The following is an absurdly long conversation with the loquacious and multi-hyphenate creative force known as Dan Mirvish. Writer-Director-Producer-Author-Songwriter-Festival Co-Creator-Construction Foreperson—and more. The conversation took place over many days and several locations—sometimes sitting in his kitchen area, other times walking the picket lines at Sony together. Being impossible to whittle down this discussion to a manageable length, it was necessary to break it into two parts, as it covers 30 years, five films, and offers many fascinating insights into an unusual force in the filmmaking world.
We also decided to use a non-linear format to match how it unfolded. If it’s good enough for Christopher Nolan, it should work for Pipeline Artists. (I’ll reserve judgment on whether the multiple timeframe structure works on all of his films, but that’s for another article.)
Anyway, you’ve been warned. It’s all in the title.
The Man in the Fedora
A mysterious man with a tilted fedora, creating a dark shadow across his face opens the door. Images of Indiana Jones pop into my head, but they quickly fade when the face of a thin, bearded, smiling man with salt-and-pepper hair under the aforementioned hat holds out a tray of blueberry scones as he beckons the visitor inside his unassuming (yet charming, his wife insists) bungalow on the Westside.
Dan Mirvish is a co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, as well as the director of five notable films likely streaming on your favorite service, as you read this sentence. Not to mention the author of the very pragmatic (and highly entertaining) The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Filmmaking and the co-author of the very funny (and perhaps too timely) I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man's (Wildly Inappropriate) Adventures with the Last Republicans. He’s also the person who lovingly baked the scones, according to his mother’s recipe, to bring to the WGA picketers at Sony Pictures.
This unassuming Midwesterner is the ultimate outsider who somehow became the ultimate insider. One with vast knowledge of the indie film ecosystem and the unassuming charm to have people do his bidding in a way that makes them feel good about the efforts they put into their work. This is a rare attribute and one that this writer witnesses, not by watching Dan work on a set (after all, there is a strike at the moment), but by watching him “work” the crew building an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in his backyard.
Dan somehow manages this task while baking various items, overseeing his three children (ranging from high school age to recent college graduate), and making sure his wife’s impeccable taste and instructions were followed by the ADU crew. For this last task, Dan behaved more like a Hollywood director than an indie filmmaker, as his wife’s specifications were not dissimilar to a studio executive’s mandates.
To be fair, she has excellent taste, and Dan is well-aware. In fact, the same can be said of Dan’s two-word advice to would-be filmmakers:
Dan walks the walk in his work and his personal life, and this seems to keep him grounded, sane, and successful.
Hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, Dan is the product of a late, cancer researcher father and an advertising copywriter mother, who started out as a speechwriter for a U.S. Senator before attending grad school at USC. (A dark secret: USC was the only grad school that accepted him. A darker secret: He switched from an MFA to an MA to make his first film, Omaha (The Movie), between his second and third years of grad school. As an MFA student, USC would have owned the print, and Dan had the foresight to realize that wasn’t the wisest choice for a burgeoning filmmaker—and de facto indie player, thanks to Slamdance.)
Building an ADU as Metaphor for Directing a Film
Scott Tobis (ST): Let me start by asking you something basic. What is your advice to new and up-and-coming filmmakers?
Dan Mirvish (DM): You know, there's an old adage. I don't remember who came up with it, but it wasn't me. You make a film three times. In the script, in production, and then in editing and post production. And that is certainly true with 18 ½.
[18 ½, Dan’s latest work, is a 70s-era mystery about a female transcriber who discovers a tape with the missing 18 ½ minutes that became infamous during the Watergate case. The film is available on STARZ, major VOD platforms, and Singapore Airlines, as well as six additional airlines.]
Number one is the script. Then you cast it, and the actors and the crew—everybody brings something to the table. And in our case, we had this whole challenge of shutting down after eleven days because of COVID. Then taking a healthy hiatus—or pandemic pause—and then coming back six months later; when it was safe under the new DGA and SAG protocols, and shooting the last four days. In those six months, we had time to tweak the script and figure out what we had. We didn’t reshoot anything, which is good. We didn't need to do that. But we certainly said, ‘Oh, we need another scene here, and we don't need this other scene that was in the script.’
ST: From what I understand, the cast wasn’t fully set before the pandemic shut it down. Do you think the film changed radically because of COVID?
DM: Not radically, but we had to shoot what scenes were left. Basically, the whole first week, production was pretty much everything with just Connie and Paul (the two lead characters, wonderfully played by Willa Fitzgerald and John Magaro). Then the whole second week was anything with the two main couples. The long dinner scene the swingers came in. And of course, we had not cast them irrespective of the pandemic.
Willa and John had no idea who was going to play Samuel and Lena (spoiler alert: the two antagonists); nor did anybody. We hadn't cast Samuel because that was always going to revolve around that other person. Bottom line, we didn't have the actors in place.
