Dan Mirvish, the wild man co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, has just come out with, depending on how you count, either his first or his fourth narrative feature film. This one’s entitled Between Us (based on Joe Hortua’s award-winning play), stars Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs, and is a taut, disturbing, fascinating psychological drama about two troubled couples. Dan spoke with us recently and dropped so much knowledge on u that we’re having to break up his interview into three parts. Part One is below, as Dan discusses lessons from Altman, the art of the bait and switch, and perpetrating political fraud on a global scale.
Paste: If your IMBD page is to be believed this is the fourth feature length film you’ve directed.
Dan Mirvish: Yeah, I like to say it’s fourth depending on how you count. Well let’s put it this way, if the Spirit Awards can count Steve Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower as his first film, then they can count this as my first film. You know, his first film was at Sundance in ’95, and my first film was at Slamdance in ’95, but for whatever reason – let’s put it this way, this is the first film I’ve had that’s been distributed by a third party distributor in theaters.
Paste: You’ve written and directed a host of shorts. What is it that makes you sit up and say, “I need to do a feature?”
Mirvish: Well, the shorts kind of came about between features. And it actually – the shorts like that have really only been fairly recently. In the early part of my career, I didn’t really do short films. If you must know, and you must (laughs), it comes back to when I broke my leg, which was about 7 years ago now. You know, I fell off a ladder and stamped my leg. It portrayed almost exactly what happened in the movie, in Between Us, and we actually shot that in my garage, which is about 30 feet from where it really did happen to me. I had to literally get down on the ground and show David how to land. And then doing the sound effects. It was sort of cathartic, I guess. But it’s something I wanted to put in the adaptation because it made it more personal to me, and it fit the character, and it was more visual.
Anyway, all of which is a roundabout way to say, when that did happen to me, and I was kind of recovering, I think I was still on crutches or a cane maybe, I think, about a year after the accident, and I was mentoring at some film workshop in Albuquerque, and I was getting bored because the team I was mentoring was really good, and they didn’t really need my help. And there were a couple days of postproduction where we were just sitting around the hotel, waiting for the awards thing, and I said, “Screw it, I’ll just do my own short.” We’ve got all of these great kids around, and we have all of this equipment, so let’s just shoot something. So I came up with A Message from the President of Iran because one of the local producers looked like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We shot this thing for three dollars in two hours, standing on one leg. And it was a fun little satire. I came back to L.A., and a week later, I had a bidding war for it and sold it to Current TV for $800.
And all of the sudden, for me, it was like “I should stop feeling sorry for myself.” Forget about my leg. I can direct just fine. And I don’t have to keep making excuses for why I’m not doing my next feature. This business of making shorts is a perfectly valid expression of whatever it is that I do. And then immediately after that, a couple of months later, I shot what would wind up being The Few and the Proud, which is a short that, again, and there’s a long reason why but the point is, again, we shot it for like 2 hours in my garage, and ultimately, that’s actually the one thing that more people have seen of my work than anything else because, again, there was a bit of a bidding war for that. It played at a couple of festivals. Then, two years later, we wound up putting it on YouTube, and now, if you do a search for Marine recruiting on Google, it’s the first or second video that pops up. It’s been seen by at least, I don’t know, 330,000 people or something.
But the interesting thing, and the thing that I like to tell other filmmakers about it, is that if it had played at Sundance, you know, maybe 300 white-haired old ladies and Harvey Weinstein would have seen it. But the audience that sees it on YouTube are active duty marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, you know, at training bases, and the comments on there are hysterical, I mean fucking hilarious. So I tell people, it’s a really good example of using the right medium at the right time for the right film. You know, not every project that you do is supposed to be a feature. Or, not every feature you do is supposed to be a festival film.
And some characters, it seems, may not be films at all — they could lend themselves better to books, as we found out with the Eisenstadt project, which started, again, at around that same time, also while I was on the cane, you know, while I was recovering from this accident. And that same year, I started shooting what started as a promo clip for the videogame that was based on Open House, turned into a car commercial, which turned into a short film, which then when it got into the HBO Comedy Arts Festival, we called it a short pilot and started pitching it as a TV show. And then it became this internet hoax, and then it all culminated in a book deal, which took us as much by surprise as anyone.
But it all kind of relates back to Between Us in that it was happening in 2008, when we were trying to get Between Us made, you know, initially for 2 or 3 million dollars, back when Squid and the Whale was big. And that was kind of the model, you know, the best-case scenario model for indie film. But, as we know, in Fall of 2008, the economy fell through, so we had to completely put the brakes on raising money for Between Us. It didn’t matter what the budget was, you couldn’t raise any money, you know, in the fall of ’08. But luckily, that happened to coincide with the whole Eisenstadt project, which was the little side project I was doing in the garage while I was trying to get Between Us made.
The Fall of ’08 was also the presidential campaign, so the Eisenstadt Project, which by this point, we had shot this whole pilot, which was this fake BBC documentary called The Last Republicans, you know, that had gotten heat, that you know, started the rumor that Sarah Palin thought that Africa was a country instead of a continent. And that had now blown up as this big MSNBC thing because they had reported that Eisenstadt was the source of the story, which of course he wasn’t because he didn’t exist because we made him up because he’s a character, and we got this big half-page profile in the New York Times,, and AP picked up the story, and it ran all over the world. And literally, the next day, we got a book offer from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is apparently is a prestigious publisher. I thought they were fake, but it turned out they were real.
