By moonrise on election night the race is too close to call, but by next midday it’s clear the Nixon’s the One…. The franc flutters, but De Gaulle, imposing strong economy measures, won’t let it fall. Saigon finally decides to send a delegation to the Paris talks. Says Joan Baez of campus demonstrations: ‘You don’t accomplish anything by breaking in and smoking the president’s cigars.’
– LIFE Magazine, January 1969
There’s a dramatic irony, as director Penny Lane puts it, at looking back on the past, with the knowledge of the future, that feels at once comical and tragic. The beacons of hope now diminished and the people held so highly on a pedestal, now forever linked to one of the greatest betrayals in American history and the presidency of Richard Nixon synonymous with conspiracy and the abuse of power.
But with Lane’s latest documentary, the wonderfully-crafted and fascinating Our Nixon, we gain insight into an untapped world. Utilizing Super 8 home video footage shot by the men closest to Nixon—his aides H.R. Haldeman John Ehrlichman,and Dwight Chapin—the film gives an intimate look behind otherwise closed doors, illuminating the small moments of an administration from the very beginning. Documenting everything from the presidential race to vacations spent laughing on the beach, these men were devoted to keeping a record of their time with Nixon and in seeing these movies, we come to understand and empathize with them in a way that strips the pretense of villainy we’ve come to associate them with.
Through the use of these movies, as well as White House tapes, on-camera interviews, and news clippings, Lane exposes the humanity of her subjects and unmasks one of the most infamous American presidencies. The film gives a complex look at Nixon and the men who stood by his side in a way that’s neither condemning nor embracing, but simply reflecting the truth—which, in this case, was often much stranger than fiction.
A few weeks ago, I got the chance to sit down with Lane to discuss what sparked her interest in this subject, how she went about putting all the pieces together, and the changes in her perception.
The Nixon era is obviously a historical point of fascination for many people. Have you always had an interest in this era or was this something you happened upon?
The film was co-produced with Brian Frye, and he heard about the home movie collection that was at the National Archives ten or eleven years ago now and thought it would be neat to do something with, but whoever wanted to see them had to spend almost 20,000 dollars to make copies to be able to actually watch them. They were in the public domain but they weren’t in a format that was accessible for people to look at. So it held him back, and when we met in 2008, he told me about the home movies the first or second day we met. It came up very early and I was like, “That’s great! You have to make that movie.” And then I started harassing him about it. It was one of those things like, I’m either going to steal your idea or we’re going to work together, and I thought we’d be a good team and we really were. We ended up putting up the $18,000 to make the transfers, and neither one of us had any specific Nixon interest any more than your average person.
Everyone thinks he’s interesting, I’ve never met anyone that thinks he’s a boring subject, so I definitely had the normal person level of interest but not anything special.The spark for Brian and I, having seen so many home movies, being familiar with the tenor—not even having seeing them specifically,—we had an idea about what they would feel like. We knew that they would be hand-held and Kodachrome and Super 8 and shaking and people would be waving at the camera. And when you combine the nostalgic sweetness and that kind of color and warmth and intimacy of a home movie image with everything that we think of when we think of the Nixon presidency—which is like the opposite of all those things—grim, grey, serious bad men plotting to do terrible things, we knew something interesting would be there but we didn’t really had no idea what kind of movie we were going to make.
Had you known about Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Chapin?
No. I’d heard their names but in a very stock villain character way just from growing up with Democratic parents. There’s a couple really famous photos of them from the Senate Watergate hearings, and the one of John Ehlrichman is the ugliest photo, like, it’s weird. Of all the photos in the world this is the one that became the most reprinted—and he looks like a bulldog, he looks evil. And the one of Haldeman is similar, he looks like the scariest person in the world. But then you look at the home movies and he’s so goofy.
What I found interesting was how devoted they were to documenting everything.
It’s so cute!
People do that now in their everyday lives but in those circumstances it feels like it carries more weight.
But I do it! I’m insane. I can’t go for a run without taking a million photos. People are so surprised how much they documented, but I’m confused why people are so surprised. Everyone that I know does that all day long everyday, so it doesn’t seem strange at all. The weird part is that they were allowed to do it at work in a way that today would be much more controlled. But as you can see in the home movies, it’s not like they shot any untoward.
I particularly like the scenes of them on the beach giggling.
Oh, I love that shot! So cute.
They’re laughing hysterically.
And I want so badly to know what they’re laughing about.
You take these men that you’re taught to see as villains and put them in a light that strips them of that with the warm, nostalgic layer that these home movies give, and it makes them human. Was that something you knew from the start that you wanted to show once you saw the footage?