So, three days before shooting, we get Vondie Curtis Hall and 36 hours before shooting, Cathy Curtin came on board. God bless her. She heard that we had lost an actor, we were down, and she loves indie films. A couple of people on the crew had recommended her, and it turned out she'd worked with actors and directors who I knew.
She was great. The only issue was she shows up and says ‘I love the script. The only problem is I can't do a French accent.’ I was like, really? Everyone can do French. She says ‘not me.’ I asked her what she could do, and she said, ‘Well, I did a play where I played a German last year.' So we made the character a little bit more Pan European. In hindsight—
ST: It very much works for the character.
DM: Exactly. When we were on the festival circuit, that was when the Ukraine war was starting. I kind of realized that during times of war, all of Europe gets displaced. And so it would make total sense that you could have someone from Alsace-Lorraine, or you know, somewhere near Germany who then shows up in Paris during World War II, and that's our character. War does that to Europeans, and so we went with it.
ST: I had the pleasure of reading the script a while back. I really enjoyed it, and it was interesting to see the evolution.
DM: (The script) evolved with the cast. Vondie and Kathy, they were very different than if it had been any other two actors because they just brought in a certain energy, and they had to kind of meet the other one. They had great chemistry. And their ages worked, which, honestly, if we'd had the previous actors—who were younger—it wouldn’t have worked as well. They were the right people for the parts.
The fact that we didn't have any rehearsal time with the four of them together worked really well. John and Willa were, as people as well as actors, as surprised as their characters when they encountered these two. And we're as kind of baffled and thrown as off balance as the characters were, and Vondie and Cathy really played into that. It surprised all of us. Especially in that dance scene, where they are kind of getting a little sweetener, with the kissing scene and things like that. Normally I love to have rehearsal, and this one, we couldn’t, so there was a degree of improv and dialogue—
ST: Was there a lot of improv in the film?
DM: Not so much with the dialogue itself, but more kind of the way they did things. Vondie said it was a lot of fun, sort of playing with the fact that they didn't know what they were going to do. And that brought a certain kind of energy to all four of them. Which worked for the characters and worked with the scenes, and especially in the dinner scene—and in a way that it might not work in other movies. It actually worked out pretty well.
The Omaha Mafia
ST: Before we get into the genesis of the Slamdance Film Festival, tell me about your background—your childhood. And not in a Freudian way, please.
DM: I'll give you the whole deal. I was born in Madison, Wisconsin. I only lived there for two months. My father was doing a sabbatical. As a cancer researcher.
ST: If it was Kenosha, Wisconsin, I could have directly connected you to Orson Welles.
DM: (laughs) But it wasn’t. Both my parents are South African. And then they lived in Israel for five years. Then my father did the sabbatical in Wisconsin, and then back to Israel. I lived in Israel from two months of age until I was two. But I don't remember it at all. And then they moved to Omaha. Because there was a new cancer institute starting up there. So, I grew up in Omaha. I had one older sister, and we went to public school there. I went to the same school as Henry Fonda. We did not overlap, however. But it was a good school.
ST: Where did you go to undergraduate school?
DM: Washington University in St. Louis. Named because it was founded on George Washington's birthday.
ST: Well, that’s a reach.
DM: It is literally the stupidest reason to name a college. There are seventeen other colleges and universities named Washington in America. And so they had to pick the most confusing.
ST: So, all those schools were founded on the same day. I had no idea. That's hilarious.
DM: I was a double major—history and poli sci. There wasn't a film program there at the time, but there was one Super 8 class that I did my first semester, and I really loved that. There was some film theory stuff that kind of crept into political theory classes.
ST: When did you first start learning about filmmaking?
DM: I thought I should try to see what a real film school is like, so I spent a summer after my freshman year at UCLA, taking a couple of cinematography classes. Actually, Alexander Payne was just starting grad school then at UCLA. So we were in the same classes. He’s a Nebraska boy, too.
It was one cinematography class and one lighting class. It was basically two classes taught by the same cinematographer. It was before film schools were doing these official summer programs. It was UCLA, a real film school and soundstages, and we learned how to use 16mm. It smelled like eucalyptus and opportunity.
It was great, because when I got back to Wash U., I was very active in a student group that showed films seven nights a week—classic films, cult films, and B movies and midnight movies, things like that. I became pretty active in that. And everything we projected was in 16mm.
ST: So, the Hollywood magic was beginning to trickle into your neural pathways.
DM: I thought now that I know how to use a 16mm camera, why don't we shoot trailers—'Coming Soon' and 'No Smoking' stuff. So, I did that. Those were my first real 'productions.' That was fun as all of our friends were involved.
ST: The beginnings of what would turn you into a mini-mogul.
