Dan Mirvish is an author, a co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, and an award-winning filmmaker. His most recent feature, Between Us (2012), was awarded the Grand Prize at the Bahamas International Film Festival. Adapted from a 2004 play by Joe Hortua, Mirvish’s film has found international acclaim for its quartet of principal actors: Taye Diggs, Julia Stiles, David Harbour, and Melissa George. Between Us begins a theatrical run in the United States on June 21 and will be available on Video-on-Demand on July 31. Mr. Mirvish spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about the play-to-film adaptation process, his multimedia career leading up to the feature, and what it means to be involved in politics. This interview, conducted in June 2013, has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: Let’s get rolling on a timeline for your film. Can you tell me a bit about the process of going from play to film production? Joe [Hortua] writes the play [of the same name] on commission in 2004…
Dan Mirvish: That’s correct. Then I found the play around 2006 or ’07…something like that. It’s been a while. *laughs* I had made Open House around 2004 and we were in process on our Oscar campaign for Best Original Music. At the end of that extended process, we finally got distribution for the film through one company that got bought by another company that got bought by the Weinstein Company. Even so, we were still able to put on the back of the DVD box, “From the film that changed the rules of the Academy Awards!”
SM: During the trial of getting Open House out there, were you in the market for a new project?
DM: After the Weinstein Company started to distribute it, there was talk about turning Open House into a play. That brought me out for two different trips to New York to meet with theatre folks. Now, I had had no interest or avocation for theatre previously.
SM: Who constitutes the “theatre folks” group?
DM: Producers and agents, of course. Also, yes, some people who worked or ran theaters. Anyone I could find with jazz hands. Coming in with the strong pedigree of [our distributor] and of Anthony Rapp, who had starred in the movie – and in Broadway terms, Anthony is a huge star —
SM: You must have gotten some buoyancy from Rapp’s success in Rent around that time, both on Broadway and in film.
DM: By that time, the musical had already come and gone on Broadway. But the DVD of Open House was released around the same time as Rent [2005, Columbus] the movie was coming out. And since Anthony Rapp is huge on Broadway, but not such a big name in Hollywood, we milked that for all it was worth *laughs*. I had said to him and to his co-star, Sally Kellerman, “There’s talk about turning our film into a play. Are you interested in being in it?” And they had both just said, “Sure, if it happens.” But you mention that response to Broadway producers and they say, “Woo!” Because of that, I had more cache than I had expected and was meeting with agents and some higher-ups to find a playwright to collaborate with.
SM: Someone to help you reverse-adapt your movie to the stage.
DM: Exactly. What’s funny is that the agents and theater owners and Broadway producers are always hungry for material to put on stage, and always trying to turn non-musical film projects into musicals. But I just thought, “Our film is already an original musical…we’ve kind of done all the work for you.” So when I was taking these meetings, I asked some of these people if they had any plays that would make good film adaptations. Apparently, no one had ever asked them for these [pieces], so they made a stack for me of thirty plays that I literally shoved into a suitcase. I realized reading these, since most of them were not very good, that whatever wins the Pulitzer for Drama or a Tony for Best Play gets its rights bought by someone like Scott Rudin or Harvey [Weinstein]. Anything else, however, Broadway or Off-Broadway, just falls through the cracks, and no one buys them for film. In most cases, this is because the agents of the playwrights themselves are trying to get them into television.
SM: They’re all trying to put their clients on the Beau Willimon [showrunner/writer of Netflix’s House of Cards and co-writer of The Ides of March (2011, Clooney)] path.
DM: Ever since Aaron Sorkin’s transition, really, has the modern version of this trend come up. It’s actually a joke in [television] writers’ rooms in Los Angeles, like, “How many playwrights are here?”
SM: After working on many original projects in your career up to that point, why did you search out a play to adapt for film?
