Catching Up With Dan Mirvish on Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, and Between Us (Part Two)

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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 Two is below, as Dan discusses losing Kerry Washington to Scandal, squealing over Taye Diggs, and forced marches up mountains. To catch up on Part One, go here.

Paste: Let’s talk about your four fantastic actors. I’m such a Melissa George Fan.
Dan Mirvish: Sure, let me start with Taye. It’s kind of chronological. So, for me, everything begins and ends with Slamdance, you know, for better or for worse. I’m blacklisted from different festivals because of Slamdance, but you know…

Paste: But you’re short listed at some festivals because of Slamdance.
Mirvish: But I’m short listed at others. There you go. I like that. But for me Slamdance is always a great opportunity for me to reconnect with people in this business every year and kind of stay relevant. But anyway, in January of 2011, I was at an Slamdance and was meeting an agent, and he wanted to drink. And it’s funny, we always have free liquor, so I was like, “Yeah, come on up.” And this was like the Junior Indie Finance sales guy at ICM, and he had known about the project for a while, and at that point, we had just raised our $40,000 or so, and we had just set our start date. So again, that’s the key thing. We had just set the start date. And we had some other actors who were pretty much close to being attached at the time. Or so we thought, because when you are making these low budget things, no one is really attached until they show up on set. When you’re operating on $100 a day, they’re all like, “Yeah I’ll be there” and then you know Spielberg calls, and you’re like, “Hello? Where’d they go?”: Or Kerry Washington has to shoot this pilot for a show called Scandal. Well alright, I guess we can’t cast her, and she was semi-attached at that point.

So we had some good names floating around. America Ferrera was maybe going to be in it. Michael G. Hall was maybe going to be in it. Interesting people. So all of the sudden, this agent picks up and is like, “Wow, you guys are really getting your shit together.” So, I think what happened is that as soon as he walked out of the room, he forwarded the script to a buddy of his who was a junior talent agent also at ICM, one of his colleagues but out of the New York office. That guy read the script overnight, called me the next day, and I had no idea why he was calling me, and he said, “I love the script. What can I do to help?” And I was like, “Well, get us some more actors.” And like two days later, he calls me back and is like, “OK, let me send you on to some of my other colleagues here and maybe get you some actors.’

So he calls me back – you will appreciate this, Michael, specifically. You may have heard this story from Adrian. As you know, I drive my minivan to Park City every year because it’s more fun, and I usually drive up with Adrian Belic, Oscar-nominated documentarian. For seven years, we’ve been driving up together, and we always have other people with us. So this year, that was the year that Adrien had a girlfriend, and she was in the van. [Slamdance co-founder]Paul Rachman and [documentarian] Karin Hayes were in the van too. And as we left Park City, we were like, “Oh let’s take the scenic route and go through Heber City.” Except that I took a wrong turn in Heber City, or I didn’t take the right turn I think was the problem, and the next thing we know, we’re almost in Colorado, so we’re having the crazy, madcap adventure in Utah, and in the middle of Utah, like literally in the middle of nowhere, I get the phone call from that same agent in New York, saying “Hey, what do you think of Taye Diggs? You want to meet with him in on Tuesday?” And I turned to everyone in the van, especially to Karin and Jessie I think was her name, Adrien’s girlfriend at the time, and said, “Ladies, what do you think of Taye Diggs?”And I think they fainted. They swooned, anyway. So I’m like, “Yeah. I’ll meet with Taye Diggs. You got it.”

So two weeks later I was in L.A. meeting with Taye Diggs, and he was like, “I’m in. I want to do this. This is awesome.” Yeah, it was a whirlwind. And then, to his credit, he – you know, I think the material really spoke to him in a lot of ways. He had just done five seasons on Private Practice. He was looking to really stretch his dramatic muscles into something interesting. But also, he had just had a baby. He was married, and so he was wrestling with a lot of the same issue the characters in the movie were wrestling with. So he really wanted to do it. And three people who we had already cast had at that point all dropped out- because I always say when making a movie, everything and everyone will drop out, but as long as they don’t all drop out on the same day, you’re ok. So you can always keep the ball rolling. But very much to Taye’s credit, he stuck with it. I gave him a real kind of stake in it too. I said, “Well, now help me cast it.” And he did. He really kind of had casting approval over the other three actors. And then more importantly, from a practical standpoint, his agent then really stepped up because then, his agents and ICM really had a stake in making this thing come together. And in the end, all four actors came from the same agency, and three of them came from the same agent. We were always talking to other agencies and management companies too, but it just worked out that way. So that was Taye, and then a few weeks later – you know, every week, I was meeting with young, beautiful actresses, and you know, that’s a horrible job to have. (laughs)