DM: Yeah. They were sort of my ideas; my concepts. All of our friends were extras, and so it was fun. I did as much film as I could—as an undergrad—but there wasn't much to do there. Meanwhile, I had spent a semester junior year doing an internship in DC. And then at some Caribbean Central American advocacy group, or something like that, but I had a great time in DC, and it was sort of my intro to DC.
ST: From your bio, I see that you spent some time in the political arena, and I assume that feeds into your most recent work. Have you always been a political junkie?
DM: While in college, I was the editor of the political journal which I helped found. I was active in student politics. I moved to DC after graduation thinking I might still one day go to film school. I did take the GRE just in case. I wound up working for about four months as an intern at Washington Monthly magazine, doing some freelancing writing for them. And then I got a job for about a year and a half as a speechwriter for Tom Harkin.
ST: How do you make that leap—from intern to speechwriter for a U.S. Senator from Iowa?
DM: There was a Capitol Hill job pool, where you would just throw in your resume with the Democratic campaign committee, offices on the hill, and things like that. I got a call from the guy who was the head speechwriter for Harkin. He wanted to write for the Washington Monthly, so he thought if he hired me, that would get him in.
When I was at Wash U, I had taken a class taught by Senator Tom Eagleton, who had just retired from the Senate. He wrote the War Powers Act and famously was McGovern's first running mate until he got kicked off the ticket, possibly because of Nixon dirty tricks.
I got to know him pretty well while I was at Wash U. He recommended me to Harkin’s staff, so that was what sealed the deal. It's nice when you can get a former Senator to call on your behalf. Anyway, I got that gig as the assistant speechwriter, and by the very end, I was his head speechwriter. That was fun. I really liked working for Harkin.
ST: That’s pretty impressive. Head speechwriter for a Senator at 24 years of age. Some people could make a meal of that and feel like they could retire. Or become a lobbyist.
DM: They wanted to make me the permanent head speechwriter. At that point, it wasn't clear if he was running for President. This is for the ’92 campaign. I had already decided by that point that now's the time to go to film school. I knew if you stay in DC long enough, someone just gives you a law degree and a three-piece suit by the time you hit 30. And I thought, well, I kind of want to do that film thing.
A big part of what my specific job for Harkin was that, every Friday, we would record short speeches in the Democratic recording studio. Which was located in the basement of the Capitol. Don't tell the January 6th people this, but basically in the Capitol, there are three video studios, there's one that all the Senators use, one just for Democrats, and one for Republicans. We would record these speeches to places like the Kiwanis Club in Cedar Rapids or the Boy Scouts in Des Moines. If it's a not so partisan thing, then you can use the one that's essentially run by C-span.
ST: You were really an insider. You know all the dark secrets.
DM: Not dark, but there are all kinds of things in the Capitol. Like a barber shop. Nobody ever talks about these things. But it's amazing down there. I used to walk past the Capitol Police Headquarters, which would have like six people, and it's tiny. And it was in the basement of the Capitol back then.
We would make short videos. I mean, they weren't, like, creative films at all. They were just Harkin talking to a teleprompter, but then we'd send a VHS tape to the Kiwanis Club or whatever. But it got me hanging out with the guys in the booth—the engineers—and they'd be like, ‘Yeah, you should go to film school. You should apply.’ I thought that they're just trying to get rid of me. But I decided to apply.
Then I thought I'd travel the world first. My grandmother is from South Africa, and she always said, back in the 1920s, there were these people who would do these epic trips between Cape Town to Cairo—I realized, this is the time to see the world. I took five months off and traveled through Africa, Israel, and Europe.
ST: What happened with your film school applications?
DM: USC was the only place I got into. UCLA. Nope. Nor NYU or AFI or even San Francisco State. I'm a loser. But yeah, the dirty little secret is, it's easier to get into USC. Just because they take more people, or at least at that time.
The summer after my first year, I was supposed to get a job—like at some production company in the Valley in the air-conditioned office—reading scripts and writing coverage, as many people do in their first job in town.
But at the last minute, I saw a notice on a bulletin board on campus saying interns needed for ‘one week feature filmmaking in L.A. terrorist filmmaking.’
I've heard of guerrilla filmmaking, but I had never heard of terrorist filmmaking. I'm wondering what that is. There was a number, so I called and spoke to a guy with a thick Hungarian accent. I asked him, ‘What is this thing about the terrorist filming?’
He says: ‘Oh, I meant to write guerrilla filmmaking, but my dictionary was wrong.'
ST: That’s great. There’s a film right there.
DM: It turned out it was a kickboxing movie that they were going to shoot which was set in L.A., but they were going to shoot most of it in the Philippines. They needed to shoot all the L.A. exteriors in L.A. for a week. And then go to the Philippines for four weeks.
The screenwriter was my screenwriting professor at USC; which was the connection. He and the director were buddies from Columbia grad school. And so the screenwriter kind of vouches for this crazy operation.
ST: You continually stumble into interesting situations.
