Dan Mirvish spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the newest film to enter the Watergate canon, 18½, and filming during a pandemic.
The thriller comedy stars Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Vondie Curtis Hall, Catherine Curtin, Richard Kind, Sullivan Jones, Alanna Saunders, Claire Saunders and the voices of Ted Raimi as Gen. Al Haig, Jon Cryer as H.R. Haldeman, and Bruce Campbell as President Richard Nixon.
Following an award-winning festival run, Adventure Entertainment will release the film in theaters this weekend.
18½ is the newest film to enter Watergate canon. What was the genesis behind the screenplay?
Dan Mirvish: You’re certainly familiar with Bernard and Huey. The last day of shooting that film—because we shot a couple of days in New York, I was in New York. It coincided with the 2016 presidential election. I went out to see Jules Feiffer at his house in Shelter Island, at the tip of Long Island, to show him dailies. Of course, inevitably, we’re talking about the election and comparisons between Trump and Nixon because Feiffer really made a name for himself doing Nixon and Watergate cartoons. That’s what he won a Pulitzer Prize for. He was kind of reassuring us, well, we survived Nixon, we survived Watergate, what could possibly go wrong in the next four years?
That night, I took the ferry over to Greenport on Long Island and stayed at the Silver Sands Motel. My buddy Terry, who was actually with me speaking to Feiffer, owns this motel. It was built by his grandparents in the 50s and 60s and he kind of inherited it and ran it for the last 10 years. He said, “Well, look, we’ve shot a lot of music videos and fashion shoots here but no one’s ever shot a feature. If you come up with something, we’re closed in the winter. Everyone on the cast and crew can stay here.” It was like, Watergate on the mind, great location. What can we do to put these together? It took a lot of thinking and research.
I collaborated with a great writer, Daniel Moya, who coincidentally, his aunt and uncle owned this diner, just down the street from the front of the motel. We’re like, oh, that’s two locations. Now I have to make a movie! In doing research, we realized that there were multiple offices in the White House complex that had the voice-activated taping system. There really are tapes of Nixon listening to and fumbling with the buttons on tapes himself. That sort of gave us the plausible way into the story that yes; someone really could have had the missing 18 and a half-minute gap. Once we got once we figured that way in, then it was just working with those characters and getting them together at the Silvers Sands because that was the location we wanted to shoot it.
Is it hard to believe that this June marks 50 years since the Watergate break-in?
Dan Mirvish: I know, yeah, which means that I must be over 50 because I remember the Watergate hearings. Yeah, it is hard to believe. People are still talking about it as much now as ever. There’s some great other Watergate projects coming out, Gaslit on Starz, and HBO has got one coming out, too. That was part of the challenge for us was, how do you make a Watergate film that’s totally different than any other Watergate film has been and to show part of that in a way that no one else had done? Part of the solution is that it’s not really about Watergate. It’s about the characters and it’s a kind of historical fiction that say is different than the way Tarantino does it, where by the end of his historical fiction films, history is completely rewritten. What I wanted to do, which I think is maybe the traditional way of doing historical fiction is, by the end of the film, everything is reset. Without giving away the ending, history carries on and then the question is, its speculative historical fiction, did this weird little loop with these fictional characters ever happen or not? That was kind of the approach to it to begin with.
What do you think was said in the missing 18½ minutes?
Dan Mirvish: Well, that’s the great thing is nobody knows and probably no one will ever know. That’s the interesting question is what’s on the tapes and who erased them? We did a lot of research on that. There is a lot of speculation of what could be on and again, without giving too much away, about what they’re talking about. But the speculation is that what was so different about that tape to make whoever deleted it decide to delete it is that it probably had to do with why the burglars broke into the Watergate building, because that’s something that nobody really really knows. It was actually the second time they broke in, too, which did come out but it was kind of weird. They went in to fix the bugs that they had planted the first time because they went wrong. We lean into a lot of research and speculation that’s out there. Everything on the tape itself, even though it’s created out of whole cloth, is something that we did based on some historical fact that either came out later or is on another tape or that plausibly did happen. Weirdly enough, even though the whole film was fictional, what’s on the tape is some of the most real and carefully researched things out there.
What was it like to work with this cast?
Dan Mirvish: Oh my gosh, they’re amazing. It was an amazing cast. Willa, John, Vondie, Kathy, Richard, all of them. Richard Kind, I’d worked with, as you know, on my last film so it was great seeing him again. His was kind of the one part that was maybe kind of written a little bit specifically for him because we thought we could get him maybe and we did. But otherwise, they were all new actors that I’d worked with. I think what helped is that we all stayed at the Silver Sands. We were all there for the shoot. When we wrapped, we were still hanging out together. The actors are drinking wine, having dinner, chatting about the scenes and about the characters and really developing this great chemistry among all of them. That was just a complete pleasure to work with.
But also, I think we were going through this shared experience of the pandemic developing because we started shooting in March 2020, March 3. The first 11 days before we shut down, there was this growing anxiety and paranoia about the world. It was a shared experience that we all had together, which really bonded us together. I wouldn’t want to replicate it but in a lot of ways, it worked. Especially given the nature of this kind of paranoid world that we were creating, it kind of worked to that to that end as well.
