By Jonathan Marlow
November 14, 2005 - 2:24 PM PST
Renegade filmmaker and Slamdance co-founder Dan Mirvish has made a musical comedy about real estate. Film Threat calls Open House (more) "a funny, fast-paced and above all very unique film." Jonathan Marlow asks him about his Oscar campaign, starting a film festival and the film scene in Nebraska.
You were part of the graduate film program at the University of Southern California. How was that experience?
That was a frustrating learning experience. The year I got there was the year that they had started some new curriculum. So we called ourselves the "guinea pig class." We were there the same year as the riots in South Central, right across the street from campus, so all of us were affected by that. There was a lot of gunfire and looting... and that was just among the students.
And then our best professor there turned out to be an axe murderer, which really was the case.
So it was kind of a challenging time and I've since come to appreciate that every film school is a bit of a struggle and from great struggle comes art or at least productivity. So by my third year there, I had spent a lot of money doing these shorts. Even at USC, they're actually kind of subsidized by the school but they still wind up spending a lot of money making shorts and I was seeing... you know, a lot of them weren't very good, but even the good ones, people would go to meetings with them afterwards in Hollywood and people would say, "Well, that's great, kid, now let us know when you've done a feature." For someone who just blew 100 grand on a short, you'd be like, "What?"
So I thought, "You know what? If I'm going to have some guy in a suit tell me that anyway, I may as well make a feature, you know, and just cut to the chase." I saw some obscure loophole in the USC bylaws that allowed me to make a feature-length film that would count as my thesis and that I would still be able to own the rights to, which is kind of a big sticking point about USC. USC usually owns the rights to most of the features - most of the shorts, there are no features. Anyway, I found the one loophole. I like loopholes. But what was involved was endless work with the script that I had and shooting in Nebraska, where I wouldn't have been able to use any USC equipment, facilities, not even a pencil sharpener, which suited me okay. I was shooting in Nebraska anyway. Panavision gave us free editing equipment, Paramount gave us a free edit suite to cut the film on and we wound up cutting on old upright moviolas from the 30s.
I want to talk a bit about your first feature film experience. By that, of course, I'm talking of American Kickboxer 2.
Ah, there you go, you are delving into the...
Obviously Omaha was a more formative experience.
Well, you'd be surprised, though. The whole reason I could make an Omaha (The Movie) was because I worked on American Kickboxer 2, which of course at the time was known as Blood Kin. The lab in the Philippines kept getting our dailies confused with another film called One-Armed Executioner, which we always thought must've been a much more fun film to work on. Kickboxer was this bizarre movie where I found a notice on a bulletin board on campus saying, "Interns needed for terrorist filmmaking." I'd heard of gorilla filmmaking; I'd never heard of terrorist filmmaking.
It turned out it was a crazy Hungarian director whose dictionary was wrong. I worked on it for a week in LA and then five weeks in the Philippines and back as the post supervisor in LA. It was amazing hands-on experience. You know what they always say, you learn as much or probably more from a bad movie than you do from working on a good movie and American Kickboxer 2 was just a bad movie. It was between my first and second years at USC. It was a Hong Kong producer, a Hungarian director and I was the only American on the set, translating broken English for everyone. It was just crazy. I said, "If these guys can make a movie, how tough can it be making it with a bunch of people who actually speak a common language?" It was quite influential in its own way.
With Omaha, however, you have a cast of unknowns. How did you come to cast the people that you used while you were shooting in Nebraska? They're mostly Nebraska natives?
Yeah. Pretty much. They all were. Strangely enough, I actually had, like, the Dean of Hollywood casting directors, a guy named Lynn Stalmaster. Any TV show or movie in the 70s, he was the casting director. He's actually from Nebraska originally, so somehow I hooked up with him and he said, "Ah, just cast it in Nebraska." He gave me good advice on how to audition people.
The thing about Omaha is that it's always been known as a strong theater town. Marlon Brando's mother was Henry Fonda's acting teacher in Omaha, you know. 70 years ago. All the Fondas have gone back and done theater there. It's always been a strong theater town.
About three or four years before we were shooting the movie, there was a whole group of actors from SUNY Purchase in New York who literally picked a spot on the map. They didn't want to do theater in New York. SUNY Purchase is a pretty famous drama school. So they set up a kind of a renegade theater company in Omaha, of all places. I knew these guys a little bit. Jill Anderson was one of the stars in Omaha (The Movie), so I knew her and she had already introduced me to a lot of these guys at what's called the Blue Barn Theatre. One of its founders was Hughston Walkinshaw, and so he wound up being the lead in that movie. We did an open audition, an open call in Nebraska, which was a lot of fun. We had 200 people come in.
I went out there to the local film commission and they were incredibly helpful. I said to them, "Well, I haven't lived here in eight years, can you recommend someone to work with?" They said, "Yeah, you should meet this guy, Dana. He's producing some commercials, but he wants to get into feature stuff." It turned out to be Dana Altman and they said, "By the way, his grandfather's Robert Altman." I said, "Well, I've got to meet this guy."
So Dana became my producing partner on the job. Everyone was all local and it was really the first sort of locally made indigenous indie film in Nebraska. The Indian Runner had been made about three or four years before, so people had sort of gotten a little bit of a taste of film there. Terms of Endearment had been made about ten years before. That had sort of gotten peoples' interest going. We got some local celebrities in the film. We got the mayor of Omaha and, when he was in the governor's office, he called us and said that the governor wanted to be in it. People like that.
Everyone was getting in on the act.
Oh, yeah, which was good, because the mayor was a Republican, the governor was a Democrat and it made it a lot easier to raise the money locally. And they gave us free food and free gas. It was a great environment to shoot in. It still is.
You took this film to many, many, many festivals.
About, more or less, 35 festivals.
And it was obviously well-received. People seemed to like it. They laughed, which was good. You've done a few things that were unconventional with the film, distribution-wise. You had a pact with Total Movie & Entertainment. That was quite unconventional. Was that a good experience for you?
Yeah, overall it was. It was a bizarre thing. A friend of mine who I worked with a few years before had called me up. He was working at Total Movie, which was this magazine that sort of came and went fairly quickly, but while they were around, they were putting out these DVDs that came out with the magazines. On one side there was Hollywood fluff, DVD extras and commentaries and trailers, big names, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Madonna, whatever, all kinds of things.
For the flip side - literally, because it was a double-sided DVD - they were looking for films that they could license really, really cheaply. They had done a couple of B-movies from the 60s or something like that. So my friend was saying, "Oh, we should start to do indie movies."
So he called me up. And I literally only had like 48 hours to say "Yes" and get them all the deliverables, but luckily, when you make a little indie movie, you can make those decisions very quickly and record the commentary and get a couple of extras on there - and they did a good job of it. There wasn't much money in it, but they had this deal with Pioneer Home Video in which every Pioneer DVD player sold in North America over a six-month period was stuffed with a free copy of this disc. It wound up being a total run of about 350,000. You know, for a little movie...
That's huge. Yeah. A third of a million people got my movie whether they wanted it or not.
LA to OmahaSlamdance
Open House at the Academy
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In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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