DM: The first few days were like location scouting. And then we started shooting, and I became a camera assistant. And then I was the second AC, and I was loading the camera.
One day, I picked up the producer at the airport, who was flying in from Hong Kong. And he has the suitcase filled with cash. And I go, ‘Oh, my God, what's that?'
He goes, ‘It's the budget, obviously.’
By the third day, the producer says, ‘Hey, Dan, you seem to be the only one who knows what's going on around here. Do you want to come to the Philippines? We'll make you 2nd AD and pay $400 a week.’ Which when compared to sitting in L.A. in an air-conditioned office, and not getting paid, didn’t require much thinking on my part.
I said yes, but I asked the most important question, 'Is there a return ticket?'
The next thing you know, I went to the Philippines for five weeks and was the 2nd AD. There’s an old adage that says you learn more from working on a bad movie than you do from working on a good movie. I learned so much working on this movie.
ST: What was the name of the movie?
DM: American Kickboxer 2 was the final title and completely different from the title when we were in production. It was originally called Blood Kin. The lab in Manila kept getting the negative confused with another production called The One Armed Executioner.
At the end of the shoot, the producer said:
‘Dan, do you want to go back to L.A.?’
‘We'll make you the post supervisor.’
I said, 'Great. What’s a post supervisor?'
The producer said, ‘You have to find us an edit suite.’
How difficult can that be? I found a porn company in Hollywood called Miracle Films. Their motto was, ‘If it's a good film, it's a miracle.’ They had an extra edit suite—since this was shot on 35mm, we needed real edit suites, with a movieola, a flatbed, and everything. I became an assistant editor. We had three editors, three assistants working 24/7 for three weeks, and finished the film.
ST: Were you credited for all the positions you filled on that cinematic masterwork?
DM: I think 2nd AD was the credit I received. I may have gotten a post supervisor credit. At one point, the director and the producer got into a real fight in the edit suite, and the editors had to break up, which was apparently not a very graceful fight for a couple of guys who just made a kickboxing movie. By the end of the summer, I had learned how to make a movie literally from beginning to end. That was the moral of the story.
I almost forgot. In addition to 2nd AD and post supervisor, I was also the dialogue coach because I was the only one with an American accent on the crew. I wrote new scenes, and I acted in the film. I got shot in the chest twice, and survived both times, miraculously. So, I really saw how to make a movie.
ST: That’s quite the unofficial film school. Tell me about your debut film, Omaha (The Movie).
DM: By the end of my second year at USC, instead of doing a short film like everybody else, I thought, why don't I just make a feature? This was at the time when Robert Rodriguez was making El Mariachi and Richard Linklater was making Slackers. It was kind of the beginning of the indie-film scene in the early 90s. So I wrote a script that I could shoot in Nebraska with available locations and with actors I knew back home.
I flew to Nebraska where no one had ever made an indie film. Part of the issue with USC—the reason no one had ever made a feature film there—is that the school owns the copyright to any student film, which if you're making a short is not that big of a deal.
ST: But if you’re making a feature …
DM: Exactly. I found a loophole where I could do a feature, raise the money, and keep the copyright.
ST: What was the loophole?
DM: The loophole was I had to switch from an MFA to an MA in critical studies, because technically critical studies people had to do a thesis and their thesis could be either written or a film project.
I thought, oh, I can make a film. Since there were no length requirements, it could be a feature. The only caveat was I couldn't use any facilities or equipment, or cameras on campus, which is fine, because I was shooting in Nebraska anyway.
The Omaha Film Commission was excited that anyone was going to make an indie film there. I told them I know a lot of actors there, but I needed a local producer. (Marlon Brando was from there.)
They told me that there's this guy, Dana, and he produces commercials during the day, but we know he wants to get into features. By the way, his grandfather is Robert Altman. I said, ‘He's hired.’ So that's how I got to know Dana Altman. He became my producing partner and put the whole team together and Panavision gave us free 35mm cameras, and Robert Altman became kind of a mentor on the film.
ST: What was the budget?
$38,000. Panavision gave us the cameras, but we had to figure out how to get the 35mm film stock. That was expensive. At the time there was a secondary market for short ends, which is basically leftover film, so we had to use leftovers from "Beverly Hills 90210."
How The Omaha Mafia Helped Dan and Then Took Over Hollywood
There was an Omaha network because it all connects one way or another. The showrunner on "The Blacklist," Jon Bokenkamp, was an assistant editor on the film, because he's from Nebraska. You know who else was on the film? Rian Johnson. Just for one day—and I spelled his name wrong in the credits. Rian was a Set PA.
[As a reminder, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne is also from Nebraska and was attending grad school at UCLA the same time Dan was taking summer classes there. The plot thickens.]
ST: Did you write the script for Omaha (The Movie) back in L.A.?
DM: I wrote the script in ten days.
