Penny Lane (Our Nixon) discusses NUTS!, the importance of pacing in her creative nonfiction exploration of pseudoscience, why they used animated re-enactments, and how to think about documentary film. This is an excerpt from the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1. To read the full interview, purchase a copy of the ebook here.
Penny Lane’s marvelous documentary NUTS! just picked up the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing with her co-writer Thom Stylinski. The film chronicles the life and work of Dr. John Brinkley, who made his name by transplanting goat testicles into infertile men, making liberal use of animated re-enactments. During the festival, Penny Lane talked to us about the importance of pacing in the film, why they used animated re-enactments, and how to think about documentary film.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you think about how to address science versus pseudoscience in NUTS!?
Penny Lane (PL): I did think about having more context around those questions. For the movie to work, it had to be seductive, colourful, charming, fast, and it had to keep you entertained so you didn’t have time to engage your critical capacities. The pacing actually slows down in the second act. As the claims he’s making are getting more ridiculous, you also get a minute of home movies, some time to think for the first time.
It takes about forty minutes before I give you ten seconds to think about what I’m saying. I steal that from conspiracy theory filmmakers. They’re like [makes a revving fast sound]. And you’re like, “My mind is being blown!” As soon as you hit pause, to go the bathroom, you’re like, “Wait a minute!” Because you don’t have time to stop and consider the claims being made. That’s very intentional.
Whenever I imagined, let’s stop and give some historical context or let’s stop and explain the definition of pseudoscience, it took you out of the magic. That’s exactly what Brinkley would not want. He would never do that: stop entertaining you and give you some important information. He’d be like, “I’ve got to keep going, keep you under my spell.”
7R: Did the pacing for NUTS! come about in the edit or was that part of how it was scripted?
Penny Lane: It took 8 years. There were a lot of ideas that didn’t work. I probably spent 2 years on an idea that didn’t work. After I figured out that we’d have these animated re-enactments, then a lot of the creative ideas were pretty solid and formed. That was 5 years ago.
The first time I ever wrote to my writer, I asked him to read my script to help me think about the narrative part. What should the tone of the narrative be? Should be a folksy “Come on, kids! I’m going to tell you a tall tale!” or should it be a kind of Richard Attenborough nature documentary. I ended up going with the blandest. The answer was that it had to be the most boring narrator ever.
7R: So as to not draw attention to itself.
Penny Lane: Right.
To read the rest of the interview with Penny Lane on NUTS!, purchase a copy of the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 here.