Today, I am thrilled to share a written interview I conducted with filmmaker Dan Mirvish – who you may know for his incredible feature film work, and as the co-founder of the iconic Slamdance film festival.
I recently interviewed Dan for my podcast about his latest feature film titled 18 1/2, and he generously agreed to a written interview as well, which I am sharing below.
For some background on the film –
18 1/2 is an award-winning Watergate thriller/comedy that stars Willa Fitzgerald, John Magaro, Vondie Curtis Hall, Catherine Curtin, Richard Kind, Sullivan Jones, Alanna Saunders, Claire Saunders and the voices of Ted Raimi, Jon Cryer, and Bruce Campbell.
Throughout our interview, we discuss the entire process – from crowdfunding to casting, directing to distribution, and everything in between.
Check it out!
Can you share some insight into your crowdfunding strategy for 18 1/2?
The hardest person to convince you’re making a film is yourself. So crowdfunding is a great way to convince yourself. Once you have a few hundred backers cheering you on, you’ve not got – if not a legal obligation, then at least a moral or emotional, obligation to do everything you can to actually make the movie you said you were going to make.
Another great reason to do crowdfunding is that it forces you to do all the nuts and bolts of starting a film: Doing a business plan, a pitch video, setting up the LLC, bank account, etc. On 18½ in particular, after my writing partner, Daniel Moya, and I had a script we were happy with, we gave ourselves about three months to just try submitting it to different production companies and established producers before committing to crowdfunding.
Given my experience, though, I knew none of them would come through. So, I’d already shot material for the pitch video starting two years earlier. In general, the goal on my crowdfunding campaigns is to raise about 10% of the budget: That’s enough to start hiring a casting director, pay a lawyer and generally get enough confidence to set a start date.
More importantly, the real goal is to leverage the crowdfunding backers into finding other equity investors and donors. I always set things up with a non-profit simultaneous to the the crowdfunding campaign. For the last couple films, that’s been The Film Collaborative, which becomes our fiscal sponsor. This serves a couple purposes: For all the people who say they’re going to donate at the end of your campaign, but don’t, this gives you a page to send them where they can still give you money. It’s also a page that can stay up for years if you want – and so it acts more like a Patreon page for fundraising throughout your entire process, well beyond a limited 30-day campaign.
And finally, for rich donors, it’s a straightforward way for them to get a tax deduction right away. Crowdfunding can also lead to finding new equity investors into your LLC.
Your old college roommate may give you $40, but then his sister’s husband – the rich Silicon Valley mogul – might see his Facebook post and want to invest $10,000. Likewise, someone may give you $100 during the crowdfunding campaign, but decide to invest $5000 a few months later after they see the film coming together even more.
Platforms like WeFunder seem to offer a best of both worlds scenario – A crowdfunding style platform with the ability to offer shares. Would you ever consider going that route?
We looked into WeFunder specifically, but we only found out about it quite a bit after production. By then, we still needed to raise money, but we wound up finding other ways to get it. We talked to our friends at Vanishing Angle who had used it and had a very good experience with it. I’d definitely consider it for the future.
We also looked into Slated earlier, but the way it’s set up didn’t exactly mesh with the way we’d set up our LLC. So, I guess my advice to folks is to research these equity crowdfunding sites carefully early on in the process, and if they make sense for you, then just make sure you’re set up in such a way that works for their particular models and fine print.
For me, I spend a lot of time telling potential investors that they won’t make their money back, and that’s not always the same pitch these potential equity investors are getting from the companies. So, you need to make sure that your messaging is consistent so no one is disappointed when the film doesn’t make money.
Tell us a bit about the concept behind 18 1/2 and how it came to you.
Choosing the next project can be really tough for many filmmakers. I finished principal photography on my last film, BERNARD AND HUEY, in November 2016 in New York, around the time of the presidential election. The next day, I went to show dailies to our writer, the legendary cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer, in Shelter Island, near the Hamptons.