All of which is to say, when presented with the options, you keep not getting paid to not direct a feature film or do you get paid to write a book? My wife told me to write the book, so we did that, and as a creative process, it was very fulfilling. It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun writing it. It did well. We had a great, fun time on the book tour. You know, Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton’s press secretary, threw a big party at his house. We were meeting all the pundits. We were hanging out with senators. Congressmen’s wives were hitting on us. It was more surreal than the book. And it got better reviews than any movie I’ve ever made, and it did very well.
We went back to L.A., and we were pitching it as a TV show, and Ashton Kutcher’s company was going to come on as a producer, and CBS studios, and we were getting ready to pitch it to Showtime, and then some executive midway through the chain got fired, and that whole thing fell through. So the whole Eisenstadt thing took about two years to kind of run its course, and then we said, you know what, lets go back to Between Us. At the end of the day, it’s four actors in two rooms. How hard could it be? Part of the reason I had chosen it in the first place was because it could always be done at a low budget if need be. So we kind of recalibrated it to be a micro-budget – never changed the script. The script always stayed the same, so we knew we were always going to get good actors, but we kind of changed the scope of it and then started raising money off of Kickstarter and Facebook, and, you know, made the movie.
Paste: How much of your final budget did you end up raising through Kickstarter?
Mirvish: Well as a percentage of the final budget, it was pretty small. It was less than 5%, but I always say, It’s called Kickstarter, not Kickfinisher.
Paste: That’s a great line.
Mirvish: And that’s the thing I think people forget about, you know, especially now in the era of Veronica Braff raising $2 million for their fancy things, you know, back then especially, two and a half years ago, it was kind of early in the days of Kickstarter, you know, the trick was to use it as a way to build momentum for your project. I always say the hardest person to convince that you’re making a movie is yourself. But I think Kickstarter is very good at doing is it forces you to take your own project seriously. To say, ok, now I got to do a business plan. Now I got to do a pitch video. Now I have to campaign for a month to promote this pitch video. And then, you’ve got 84 backers, and legally you don’t owe them anything, but emotionally and morally, you’ve got to show them that you’re doing something. And I think, even yesterday, I put out the 49th Kickstarter update. So it keeps you true to your project for years to come.
But specifically what we did with it, we meaning me basically, is I put the business plan, which was more designed for investors, actually as a kind of Trojan horse on the Kickstarter page. There’s actually a link to it, to the PDF of it, and so even though we only got about $10,000 on Kickstarter, indirectly, it let to a lot more money. Because honestly, if you are putting in more than a few of hundred dollars on Kickstarter, you may as well put in in either as an investment or a tax deductible donation through something else, but why would you just give money to someone? That’s why I say, it indirectly led to quite a bit more money.
I think when we had about forty or fifty thousand dollars, and that was enough for us to set a start date because I knew, from having done my previous movie, which is Open House, the real estate musical, we got that in the can for about $20,000 total. So I knew with $40,000 we could make something – maybe shooting it on an iPhone. You don’t what you’re shooting on. You’re eating peanut butter sandwiches, if nothing else, but you can afford to pay the actors because you’re only paying them a hundred dollars a day, and with only four actors, you know, you don’t need that much money.
So that was enough to set a start date. And this was a lesson I always learned from Robert Altman back when he mentored me, and his grandson, Dana, is one of my producing partners on my first movie, and Dana is also a producing partner in this movie. He always said, ‘Set a start date, and then you worry about the cast.’ You know, this business of casting first and all of your financing is contingent on casting, you can chase your tail for years and years and years, and believe me, I have on other things. But part of it is, you know, in the early incarnation, when we thought we were making it for two or three million dollars, that was when we first got agents and managers to read the scripts and actors to read the script, and we knew already that there was a lot of interest in the script because there were good parts for actors, so we kind of had that as a backup, so we said, ‘Yes, now the budget’s only $40,000 or more – at least that – and your actors are only getting in $100 a day, but you’ve already read the script, so you know, it’s the same parts, it’s the same roles, it’s the same great roles for your actors. You don’t have to start the process over of just getting people to read the script. They’ve already read it.
Paste: So start big, and work down from there, right?
Mirvish: Someone put it this way: “Oh so it’s like a bait and switch.” And I was like, “I guess so.” (laughs) Anyway, we weren’t trying to do it that way, but it just worked out. I mean, if you think about it, agents and managers, they would take you more seriously if you had 100% of a $40,000 budget in the bank, as opposed to 0% of the $3 million budget in the bank. And they’ll say things like, “Wait a minute. What camera are you using? How are you paying for your camera?” And we’re like, ‘We’ll worry about that! You just worry about if your actors want to get paid 100 bucks a day.’ You know, the way SAG works is that if your budget is under $200,000, it doesn’t matter – you know, you’re paying the actors the same whether its $40,000 or $190,000. Anyway, so as far as the agents and actors were concerned, we were like, “You let us worry about the crew. We’ll worry about that.” And to their credit, there’s a lot of really wonderful actors who, make their money on their work in TV or movies or big Hollywood things. They don’t need to make money on everything they do. But a lot of them want to kind of cleanse their artistic palate by working on these cool indies every now and then.
Paste: One for them, one for me, right?
Mirvish: Exactly, so as far as they’re concerned, it doesn’t matter whether you’re offering them $65,000, which is what we were offering when it was a $3 million movie, or $100 a day. They’re doing it because they want to do it. Money isn’t an issue one way or the other. So the trick, really, is to get the agents and the managers excited about it. That’s the challenge, and that’s where developing and maintaining long-term relationships with those agents and managers also makes a big difference too. In 2007 and 2008, I was driving around managers, you know, feeding them breakfast, and then four years later, called them up again and they remembered me.
UPDATE: See Part Two of the Dan Mirvish interview here.
BETWEEN US trailer: