Interview: Director Dan Fogelman on Nurturing ‘Danny Collins’

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CHICAGO – Dan Fogelman is a familiar behind-the-scenes creator, having wrote scripts and screenplays for “Cars,” “Fred Claus,” “Tangled,” “The Guilt Trip” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” He takes on his first directorial effort, the story of “Danny Collins,” a faded rock star who finds redemption through a lost letter from John Lennon.

“Danny Collins” stars Al Pacino as the title character, who goes on a journey to find his estranged son, portrayed by Bobby Cannavale. The all-star cast includes Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner and Christopher Plummer, and highlights the process of re-engineering a life that has drifted the wrong way. Dan Fogelman wrote the screenplay inspired by a true story (the background of which is below), and got the opportunity to direct his script.

Al Pacino
Al Pacino as the Title Character in ‘Danny Collins,’ Directed by Dan Fogelman
Photo credit: Bleecker Street Media

Fogelman grew up in New Jersey – where “Danny Collins” is mostly set – and broke into writing for TV and film about ten years ago. Besides the writing successes mentioned above, Fogelman is the executive producers of the TV show “The Neighbors” and the recent “Galavant.” He is also a producer for the Sundance Film Festival sensation, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” spoke to Dan Fogelman as he came through Chicago on a promotional tour for “Danny Collins.” He provides insight to the John Lennon connection in the film, and his adventures in the film and TV screen trade. Besides the music and the centerpiece letter, what spirit of John Lennon did you want as a thread throughout ‘Danny Collins’?

Dan Fogelman: Without it sounding like a cliché or cheesy, I think it’s simply love. To me, the film is about connection and love. Once you strip away all the trappings of Danny’s life and music, it becomes about family. It parallels Lennon’s second half of his career, so it becomes about capturing the spirit of that man, after all his Beatle fame. Since this is your directing debut, what have you learned over the years about what NOT to do as a director in observing the various interpretations of your screenplays?

Fogelman: [Laughs] I’ve been blessed, because every director I have worked with previously has been kind and nice to me. One thing I did learn from them is to keep the writer involved in the process. I always urge other directors to do that, even though they might think the writer judges them. But it creates a good ‘checks and balances’ system, because if you don’t have it, you risk that the direction of the story can go awry.

Also, making a movie is hard to get right. Every force along the way is attempting to make it go badly. [laughs] It’s not intentional, but the process itself is built to be difficult – in the sense that by the end of it, it’s not always certain there will be a good product. So I’ve learned to keep smart people around me, who will be honest. Since you are a successful producer and screenwriter, how much room does that give you to maneuver within the process?

Fogelman: I have reached a point where I’m successful enough that I don’t have to listen to certain people if I don’t want to – at that point the art of creation can really soar or really go off the rails. If you don’t have good feedback, anything can happen. Now the basis for this film was a true story, and you were inspired to create a parallel universe based on it. What did you want to say through the made-up character of Danny Collins that you didn’t thing was said in the original true story?

Fogelman: In the original true story, Steve Tilston is the guy it actually happened to – he received a letter that John Lennon had written to him in 1971, forty years later. But his life was not one of a rock star, so his reaction to the letter wasn’t as strong. On every level, the story was different than what I put into the film. I had to create a more cinematically interesting story, and couldn’t stop thinking about the ‘what if?’ What if the person did everything that was opposite to what he didn’t want to become, and then got the John Lennon letter? Your cast was amazing. What instruction does Christopher Plummer, longtime veteran and Shakespearian actor, seek from you as the writer/director, when applying his interpretation through the character that you created?

Fogelman: He didn’t need a lot. He came in with a very strong take on the role, and he knew it was going to be gruffer than the usual ‘Christopher Plummer type.’ He usually has a more elegant image, and this character was more of a hammer, a street-wise guy. His interpretation worked for me. It really just became about small adjustments and pacing.

There is a line at the end of the film, in his final scene with Bobby Cannavale, where the scripted dialogue wasn’t working. We got together and came up with something else, and he was able to nail it in one take. That’s the kind of actor he is.

Christopher Plummer, Dan Fogelman
Christopher Plummer and Dan Fogelman on the Set of ‘Danny Collins’
Photo credit: Bleecker Street Media How does economic class play into the relationship that Danny has with his son? At some point he says money can’t buy redemption, but we see examples of his wealth helping the family. Was there any statement in that?