Naturally, the discussion turned to Trump and inevitable comparisons to Nixon, whom Feiffer had written countless cartoons about during Watergate. My buddy Terry Keefe was with me on that visit to Jules, so afterwards we took the ferry to Greenport, on the north fork of Long Island, near the eastern tip, and stayed at Terry’s motel, The Silver Sands Motel & Cottages.
Terry had more or less inherited the motel from his grandparents who built it in the 50s, 60s and 70s and it still looks frozen in time in about 1974. There have been a lot of high-end fashion still photo shoots there for Vogue and other magazines, a few episodics and music videos, but no one had shot a feature there. (Todd Haynes even wrote VELVET GOLDMINE while staying at the motel).
Terry said the motel’s closed in the winter, so that’d be a perfect time to shoot a period film, and all the cast and crew could stay there. Hmm, we still had Nixon on the brain, and then this amazing location – so my ideas for 18½ started percolating then. I brought in a writing partner, Daniel Moya, who coincidentally had an aunt who worked at a period-looking diner just down the street from the Silver Sands, The Front Street Station. “That’s two locations! THAT’s a movie!” I said!
That said, I’d been thinking about Watergate and political thrillers for a long time. In prepping BERNARD AND HUEY, I’d revisited a lot of old 70s films (Feiffer had written the great Mike Nichols’ film CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and also LITTLE MURDERS, both from 1971). In course of that research, I’d also rewatched more of the conspiracy thrillers like Alan Pakula’s KLUTE and PARALLAX VIEW and Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION.
My background before film was also steeped in Watergate – I’d been a History and Political Science double major in college. One of my professors and mentors in school was Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who’d been McGovern’s first running mate in ’72, and I’d been a speechwriter for a couple years in DC for Sen. Tom Harkin, who was part of the 1974 post-Watergate class of Democrats elected to the House.
In the novel I cowrote in 2009 with my buddy Eitan Gorlin, I AM MARTIN EISENSTADT: ONE MAN’S WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE ADVENTURES WITH THE LAST REPUBLICANS, we had a whole chapter about Watergate and the missing 18½-minute gap. Marty’s mother’s name was Connie, who worked in the Nixon White House, so we’d done a lot of research about the era for the book.
She’s a completely different character, but I did borrow Connie’s name for 18½’s lead character (played by Willa Fitzgerald). Yes, it is always a challenge coming up with the next film, but no, I didn’t really have any other ideas. Glad this one worked out!
Given that 18 1/2 is a period piece, how much did production design impact your budget? And did you need to create any efficiencies to keep more money “on the screen”?
On my prior film, BERNARD AND HUEY, about 10% of that was “period,” set in the late 80s. What we found on that was that it was much easier and cheaper to shoot period than I’d always feared. (to see how I shot a 1988 New York subway in my Culver City garage, go here. So that experience demystified shooting period for me, and made me not fear it.
For 18½, we started with two amazing period locations, especially The Silver Sands motel. Terry comes from an indie film background, so he’s been smart about keeping the neon sign working, leaving a vintage car out front, and generally hiding things like satellite dishes.
Most of the interiors of the rooms and cabins also still have vintage furniture and appliances. The motel has also been home to a film camp every year, so there’s been a steady accumulation of extra props lying around the property, so we took advantage of them.
We had a fantastic production designer, Monica Dabrowski, who then cobbled all these elements together and supplemented them with reel-to-reel players and typewriters we bought on eBay (this was a great tip from Andrew Patterson, director of THE VAST OF NIGHT who’d similarly sourced a lot of his reel-to-reel players this way). One of the biggest challenges was rebuilding a spiral staircase in one of the cabins. Terry had most of the pieces, but it took a few days to build it.
Our costume designer, Sarah Cogan, collects vintage patterns, so she wound up sewing several new costumes based on these patterns, and also her own collection of vintage clothes. It was a lot of work for her, but it spared us a lot of expense.
Finally, for vintage cars, Terry just put the word out to the Greenport local community and we got a few local car collectors help us out for barely the cost of a free night in the motel. So overall, the “period” aspect of the film didn’t really cost us any more than if we’d made a contemporary film.
