This Q&A is part of Vimeo’s Share the Screen program, an initiative that aims to foster gender equality by empowering, financing, and highlighting female filmmakers. Read up on our Share the Screen initiative.
Penny Lane is a documentarian who blends the archival with the personal in powerfully emotive ways. Though she’s been making films for over a decade, we first encountered her work five years ago through her masterful Staff Picked short The Voyagers. We followed her next few projects, like the remarkable Our Nixon, which took Super 8 home movies from the Nixon White House, and earned the distinction of being one of the first films to be acquired by CNN’s film division.
Penny Lane is now firmly ensconced as a leading voice among her documentary filmmaking peers, and as such, expectations are high for her newest film NUTS!, premiering this Friday at Sundance. The film charts the “mostly true” rise of the snake-oil salesman Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, who promised to cure impotence with goat-testicle transplants. Yikes! We had to reach out to hear more.
Andrea: Congratulations on the Sundance premiere of NUTS! You’re quite an accomplished filmmaker. Does premiering at Sundance feel extra special or is it all old hat for you at this point?
Penny Lane: It’s adorable and flattering that you thought it *might* even be “old hat” to me. Yes, Sundance definitely feels extra special!
I can remember the first time I saw your work. It was your film The Voyagers, playing at the New York Disposable Film Fest screening in 2012. How has your work evolved since then? What has stayed the same through the years?
Wow, it’s so cool that you were there! I love that film; I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve been making short experimental films for a little over a decade. They’re all on Vimeo (well — minus a couple I’ve decided weren’t good enough and needed to be struck from the record!). My earliest film is called “We Are The Littletons: A True Story” (2004). It’s a funny/sad story that plays around with the edges between fiction and nonfiction (it’s not ever really clear what is “true” in that film), inspired by and largely constructed with “found” materials. [So] I’d have to say that a lot of my preoccupations were there right from the start! But obviously I have grown and changed a lot as an artist since then. Never making exactly the same kind of film twice helps.
Can you talk about how the NUTS! project got kicked off? What drew you to this story made you want to direct this film?
When I first came across [the protagonist] Brinkley’s life story in 2008, I thought it was ready-made for a great movie. It’s a real-deal 20th century American tragedy, offering — even just on its surface — so much comedy and pathos: a genius idea, a meteoric rise, a spectacular fall. A protagonist as brilliant and fun to root for as he was dangerous and twisted. What was there not to love?
In addition to the amazing narrative, the project allowed me to engage in some of my weird obsessions: archival research and historiography, charlatans and bulls—t artists, quacks, skepticism and belief, and, most excitingly, the epistemological and ethical hall of mirrors we call “nonfiction storytelling.”
Your documentary “The Abortion Diaries” has been screened in almost every U.S. state as well as internationally, and it’s used as an educational tool for countless women. Many filmmakers might shy away from such a subject. Did you go into this project knowing it would have a profound effect? What’s motivated you to tell these women’s stories?
“The Abortion Diaries” sprang from my own 2001 experience of abortion. I wasn’t exactly ashamed, but I felt very alone and as if it wasn’t something I was allowed to speak about as a complex human experience (not as a data point for pro- or anti-choice). It’s important to say that the discourse surrounding abortion was very different back then. If I had that experience today, I don’t think I would feel like this. So the idea that I wanted to not only speak about my own experience, but [also] encourage other women to do the same, sort of sat and steeped inside me for a few years until I finally decided to make the film.
I want to tell a story I rarely tell, which is that I wanted to make this film but had been so afraid for so long that I “didn’t know how” to make a film. And this kept me from taking the plunge. Then I worked briefly as a script supervisor on a really, really s—ty film. Like, it was so unbelievably bad and I couldn’t believe the (male) writer had been paid to write it and the (male) director had been paid to direct it and all these crew people were coming to work every day to work on it. And I thought to myself, “Are you f—king serious? Complete morons make films every day. Surely I can figure this out. What is there to be afraid of?” And that was the tipping point — working on some s—ty dude’s s—ty film actually inspired me! I started work on “The Abortion Diaries” immediately and went on the shoot right after that film wrapped.
If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were first starting out making films, what would you want to say?
See above. Just do it.
The bio on your website says you show movies in your barn. What are the best movies to watch in such a bucolic setting?
Sullivan’s Travels, now and forevermore.
And finally, don’t you agree that “bucolic” sounds more like a physical ailment than a nice, descriptive word for the countryside?
Yes. It’s unfortunate. Let’s say “idyllic” instead.
Thanks, Penny. See you on the Internet!