Interview: 18 1/2 Director/Co-Writer Dan Mirvish

Dan Mirvish wears many hats.  In addition to being a first-class writer and director, he is a co-founder the Slamdance Film Festival, worked as a freelance journalist, and was a speech writer for former Iowa senator Tom Harkin.  On top of all that, he’s a delightful person to talk to.

I was fortunate enough to talk to Dan about his latest directorial and co-writing effort 18 1/2.  In 1974, a young White House transcriber (Willa Fitzgerald) stumbles upon the infamously missing 18 1/2 minute recording of President Richard Nixon speaking about Watergate.  She heads to Long Island along with a Washington Post reporter (John Magaro) to listen to the tape and take the next steps.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

Ben Miller: You’re in the midst of a not-small publicity tour.  Whenever you’re going into these things, how do you keep things fresh?  Are you just excited for your own film and that kind of pushes it forward, or do you ever get to the point where you go, “Man, this is exhausting…”?

Dan Mirvish: No, I love it.  I’m one of those filmmakers who loves to talk about his own film, loves to talk about himself, you know…this is the fun part for me.  Going to festivals, doing Q&As with audiences, engaging with audiences, engaging with film critics and the press – to me is the fun part.  This is part of why we make films – to show them.  Otherwise, it’s like the tree in the forest.  If you make a film and nobody sees it or nobody talks about it, did you really make it?

Ben: I was watching the film and I was thinking…I don’t really know the production history.  Was this filmed pre-pandemic, in the midst of it, near the tail end?

Dan: All of the above.  We started shooting March 3, 2020…what could possibly go wrong?  On about the 10th day the [Directors Guild of America] rep came out to see us and said, “Oh wow, you guys are in this great isolated bubble” because we were three hours away from New York City and a 20-minute walk from the nearest town.  We were all staying at the Silver Sands motel in Greenport, New York.  She said, “We think you’re the last feature film shooting in North America.”  What?  What does everyone else know that we don’t know?  The next day we decided we should shut down.  So we shot 11 days and we had four days left to go.  We had 75-80% of the movie in the can, but we still had a lot left to do.  About a 1/3rd of our crew stayed at the Silver Sands for two more months.  Terry [Keefe] who owns the motel very kindly said you can just stay here.  Elle Schnieder, our cinematographer, stayed for six months.

As for me, I grabbed the hard drive and got the last plane back to LA and started editing the film.  During that six month pandemic pause/healthy hiatus, that’s when we decided to the voiceover recording with Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, and Jon Cryer.  Originally the plan had been to do that in post-production whenever we could get them all in a studio together.  But we were like, everyone is in lockdown, actors aren’t acting, filmmakers aren’t filming…this is something we could do over Zoom.  Zoom had been normalized, most of the actors had decent mics at home.  Even though they were spread all over the world – Ted was in Canada, Bruce was in Oregon, Jon was in LA, in May or June of 2020, that’s when we recorded the whole 18 1/2 minute voiceover.  But we were also working on the music.  My great composer Luis Guerra was working with musicians stuck in Mexico and Brazil and different places.  We probably wrote a lot more music.

It also gave us time, along with my co-writer and producer Daniel Moya to look at the footage we had and make subtle adjustments for those last four days.  September rolled around and we were one of the first films back in production using the Screen Actor’s Guild and Director’s Guild protocols.  For most of us, it was our first time back on set.

Ben: With six months of prep, knowing you had four days to go, how surgical were those four days?

Dan: They were pretty surgical, that’s a good way to put it.  We knew what to shoot and what not to shoot.  We were pretty lucky because what we did in those first 11 days were pretty self-contained scenes.  All the scenes with Willa Fitzgerald and John Magaro as well as almost all the scenes with Catherine Curtain and Vondie Curtis-Hall.  But what we hadn’t done was anything with Richard Kind, or the hippies, or the flashback scenes.  We had these self-contained chunks that we still had to do.  We were lucky, we didn’t have to reshoot anything.  It was more about adjusting the dialogue here and there and figuring out what little extra things we needed.


Ben: How fortunate do you feel with Willa Fitzgerald?  You cast this up-and-coming actress in this film, and you have it in the can ready to release, then Reacher comes out and now everyone knows who she is.

Dan: When I first met her, and she was the first actress we considered for that role, I hadn’t heard of her.  Her agent suggested her and recommended her and then I realized she worked with my friend Lucky McKee on a film and Lucky recommended her.  That’s the thing as directors, we talk to other filmmakers, other directors all the time.  For me, it’s a lot about, do you want to spend time with this person?  Lucky said she was great, she’s a real trooper, and has a lot of fun, and is great to be around on set.  She brought her dog with to the Silver Sands, and everyone loved her dog Goose.  And John Magaro was recommended by Kelly Reichardt after First Cow.  If Kelly recommends someone, you take them.  But we knew that Willa was a really hard-working actress and had been in a lot of amazing things and just hadn’t broken through to public consciousness yet.  But it was only a matter of time.  She gives an amazing performance in our film and is fun to work with.

