New ’18 1/2′ Film Explores Missing Gaps in Nixon’s Watergate 50th Anniversary Tapes
Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in in 1972. So what happened to the missing 18.5 minutes from Richard Nixon’s tape recordings?
Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972.
So what happened to the missing 18½ minutes of Richard Nixon’s recordings?
That’s the premise of the new film “18½,” which arrives at the Landmark E Street Cinema on June 1 with a Q&A from director Dan Mirvish, co-founder of Slamdance Film Fest.
“I’ve been fascinated by Watergate since I was a kid, when Senate hearings were televised from wall to wall,” Mirvish told WTOP. “I majored in history and political science…then I worked in DC for several years where I was a speechwriter for Senator Tom Harkin, so I loved DC’s political culture and was thinking about Watergate since a long time.”
Written by Daniel Moya, the story is set in 1974 as a White House transcriber becomes embroiled in the Watergate scandal by obtaining the only copy of the 18½-minute gap in the Nixon tapes.
“[She] grabs the missing 18 1/2 minute gap and wants to leak it to a reporter, but they run into hippies, swingers and nefarious forces to get them,” Mirvish said. “It’s historical fiction… We tried to play with the tone. It’s a thriller, but it’s a comedy. Connie’s character walks through the looking glass and meets all these weird people.
The film features familiar faces including Willa Fitzgerald (“Reacher”) as White House reporter Connie, John Magaro (“First Cow”) as investigative reporter Paul, Richard Kind (“Spin City “) as the motel manager and Vondie Curtis-Hall (“ER”) and Catherine Curtin (“Stranger Things”) as a loving couple they meet along the way.
“I know [‘First Cow’] director kelly [Reichardt], we were thinking about John and I was like, ‘Hey, how is he going to work with him?’ She was like, ‘He’s awesome,’ so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take her word for it,'” Mirvish said. “Fitzgerald was recommended by another director friend, Lucky McKee. … then she did ‘Reacher’ and her career took off….Richard was in my last movie.
If you listen closely, you’ll also hear famous actors voice the actual politicians on the tapes, including Bruce Campbell as President Richard Nixon, Jon Cryer as White House Chief of Staff HR “Bob” Haldeman, and Ted Raimi. as General Al Haig.
As these tapes play, the camera slowly zooms in and out like a 1970s political thriller a la All the President’s Men (1976). This is an intentional choice by Mirvish.
“We were only going to use creative techniques that could and would have been done in 1974, so there’s no drone shots, there’s no Steadicams, because that was 1976, so there’s a lot of zooms in there because it was very common at that time. I just liked it as a style. Everything about musical instruments is very appropriate at the time.
His sneakiest directorial trick comes in the foreground with a car on a ferry.
“We found this great place, The Silver Sands Motel, which in the movie is in St. Michaels, Maryland, but in real life it’s on Long Island,” Mirvish said. “I had taken this ferry from Shelter Island to Greenport, New York, and noticed this weird feeling you get. People are sitting behind the wheel of their cars, but you’re moving sideways, forwards, it is not at all natural.
Rather than St. Michaels or Long Island, Mirvish grew up in Omaha, Nebraska.
“There wasn’t a lot of art house to see indie films, but when I went to college in St. Louis I took a Super 8 class, I loved it , and I was involved with a student group that showed movies on campus, did summer school at UCLA,” Mirvish said. “I interned at DC my freshman year, so when I graduated, I went out and did an internship for The Washington Monthly.”
From there, he landed his aforementioned job as a speechwriter for Senator Harkin.
“We recorded a lot of the speeches on video in the Capitol basement, there are a few recording studios there,” Mirvish said. “I was hanging out with the guys in the cabin and they were like, ‘Man, you should apply to film school. …So I went to USC film school.
He made his first feature film “Omaha” (1995) under the mentorship of Robert Altman.
“I met Robert Altman’s grandson, Dana Altman, who lives in Omaha, so he became my producing partner,” Mirvish said. “Robert Altman mentored us on that first film, I got to know him and learned a lot of techniques that I still use to this day, like mic the actors individually, letting them do overlapping dialogue , which come directly from Altman.”
He then directed musicals like “Open House” (2004) and “Half Empty” (2006).
“‘Open House’ was a real estate musical starring Sally Kellerman of ‘M*A*S*H’ and Anthony Rapp of ‘Rent,'” Mirvish said. “It was eligible for an Oscar for Best Original Musical, but to activate that category, it needed five eligible movies. We were like, shit, do another one real quick, so we went to Germany and did a bad musical comedy.
He then adapted Joe Hortua’s Off-Broadway play “Between Us” (2012).
“It was a couple screaming and throwing things at each other,” Mirvish said. “We had Julia Styles, David Harbour, Melissa George and Taye Diggs. It’s a pretty heavy drama. It was supposed to be a bit of a dark comedy, but no one laughed, so we just told everyone it was heavy drama! It was great and fantastic performances from the best actors in the world.
He then directed “Bernard & Huey” (2017) written by Jules Feiffer (“Carnal Knowledge”).
“It was a screenplay he wrote 30 years later that was lost and it took us a year and a half to find it,” Mirvish said. “He had been divorced several times, everything was in storage, he lost it, but we ended up finding a handwritten copy of it in the Library of Congress, they had it in their archives. … I sent a friend of mine to DC and got a copy.
In addition to his own projects, Mirvish also nurtures other emerging filmmakers each year at the Slamdance Film Festival, which he co-founded in Park City, Utah in 1995.
“We started it in the mid-’90s at a time when independent cinema was going to Hollywood, with bigger budgets,” Mirvish said. “They left behind the niche of rookie directors, small budgets without big actors. We stepped in and filled that slot, which was Sundance’s original goal. … We keep doing it right across from Sundance.
For the past 28 years, the festival has showcased iconic future filmmakers.
“We showed early films from Bong Joon-ho, Christopher Nolan, Russo Brothers, Rian Johnson, the late Lynn Shelton, Safdie Brothers, Sean Baker,” Mirvish said. ” We showed [Nolan’s] first film ‘Following’, a small low-budget film he had made in London. … There were 14 people in the audience. … I was like, ‘Man, you gotta hand out flyers.’ »
The festival continues to inspire its cinema by seeing all the quality submissions.
“It’s great to be influenced by younger filmmakers and other filmmakers around the world, to see the latest techniques both creatively but also in terms of distribution,” Mirvish said. “I met a lot of my collaborators, a lot of my cinematographers are people I met there.”
Listen to our full conversation here.