There are some incredible actors in your film – can you speak to the casting process and your ability to secure such great talent?
We started with a great New York-based casting director, Bess Fifer, who came on board early. Between her and my own relationships with agents, managers and other filmmakers, we wound up getting the amazing duo of Willa Fitzgerald and John Magaro as our two leads. Also, very early in the process, we got Bruce Campbell and Jon Cryer to commit to the voice-roles of Richard Nixon and H. R. “Bob” Haldeman.
I knew Bruce’s agent, and Jon is someone I’d met years before when he was making indie films, but we’d stayed pals on Twitter. Both Bruce and Jon are pretty savvy politically (as a teenager, Bruce had been transfixed by watching the Senate Watergate hearings), and more importantly, it was an easy commit for them: We knew it would just be a couple hours work at some point, sometime in post-production.
Later, Bruce got us his pal Ted Raimi to play the other big voice role of Gen. Al Haig. Bruce and Ted had actually done some Nixon bits on a comedy album the year before, but with the roles reversed. Richard Kind was someone who had been in BERNARD AND HUEY, so I knew if he was available (which he isn’t always because he works so much) that we’d be able to get him again, for the role of Jack, the motel clerk.
Sullivan Jones had just been in the hit Broadway show SLAVE PLAY, but was eager to do more film roles, so he came on as Barry, the hippie. The bigger challenge was finding actors to play our older characters Lena and Samuel. We’d had someone attached for a long time to play Lena, and then two weeks before shooting, there was a schedule conflict and we had to start from scratch.
We were already almost a week into filming before we locked in Cathy Curtin and Vondie Curtis Hall for those roles. They barely had 36 hours to learn their lines and come out to set, but they were both fantastic in the roles and amazing to work with.
By this point, rumblings of the pandemic were already in the air, so we pretty much were limited to actors in the New York area. With the role of Lena, I actually turned to the crew, who were mostly New York-based, and said, hey, who have YOU worked with that you liked? Both our gaffer and script supervisor had worked with Cathy and loved her (as did my casting director, and several indie directors I know), so that was really how we cast her.
It’s a good lesson for actors – be nice to the crew – you never know when they’re going to help cast you on another film.
Were you able to rehearse extensively with your actors beforehand?
On this film, no, we had almost no advance rehearsal. That’s different from my last two films. What we did have, though, was we made sure Willa and John spent time together at our costume fitting in New York, and then they had a few 3-hour car ride together on the way back and forth to Greenport (with my writing/producing partner Daniel Moya driving, so he could answer character questions in the car).
With everyone all staying at the Silver Sands, that also gave us extensive down-time for the actors to all hang out together, share meals, and discuss the characters. I think that made a huge difference for all the performances. But also the way we scheduled the film helped.
We shot for most of a week with just Willa and John, which really bonded their characters and helped us dial in their performances before anyone else came to the shoot. By the second week, when we started working with Cathy and Vondie, it mirrored the situation that the characters were in – Willa and John were meeting them for the first time and as characters, so were Connie and Paul.
That made their reactions to some of the choices Cathy and Vondie made almost better than if we’d extensively rehearsed them.
How (if at all) did the pandemic impact this type of creative prep work?
Well, we shot 11 days before the pandemic then took a 6-month “healthy hiatus” (or “pandemic pause”) before shooting the final 4 days. What that meant is that we only had the four principal actors for the first part of the shoot, and shot all our other ensemble actors during that last 4 days.
So by then, Willa, John and myself all really knew their characters and performances from the first part of the shoot (most of which I’d already edited by then). So when the new actors came on board, we could slot them into our rhythms of shooting pretty easily.
With Sullivan Jones, Alanna Saunders and Claire Saunders, they were able to hang out at the Silver Sands for a few days and we were able to do a little rehearsal with them, John and Willa before shooting some of their scenes.
The film is visually stunning and has an analog feel to it, while still remaining contemporary. I would love if you could share a bit about your visual process and collaboration with Elle Schneider.
