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Filmmaker/Director (left, in hat) Dan Mirvish on the set of “18½” — Photo by Gregg Starr

It should be no surprise Omaha native filmmaker Dan Mirvish  keeps finding ways to make indie features. After all, the L.A.-based mensch is the author of the bestselling book, “The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking,” and cofounder of Slamdance Film Festival. 

His latest offering, “18 1/2,” is a cockeyed Watergate political thriller meets screwball-romantic comedy. It runs through July 14 at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater. Mirvish’s six features make him the most prolific living Nebraska filmmaker outside of Alexander Payne.  

Taking his own advice, the 54-year-old Mirvish devised a speculative historical fiction premise to attract investors and actors. The script by Mirvish and Daniel Moya imagines a reporter and transcriber getting hold of the content on the infamous 18 1/2 minutes of missing tapes from former President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office. 

Mirvish’s bet that the scandal’s “built-in resonance and gravitas” would land names paid off in John Magaro as the reporter and Willa Fitzgerald as the transcriber. The earnest pair navigate 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 H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, respectively. 

Omaha’s own Dan Mirvish during the pre-pandemic shoot of his film “18 /12” — Photo by Greg Starr

The filmmaker followed other lessons learned. He secured a cottage motel property, the Silver Sands in Chesapeake Bay, from owner-friend Terry Keith to double as the main set and the cast and crew’s housing. Moya came through with a nearby diner owned by an uncle. 

“When the film gods give you locations on a platter, you make a movie,” Mirvish said. “That is a chapter in the book: Start with locations.” 

Though the budget didn’t allow for rehearsal, he noted, “The good news is we all stayed in the same place. Even after we finished shooting for the day, we still all hung out together, eating Omaha Steaks barbecue, playing with Willa’s dog on the beach, talking about the characters. We all just kind of chilled, which in some ways was just as good as rehearsal. It bred that familiarity and chemistry that really helped on set.”  

Just as he “reversed engineered” past scripts from a location, he did the same here.  

The motel’s vintage decor helped, too. 

“We were all immersed in this 1974 vibe because the motel looks and feels like that era. It made it much easier for the actors and crew to method style get into that period. It helped us dial in the tone of the whole piece.”  

The shoot 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 isolated environs 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 film.” 

As shooting progressed, he said, “we got these sporadic reports – Broadway closing, the NBA season canceled. A DGA rep came out and said, ‘Congratulations, you guys are social distancing.’  I’d never heard that term. She informed us, ‘You’re literally one of the last two films shooting in North America.’ Then the next day we had to shut down. We’d shot for 11 days, with about 75-80 percent of the film in the can. I grabbed the hard drive, flew back to L.A., and started editing. About a third of our crew were afraid to go back to New York City, so they stayed at the motel. They all bonded there.” 

The enforced hiatus was “creatively, a luxury,” Mirvish said, adding, “We made the most of it,” including remotely recording the voices of the Oval Office cabal heard on the tape. “In the middle of this lockdown, via Zoom, we did this radio play within the film. It was a really fun, creative endeavor. Likewise with the music, working remotely with my composer Luis Guerra and musicians stuck around the world.”  

Mirvish the businessman raised an extra 30% of the budget to pay people to come back in September for the final four days of shooting. 

“We were one of the first films using the new COVID-safe protocols,” he said. “Luckily we’d already done the intimate scenes. We didn’t have to drastically rewrite anything.”  

The pandemic made gauging the film that emerged from the editing room difficult.  

“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 this funny. That was an interesting discovery.”  

Wherever the film plays around the world, he said, audiences project onto it political misconduct relevant to where they live. 

This master at getting his films noticed and distributed said, “If you’re not out there self-promoting your film, no one else is going to do it. In my case, I really embrace the festival circuit.” 

There’s talk of adapting “18 1/2” into a play or limited TV series.  

He’s back this fall with his pic at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.


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Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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