by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for more than 40 years, are the substance of the documentary Our Nixon, which makes its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs on Saturday. Our Nixon is directed by 35-year-old filmmaker, video artist, curator and occasional professor Penny Lane (yes, her real name) and co-produced with her film-archivist husband, Brian Frye, who first learned about the film footage in 2000.
Frye and Lane, who met in 2008 and formed a company, Dipper Films, dedicated to making “smart and fun” documentaries, invested about $15,000 of their money into making video transfers of the archival home movies, largely sight unseen, and then began constructing this alternative history of the Nixon presidency. The silent Super-8 movies are edited into an archival collage including the White House tapes and contemporary television footage. More an artful reconstruction than investigation, Our Nixon succeeds as an uncomfortably human portrait of fallible but not evil people, ill equipped for the demands of extraordinary power.
Lane talked to The Globe and Mail from her home in New York.
The word that came to mind when I was watching your film was “Strangelovian”. Can you tell me a little about your approach to that unsettling black comic tone?
We knew the Super-8 footage has an inherently nostalgic, kitschy quality that would run counter to the seriousness of the subject matter. The word “irony” applies pretty well here. In practice, we had to dial back the kitschiness, because although there was a lot that was easy to laugh at, it could end up looking too flippant.
Tell me a little about sorting through all the source material, including the hundreds of hours of White House tapes which were released in 2007. Were they transcribed to make the job easier?
Well, there’s at least 3,700 hours of Nixon audio tapes and we certainly didn’t listen to all of that. They’re not transcribed beyond notes that say something like, “10 minutes to 12 minutes, Nixon and Haldeman discuss Watergate.” I don’t want to under-emphasize the sheer effort and diligence involved, but we had a fairly narrow scope. There was a lot of Haldeman, quite a lot of Ehrlichman and not so much of Chapin. A lot of it’s incomprehensible and about 1 per cent gold. For the Super-8 film, there was about 30 hours, which, as you may notice, dries up once the Watergate investigation starts. They were young guys with some money who loved new gadgets. A lot of what they shot was boring motorcades and the back of Nixon’s head making speeches. The potential TV footage was almost infinite though for our purposes, focusing on the three men, it came down to about 100 hours.
And, of course, the shots of flowers and squirrels.
The squirrels were a godsend. Like anyone, of course, they shot more when they were travelling, and the European and Chinese material was invaluable, but we had to lose a lot of great material in Thailand and Iran, for example, because it didn’t really fit our story arc, which was about the road to Watergate.
Speaking of that arc, one of the striking things is that, in the phone calls that Nixon made to Haldeman, he sounds sort of normal at the beginning, and as the scandal breaks, he sounds progressively crazier. Was that sharp editing or a reflection of the reality of the changes he went through.
I think our choices reflected the reality. Whether you call him “crazier,” as you have, or just stressed and vulnerable, Nixon changed. The journey from early optimism to paranoia is part of the story, which, though funny in retrospect, is ultimately an American tragedy, whatever your political perspective. We didn’t add anything. I mean, when Nixon calls Haldeman after firing him on air, and sounds drunk, I didn’t do anything to make Nixon sound drunk. But, of course, it’s selective. If you followed me for three years and picked all the worst things I said, I’m not sure I’d come off all that well.
Your title, Our Nixon, might be considered loaded. It echoes Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 1977 experimental biography, Our Hitler.
Well, Brian is a huge Syberberg fan and that’s part of it, a kind of in-joke, which we don’t expect most people to get. But the other reference is Our Gang, which I thought of while watching these silent images. After spending so much time with them, my own instinct is to humanize these, arguably, demonized figures. Partly that’s a reflection of our ages, to see them in a more impersonal way. I’m 35 and Brian is 39 – he says he was in utero during the Watergate scandal. But I know older people who have a different perspective. We had editors who told us they just couldn’t work on the film. One man said, “I hear John Ehrlichman’s voice and it just gets under my skin too much. I can’t do this.”
For me, the power of archival material is that nobody involved can see the future and that’s what humanizes them. They don’t yet know how they will be judged.
This interview has been edited and condensed.