Brian and I have no problem admitting that we operate in life as people who really like to question common assumptions. If there’s going to be some contrarian at the dinner party, it’s probably me. It’s kind of a default setting and I can’t help it. I remember in 3rd grade getting ostracized because I didn’t think New Kids on the Block were cool. So there’s definitely a contrarian streak, and part of me always wants to be like, let’s take this thing we think we know and look at it from the other side. And that’s how Brian operates even more so than me. We’re not super ideological people, but even if we were—who cares? This is not my issue, this is from 40 years ago, I wasn’t even alive then.
So the idea of doing something specifically about politics wasn’t that interesting to us, but also we didn’t really think they were evil. We didn’t start out assuming they were, we just heard them as being these stock characters. If we had done all this research and spent time in the archives and decided we hated these guys and they were really, really evil for real, it would be different film. But we were jut reflecting our exploration as honestly as we could, which is what I do with films. I go into something not knowing much and then in the end whatever film I make tends to be the film that reflects something that I have learned between the beginning knowing nothing and the end knowing a lot. We weren’t trying to make them look good, we were trying to reflect who they were. We weren’t setting out to glorify Nixon’s guys or something.
So many of the moments were really funny just because of the absurdity of it all. These were just men living their lives, not setting out to be these terrible people, and yet the things that came out of everyone’s mouth were often insane.
Even in just the movies alone, there’s this overwhelming feeling of dramatic irony because you’re sitting there in the future and you’re looking at them in the past, and they don’t know what’s coming. Sometimes that’s hilarious—like Haldeman saying to Barbara Walters in 1971 that Nixon’s going to be one of the great presidents and you laugh—but it also kind of hurts. It’s funny and its not funny and it’s a kind of dramatic irony that was so compelling to us. We actually had to dial it back a lot because the irony is so thick, every aspect of the irony was so obvious that every edit we made was a little less over the top. We don’t have to push that as hard as we think we do because there’s so much of it. The trick was trying to find that balance, because we’re not just joking, we’re making something we care about that’s serious and there’s also an emotional component that’s very real. I cry sometimes when I think about certain parts of it.
There was over 26 hours just of the home movie footage, so how did you go about trekking through all of that and deciding what would be the most important?
That was the least of it. It was more the 4,000 hours of White House tapes and the potentially infinite news clips and the hours of interviews.
So how did you go about putting that all together in a way that was cohesive and could tell one story. I’m sure there were a number of different ways you could have played it.
It was really a question about voice because the film does have a voice, but there’s no narrator. So there’s not an obvious way that that could work and we didn’t know if that would work. It was an interesting challenge to see if we could make it all archival; we always reserved the right to write a narration if we had to. But we really wanted it to be all archival. You would think that for the most editing, it’s whittling away, but it was a process of a very gradual addition as well. So it was home movies, then editing for a while, then bringing in White House tapes, and we tried to have everything be in the present tense—no future voice looking back. That was really cool and ended up becoming the backbone of the film, but we wanted to bring out the main characters more. So then we added the on-camera interviews.
Ultimately we had a couple guiding principles. A lot of things had to get cut—White House tapes, Nixon talking about panda sex, which I had in there for a long time. But we just made rules. It had to be him talking to our main characters or our secondary list, which ended up being Kissinger and Ziegler. They ended up being important secondary characters because they play an important role in the story. Kissinger is kind of the foil, the bad staffer that they all talk about all the time and Ziegler ends up being the one who has to fire Haldeman because Nixon doesn’t have the balls. When it came down to other choices, we’d use it if it made the story more complex.
in Robert Evans’ memoir, he talks a lot about his relationship with Kissinger and about Kissinger calling him for advice on all these important matters. Have you read that?
I’ve seen the movie but that’s not in there! Kissinger is a big character, but if he had been one of the home movie shooters, it would have become about him. He’s just so magnetic. I knew who he was but looking at him in the movies and watching him walk around and smile and talk to people, I was like, he has so much charisma. It’s insane it and fills up the frame, he’s like a movie star.
Did you have to do a lot of research outside the archival material before you started in on it?
We started without knowing anything. We wanted to let the home movies speak. I think it was really good to do that because if we didn’t, then we would have gone into the home movies with the beginning of a narrative that we would be imposing on them. But in doing it this way, it was really inspired by them. Then the research began. We needed to know like, who’s Chapin, who’s that hot guy that looks like a Mad Men character. It became never ending research. Bryan handled all the heavy Nixon biography reading and I did all the memoirs and diaries reading. He’s much more interested in boring, big giant survey books and I’m more interested in memoirs and gossip books.