DM: I knew that Robert Altman had done that successfully with films like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) and Secret Honor (1984), and it seemed like a good way to find material. At the same time, I had begun work on an original script for a military satire that I’d gotten pretty far on. I had about fifteen pages written when a friend told me that Judd Apatow was developing something similar.
SM: These days, everything is done in doubles: two Snow White movies, two Alfred Hitchcock movies, etc. If you had known then what you know now, maybe your film could have been made.
DM: I didn’t know exactly what Apatow’s project was going to look like but I knew it would be too close for comfort. So then I became torn between this military project and a serious drama; looking at my career at that time, having just done two musicals, made me consciously search for this Sundance-type drama [in the stack of plays]. In my mind, it’s much more important to deal with whatever subjects you’re looking at and to let the medium work itself out.
SM: In your case, at this point in your film’s production timeline, plays were your choice of medium.
DM: Of those thirty plays in the stack they gave to me, there were only two that I truly liked.
SM: One of them was clearly Between Us by Joe Hortua [Mirvish’s co-screenwriter]. Is it somehow a conflict of interest to mention the other one?
DM: Absolutely not, because you’ve already mentioned the playwright: Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. On paper, that was a perfect fit for me because I had worked in politics as a speechwriter for [Iowa Senator Tom Harkin] and worked on a campaign there as well. I was torn between that play and Between Us, but when I considered Farragut North, I figured that it would be much harder to do on a low budget. This as opposed to Between Us, which is essentially four people in two rooms, which you can always do for no money, if necessary. On top of all that, I thought that Joe’s play fit me a little better in terms of my age. Being married, having babies, dealing with financial issues, artistic integrity, spirituality…I could relate to this, this, this, and this, whereas [the protagonist] in Farragut North looked more like me ten years previously.
SM: And suddenly you’ve moved into 2006 in this process?
DM: It might have been 2007 that I went and met with Joe in New York. The big question, then, was: does this playwright even want to work with me? It’s his agent who has set these meetings up, after all. He had already been getting into television by that time and it turned out that he was interested in turning the play into a feature. Once we started working together, I also found out he had already begun to write the screenplay-based-on-the-play. Some of those scenes did make it into the final film. Joe had written a lot of overlapping dialogue into the play, which I really liked. And because the dialogue and characters were already so strong, our major challenge was in adapting the structure —
SM: You’re about to answer my next question before I can even ask it.
DM: *Laughs* Right, well…If you look closely at the film, the first major setpiece is this Midwestern house where Joel [David Harbour] and Sharyl [Melissa George] live. The second, in New York, is much more between all four characters [Carlo, played by Taye Diggs, and Grace, played by Julia Stiles, included]. I saw how easily that worked in the play but was concerned by how we could get that structure into film. I had the idea to fold the two setpieces so we could create a better relationship between the two acts of the play. That – which isn’t something you could easily do onstage – was the biggest change we made. After dealing with the structure and adding a couple scenes to make it more cinematic, I think the whole adaptation only took a couple of months, and soon after, we got our producers Dana Altman, who had worked with me on Omaha: The Movie (1995) and Barry Hennessey, who had helped produce Open House. Two other guys signed on that I had not worked with: [producer] Hans Ritter, who lived just a couple blocks up from me at the time, and Mike S. Ryan, who sadly lived in New York. His mom, who was a subscriber at the Manhattan Theatre Club, had seen the play in New York. So he had heard of it already.
SM: Mr. Ryan produced Rick Alverson’s incredible The Comedy (2011), which shares some of its darkness, humor and disillusionment with your film. Had you seen that before you started working together?
DM: No, but I do have it on my Netflix queue; I’ve heard good things. Mike and Hans were the kinds of producers who had by this time already had six or seven films at Sundance, and on paper we looked like a pretty good team. But there are two kinds of producers: ones who raise the money, and ones who spend it. And not one of us was good at the former. By the summer of 2008, after we’ve been talking to agents for a while thinking we were going to have two or three million dollars with some foreign sales and some equity here and there, and therefore a name cast, the whole country’s economy runs out of money. So any concept of making a film or any project of that ilk at that budget – which had become sort of the norm after Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) came out with a similar price tag – became impossible.