Elle and I discussed a lot of early 70s films together, and she’s got an extensive knowledge and appreciation for that period to begin with. We set up as a rule – really for all the departments, not just camera – that we weren’t going to use any tools or techniques that couldn’t have been done in 1974. So that meant no drones, no Steadicam, no super-sharp lenses.
(In editorial, that also meant we kept the cuts simple. In music, we stuck to period-era instruments. Even in color correction, we didn’t do too many modern tricks. While we did shoot digital for budgetary reasons (we used the Panasonic Varicam), Elle and I both insisted on vintage prime and zoom lenses.
We basically let the lenses do most of the heavy lifting in selling the period. But because old lenses are pretty slow, we couldn’t use the zoom lens on that many interior shots. But we knew that in editorial I’d also be doing a lot of digital zooming to emulate old optical zooms, which were done in the 60s and 70s, and often combined those moves with dolly moves or with the real zoom lens.
How many shoot days was the shoot, and how many setups per day? How did you maximize the time you had on set?
There were 15 principle shoot days (11 pre-pandemic, then 4 during). Plus, our crew who were stranded at the Silver Sands for 2 months during quarantine knocked out a couple establishing shots, and then during the winter surge, I spent a few days mostly with my kids and a neighbor in my garage shooting insert shots of the reel-to-reel player.
For anyone who’s seen the film, you’ll note that there’s a fair number of long oners. Some of these were written into the script (like at the end, when the tape is playing, we’re always in a oner) and others we came up with on the spot. Part of it is seeing which sets of actors can pull of oners and which ones will require either traditional coverage or jump coverage.
That said, I don’t think oners necessarily speed up your shoot day. A complicated oner might require 10 takes to get one good one, whereas traditional coverage can be done usually with 2 or 3 takes per setup. Knowing that I was always going to have a big hand in editing (largely owing to the pandemic, I wound up with the sole editing credit), that allows me to make editorial choices about coverage on set, and not waste time with extra setups that I know – as the editor – that I’m not going to use.
Also, taking a 6-month break between our first 11 days and the last 4 probably helped make those last 4 more efficient. The extra time (thank you, Covid!) allowed us to cut some scenes, write a couple new ones, and more precisely know what we needed to get more efficiently.
What was your most challenging shoot day (or personal setback), and how did you overcome it?
That was probably our 11th day, which was the day I decided we needed to shut down for Covid. A couple days before, our DGA rep told us we were the last feature shooting in North America (what!!?!!?), but that we were doing great because we were so isolated in our remote location.
Hmmm, what do all these other films know that we don’t know? It was becoming increasingly clear that the world was caving in around us and things were getting exponentially more shut down everyday. So, in consultation with my key partners, medical advisors, CDC guidelines, the Guilds, etc., we decided to shut things down after that 11th day.
There were a lot of tears that night (it was also the night we shot our big fight scene, so it was a stressful – but fun and safe – shoot in any case). Most of the cast and crew had never gone through a shutdown like this and no one had any idea if or when we’d be back. I’ve had a few setbacks like this on earlier films – some turned out well, and others not so well.
So emotionally, I think I dealt with it better than some on the team. My main concern was for the health and well-being of the cast and crew. At one point, I remember calling the DGA to find out what the rules for succession were on a shoot like ours – in case I died from Covid.
That’s a sobering call to have to make. But on the upside, I also knew we had amazing footage and performances in the can already – not enough for a whole movie, to be sure – but certainly huge chunks of the film that I knew could be edited together.
And if we had to wait, and raise more money to come back (which was indeed the case), we’d have enough in the can to show people something. For the full story of our shutdown go to this piece in Filmmaker Mag and this one in Variety.
Can you paint a picture of the editorial process for us?
We had a great assistant editor during the shoot itself, Phill Skokos, so we could watch dailies every night. That was another advantage to all staying in the same motel together – we could pull in crew members to look at footage as we needed it.
But once we shut down, I grabbed the main hard drive and took it with me back to LA. I’ve been at least an additional editor on all my films, and have been doing a higher percentage of the editing on my more recent films. So it wasn’t a stretch to have me be the primary editor.
