After much delay, the Whistler film festival is finally back! The Village has once again been populated with filmmakers, actors and crew sharing their stories, their films, their experiences and anticipation of a live audience. The festival was better than ever this year because it went hybrid. It was their 21st anniversary and was live from Dec. 1 – 5 and online/virtual from Dec. 1 – 31, so if you thought you missed out on the amazing experience of new incredible films, you still have time! There are 81 epic, bold and inspiring films, including 40 features and 41 shorts curated in nine programmes. WFF is also proud to announce directorial gender parity, with 20 of 40 features and 25 of 41 shorts directed or co-directed by women or non-binary individuals.
We’ve all been looking forward to new content, new budding film artists and new performers as well as our favourite actors on the big screen again. One of my favourite films from this year’s lineup has a very American story that has captivated Washington and has accounted for a great many headlines – the Watergate scandal. The film ‘18 ½’ was directed, produced and edited by Dan Mirvish. He revisits a mystery still unsolved from the Nixon scandal, the missing 18 ½ minutes of recorded conversation of Nixon and the speculation of what could’ve been on it. It’s a brilliant film with a star-studded cast that includes Willa Fitzgerald (Scream, Little Women, Gotham), Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, Tangled – the series), Sullivan Jones (Harlem, Halston, The Blacklist), Richard Kind (The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Argo), John Magaro (Orange is the New Black, The Umbrella Academy), Vondie Curtis-Hall (The Night House, For The People, Chicago Hope ) and Catherine Curtin (Stranger Things, Insecure, Orange Is the New Black), to name just a few.
You don’t have to be American to be familiar with the Watergate scandal and this June will be the 50th anniversary of the headline that gripped the country and broke its trust with it’s president. There was 18 ½ minutes of tape that was erased and today the mystery is still very much relevant. I love a great mystery as much as the next, but this story has been told through the lens of romantic comedy. Dan Mirvish majored in Political Science and History in college. He’s always been intrigued by the missing 18 ½ minutes of the missing recordings and his knack for filling in the blanks really fuels this story’s plot.
I had a golden opportunity to speak with Dan from his home in LA after his return from the festival run in Whistler and Anchorage. He lives up to his reputation as the ‘cheerful subversive’ and it was a delight to hear all about this film’s journey. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “This film is based on the speculation of what could be on the missing 18 ½ minutes of tape recorded in Nixon’s office. What was it about the missing 18 ½ minutes that compelled you enough to make a film about it?”
DAN “I’ve been interested in Watergate for years. In college I was a history and political science major. One of my professors was a retired senator from Missouri, Thomas Eagleton. He had been George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 and was kicked off the ticket, possibly due to Nixon’s dirty tricks. Over the years I’ve written about Watergate on other projects but what has always been so interesting to me, was still the big mystery of Watergate. If anyone knew what was on that missing 18 ½ minute gap or who erased it, is now dead. Those are the 2 unsolvable mysteries and were the crux, and really crystalized Watergate for the American public. It was really the turning point for Watergate, where it looked like Nixon was going to get impeached and then he resigned. It was too much of a coincidence that it was accidently erased, so it became an obstruction of justice and the public naturally assumed that someone in Nixon’s orbit had erased them. In doing the research, we found out that there were actual tapes of Nixon listening to himself on tapes that were recorded from the voice activated microphones in the other room. There are recordings of Nixon struggling to press the right buttons and once that became clear, it really resonated with me and became the way into the story.”
Dan went on to explain how he found the location/motel to shoot his film. It belonged to a friend of his in the New York state, who kept it closed during the winter months. His friend would allow high end fashion shoots using the ‘70’s nostalgic looking motel as a backdrop and had invited Dan to shoot a feature film there if he happened to have a motel themed story. He allowed everyone to stay there during the filming and coincidentally his writing partner Daniel Moya had an aunt that worked at a period looking diner down the street from the motel. It helped to seal Dan’s decision to make the film there.
HNMAG “You have an incredible cast, every performance is flawless. How soon did you start casting for this film?”
DAN “I was mentored by Robert Altman and his grandson is still one of my producing partners. He always said to set a start date, then tell everyone that the train is leaving the station and you’re making the movie. We set our start date for March 3rd, 2020; what could possibly go wrong (laughing)? A couple of the actors were cast early on – Bruce Campbell who plays Nixon (voice over) was going to originally play another character but the scheduling didn’t work out. Richard Kind was someone I’d worked with on my last film, so I knew Rich, his agent and manager. I knew he would do it if he had the time because he works so much. The real challenge came after shooting for 2 weeks, then being forced to shut down. The representative from the Directors Guild of America came to the set and congratulated us on being the last production still working in North America. We shut down with only 4 days left to go. We took a 6-month pandemic pause and came back in Sept of 2020 to shoot the last 4 days. We got it done and SAG loved what we did – it all worked out fine.”
HNMAG “You wear many hats in this film. You directed, you produced, you edited and you wrote a song for the film?”
DAN “I actually wrote 4 songs for the film. All of the music is original and Bossa Nova/Brazilian tropicana inspired. I came up with the lyrics but my amazing composer Luis Guerra created the music. We had some of the lyrics translated into Portuguese and sung by a great Brazilian singer, Caro Pierotto that is based in LA. It was a lot of fun; we had musicians in Mexico , Brazilian musicians in LA. The pandemic really helped us in that regard because of that 6-month gap. Normally you wouldn’t start working on the music until you’re finished filming but there were all these musicians sitting around. If we didn’t have the pandemic, the soundtrack wouldn’t have been so filled out, but we had all that extra time to work on it, so we had fun with it.”
