Filmmaker Dan Mirvish was 10 days into shooting his movie 18½—a comedy thriller about a White House secretary who obtains the only copy of the 18½-minute gap in Nixon’s Watergate tapes—when the pandemic hit. The film’s crew was quickly forced to close up shop and bring production to a halt. For Mirvish, this meant heading back home to Los Angeles, while others scattered across the globe, from New York to Mexico and Brazil to Baltimore. With COVID restrictions in place, the team scrambled to find new ways to work together while miles apart.
As crowded sets gave way to solitary home offices and kitchen tables, the team had to change how they shared feedback and ideas. Conversations that would otherwise take place at craft services or over dailies at the end of the day’s shoot were now happening via email, FaceTime, and in the margins of online documents. Meanwhile, tools like Dropbox helped the crew collaborate, stay creative, and keep the momentum going on the film’s production from afar.
“As the director and one of the producers, it was up to me to have this optimistic tone,” Mirvish says—”that we were going to forge ahead, keep plugging away, and keep making our film as best as we could under whatever circumstances we were in.”
It can be tempting to believe that virtual work isn’t conducive to creative collaborative projects—yet here was Mirvish, attempting to remotely finish a feature-length film. By getting scrappy with their workflows and tools, Mirvish and his team realized that not only was it possible to collaborate on a creative project remotely, but it could also have benefits they’d never get from in-person work alone.
"....we were going to forge ahead, keep plugging away, and keep making our film as best as we could under whatever circumstances we were in.”
Creative collaboration comes with a learning curve
The 18½ crew quickly figured out what worked well and what didn’t. For example, it turned out that remote collaboration was well suited for performing focused tasks. Collaborators could take turns going into a document or file before handing it off to someone else—and then watch changes happen in real time. Dropbox was also helpful for managing things like post-production sound, where Mirvish’s writing and producing partner, the script supervisor, and the composer could share assets, make changes, and communicate notes.
But the transition wasn’t so smooth for every aspect of their workflow. The ease of reviewing something together in the same room, bouncing ideas off of each other, and making changes simultaneously wasn’t always so easy to replicate digitally (though products like Dropbox Replay are aiming to make that review process easier).
“All these new systems are good for having one person generate the material, and having the other person either listen or watch in real-time,” Mirvish says. “But I had to then communicate [changes] via chat or on a separate phone call. I couldn’t punch a bunch of keys and change it in real-time from my end.”
There are also some collaboration problems that aren’t necessarily unique to remote work at all.
“I've edited collaboratively with partners where I've been in the same room with two keyboards next to each other, and even then you can't do it,” Mirvish says. “You have to literally switch computers, or switch hard drives.” But he was determined to stay positive—and like many creatives who were pushed to work together mostly online, the team found some unexpected silver linings.
Getting crafty with call quality
There was one part of 18 ½ that Mirvish knew was particularly well-suited to a remote audio setup: re-enacting the missing eighteen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate tapes.
A recording studio used to be the default for music and voiceovers. But suddenly, recording remotely was the only way to do it—and one of the biggest problems with recording remotely is sound quality. Luckily, this imagined commentary would have been recorded in the early 1970s, on hidden tape recorders in the Oval Office. “It worked out great because the quality of the Nixon tapes in real life is actually not that great,” Mirvish says.
The scenes involved President Richard Nixon, voiced by Bruce Campbell; his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, voiced by Jon Cryer; and General Al Haig, voiced by Ted Raimi. The three actors were in Oregon, California, and Canada respectively. Mirvish had them record the call together over Zoom, then each actor separately recorded their own part in a higher-quality file. He used the Zoom file as a reference point to stitch together the final version.
“From a practical standpoint, it saved us time and money, and the logistics of getting everybody physically in the same place,” he says.
"[Remote work] encouraged and allowed us to work with artists and musicians and recording engineers in other countries around the world in a way that we probably would never have even thought to do."
Casting a wider net
Another unexpected benefit of having creative people around the world working remotely—and looking for work—was that Mirvish was able to access a wider talent pool.
It used to be that only projects with big budgets could afford to work with artists further afield. “For many years, only big budget studios have had the luxury of working with orchestras in Europe while they're sipping a latte in LA,” Mirvish says. “But the new technology that came with the pandemic brought those abilities down to a much lower budget level. So why not?”
Luis Guerra, the movie’s composer, was able to work with an L.A.-based flute player who had gotten stranded in Mexico City during the pandemic. They put together a horn section that the musician recorded in a Mexico City studio. Later Mirvish and Guerra were also able to work with Brazilian singer Caro Pierotto, who was usually based in L.A. too, but had to return to Brazil. “It’s something we probably never would have done or thought of if it hadn't been for forced remoteness, so that was great,” Mirvish says. The process of working with musicians around the world was so fluid that he and Guerra were able to add more songs than they had originally planned.
Although some things were more difficult to do remotely, the situation also made it possible to find new collaborators who would otherwise have been out of reach and budget. “It encouraged and allowed us to work with artists and musicians and recording engineers in other countries around the world in a way that we probably would never have even thought to do,” Mirvish says.
Mirvish and his cast and crew were able to return to New York to finish the last bits of filming in September 2020. 18½ played at 21 festivals in eight countries before going on a 50-city theatrical run in May 2022. Looking back at the movie’s unorthodox creation process, Mirvish was surprised at how much he and the team were able to get done remotely.
He credits this at least in part to the technology that evolved and grew to meet the need for remote work. We’ve come a long way when it comes to working together on documents or reviewing videos online. But to Mirvish, there’s still more work to be done before we can fully replicate the creative chemistry of face-to-face collaboration. “I'll let the technical people figure that out,” he says.
Despite the extra logistics, Mirvish doesn’t think that working remotely changed his relationships with his collaborators. He doesn’t know what his next project will be, but the one part of 18½’s remote production process that Mirvish and longtime collaborator Guerra plan to do again is working with global musicians. “That's definitely something I know he's going to be doing more of in the future—and I certainly would have no qualms about doing that, too,” Mirvish says.
Ultimately, Mirvish sees his team’s ability to create a feature-length movie thousands of miles apart as an achievement. It was a message he laid out for investors while securing funding for the second shoot. “It’s not about technology, it's not about the project,” he says. “It's about communicating that optimism and faith in humanity, and that we’ll come out of this with something people are going to see and enjoy. And thankfully, people have.”