Paste: Yeah, tough job. How was your marriage during that time?
Mirvish: Well, surprisingly good because you have these so-called “lunch meetings” with these beautiful actresses and, you know, actors and actresses don’t eat. They just don’t. They just, you know, whatever. So, you can go to a reasonably nice place, and they’ll just have coffee. And then, you come home to your wife, and everything’s coolAnd actors too. Guys. Dudes. Meeting with dudes too. But anyway, the point is that I was having a meeting with one actress, and before the meeting even ended, I get a call from her agent. Normally the agents wait until you’re done with the meeting before they call and say, “How’d it go? What did you think?” But he calls me up, and I sort of left the meeting a little early, heading back to my car, and he’s like, “Forget about her. What do you think of Julia Stiles?” And I’m like, “She’s great!” She was always kind of floating on our lists, and you know, we never had firm lists, but we just had different kinds of lists, and I said “She’d be wonderful, but she’s always busy and we never thought we could get her.” And I said, “Isn’t she in a Broadway play that’s about to start premiering?” And he says, “Yes, there’s this Neil Labute play, which I think was called Fat Pig, that she was supposed to be in that I think was supposed to be either Neil’s first play on Broadway or Julia’s first play on Broadway, it was a big deal, and they had been rehearsing for a month, and they were going to be booked on Broadway for five months. Anyway, the financing had fallen through two hours before, so he’s panicking because they have this huge amount of time blocked off in Julia’s schedule that is now available, you know. And Hollywood movies can’t cast a movie on a dime, certainly not with great actors. They can’t be like, “Oh yes, star in our movie next week.” But an indie film like mine can do that. We were nimble enough that we could do that. So I said, “Yes! Send her the script!” Luckily, I also knew that her manager – remember that mentioned I had taken a manager out for lunch or breakfast like four years before? That was her manager. So I knew her manager was a fan of the project. We just needed her to read it. So she read it overnight, and she called me up the next day and said, “I’m in.” So, the trick is to find actors at their most vulnerable, emotional moments and swoop in.

Paste: And that’s when you raise your eyes to heaven and thank the God of filmmaking for being on your side on this one.
Mirvish: Exactly. And Taye was obviously excited to have her involved, so then we went from there. And then we got David Harbour, and David had been in the original off-Broadway play, and that had actually done a lot for his career. Based on that he got cast in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, when it was on Broadway in revival like ten years ago, and he got a Tony nomination for that. He was available, and we brought him out to L.A. and started shooting with him. Because actually the scene in the wheelchair on the snow, we had to shoot like three weeks before anything else because we needed snow, and that was the only place we could do it. So we actually shot that on top of a mountain. We had to hike for an hour carrying four hundred pounds of equipment with eight people and a wheelchair to get that one shot, but, you know, we got it. Anyway, so that was David. That was his first experience working with Dan Mirvish, was hiking. His boots cracked open, we had to tie them together with gaffer tape. Like everything else, it was a fiasco, but he was in.

And then, coming to Melissa. Again, we had other people for that part that we were circling around or that we wanted, and at one point someone was committed and then they had to drop out, and then it was really only about, I don’t know, three days before rehearsal was scheduled to start that we got Melissa. And with all of the other actors, I would either meet them over coffee when they were in L.A. or whatever or talk to them on the phone or Skype, but Melissa was in Argentina, so I couldn’t touch base with her directly. So that was kind of a hail Mary offer, the discussion with her agent, and again, it was the same agency, so they were big fans by then, and they said, “Well, we think Melissa will like it.” And so she came on. And I had never met her before, and the first day I met her was when she walked in my kitchen on the first day of rehearsal, which you know, that was a leap of faith for me, but probably more so for her, and she just blew it away. I mean, she was amazing in the film. I had seen her, I mean, like you, I had always been a fan of hers. For me, I think I first noticed her in Alias. But, you know, she had worked on features and obviously In Treatment, she had just gotten the Golden Globe nomination for In Treatment, and I could see that she could do an American accent. And she was great. She brought so much to it, a kind of fun and energy into the part that was so textual, but she really brought it out of there. She was just a wonderful person to work with.

UPDATE: See Part three of Dan’s interview here.

BETWEEN US trailer:

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