Dan’s Advice for Filmmakers—Passed Down From the Masters
Dan struggled to remember a particular quote from the late Monte Hellman. Something along the lines of: ‘If you make a film for money, and it doesn’t make money, you just lost money. If you make a film for art, and it doesn’t make money, you still have the art.’ However mangled this writer might have done with the quote, the sentiment shines through.
ST: Did you get a chance to spend time with Robert Altman?
DM: It was really more after we shot the film. I had a couple conversations with him before. He gave me great advice—to be fair, kind of his standard advice—which was what he told everyone: 90% of directing is casting.
The other person who gave me advice, a fellow alum from Washington University in St. Louis: Harold Ramis. I tracked him down, which back before IMDb and email was not easy. You find someone's agent and send them a letter, and then maybe they call you back. Maybe they don't.
To my surprise, Ramis called me back. I think it was right before he did Groundhog Day, so he had time to talk. It was one of his fallow periods. And he was great. I told him I was making a comedy, so he gave me two bits of advice.
DM: 'Do you have any advice?'
Harold Ramin (HR): 'Yeah, you got a pencil?'
DM: 'Yeah. Got it.'
HR: 'You got paper?'
DM: 'Yeah, I have paper.'
HR: 'So, write this down. Rule number one: Hire Bill Murray. Rule number two: Turn on the camera.'
It was essentially the same advice as Altman gave, which was that it's all in the casting. And the third person who gave me advice was Lynn Stalmaster, who was a legendary casting director. He was from Omaha, and I had a really nice meeting with him.
ST: One thing you haven’t discussed is financing. How did you raise the budget for Omaha?
DM: One of our biggest investors to this day—he’s actually our single biggest living investor—is Chuck Hagel. Yes, that Chuck Hagel. He was just a venture capital guy that was just 'Chuck the VC guy' to us. He put in some of his own money, saying it was too risky for any of his clients. And then, boom, two Senate terms and Secretary of Defense. Hagel is the biggest living investor on Omaha (The Movie). About twenty years after we made the film, we finally had enough money to write token checks to the investors. I think I paid him around $48. To be clear, this isn't profit at all. But as I told my investors, what we did make was "cultural capital"—launching several careers (including Rian Johnson, who was a PA) and boosting Nebraska's film industry in many ways.
[There’s a framed letter from Chuck Hagel thanking Dan for his profit payment on Omaha (The Movie).]
ST: Between your political experience and your family background, you certainly took an unusual path to become a filmmaker. Were you a film lover as a kid?
DM: No. I wasn't obsessed with film growing up. Although, when I was 12, my friends and I made a Super 8 film. I need to track it down somewhere. I didn't have my own camera. It was my friend Harold's camera, and we basically blew up his train set with laser beams and stuff. But it was fun. That was really my first film project.
ST: Did your parents like film? Or the arts in general?
DM: Omaha is a good theater town, so there's a lot of plays. In high school during my senior year, I got involved with theater. I was in Fiddler on the Roof. I played Avram, the bookseller. It’s funny. My drama teacher is still one of my Kickstarter backers. She's very proud of me. I was friends with a lot of theater people.
ST: Is Omaha (The Movie) available anywhere to rent or stream?
DM: Over the years it has been. But I've taken it down from everything, because we never had a great video transfer. Dana and I did our own self-distribution, and it played in about 35 cities around the country. Starting in Omaha and then working our way up, we wound up in L.A. playing at Laemmle for 11 weeks. Mainly the midnight shows or the Saturday morning shows, but it was for 11 straight weeks.
I’d say it was self-distributed, but it was also self-generating. The money we’d make in Omaha we’d use to spend on prints and advertising. You’d make enough money to buy a second or third print. They're expensive. Around $4,000 or $5,000 each. We have four prints, and you can only get about eight prints off the negative before you have to start doing an interpositive of a negative, and then it gets really expensive. So, you can only do a few of them. To this day, we still have four prints. I have three of them in the living room. And the negative is sitting right in this room.
[Dan stands up and shows me the negative, sitting near the detritus of the ADU construction materials, although not dangerously close.]
DM: We did our last screening about three years ago in Omaha. The 25th anniversary, and it looked pretty good. I mean, it's scratchy, but they're all scratchy—but now that's vintage cool, right? The negative is pristine. So I want to get the negative transfer scan, and do a 4K scan. Criterion said they wanted to put it on the Criterion Channel, but they never told me how much they'd pay me. I’m still waiting. And the Academy said they would archive the negative which my wife is thrilled with because it gets it out of the house. It takes up a lot of space.
ST: Criterion Channel and archived at the Academy sound great.
DM: Well, the plan is to get it up this year. But I've also been saying that for a few years.
Slamdance: From a Thorn in Robert Redford’s Side to a Mainstay in the Independent Film World
At this point, the reader might have realized that I meant the word “rambling” in a literal sense. Perhaps it’s time we get to the genesis of the Slamdance Film Festival. If I remember the story correctly, Omaha was rejected by Sundance, and you created a mini-rebellion against Robert Redford’s famous and well-regarded film festival.
