New movie ’18 1/2′ explores gap in Nixon tapes on 50th anniversary of Watergate

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews '18 1/2' (Part 1)

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972.

So what ever happened to the missing 18½ minutes of Richard Nixon’s tape recordings?

That’s the premise of the new film “18½,” which comes to the Landmark E Street Cinema on June 1 with a Q&A by director Dan Mirvish, co-founder of the Slamdance Film Fest.

“I’ve been fascinated with Watergate since I was a kid when the Senate hearings were on TV wall to wall,” Mirvish told WTOP. “I majored in history and political science … then I worked in D.C. for a number of years where I was a speechwriter for Sen. Tom Harkin, so I just loved the D.C. political culture and had been thinking about Watergate for a long time.”

Written by Daniel Moya, the story is set in 1974 as a White House transcriber is thrust into the Watergate scandal by obtaining the only copy of the 18½-minute gap in Nixon’s tapes.

“[She] gets ahold of the missing 18½-minute gap and wants to leak it to a reporter, but they run afoul of hippies, swingers and nefarious forces out to get them,” Mirvish said. “It is historical fiction … We tried to play around with the tone. It’s a thriller, but it’s a comedy. Connie’s character just goes through the looking glass and meets all these weird people.”

The film stars familiar faces, including Willa Fitzgerald (“Reacher”) as the White House transcriber Connie, John Magaro (“First Cow”) as the investigative journalist Paul, Richard Kind (“Spin City”) as the motel manager, and Vondie Curtis-Hall (“ER”) and Catherine Curtin (“Stranger Things”) as an affectionate couple that they meet along the way.

“I know [‘First Cow’] director Kelly [Reichardt], we were considering John and I was like, ‘Hey, how is he to work with?’ She was like, ‘He’s great,’ so I said, ‘Alright, 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 film.”

If you listen closely, you’ll also hear some famous actors voicing the real-life politicians on the tapes, including Bruce Campbell as President Richard Nixon, Jon Cryer as White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and Ted Raimi as General Al Haig.

When these tapes are playing, the camera slowly zooms in and out like a 1970s political thriller a la “All the President’s Men” (1976). It’s an intentional choice by Mirvish.

“We were only going to use creative techniques that could have and would have been done in 1974, so there are no drone shots, there is no Steadicam because that was ’76, so there’s a lot of zooms in there because that was very common in that era. I just liked that as a style. Everything to the musical instruments are very period appropriate.”

His sneakiest directing trick comes in the opening shot with a car on a ferry.

“We found this great location, The Silver Sands Motel, which in the film is in St. Michaels, Maryland, but in real life is on Long Island,” Mirvish said. “I had taken that ferry from Shelter Island to Greenport, New York, and I noticed this bizarre sense you get. People sit behind the wheel of their cars, yet you’re moving sideways, forward, it’s very unnatural.”

Rather than St. Michaels or Long Island, Mirvish grew up in Omaha, Nebraska.

“There weren’t a lot of art houses to see independent film, but when I went to college in St. Louis, I took a Super 8 class, loved that, and was involved in a student group that showed films on campus, did summer classes at UCLA,” Mirvish said. “I did an internship in D.C. my junior year, so when I graduated I came out and interned for The Washington Monthly.”

From there, he landed his aforementioned speechwriter job for Sen. Harkin.

“We recorded a lot of the speeches on video in the basement of the Capitol, there’s a couple of recording studios,” Mirvish said. “I’d hang out with the guys in the booth and they’d be like, ‘Dude, you should apply to film school.’ … So I went to USC film school.”

He directed his debut feature “Omaha” (1995) under the mentorship of Robert Altman.

“I ran into 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-ing actors individually, letting them do overlapping dialogue, that comes straight from Altman.”

He next directed musicals like “Open House” (2004) and “Half Empty” (2006).

“‘Open House’ was a real-estate musical with Sally Kellerman from ‘M*A*S*H’ and Anthony Rapp from ‘Rent,'” Mirvish said. “That was eligible for an Oscar for Best Original Musical but in order to activate that category there needed to be five eligible films. We were like, screw it, let’s make another real quick, so we went to Germany and made a bad musical.”

He next adapted Joe Hortua’s Off-Broadway play “Between Us” (2012).

“That was a couple yelling and throwing things at each other,” Mirvish said. “We had Julia Stiles, David Harbour, Melissa George and Taye Diggs. That’s a pretty heavy drama. It was supposed to be a bit of a dark comedy, but nobody laughed, so we just told everyone it was a heavy drama! It was great, fantastic performances by the world’s best actors.”

He next directed “Bernard & Huey” (2017) penned by Jules Feiffer (“Carnal Knowledge”).

“This was a script that he had written 30 years later that had been lost and it took us a year and a half to find,” Mirvish said. “He’d been divorced a couple times, everything was in storage, he lost it, but we eventually found a handwritten copy of it at the Library of Congress, they had it in their archives. … I sent a buddy of mine in D.C. and got a copy.”

In addition to his own projects, Mirvish also nurtures other rising filmmakers every 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 film was going Hollywood,” Mirvish said. “[Sundance] left behind the niche of the first-time directors, low budgets with no big-named actors. We stepped in and filled that niche, which was the original purpose of Sundance. … We just keep doing it right across the street from Sundance.”

Over the last 28 years, the festival has showcased future iconic filmmakers.

“We’ve shown the first films of 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 little low-budget film he’d done in London. … There were 14 people in the audience. … I was like, ‘Dude, you gotta pass out some flyers.'”

The festival continues to inspire his own filmmaking by seeing the quality submissions.

“It’s great being influenced by younger and other filmmakers from around the world, seeing the latest techniques both creatively but also in terms of distribution,” Mirvish said. “I’ve met a lot of my collaborators, a lot of my cinematographers are people I met there.”

Join Mirvish for a Q&A and screening of “18½” at Landmark E Street Cinema on June 1.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews '18 1/2' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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