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Dan Mirvish Talks 18½ (The FH Interview)

10 min read

On the 50th Anniversary of Watergate – one of the biggest political scandals in history that sent shockwaves across the globe and set a new bar for serious constitutional misconduct – a fresh take on the story has been brought to light in 18½, a film about the eighteen and a half minute gap in President Nixon's tapes. directs this fun and thrilling feature and FilmHounds had the opportunity to chat with him to hear about what it was like making a Watergate film today. 

One thing I really liked about the film was that it was a real mix of different genres. It was espionage, thriller, comedy and drama. What made you want to tell the film in this way?

Anytime you deal with Watergate, it's hard not to be funny. As scandals go, it was such a farce, it was just one screw up after another, with the cover up and the original operation. And when you listen to the real Nixon tapes, they're funny and sometimes they're even self-aware that they're funny too. But I just like mixing genres. That's something I've tried to do with other films. It's something I like in other films and other filmmakers and as much as I tried to make dramas or thrillers that aren't funny, I guess the funny just always comes out. But I'll take it. If people are laughing, and they think it's a comedy, great, and if they don't laugh, okay, it's a drama.

Do you remember where you were or how old you were when the Watergate scandal came out? And do you have any specific memories about the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap?

I don't have specific memories of the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap. I remember very distinctly that I would watch the hearings because they pre-empted Sesame Street when I was a kid. And I do remember we were on a family trip out to the East Coast the night that Nixon resigned. I think that's the most specific memory I have. I remember the room we were in and it's actually not that far from where we shot the film so that's kind of tied up, being in New York State kind of reminds me of Nixon resigning.

Is Watergate a subject that's always fascinated you and have you always wanted to make a film about it or did it just happen to come around?

It's definitely a subject area that I've been fascinated with for a long time since I was a kid. But I was a history and political science major in college, I didn't go to film school. So I did history and political science and then I worked in Washington for a couple of years as a Senate speech writer, and as a journalist. I've always wanted to incorporate more of Washington and that kind of lifestyle -and specifically Watergate- into my work.

I also knew a few people tangentially who are involved with Watergate. One of my professors in college was McGovern's first running mate in the 1972 election and was kicked off the ticket and some people still think -and it's still not clear- that it's because of Nixon's dirty tricks. So I've known a few of those people over the years and it's just such a rich drama, because it's a scandal that unfolded over two and a half years. You can pick so many different angles and facets of it to explore in film.

Bugeater Films

When it comes to making a historical fiction film, how do you get that balance right between the historical side and the fiction?

I think when Tarantino, for example, does his historical fiction films, by the end of the movie, the timeline of history is completely different. You know, Hitler gets killed, or Manson doesn't kill people or something like that. What I wanted to do was a different kind of historical fiction or speculative historical fiction, where you've got the timeline of history, and then there's this little loop with all these fictional characters, but then by the end of it, the timeline of history has reset, and we're back to where we are now.

Then it becomes much more like, how do you come up with a plausible scenario with these fictional characters in a real world? And so for myself and my writing partner Daniel Moya, we did extensive research on what would plausibly have been on the minute tape. What really propelled the story was that we found out that there really were four or five different offices in the Nixon White House that had these voice activated taping systems, and there really are tapes of Nixon listening to and pushing buttons and screwing up the buttons on tape recorders. And so once you realise that there are tapes of tapes, then it becomes much more plausible that our character Connie, played by Willa Fitzgerald, could have a tape of the eighteen and a half minute gap.

The film's got a very impressive cast with Bruce Campbell, Jon Cryer and . How did this casting come about?

Well, they were all in different ways. Richard Kind is someone who was in my last film, so I knew Rich and the part he plays was written a little bit for him. I knew that I would probably be able to get him. He is very busy though so we didn't know schedule-wise, if we could.

But otherwise, Bruce is someone that I had wanted to work with on my last film, and the schedule didn't work on that so we kind of were aware of each other a little bit. And it turns out he was a big fan of Watergate -well not fan- but was obsessed at the time. He's a couple of years older than me so he remembers it a little better and watching the hearings and growing up with that. In that era it was hard not to be obsessed with it. But also Bruce had recently played Ronald Reagan in an episode of Fargo and so I knew he could bring that. What's great about him is I didn't ask him to mimic the Nixon voice because you could get anyone to do that. I wanted it to be Bruce Campbell as Nixon so with his gravitas and sense of humour and sense of irony kind of imbuing into that role.

And then someone like Jon Cryer, Jon's someone that I've known off and on for 30 years. But then there's these great new actors like Willa Fitzgerald, who I just met for this film, but came recommended by other directors – Lucky McKee recommended her. Kelly Reichardt, who directed in First Cow, she recommended John to me. And I'm like, yeah, I'll take Kelly's word for it. And that's the thing, as directors, we talk to other filmmakers and find out who's great to work with and who you want to be on set with.

The cast were one of the reasons why the film was so good. Especially Richard Kind. You mentioned how the role was almost written for him, and every time he appeared I had a big grin on my face. Did he improvise anything that happened or was it all scripted?

With Rich, I think the little bit at the end with him chewing on the thermometer was. I started to write it, but then we did a few takes where John Magaro just didn't cut him off and that just forced him to improvise even more and more and more, which we didn't use that much in the film but he was great at that. And because I had worked with him, and I knew his voice and a range of talents, which is pretty amazing, it made it easier to put words in his mouth, literally.

Bugeater Films

The cast must have made a lot of it easier, because you had a lot of long shots and oners in the film. Was that originally part of how you wanted to make the film or was it only once you had the cast that you then realised they were able to do it?

It was great! But you're right and as filmmakers, you have to think like, it's great to do these long oners but then you find out, you may have a cast, or combinations of cast members that can't necessarily pull that off. We were very lucky with Willa and John Magaro. Both of them are theatre trained New York actors and we didn't have a lot of rehearsal time per se, but we were all living together out on location at the Silver Sands Motel and so that gave time for the actors to work on scenes at night together.

And they were great but then there were other scenes where I knew that with the combinations of actors and no rehearsal time and last-minute casting, it was like, okay, we'll shoot these other scenes a different way and kind of embraced what we could do with the actors. Some of it was in the script, though. When they're listening to the 18½-minute gap, when the tape is playing, the goal was to have it be a continuous shot. And then as soon as they hit stop or pause, then we go into cutting and coverage. And that was an aesthetic choice I made and we were able to pretty closely pull that off.

It probably feels like a million years ago now but you were filming in March 2020. How did the pandemic affect the film? Did you manage to get it all done before being shut down?

We'd gotten about 10 days into it and the Directors Guild sends a rep out just to say hi, and she said, ‘oh, you guys are doing great. You're isolated out here. By the way, you're the last film shooting in North America'. I was like, ‘what?'. We were so isolated that we didn't even realise that everything else was shutting down. And so the next day, we shut down too.

We were 11 days in, we had about 75 or 80% of the film in the can, but we still had 4 days left to shoot, which is a lot on a film like this. But we had to shut down, because things were going too crazy. A third of our crew wound up staying for the next two months at the Silver Sands and they just never left the set. Our cinematographer stayed for six months. I personally grabbed a hard drive, flew back to LA and I just started editing the film and baking sourdough for the next six months. But during that time, that gave us time to work with the voice cast.

In May of 2020, we realised we could just do Zoom calls with Bruce and John and Ted Raimi. And that was great because it was at a time when actors just couldn't act, and directors couldn't direct. All of a sudden, we could be like, oh, you know what, we're sort of doing a little radio play within the film. And we could get that done. We could work on the music quite a bit during that time. I was editing the whole time, which was great.

Then when we did go back to those last four days in September, and we were one of the first films coming back using the new COVID protocols, we could tweak the script to adjust to what we had already shot and edited. So creatively it kind of worked to our advantage, but it was a pain and very distressing. But the whole world went through that and in some ways, the fact that all of us as a cast and crew went through that together was weird, but also brought us all together in ways that wouldn't have maybe happened otherwise.

Bugeater Films

And you really made it work, and even though it was a few years ago that you filmed it, it still feels timely now coming out at the Trump Administration. Was that something you always wanted to do with a Watergate film, make it relevant today? 

Exactly. I think that in some ways, the easiest way to comment on contemporary issues is to do a period film that then is going to be relevant to whatever is happening contemporaneously. Not only in our country, but in other countries. We had our UK premiere at the Manchester Film Festival a couple of months ago, and everyone there was like, ‘oh, this is just like Boris Johnson and his scandals and just like a farce mixed up with a cover up'. And in Brazil, they were like, ‘oh, it's like Bolsonaro'. So people can read different things into it that then reflects on contemporary situations.

That was the same thing with Trump. You could make a movie about Trump, but it would be out of date in a week. And by making a film about Nixon, it would hopefully stand the test of time. Because with an independent film especially, you don't know when it's going to come out, you don't know how long it'll take to make and even then you don't know when people are gonna see it. They could see it next week in theatres or they can see it in 20 years on their Google contact lenses, you just don't know.

If you woke up tomorrow, and someone said to you, Dan, I don't know what's happened, but 18 and a half minutes of the film has mysteriously gone missing and disappeared off the face of the earth, which scenes and which 18 and a half minutes, would you be praying made it and didn't disappear? 

Well, I think the beginning and the end because it's hard to tell a story without a beginning and the end. I'd have to go with the middle. And also, the middle is a self-contained 23 minute scene. But it was actually a little bit like that. When we had 80% of the film, we were literally missing about 18 and a half minutes of the film that we still needed to shoot, and we realised we still needed to shoot it.

18½ is available now on digital platforms.