DM: We were roundly rejected. Not actually rejected because I have yet to get my rejection letter from Sundance. So I'm still waiting. Fingers crossed. One of the first places that you would go with a finished film back then is what was called the Independent Feature Film Market, which is now called Gotham Week.
[Dan is looking at me, apparently under the impression that he is building up an effective dramatic pause. Despite his many talents, he is not altogether successful in this endeavor. I stare back at him. He blinks. Apparently, I am not as malleable as his film crews or ADU workers.]
DM: It's in October in New York as you might have figured by its new name. It's not technically a festival—so it was called a film market, and it's changed a little bit. The idea was that you would take your finished film there, and then programmers from Sundance and a bunch of other festivals and distributors would see your film. And then make you a star.
Kevin Smith had gone the year before. That's where the Sundance people saw Clerks. We were there in 1994. There were 95 completed features there that year; a bunch of work-in-progress films, too, but 95 complete features. In the end, none of them got into Sundance.
We all thought we were going to make it, and that's where a lot of us met each other. Since filmmakers work alone and then you go to market and realize that, oh, the guy down the street was making a feature at the same time as I was.
Dana had the idea, because he was still stuck in Omaha (and still is). ‘We should do some kind of grassroots thing where we all help each other out.’
We have this meeting with all these indie filmmakers from around the country. They all think it’s a great idea, but we’re not sure what it's going to be or what it is. This is before the internet. Before Indiewire, there was no communication with filmmakers around the country.
We had heard from individual filmmakers and teams of filmmakers the year prior (January '94) that didn't get into Sundance. That was Trey Parker and Matt Stone with their first film, Cannibal the Musical, which was their University of Colorado thesis film. They did a renegade screening in Park City. There had been a group of New York underground filmmakers, led by my friend, Matt Harrison. And they had shown a bunch of shorts in Park City a couple of years earlier. So there was a little bit of a history of rebel filmmakers showing up in Park City.
We'd heard about these cases, but we thought our films are gonna get into Sundance. The renegade thing was going to be our Plan B. This was around the time that Miramax had just become part of Disney; Fine Line became part of Warner Brothers; Fox was about to launch Fox Searchlight. It was the Hollywood-isation of independent film. We had some distributors tell us point blank, ‘We love your film. And we will pick it up for distribution, if it gets into Sundance.’
It was really Sundance or bust because there were no other American festivals that anyone in the industry paid attention to. Both regional festivals in the U.S. and international festivals would take the Sundance catalog and go, 'These are the 12 American indie films this year. Okay, let's pick those 12.' Then those 12 filmmakers just traveled around the world together. That was kind of how it was. If you didn't get into Sundance, not only would you not get distribution, but you also wouldn't get into other festivals, and you wouldn't get an agent, and you wouldn't get a girlfriend, or you wouldn’t … get whatever it was you were looking for.
So, our Plan B is we'll do our own renegade screening. Then one of the other filmmakers—also from Nebraska—had the idea to kind of take Dana's idea of let's have everyone help each other out. The Plan B idea of going individually turned into getting a bunch of filmmakers to join forces. We put together 12 features and later added 12 shorts and stuck a goofy name on it. We came up with Slamdance and the rest is history.
ST: How many Slamdance founders are there?
DM: There are twelve co-founders. In reality, there were three of us, but it was really three teams because Dana was my producing partner. Shane Kuhn and Jon Fitzgerald each had partners, so there were three of us: Me, Jon and Shane.
ST: Are there other people who are “co-founder adjacent”?
DM: We're founding filmmakers, but there's a lot of people who could claim that, and rightfully so. I mean, there's a lot more to it. Like the intricacies of how to start the festival. We showed up at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Nobody came to the screenings because we were in Salt Lake. It looked like an inch away from Park City (where Sundance transpires) on the map. It turns out it was quite a bit farther, especially when it's snowing.
ST: Was there an immediate impact after the first year?
DM: The hegemony was definitely broken on festivals. So, a lot of us did play a lot more festivals, which would not have happened if we hadn't started slamming. A bunch of us played in Avignon, France, which at the time was a big deal. They were the first international festival to go, 'These guys are onto something cool.' And a lot of other festivals around the country, too. Then various people got some kind of distribution. We also did our own self-distribution, but it was largely based on the press we got in France for Slamdance. People finally started to pay attention on some level. That was how we launched careers. People got agents. I mean, I got an agent, I think. At least for a while …
[Slamdance will celebrate its 30th anniversary in January.]