That’s a March that I’ll never forget. I have never been so invested in watching an Austin, Texas press conference, to find out if I am going to South by Southwest or am I staying in Chicago.
Dan Mirvish: Exactly. Elle Schneider, our DP, was supposed to go to South by Southwest. It was scheduled on her day off. She was gonna go down and do a panel. When we got the word that SXSW was shutting down, it’s like, oh, this is this is for realsies. Something big is going on here and then Broadway shutting down, films and TV. We found out from the DGA on the day before we shut down that we were probably the last feature shooting in North America. We were like, hang on a second, what does everyone else know that we don’t know? The next day, we decided, well, we should probably join in with everyone else and shut down as well. The trick was then making the most of that six-month healthy hiatus and pandemic pause that we had, creatively and technically.
Pandemic aside, what was the most challenging part of the production?
Dan Mirvish: Casting was a challenge and that was somewhat affected by the pandemic. We didn’t get Vondie and Catherine, our Samuel and Lena, until about 36 hours before they showed up on set. That made everyone a little nervous and they wound up being amazing and amazing to work with, and just wonderful people and great actors. I couldn’t do what I normally do on films, which is a few days rehearsal and getting together beforehand. Instead, everyone was just kind of thrown together but in a weird way, that kind of made it work better because the character’s reactions are very much similar to the actor’s reactions, when meeting these people for the first time. We made it work to our advantage. I was just hearing Vondie talk about how what was great for them as actors is they didn’t know what was going to come out of the next person’s mouth, like they knew what was in the script. You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. That was a fun revelation. You could cast people to the last second and make it work well.
Was there room for improv?
Dan Mirvish: Yeah, definitely. Part of the technique I learned, really, from Robert Altman was by individually miking everyone and having their own lavalier mic and go into a separate track that encourages people to do overlapping dialogue in a way that, on a traditional shoot, they maybe wouldn’t. By doing that, that encourages the kind of the small scale improv the umms and ahhs and adding little bits of character things. So not a lot of big improv scenes. The only scene that’s fully improv and it’s just one shot is when Sullivan Jones, who plays Barry, is walking into his cottage with John Magaro and it’s kind of an extension of his monologue. That was one where Sully and I kind of talked about it beforehand. It was just him straight off improvising about bread and how other species don’t think of bread as a commodity, which was hysterical if you think about it. But the kind of the little character things that definitely—there’s some of that that’s improvised.
The film doesn’t necessarily need to abide by the new AMPAS stands for a few more years so what led you to go ahead and make the film under the new standards?
Dan Mirvish: Well, it just kind of naturally happened. It was a priority of mine to have gender equality and people with all kinds of gender identities on set and things like that. I feel that that for purely practical reasons, the actors will trust you more if there are two different gender-identifying eyes looking through the lens. It doesn’t matter what gender they are, they’re going to have more faith in the production and more comfort level with the production if they see diverse people around the set. It’s just the right thing to do in all kinds of different ways. So, yeah, so for us, it was just natural. I mean, the Academy standards are pretty low. It’s a pretty low bar anyway so it didn’t take much to meet them but we were happy to do it.
How does a former political speechwriter end up working in film and not in cable news?
Dan Mirvish: (Laughs) That’s a great question. It’s funny. I actually applied for a job at CNN while I was still in Washington and I didn’t get it so that’s how. If I gotten it, I might still be working at CNN. But yeah, as an undergrad, as you know, I went to school in St. Louis, Washington University, which didn’t have a film program, really. There was one class pretty much and it was a Super 8 class, which I took my freshman year, loved it. I did some summer classes at UCLA which was great, smelled like eucalyptus and opportunity. I majored in history and political science so I kind of had these dual things going on. I did an internship in DC my junior year, then I moved out there for a couple of years after college. That’s when I worked as a speechwriter but I knew if you stay in DC for too long, people just give you a three-piece suit and a law degree by the time you hit 30. I was like, I don’t really want that so why don’t I circle back to film school and got into USC film school and I got rejected from everyplace else. I was like, alright, well, I’ll go to the one place I got in.
What would you say is the biggest thing that you learned from Robert Altman?
Dan Mirvish: On the technical side, I learned about how and why to mic each actor individually and encourage overlapping dialogue. But perhaps more importantly, he really taught us to set a start date, tell everyone the train’s leaving the station, and are they on or are they off? If we hadn’t stuck to our start date on 18 ½, we might never have made the film.
How does it feel to know that one of your films is why the Academy rewrote the rules for Best Original Musicals?
Dan Mirvish: Any idiot can win an Oscar. But it takes a special idiot like me to force the Academy to rewrite their rules! It’s truly an honor!
Your film aside, do you have a favorite film about Watergate?
Dan Mirvish: Dick is great, Secret Honor a powerhouse performance, but got to say All the President’s Men. I saw an anniversary screening at the Virginia Film Festival a few years ago with Woodward and Bernstein doing the Q&A! Truly amazing film in form, content, style, performances, historical impact.
What about 1970s thrillers?
Dan Mirvish: The Conversation.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Dan Mirvish: Bruce Campbell as Nixon says on the tape, “One person can make a difference.” He’s talking about himself and his own legacy as President, but it’s really about Connie, and about all of us—we can all make a difference if we want to.
Adventure Entertainment will release 18½ in theaters on May 27, 2022.
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