The footage that comprises Brian Frye and Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, over 500 reels of Super 8 film shot by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, Richard Nixon’s closest advisors, was confiscated during the Watergate investigation, but unlike the notorious White House audio tapes, these silent, often poorly shot movies offered little in the way of incriminating evidence. In the retrospective view, with Watergate looming over all that came before and after it, these films were deemed unimportant and were soon forgotten. For decades they languished in the National Archives, unknown to but a few.
In documentary, archival footage often plays a supporting role, but with Our Nixon, the Super 8 films, and the men who filmed them, are the central players. Shot between 1969 and 1973, the years of Nixon’s first administration, the footage shows three young men eager to document everything, from the monumental, including the president’s phone call with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, and the historic trip to China in 1972, to the mundane: the men lounging in shorts on the White House lawn, or a marble bathroom observed during an official state visit. As personal records, most of these films were unlabeled, the identities of the cameramen often unknown. They are partial views, fragments of a time overshadowed by larger historical events. They are also, as home movies, surprisingly intimate.
In essence, Our Nixon is a film made from outtakes, amateur footage that, like the home movies of the time, is blurry, badly composed, handheld, and shaky. Like the audio diary that Haldeman kept every night, dutifully and dully recording the day’s proceedings, these films are exceedingly banal. Against the high-stakes political theater of Watergate, seen in television news clips of that era, we see shots of a squirrel nibbling a nut or rows of tiny houses seen from an airplane window. Nixon, when he appears, is often shot at a distance, obscured, or from the back; there are also many hasty zooms into his signature two-fingered salute. In the hazy, beveled Super 8 frame, we see life at the White House as it was remarkably unaware. It’s unthinkable, now, that a presidential administration would allow itself to appear this unpolished. And to an extent, the grainy patina of the Super 8 footage shot by these three young, idiosyncratic, and idealistic young men invites a sense of nostalgia, a vision of a simpler time. If anything, however, Our Nixon deepens and multiplies the grooves in the historical record. Far from simple, the time it constructs appears richer, murkier, and all the more complex.
I sat down with Frye and Lane to watch three clips: the first a raw outtake from the film, the second loosely edited footage paired with sound not in the final cut, and finally an excerpt from the finished film. We spoke about the challenges of navigating thousands of hours of audio recordings, the staffers’ and Nixon’s compulsion to record, and Ehrlichman’s fondness for birds. Our Nixon had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and will screen at SXSW and as the closing-night film of New Directors/New Films.
Raw footage of Nixon’s speech announcing the decision to invade Cambodia in 1970, and a subsequent protest in Washington, D.C.
It’s really striking that the cameraman is in the crowd. It seems unusual that a White House staffer would be in the thick of the action.
Penny Lane: In early cuts of the film, when we got to the protest scene, people would ask, “Is this Super 8, is this still home movies?” They assumed that it seems like something [the Nixon staff] wouldn’t do. But they did. So we went out of our way to make it clear that they were the ones who were filming. When we were watching the raw footage, we were always asking: where are you in the world and why are you pointing the camera at what you’re pointing the camera at? And they totally have narratives. If you’ve seen enough of their filming of protests, you understand what they’re looking for. They would always zoom in on the Vietcong flag. Because to them, that was so horrifying, the idea that you would be running around with a Vietcong flag.
It’s stunning how these men who are sophisticated or savvy (in the sense that Haldeman and Chapin at least were ad men) were not thinking about managing the image, at least from this perspective.
Brian Frye: This area was just thought as being essentially private, so I don’t think that there was a sense at the time that there was any image really to manage. Nixon’s assumption was that they were his personal property, and that he would be able to selectively release only the material that he wanted to. That was a totally justified assumption because in fact that was the treatment of presidential material prior to Nixon.
PL: People don’t realize it, but Johnson had tapes, JFK had tapes. But they didn’t have them confiscated and made 100 percent public domain like Nixon did. Because of what happened and because of their actions, now we all get to do whatever we want with it.
A 1971 campaign stop in Idaho Falls, Idaho, featuring Boy Scouts, veterans, and a high school choral group
Can you talk about the song in this clip? How did you find this moment of synch sound?
