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Past Article

LA to Omaha and Back with Dan Mirvish
By Jonathan Marlow
November 14, 2005 - 2:24 PM PST

Open House at the Academy

That brings us to Open House [more]...

Yes. The catalyst for this whole conversation.

So five years ago, my wife and I were shopping for a house and went through several months of going through open houses. While she was looking at square footage and hinges and moldings and things like that, I was looking through people's lingerie drawers and other things in their houses and was intrigued by the fact that people will just let you into their house and you can rummage through their stuff. I thought that was really fascinating. So, it seemed to me that you could make a good, cheap movie in terms of locations and economy of scale in the milieu of the open house world. You find a few houses and all during the day, you don't even need a lot of lights. That got me thinking, "Alright, well, let's start writing this," and I came up with a treatment. I got my friend Larry Maddox involved; we wrote the screenplay together. Originally it wasn't going to be a musical; it was a straight-forward comedy.

Then Kathleen McInnis comes into the story because she invited me up to the Seattle festival to shoot a short as part of their Fly Filmmaking series, which was a lot of fun. I said, "Well, can I adapt the script that I literally just finished a week before?" She said, "Yeah, sure." So I turned it into a five-minute version of the script, sort of like a trailer, but it would still work on its own as a short. I got to sort of try out doing something digitally and it looked pretty good. I was happy with what could be done at that level.

This would have been...

2001. That was when we were doing casting with Neil Young on Stamp and Delivered and my casting director for that also did casting for all the big Broadway revival musicals in LA. So whenever we had an actor who came in for our auditions, at the end of the audition, Bruce would always ask them, "Oh, and by the way, do you sing?" They'd be like, "Why, is this a musical?" He's like, "No, but I cast this other thing and I always like to know who sings."

It sort of dawned on me, a lot of actors sing. Who knew? So many actors started doing theater in high school, or, you know, a lot of them were on Broadway or whatever. They rarely get a chance to sing in a movie and this was right after Moulin Rouge had come out. It was before Chicago had come out, but Moulin Rouge had come out and a lot of people were pleasantly surprised that Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor, like, wow, they sang!

So I kind of had that in the back of my mind and, after September 11th, Hollywood kind of shut down anyway. By this point, Larry and I had started to shop the script around and people in Hollywood said, "Oh, it's kind of too small," and the indie companies said, "Oh, it's kind of too mainstream," even with showing the short around with it. We weren't really making any headway and it was looking like we were going to wind up having to make it on our own for no money, which was kind of the original intention anyway. Then I woke up at four in the morning one day and I said, "You know what, let's try rewriting it as a musical. Let's give it a shot."

We just turned the scenes into songs, then combined with Joe Kraemer, who was a composer friend of ours who put together a demo CD, really put our hummable tunes to real music. We didn't even really try to waste time, re-shopping it around because we kind of knew, "You know what, no one's going to make a low budget musical."

Sure enough, my theory about casting turned out to be true. We did get a higher level of actor because it was a musical. We got people like Anthony Rapp from Rent on Broadway and now Rent the movie, because it was a musical. I don't know that we would have gone after him, I don't know that we would have gotten him otherwise. Sally Kellerman is another one. She loves to sing.

She's great in the movie.

She's great in the movie.

And you have a singer-turned-actress, Ann Magnuson. You have them both directions.

Yeah, it's a great mixed cast. We've got Broadway people, indie people, Hollywood people, TV people, a few people in there from TV, Kellie Martin and Jerry Doyle and people like Hedy Burress, who was a success on TV, but she's also a stage actress, plus I knew her for three years. She was a Slamdance programmer.

Now, let's talk a little bit about your efforts to get nominated for an Academy Award. One of your favorite topics, I'm sure.

So we made a movie and made everyone sing live on set and all that good stuff and had been playing at some festivals and feeling some moderate festival success with the film and then came August of last year, 2004. I got an odd call from a friend of mine at Miramax saying, "Oh, have you heard about this Oscar category, Best Original Musical?" I'm like, "No, what the hell are you talking about?" So she told me about it and it turned out that Miramax had a couple of films that they thought might be in this category so they were looking for other films that might be musicals.

Soon we realized that, yes, Open House would qualify, and as it turned out, the two Miramax films, in the end, didn't qualify. I jumped on the case and started working with the Miramax person and we got the Paramount person involved, the Disney people involved, then the Neil Young connection came up again because I knew he had done Greendale. I figured out from the rules that that actually qualified, so I called Neil's people, because I was still on good terms with them, and talked them into submitting. They were actually eligible. I quickly came to realize that the nature of the beast is that if there were five eligible films, then three of them would get nominated, and so...

They do the same thing with the Animated Feature category.