Luckily for me, this was right around the time of the 2008 election and I was in the middle of stuff with Martin Eisenstadt [a satirical political pundit character co-created by Mirvish and Eitan Golin]. That had gone from being a sketch to a short film to a parody site to a TV pitch to a book. We got a book offer from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, which I thought was a hoax; but Eitan called me and said, “Nope, it’s real – they just took me to lunch and they paid.” I had never in a million years considered a book, but when presented with the option of not getting paid to make a movie, or getting paid to write a book, one’s wife tells you to write the book *laughs*. So I did, and we did…down the line we came up with the idea for a TV show based on the character. We teamed up with television writers and producers Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil, who had worked on some seminal comedy shows like Frasier and Just Shoot Me! They were good partners because we always had a clear vision for what the show would be: a single-camera comedy about this political pundit who lived in his mother’s basement.
SM: There’s no such IMDB credit on this project, which leads me to believe something seriously fell out despite the prospective greenlight and strong collaborators.
DM: Some executive, somewhere, was pushed out, and the project fell into the abyss. The producers said to me, “Maybe we should get back to Between Us?”
SM: By the time you returned to the film, the independent film budget had really started to veer towards the new model for “Sundance-type” films: microbudgeting and garage-shot films.
DM: Well, that model certainly wasn’t new for me, but we just used to call it “no-budget.” But then I thought, “The whole reason I picked this film was that I could do it in two rooms with four people!” My previous casting director, Liz Jereski, suggested we go back to the film, and put form some of her own money towards it. Suddenly it became real enough that we raised some money on Facebook and about ten grand on Kickstarter, which was just starting at that time. That indirectly led to some farmers in Nebraska giving us some money but that only came about after Dana offered to make them venison stew. I’m still not entirely sure if Dana killed the deer himself, because he’s not a very good bow hunter.
SM: The four principle actors in your film are all represented by ICM Partners. Did you also get a financing package from them?
DM: No, they didn’t put any money forward directly towards the project. They were involved in the making of the film because of their actor clients, but didn’t raise any money for it, so I wouldn’t technically use the term, “packaging.” However, after we finished post[production], they would represent the film to distributors and do a great job at that. Our relationship with ICM was good because one of their book-to-film agents was instrumental in helping Eitan and me get the Eisenstadt show to pilot. But there was another guy, an indie-film agent from ICM named Peter Trinh, called me to ask if I wanted to have drinks with him during Slamdance [of which Mirvish is the co-founder.] I thought he just wanted to get a free drink in Park City or something. Years before this, ICM had been one of the companies we took the script to, and they had been interested in getting it made. Flashforward to this Slamdance and we’re getting pretty close to making the film anew. We’ve raised enough that we set a start date and we think we have key cast attached. Now, here, I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I believe Peter sent the script that day – from his cell phone or something – to a junior talent agent in New York. He read the script over and called me the next day while I’m driving home from Park City in a mini-van. He said, “I love it. How’d you like to meet with Taye Diggs on Tuesday?” Sure enough, I met with Taye, and like that, he was in. Up until the very end of the casting process, we remained in discussions with cast from various other agencies. But it was far from a coincidence that the cast with the strongest potential – which I have to give props to Peter’s agent-colleague, Armen Stevens, for seeing – all come from the same agency.
SM: It’s interesting that David Harbour, who appears in the film as Joel, had originated the role onstage.
DM: *laughs* I think there are about five people in Hollywood and they all know each other. He actually did a reading of it with Michael C. Hall, who had been attached to the film at one point early on but sadly fell through with scheduling issues. Oddly, it was the role of Grace that was in the highest demand among the actors. An agent called me to suggest his client, Julia Stiles, for the role. Even though Julia had been on our running list for the role, we hadn’t considered her deeply because she was a big movie actress, had been on Dexter, and seemed busy. Her agent told us she was attached to a play [Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig] and that its financing had just fallen through hours before. By another coincidence, years and years before, we had given her manager the script and knew he liked it. So when the agent asked if we’d want Julia, we said, “Um, duh,” sent a script over, and had her locked twenty-four hours later.