Did you think about how much knowledge the audience would come in having and how to inform them without being didactic?
That was another challenge. We knew we had a film that weird Nixon people—which there are many Nixon-obsessives—would like because it was adding something new. But we wanted to make sure that people who didn’t know anything could learn enough quickly enough to enter the story. So most of the news clips were added for that reason. We showed it to a bunch of college students late in the game so that we could see what they didn’t understand. They were film students so they didn’t have a specific historical knowledge and they gave us a lot of help. What you need to know, for the purposes of our story, is pretty minimal: they did a bunch of bad stuff, they were involved, they denied to the end their guilt. We weren’t even going to get into that, we’re just going to say “alleged and convicted.” We never say like, Ehrlichman ordered this, because they always deny it. It was interesting.
The screening of the film that I saw as filled with a lot of people who were alive at that time and sort of understood certain things that a younger audience wouldn’t immediately pick up on.
I’m glad that it worked out the way it did in a way because Bryan and I are younger and we didn’t really know all those things, so we did try to make a film that people our age would like. To be honest, I think people our age like it more.
The music choices were really entertaining and often added a great juxtaposition to what was happening in the movies. How did you want to use music as the background voice of the film?
All the temp music was The Carpenters, and that represented square America. But then that didn’t really work because that was dipping way too far into the unnecessary level of irony—it was like, come on. We were trying, both with the score music we had commissioned and also the found music, to find that emotional balance between celebrating and enjoying a kind of early 70s kitsch and square Americana—which I didn’t really know before, like Nixon’s campaign songs. If anything seemed strange or interesting to me, we just assumed was interesting. You think about that time and you think that everyone was listening to Hendrix or was at Woodstock, but most people were listening to The Ray Conniff Singers. So we got really into that, but it was always about not so square that it was completely ridiculous.
Going in knowing very little, what did you find most surprising to discover along the way. As a filmmaker who works in that process, I’m sure that’s an exciting element to it because it’s really unburying something new each time.
A lot of it has to do with responses from the film. From the beginning, as we were applying for grants and in pitch meetings, a lot of people were trying to ask if it was a pro or anti-Nixon movie. That blew my mind! We’re like, is every movie like that or is it just Nixon? My friend Zach made Cutie and the Boxer and no one asks: is this a pro-Cutie movie or anti-Cutie movie? I don’t think most people assume that you have to come down that way, but a lot of people were very concerned either way. What I loved and what has surprised me—and I hoped what would happen did happen—was that wing-nuts on both sides are like really pissed. An equal number times people are saying: “Oh, just another example of the left wing media intellegensia bashing Nixon.” And then on the other side people are like, “How dare you make Nixon look good?! List of crimes!” As if we’re kids and have no clue.
We were joking that we’d put a caveat or disclaimer at the beginning and list everything. But also, I’ve been surprised to find out that most people are more like me and can accept nuance in life and accept complexity in stories. And with a TV audience, I was happy to discover that people who were just tuning in on a Sunday night for what they thought would be a CNN special, were really pleased to experience something balanced and not mean-spirited. It made me think about how much stuff about Nixon is mean-spirited and you really start to notice it. it starts to hurt my feelings. He did a lot of really bad things and he brought it on himself, I get that—so no apologies for him—but I feel like people are so mean about him and it doesn’t make us look like nice people. The amount of vitriol still 40 years later, it’s like really, you’re really that angry?
There are plenty of bad enough things happening right now to sink your claws into.
Exactly and much worse things. But I learned how passionately people still feel on both sides. The Nixon loyalists are just as psychotic. I was surprised how much I came to really feel for those guys.
And Haldeman was so loyal. There’s that one interview when Nixon’s already left the White House and still be doesn’t say a word.
He never said a bad word about Nixon until his death. Ever. And that’s hard for us to relate to, but I also have a lot of respect for him in some weird ways. Watergate in popular culture equals criminal conspiracy; you say that word and that’s the code. And for us it became Watergate equals betrayal, and it wasn’t just about our three guys anymore, it became about all those people who voted for him—which was most of the country. I started thinking about that kind of betrayal and how traumatic that would be. In the end the real victims were the people that gave to Nixon and were so let down—isn’t that a bummer? You think about your friends who voted for Obama and anything he he does that they don’t like they’re so heartbroken, so imagine that times 8,000 when he has to resign in disgrace and you quit school to campaign for him. I think about those people and I never really thought about those people before.