Dan Mirvish is a familiar name in the world of independent cinema. A triple threat, he is known for his films, Omaha (1995), Between Us (2012) and Bernard and Huey (2017). Not one to sit on his laurels, the busy creator co-founded the Slamdance film festival in between shooting his first feature and going to school. The cooler alternative to Sundance, this prestigious event launched the careers of such notables as Christopher Nolan, Penelope Spheeris and the Russo brothers.
As a young director, Mirvish was mentored by the legendary Robert Altman. He also had the privilege of working with Academy Award winning writer, Jules Feiffer. As if those credits weren’t impressive enough, Dan also spent some time in Washington, DC as a politico, writing speeches for Senator Tom Harkin. He also co-wrote a bestselling novel with Eitan Gorlin about a faux John McCain advisor called I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man’s Wildly Inappropriate Adventures with the Last Republicans (2009).
Which brings us to his current venture, the 1970’s political comedy thriller, 18 ½ (2020) about a White House stenographer who ends up getting involved in the Watergate scandal because she gains possession of the missing 18 ½ minutes from President Nixon’s tapes. The film has an eclectic cast featuring horror icons, Lloyd Kaufman, Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi. Also, on hand, comedy stalwarts Jon Cryer and Richard Kind as well as veteran actor, Vondie Curtis-Hall.
We were fortunate enough to chat with Mirvish about his career and all points in between.
Hitting the Ground Running
Diabolique: We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us, Dan. Looking through your resume, there are so many interesting items to discuss. First of all, when you were attending film school in 1994 and being mentored by Robert Altman, you released your first feature, Omaha. How did you meet the famous director? Do you remember any advice from him that you still adhere to today when making features?
DM: It was just kind of a very fortuitous coincidence. I am from Omaha and I had written a script to shoot back there. I hadn’t lived there for seven or eight years. I knew lots of actors because it’s always been a strong acting town. There had never been a local independent film made. This was going to be the first one. The film commission was very helpful and supportive. So, I asked them if they knew any local producers that I could work with because I didn’t know any production people there.
They recommended Dana Altman who produced commercials and wanted to get into features. His grandfather happened to be Robert Altman. That was how I first met Dana who is one of my producing partners to this day. Once he became involved, he put me in touch with his grandfather.
The biggest advice he gave us before we started shooting was “90% of directing is casting.” To this day, it’s words to live by, for sure. I think the other thing he instilled in both me and Dana on that film and our subsequent work was the idea that you set a start date and you tell people that the train is leaving the station. Either they will jump on board or they won’t. That is something he certainly lived by. It’s better to make the low budget movie than the big budget version. Don’t rely on the cast you might never get.
18 ½ is a perfect example of that. If we had waited one more week for a perfect cast to have come along, because of the pandemic, which we didn’t know was going to happen, we might never have shot the movie. It was fortuitous that we at least got 80% of it in the can when we did. Honestly, we went into shooting that film without two of our leading actors being cast yet. A normal person would have delayed everything but we stuck to Altman’s advice. We had that start date and we were sticking to it.
Diabolique: Of course, casting can make or break a movie. Do you feel that the script is the foundation in order for you to attract the actors that you want?
DM: Absolutely. It starts with whatever is on the page. The script is definitely a significant element. There is more to it than that. If it’s a musical, actors love that, if it’s a drama, comedic actors they love that and vice versa. If there are long monologues, actors love that if there is a pedigree to the underlying material, that goes a long way. Also, a lot of it is scheduling and availability.
Actors are intrinsically a little insecure so if they aren’t doing anything, they get very antsy. If you’ve got the right film at the right time in their schedule, there’s no telling who you can get. Then again, like you said if it’s not on the page, they aren’t going to do the film.
Diabolique: 1995 was a monumental year for you. You co-founded Slamdance. What was your inspiration for creating the festival?
DM: One thing led to the other. We had finished Omaha and had been showing it to distributors. This was a pivotal time in independent film where Miramax became a part of Disney and Fine Line became a part of Warner Brothers and Fox launched Fox Searchlight. Sundance was along for the ride with the “Hollywoodization” of independent film at that time. They kind of left behind the niche of the first-time directors and they started showing more films by second time directors with bigger name actors and budgets.
