5 Questions with...Penny Lane, director of NUTS!

Every year we give our patrons an introduction to some of the talent behind the films in the current year's program, and today begins our line-up of talent from the NFF16 feature films. We caught up with director, Penny Lane, whose second feature, NUTS!, is in our documentary section. NUTS! retells the tale of eccentric John Romulus Brinkley, an early 20th century physician who made a fortune curing men of impotence using goat testicles, built the world's most powerful radio station, invented junk mail, and nearly became the governor of Kansas.

NFF: As a documentary filmmaker, lots of potential subjects must come into your orbit on a regular basis; apart from its truth-that's-stranger-than-fiction appeal, what made you decide to tell this story?

PL: I stumbled on a book about Brinkley in a public library in 2008, and that was it; I knew I had to tell this story.  It took somewhere between 7 and 8 years to finish.  I felt he was such a master of his craft that I wanted to be as good a manipulator as he was, except in nonfiction form. Most of the time when watching documentaries, I feel over-manipulated, but in my storytelling I try to be subtle.  Since I was, in a sense, mimicking Brinkley's manipulative tactics, I went all out in that style, and it was quite a challenge since it's such a departure from my normal style. Aesthetically it was an interesting collage because everything we did was so manipulative from the outset.

NFF: This film has an unexpected...trajectory which I won't spoil by detailing too much, but can you talk about how you decided to construct the way the story would unfold?

PL: I knew the big picture structure early on.  I was telling a story about a con man and wanted the movie to, to some extent, perpetuate a fraud or pull a con itself.  'How to do it' was the issue! There are a lot of movies about interesting people or subjects, but an exciting marriage of form and content holds my attention.  In this case, Brinkley was a 'media maestro,' as am I; and I wanted to show how documentaries can also engage in the tactic of sleight of hand, or fooling people.  Documentary ethics is something I always think about, and this film was a kind of exercise of playing with those issues in a way.  Early on I knew I had to be a con man to tell this story the way I wanted to, but I'm too nice to pull it off, so I had to tell the audience that I was fooling them!  The takeaway is, when you're using the communication tactics of documentary, it's not that hard to fool people if you want to.

NFF: Let's talk about that title!  I like the choice of punctuation which takes if from being fairly straightforward and literal to tongue-in-cheek.  How did you arrive at NUTS, exclamation point?

PL: Hilarious story.  I brought on my writer, Thom Stylinkski, two years into the project.  We were emailing back and forth in our discussions about the drafts, etc., and we start talking about the title.  And he says, "why isn't it 'Nuts'?" And I'm like, "I know.  It has to be a really great title that's catchy and will grab people...I've got to figure it out." And in a later chain he goes, "but why not 'Nuts'?" and I say, "yeah...exactly.  It's got to be something out of the ordinary, you know, something really strong." And after a few times he's finally like "No. Like LITERALLY, why isn't it literally, 'NUTS!'" and I go "ohhhhh!!!"  

NFF: Animation is quite popular in modern documentary storytelling, and you use quite a lot of it here.  I was particularly drawn to the style of animation in NUTS!  Can you talk about your creative collaboration there?

PL:  Seven different animators' work is in the film.  The film is told in 7 chapters, and there's an animator for each chapter. For me, having different artists do different parts was appealing in two ways: (1). Production-wise, for one animator to do the 55 minutes of film that NUTS! required would have taken forever and been super expensive.  This way, we were able to have several people working simultaneously and it was way cheaper; (2) Artistry-wise, I liked the idea of overtly or unconsciously underlining the idea that a story is different depending on who's telling it.  So I worked with one animator early on to develop the general look of Brinkley and the other main characters so as to have some continuity in their look, and apart from that, everyone had the freedom to create as they liked.  As far as how I paired which animator with the chapter they were drawing, I looked for animators whose particular strengths matched with the themes we outlined, so, for instance, we gave the sepia section to someone I knew was strong in sepia animation.

NFF:  Last question, in your own words, why should people come see NUTS! at NFF?

PL: It's super fun! And most of the the time people don't associate documentaries with fun. But smart can be fun, or fun can be smart...however you want to look at it!

NUTS! plays Nantucket Film Festival on Thursday, June 23rd and Saturday, June 25th.