On Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 1:30 p.m., Professor Patti McCarthy moderated a talk during FILM 320 with Indie Filmmaker Dan Mirvish. Dan Mirvish is a director, screenwriter, producer, and author (he’s also an editor, but he hasn’t officially claimed that title yet). Mirvish is also one of the Slamdance Film Festival co-founders, along with Jon Fitzgerald (Apart from Hugh), Shane Kuhn (Drive Thru), Peter Baxter (Wild in the Streets), and Paul Rachman (American Hardcore). Professor McCarthy mentioned this in her introduction of Mirvish: “Dan has always stood like David against the Goliath of the Hollywood system by challenging the rules and winning the day for Indie filmmakers.” Mirvish then mentions that Slamdance was created as a reaction to Sundance becoming too “Hollywoodized,” meaning that Sundance was straying away from independent filmmakers and showcasing second-time (or big name) directors. In doing this, The New York Times deemed him “a cheerful subversive.”
Slamdance has been a significant success for the past 25 years. Some of Hollywood’s biggest names showed their early short films and debut features at Slamdance. Bong Joon Ho (Parasite), Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Ari Aster (Midsommar), Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard), the Russo brothers (Avengers: Endgame), Lena Dunham (Girls), Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), Lynn Shelton (Little Fires Everywhere) and Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) are just a few Slamdance alumni.
During the talk, Mirvish briefly touched on his background. While he was an undergraduate student, he double-majored in history and political science. This influenced his filmography as he has made films such as The Last Republican (2008), A Message from the President of Iran (2006), and his newest film, 18 ½. 18 ½, is “a 1970s-era Watergate conspiracy thriller/dark comedy” that follows Connie, a transcriber for the Nixon Administration. She stumbles upon the missing eighteen-and-a-half minutes of the Nixon tapes that everyone is looking for. She’s going to leak those minutes to a reporter, so they meet at a motel. There are nefarious people out to get them and the tape (dun dun dun). The inspiration for his film came from when Mirvish was working in Washington, D.C. as a journalist and then as a speechwriter (which included writing for former Senator Tom Harkin, who served during Watergate). Mirvish likes to describe the film as “a little bit like 3 Days at the Condor meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but a little funnier.”
The filming for 18 ½ took place in March of this year, but the production had to be paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. Mirvish spoke of his experience while finishing up filming around a month ago. Because of COVID-19, there were new guidelines put into place by the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America. In regards to being on set, he said, “The most important thing and the biggest challenge is testing. [ . . . ] You have to test everyone before you get started, and everyone has to test negative, and then every 72 hours, you have to keep testing. [ . . . ] It’s tough because if the lab is late, you have to wait. You can’t start shooting until you have those results.” Mirvish continued, talking about the advantages indie films have in the pandemic. He said that with films coming from large studios, that if someone gets COVID-19, then production must be shut down for two weeks. However, with independent films, they can replace the actor or actress and continue filming without delaying the production or film the shots from the actor or actress’s perspective. The pandemic also has created an issue with communication. Mirvish said that, typically, the director’s notes are often whispered on set, but you have to raise your voice to be heard with face masks and face shields. He said that some crews are learning American Sign Language to communicate on set to get around this.
After the question of COVID-19 protocols, Professor McCarthy asked, “What, in your opinion, is the most important quality in a director?” Mirvish laughed and replied, “I think it’s people managing. You’re in charge of a whole bunch of people . . . it’s all about egos. Everyone wants their say . . . so you really have to be calm and nod a lot and answer questions and be decisive.” People managing is something Mirvish does well; the short video “How Dan Directs” has testimonies from actors and producers regarding how he’s very understanding and flexible. This carries over to the advice he would give aspiring filmmakers, “The casting is 90 percent of directing . . . once you get a great cast, let them loose.” He suggested that, to get a great cast, you have to get to know casting directors, but it’s not as hard as it sounds! Mirvish says that it is relatively easy to get to know people in the film industry. So, reach out to your idols and inspirations! You never know who will respond (especially during this time of the pandemic). He also suggested that if you wanted to make an independent film that you wanted to distribute as a first-time director, you would need a well-known producer. Having a recognizable name will help attract actors and financial backers to your movie.
The talk ended with a Q&A section where students asked Dan Mirvish questions. I asked one, before my interview with him, about his choice to make two musicals. Open House (2004) was the first musical that Mirvish created for two reasons. Firstly, he noticed while he was casting another film that many of the actors loved to sing. He said their faces lit up when they asked actors if they could sing. Secondly, he said that America loves to sing during times of crisis (he was referring to 9/11). So, he co-wrote some songs with a friend, and Open House was born. The second musical has a more entertaining story. Half Empty (2006) was created to revive the “Best Original Musical” category at the Oscars. Mirvish got a call that Miramax had two musicals that they wanted nominated. However, the requirements to restore this category were that there needed to be five musicals, so three could be selected. Miramax just needed fillers to get their musicals nominated. While he was in Germany for a film festival, Mirvish filmed his next musical in ten days. In the end, the “Best Original Musical” wasn’t restored. The Academy didn’t like the other musicals’ directors, so they canceled the category for that year. It does still exist, though, depending on how many musicals exist for nomination. If you have an idea for a movie musical, create it! You might just get nominated for an Oscar.
After the talk, I got the chance to talk one-on-one with Dan Mirvish. I asked him more about his new film 18 ½ since he didn’t go too much in-depth about it in the talk. I first asked if his double major in History and Political Science drew him to make a film about the Nixon tapes. Mirvish responded that while studying modern American history, he spent a lot of time learning about Watergate. Additionally, he briefly worked as a journalist at Washington Monthly Magazine and then as speechwriter, interacting with many people from the Watergate era. When he visited a friend who was a cartoonist during Watergate, the idea for 18 ½ was born. “It looked like 1974; we were just talking about Nixon, ah! Watergate, let’s come up with a Watergate script.” Mirvish remarked. “So that’s how the movie came to be.”
Then, I was curious about his decision to make a movie about the Nixon tapes in America’s current political climate and why 18 ½ is essential in a time like now. Mirvish didn’t hesitate to answer, “There’s a lot you can learn about the hubris of the presidency [from Nixon], about absolute power corrupting absolutely, about his distrust of the press and the media and his hatred of them and turning them into enemies and how that ultimately undid him.” Mirvish comments that these should be apparent lessons, yet some people seem to still be learning them.
Seeing Watergate figures back in the news, and films like 18 ½, reminds audiences that we still have a lot to learn from the intersection of our past and present. 18 ½ really came full circle. Mirvish mentioned that the film’s production started on election day, November 2016, and now it’s close to being finished almost four years later (he is currently in the process of editing). The parallels between the Trump and Nixon administration are astounding and something that will be highlighted in this film. As Mirvish said towards the end of the interview, “[Nixon is] like King Lear; he becomes this figure that you can graft on all kinds of stories to reflect on whatever kind of situation is going on.”
Featured Photo Courtesy of Dan Mirvish