So, anyway, we had distributors say to us we want to distribute your film, if it gets into Sundance. If you got into Sundance, it didn’t mean that you were guaranteed to get distribution but if you didn’t get in then you really couldn’t get distribution. Then also, you wouldn’t get into any other festivals. Back then there weren’t as many but the ones that existed were either U.S. regional festivals or international festivals which would literally take that Sundance program and go well, “there’s our American independent films for the year.” Those filmmakers would get on the circuit and they wouldn’t stop.
It was really hard to break into Sundance much less get distribution, get an agent or get financing for your next film or build a career. We had heard of other filmmakers in January 1994 that didn’t get into Sundance but they had their own renegade screenings in Park City. One of those sets of filmmakers was Trey Parker and Matt Stone with their first film, Cannibal! The Musical (1993).
We had the same lawyers and we had heard about them. There was also another filmmaker that year named James Merendino who had a film called The Upstairs Neighbor (1994) who also did his own renegade screening in Park City as well. He got a little bit of attention and press for it. We thought that’s kind of what we’re going to have to do. That was our plan B and then our friend, Shane Kuhn who directed another film, Redneck (1995) that was also shot in Nebraska, he had the idea to do renegade screenings but get a dozen feature directors and combine our resources, efforts and expertise and hang together, rather than separately. So, we did it by necessity. We owed it to our investors, our actors and our crews. If we didn’t do that, we didn’t know what else to do.
Diabolique: In 2017, you collaborated with another notable individual, Oscar and Pulitzer winner Jules Feiffer on Bernard and Huey. Tell us about that experience.
DM: It was wonderful. I learned so much from Jules. He was very happy with how the film turned out. Again, this experience started out with a weird set of coincidences. I had known Jules had written Carnal Knowledge (1971) which had been an influence on my previous film, Between Us. We used it as a visual reference. While I was in post-production on that, I thought, I wonder what happened to Jules Feiffer?
I looked up an interview with him in The Chicago Tribune. It stated that he was in the Hamptons, teaching and writing graphic novels. It also mentioned the fact that he had several unproduced screenplays. So, I thought here is a guy who has won an Oscar and a Pulitzer whatever his screenplays are, they are probably good.
Dana Altman and I tracked him down. He was very kind and got back to us right away. Since he had been divorced a couple of times, the screenplays were in storage and he told us he would have to look for them and to call him back in four months. I patiently waited and then called him back. He told me the same thing and this went on for about a year and a half. I kept up a correspondence with him.
Finally, another friend of mine remembered reading one of these scripts in Scenario Magazine. So, I went to the Academy Library which isn’t far from where I live. I found the magazine, read Bernard and Huey and fell in love with it.
Jules had written the script in 1986 but it was based on cartoon characters that went back to 1957. They were recurring characters in his cartoon strips. Anyway, we called him and he said that he remembered the magazine but it may have been an edited version of the script. It may not have been the whole thing. We finally got a hold of his old producing partner who had his archives. He had a copy of the script.
It still took another year and a half because we had to make sure that Jules actually had the rights to Bernard and Huey because it had been originally commissioned by Showtime and they paid him for it so we had to sort out all of that.
We made the film with David Koechner, Jim Rash and a bunch of other wonderful people in the cast. It went to film festivals on a bunch of different continents. Jules got a couple of screenwriting prizes for it. He felt it was the best adaptation of his work in another medium since Carnal Knowledge.
Filmmaking in the Time of COVID
Diabolique: Your current project, 18 ½ sounds very intriguing, a political thriller about a transcriber who possesses the 18 ½ minute gap in President Nixon’s Watergate tapes. You are no stranger to politics. In the past, you were a speech writer for Senator Tom Harkin. Why did you decide not to pursue a career in that field?
DM: As an undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis, that’s where I got interested in film but they didn’t have much of a program there. They had one Super-8 class. Since there wasn’t much I could do in film, I ended up majoring in History and Political Science. Then I spent a semester in Washington doing an internship and I really liked DC and that whole scene. I was getting into journalism and I started a political journal on campus.