PL: We spent maybe the first year of the project just figuring out what we were looking at and having these small victories. We were able to say, “Okay, we’ve figured out that this particular clip is Idaho Falls, Idaho.” And somehow we were able to figure out that it was roughly whatever month it was in 1971. Then we were able to go into the White House Communications Agency audio archive and scan for Idaho Falls. And because that clip has people singing, you knew that there’d be some way to find a synch. We were able to do that a few times, but this one was really great because we were able to use someone’s in-camera edits, and also someone else’s in-audio recorder edits. They’re totally unrelated; they just happen to be recording the same event.
BF: My best guess is that the song was written by a high school teacher, and that it was something the choral group learned for the event. It’s kind of incomprehensible what exactly it’s supposed to be getting at: “We are Americans, we hope that you are too”?
Did stylistic characteristics or certain interests help you identify which of the three men is holding the camera?
PL: We don’t know who was filming most of the time, but Haldeman filmed the most. So when we don’t know, we just assume it was him.
BF: As a general rule, the sense was that Ehrlichman was a subtly technically better cinematographer, not as much zooming, not as much kind of garden hose-style filming.
PL: We also knew, just from doing research, that Ehrlichman was a big-time birder. So, whenever we saw long shots of birds or birdfeeders, we assumed it was him. And Chapin was goofing off a lot. Not that he was lazy at work, but I think he was more interested in filming his friends laughing with him. Haldeman was more like, “Nixon’s doing something historic, I should film it for posterity.”
What happened when the events of the day went off script? I’m reminded of Erlichman’s line from the film, that life at the White House was like a badly run television show.
PL: We started to think about their role as being like a production assistant on a big Hollywood film. They’re not the stars of the show, but they have to be there all the time, even though they don’t have that much to do. They’re at work all the time, and so if they’re filming, it’s because everything’s working smoothly and they can step back and film it as it goes, or it’s because they have nothing to do.
Shots of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin at work, including the first of the Super 8 footage, with Haldeman testing his white balance, as well as the first of the White House audio recordings, with Nixon learning how to turn on the tape recorder
PL: This was the first White House tape ever. They’re literally talking about how [the recording] works. This shot says [on a sheet of white letterhead], “test office with florescent lights, daylight setting.” Haldeman’s checking his white-balance, and it was easy, for once, to match a tape with a shot of something from the Super 8.
As a viewer, it’s easy to take for granted that this footage is silent, and that a whole other side of the project was gathering the audio to stitch it all together.
PL: All we knew of the White House tapes were the same excerpts that everyone’s heard 8,000 times, which is all having to do with Watergate. We were trying hard to not make a movie that was just recycling the same material that everyone’s already heard. Brian and I were living in the Catskills at the time, we were driving back and forth to New York, and we would listen to the White House tapes. I think I’ve listened to more White House tapes than anyone whose job it isn’t to listen to them.
What kind of events were you trying to string together? Did you find that the different kinds of audio and Super 8 footage were pulling you in different directions?
PL: The first thing that happened was of course the Super 8; the whole film comes from the Super 8. You can’t escape the personal nature of the stuff. Without knowing anything about Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Chapin, watching the footage makes you want to know about them. Because it’s their eyes that you’re looking through and every time the camera shakes or goes out of focus, you’re reminded of that. Then the next thing that happened was Brian and I spent endless months finding out more about them, reading their memoirs and their diaries and interviews with them, but also trying to find audio and/or video of them speaking about their experiences. They were pretty well-interviewed in their lives, but only about Watergate. So the challenge of that was how little about what they actually got to talk about on the record was stuff that we would have asked: “What was it like to work for Nixon? Did you miss your kids?” That pushed us to do something very specific because we had to use what was in the record. We had to think about how to create a film that would have a unified kind of voice, but where every single thing, whether it’s an image or a sound, is reflected through someone else’s choices, like how they filmed it, or what questions they asked, or where they pointed the microphone. And so the film in a sense became about the historical record, the contradictions within it, and their frustrations with what they see as these kind of oversimplified, demonized stories about them.
BF: The focus on Watergate eclipses all the other aspects of Nixon’s presidency. I think what makes or breaks the movie is that it challenges people to, I don’t want to say empathize with, but to understand the motivations of, or in some way kind of see as human beings, people you are inclined to see as caricatures or villains. For some people, that’s not going to work and they’ll resist it, but I think for the people who are open to that, it hopefully feels fresh and exciting.
Many thanks to Melissa Larson for her assistance in preparing this interview.