Interview: The Politics, Corruption and Comedy of 18½
Even after two Presidential impeachments in the space of four years, “Watergate” still manages to remain the go-to synonym for corruption, secrets and lies in Washington. This turning point in our nation’s history is the backdrop for 18½, a comedic piece of speculative fiction from Writer-director Dan Mirvish starring Willa Fitzgerald and John Magaro.
18½ follows Connie (Fitzgerald), a White House transcriber who stumbles across the only known recording of an infamous conversation between President Richard Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. The never-before-heard 18½ minutes are widely believed to have been erased. Risking everything, Connie meets up with New York Times reporter Paul (Magaro). The two choose a seaside motel as a secluded spot to listen to the tape, navigating through hippies, determined swingers and their own increasing paranoia in their quest to uncover the truth.
” … what I think draws us back to Watergate is that, in a lot of ways, I think that was the genesis of where we’re at politically now,” Magaro says.
“It’s a really fun little madcap comedy that is very self contained,” Fitzgerald says. The 31-year-old actress, who also plays Officer Roscoe Conklin on the Prime Video series Reacher, relished the opportunity to do something outside of the mainstream. “It’s always a treat to make that sort of indie where it’s just about you and a few other people getting together and making something cool,” she says.
The inspiration for 18½ came while Mirvish was wrapping his previous film, Bernard and Huey. “The last day of shooting was in New York,” Mirvish says, “and it happened to coincide with the 2016 Presidential election.” The 54-year-old filmmaker, author and Co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival spent the evening with Jules Feiffer, the film’s screenwriter and a Pulitzer Prize–winning political cartoonist. “The conversation went to comparisons between Trump and Nixon, and, ‘Hey, if we survived Watergate, what could possibly go wrong in the next four years?’” Mirvish says. “That night, I ended up staying at this amazing motel called the Silver Sands Motel.” Constructed in the ’60s and ’70s and owned by Mirvish’s friend Terry Keefe, the motel felt strikingly evocative of the Watergate era. When Keefe offered Mirvish the use of the motel as a shooting location for a feature film, it was an opportunity that was too good to resist. Mirvish and Co-writer Daniel Moya then came up with the story for 18½.
Magaro, 39 and perhaps best known as Cookie Figowitz in First Cow and Leanord Peabody on The Umbrella Academy, found 18½ to be a refreshingly unique story. “As an actor, it’s fun to be a part of something different,” Magaro says. “It was nice to see something where, hopefully, the audience doesn’t get ahead of it and they’re left guessing.” Because of the heightened nature of the comedy, Magaro chose not to take inspiration for his performance from real life, but instead from the movies of the ’70s. “I went back and watched films like All The President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation, The French Connection,” Magaro says, noting that he closely studied the approach that Robert Redford and Gene Hackman took to their roles. “And then I sort of twisted it in our kinky, zany version of that world, so that was more my approach to this guy,” Magaro explains.
Magaro and Fitzgerald had never met and got no rehearsal time together before shooting began on 18½. “I think that we got kind of lucky,” Fitzgerald says. “Our first scene that we shot was the scene in the diner, which is [where] two people who don’t know each other [are] meeting.”
The cast of 18½ also includes an impressive trio of voice actors featured on the tape itself: Jon Cryer as H.R. Haldeman, Ted Raimi as Brigadier General Al Haig, and none other than the iconic Army of Darkness star Bruce Campbell in the role of Nixon himself. “Bruce is someone I’ve been wanting to work with for a long time,” Mirvish says. “He’s not just mimicking Nixon, but he’s not just Bruce as Bruce, either.” Campbell had recently portrayed Ronald Reagan on an episode of the FX series Fargo and has a long standing fascination with Watergate. It was important to Mirvish to have an actor who brought his own mystique to the performance rather than simply doing a cheesy impression. “I wanted to bring some of that Bruce Campbell gravitas and humor into the Nixon character.”
“It’s always a treat to make that sort of indie where it’s just about you and a few other people getting together and making something cool,” Fitzgerald says.
18½ was in production in early 2020, and the topicality of the material wasn’t lost on anyone. “It felt relevant at the time in the sense that there was this impeachment going on and Nixon had gotten close to being impeached,” Magaro says, adding that corruption and allegations of corruption in politics are themes that certainly resonate today. “Whether you’re on the right or left, both sides are constantly saying ‘This one’s more corrupt; that one’s more corrupt,’” Marago says, “but what I think draws us back to Watergate is that, in a lot of ways, I think that was the genesis of where we’re at politically now.”
18½ is a wild and memorable comedy reminiscent of the classic subversive satires of Robert Altman with a freshness that’s all its own. There’s little doubt that filmmakers will be looking back on the past five-and-a-half years as another turning point in history that’s ripe for dark comedy. When that time comes, perhaps those filmmakers will be able to turn to Dan Mirvish and his cast for inspiration.
Read more interviews with filmmakers by Patrick Gibbs:
The World is a Dangerous Playground in Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents
John Madden Takes on Love, War and Storytelling in Operation Mincemeat