One of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012, writer-director Penny Lane exudes a winning blend of intellectual curiosity and sheer effervescent humor that shapes her films as well as her personality. In arty DIY shorts and two feature-length documentaries, 2013’s Our Nixon and this year’s Nuts!, Lane often investigates science or history in weird and wonderful ways, imbuing subjects like space travel, Nixon’s presidency, and the use of goat glands to treat impotence with sly humor and unexpected emotion. In Nuts!, she also encourages audiences to explore their own susceptibility to charlatanism by first telling her conman subject’s story as it’s laid out in his authorized biography, then revealing the lies that story was built on and the price people paid for believing those lies. I spoke to Lane about why it’s best to make art for an audience of one, the pros and cons of using animation, and what makes so many of us want to believe the whoppers spun by people like Donald Trump and John Brinkley, the self-styled doctor Lane anatomizes in Nuts!
Let’s get the name out of the way. Were your parents hippies?
No. They were just teenagers with the last name Lane. It wasn’t that thought out. Lois Lane was another option, so all I can do is be happy that they didn’t go with Lois, from the depths of their 15-year-old stoner minds.
Your movies aren’t quite documentaries in the traditional sense, but they’re not quite video essays either. How do you describe your work?
I love that you’re starting with this, because this is what I think about all the time. I went to art school and studied video art and experimental film. Then I started making things that seemed more like documentaries than experimental film, but I’m still a little bit between those two idioms. It’s, like, experimental in the mainstream doc world, but in the experimental film world, it’s accessible. [laughs] I like to be on the periphery.
My role model is Banksy, who made Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is a profoundly influential film on me. So much so that I cannot believe it only came out six years ago. That film achieved something that I knew I wanted to do as a filmmaker, but had never really seen, which was to make an accessible, funny, entertaining movie that was also film-nerd catnip. It was formally so strange and out there that to this day I’m still having arguments with people about whether this edit was a lie or not, or whether Banksy exists. It also has lots of ideas in it, but if you’re just going to be a casual film viewer, you can just enjoy the movie as a movie. That gave me hope, because I had it in my head that I wanted to do that.
You seem like someone who’s pursued what you love from an early age.
I’ve always been pretty good at inventing my own life and coming up with my own path through it, but the filmmaking stuff didn’t start until I was a little older. I started making video art when I was about 22 or 23. It actually feels very gradual and slow. Hopefully it’ll keep changing the same way, where 10 years from now I’ll look back and see how it all relates, but what I’m doing then will be something totally different than what I’m doing now.
How have you made the money part work?
I’m a college professor [of art and art history at Colgate University], so I’ve never had to be a professional filmmaker. It means you don’t have a lot of support, but I live in Central New York in a barn. I have almost no oversight. And I have a salary, so I can take risks. It turns out that the two features that I’ve made have been financially successful [laughs], but that was a surprise. Our Nixon, I thought, was totally weird. I thought no one would get it. And this one, I thought, was so much weirder. It was very hard to explain it, and it’s very hard to pitch it. In the process of making it, I didn’t feel like the whole world was [saying], “You have to make this film.” Most of that had to come from me. It was very hard to maintain the energy to keep it going and get it done.
When did you start working on it?
Two thousand and eight! Two years before I started Our Nixon. This was supposed to be my first feature.
There are so many similarities between Donald Trump and John Brinkley, the subject of Nuts!: the showmanship, the faux populism, the way both preyed on people’s hopes by overcharging them for something worthless, like Trump University or that colored water Brinkley was selling as medicine. Both were expert at manipulating the media, and both reverted to racist demagoguery when people started questioning their lies. Do you think America is prone to creating people like this, or is it just something about human nature?
I don’t think it’s America. I do think there’s a kind of flavor about them both, and certain aspects of what they say that’s very national. We love the self-made businessman.
The media stuff and the use of advertising also seems…
Yeah. Yeah. And we love the bootstrap story here. But the larger thing is why humans are so susceptible to being fooled. It’s just proof that we’re not any smarter than we were a hundred or a thousand years ago. The more you study history, the more you realize there are no new stories. It seems like we’re evolving, but we’re obviously not, because Shakespeare’s stories are the same stories as today. Brinkley’s scam was 100 years ago, and we’re supposed to know more about science today, but when I was telling people about this movie early on, almost everyone would say, “Well, did it work?,” and with an open, curious face. I realized that if I wanted to say, “Well, yes it did,” and then said some science-y babble, they would believe me. People wanted to believe that his cure might work.
So much of your work is created with archival footage. I read in one of your interviews that you hate to point a camera at people, so I’m wondering: How much do you use archival footage because of that and how much is it because there’s something you love about the discovery process of going through old footage—or finding good source material of other kinds, like the Craiglist personal ads you spoof in Men Seeking Women?
It’s all of that. It’s my reticence to point cameras at people. And, as an artist, you choose your challenges, and for whatever reason, negotiating access to a subject isn’t a challenge that I want to be staying up at night worrying about. Figuring out how to take a pile of old ads and turn it into a movie is more interesting to me. Or maybe I’m a little more comfortable in it. I’m a little bit of a control freak, so being alone in my house without having to negotiate all that stuff feels really good. Doing archival research is like what most of my peers do when they go out and film. You’re discovering, and it’s beautiful and exciting. You have to keep an open mind but at the same time keep an eye on your plan. Because you can get very lost in an archive, but also you should be open to something showing up and entering the picture that you weren’t looking for. So it’s really not that different.
Are there other artists whose work or friendship sustains your work?
So many. Some are people I met when I was making Our Nixon. It was really nice to have that peer group when I was navigating stuff for the first time, like “What is a publicist? What is insurance?” The friendships I have with Brent Green, who’s a visual artist based here in New York, and Joshua Oppenheimer, who you probably know, have been really important to me. We share a lot of ideas. There’s also a wonderful novelist named Jesse Ball. We care a lot about the same things, we face some of the same things.
Do you and Joshua Oppenheimer talk about how to make documentaries?
Yeah. He’s just brilliant! He’s someone who has thought so deeply about so many things that he speaks with real authority. I also like his feedback on cuts and things like that, because I trust him as an artist. We’re totally different people, but I trust him.
One of the things Nuts! is about is how to think critically while watching a movie. You’re challenging your viewers to question what is and isn’t true.
Absolutely! Even people I know that are really smart don’t always get that documentaries have a director. They have no idea that these movies are contingent on who’s making it, what questions they ask, what materials are available to them at the moment that they asked it, what happened in the edit room, their mood that day. With this film I wanted to make it as clear as possible that Penny Lane is a person, and she has made choices. To the point where you see my hands, literally, moving the archival material around in one scene.
So, yeah, that was important to me. And if you watch the film with attention—which not everyone will, which is fine—you’ll definitely think, by the end: “Well, wait a minute! Didn’t she tell me this? And was that not true?” That kind of feeling, I think, can be really productive. Which is why I think the true crime genre is actually quite good for documentary. Making a Murderer. The Jinx. Serial. Audiences get very engaged in researching the subject and saying, “Wait a minute! They left this out,” because we’re trying to solve the murder or whatever. It’s the one area where I see where the general public does get very invested in questions like authorial intent and editing and shaping.