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

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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 Three is below, as Dan discusses reading on bikes, dealing with the Weinsteins, and searching for snow in April. You can catch up on Part One and Part Two here and here.

Paste: Was this your first time doing an adaptation of any kind?
Dan Mirvish: Yeah, absolutely. I had collaborated with other people before, but they were usually my ideas, and then we brought the script together or something like that. But this was my first adaptation. My last kind of substantial film was Open House, the real estate musical, and after that movie had kind of run its course, and we had done this crazy Oscar campaign, it became a Weinstein Company film. They put it out on DVD, and they were interested in turning it into a play, Broadway or off-Broadway, and there were other people interested too. Anthony Rapp and Sally Kellerman both said, “Hey, if you get it up into a play, we’ll be there. Sure, why not?” And its funny, just coincidentally working with both Anthony and Taye, I’m slowly making my way though the cast of Rent, but they both are like the nicest guys ever.

So I made a couple of trips to New York, and again, I was still on a cane or crutches or something at this point, and I made it to New York to meet with Broadway people, agents and producers and pretty much anyone I could find with jazz hands, you know. I said, you guys keep adapting all of these movies that aren’t musicals and trying to turn them into musicals. And sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, and, you know, we have a musical. It’s not that hard to adapt. So it kind of parachutes into a fairly upper echelon of that Broadway community, because I had the Weinsteins and Anthony Rapp kind of in my back pocket. It’s always interesting when you meet kind of senior people in a completely different medium that you’re not used to working with.

And I figured, these opportunities aren’t going to happen too many times, but neither am I particularly interested in theater. Film is kind of what I know how to do. So I said, look, as long as I’m in the room, by the way, do you happen to have any plays that would make good film adaptations, not necessarily musicals, but just straight narrative plays, and they said, “Sure! Here’s stacks and stacks of plays. No one’s ever asked for them.” And if you think about it, and it took a while for me to figure this out, whatever play wins the best drama Tony or Pulitzer, Scott Rudin is going to buy the rights to, or Harvey Weinstein is going to buy the rights to, or Warner Bros. or Searchlight. But everything short of whatever wins just falls by the wayside, falls through the cracks. What happens is the agents who represent the playwrights, they are focused on getting the playwrights TV writing jobs because that’s where the real money is. Ever since Aaron Sorkin came out and started doing West Wing, there’s been like this one way ticket from Broadway to the writing rooms of Hollywood for TV drama. That’s one reason TV dramas have gotten so good in the last 15 years, but the result on the feature side of it is that there’s no incentive for anyone to turn these plays into features, and consequently there’s a lot of great material that’s just sitting there.

So I read a stack of about thirty of these plays, literally, I’d read them while I was rehabbing my leg on a stationary bike, because if you read a play on a moving bike, that’s dangerous and you don’t want to do that. But on the stationary side, you can read a lot of material. And there were really only two that I really liked and seriously considered. Now one was obviously Between Us, and the other was a little political thriller, and my background was in politics. I had been a speechwriter for Senator Tom Harkin, and so I was attracted to that play. Anyway, there was this play Farragut North by this playwright named Beau Willimon, and I liked it but I thought to adapt it well, it would be hard to do on a low budget, as opposed to Between Us, which was four people in two rooms. You could always do that on a low budget if you had to. So I passed on Farragut North, and George Clooney turned it into Ides of March, and you get the happy ending from my sloppy seconds. I wrote a story on the Huff Post a couple of years ago called “How George Clooney Got a Happy Ending From My Sloppy Seconds.”

When I finally made Between Us, I was on the festival circuit. The first festival we played at was Oldenburg, and another film maker who was there, they were actually doing a whole retrospective on him, was Phedon Papamichael, a cinematographer who shoots all of Alexander Payne’s films. He also shoots Clooney’s films, so he shot Ides of March. After Oldenburg, he was on his way to shoot Alexander’s movie, and I was on my way to go to Athens for Athens Film Festival, which is where he’s originally from. And then three weeks after that, I was back in the states, went to the St. Louis festival, and there they put me on the jury because they were showing me out of competition, and the other person on the jury was Beau Willimon. So Beau came to see Between Us, and he had no idea that I had read his play years before. Now I’m buddies with Beau. So anyway, I passed on Ides of March, and Clooney made it. He did fine with it. You know, he’s going places, that guy. And then I decided to make Between Us, and it fit more with where I was in my life, you know late thirties with kids and wife, and dealing with those kinds of issues, I could definitely relate to.