It's similar rules. The rules are a little bit different. Animation is seven or something. So I thought, "Well, this is pretty good. It's a 60 percent chance of getting an Oscar nomination." At this point, the whole point of the nomination was to get distribution. We had done some distributor screenings and festival screenings and we were at that point where distributors go, "Yeah, we like the movie, but we don't know what to do with it. We don't know how to sell it." So you say, "Alright, so if we get an Oscar nomination..." "Oh yeah. Then we'll pick you up. No doubt about it." This was an important goal to pursue. Which is funny because it's eerily reminiscent of, going back to Omaha (The Movie), where, after we've had very successful screenings at the IFP Market, distributors said, "Yeah, we really like the movie, we don't really know what to do with it, but if you get into Sundance, then we'll pick you up for sure."

That is so absurd.

Yeah, there's always something else they make you do.


"Oh, now I have to get an Oscar nomination."

It's not enough that you've made a good film.

No, you have to figure out how to win an Oscar, not even win, but just get nominated. So, alright, this is not so crazy, but the problem was going to be, you know, in looking at the rules, which are very arcane, were there going to be enough other films? It looked like there might be, there might not be. We weren't 100 percent sure. It looked like there were maybe only going to be four films. We needed a fifth film. The only way to make 100 percent sure that there was a fifth film was to make it ourselves.

Right. So what ever happened to that film?

So we did that. Robert Peters - who was an actor and also Slamdance alum who was in Open House - he and I were going to the Oldenburg festival in Germany, which is a great festival, by the way. The guy who runs the festival, he's an old friend of mine. I knew he always has a lot of German actors come to the festival. So he hooked us up with a bunch of German actors, Robert and I grabbed a camera, wrote a bunch of songs right before we left, improvised the script while we were there. We shot this thing in ten days in Germany, plus we had a layover in Paris, so we wrote a song about that, and shot for a day in Paris.

So it was your first foreign film?

My first foreign film! It was great because we didn't really know German. Well, I know a little bit, but not much. Then I had to focus on my Oscar campaign for Open House, so I sort of handed everything over to Robert, and so, in the end he'll wind up actually with the director credit, which is fine. He edited the film and we literally turned it into the Academy on December 1st at 4:55 pm; running up the stairs to the Academy, turning in the paperwork for it.

Sure enough, we did need the film and there were five eligible films, and then the Academy still said, "You know what, we're still not going to do the category, just because..." Well, no real reason. "We don't think the films are quite up to snuff," which isn't really one of the reasons that they were allowed to give, according to the rules. Basically, I think what they did was look at it and say, "What do we have in the end?" Home on the Range, which was a Disney flop animated musical. We have the Trey and Matt movie, Team America. You know, Trey and Matt are the guys who showed up in dresses the last time they were nominated, they didn't want to see them again. You've got Neil Young, whose budget wasn't more than ours. Neil, the last time he had been nominated for an Oscar, he didn't show up at all. That had really pissed off the Academy. They were still really bitter about that. And then there were my two films which, put together, the budgets didn't add up to the cost of the Oscar gift bag, so...

So there you have it. They changed the rules just to keep you out.

We'd always knew that one of the goals of this was to get a lot of press and we succeeded in doing that. Also, one of the songs from the film, "Selling a Dream," that Sally Kellerman sings, we knew that we were going to put that forward. This was actually a much longer shot, but if we were going to all the effort anyway, we still had a shot at Best Song, so we refocused our efforts on that. Actually, Hollywood Reporter said we were one of the top sixteen contenders in the Best Song category. Sally's an Oscar nominee herself and has actually sung at the Oscars before, so it wasn't completely out of the realm of possibility. We didn't get it, but whatever. We had a lot of fun with it. As Larry says, "You know what? It was a fun caper."

Well, you certainly received a lot of press from these efforts.

Yeah. Robert's been re-editing the movie ever since and he actually showed it at Oldenburg this year, just a few weeks ago, and it went over apparently. I would have gone, but I had this accident. That's a whole other thing, but he said it went over really well, so he's submitting it to other festivals now, and trying to finish it up again.

So this house of yours, in a sense, the foundation of Open House, has put you into bed.

I was in a freak remodeling accident in the house that inspired the movie. I fell off a ladder this summer.

It was a ladder. I didn't know exactly what had happened.

It's amazing what gravity can do when you're on top of a ladder.

It can do a lot.

Yeah. It snapped my leg like a chicken bone. I had bones sticking out and blood flowing out and my foot facing the wrong direction and broke my shoulder just to make matters worse. I'm still recovering from that.

When are you supposed to be fully recovered?

Oh, probably never fully. I know there's going to be permanent nerve damage, but at least there won't be brain damage.

Fortunately you didn't land on your head.

Yeah, I am lucky that way. They think I'll be able to walk again. I won't be able to put weight on my leg for another two months or so. This week I just started using crutches a little bit. Up until now I've been using a wheelchair. I'm still using the chair, mostly, but I'm starting to use crutches. But yeah, hopefully, it'll be about six months to a year before I'm doing anything resembling walking.

That's quite an accident.

I wouldn't be surprised if I have a limp or a pimp cane, you know.

That could be very stylish.

If I have a regal limp or a stylish pimp cane. It's time to start accessorizing again. The hat's getting old hat.

back to past articles >>>

LA to Omaha
Open House at the Academy

back to past articles


Jonathan Marlow
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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