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!