You hear a lot these days about what people have just finished. A lot as in an endless feed. Everyone has something to push. It’s easy to believe after a while that these things come into being like a Facebook update or a tweet. It’s easy to forget what goes into them – the laborious, fraught, sometimes indecisive stuff involved in getting a project realized. I’ve started asking my friends and people whose work interests me (writers, filmmakers, potters, actors, painters, etc.) questions about what’s in that terra incognita of the artistic process for them, partly because I miss hearing more about the process than a perfectly composed update indicates.
Recently, filmmaker Cam Archer talked to me about how rarely we see the insecurity behind artistic production any more. Maybe it’s hidden under the thicket of info streams on social media. Maybe we’re trained more and more as artists to excise it from our conversation, urged by the way things stand to present confidence and clarity first, foremost, and for the duration. Like him, I think, I need reaffirmation that I’m not the only one struggling with what I’m trying to say, and I’m interested in how and why people work.
I asked filmmaker Penny Lane first, after seeing a sneak peak trailer of a film she’s working on that she put together and exhibited at the Creative Capital Grant’s artist presentations last summer. Like Penny, the trailer was funny, motor -mouth smart, and somehow quintessentially American.
Evelyn Avenue: Tell me about the project you’ve been working on…
Penny Lane: Nuts (or, as I like to call it, NUTS!) is a crazypants feature doc about John Romulus Brinkley, a small town Kansas doctor who in 1917 claimed to have discovered an impotence cure involving goat testicle transplantation. Tens of thousands of men beat a path to his door as news of his miracle cure spread all over the world. He then went on to build the world’s most powerful radio station, which operated at one million watts and reached 17 countries. Also he was elected governor of Kansas in 1930, only to have the election stolen from him.
Brinkley rose from poverty and obscurity to the highest reaches of fame, fortune and influence, but in a swift and brutal reversal of fortune, he died a penniless laughingstock and has now been totally forgotten. It’s a weird little chapter of American history, and also a sort of Horatio Alger story where the hero is a sociopathic conman (who you kind of can’t help but like).
Nuts contains all these different elements – interviews with historians, tons of archive, animated reenactment scenes and an unreliable narrator – sewn together in a way that I think is really cool and exciting. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it! It’s going to be really fun and really strange.
The best thing I did was somehow convince my friend Thom Stylinski, who is very funny and an extremely good writer, to jump into this venture about three years into me working on it by myself. Initially he was just going to write the part of the Narrator, but he ended up scripting all the reenactments, and ultimately playing a huge part in almost every aspect of the process of putting this story together. I would have quit this film long ago if it weren’t for him, especially back when he believed in it before anyone else did.
EA: What interested you about the subject, and what approach are you taking and why?
PL: Well, Brinkley’s crazy, tragic, hilarious biography is ready-made for a dramatic feature. But it took a LONG time to figure out what I wanted to do, other than just tell the story. I went through a lot of bad ideas, and some okay ideas that I was not capable of or excited about doing for one reason or another. Finally, I settled on the idea of telling the story first the way he always told it (i.e., just chock full of lies all of which are designed to make you think he is a heroic figure) and then doing a third act reversal where I tell the story from the point of view of his detractors. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it all makes sense if you watch it. It’s all about trying to seduce the viewer into Brinkley’s world, and then pulling back the curtain to reveal all the distortions and lies that went into that seduction. This involves an enormous amount of what the kids call truthiness. It’s just been WICKED FUN to go buck wild with invention, manipulation and dishonesty, and still somehow stay within a “documentary” format.I expect that different viewers will experience the film very differently, depending on how skeptical they are of quackery and how much historical knowledge they bring to the film. That’s great! In the end, I think everyone will have been thoroughly entertained and also be a little more confused than they were at the beginning. That pretty much sums up my artistic and intellectual goals as a human.
EA: Both OUR NIXON (Lane’s latest documentary, with Brian L. Frye) and NUTS! use archival material. How were they different in terms of the process?
PL: Totally different, actually. I mean, for both the story and the approach were developed out of very intensive archival research. But in the case of Our Nixon, there was one specific archive (the home movie collection) that spawned the whole project, whereas with Nuts it’s much more the case that the totality of all of these different pieces of things I was finding all over the country over several years slowly began to add up to a story and an approach to that story. Our Nixon was also entirely archival, and Nuts is made up of both archival and stuff I’m shooting/scripting/animating.Nuts is just a much more heterodox film than Our Nixon, which had a kind of austerity, and part of that is Nuts uses a lot of different categories of archival (i.e., science films, home movies, industrial films, still photos, advertisements, books, newspapers, etc.) than Our Nixon, which only had three elements (home movies, TV interviews and news clips). So trying to figure out what each of those different kinds of archival is doing and how it interacts with the animations, the narration, and the interviews with historians is kind of… nuts.
EA: You’re working with animation for NUTS!, right? What are the challenges there vis a vis the story?
PL: Yes, indeed. I’ve never worked with this kind of animation before: they are hand-drawn, computer-animated animations that are being used for a kind of imaginative reenactment. The biggest challenges overall are 1, that I have a hard time imagining what it’s actually going to look like until it’s actually done, and 2, it’s very labor intensive and thus quite expensive. For this film specifically, another challenge with the animation is to develop the right kind of visual style that is funny without being too cartoony.
EA: When do you think you’ll be done?
PL: Oh my god… maybe never? Hopefully 2015. Definitely 2015. Maybe 2016.
(Pictured: a still from the film in progress.)