How a Film Makes It Big: 'Our Nixon' Director Penny Lane Takes on Her Critics
From a broadcast premiere seen by millions on CNN, to the angry rants of TV personality Ben Stein, director Penny Lane is on a roller coaster ride with her first feature film, Our Nixon. Penny sat down with No Film School to talk about everything from the tiered process of funding her project, sorting critics and sales agents, to how she is dealing with the multicolored reality of a film's success.
The last time No Film School spoke with the filmmakers behind Our Nixon, Brian Frye, Producer, was waiting at the airport to catch his flight to the film's premiere at SXSW, explaining how they got the 4K scans of their Super8 footage done on a Kinetta machine.
Since then, the film was picked up by Cinedigm, broadcast on television, and is now playing in theaters in the U.S. and Canada. Comprised entirely of found footage, most noticeably, private Super 8 home movies shot by Nixon's three aides (found sitting in a vault since being confiscated by Watergate,) Our Nixon is a quirky and unusual look at a controversial presidency. Check out the trailer of the film that has been steadily skyrocketing through the documentary world:
This time, Our Nixon director, Penny Lane was kind enough to Skype in from her new office in upstate New York on her first day of a new job as a Professor of Art to speak to No Film School. Below is a transcription of the interview.
NFS: The critics, for the most part, have really liked Our Nixon. I mean, on Rotten Tomatoes it has a 91% rating. Is it important to have critics like your film, and what role does that play?
PL: Your question is a good one -- and I don't know. I think it's important for some critics to like your film, from what I can tell back from when we were having our film festival premiere.
I know that my sales agent was quite anxious to see the earliest critical reviews. I just think it has to do with someone wanting someone else to validate their feeling. The critics are just one part of that. I think that the critics respond to programmers, who respond to funders, who respond to big name executive producers, or whatever.
So I think that critics are just one part of a landscape of potential people that might put a check mark next to your project as a kind of seal of approval. I know that it mattered for sales and I think it probably matters for getting butts in the seats at theaters, but I don't really know the answer.
NFS: So what about negative criticism? What I’m thinking about in particular is that Ben Stein had written about how much he did NOT like your film. What do you do when you get a public criticism like that?
PL: Well it's interesting, because usually I would ignore it. It's okay if someone doesn't like my movie, and I don't feel the need to respond on Twitter or anything. But the Ben Stein article was a very specific case because he is such a media personality, like him, or hate him, or whatever. He has a lot of hitting power in terms of who hears what he has to say. And the essay that he wrote was just factually wrong.
He was basically attacking our integrity by saying we were liars! The things he says we were lying about were not subjective things that you could disagree about, they were facts and he had them wrong. So Brian and I, mostly Brian, did sit down and did draft a pretty extensive response to that particular piece because it was so factually inaccurate and we saw the ways that other bloggers were picking up on this and copying and pasting this as if all of a sudden there was a controversy. We were like whoa there’s not really a controversy; it's just this one guy.
So we did feel the need to respond to that. In general though, I think its great. I never thought we were making a film that everyone would like. Frankly, I’m surprised that as many people like it, and I’m surprised by that, and it's delightful. And in general, it doesn’t bother me at all when we get a bad review. Although I will say, you know, that it’s disappointing when you feel like you haven’t been understood. I think that’s true just on a human level. So when you read a review where you they just didn’t understand what you were trying to do -- I feel like, that's wasn't what I was doing, you know? It doesn’t hurt your feelings, but it does kind of make you feel like you didn’t communicate effectively with that person. Is that my fault or is that just life?
Again, Brian loves the bad reviews. He thinks they are really funny and he likes to read them out loud to me and he laughs a lot, but I wouldn’t say I love them. I just think that they are inevitable and it's fine, it's okay not everyone has to like it.
NFS: And I'm sure with Nixon, since people have a lot of opinions about the subject, the crazies come out of the woodwork.
PL: It's not a neutral subject. It's a subject that, just on its surface, people tend to have very strong opinions of the subject. So, you can't expect them to have a blank slate neutral opinion about the movie. We sort of knew that going into it and kind of tried to anticipate that.