When I graduated college, I took the GRE’s to go to grad film school but in the meantime, I decided to spend a couple of years in DC and I could always go to film school after that. So, I did that and I initially worked at Washington Monthly magazine for four months as an intern before getting the job as a speech writer for Tom Harkin. Even then, we were doing a lot of the speeches on video in the basement of the Capitol. So, I was still spending a lot of time keeping my film interest alive.
It was such a unique opportunity to be in DC at that time and have a good and interesting job working for a good and interesting guy. I knew that wasn’t going to come around that often so I should take advantage of it and enjoy it while I could. Then after doing that for a year and a half, I decided that it was time to go to film school and see if I could get in. I did and I ended up going to USC. I always enjoyed my time in DC and stayed in touch with a lot of people there.
Diabolique: How did 18 ½ come to fruition?
DM: 18 ½ started the day after the election in 2016, we had just wrapped Bernard and Huey. I went out to the Hamptons to meet with Jules and a lot of what we talked about was the election and what happened with Trump. He was kind of contextualizing it. He remembered Nixon. At that time, he did an entire compilation book of cartoons on him. He was one of his fiercest critics. He said, “Well, America survived Nixon. We can survive this.”
When I went out there, I ended up staying with my friend, Terry who owns the Silver Sands Motel and Cottages in Greenport, New York. It’s this great mid-century motel which his grandparents had built in the 50’s and 60’s. Terry had preserved its mid-70’s feel. He said, “No one’s ever shot a feature here.” Since we were talking about Nixon at Feiffer’s, I thought 1970’s, Watergate, why don’t we shoot a Watergate movie? And that’s where it came from.
Diabolique: Did you give the premise of 18 ½ to Daniel Moya for him to write the screenplay?
DM: I had the spark of the idea after talking with Jules and my friend, Terry. Then I kind of rolled it around in my head for a couple of months. I came up with the basic storyline of a stenographer who gets a hold of the 18 ½ minute tape. Daniel had been an intern on Bernard and Huey. Coincidentally, his aunt and uncle run a diner in Greenport and they knew Terry. We thought, “Great! We have a motel and we have a diner. We have two locations for the movie.”
I knew I would still be busy because I was doing post-production on Bernard and Huey. So, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do the script myself. I approached Daniel and asked him if he wanted to take a stab at writing the film. We collaborated on it and he ended up being a producer on 18 ½.
Diabolique: When everything came to a screeching halt because of COVID-19, you managed to keep the momentum going by editing, working on the voiceovers and recording music. Was it difficult to helm a production remotely? Were there any scheduling or technical challenges?
DM: We were a lot luckier than other productions because we were able to get 80% of the film in the can in March because we were so remote. We could keep working on it before the reality of the pandemic hit us. We still had four days left to go. I grabbed the hard drive, hopped the first flight back to L.A. and started editing when I hit the ground.
There was plenty of footage to edit for months. Then with the Nixon tape, as it were, we had always planned to do the voiceovers in post anyway, we just figured alright, all these actors are sitting at home. Everyone is becoming used to Zoom and doing audio remotely. So, we got back with Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi and Jon Cryer to do some of that over the summer and they were game for it. Technically, it worked out just fine. We were able to get that accomplished.
Finally, in September, there was a window of opportunity that opened up for the motel and our cast and crew to go back and shoot for a week. I went back to NY and since I was coming from L.A. I had to quarantine for two weeks there. People had already started coming back to work. SAG and the DGA had their COVID protocols which we were working our way through figuring out where to get the testing done. It wasn’t easy.
We pulled it together and we were able to raise enough money to get us through that part of the shoot. That’s always the biggest challenge. Then I grabbed the hard drive and came back to L.A. to do post-production.
Diabolique: The cast of 18 ½ is pretty amazing. Before we get into the Nixon tapes, what made you reach out to Lloyd Kaufman to appear in the film? That’s pretty inspired casting getting the head of the iconic Troma Films for this venture.