SM: Amazingly, you’ve just detailed a half-decade process of getting your most recent feature film made. By the time you start shooting the film, it’s already 2011.
DM: Almost exactly two years ago – the first day of shooting was on April 15 of that year, in the mountains in Frazier Park. I had scouted Mt. Piños with my seven-year-old son the week before. He nearly got frostbite, my car engine overheated, and my son got to operate the tow truck. A week later, we shot the scene with David in the snow. We were with a skeleton crew carrying five-hundred pounds of equipment, hiking to the summit for an hour. David had to wear an old pair of boots that split open right in the center and we had to wrap them up with gaffer’s tape.
SM: So your son got his IMDB credit as a production assistant?
DM: Location scout.
SM: Where else did you shoot? I saw in the credits you shot some at Santa Clarita Studios, where I’m from.
DM: Interior, car scenes at night with David and Taye were shot up there, and exterior car, daytime, with the four of them. We shot for a week in Los Feliz and everything else at the Redbury Hotel, which was amazing. They wanted us to shoot there and they were very cool to us. When we finished shooting here, I went out to Omaha with Dana and shot some exteriors of Sharyl and Joel’s home. We got a local car dealership to do some product placement for the company in exchange for test-driving their cars on camera for the exterior shots. The owner of the dealership had apparently gone to school with Denis Leary and kept saying, “That guy’s a big movie star and now I’m gonna be one! Let me drive the car.” So he put on my hat, which in the film is Taye’s [character Carlo’s] hat, and he and a co-worker stayed up all night driving around. It seemed like a lot of fun for them and we got a lot of great footage there. The next week, exteriors of Julia crossing the streets of New York and having her dream sequences.
SM: The city of Omaha seems to be a continuing setting or theme in your work, and I’m interested in its recurrence. You were born in Madison, Wisconsin and were raised in Nebraska, weren’t you?
DM: Born in Madison, moved to Israel when I was two months old, then moved back to Omaha when I was two and lived there until I was eighteen. I went back to shoot Omaha (the movie) in 1993, and I’ve continued to work with Dana on and off since then.
SM: When you were on the search for a play to convert to a feature, was it essential for the piece to have themes regarding or a setting in the Midwest?
DM: Not at all, actually – I think it’s just a coincidence. In fact, there’s a monologue in the film that David delivers on [the quality of life in] the Midwest. I was quite resistant to that at first for a very specific reason: there’s an extremely similar monologue in Omaha. But of course no one has seen that…
SM: On the other hand, Ms. George’s character Sharyl has a totally opposite monologue on the subject that is a significant portion of her screen time.
DM: That was added. In general, the female roles in the movie are beefed up compared to what they were in the play. That was by design for two reasons: first, I knew I wanted to make more of a four-hander, and second, that by doing so my chances of casting bigger female stars who are searching for significant roles, of which there are fewer than there should be, were greatly improved. That turned out to be absolutely true.
SM: Sharyl’s and Joel’s monologues seem to be in direct contrast to one another’s opinions of their little town. Where on that spectrum do you stand?
DM: Well, I like the Midwest. But what’s interesting, as some people in Q-and-A’s have caught onto, is that we never specify the name of the town they live in. Now if you’re from Omaha, you’ll recognize landmarks left and right almost immediately in the birds-eye view shots of the city. During production and the adaptation process, we didn’t know how much footage, if any, we would get in Nebraska. We got lucky with the weather – there was only one day where it was beautiful, clear skies, and every other day there we had rain. I’m also part of a group in Los Angeles called the Nebraska Coast Connection, which is a group of Nebraskan ex-pats living out here and working. About five of them were hired to work on the film. One of them even had a University of Nebraska backpack, and we considered having that in the film so that we could be more explicit about where the characters were. But we didn’t have enough time to get the rights sorted out, and besides, the play had always been adamantly specific about Grace and Carlo’s apartment in New York but largely vague on the house’s location in the Midwest.
