One of the greatest American mysteries to come out of the 70s took place over 18½ minutes—or, rather, the absence of that span of time.
In the early summer of 1972 when the nation was gripped by the Watergate Scandal, President Nixon met with his then chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman three days after the arrests. What typically would have been a recorded session (Nixon was a paranoid president) virtually disappeared mid-way through, and those mysterious minutes have never been found. The question of what happened has invoked many theories, including from director and author, Dan Mirvish.
Mirvish, who also co-founded Slamdance, has been inspired by history before with his work. But, the ironic similarities between Nixon in 1972 and Trump in 2016 is what initially kickstarted the idea for his latest feature.
During a visit with award-winning political cartoonist Jewels Feiffer (who particularly became famous for his work with Watergate and Nixon), the two began to discuss the similitude between the two political figures and what they could expect during Trump’s time in office. Mirvish then went to visit a friend in Greenport, New York, who owned the Silver Sands Motel. The venue essentially has been preserved, and it looks like a period time capsule from the Nixon era—so the groundwork for ’18½’ began to form.
“During the drive back, I kept conflating these two great ideas: Nixon/Watergate and a great location that looks like 1974. So, I tried to figure out a storyline that would work for the location,” Mirvish explains.
The storyline created by Mirvish and screenwriter Daniel Moya then formed to follow two characters: Connie Lashley (Willa Fitzgerald), a low-level transcriber for the White House, and Paul Marrow (John Magaro), a reporter for the Times. And Fitzgerald’s character is particularly similar to one Mirvish had written before in his book, ‘I Am Martin Eisenstadt.’
“That specific character—the low-level working person in the Nixon White House—kind of stuck with me,” he explains. “I always thought that was kind of a fascinating approach to it. And my own background with Washington being in my young twenties, these are the kind of people you met.”
In the film, Connie reaches out to Paul with the sensitive information she stumbles upon, aka the infamous 18½ minutes in Nixon’s June 20th conversation. Paul being the reporter that he is, decides that he needs to hear the tape himself before bringing anything back to his boss, so, the duo head out shortly after meeting to the secluded Silver Sands Motel (set now in Maryland for story purposes.) And from then on out some hilarious and strange set of occurrences ensue.
“Once I kind of realized that [it] was a plausible way [for] someone to even get an 18½ minute gap, then it was inevitable,” says Mirvish. “I also wanted to explore the societal situation of 1974 and the glass ceiling that women would have had working in the White House…the inevitable ceiling that civil servants have when they are CS and not a political appointee—which is still an issue for better or for worse in Washington, that kind of distinction. But just culturally in 1974, it was a really interesting time. It was the post-hippie movement, pre-disco, and you still had the WWII generation who were middle-aged at that point.”
All of those societal inklings are explored in a cast of odd and colorful characters who are also staying at the off-season motel with Connie and Paul. There’s Jack (Richard Kind), the manager of the Silver Sands who wears an eye patch and doesn’t seem to take social cues very well. There’s also a trio of said hippies (played by Sullivan Jones, Marija Juliette Abney and Alanna Saunders) who really hate Wonder Bread (more on that later.)
But perhaps the most notable supporting characters come from Catherine Curtin and Vondie Curtis-Hall, who play Lena and Samuel. The couple almost immediately bonds with Connie and Paul and invites them over for dinner, which they agree to for a certain circumstance. The meal proves to bring out a lot of political discussions in the middle of some very interesting viewpoints.
“There were a lot of fuzzy people in the middle [during that time]. Connie represents that. She voted for Nixon first, but then you have the aftermath of Vietnam too. The war was definitely winding down, but the effects were still fresh,” says Mirvish.
The filmmaker also goes into the significance of bread throughout the film. It’s a euphemism for money, but it’s also emblematic of the 70s and the pre-processed food craze before more natural eating habits took over decades later. In a more shocking correlation, ITT (International Telephone & Telegraph) actually owned Wonder Bread, and the company was on the brink of a scandal with Nixon during that time before it was overshadowed by Watergate. And Nixon himself talks about ITT before the infamous 18½ minute gap.
But delving into the interesting points of history (which the writing team did beautifully, expect almost everything from the music to the food to have meaning), the feature was also meant to be kept in 1974 with filming techniques.
For Mirvish, that meant not using any methods that could have been used after 1974. So, no steady cam, no drones, and even certain editorial techniques were off the table. The camera was digital, but used vintage lenses, and the soundtrack was also kept to that era. ’18½’ also uses the intricate “one shot” for a few scenes (including the climax at the end), another ode to the period.
“Part of it is a little throwback to the early 70s films, but you have to be smart about when you use it and when you don’t use it and not be slavish to it. If it didn’t work, we would move on and come up with something else,” he says. Luckily, it does work, especially with the chemistry that Fitzgerald and Magaro have as characters during the longer shots in the film.
Speaking of Connie and Paul, their relationship—which is built on the tape—certainly comes to a head closer to the end of ’18½’, and when audience members get to finally listen to the tape (recorded by Bruce Campbell, Jon Cryer and Ted Raimi), all tension and anticipation is finally met—and then let’s just say everything gets roughed up, and we are back to square one.
“It was fun to take another look at Watergate through another lens historically. We did do a lot of research. There hasn’t been that many films that have dealt with the tapes, and certainly, the mechanics of the tapes and the taping system. But there are still all of these amazing questions…Who deleted the tapes and why did they delete that tape? Nobody knows and nobody may ever know the answer to that. So, that just let’s you explore,” Mirvish explains.
He continues, “But, also, my take on doing historical fiction is a little different than for example, Tarantino. By the end of his, history is completely re-written… whereas my approach was more or less traditional, but by the end of the movie we’re back to the original timeline. There is no tape, and nobody knows what’s on it. So, how do you reset history with a speculative fictional loop and then have history still be able to continue on as it was? That was the creative challenge in this.”
’18 ½’ overall offers a fun look at a historical conundrum, and explores the possibilities of such a captivating occurrence in American history. However, along the way, themes are explored, laughs are had and the identities of certain characters are revealed… and audiences will undoubtedly leave the story thinking, “What if?”
’18 ½’ is available in select theaters nationwide, and will be available on VOD and streaming services July 5.