HNMAG “Considering you took on so many roles on this project, are there any that you would’ve gladly handed to someone else?”
DAN “We did look for another producer that wasn’t working on something else and lived in New York state. In the end, we decided to do it all ourselves whether we want to or not. It’s something I’ve done on all my films, so I think I’m getting good at it. Editing is something that we would’ve had someone else do, but I learned editing in film school and given the circumstances of the pandemic, I grabbed the hard drive and took it all back to LA and started cutting the film. It was done out of necessity but it’s something I enjoy doing without crashing the hard drive or cutting my fingers off.”
HNMAG “When you were shopping around the story to investors, was it difficult to generate interest?”
DAN “No, we had a lot of interest and have over 400 backers. We started through crowdfunding, through Seed&Spark and people also donated through the Film Collaborative, which is also a non-profit fiscal sponsor – we also have equity investors too. Many people were drawn to the story, as well as a number of Washington people. We have a US ambassador backing us, as well as a former British ambassador. We have a former Clinton speech writer that is one of our big investors, as well as people that are just interested in independent film. A lot of people were excited about Bruce Campbell playing Nixon, as well as the rest of the cast – Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Catherine Curtis. It’s a tremendous cast and people were excited about the project for multiple reasons.”
HNMAG “Considering this film has screened in front of an American and Canadian audience, has the reaction been different?”
DAN “I love the Whistler festival. This year many are going hybrid and the film is still available on the website. Despite the great skiing weather, both Whistler screenings had large crowds, which we were happily surprised to see. It’s funny because some of the Whistler audiences were somewhat better than the American ones. They laughed harder and more than some of the screenings in the US. There are many variables that get people laughing; it’s sometimes the size of the room, the attendance and it’s hard to predict… but I have a feeling that Canadians like to laugh at Americans and our foibles, our scandals and the craziness within our politics. This is an American tale that takes place during Watergate but it’s a bit of a MacGuffin and at the end of the day, it’s really a romantic comedy between an older and younger couple. It really went over well with the Canadian audience – much better than we thought it would.”
HNMAG “What stories are you drawn to when you decide to get behind a film?”
DAN “In some ways, I try to reverse engineer and try to determine what movies are going to attract good actors – first and foremost. They don’t have to be super famous but at least good actors. If you don’t, then no matter what it is, it won’t be very successful creatively or commercially. I’ve done 1 film that was a play adaptation, I’ve done 2 films that were musicals because actors like to sing and they love monologues. The last film I did had some great pedigree because it was written by a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist and screenwriter, Jules Feiffer. It also has to appeal to my sensibilities and strangely enough, some of the characters have to be my same age. If I think back to the films I’ve made, I’ve been about the same age as some of the characters. They’ve all been very different from each other – some comedies, dramas and some being musicals. As I get older, I also want to make films with a little more gravitas to them, a little more meat on the bones, as opposed to silly fluffy films. With that being said, I don’t know what’s next for me – I don’t have another film lined up. There’s been some talk about turning 18 ½ into an episodic series – expanding their world, which is something we’re interested in exploring. There are also people interested in turning it into a play, which would be an exciting idea. We’re also planning on releasing the soundtrack, one way or another. We’re also going to be doing a wider release in June, which is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break in.”
HNMAG “Do you have distribution for this film?”
DAN “No, but we have several offers – including a Canadian distributor. Anytime you have more than 1 offer it’s refreshing. We’ll be exploring which offer makes the most sense in the coming weeks for domestic distribution, International or airplanes – which is an entirely separate area of distribution as travel comes back. Airplane distribution is a great option for films and we have some offers already.
HNMAG “I had read that you’re a fun director to work with. In watching this film, was there some improv on behalf of the actors?”
DAN “There’s not a lot of improv, but what I do though – is allow a lot of overlapping dialogue. Probably much more than other directors will allow and each actor has their own lavalier mic that goes to their own audio track. There’s also no ADR in my films, which results in a more naturalistic performance. I encourage people to have the small eye improv – where they’re inserting lines over each other. The story is quite plot heavy, so we couldn’t deviate too far from it. There is one scene, that’s almost entirely improv. It’s a little scene between Sullivan Jones (Barry the hippie) where they’re on the beach and he walks up the stairs to their cottage and he’s talking about how other species don’t eat bread and our species treats it like capitalism. We added that scene on the fly and it was 100 percent improvised. I just said to Sullivan, ‘hey, all that stuff we’ve been talking about – just run with it’. He did it in 1 take and I knew it couldn’t have been any better than that. It was the only full scene that was improvised but we always encourage the actors to not hold back and if they’ve got something, blurt it out but stay in character. I think it lends itself to better performances overall. It’s also one of the advantages of editing it myself, if it works you use it and if it doesn’t you don’t.”
HNMAG “I’ll just ask you one final fun question. If you could learn one magic trick, what would it be?”
DAN “It would be, cutting someone in half. It’s funny that you mention magic because I think magic has a lot to do with making films. Melies (Georges) was half magician and half filmmaker. We’ve actually had Penn and Teller at Slamdance and people forget that they’ve both been filmmakers themselves. We were showing a film that Penn had written and starred in and Adam Rifkin had directed, called Directors Cut. It was interesting talking to them about the similarities between film and magic. It’s one of the reasons I like editing so much because every cut is a magic trick. You’re playing with misdirection and there are a lot of parallels.”