Between Covid and a lack of budget, it was really the only solution we had. I like editing, and trained as an editor at USC film school. And thankfully, I haven’t wiped the hard drives by mistake…yet. Phill kept helping remotely from New York, but it was mainly me at my home in Culver City.
Normally, we wouldn’t have started music until long after principal production. But given the circumstances, I started working with my composer, Luis Guerra, even while we were in the script phase. So once we had this pandemic shutdown, he started scoring the film to the footage I had and we were able to come up with a remote work-flow between us (even though he’s only a mile away from my house).
A lot of his musician friends were also sitting in their home studios with nothing to do, so he enlisted them to work on the film. In the end, we got musicians from Brazil, Mexico City and LA all working together. We also used that time to record our Nixon tapes.
Also during that time, we decided to record the Nixon tapes, which were voiceover performances by Bruce Campbell (Nixon), Jon Cryer (HR “Bob” Haldeman) and Ted Raimi (Al Haig). We’d planned to do this session in an expensive studio in LA at some point in post-production.
But these actors were all stuck at their respective homes (in Oregon, LA and Canada), and mostly had good mics and recording setups, so we decided to just use Zoom and QuickTime files to record the sessions. It wound up being easier, cheaper and probably better under these circumstances, thanks to the pandemic!
You’ve already had an incredible run on the festival circuit. Can you share any tips for filmmakers looking to increase their film’s acceptance rate?
Most of my tips for approaching hybrid festivals in a pandemic are in this article I did for Filmmaker Magazine. We really stayed focussed on mostly live festivals, actually turning down a few very respectable festivals that only gave us an online option.
Part of it was luck and part of it was planning, but in the 2-month gap between Delta and Omicron variants, we wound up going to 10 festivals in 5 countries, winning 3 awards and getting 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I was able to go to most of the fests in person, and if not me, then other members of the crew went and represented the film.
Most of my festival advice is in my books but also is based on these two articles (here and here) I wrote for Filmmaker Magazine years ago.
Honestly, it’s harder now than ever to get into festivals: There’s arguably twice as many films trying to get into half as many festivals. So, by that math, you should be applying to four times as many festivals as you might have in a pre-pandemic year. And festivals themselves are so much in flux – many deciding at the last minute to go live, hybrid or online only, and often pushing their dates.
Everyone – filmmakers and festivals alike – just have to be more nimble. Talk to festivals, create a dialogue with them, and work with them where you can. My filmmaker pal Eugene Martin’s advice still applies: “Go where the love is.” Sadly, the press and industry are still fixated on the premiere discovery festivals (Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca in the States, and a handful of usual suspects abroad).
Irrespective of the pandemic, I’ve been arguing for a broader discovery festival calendar for years. Most of the big international festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, New York, Tribeca) are all mostly focussed on films that already either have distribution or sales agents, and/or are already gunning for the Oscars. That leaves huge swaths of the calendar devoid of real discovery festivals.
Not to say that there’s not great festivals all year-round – there are! And plenty of great reasons to go to them – but it’s frustrating that the press and most distributors are so myopic about them – especially when it’s easier than ever for press and industry to “cover” a festival remotely.
That said, I think in retrospect, our strategy worked: We got the film in front of live audiences at great festivals, and made the most out of every opportunity, getting several distribution offers along the way. And if we had listened to the traditionalists and waited for “the perfect festival premiere” we would have been stuck in the Omicron wake and would have wound up never screening in front of a live audience or wasting a year.
Sorry, I’m too old for that. And so are many of my backers and investors. So in hindsight, we made the right decisions at the right times and chose wisely.
Any other words of wisdom for the readers or links you’d like to share?
Just stay tuned to our social media for more announcements on the film:
18 1/2 – Facebook
18 1/2 – Instagram
18 1/2 – Twitter
Dan Mirvish – Twitter
Dan Mirvish – Facebook
Dan Mirvish – Instagram
Dan Mirvish – TikTok
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