18½ – Woodstock 2021

John Magaro (Paul) and Willa Fitzgerald (Connie) star in Dan Mirvish's film 18½. Photo credit: Elle Schneider. © 2021 Waterbug Easter Films, LLC.

Slamdance co-founder/filmmaker Dan Mirvish and screenwriter Daniel Moya revisit the Richard Nixon years in their historical fiction film, 18½.

Richard Nixon was one of the most paranoid presidents in American history. He recorded every word ever spoken in his office. And yet, we discovered an 18½-minute gap in the recordings. What was on the tape? Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods is on the record as erasing the tape by accident. Is this truth or a lie? We’ll probably never know! This is one of this important moments in history that will forever remain an unsolved mystery. Dick, the 1999 satirical comedy starring Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, offers its hysterical take on the idea. Unlikely but so very funny!

This film is a work of historical fiction. Neither government stenographer Connie Lashley (Willa Fitzgerald) nor reporter Paul Marrow (John Magaro) ever existed. The tape that we do hear in the film draws on other Nixon tapes and the record since his resignation in 1974. All records suggest that the deleted recording is a conversation between Nixon and his then-Chief of Staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, on June 20, 1972. General Alexander Haig would replace Haldeman as the next chief of staff come May 1973. Connie finds a tape of Nixon listening to the now-erased recording in the film and it’s existence in real life is plausible at best. Daniel Moya’s script makes note of things that did happen in American history.

When you find a tape of this nature, it means acting discreetly as possible. Connie and Paul pretend to be a married couple when they check into the hotel. To no surprise, Paul’s reel-to-reel tape player is broken because of course it is. You have to raise the dramatic stakes somehow! It takes a while to get a new player but someone else also wants the tape, too. The idea of someone else wanting the tape isn’t implausible at all. Given the Nixon paranoia, it makes perfect sense!

Mirvish is no stranger to politics so making a period film about Watergate shouldn’t come as a surprise. Plus, the filmmaker has the political credentials, too. His political mentor was Sen. Thomas Eagleton and he worked as a speechwriter to former Sen. Tom Harkin. A Watergate-era film will never not be relevant. Of course, the world premiere comes after the Trump administration came to an end.

The film’s roots date back to shortly after the 2016 election. No surprise there! A figure like Trump certainly inspires all sort of Nixon parallels. Everything started coming together well before the script was workshopped in 2019. If you have a perfect location, why not write a script around it instead of scrambling to find a location later? In this case, they found the location at the the Silver Sands Motel & Cottages in Greenport, New York. It also makes things convenient for a cast and crew of 24 to stay at the hotel.

The location also makes for a nice period vibe to the film. In what may come as a surprise for a 70s thriller/dark comedy, Mirvish doesn’t include guns or cigarettes in the film. Working with cinematographer Elle Schneider, they utilize all sorts of techniques that are familiar to 70s films.

Eleven days into shooting the pandemic sent the production into a pause and the filmmakers started editing what footage they had at the time. For what it’s worth, they had 80% of the film completed at the time with four days left in the shoot. So close but so far away. Principal photography would pick up again six months to the date in September 2020. While on pause, Mirvish was able to take care of the audio recordings during the pause. Producing a film during a pandemic isn’t easy but Mirvish and company get the job done. Mirvish certainly wrote the book on indie filmmaking during a pandemic.

18½ may be historical fiction but students of history should have an interest in this film–however plausible or implausible it may be.

DIRECTOR: Dan Mirvish
SCREENWRITER: Daniel Moya
CAST: Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Vondie Curtis Hall, Catherine Curtin, Richard Kind, Sullivan Jones, Alanna Saunders, Claire Saunders, Marija Abney, Lloyd Kaufman, Gina Kreiezmar, with the voices of Ted Raimi, Jon Cryer, and Bruce Campbell

18½ held its world premiere during the 2021 Woodstock Film Festival in the Narratives program.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.