The best thing that I can say is that for every Ben Stein that said we made Nixon look really bad, there's at least one other person that thinks we made Nixon look way too good. I think that if you're really extreme on either end of that love or hate Nixon spectrum, the film isn’t so much for you, or it is maybe, but you're not as likely to love it as most of us who operate somewhere in the gray area between.
NFS: Our Nixon is made entirely of found footage. How did you, as a director, choose material that you were eventually going to use? How did you figure out the storyline?
PL: I thought about this a lot, and I don’t think it’s that different than any other production process. You just have to mentally substitute a few things. So, rather than doing the exploratory run-around-with-a-camera-and-see-if-you-can-find-a-story phase, we did the exploratory look-at-archival-footage-and-see-if-we-can-find-a-story phase. It was very unclear. What are we doing? What are we looking for? Is there something interesting here? Let's kind of do some screen tests and find out!
So, that all started with the Super 8 home movies that you mentioned and we would just look around at whats in here -- is there a movie in here? Once we decided that we did know what our narrative was, which was pretty early on, we knew that it would be about these three men that were holding the cameras and the fact that they had come to DC bright-eyed and bushy tailed, eager to support Richard Nixon, and then ultimately were betrayed by him, served prison sentenced for carrying out these orders.
We knew that pretty early on. It just became a question of digging in the archives and looking for that story, looking for stuff that would support that story. So again, that would be maybe like going and doing interviews and preparing interview questions and saying I want you to talk about this. We were just putting the same kind of things into keyword searches into archive databases instead of going and asking people to speak directly.
NFS: So you had the questions you wanted to ask and you just had to find the answer hopefully someone gave --
PL: Yeah, it's like asking Google "John Erlichman dissapointment" -- did he feel disappointed? Let's find out.
NFS: Looking at the Our Nixon site, there's quite a few big name funders listed on there. Can you talk about how you raised the money for the film?
PL: Sure. We started by spending our own money. Then when we decided we still have a film, we did a Kickstarter campaign pretty early on in Kickstarter. It wasn't the first Kickstarter campaign or anything, but at that time I wasn't getting daily requests from everyone I know. So we did pay ourselves back for our initial investment with that Kickstarter campaign. And with Kickstarter you do actually need to make sure you're going to make the work if you raise that amount of money. And we raised about $16,000, so we were committed to making a film with basically zero dollars, because all we did was pay ourselves back.
We were also applying for grants at the same time, and we got four grants in a row in 2011. That pretty much got us through half of our budget. So it was Cinereach, the Jerome Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts, and the Tribeca Film Institute Documentary Fund. Those four grants combined paid for our editor, essentially. That was the most important expense we had. Without an editor, we couldn’t get to a cut that we could raise more money with.
So, with that grant money and the Kickstarter money we got through the sort of fine cut. Then we brought on investors for the last mile. We were very happy to do it that way, because investors have to be paid back and grants don’t, so we wanted to get as far as we could with "free" money before we started to bring on people that we would have to pay back for the next million years. That did work well for us but its not like you can plan that out. What if we hadn’t got those four grants?
NFS: Do you have an idea of why you were able to get those four grants?
PL: Nope. I don't know! I guess I'm a good grant writer? I think this project just had people excited about it. I think I've had other projects that were great films, but they don't have that kind of easy pitch that Our Nixon always had. There are really good films that don't translate into a good pitch, and this one did.
I think that counts for a lot of our early success, even when we were very untested and no one knew who we were. I think that the pitch was great, because it’s the kind of project that pitches well. My next film, which is a totally different type of project, does not pitch well and it just never will. And I have to approach funding it differently because the money is not going to come the same way. I'm not going to get arts grants for it -- I'll be surprised if I get one, much less four.
NFS: You had mentioned earlier about your sales agent. That's something that I wanted to ask you about. You're represented by Submarine. How important is it to get a sales agent? What did your sales agent do for you?
PL: I think that a sales agent can function as a credential if you're in need of a credential. And I think that we were, as first time filmmakers, kind of in need of any type of stamp of approval or any type of quote unquote industry player we could get. So I think that when Submarine signed on, it was a signal to certain people who you know have good taste or that they tend to pick "winners" or whatever language you want to use that doesn't make me sound totally egotistical. So I think that was important.