The Omaha Mafia
The Omaha Film Commission said I should meet this guy named Alex Payne. This is before he was Alexander. We met up at Ships, the old coffee shop with the toasters. We kind of quickly realized we had been in the same class (at UCLA) six years earlier. He was getting ready to make Citizen Ruth. He had done some shorts, but it was his first feature. His producers wanted to shoot in Austin, because Austin was the hot new place at that point. The reason he wanted to talk to me was to try to figure out if there was enough local resources in Omaha that he could justify shooting in Omaha. I said, 'Yeah, there's cast, there's crew, there’s a couple guys who know how to load a camera now that we taught them how to load a camera.' He was then able to convince the producers that he could shoot there, and he's been shooting there more or less ever since.
I mean, we sort of helped launch his Nebraska career.
ST: Tell me about the distribution process for Omaha. How long were you out there promoting it?
DM: We took it to 33 festivals, 35 cities … something like that. It took a couple of years to make the rounds. I always tell people with self-distribution—it either costs time or money. Not necessarily both, though. That advice is still true to this day.
ST: Backing up a bit, tell me a bit about the production.
DM: We actually shot it during my third year at USC. The thing about switching to the MA program also meant that there were no other classes I needed to take. I spent my third year doing my thesis. I think there was one more class I was taking, which was like a Westerns class, which was kind of fun. But that was about it.
It was supposed to be an 18-day shoot, but then our photo lab called up and said, ‘Oh, we ruined some of the footage from western Nebraska.' We shot there because it's a road movie. It starts in Omaha, then it ends in western Nebraska at Carhenge, which is an exact replica of Stonehenge built out of old American cars stuck in the ground.
ST: I don't believe you.
DM: It’s a real place.
The Top Selling DVD of the year!
ST: I seem to recall a story about Omaha (The Movie) being one of the best selling DVDs of the early 2000s.
DM: I got asked by a friend at a magazine called Total Movie to be the feature film included for free as a DVD insert in the magazine. It was a double-sided DVD, so Omaha (The Movie) would be on one whole side, and the other side had promotional material and trailers from big-budget, studio films. They had a print run of something like 30,000. But he also told me that the magazine had a side deal with Pioneer to include about over 300,000 of these same DVDs as the sample disc that came with every Pioneer DVD player sold in North America to help people learn how to use a DVD player. I think the total run was about 350,000 discs. It was about the most successful DVD that year—about a third of a million copies got out whether people wanted them or not.
ST: Like when U2’s album popped up on everyone's iPhone.
DM: That’s kind of what it was. Yeah, I hadn't made that connection. But that's literally what it was.
ST: It would have been amazing if DVD was just playing your movie when they plugged in the player.
DM: Yeah, that would have been even better.
ST: Tell me about Open House.
DM: That was a few years later. There was a film I was trying to make for years, called Stamp and Deliver. This was a film that was going to be my big sophomore film. We did a long film script—165 pages. As a screenplay, it works. Now at least you can buy it on Amazon as an e-book. (Some friends of mine started a little publisher, printing unproduded screenplays.)
We were going to shoot this in 1997 in Texas, and then the financing fell through five days before shooting. Then we were gonna shoot it again in 2001. At that point, Neil Young was producing and was going to do the music. Peter Fonda was going to star in it. And I was meeting all kinds of other people for auditions, like everyone from Mark Hamill to Dom DeLuise. Ed Asner was going to be in at one point, and then 9/11 happened. That kind of pulled the rug out from everyone.
To this day, the film has never been made, but it was at around the same time that my buddy Larry and I had started writing Open House. That made a lot more sense as a little sort of low-budget thing that we could do on our own, and especially after 9/11. We realized in times of crisis America loves to sing. So why not make it a musical?
ST: I think the readers might want to hear more about Neil Young’s involvement.
DM: They had a little bit of an infrastructure for making their own films, but it was basically because Neil's partner, Elliot, was dating this woman who was producing. He got to know me, and he liked the script. We did all the casting sessions together, and he just got a kick out of it. Elliot was a really sweet guy. So, I didn't actually meet Neil at that point. It was much later that I met Neil when he came to Slamdance one year.
ST: Tell me a little about the infamous Hot tub Summit at Slamdance.
DM: That started about 2005, or 20 years ago. I don't remember exactly. It's a little fuzzy. The place where we have Slamdance is the Treasure Mountain Inn, a small little hotel on Main Street in Park City. They were doing it when they had a regular-sized hot tub. We did it for a couple years. But then at one point they had a pool, and they remodeled it, and the pool became a hot tub. That's a pretty big hot tub. You can fit like thirty people in it. It's literally a panel discussion in a hot tub where we sit or kind of float around and tell war stories.
ST: Was it your idea? And how did you get this hotel to save rooms for you? Slamdance versus Sundance.
DM: Well, that's an interesting question. So, the first year we were at the University of Utah. The second night, three of us drove to Park City and found a screening room. We rented a little conference room—smaller than this room—in a hotel thirty feet down the hall from Sundance's main venue, which was the ballroom. Sundance was not happy with that.
