"I never laughed as much as when I worked in the Nixon White House," says Dwight Chapin in the documentary Our Nixon, which premieres Thursday, Aug. 1 at 9/8c on CNN.
Not the kind of reminiscence you expect from one of the disgraced president's men, especially since Chapin did jail time for his role in the Watergate scandal. But Chapin, along with H.R. "Bob" Halderman, Richard Nixon's crew-cut wearing right hand man, and domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman, believed they were part of something special when they went to work in the White House in 1969.
They diligently preserved the memories of their years there with Super 8 movie cameras, shooting 500 reels of film as they traveled across the country and the world with Nixon. The home movies were confiscated during the Watergate investigation and sat in a government vault for 40 years. Director Penny Lane and her co-producer, Brian L. Frye, unearthed the films and combined them with taped conversations from the Oval Office and network news clips for Our Nixon. The silent, color footage of cherry blossoms, Easter parties on the White House lawn and clean-cut supporters at campaign rallies only make Nixon appear darker and more dangerous.
The Biz recently talked with director Lane — not yet born when Nixon resigned in 1974 — about the film, which will also have a theatrical run starting Aug. 30.
TV Guide Magazine: There were really two Americas going on during the Nixon years. We usually see the counterculture — hippies, acid rock and antiwar protests. But this film gives us a glimpse of what Nixon called "The Silent Majority."
Penny Lane: That's right. There's a lot of different ways you can think about it. I guess the point is, I had never really thought about those people. You get an impression that everybody was out burning their draft cards in 1969. And it's very easy to forget for someone like me, who's too young to actually have been there, that the counterculture was a counterculture. It was not the culture, it was a minority of people who, over time, have ascended as like, basically — I don't want to put this in the wrong way — but the winners of the contest. For some reason, when we look at the home movies, that was the initial kind of amazing discovery. Wow, here's square America, the silent majority. Here they are. Our three main characters can kind of stand in for them, stand in for this larger group of people who were ultimately — whatever you think about Nixon, however you interpret Watergate — would be betrayed by him. In the end, he betrayed the people who supported him, the great majority of people, and more specifically, the people who worked for him. He was in charge, he made bad decisions, and their lives were ruined.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you manage to sort of squeeze any drop of innocence in presenting Halderman, Chapin, and Ehrlichman here? Growing up with this story, they were the villains. Yet you present them as regular men who don't come off here as particularly sinister.
Lane: No, I don't think they do at all. I don't think it was something we managed to do. That's what it felt like. You look at these home movies and there are no sinister bad guys in home movies. They're just people doing their jobs, just living life, every day. And then, we found interviews with them, hundreds of hours of interviews. They don't come across that way. It wasn't like we had to work real hard to take their sinister off.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you learn these home movies existed?
Lane: My co-producer, Brian, is the one who found out about the footage and had the initial idea for the film. We've both made a lot of short films over the years using a lot of archival footage. We had a lot of fun in the film archival world. This stuff was kind of known in that world. People knew it was in the National Archives. We sort of knew there was going to be a movie in there, but we had no idea what movie it would be.
TV Guide Magazine: The look of Super 8 film is very evocative by itself. Describe what we're getting in this that we would never get in a regular documentary about this kind of subject.
Lane: We associate Super 8 home movies with family memories. So the first thing is it gives you this feeling that it is a family, that the people really love each other. The way they film each other, and smile at each other, and stand in front of the camera and wave at the camera, they just give you this feeling of camaraderie and brotherhood and loyalty and family. And in this film, Nixon comes off like he's their dad, and they're the boys, the little rascals, goofing off. It creates this incredible feeling of warmth and love that's just so not what you think of when you think of Nixon presidency.