But, when it came to actually selling the film, I mean I can't say enough about how little I knew about what it meant and still don't know really about how to sell a film. I have no idea how this film was sold. I basically trusted my sales agent. He did his thing, he had conversations with people, he got back to me and said so and so passed, so and so is interested and then he did all the follow up and I was not involved at all.
Which -- that might sound scary, but it was delightful. It was like, why would I want to be involved? I don't know what to do in that circumstance, I don't know how to negotiate these situations -- I have no idea. So, he basically did it, he took the film around. He obviously had a sense of what different industry players are interested in or are not interested in -- and obviously he would probably tool his pitch to that.
I mean there is no way you would know that as a first time filmmaker. You would have no choice but to kind of treat everyone the same even though everyone is not the same. It’s a lot about personal relationships; Submarine has very good personal relationship with all the people who buy films and I don't. I want to make movies, I don't want to spend all my time working on [selling films], I like to work on making films.
NFS: John Lennon or Paul McCartney?
PL: John Lennon.
NFS: Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper?
PL: Anderson Cooper. Going on looks here.
NFS: Upstate New York or NYC?
PL: Upstate NY. Heck yeah.
NFS: More so than the city life?
PL: Yes! Are you kidding me? I spent the entire weekend staring at wind blowing through the corn fields.
NFS: So I have a hypothetical. The Nixon Library calls you and they want to offer you $200,000 plus the expenses to make the sequel to Our Nixon, but they get final approval. What do you tell them?
PL: $200,000 is a lot of money. I mean if you would have said $20,000, it would have been a very clear, "No I don’t want to do that."
I don't think I could do it, Oakley. First of all, I've got a job, so it's not like I'm dying for money. If I didn't, maybe this would be a different story. But I mean, the Nixon Library hypothetically wanting final cut probably wouldn’t lead to anything interesting. That if I was going to do an uninteresting job, I would rather not make an uninteresting film.
I think I would rather have an uninteresting desk job in finance. I’d rather make a ton of money doing something that I don’t actually love than doing something that I love in a way that is not in any way interesting to me. It would probably ruin my reputation forever anyway, and make it so no one took me seriously.
NFS: The Nixon library will be very disappointed to hear this.
PL: So, it wasn't a hypothetical!
NFS: What overall advice would you give someone that’s starting out where you were starting out a few years ago when you began Our Nixon?
PL: I think that you can't seek advice enough, and there’s no end to the amount of advice you can get that is helpful in terms of what you are doing. However, I think where I would caution people is that I personally don’t think that advice should be about your goals as a filmmaker. Your own creative vision has to be the thing that’s driving you. And the advice you're getting from people has to be about how to support it.
If I've learned one thing by making a really weird film, it's that it’s not necessarily the kiss of death that a lot of industry people might want you to think it is. I think that actually, in the film industry, people love films, so they're interested in seeing something different. When you're taking a risk, some people might tell you, as you're seeking advice as a younger filmmaker, they might say, "That’s not going to work. You have to do it this way," whatever.
I would just be very cautious about listening to those kinds of pieces of advice. "You can't do it that way," is something that’s only going to make me want to do it more! One time a filmmaker told me that this was never going to work, and you have to have a narrator. "How are you not going to have a narrator?" I was like, "I don’t know why you keep telling me that!"
So, I think that with the creative stuff, you really have to stay true to your heart and try to keep that clear while getting all the advice in the world about the business end. I'm not a big believer in having someone tell me what kind of film to make, but I do think that if you are making something, other people can really help you figure out how to market it, or how to promote it, or even how to talk about it better without actually changing the film.
Thank you so much, Penny!
Want to catch a screening of Our Nixon in theaters? Here are a few upcoming venues:
- 09/20 - Cinemas Palme d'Or (Palm Desert CA)
- 09/20 - Camelot Theatre (Palm Springs CA)
- 09/22 - Gateway Film Center (Columbus OH)
- 09/27 - Grand Illusion Cinema (Seattle WA)
- 10/04 - Music Box (Chicago IL)
- 10/07 - 14 Pews Theatre (Houston TX)
If those don't work for you, there are more screenings coming up so check out the Our Nixon site to find out how you can see this film.
Do you have thoughts on the role of critics in film? How have you handled positive or negative criticism on your work? If somebody famous was dishing out a critique of your film, what would you do?