Paste: I hope your life is a little less contentious than the film.
Mirvish: Believe me, I have a great marriage, and I love my wife dearly, but I could relate to it. In the original play, though, when I first read it, the whole first act was set in the Midwestern house, and the whole second act was set in the New York apartment, and I could see where that worked as a play, but as a movie, that would never really work, because if you think back to the movie and deconstruct it, the Midwestern stuff and the New York stuff are very different thematically. It’s the same characters, obviously, but the Midwestern stuff is more about the dissolution of the one marriage, and the New York stuff turns into money and class issues, so I had the idea, why not sort of intertwine them together, you know, flash forward, flash back, and do it that way. So I got together with Joe Hortua, the playwright, and first of all, he was interested in having it turned it into a feature, and he liked this approach of the adaptation, so he and I wrote the adaptation together. Yeah, and people always say, “How are you going to open up the play?” And really what they should be saying is “How are you going to make it more cinematic or more like a movie?” And it’s not just changing locations, which we obviously do, you know there’s the scene in a car, and you know, there’s other things like that, but it’s also editing-wise, what can you do with it that you can’t easily do onstage. And also, what can you do with the camera? But still, I loved the dialogue from the play, so probably 90% of the original dialogue from the play is in the movie. It was more just a matter of what can we do visually to change things up a little bit, and editorially.

Paste: Did you look at all at Carnage when you were doing that or was that the wrong time for that?
Mirvish: No, it was the wrong time period. I mean, Carnage, the play, had been out. Joe had seen it. I hadn’t seen it. I think all of our actors had seen it. And I think Polanski was shooting the movie at about the same time we were shooting our movie. He finished sooner than us, but I still haven’t seen it. I don’t know if I want to see it. Anyway, but the difference between me and Polanski is that I can travel around the U.S. and promote my film freely.

In any case, we wrote the adaptation fairly quickly, and then we tried to find producers. Money. That takes me to that part of the story. Oh and then while we were doing the adaptation, again this is backtracking, just putting all of the pieces together, that was when I said, “You know what? I want to insert a piece of my own life into what happens to Joel.” Because in the play, he tells his monologue, you know, in plays you can do stuff with backstories in monologues, but in movies, you want to see what happens, so he says, “Well, I was drunk, and I walked outside, and there was this church?” But in the movie, you kind of want to see what happens, so I said, alright, what if we take this accident that happens to me, I mean I wasn’t reaching for beer, but I was still on a ladder, and all of that is exactly the same, and the visual metaphor of the wheelchair in the snow, that really came from me. The year I was in the wheelchair, I was in Park City, and I was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone in the snow in a wheelchair because it’s kind of hard to do,” and visually I kind of banked that image. This was before I had even read the play. Then when we were thinking, “Oh, this would work character-wise for the character” and visually put in the wheelchair bit, it all kind of came together in that way. But, you know, I think as the director, when you’re doing an adaptation, you want to have some personal touchstones to it, so that you can say, “Yeah, I do have my heart and soul invested in this.” And you know, that’s just one of those scenes that I can personally relate to. So that was the other element to the adaptation, sort of adding that in.

Paste: How long was your shoot?
Mirvish: Well, I like to say it was the longest three-week shoot I’ve ever been on, because it lasted about four months. We shot this scene in the snow, we had to shoot snow when there was still snow, but it was April 15th in 2011, and we shot in the only place in America where there was still snow – and believe me, we were looking everywhere. I mean, we almost had plane tickets to North Dakota. We had originally set it to shoot in Nebraska, but the snow had melted early that year. Anyway, an hour north of L.A. there was this mountain called Mt. Pinos, and I knew there was still snow there. I had actually scouted it the week before with my 7-year-old son, and he had gotten frostbite, and it was an adventure. But there was still snow. And at the summit of this mountain, I knew that there was this little patch that had no trees and the horizon just kind of drops off because it’s at the summit, so there’s no mountains in the background. So I knew it would look like Nebraska if you had the right camera angle.

So we shot that on April 15th and hiked up this mountain with the crew and the wheelchair and David and his sweat boots and everything, and then about three weeks later I think is when we started rehearsal. And we did 2 weeks rehearsal in my garage – I’m sorry. Not in my garage. We couldn’t use my garage because that was the production office. So, we had to use my kitchen. So we rehearsed primarily in the kitchen. And even during that rehearsal stage, we spent one day doing the still photographs. Two weeks rehearsal, and then three weeks of principal photography in L.A. And then about three weeks after that, I flew out to Nebraska for a week, and shot for a day and a half of exteriors with Dana Altman, and then a week after that, went to New York directly from Omaha for a week and shot for about a day and a half in New York. All the scenes where Julia crosses the street, she goes into the bodega, the scene with the baby. That’s all shot in New York in one day – her on the subway, you know, all of that stuff. So for me, it was a long shoot because I kept carrying the ball and moving it with me.

Paste: With such a small cast, did you worry about the chemistry?
Mirvish: Well, the good news with that is they wound up pretty much all staying at the same hotel the entire time they were in L.A. Even Taye, who lives L.A., would sometimes crash at the hotel because it was just easier than driving, so they really all gelled. During the rehearsal time especially, they would all hang out at the hotel and run through scenes together, even when we weren’t doing formal rehearsal. Julia and Melissa would just run through scenes by themselves. And they really developed that kind of underlying chemistry that hopefully comes through in the movie, in the familiarity with each other. And the script already, as written in the play, already had a lot of overlapping dialogue, which I like a lot, and so you need that kind of familiarity with each other and that sort of rehearsal process to kind of work though a lot of that. So I think that really helped a lot. And they were all doing it for the right reasons. They were all doing it for fun and not for money (laughs). And they all got along very well together.

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