My Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Penny Lane
June 20, 2016. Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane’s new film “NUTS!” will have its U.S. Theatrical Premiere at Film Forum starting on Wednesday, June 22. J.R. Brinkley, the subject of “NUTS!” was a Kansas doctor who came to fame, in the 1920s and 1930s, for his claim that he had cured impotence by surgically implanting goat testicles into impotent men. Brinkley also became a media figure through newspapers and as well as the new medium of radio.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Lane about “NUTS!” Our conversation mainly concerned the nature of “truth” (both in the life of her subject, J.R. Brinkley, as well as in her documentary) and the role of media in interpreting that which we see as fact.
Lane explained, “I came up with the idea when I came across a book about John Brinkley, in the public library, in 2008. It’s a great story and it has a kind of ‘I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy before’ kind of feeling. I wanted to make a documentary, a non-fiction film, about a person who everything they said and did was really suspicious. I thought that making a non-fiction film about a liar would be interesting and challenging.”
Brinkley’s exploits were documented in the newspapers of the time, with headlines and articles stating that Brinkley had, in fact, cured impotence. When I asked Lane if this was just a case of Brinkley feeding stories to the newspapers, or the papers just needing copy, she replied, “You just answered your own question.”
Lane went onto explain that Brinkley was ahead of his time in terms of his understanding of modern public relations and marketing. “A lot of things he did were things we now take for granted, such as writing something, giving it to a newspaper and hoping that they’ll run it just like it was written. That’s exactly what Brinkley did. He hired a publicity team very early on,” Lane explained, adding that Brinkley, “was a media master. He was constantly producing material.”
“NUTS!” tells Brinkley’s story largely through very humorous and imaginatively drawn animation depicting incidents in Brinkley’s life. These animated sequences have been intercut with modern day interviews with historians, as well as with archival footage of Brinkley. Explaining the motivation for the animation, Lane said, “I had to do something to create the character of John Brinkley so that you could fall in love with him and be seduced by him, to some extent. I also needed a device that would allow me to explain what was happening in his life.” Lane explained that simply telling Brinkley’s story via “talking head” interviews would have been boring. She added that, “I try to make films that are entertaining and acceptable and fun, and that you don’t have to be a PhD in film studies to appreciate.”
Regarding the level of “truth” in her documentary, about a man who manipulated “truth,” Lane said, “Everything comes from something. There is nothing in the film that came, whole cloth, out of my imagination. I work from historical records. Some of the dialogue in the film is a little snappier than what I found. The rule of thumb is, if it’s funny, I probably didn’t write it.” Lane later added, “I hope that there are a lot of layers in this film so that if you are interested in questions about documentary ethics, or the manipulative tendencies of story tellers, even in non-fiction, there is a lot to think about with this story.”
Lane will be appearing at Film Forum on Wednesday, June 22 and on Friday, June 24, at the 8:00pm shows and on Saturday, June 25, at the 6:10 show. Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street. For more information visit http://www.filmforum.org.