Slamdancer: Indie mensch Mirvish reveals secret society

Dan Mirvish is getting the check-engine light on his minivan checked in Los Angeles as he's speaking with a reporter, a seemingly mainstream activity for a filmmaker known as a subversive.

Mirvish co-founded the anarchic alternative to the Sundance Film Festival– Slamdance– after he and three other filmmakers weren't accepted at the Park City-based festival in 1995, and to this day Slamdance continues to share the same time and location with Sundance.

"The second year, Robert Redford called us 'parasites,'" says Mirvish. "In more recent years, they've come to acknowledge we can coexist."

And why not? "The biggest winners at Sundance this year came from Slamdance," says Mirvish. He lists films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and alums like Lena Dunham, creator of HBO's much-talked-about Girls, and Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan.

Charlottesville even boasts a Slamdance winner: Nicole Kassell for her Woodsman screenplay, which was shown at the 2004 Virginia Film Festival.

Because it's held at "an amazing ski resort," according to Mirvish, Slamdance has its own festival traditions, like the sledding contest for filmmakers or the Hot Tub Summit, "the wettest panel discussion on the circuit."

Such events are a great way to get filmmakers to bond with each other.

"It's like the secret handshake," says Mirvish, who bumps into Slamdance alums all over the place. David Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook, one of the Julia Stiles movies being screened at the Virginia Film Festival, is also a Slamdance alum.

Mirvish is bringing his own Stiles film, Between Us, based on the off-Broadway hit. He originally tried to make it in 2007-2008– about the same time the economy was collapsing. Instead, he wrote a book in which he assumed the voice of a fictional Republican campaign insider named Martin Eisenstadt, reporting on his (non-existent) role within the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008.  Eisenstadt was quoted as a reliable talking head by several mainstream media sources, including Time and MSNBC, who were unaware that he was a hoax.

About two years ago, Mirvish decided to go back to Between Us with a lower budget.

"We got lucky," he says. The financing fell through for another project Stiles was working on, and Mirvish's team was able to make her an offer the same day.

"For an actor like her or [co-star] Taye Diggs, it's not about the money; it's about a great part," says Mirvish.

Between Us is about issues young families face: "Financial and creative tensions, trying to make money– that's where I am," says Mirvish, 44.

UVA public health and orthopaedic surgery prof Wendy Novicoff went to high school with Mirvish.

"He was one of the four other Jewish people at our high school in Omaha," says Novicoff, lauding Mirvish for "unfailing witticism, dynamism, and dedication." An investor in Between Us, Novicoff says Mirvish "finds humor in everything, including serious material."

Mirvish has been in Charlottesville before at a UVA student film festival a few years ago. "It's an honor to be coming back as part of the big-boy festival," he says.

He also says he's heard the Virginia Film Festival has its own hot tub tradition, and he promises to pass any confirmation of that on to the Hook. More likely, we suspect, it'll be Mirvish starting it.

Dan Mirvish discusses Between Us following its 7pm screening Saturday at Vinegar Hill.