The fall of Richard Nixon in the early 1970s was one of the biggest scandals in modern political history, and some aspects of the story remain shrouded in mystery. How involved was the US President himself in the cover-up? Who ordered the break-in at the Watergate hotel? And what happened to the 18½ minutes of tape which notoriously went missing from White House records?
Dan Mirvish’s sharp witted comedy drama 18½ is a fictionalised take on what might have happened to that tape, starring Willa Fitzgerald as a White House transcriber who has managed to acquire it, and John Magaro as the journalist she shares it with. It’s not is US cinemas, and shortly before it opened, I spoke with John about it, asking him when he first remembered becoming aware of the scandal.
“Ever since I was a kid, I knew about it,” he says. “I'm pretty political, a big history buff. Certainly in grade school, I started to become aware of it. I remember in middle school, going to a trip to Washington and seeing the Watergate Hotel and all of that. I've learned more as time went on, watching films like All the President's Men, which started filling some of the gaps in the story. But what I think is most interesting about our film is that it's a product of imagination, and creativity, to fill in one of the few remaining mysteries of the Watergate scandal.
“Daniel came to me and showed me the script. I thought it was an interesting idea to figure out these 18 and a half minutes, and then you finally get to see it play out in real time, which is really fascinating. So I thought it would be a cool thing to be a part of.”
Does he think that it's easier sometimes to take on historical subjects like that with a bit of imagination and comedy, because it's such a serious set of issues?
“I think that we, especially when we're dealing with politics, especially since we live in a very polarised time when not everyone, but people on both sides have gone to very far extremes, and don't see eye to eye – I think handling politics with a touch of humour is a smart thing to do. I mean, I remember growing up and watching SNL and David Harvey's George Bush impression, and how SNL dealt with politics, how it continues to deal with it with a sense of humour. I just find that fun way to deal with it.”
Getting into character began with the style of the film, he says.
“Unlike a lot of other roles, this was a lot of just imagination. I think studying things like Day Of The Condor and All The President's Men and even The French Connection, a lot of those kinds of Seventies suspense films, you know, where there's some sort of mystery or whatever, I think studying those was probably more helpful than actually learning about being a reporter, because I do think this is kind of a throwback to those films. I think the style lends itself to that. And I think that's kind of where we were going for more than being a reporter per se.
“I think that always helps when you have a good production designer and costume designer, and a good location, which we were fortunate to have at Silver Sands. It really just helps you dig in a little bit more. We were very fortunate to have those on such a small budget.”
Working with Willa Fitzgerald was also a boon.
“I was very lucky to have a co star who I could figure it out with. When we were staying at Silver Sands while we were shooting it, we would call to have debriefs every night and talk and go over the next day's work and what we did. So we really became a team during it. And it was nice to have her there. She made it really easy to play off of, you know? We really were figuring it out together which was which was really nice, and she's so talented. She does a fantastic job.”
He tells me that he was also excited to be working with Richard Kind, whose work he has been watching for years, and Vondie Curtis-Hall likewise. He didn’t get to meet John Cryer or Bruce Campbell but is pleased that they were part of the film.
Everything became chaotic when the Covid pandemic struck just as filming got underway.
“We were shooting in February and we actually had to stop and March when the world got turned upside down,” he remembers. “And then we came back several months later...When we started, there were no restrictions. When we started, we were in the old way of making movies. And then we just had a shutdown.
“That's when nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew anything about Covid. Everyone just had to be safe at the time. So we just like so many other productions that would just stop, you know, hoping we would come back in a couple of weeks. No-one knew what was going to happen. And then when we came back we were in a new world. We were one of the first jobs back that SAG sanctioned, so we were kind of figuring out as we went how to do testing and PPE gear and all that kind of stuff.”
I mention that I recently spoke with director James Nunn, who had a film in a similar situation and told me that he thought it actually brought the team closer together and gave the actors better chemistry.
“It was good,” John reflects. “It was for pretty much everyone’s first time back around people who weren't in our immediate houses. Yeah, it was nice.”
What he enjoyed most, he says, was simply getting to tell the story and having extra time to work with Willa and figure it out.
I ask him what he has coming up next.
“I did a film with Kelly Reichardt a few years ago, called First Cow, and we have her follow-up to that, Showing Up, which played at Cannes. And then another film called Past Lives, which was a Korean and American sort of joint production. I'm really excited for people to see those.”