Once dubbed a “cheerful subversive” by The New York Times, indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish uses his skills as a provocateur and promoter to get his obscure work noticed by the very mainstream whose noses he sometimes tweaks.
He’s in rare company as a Nebraska native feature filmmaker. There’s only a handful whose feature work has gotten anything like fairly wide distribution. Joan Micklin Silver is the matriarch. Alexander Payne, the big name. Nik Fackler, the promising newcomer. But the L.A.-based Mirvish may have the most interesting story. His new feature Between Us is a faithful adaptation of the off-Broadway play of the same name by Joe Hortua, who co-wrote the script with Mirvish.
The film stars Taye Diggs, Julia Stiles, David Harbour and Melissa George.
Principally shot in L.A. and New York City, Between Us features pick up shots of Omaha and rural Nebraska to cover the story’s partial Midwest setting. An opening montage shows off the local riverfront.
After playing two dozen festivals around the world the pic is in the midst of a limited theatrical release, including an August 1 Film Streams screening at 7 p.m. followed by a Q&A featuring Mirvish. The film has an Aug. 16-18 run at the World Theater in Kearney, Neb, and will likely make its way to Lincoln at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. It’s soon to be available via NetFlix, Amazon, et cetera,
Mirvish first attempted the project seven years ago. He was coming off his 2004 real estate musical comedy Open House, a super-charged homage and parody of Hollywood musicals. It got press when he openly campaigned to get the film nominated in the long dormant Best Original Musical category. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed its rules to block his brazen maneuver.
Outside interest in adapting Open House to the stage brought Mirvish to New York to meet with theatrical agents. Always searching for material, he asked to read play scripts and discovered Between Us, a dark satire about the shifting relations within and between two couples contending with marriage, life and career conflicts. Suppressed tensions and jealousies get expressed and fireworks ensue.
“I decided to do Between Us because it spoke to me emotionally. It was about married people with young children and it dealt with issues of artistic authenticity that I could relate to,” says Mirvish, who’s married with three young children. “A lot of people can see themselves through the eyes of those characters, I also thought for practical purposes it could work as a low budget movie if it had to be done on a low budget. It’s essentially four people in two rooms.”
He and Hortua did the adaptation, retaining almost everything from the original but adding new material that opened up the piece cinematically, including visualizing things only talked about in the play and using flashbacks to move time and space.
There seemed to be momentum behind the project but then stuff happened.
“We thought we were going to make the movie in 2008 for $2 or $3 million,” says Mirvish. “I got some great producers on board, we were getting these great actors reading the script and then the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008. No one was giving money to make movies. So we put the project on hold.
“Luckily for me a little project I was doing on the side, the Martin Eisenstadt fake pundit project, a series of shorts and CDs and Internet satire, ultimately evolved into a book deal from this very fancy publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.”
He and fellow filmmaker Eitan Gorlin concocted the elaborate Eisenstadt hoax that hoodwinked many major media outlets. The pair’s I Am Martin Eisenstadt novel did quite well critically, thus putting Mirvish in the unusual position of having duped the media and finding himself rewarded and celebrated for it .
“it got better reviews than any film I’ve ever done,” Mirvish says of the book.
Mirvish delights in giving the establishment fits. In 1993 he co-founded the Slamance Film Festival in response to Sundance ignoring smaller indie works. Then he made Omaha, the Movie, perhaps the first indigenous feature shot here by a local crew. He finagled getting VHS tapes of the hyper-kinetic farce into the hands of festival directors and reviewers.
Mirvish is nothing if not persistent and resilient. Several years ago he took a terrible fall from a ladder while remodeling his home. His leg snapped. Broken bones tore through the skin and he lost 40 percent of his blood. He was in the hospital six months, then in a wheelchair for six more and on crutches six months after that. He never stopped working and even fulfilled his Slamdance MC role while still in a wheelchair. The ever intrepid one later worked the experience of the fall and its aftermath into Between Us.
The USC film school grad was mentored by legendary director Robert Altman, whose grandson Dana Altman produced Omaha, the Movie and was an executive producer on Between Us,
After the success of his book Mirvish and native Omahan Sam Johnson, a veteran writer for episodic television, pitched Eistenstadt as a series.
Mirvish says, “We came close to a deal with Showtime. Ashton Kutcher was going to produce. Then a mid-level executive got fired and the whole thing collapsed, which sadly is fairly typical in Hollywood. It was two years of my life with that project.” That’s when Mirvish revived Between Us. He still liked the material and, he says, “it still had the advantage of lending itself to a low budget production.” He got friends, family, even crew, to invest and launched a modest Kickstarter campaign.
Before even most of the money was in hand, Mirvish set a start date.
“Having a start date is really a key thing, and this is something I learned from Robert Altman. If you actually set a start date you’re going to make the movie and you’re going to find a cast. It’s the train leaving the station theory. If the train’s leaving the station people want to be on that train.”
He says the production confirmed another theory he ascribes to that says “every element you have in a movie will at some point drop out – your cast, your camera, your financing, your distribution – but as long as they don’t all drop out the same day you’re going to be OK. And that’s exactly what happened in casting.” Only a few months before shooting he thought his cast would be Diggs, Kerry Washington, Michael C. Hall and America Ferrera. All but Diggs dropped out.
“Taye stuck with it, God bless him, and we built the cast up again.”
Mirvish and Hortua are pleased with the cast they ended up with, David Harbour actually did the play’s first reading and was in its first production.
But the biggest pressure was one that hung over the shoot the whole time.
“The bulk of our financing came from one investor whose check only cleared the third to the last day, which is not the ideal way to make a movie,” says Mirvish. “But you know there were enough people on the crew who were working for free up until that point who really had a passion for the project and the material. We were able to feed off that energy even if we couldn’t feed ourselves with much else.”
Just as he’s done many times before on features and shorts, he begged and borrowed equipment, got free crew, stole locations and did what he had to do. “You just have to have kind of blind faith in your own ingenuity and good luck that somehow it will all come together,” he says.
It’s a good bet that even should Mirvish, now working on a new script set entirely in Omaha, find commercial success he’ll always be a by-any-means necessary guerilla filmmaker at heart.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.