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With this post we revive a long-dormant Home & Amateur feature “Four Questions,” in which we interview people associated with home movie projects. Here we interview filmmakers Penny Lane and Brian Frye, whose upcoming film Our Nixon was featured in a recent post. This sure-to-be-landmark documentary is being developed from 204 reels in the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum’s Super 8 Motion Picture Film Collection, which consists of home movies made by Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Chief Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman, Special Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin, and Deputy Assistant Larry Higby.
The film is in the earliest stages of production, but its Kickstarter campaign has already reached its initial goal, so is now on the way to a second goal of raising $25,000. Donate now!
Penny and Brian answered their four questions (and one bonus question) by e-mail:
Home & Amateur: Even though the White House Super 8 collection is fairly well known among aficionados of super 8 film and home movies (since there’s not really anything like it) almost nobody has actually seen the films. How did you first find out about them?
Brian: In 2000, I was a visiting professor at Hampshire College, teaching an introduction to filmmaking class. I commuted to Hampshire with one of my colleagues, Bill Brand, who also lived in NYC. Bill had recently won a contract with NARA to preserve the Nixon Super-8 film collection by creating an optical internegative, and he told me about the films as he worked on them. Eventually, Bill showed me a workprint of one of the preserved films and I was quite taken with the material. I soon decided that I wanted to make a film using the material, but the preservation was a long process. In the meantime, I wrote an article about the collection for Cineaste, titled “Three Great Filmmakers: Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Chapin”. (The title of the article was a riff on Pontus Hulten’s article “Three Great Painters: Churchill, Hitler & Eisenhower”, published in Alfred Leslie’s journal The Hasty Papers.) About 10 years later, Penny & I decided to pursue the film project. Bill showed us another workprint of one of the preserved films, and we committed to pay for the first video transfers of the material.
Penny: The way it became a collaboration was that I kept bugging Brian about when was he going to make that movie he told me about, until I finally said, “Ok, I will just make it with you, okay?” So really, while it was totally Brian’s idea, I take all the credit for making it finally happen. :)
Home & Amateur: When you first saw the collection, what struck you about it as a whole that made you want to start in on this project, and have you developed any favorite reels yet?
Penny: The first thing is just the absolute sweetness of it. The films are goofy and silly and almost heartbreakingly naïve… like any amateur home movies, I suppose. That quality is just so not what you think of when you think of the Nixon presidency. So even though neither Brian or I came to it with any real special interest in Nixon per se, we were inspired by the way that watching the home movies changed our vision of Nixon’s men and his presidency. Once, Penny said to a friend, “There are no bad guys in home movies. Everyone smiles and waves at the camera. It’s just that in our footage, the guys smiling and waving and goofing off are people like Ehrlichman and Kissinger.” The tension between that and what we know to be true about the abuses of power and other things that are not so nice… it’s just incredible.
It’s hard to pick favorites, honestly! There is so much good stuff. I just can’t. Brian?
Brian: Unfortunately, I am a sucker for kitsch. So I really like the guy in the Easter bunny outfit. And the “biker gang” of smiling teenagers in ringer tees & gym shorts visiting the White House & shaking hands with RN. That said, the May Day protests on the National Mall are pretty amazing. However, the soul of the material is the straight-up home movie material, where Nixon’s aides clown around & pose for each other.
Penny: Okay, I agree. All of that stuff is great. Also just the gazillions of smiling happy Nixon fans along the campaign trail are pretty amazing. I could watch them forever. The faces of the Silent Majority.
Home & Amateur: Tell us a little bit about the technical history of the collection–how it got from the original super 8 reels to the digital video that you’ll be working with?
Brian: Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Chapin owned Super-8 cameras. Haldeman owned a Kodak XL55 and later a Canon 518. Chapin owned a Canon 814. Apparently, the US Navy Photographic Film Center supplied the Super-8 film, which it also processed and printed. Haldeman’s assistant Larry Higby also shot some Super-8 film, probably using Haldeman’s camera. During the Watergate investigation, the FBI confiscated 204 reels of Super-8 film from Ehrlichman’s office. It appears that some of the reels were originals and some were prints. Apparently, Ehrlichman had custody of originals or prints of some or all of the films made by Haldeman, Chapin & Higby because the collection includes films made by all four. Under the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, most of the films became the property of the US government. The FBI returned to Ehrlichman the films that were purely personal in nature & deposited the rest with NARA. Eventually, NARA bid out the preservation of the films & Bill Brand of BB Optics won the contract. Bill made a 1:1 16mm internegative of the Super-8 films. The Super-8 films were shot at 18fps, so the 16mm internegative is silent and 18fps as well. Colorlab made our video transfer of the Super-8 films from the 16mm internegative.
Penny: We’ve worked with Nixon / NARA archivists Steve Greene and Ryan Pettigrew on this project. Steve helped us with phase one (the films) and Ryan is now helping us with phase two (sound). Our current idea – and this may change – is that just about 100% of the materials that make up this film will be public domain and archival in nature.
Home & Amateur: What can we expect as far as the look and the structure of your film, and since the films are all silent, what are you going to use for the soundtrack?
Penny: The structure is more or less chronological. It begins in 1969 with the Inauguration and ends with the 1973 resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.
The soundtrack is composed of selections from the secret Nixon White House tapes, H.R. Haldeman’s contemporaneous daily audio diary, White House Communications Agency sound recordings and oral history interviews commissioned by the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum with our four cameraman: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Chapin & Higby. The oral histories especially act as a structuring device, providing context for what you are seeing in the home movies and adding “voice” to the perspective of the cameramen.
We really want the home movies to dictate the form and tone of OUR NIXON with as little of our authorial intrusion as possible; we see our role as providing context and support to the home movies where necessary. We see this as a unique approach compared to most documentary filmmakers who would see the home movies are simply another form of b-roll. With OUR NIXON, the home movies ARE the documentary.
The musical score is still very much in development… we have some super secret and super awesome ideas!
Your Kickstarter campaign has been going gangbusters, with lots of attention from bloggers and others. What do you think has grabbed people’s attention about your film?
Brian: Indeed it has! We’re really thrilled that OUR NIXON is getting so much attention & that it seems to have resonated with the Kickstarter community. I think there are a lot of reasons we’re doing so well. First, Penny did a great job strategizing the campaign & putting together all of the promotional material. We hired a great graphic designer, Molly McLeod, who helped us create a visual identity for the campaign. Also, Penny did a fantastic job coming up with rewards for various pledge levels. Political buttons, bobbleheads, compilations of all the home movies, Super-8 copies of a home movie reel, a producer credit, there’s something for everyone & at a reasonable price. But ultimately, I think that people are just fascinated by Nixon. He’s a bona fide political enigma & people love anything that might give them a new angle on Nixon’s character & motivations. OUR NIXON promises to do that, by presenting RN from the perspective of those closest to him, rather than outsiders & capturing the excitement & disillusionment that RN’s supporters felt.