‘The Reagan Years’ based on archival footage portrays 40th president in both a funny and serious light

Winner of CIFF’s Points North Pitch contest: a Reagan documentary with David Lynch undertones

Posted:  Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - 10:30am
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CAMDEN—Giving a pitch to industry professionals about your documentary-in-the-making is unnerving enough, but add an entire hushed audience hanging on your words, and the experience is enough to put even the most seasoned filmmaker on edge.

On Saturday, Sept. 27, six teams of filmmakers stood before a panel of more than a dozen funders, broadcasters and producers on the stage of the Camden Opera House and gave their best presentation in the hopes of winning the Points North Pitch Prize and Modulus Finishing Fund.

Of all of the six intense and well-structured presentations, there was only one film clip and presentation that drew laughs from the judges and crowds alike. Director Pacho Velez and producer Sierra Pettengill, both from New York City, won the pitch contest with their current project, The Reagan Years, which explores Ronald Reagan’s presidency told entirely through a largely-unseen trove of archival footage.

During the pitch Velez said, “The 1980s were like this very surreal episode of American political life with a presidency, if a presidency were staged by David Lynch.”

As part of their prize package, Velez and Pettengill won a $1,000 cash prize from Documentary Educational Resources, a $10,000 post-production package from Modulus Studios and three consultations from Tribeca Film Institute.

We caught up with Velez several days after the Pitch Prize was announced.

Pilot: Watching the first two presenters back stage, how were you feeling the moment you got the spotlight?

Velez: It was very nerve-wracking. We were all at a pitch session all together the last 48 hours before we got on stage. It was stressful to be competing, to have to do this in front of such a large audience. Our film had a different tone that many of the other works we were competing against. I thought it would either go over very well or totally bomb.

Pilot: You really hooked in the judges with one scene from the archival footage where Reagan is at some kind of ceremonial event and is upstaged by a live turkey kind of flipping out and interrupting the event. It felt like parody, but yet, it wasn’t.

Velez: It feels like parody, but it was documented and that’s what actually happened. That’s the crazy thing. One thing I want to stress is that the archive was created by the Reagan administration. So, this isn’t us going out and finding these moments. This is from a historical record that his administration left to the American people at the request of the president. Sure, we’re picking out stuff and crafting our own message from it, but this is footage from how Reagan wanted to be remembered. There’s just something about this time in American politics where political discourse goes from being about speech and rhetoric and starts being about images. And that’s Reagan.

Pilot: In the pitch you made it clear that this is not a political film. 

Velez: Right. It’s not a Democrat or Republican film. Not a left or right wing film. It’s really about trying to view political history with fresh eyes. Reagan wasn’t the first ‘Media President’—that was Kennedy. But Reagan was the first archetype of being an actor in that presidential role.

Pilot: What about the footage that you’ve picked and chosen from reminds you of David Lynch?

Velez: At night I’ve been watching Twin Peaks on Netflix. It’s that same sort of feeling where I’m laughing, but it’s not quite funny. Things don’t add up. The cause and effect don’t quite add up. Usually in the real world A leads to B, but in Twin Peaks and the Reagan footage, A leads to C , it’s just the strangest thing.

Pilot: Did you walk away with any particular advice from getting feedback from the judges?

Velez: Honestly, being up there, it was such a blur. We have notes, which I’m going to go back over. When you’re in the middle of a pitch, these things can be a real crap shoot. Are they judging the pitch? Or are they judging the movie? I think we’re very fortunate that we hit the sweet spot.

Pilot: How is the prize money and opportunities going to further the film.

Velez: The full budget for the film is $25,000, so we’re still on a long-term trek, but winning this is a very sizeable investment in the project. The money is important, but the best part is the legitimacy of winning. The ball is rolling now and we’ve just got to keep pushing it.

Stay on top of what Velez is doing with ‘The Reagan Years’ through his website: pachoworks.com

To find out more about the other pitched documentaries visit: camdenfilmfest.org


Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com