It should come as no surprise that Omaha-born filmmaker Dan Mirvish continues to find ways to create independent feature films. After all, the Los Angeles-based mensch is the best-selling author, “The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking,” and co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival.
Its latest offering, “18 1/2,” is a cocky political Watergate thriller that meets a slimy romantic comedy. It runs through July 14 at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater. Mirvish’s six feature films make him Nebraska’s most prolific living filmmaker outside of Alexander Payne.
Following his own advice, the 54-year-old Mirvish devised a speculative historical fiction premise to attract investors and actors. Mirvish and Daniel Moya’s screenplay imagines a reporter and transcriber getting their hands on the contents of former President Richard Nixon’s infamous 18½ minutes of missing Oval Office tapes.
Mirvish’s bet that the scandal’s “intrinsic resonance and gravity” would land on the names of John Magaro as a reporter and Willa Fitzgerald as a transcriber. The serious pair navigates between eccentrics, villains and mutual attraction. Vondi Curtis-Hall, Catherine Curtin and Richard Kind add local color. Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, and Jon Cryer voice Nixon, Al Haig, and HR “Bob” Haldeman, respectively.
The filmmaker followed other lessons learned. He secured a cabin motel property, the Silver Sands in the Chesapeake Bay, from owner friend Terry Keith to serve as the main set and housing for the cast and crew. Moya arrived with a nearby restaurant owned by an uncle.
“When the movie gods give you spots on set, you’re making a movie,” Mirvish said. “It’s a chapter from the book: Start with the locations.”
Although the budget didn’t allow for rehearsals, he noted, “The good news is that we all stayed in one place. Even after we finished filming for the day, we continued to hang out together, eating BBQ Omaha Steaks, playing with Willa’s dog on the beach, talking about the characters. We all cooled down a bit, which in some ways was as good as a rehearsal. It spawned this familiarity and chemistry that really helped on set.
Just as it “reversed” past scripts from one location, it did the same here.
The motel’s vintage decor also helped.
“We were all immersed in this atmosphere of 1974 because the motel looks like that time. It was much easier for the cast and crew to get into the method style in this period. It helped us dial in the tone of the whole room.
Filming began in March 2020. As news of the COVID-19 pandemic mounted, he said, “it added to the sense of paranoia” the story demanded. The secluded surroundings didn’t hurt either.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be the last people we saw alive. It was like living on ‘Gilligan’s Island’ on a ‘Brady Bunch’ set. It was very surreal. But it worked for the movie.
As filming progressed, he said, “we got these sporadic reports — Broadway closing, the NBA season canceled. A DGA representative came out and said, “Congratulations, you’re stepping away from the company.” I had never heard of this term. She told us, “You’re literally one of the last two films to be shot in North America. Then the next day we had to close. We had been shooting for 11 days, with about 75-80% of the film in the box. I grabbed the hard drive, went back to LA and started editing. About a third of our crew were afraid to return to New York, so they stayed at the motel. They all bonded there.
The enforced break was “creatively, a luxury,” Mirvish said, adding, “We took advantage of it,” including remotely recording the voices of the Oval Office cabal heard on the tape. “In the midst of this lockdown, through Zoom, we did this radio play in the film. It was a really fun and creative endeavor. Same with music, working remotely with my composer Luis Guerra and musicians stuck around the world.
Mirvish, the businessman, has raised an additional 30% of the budget to pay people who will be returning in September for the final four days of filming.
“We were one of the first films to use the new COVID-safe protocols,” he said. “Fortunately, we had already done the intimate scenes. We didn’t have to drastically rewrite anything.
The pandemic has made it difficult to assess the film released from the editing room.
“We couldn’t do test screenings, so I sent individual cuts to different people for feedback, but I didn’t see the film with an audience until our world premiere at Woodstock. People were laughing a lot and I was like, Oh, I didn’t realize it was so funny. That was an interesting discovery.”
Wherever the film is played in the world, he said, audiences are projecting political misconduct into it relevant to where they live.
This master in the art of getting his films noticed and distributed said: “If you’re not there to promote your film, no one else will. In my case, I really embrace the festival circuit.
There is talk of adapting “18 1/2” into a play or a mini-series.
He is back this fall with his picture at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.