Nebraska native’s fiction film about missing Watergate tape minutes coming to Omaha | movies

Geitner Simmons

Omaha native Dan Mirvish moves in multiple directions in the film universe. A member of the Directors Guild, he’s written an influential book on independent filmmaking and cofounded the Slamdance Film Festival held annually in Park City, Utah. He has lectured at more than 45 film schools and universities around the world.

A master’s-degree alum of the University of Southern California’s film school, Mirvish directed a 1995 film — “Omaha (the movie)” — that provides a fun look back at our city in that era (also with a memorable sequence at the Nebraska Panhandle’s Carhenge).

Since last fall, he has traveled to more than 40 film festivals, on four continents, to showcase his latest film, “18½,” a thriller/comedy about the adventures of a couple trying to uncover the mystery behind the infamous 18½-minute gap. on Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes.

Mirvish has opened “18½” in ​​select cities across the US in recent weeks, and the film comes to Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater on July 1.

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In a Q&A with The World-Herald, Mirvish talked about the challenges of making a movie during the height of the COVID crisis, the ingredients for successful film comedy, opportunities for independent film, and the strong connections he maintains with Omaha and Nebraska. Numerous Nebraskans contributed to the creation of “18½” as investors, actors or production crew members.

“You can take the filmmaker out of Nebraska,” Mirvish says, “but you can’t take the Nebraska out of the filmmaker!”

Q: “18½” features a couple who have a tape with the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap from the Watergate tapes, but the couple stumbles into all kinds of comedic complications that get in the way of their listening to the tape’s all- important contents. How did the script come about, and what are some aspects of it that appealed to you from the start?

A: “I finished shooting my last film, ‘Bernard and Huey,’ in November 2016 in New York, the day after the presidential election. The next day, I went to show dailies to our writer, the legendary cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer , at his place on the eastern tip of Long Island Naturally, the discussion turned to Trump and inevitable comparisons to Nixon, whom Feiffer had written countless cartoons about during Watergate.

That night, I stayed at my buddy Terry Keefe’s motel, the Silver Sands Motel & Cottages, nearby. Terry had inherited the place 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, but no one had shot a feature there. Terry said the motel’s closed in the winter, so that’d be a perfect time to shoot and all the cast and crew could stay there. Hmm, I still had Nixon on the brain, and then this amazing location so the 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. ‘That’s two locations! That’s a movie!’ I said.”

Q: The art and techniques of film comedy need more respect. What are some of the elements — from the director, the actors, or anyone else from the production — that make for successful film comedy? For example, what’s it like as a director to work with actors and help set the stage for successful comedic scenes?

A: “I asked Feiffer that same question, and he put it this way: Everyone has to play it straight, then the audience will find the humor. So, that’s what I’ve tried to do on my comedies. It starts with the script, then the actors, the tone on set that I bring — which can be as simple as the intonation with which you say ‘action’ before a take. Editing is a huge element, and then music is probably the biggest thing. With ‘ 18½’ we made an early decision to go with an original Brazilian-infused bossa nova soundtrack by my amazing composer Luis Guerra.

One reason was because it has an inherent seriousness to the music, which can be very complex, but culturally has an underlying comedic element that’s been imposed on it. It also can be easily modified for thriller and spy elements that serve our story, too. Honestly, with “18½” I did not anticipate it would be regarded as much of a comedy as a thriller until we started to see it with audiences at festivals in the fall.

Turns out they laughed quite a bit. Normally with a film, you get a chance to do some test screenings and are able to dial in the tone a little bit. But because of COVID, we were never able to test the screen with more than one person at a time — so it was hard to predict where the laughs were going to come, if indeed they would at all. And indeed, every different audience finds those moments at different times. For me, that’s been the fun of seeing the film with different festival audiences since the fall.”

Q: Indie films are an important niche in filmmaking. What are some of the great things about indie filmmaking?

A: “The key thing is that you can greenlight yourself. There’s really no excuses for not making a movie anymore. Whether you should make it, and at what budget level are different questions. But the key thing is you can make them. You don’t need Hollywood studios, agents or giant streamers deciding your fates.

If you want to make a movie, you can now. And knowing that the so-called market for indie films is more limited now than ever, also can be freeing in the sense that now, making an indie film is much less about chasing some elusive distribution ‘deal’ and much more about making good film that audiences, somewhere at some point, will enjoy and appreciate. Film is no less an artform than theater, opera, music or fine arts you find in museums, and should be supported and appreciated accordingly.”

Q: You’re an Omaha native, and you maintain your connections with the city. What inspired you to leap into the filmmaking world when you were younger?

A: “I used to watch a lot of independent and challenging films at a screening series at UNO back in the early ’80s. That was also a great era where we could discover amazing movies at video stores. When I started college in St. Louis (Washington University in St. Louis), I took the only film class they had — a Super8 film class, which I loved. So I took a couple of cinematography classes one summer at UCLA and learned how to use a 16mm camera. I kept my interest in film going, despite majoring in political science and history. After two years as a speechwriter to Iowa’s Sen. Tom Harkin in DC, I applied to graduate film school and the only one I got into was USC.”

Q: Can you talk about how you stay in touch with Omaha in the present day?

A: “You can take the filmmaker out of Nebraska, but you can’t take the Nebraska out of the filmmaker. I raise most of my financing through crowdfunding and at least a third of my backers and investors are from Nebraska one way or another Dana Altman, who’s based in Omaha, has been one of my key producing partners since we made ‘Omaha (the movie)’ together almost 30 years ago.

Our stunt coordinator on ’18½,’ Chris Dukes, has been in almost all my movies one way or another. Another star of ‘Omaha (the movie),’ Don Schwartz, also has a small voice role in the film. As does Omaha-based Samantha Buchanan, who was also in my last film Bernard and Huey. Even our sound mixer, Kevin Hill, is a Nebraska native.

We were very happy to have the product placement partnership with Omaha Steaks and even our coffee sponsor, Conscious Coffees in Boulder, Colorado, came because the owner, Craig Lamberty is from Omaha, and his whole family are backers of the film. Finally, my mother, Lynda Mirvish, who still lives in Omaha, is my designated ‘cookie grip’ on all my films, sending fresh-baked cookies to the set.

I still come back to Nebraska frequently, and in addition to visiting family and friends, try to stay in touch with all the Nebraska film institutions, from Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival team, to guest reading at the Johnny Carson School of Theater & Film at UNL or screenings at the Mary Riepma Ross theater, and even screenings at The World theater in Kearney, whose renovation was spearheaded by my pal Jon Bokenkamp.”

Q: The film world faces challenges, but what gives you hope for the future of movies?

A: “It was Alfred Hitchcock who said that ‘the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.’ So, I think people will have the desire and capacity to see non-episodic filmed stories in that 90- to 120-minute range for years to come.

But I do think the shared theatrical experience is a unique one, and whether people need a place to go on date night, or to bring their families, or want to see a unique Q&A with the filmmakers that they can’t get on Netflix, the theatrical film experience will continue long after safety concerns about the pandemic have receded, or at least ebbed until the next variant.”

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