Penny Lane is a filmmaker who focuses on lesser-known histories as a means of reconsidering current issues. So, it’s no surprise that she took an interest in the little known tale of John Romulus Brinkley, a man who gained national fame and fortune after curing impotence in the early 1900s, inventing the informercial and dismissed his critics as “the establishment.” NUTS!, Penny’s Creative Capital-supported project, has already received accolades in film festivals like Sundance and Rotterdam. It premieres June 22 at Film Forum in New York, followed by a release in other major cities. We caught up with Penny to ask her a few questions about the project.
Alex Teplitzky: The Guardian calls the film’s plot “a story so odd you’ll wonder why you haven’t heard it before.” How did you come across it?
Penny Lane: Like all good things, I found the story of John Romulus Brinkley in a public library. I stumbled on Charlatan by Pope Brock—a really terrific book—and was hooked pretty much right away. As a nonfiction filmmaker I’m constantly scanning for stories, and in my case those stories almost always come from reading. (I suppose for some other filmmakers the stories come from traveling, or talking to people. I like to sit alone and read books; sue me).
And as I began telling friends about this amazing story, about “a guy who used to implant goat testicles into dudes to cure impotence,” I was amazed that a lot of people would ask, “Well… did it work?”
No, of course it didn’t! But I began to think about how much people want to believe in miracle cures. The weirder the better, really. How “one weird trick to melt belly fat” is way better click-bait than “eat less to lose weight.” Who doesn’t sometimes wish the world was more interesting, more magical, more colorful than it really is?
This is why the highest-rated Animal Planet program of all time was a fake documentary about mermaids. This is why Water Kirn falls for Clark Rockefeller. Why conspiracy theories are so compelling. And why we fall for quack doctors, time and time again: they sell us a story we want to believe. This insight became the core of the film that—a mere eight years later—is NUTS!
Alex: So, the film is a documentary, but you use animation to tell its story. Can you describe the process of working with animators? How did you select each one and decide which would animate which scenes?
Penny: After about two years of work, I had an all-archival documentary that wasn’t very good. It wasn’t working because I wanted the audience to fall in love with Brinkley, to be seduced by him and root for him. And this wealth of archival material I had so painstakingly collected, although it is all very cool and does other interesting things cinematically, was not going to make anyone feel seduced by Brinkley. It was too weird, too old. So the idea for animation came from asking advice from my friend, the writer Thom Stylinski, who read the script and watched what I had and suggested that what the film needed were scripted reenactments. His notes were so spot-on that I asked him to come on as the writer, which he did; Thom was my most important collaborator by far on this project.
Anyway, Thom and I agreed that animation would work better for these reenactments than live action. For one, we didn’t have much of a budget. And with animation it isn’t any more expensive to play up the tall-tale fantastic elements of the story (a character can fly or grow to two hundred feet tall in a drawing, no problem at all; whereas in live action maybe you’re dealing with expensive special effects and so on).
Another reason we liked animation was that we could have different artists drawing different chapters of the film. In the end we had seven chapters, each with its own unique style, drawn and animated by a different artist. This we thought would underline an important idea at the core of the film, which is that even a “true” story will change an awful lot depending on who is telling it. So having scenes and characters redrawn by different artists and really seeing how different they could feel, the different meanings they evoke, worked with the film thematically.
I found the first three animators on my own, which took forever because I don’t know a lot about animation. I didn’t know where to look or really even what I was looking for. I didn’t know what my budget was or what kind of animation you could get for whatever that budget was. But finally I brought on an animation producer (Daniel Shepard of the company Cartuna) who found all the rest of my animators for me, helped me figure out who would be best for which chapter in terms of their skills and style, and generally made the whole process more efficient and clear for everyone.
Alex: The reviews I have read use descriptions about the medical industry of 1930s dustbowl America to connect the film to present day issues (like “lamestream media”). What makes the story so applicable to today’s current events?
Penny: Well, Brinkley’s story is the story of the renegade, the innovator, the entrepreneur, the outlaw, the con man, the American business success story—so it’s pretty timeless, really.
More specifically, the way that pseudoscientists and snake oil salesmen operate is the same today as it has always been, so it’s not surprising that Brinkley’s techniques are so recognizable to us.
One of those techniques is, as alluded to in your question, capitalizing on skepticism about mainstream medicine or mainstream media and mainstream politics—mainstream anything, any existing orthodoxy—and offering an alternative that appears cutting-edge, forward-looking, disruptive. When the establishment doesn’t have an answer to your problem, you look to anyone who claims they do. And actually, the fact that they’re not part of the establishment is a plus, because everyone knows the establishment is corrupt! This is a dynamic as old as anything we know of in human relations.
Which reminds me. The more time I spend studying history, the more I realize there are no new stories. For truly new stories to emerge, humankind would need to evolve in some fundamental way. But we have zero historical evidence that humankind is evolving. We have lots of historical evidence that humankind is just the same as it ever was. So if history teaches us anything, it is that both time and progress are illusions.