Ben: The film itself, how would you classify this into a genre?  Historical fiction?

Dan: Yeah, historical fiction.  Speculative historical fiction.  Thriller/comedy.  When I was pitching it, we always used to say it’s like Three Days of the Condor meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf but a little funnier than either of those.  But the kind of historical fiction we are doing here…I think there’s two ways of doing historical fiction.  When [Quentin] Tarantino does his historical fiction, he changes history.  Hilter is dead, Manson kills one person.  What I wanted to do working with Daniel was do the kind where at the end of the movie, not to give anything away, we kind of reset history.  We have this time loop of 24 hours where we have all these fictional characters doing all these different things, but by the end of it, we’re back to the same history we have.  That’s why I think of it as more speculative historical fiction or plausible speculative historical fiction.  Everything in here is plausibly true, but it’s not really true.

Ben: In theory, it could have happened.

Dan: Yeah, and in doing the research, realizing that there really were four or five offices in the Nixon White House that had individual voice-activated taping systems and there really are tapes of Nixon listening to, and then pushing buttons and getting his buttons confused.  Once we realized those kinds of tapes existed, it then became plausible that someone could have a tape of the 18 1/2 minute gap.


Ben: What is your background with Nixon in general?  Why are people still so fascinated with him and why is this the story you wanted to tell?

Dan: I’m of an age where I remember the Watergate hearings.  And I remember where I was when Nixon resigned in August of ’74.  I remember campaigning for McGovern in kindergarten.  In college, I was a political science major focusing on American history and one of my professors was former senator Thomas Eagleton, who had been McGovern’s first running-mate until he was kicked off the ticket due to (some say) one of Nixon’s dirty tricks.  Certainly knowing him and knowing other people tangentially connected to Watergate throughout the years and then working in DC.  I was a speech writer for a senator in DC.  That whole culture of DC and lower-level employees who were all in their early 20s.  People don’t realize those are the people who run Washington, all these young people stuck in super important positions.  And having worked in journalism too.  It was always in the back of my head: Watergate and that kind of Washington culture.

November 2016, the day Trump was elected, was the last day of shooting my last film Bernard and Huey.  I went out to see Jules Feiffer, the great writer, who wrote Bernard and Huey. We were talking about Nixon and Watergate because Feiffer won the Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning.  That night, Terry and I went to the Silver Sands and he mentioned how they do a lot of fashion shoots but no one had ever shot a feature.  That’s when things clicked.  Watergate on the brain, this great location, teaming up with Daniel, and it all kind of came together.

Ben: The 18 1/2 minute tape is purely speculative.  On the writing of it, what was your mindset going into that what the actual content of the tape would be?

Dan: That’s another area where we wanted to do as much research as we could and be as accurate as you could be with something that is 100% speculative.  To this day, no one knows what was on that 18 1/2 minute gap.  But we know from Haldeman’s notes that they were probably talking about why the burglars went to the Watergate, which is another mystery that has never entirely been answered.  There’s all kinds of historians and people who have researched it.  You have this menu of things that it could be about.  Then it’s kind of picking things that work within our plot and our characters that serve our story and our themes, but all things that came out on other tapes or were in other parts of historical record.

Ben: There’s a real chaotic energy to this film.  On paper, it can be a real serious thing, but then it turns Fellini-esque, there’s some wacky stuff happening around them.  Where was that idea to make it weird?

Dan: I think part of it comes from the central part of the film where they meet this older couple. We just wanted to get weird with it. The actors…we cast some wacky actors that did wacky things – brilliantly, I think. Richard Kind, who can do straight drama, but we wrote that part for him since I worked with him on my last film. I also wanted to showcase not just Watergate itself but also the specifics of the clash of cultures that was going on in 1974, which is a very weird and specific time. It’s pre-Disco, but it’s the post-hippie scene. So hippies had kind of devolved into cults or terrorists. Hippies weren’t peace and love anymore. It was the tail-end of Vietnam, though still a lot of ramifications going on with the war for different people.

But you also have these middle-aged people and they were the World War II generation and how were they relating to the culture. Some of them became swingers and some of them became cosmopolitan people of the world traveling and listening to bossa nova music. And then putting Connie and Paul in the midst of all those. Is Connie a Nixon loyalist? Racial tensions, the women’s movement is all going on. It was playing around with all these cultural things going on at the time, which was fun to play with.


Ben: Before we go, any films you would recommend?

Dan: There are certainly movies that influenced this film: The ConverstationKluteThree Days of the CondorAll the President’s MenThe President’s AnalystSeven Days in May.  The one I’ve watched in the last year that really struck me and stuck with me was The Dawn Patrol from 1938.  It’s about World War I fliers, but it feels more like M*A*S*H* or Stripes and you realize it was probably more of an influence on each of those films.

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