Dan Mirvish’s Open House

If you attended the Hot Shops Film Festival in September, you might have caught a “super-duper-secret-sneak preview” of Dan Mirvish’s new film Open House. As a panel member, he also spoke about the film at 8 p.m. Sept. 26. If you missed all of that and are scratching your head, asking “Dan who?” read on.

Mirvish was born in Madison, Wis. At two-years-old he and his family relocated to Israel, then after that brief sojourn, the Mirvish family moved to Omaha, where Dan lived until he was 18. Following high school graduation, it was off to Washington, D.C., where he worked for Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator, then, in about 1991, it was onto the University of Southern California, where he enrolled in film school.

Instead of directing a short for his thesis project, Mirvish decided to do a full-length film. The result was Omaha: The Movie. “I was the first to do a feature film,” he said. “I knew so many people at USC who were spending years and thousands of dollars on making shorts, and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be better to do a feature?’ At that time Robert Rodriguez had done El Mariachi, and I thought ‘why not.’”

The Blue Barn Theatre had just opened in Omaha, and since Mirvish was friends with some of the people involved, he tapped them to star in his film. Jill Anderson and Hughston Walkinshaw played the leads and playing cameos were Tim Siragusa, Scott Kurz, Earl Bates, Scott Blankenship, former Gov. Ben Nelson and former Mayor P.J. Morgan. For his crew, he drew upon locals and he shared producer credits with Dana Altman. “We pitched (Omaha: The Movie) to help spur the local film movement,” he said. “The film was instrumental in getting Alex Payne to shoot in Omaha. It helped (the studio heads) to let him shoot Citizen Ruth (here).”

When Omaha: The Movie was completed in 1995, the filmmaker submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival but it wasn’t accepted. “(Dana and I) had met with other filmmakers (who hadn’t been accepted to Sundance) in New York and we talked about doing a grassroots cooperative thing,” he said. “That planted the seed. Dana had one of the first ideas that evolved into Slamdance.” The initial Slamdance Film Festival, which runs concurrently with Sundance and is also in Park City, Utah, featured a dozen features and shorts and “really took off.” This year, it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

In addition to spending countless hours on his film festival, Mirvish maintains a full-time office in Los Angeles. In 1997, he started working on the film Stamp and Deliver, however, it’s been plagued by one disaster after another. For example, he was five days away from shooting when his financing fell through. “That’s taken a few years of my life,” he said. “I had a series of other false starts. Neil Young was going to produce. And Peter Fonda and Gary Busey had signed but Sept. 11 derailed that.”

Looking for a project that he could direct for a small amount of money, he began working on Open House, which he co-wrote with Lawrence Maddox. “My wife and I had bought a house and the open house process struck me as an area that was ripe for satire,” he said. “The problem I had with Stamp (and Deliver) was a chicken-and-egg cast contingent. Open House would get made based on the material.”

He got the chance to work out some bugs in 2001 when the Seattle Film Festival contacted him and invited him to participate in On the Fly Filmmaking, which gives a director one week to shoot a short film. He or she has one day to cast it, two to shoot it and then 30 hours to edit it. The result was a five-minute short, also called Open House, which he used as a sample for the feature. When Sept. 11, shut Stamp and Deliver down, he began thinking about turning his film project into a musical. “We wrote songs based on the script then recorded a demo CD,” he said. Next came the daunting and dreaded task of raising money. Because of the subject matter, he approached real estate agents and even had a $200,000 commitment from Century 21, but that fell through. Undaunted, Mirvish, who knew he could make the film for much less, began casting.

Since this film was coming on the heels of the successes of Chicago and Moulin Rouge, he had some luck in attracting some of the bigger name talents. “A lot of actors love to sing, but they rarely get a chance to,” he said. “Because this was a musical they were more inclined to do it. We cast in the summer of 2002. Having a short and a demo CD made it easier for us to convince talent agencies that we were for real. And having the reputation of being the guy who started Slamdance lent us some credibility.”

The final lineup includes such actors as Ann Magnuson (Making Mr. Right, Panic Room), Sally Kellerman (MASH), Jerry Doyle (Babylon 5), Anthony Rapp (Beautiful Mind) and Kellie Martin (E.R.).”We have a real interesting, multigenerational cast,” he said. “We have some indie actors and some who come from Broadway. Some had some serious singing credentials; Anthony Rapp played the lead in RENT and Sally Kellerman has been singing in cabarets for 30 years. She has an amazing voice. Jerry Doyle (on the other hand) didn’t know it was a musical. It was a true ensemble and everyone has (his or her) own story. We’ve done a number of test screenings, and I think the standout is Sally Kellerman. Most don’t know her, but she’s very funny and sexy as hell.”

Unlike most musicals, where the director relies on playback or dubbing, Open House recorded the actors live on the set. “Our music director was on set with a keyboard,” he said. “We used eight-track digital recording and everyone had a lavalier mike. To make this work and be competitive, we had to have our own style. We used two cameras that were hand-held, verite-style.” The film was shot on digital video on a Panasonic 24-frames-per-second camera “like George Lucas used but with mini-DV tapes.” “It was really affordable and it looks really close to film,” he said.

Mirvish and his crew shot for three weeks in October 2002. Although he’s still editing it, he’s hoping to have it completed by the middle of January so he can screen it at Slamdance. When Performance Omaha spoke to the director a few weeks ago, he said editing was going well – he had just locked the last reel – but there was still a lot of work to do, including doing color correction and some sound work.

“The tone of the piece is light-hearted, but it has some moving moments, too,” he said. “The way I write dialogue lends itself to (making this a musical). It works. I didn’t want to plop the songs into the film. The challenge was to take whole scenes and turn them into songs. Stylistically there is no distinction when the actors are singing and when they aren’t. In Dancer in the Dark or Chicago the songs represent a fantasy world, and in the ‘50s someone is in a band. (Open House) is just a world where people happen to sing a lot. We also had a choreographer but had no time to rehearse, so the dance moves are ones that people make on an everyday basis. People sing and dance more than they realize, so it’s not that weird of a thing.”

Some people have asked Mirvish, why he would make a musical. “Why not?” he said. “It’s just another genre of film.” To learn more about Open House or Mirvish’s Bugeater Films, go to http://www.slamdance.com/mirvish/open.html.

Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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