Then a couple of days later, we found someone, Christopher Glatis, who was projecting his short on his own. He asked if he could be part of the festival, but we were already halfway done, so we turned him down. Then we realized that he had a 35mm projector in Park City! So, we accepted him and his projector. We took over his projector, and we started showing our 35mm films in Park City. A few years later, I introduced him to another Slamdance alum, and now they're happily married.
Anyway, it was a great location, so we put down a deposit for the following year. In our second year, the whole festival was at the hotel. Sundance saw that we had a pretty good setup there. So, they basically overbid us for it for the next year. At the time, they were really trying to run us out of town on a rail. It was literally like the sheriff was trying to kick us out of town by any means necessary. This was at a time when Redford said that we were a parasite. They really viewed us as a threat.
ST: Why do you think that was the case?
DM: We were cooler than they were. At the same time, the whole press were turning on Sundance, because they were part of the Hollywood-isation of independent film. They were showing films by bigger directors, films that already had distribution—secret deals and bigger stars. And Harvey Weinstein was doing his Harvey stuff. That was all happening then.
Sundance just wasn’t as cool as it was five years ago, but Slamdance had the spirit.
When Redford called us parasites in Interview magazine, that was the best press we ever could have gotten. Instant street cred. He has since regretted calling us that. And now he grudgingly respects us. But back then, it was tough.
For our third year, we found this young hippie couple that was running this little hotel up on Main Street. Treasure Mountain Inn, a grungy little hotel by Park City standards. And they had tried to get Sundance to rent out rooms, but Sundance always kind of poo pooed them. So, when they heard about us, they reached out. 'You're scruffy like us.' So we started hosting Slamdance there. And the owner of Treasure Mountain later became mayor.
ST: How did you set yourself apart from Sundance besides being the “scruffy little upstart”?
DM: What distinguished us is that Slamdance was only for first-time filmmakers. For our main narrative and doc competition sections, they have to be first-time directors with no distribution in place and low budgets. That's why we had Bong Joon-ho's first film and Chris Nolan's first film and Rian Johnson’s first film, as well as the late Lynn Shelton’s. Not to mention the Russo brothers, Sean Baker, the Safdie brothers, Ari Aster, and Gina Prince-Blythwood.
Paranormal Activity was a Slamdance film, which was bought by DreamWorks at the festival. Also Jon M. Chu, the Crazy Rich Asians director, showed his first film. It's a lot of people. I mean, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were in a film our second year.
Steven Soderbergh has been one of our supporters since almost the very beginning. He paid for our projectors for a few years, or at least arranged for us to get them. We showed The Daytrippers our second year—Greg Mottlola's film, which Soderberg was a producer on. He was literally projecting that with me, and getting electrocuted because we had such crappy projectors. The next year, he vowed to get us some decent projectors. Then we showed Schizopolis. We’ve shown a couple of his films out of competition. That really kind of reinvigorated his love for filmmaking.
King of the Airlines
ST: Can you tell me a little more about the airline deals?
DM: About five years ago, when I had Bernard and Huey. I wondered how films get on airplanes. I was going to all the festivals and seeing other films shown on planes, even small indie films.
So I started to research, mainly for my own sake, but also, maybe I can help other filmmakers, too. It eventually became an article in Filmmaker magazine, which I then turned into a chapter in the second edition of my book.
It turns out that there are specific distributors, about eight of them around the world. These eight companies to the 170-odd airlines. Normally, with a film deal or TV deal, studios have their own direct contacts to airlines. For smaller films, the distributor handles ancillary rights, which includes things like airplanes, ships, prisons, oil rigs … all these things. Inevitably, what happens is that they don't pay that much attention to it. By the time they usually think about it, it's usually too late—since the airlines are very time sensitive. They want films when their theatrical releases end. That was starting to happen with Bernard and Huey. I was getting really frustrated. I found one distributor in particular, and I was able to get my film onto Emirates Air, but the deal still had to go through my distributor, and then they went bankrupt. So, I didn't see any money.
For 18 1/2, we started talking to the same airline distributor early in the process, before a distribution deal—just make our deals directly with the airline distributors. We wound up on seven airlines JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, Qatar, Air New Zealand, Singapore Air, and Batik Air. About 60% of our total revenue is going to come from airline sales.
ST: There are some big airlines in the mix.
DM: More importantly than the revenue is that people are seeing it. The best part is, because we named the film 18 1/2, it shows up first, even before their A titles.
ST: Do you have to make cuts for different airlines?
DM: No, but it is interesting. If you’re showing a film on Emirates, or Qatar Airlines, you can't even mention the word 'pig.' Forget about showing pigs. I don't say it. Nothing was mentioned. So, I was fine. Pretty much every script now, I avoid the word pig.
Read Part 2. Oh, yes, there's more!
*Feature Photo: Dan Mirvish (Photo Credit: Lauren Desberg)