Penny Lane Goes “NUTS!” With Inventive Documentary

 

The documentary NUTS! centers on John Romulus Brinkley, a Kansas doctor who, in 1917, “discovered” that transplanting goat testicles into men cured impotence. Brinkley’s story didn’t end with this obviously ridiculous assertion, as his business acumen led to his being a radio pioneer, a pillar to his community and family man, and an obscenely wealthy individual.

Director Penny Lane mixes animated reenactments, interviews, and archival footage to weave the intriguing story of Brinkley and plays with our own views of the veracity of the documentary genre. I really loved this documentary and to see if this film is playing in your local theater, check out the movie’s official site.

My interview with Lane is below:

What was the budget for your film? It looks great, in my opinion, even if it had a low budget.

The budget was well under $300,000. But part of how it came out so well with so little money was frankly I just took a really long time to make it. It slowed things down not having a lot of money but if you kind of really stick with something and you’re kind of willing to work on it forever – even without money you can get a lot done!

It’s baffling that Brinkley’s colorful life hasn’t been made into a full length film.

Oh yeah. There’s no question. You can just read Brinkley’s Wikipedia page and even just reading that you sort (will think) – how has this never been made into a movie? For me, and I sort of did that – there’s so much fictionalization in the film that I did sort of make that Hollywood fiction movie.

But I’m a documentarian, so for me that the fact it’s a documentary is very important. I wouldn’t have been interested in making a fiction film per se. It’s just not what I do.

A Kansas famer named Stittsworth is inspired by some “local fauna”- maybe billy goat nuts will reinflate his “flat tire”? Animation Still. Artist: Drew Christie. Courtesy of Cartuna.
A Kansas famer named Stittsworth is inspired by some “local fauna”- maybe billy goat nuts will reinflate his “flat tire”? Animation Still. Artist: Drew Christie. Courtesy of Cartuna.

How did the animation and editing come together?

It was just a very gradual layering process. The film took eight years to make and the first couple of years was really archival research and just finding out what was out there. I knew there would be a lot because Brinkley had been so famous and he was such a master of the media. I knew there would be a lot of material, but getting it is a different story. That took a long time so after about two years I had most of the archival and I had an idea of what I wanted the film to do.

How did the animation become an integral part of your documentary?

Two years into it I realized that I had to do something to really create the character of John Brinkley because it wasn’t going to come through in the archival – the archival was mostly him pitching s**t. He did stuff that looked like it was not ads but they were still ads.

So I talked to my friend Tom who is really smart and a good comedic writer and I said, ‘do you want to work with me on this – maybe we need to write some kind of re-enactment?’ Together we came up with the idea of animation and that was the best creative solution to the problem that we had. I didn’t want to nor did I have the budget to create more live action re-enactments. I wasn’t interested in that as an artistic challenge.

Personally, it’s all about what you want to do and to me it felt like animation was something closer to what I would enjoy doing and have a better chance at success at – even though I didn’t know anything about animation either. Around the same time of the four historian interviews, the animation came into play.

Brinkley family portrait. Animation Still. Artist: Hazel Lee Santino

So it took eight years to make your film. Did all this time with the project change its scope as you matured as a person and filmmaker?

I think that all of those were always the goal. I know I wanted to do all of those things as well as create a meta commentary on documentary crews and manipulation. That was always the goal – what changed over time was just figuring out how to do it. Just kind of having more and more ideas of different devices I could use to better accomplish those goals. The actual goals were actually identical to what they were at the beginning.

Can you name a movie that has influenced you as a filmmaker?

I think the film that pops into my head first is Exit Through The Gift Shop. The reason is really that what a delightfully fun movie it is to watch just like as a casual viewer it’s very fun and entertaining movie. As a kind of documentary nerd, it’s just so rich on so many levels. You’re constantly negotiating whether or not you’re being told the truth and what kind of manipulations are present.

It’s obviously constructed but you can’t quite figure out how – it’s this elaborate magic trick and as an intense documentary viewer you have so much fun trying to peel away the layers of artifice and truth. There’s more experimental documentaries like (Exit Through the Gift Shop) which asks you to wrestle with those layers of truth and fiction. But I don’t know any that do it without sacrificing any acceptability or any fun. I don’t know any other movies that pull that off. It’s always been kind of a lodestar to me.


What has it been like for you watching your film with an audience?

First of all the reception has been way beyond my wildest dreams. I’m not saying this to be modest (but) I had modest expectations for the film. It was very difficult to fund raise for this film so years of rejection kind of has a way of telling you that maybe this movie isn’t that interesting to that many people besides you. You might be the only person who thinks is terrific. I quite rationally downgraded my expectations based on that.

But people seemed to respond to it – which was really surprising based on the years of lack of interest I had felt before it was done.

The second thing is it’s very painful for me to watch this film for the first half. As you know, it changes very significantly. It’s not a spoiler to say that perspective of the film shifts dramatically from beginning to end.

The first third is not the kind of movie that I make. I feel like if I was in the audience watching it, I would be like “this filmmaker is crazy! Doesn’t she know this guy is a charlatan? Why is she presenting this story in a weird way? She must be an idiot!”

(As an audience member) I would keep watching it even if I didn’t like it because it’s funny and you just want to find out what happens next. The first third is very painful to watch, but once the middle point comes I’m like ‘Yeah, I love this movie!”

Photo credit: Albert Sanchez.

Is there a best way in getting financing for your indie films?

It’s never going to be easy to raise money for independent films. Every time there is some new method like crowd funding – it’s not going (to be easy). It’s just going to be hard in a different way. It’s all hard. Crowd funding is very hard. It’s also not easy to sit down with rich people and ask them to write you a $50,000 check. It’s hard to get a grant – it’s just hard.

That said, Our Nixon and NUTS! were made, for lack of a better word –  I self funded them in a way. It doesn’t mean that I paid for the budget myself, but I didn’t pay myself at all during the whole (production). I was the main engine and not paying myself was a big deal.

What that allowed me was complete creative freedom. It’s just a balancing act for everybody.

Penny thank you so for your time and it was wonderful talking with you!

Thank you it was really nice talking with you as well!

****Below is our CinemAddicts review of NUTS!

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