Saturday, June 17, 2017

From the Archives: 'Our Nixon' producer Brian Frye recalls discovery of White House 'home movies'

'Our Nixon' producer Brian Frye recalls discovery of White House 'home movies'
November 17, 2013 7:16 PM MST

Forty years ago today, on November 17, 1973, President Richard Nixon declared “I am not a crook” before a nationwide television audience. Less than a year later, he had resigned in disgrace rather than face impeachment as a result of a cluster of scandals remembered as “the Watergate affair.”

Earlier this month at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, film maker Brian L. Frye spoke about his new documentary, Our Nixon (co-produced by Penny Lane, who also directed). Frye participated in a panel discussion after a screening of the film with former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles and Miller Center scholar Ken Hughes.

Our Nixon, which has been aired by CNN in addition to having a limited theatrical and film-festival release, is built upon a treasure-trove of Super-8mm “home movies” shot by top Nixon aides H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin.

The films – which include footage of Nixon's historic trip to China and visits to the White House by foreign dignitaries, as well as more quotidian events – were preserved by the National Archives as part of a cache of potential evidence in the Watergate investigation but did not come to light until about ten years ago, when Frye learned of their existence.

After the screening, Frye – who teaches law at the University of Kentucky in addition to writing film criticism and producing movies – spoke with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about how he came into possession of home movies from the Nixon White House and the process of turning that material into a cohesive documentary film.

In the public domain
Brian Frye Penny Lane Richard Nixon DVD Watergate“Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin,” he explained, “were receiving free Super-8 film from the Naval Photographic Center and also free processing and printing. I'm pretty sure that what was happening was Haldeman was distributing the films and after they were shot, he was collecting them, dropping them off at the Naval Photographic Center and then providing prints to all of his friends, so he probably got three prints of everything, more or less.”

When Ehrlichman, the president's domestic policy advisor, resigned as a result of the Watergate investigation, “he left in his office prints of the Super-8 films -- second- and third-generation prints,” said Frye. “Those were confiscated and ultimately became part of the Watergate investigation collection that went to the National Archives, so they were placed into the public domain in that way.”

The movies remained far from public view, however, because “they don't really relate to the abuse of power issues that people are most interested in. They were relatively low priority on the preservation ladder” for archivists.

Frye learned of the films' existence shortly from the film preservationist who “told me about his preservation work and showed me one of the reels, which I thought was fascinating but I didn't have the resources to make a transfer at the time. These were preserved but there weren't access copies available.”

After writing an article about the newly discovered movie reels for the film journal, Cineaste, Frye met his eventual producing partner, Penny Lane, in 2008.

They decided to collaborate on a documentary based on the movies but they did not know what the entire content was. Taking a risk, they invested $20,000 to have the films transferred to video so they could examine them in detail.

Novel and compelling
Once they had a chance to look at all 25 hours of film, “we realized right away that the movie that we saw in those home movies was the story of the Nixon presidency as experienced by Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin,” Frye said. “That just struck us as a kind of an interesting, novel, potentially compelling way to look at the nature of a president.”

Gerald Baliles Our Nixon Brian Frye movies Virginia Film Festival
He analogized his film to how “people say you can learn a lot about a person by the way they talk to the waiter. Maybe you can learn something about the president from the way that he talks to his staff members.”

Of the three principal characters in the film, only Dwight Chapin is still alive. He has seen Our Nixon and appeared on a panel with Penny Lane after a screening at the AFI Docs festival in Washington earlier this year.

“As you might expect,” Frye recalled, Chapin is “critical of some aspects of the film. He feels like it focuses too much on Watergate and negative things about the president” and that it “doesn't reflect enough of Nixon's good qualities.”

At the same time, he added, “I hope he recognizes that we intended this to be a human, empathetic portrait of him and his friends, the people he worked for and with in the White House, and so, hopefully he can see that the film is a balanced and considered portrait of the administration.”

Goat testicles
Frye and Lane have intriguing projects that they are working on to follow up Our Nixon.

Lane, he said, “is working on a new film called Nuts, which is the story of [John R. Brinkley,] a quack doctor from the 1920s who claimed to cure impotence by transplanting goat testicles into men's scrotums” who also “went on to invent border radio [and] win the governorship of Kansas only to have it stolen away from him by the Kansas attorney general.” Brinkley “ultimately died penniless after being crushed by the predecessor of the FCC.”

Frye is working on two different projects on his own, a “documentary history of the representation of the gay rights movement” and a narrative film about the relationship of Andy Warhol and his mother.

Our Nixon will soon be available on DVD and is still being screened on the film festival circuit.

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on November 17, 2013. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

No comments: