Behind the Scenes on 18 1/2 with writer-director-producer, Dan Mirvish

Giles Alderson, Tori Butler-Hart & Matthew Butler-Hart chatted with writer-director-producer Dan Mirvish on this week’s episode of The Filmmakers Podcast.

Dan shared his tips and tricks for raising a budget, how he writes (and writing with a partner), film festivals, directing and more.

While shooting Dan’s film, Bernard and Huey, in New York during the ‘2016 presidential election –  the election ‘where Donald Trump got elected President. The very next day I wanted to show dailies to our writer Jules Feiffer, so inevitably the conversation came to comparisons between Nixon and Trump.’

After a conversation with Jules, and then their friend, Terry Keefe (who became a producer on 18 1/2) about Watergate, Terry mentioned that if Dan wrote the script, the cast and crew would be welcome to stay at his motel. And it could be used for the feature – it was built in the 50s/ 60s and Terry had preserved the vintage aesthetic.

Finding the Story – 18 1/2

‘Watergate is something I’d written about in the past. I was a political science and history major. And I’d worked in Washington for a couple of years as a Senate speech writer. I knew a couple of people who were tangentially involved, so it was always something that fascinated me and I was trying to figure out what to do with it.

So then it was about coming up with a story that would make sense. Set at a seaside motel, but still a Watergate story, which all takes place in Washington. What really cracked the story was that in doing research, I found out that there were multiple offices in the White House. Nixon’s White House had these voice-activated taping systems. 

And there really are tapes of Nixon listening to and fumbling with the buttons on these tape players. And so then I realised, plausibly, there could be a recording somewhere of Nixon, or someone else, deleting the 18 1/2 minute gap.’

Finding More Locations

Dan started the writing with his friend, Daniel Moya, who also became a producer later on. 

‘Now coincidentally Daniel’s aunt and uncle owned this diner just down the street from Terry’s motel. And it was great because now we’ve got a vintage-looking diner. We’ve got two locations. We’ve gotta make a movie – that’s the rules of indie film.’

After that, they came up with the storyline, wrote the screenplay and shot the film in the middle of a global pandemic.

Writing with a Partner

Dan wrote the film with Daniel, but ‘Daniel gets the screenplay credit and we split the story credit. Which basically meant that I was busy traipsing around the globe going to film festivals with the last film while he was stuck at home writing a script.

It worked out fine, but there was a lot of sending drafts back and forth. And while I knew a fair bit about Watergate, he didn’t – he was 25 when we were working on this.’

Dan said that it was an interesting balance, because Daniel needed to do a lot of research and would sometimes over-explain things that a lot of people knew about the people or events that had transpired. And sometimes Dan would expect the audience to know things about the history or the people involved that Daniel would check him on.

‘My approach to this historical fiction was to look at what Tarantino does, where by the end of his films – history is completely rewritten. And another way of doing historical fiction is that you create this fictional loop in the middle of it. You’ve got this historical timeline, you create this fictional loop with fictional characters, dealing with real characters, but by the end of the story, the timeline hasn’t changed. We are back in our own history. It’s a more speculative historical fiction.’

Making the Film

They started shooting on the 3rd of March 2020 and thought what could possibly go wrong?

‘We were starting to hear about China and Italy but we thought by the time it hits the States, we’ll have just wrapped. As it turned out, things really accelerated fast in March of 2020.

We got to day 10 and the Directors Guild came out to visit the set. We were super isolated – three hours from New York and a 20-minute walk from the closest town – so we were as close to being in a quarantined bubble, as one could have wanted.’

Because of that, they were one of the last ones still shooting in North America.

Filming in a Pandemic

‘After day 11, we shut down, we had four days left to go. We had maybe 75 to 80% of the movie in the can, so I grabbed a hard drive and my computer and hightailed it back to LA.

Most of the cast and crew were New York-based and a third of our crew decided to just stay at the motel. Terry said, no one else is staying here, so you guys can stay.’

The crew who were single people without families were nervous to go back to NYC. So instead they stayed and ‘wound up shooting shorts, some extra footage and music videos.

It became a film camp for them. And I was back in LA editing the film and working with the composer, one of my neighbours.’

Funding his Films

Dan always tends to start funding his films with a crowd funder. ‘The nice thing about a crowdfund is that you don’t have to have Tom Cruise to pre-sale territories. I try to raise 10 to 15% of the budget, not the whole budget – it’s Kickstarter, not kick finisher, or in this case, Seed and Spark, not tree and fire.’

The people who are investing in you (and your film) are friends and family, people from social media or people who are interested in the project or the content. ‘They’re not really there because you’ve got the cast in place. Even if it’s just a dollar. 

And you never know when your old bass player buddy from college gives you $40 but posts your pitch on his Facebook page and his brother-in-law, who’s a Silicon Valley investor, sees it and gives you $10,000 – that’s how you raise most of the rest of your budget.’

And there really is so much more, that you don’t want to miss from Dan Mirvish, listen here.

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