DM: That was a weird coincidence. I’ve known Lloyd for 23 years through Park City. He wound up distributing Cannibal! The Musical and we ended up doing parties with them. I got to know him and his wife Pat, who used to be the film commissioner in NY. In December or January, he emailed me about Slamdance. I told him that I was shooting my movie then and he asked what I was doing and if he could have a role in it.
Originally, we were going to film his part in March at his offices in the city but then the pandemic hit. In the end, we shot in September and he had to come all the way out to Greenport and get COVID tested. It wasn’t easy but he was a trooper. He loved it and he’s old enough to have strong memories of Watergate. It definitely resonated with him. This was the first chance we had to work together.
Diabolique: In another bit of inventive casting, you have horror icons Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi and comedy stalwart Jon Cryer portraying President Nixon, General Alexander Haig and H.R. Haldeman. Campbell played Ronald Reagan on Fargo. What about those actors’ resumes convinced you that they could portray these historical figures?
DM: With Bruce, I knew he did Reagan. Originally, we had talked to him about doing another part in the film but scheduling wise he couldn’t do it. He was already familiar with the project. I thought let’s see if I can get him for one of the voiceover roles. Nixon was the most obvious choice.
It’s an interesting balance. There’s a lot of Nixon in the film, it’s a pretty substantial role. I didn’t want a mimic of him. I wanted an actor playing Nixon. We got that with Bruce. He sounds like Bruce Campbell as Nixon which is exactly what I wanted. If we just wanted Nixon, we could have gotten Rich Little who is still alive and who does an impersonation of the former President. Having someone like Bruce, a real actor with the strength of his personality and his character behind the role you get those elements of absurdist humor that were in the script to come out with his performance. Bruce was perfect for that. It’s a real subtle comedy. He still has that gravitas and voice to his character that works for the absurdity of Nixon. We were lucky to have him.
With Ted Raimi, someone else was going to do the role of Alexander Haig and then dropped out. So, Bruce was like let’s give Ted a call. I thought, okay. I was certainly familiar with Ted’s work. When I was at USC, he acted in a lot of student films.
I knew Jon Cryer going back to Omaha. He had come to an early screening of it. We had stayed in touch over the years and I had actually wanted to cast him in other films but the timing didn’t work out or the character wasn’t right for him. He was so honored to be working with Bruce that he kind of fanned out a little. He got the historical significance of the role and the intrinsic humor behind it as well without overplaying it. Bruce and Jon had a great chemistry together and so did Bruce and Ted.
Diabolique: You have worked with the talented Richard Kind before and Vondie Curtis-Hall is a well-known established actor. Did you have them in mind for parts in the film when it was being written?
DM: You know, Richard was maybe the one person that we had in mind for the part he wound up playing. Just because Daniel and I had just worked with him on Bernard and Huey. In general, when I write a script, I try to keep an open mind. Richard was someone that I felt if he’s available, he would be great in this role. He was available in March. Then when we had to shoot in September, he was available again. He’s great and such a wonderful actor who can do comedy and drama.
Vondie was one of the last people cast for the March shoot. Such a thrill to work with him. He brought so much to his role. We kept in touch over the summer and he was 100% game to come back in September and finish his part. He’s an icon of independent film, he’s on the board of Film Independent in L.A. and he teaches at NYU.
Diabolique: Once 18 ½ is finished in post, are you going to distribute it in theaters and on streaming services? Do you have a release date in mind?
DM: No, we don’t know how it is going to come out yet. We made this film with a team of over 300 investors and Crowdfunders. The good news is we’re not beholden to any distributor or streaming service at all. We are a free entity. The bad news is we don’t know where we are going to wind up. With a film like this, just like with all of my films, I make them and then typically we play them at film festivals and then we find a distributor and then we see what happens.
We are going to finish post in the early spring. When anyone can actually see the film? I don’t know. Who knows? The models for distribution are changing every day.
Diabolique: What’s next for Dan Mirvish?
DM: Since the pandemic started, I have been working on the second edition of my book, The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking. That is going to be released at the end of spring 2021 through Focal Press and Routledge.