If the 1960s was the time for sex, love and understanding, the 1970s was the decade of paranoia, intrigue and watching one’s back. The Watergate scandal had shaken the very heart of American politics, resulting in a US president resigning from office; it inspired a whole generation of filmmakers and storytellers. The ripples can be felt in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful The Conversation as well as Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Pollack’s tight, lean and well-oiled thriller. Then of course there is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men.
Dan Mirvish’s new film 18 ½ continues this tradition. Set in 1974, it stars Bruce Campbell as Nixon. The plot centres on Connie (Willa Fitzgerald) who is a White House transcriber. Finding herself in possession of the only copy of the infamous 18 ½ minute gap in the Nixon tapes, she enlists the help of journalist Paul (John Magaro). Together they embark on a journey to make the content of the tapes public.
Set The Tape spoke to Mirvish about 18 ½ and his thoughts on the current state of independent filmmaking.
SET THE TAPE: You have been directing since the 90s. How has the independent film scene changed?
DAN MIRVISH: When I first started you had to shoot on either 35mm or 16mm, both of which were expensive. Therefore the barriers were much higher than they are today when you can pull out your phone and make a film. The distribution models have also changed. Now if you want you can put your short film on YouTube and get a million views from around the world.
What always strikes me though is all the things that haven’t changed. Yes cameras have changed, formats have changed, film to digital and now people are going back to film and mixing and matching but certainly when it comes to making an independent feature film, it hasn’t changed since the 1910s. You still have to be a scrappy independent filmmaker, begging, borrowing and stealing. More than anything you have to be persistent. Everyone will tell you no, every time you ask someone for money, 99% will say no. You ask 99 people to read your script, 98 will say no. Additionally you still need the pre-eminence of having a big name to cast in your film if you want it to be noticed in distribution, with the extra hassle of getting your film seen by the general public.
On my first film I wore a sandwich board in front of the theatre and walked back and forth handing out flyers. On this film I’m going to do the same thing. Even if you’re not wearing a physical sandwich board you have to have that same attitude. Think about it like actors putting on a show. The engagement with the audience whether that’s real or virtual is part of it. For 18 ½ I’m going to put myself out there on social media because if you don’t, no one else will. With independent films, you start with yourself and maybe one or two partners and you end with yourself and maybe one or two partners. That hasn’t changed in 100 years; it was the same in the 90s and it’s the same now.
SET THE TAPE: Although you are an independent filmmaker, you still attract big name actors. What is the trick?
DAN MIRVISH: It comes down to thinking about it from the actor’s point of view. What is going to attract a famous actor? The obvious thing is money. Well there’s no way I could compete with a Marvel movie or a Netflix series. Then you’ve got to think there are plenty of actors that make enough money doing other things that they can afford to do projects like mine. Then you just focus on them and you think about what will attract those actors. If it’s a drama you approach comedians or actors who tend to play comedic roles first. Actors love playing against type. Bruce Campbell gets offered a million horror films a year but rarely gets offered to voice a President.
Another thing is offering diverse actors parts which are not obviously diverse – which is how we got African American actor Vondie Curtis-Hall in a role which is not race specific. Having roles for older women is also key – and by Hollywood definition that could be over 22. It’s those kinds of things that you need to consider.
READ MORE: Execution in Autumn (1972) – Blu-ray Review
The other thing is to set a start date – tell everyone we are shooting on this day – “are you on board or aren’t you?” One thing about actors is they love to know what their next gig is and if they don’t have their next show or movie lined up, they will start pestering their agent. If a movie is about to shoot and they need someone, the agent will be like fine we have this little title, get out of my hair. I heard a story about how someone offered Anthony Hopkins a student short film and he agreed. He wasn’t doing anything that day and actors want to work. There are a lot of tricks like that once you start to get into their heads and the heads of their agents.
SET THE TAPE: Moving on to 18 ½, you have some experience in Washington. How did that influence the film?
DAN MIRVISH: At college I double majored in history and political science, then I worked as a journalist. I actually knew some of the people who were involved with Watergate. One of my professors was Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, who was kicked off the ticket in part because of Nixon’s dirty tricks. Then meeting other people in DC was extremely helpful.
Additionally, working as a journalist shaped the character of Paul. I have a friend who works for the Washington Post. Conversations we had about the process and how someone in government leaks something to a reporter really influenced the relationship between Paul and Connie.
SET THE TAPE: You did a great job with the mise-en-scene, how did you manage to capture the feel of the era so completely?
DAN MIRVISH: I wanted to shoot using only the techniques that were used in 1974. Although in the end our camera itself was digital, the lenses were vintage. Also things like no drone, and steadicam shots. The musicians only used instruments that were popular in the era, and we used recording techniques from the time. In the edit there are no sped up shots, it’s straight cuts. There are no fades or dissolves either, which were less popular in 1974.
The major factor was the location. I know someone who inherited a hotel from his Grandparents who had built it in the 50s and 60s. He was smart enough to realise that if he kept the vintage look, he could rent it out to film crews. Even though our production designer Monica Dabrowski supplemented it with some other props, a lot of what you see in the film was literally on site. Our costume designer, Sarah Cogan, hand sewed all the costumes; it was mad but that was the level of detail that everyone on the crew brought to it.
18 ½ will be available on streaming services in the UK and Ireland from the 11th July.