Sundance ’16: Penny Lane explores the age of flimflam

Filmmaker and archival enthusiast Penny Lane tells realscreen about tracing the life of an elusive 1920s-era conman for her documentary Nuts!, which is world premiering at Sundance.
January 22, 2016

Penny Lane had a strict set of rules when she made the all-archival documentary Our Nixon: no still images, use only archival sources.

That approach worked because she had stumbled upon a cache of home movies shot by disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon’s closest advisors. The main character in her latest film, Nuts!, was another notorious American public figure, but he turned out to be more elusive.

Using a mix of archival footage, animated re- enactments and interviews, Lane recounts the life of 1920s-era conman, Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, whose claim to fame was a goat testicle transplant procedure that he sold as a cure for impotency.

She discovered Brinkley’s story after spotting a copy of Pope Brock’s book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam on a display rack at her local library.

“The word ‘flimflam’ was appealing so I grabbed the book,” says Lane. “It was full of these hilarious, bizarre stories and you don’t really know what’s true. The shape and contour of his life was so immediately cinematic. His life really did have this three-act, tragic structure. Famous last words: this’ll be easy!”

Eight years later, Nuts! is premiering in the U.S. Documentary Competition program at the Sundance Film Festival.

Lane began gathering archival material on Brinkley at small historical societies in Kansas and Texas. She had ad copy he wrote, radio recordings, a memoir he had dictated and a touring promotional film styled as an educational film that an archivist in the Library of Congress stumbled across on a mislabeled reel.

Stringing it all together, she realized it was not enough to create a compelling main character.

“He had controlled every aspect of his public image,” she explains. “There was a glimmer of who it could be but he wasn’t going to ever come across to an audience. You were never going to be seduced by him, which is really what I needed to do.”

That is when she decided to animate the bulk of the film – 51 of 79 minutes – with hand-drawn illustrations from newspapers and advertisements from her archive serving as references. Throughout the doc, the animated Brinkley morphs depending on the point of view.

“The movie is so much about how my character constructed an image of himself,” explains Lane. “Sometimes he looks how he would draw himself: a heroic, awesome maverick. Other times he looks like the way his opponents would draw him, as this cartoonish devil figure, potentially dangerous. We were able to play with that in various scenes in a subtle way.”

Lane describes archival research as central to her creative process as a director. She always starts the process on her own but as production progresses, hires seasoned professionals – in this case Rosemary Rotundi and Rich Remsberg – to make sure she does not miss anything big.

Most of the archive in Nuts! falls under fair use or public domain categories since the time period covered is the 1920s and 1930s.

Thus, the big challenge for Lane in mixing archive with animation was conveying to contemporary viewers the attitudes of the era and how people could have fallen for Brinkley’s scheme.

“This particular thing might be antiquated and sound absurd, but if you look around in your own life there are probably a thousand things that are dubious but people might believe in if they met the right pitchman,” she says. “It would be so easy to say look at all these ‘dumb’ people and ask how could they have possibly believed him? But we are all those dumb people – every single one of us.”

Nuts! was backed by Creative Capital, the TFI Documentary Fund, the Colgate University Research Council and public supporters via a Kickstarter campaign. Submarine is handling sales.

Nuts! screens at Sundance tonight (January 22) at 9 p.m. at the Temple Theatre in Park City, Utah and again on January 23, 24, 25, 28 and 30. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening information.

  • This story, part of our Archive Focus, first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.