Penny Lane was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012. Her debut feature-length documentary, “Our Nixon,” world-premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam, had its North American premiere at SXSW, won the Ken Burns Award for “Best of the Festival” at Ann Arbor and was selected as the Closing Night Film at New Directors/New Films. She is currently a professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Colgate University, where she lives in a very old house and shows movies in her barn. And yes, Penny Lane is her real name. (Press materials)
“NUTS!” will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 22.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
PL: “NUTS!” is the crazy, larger-than-life story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, who in 1917 discovered he could cure impotence by surgically implanting goat testicles into men. With this “miracle cure,” he built an empire, soaring to amazing heights of fame, influence and wealth before it all came crashing down. “NUTS!” is made up of hand-drawn animated reenactments — over half the film’s runtime! — archival films and other dusty old artifacts, interviews with historians and a narrator whose funky role in the story only becomes clear over time.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
PL: Brinkley’s life was made for the movies. It’s a classic tragedy of the maybe specifically American variety. From humble roots, he applies himself with genius, grit and a signature seductive style to a series of innovative business ventures. He is wildly successful, but is brought down by his own hubris in the end. Also, he might be a sociopath. Who can resist a character like that?
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
PL: It took eight years to make the film. The biggest challenge was definitely keeping myself from giving up during some really long stretches where the creative work was daunting — daunting because I was taking a lot of risks and stretching myself creatively in so many ways. The support was thin or nil, and the only reason I kept going was, well, sometimes even I couldn’t remember!
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
PL: Oh, they can think about whatever they want! I’m a director, not a dictator! In seriousness, though, I would like it if they thought and talked about how very smart people fall for so much bullshit. Why does that happen? What makes us so susceptible?
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
PL: Community. You need your peers. My “professional network” is more than what those words sound like. It has become the most important family I’ll ever have — a group of mostly women who are the greatest support, inspiration and advice (and fun) ever.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
PL: Probably that I just started making films with “Our Nixon” (2013). I’ve been making short films since I went to art school in the early 2000s. Some of those films tend to be categorized more as “video art,” but it’s all the same to me: weird nonfiction stories told in weird ways, a lot of archival and found material, some autobiography. Probably the best film I ever made is one of my shorts: “The Voyagers” (2010).
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
PL: The film was initially supported by just me, and there was no money. Then Creative Capital gave me a significant grant, and that was a huge step forward. I also received grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the TFI Documentary Fund. We did a big Kickstarter in 2014. I raised $80,000 that way, but remember not all of that is net. We’ve had a few donors and a couple of small investors. So it was a little bit of everything.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
PL: Hmm, I guess [my favorite woman-written film] would have to be Nancy Dowd’s “Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.” It’s just alive. It’s as contradictory and confusing and throbbing and vital as any other living thing. I’d watch it any day.