SM: I want to avoid making too many Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? references, because they abound in reviews of your film. But your film and that film share significant levels of animosity between people engaged in a class warfare, those who have enough money to live and work in Manhattan versus those who choose to live in, say, Nebraska.
DM: This is something I notice and think about every year when I return to Omaha, where my parents still live and where I still have several friends. People who live in Omaha or any of these other major Midwestern towns, like Des Moines or Kansas City, are engaged in the artistic and social cultures of their communities. Yet there’s this elitism that people in New York or Los Angeles have against people who live in the Midwest. And then there’s people, like Sharyl and Joel, who move from a coastal city to a place like Omaha and find their opinions evolving over time. Talking to Melissa [George], I realized her character was a lot like my own mother. My mom grew up in Johannesburg and worked in advertising there like a Mad Men character. She’s now been stuck in Omaha for forty-three years.
SM: Is it just another coincidence that your film is finally finding its way into theaters just after class warfare has swayed the country’s entire political atmosphere? With the Occupy movement so prolific, and discussions about “The 99%,” the film could have a strong impact on the more involved members of the younger generation.
SM: *Laughs* Anything in the way of evidence of this type of impact?
DM: Nah, nothing other than having crowds who are broadly aware of the economic issues in our country. Audiences at Slamdance did suggest that the economic crash in 2008 is giving the film a bit more resonance, though, you know?
SM: That’s exactly what I’m saying. Imagine if your film had come together successfully in 2007 and been released before the crash with a different cast. Would it have been able to find as successful an emotional berth?
DM: That’s interesting, but I don’t know. When Joe starting writing and developing it in 2002, it was much more a reaction to the events of 9/11. There’s one scene in the movie where Taye talks about people wearing, “I Love New York!” t-shirts in Taipei. In the play, that was much more specific about referencing September 11. In the film, we made it a bit less specific so it didn’t seem too timely.
SM: One of the added scenes in your film finds David Harbour’s character falling from a ladder and permanently damaging his ability to walk. This happened to you in real life, and you filmed the scene in your garage, too. When I see so much autobiography implemented into a film, I can’t help but wonder how much of your authorship permeates the other characters in the work. Just as an example, both Carlo’s and Joel’s marriages are nearly crushed by having children…
DM: Is that a theme? I’m not sure. Perhaps in Carlo’s and Grace’s cases, but I don’t see that so much specifically running through the film.
SM: That’s good, because I’m in danger of applying the Intentional Fallacy to the film.
DM: Strangely enough, I’ve been more productive since having a child…since having all my children.
SM: You partly run a film festival, you wrote a book, you make films. How could you have been more artistically productive since having kids?
DM: I think it disciplines you, you know? When you have some time in the day, you start to think, “Wow, I better make the most of this.” Whereas before, you wake up whenever you want and just sort of flit around.
SM: Does it help to work with your whole family on a project? They’re all credited in some capacity, and not just in the “Thank You” section.
DM: Rebecca [Mirvish, Mr. Mirvish’s daughter] did my PreVis animation for Between Us. There’s one scene that required some tricky visual effects and a dangerous stunt. So instead of just storyboards, we needed previs animation to get the timing right. We were panicking and thinking we had to hire a specialist or a VFX person and talking about it during rehearsals. She had just taken an animation class at school and was hanging around, so she said, “I’ll do it!” And two hours later, we used it. They weren’t on set much, but they did all shoot a scene that was cut from the film. However, my kids are all going to be on the DVD extras. If you put your kids on DVD extras, you will never have to worry about losing footage of them, as opposed to your everyday home movies. So it’s nice to put them to work.