Fogelman: We have that economic divide happening now, between people who fly on private planes versus people who worry about making the mortgage. Whether I am trying to comment on that, I don’t know, but it is a factor in the film. I live in a rarified world of Hollywood, where I’ve done some well-known films with famous people. These people do lament the trappings of the life, much as Danny does in the story, which proves that life essentially is messy and complicated.

Money does solve tangible problems, but it can’t give you connection. At the end of the day – and this is what I try to emphasize in the film – it’s about the ten people in your life that really care about you. That is what life is all about, and I think eventually that is the message of the story. It’s obvious that Danny Collins is looking for redemption. On the subject of redemption, what do you think it means to a creative artist, either like Danny or even yourself?

Fogelman: Artistic redemption is a big thing. I write films, and now I’m directing one, and I find that no one is ever satisfied with the response a film receives. Maybe the guy who did ‘Birdman’ is happy…it won Best Picture, people loved it and it made money. [laughs] But to hit that kind of bullseye in the modern age is rare – with the internet, Twitter and so much more film criticism – and it’s almost impossible to be completely happy with a finished film.

I had films that are successful, but I lie awake wondering why I haven’t had one that is critically beloved, or vice versa. It’s all terrible bullshit, and it really doesn’t matter. All that really matters is whether I have fun doing the film, and in this case I have. I’ve been doing a lot of Q&As after screenings, and love watching the film with the audience. I like seeing how people are affected by it, that they walk out of the film feeling better than when they came in. It sounds cornball, but I’m just trying to make something good that will enhance people’s lives. Since John Lennon is fixed in our minds as a person who was taken from us much too early, how do you think it alters who the real man was? Is it impossible to really understand a person we don’t know?

Fogelman: Yes, I don’t think we can really know a person, even within an artistic space. I know famous people, and some of them were similar to what I thought and some were different. I think the only people you can really know, are the people you spend the most time with, and learning about a person you don’t know is just about trusting the biographer or third party who is telling their story. Sometimes you can read a hundred books about a person and never get to who they really are. You wrote the screenplay to ‘Guilt Trip’ partially as a tribute to a similar trip you took with your own mother. How did that depiction evolve your relationship with her? Do you think it’s possible to be friends between a son and mother, or is it too Freudian?

Dan Fogelman
Dan Fogelman in Chicago, March 10th, 2015
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Fogelman: She unfortunately passed away before she saw the finished product, but what you saw on screen was exactly how our relationship was, just exaggerated. My mother was a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, and she wouldn’t know Al Pacino if he came in and slapped her on the face, but Barbra Streisand was her be all and end all. [laughs] My mother and I were incredibly close, I enjoyed her company. We did become friends when I got older, and even the irritations in my relationship I had with her just faded away. How did you get involved with this year’s Sundance Film Festival sensation ‘Me & Earl and the Dying Girl?’ What drew you to the flame of that energy?

Fogelman: I was sent the book five years ago, with the intention of adapting it. I read the book and I couldn’t get over it – it was one of the most exciting things things I’d read in a really long time. I recommended to the author’s agent that the author himself – Jesse Andrews – should adapt the screenplay. I helped and guided the process as a producer. We worked together for years on the screenplay, but he did it all.

My girlfriend and I were the first ones to see it after it was edited together, and it was just exceptional, even beyond exceptional. It’s so unique and so different. It’s quirky and artistic, but intuitively accessible. I think audiences will go nuts for it. Since you’ve just launched the TV show ‘Galavant,’ what do you think is the most important element in marketing a new TV series in this age of multiple screens? What theories do you have on what sparks a viewer’s interest?

Fogelman: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? If anyone can figure it out, call me. [laughs] There are a ton of options in film, but with TV, multiply that by a billion. People are still drawn to go to a movie theater, but currently people aren’t necessarily drawn to watching television at an appointed hour. So the key is create a show that cuts through the clutter, that’s accessible, and that’s really good. Middling won’t cut it anymore. You’ve got to be a good version of something or some genre, otherwise you’re screwed. That brings up another interesting facet of what you do. How do you handle an executive who wants to change elements of what you create, even though you know they’re not creative or have a creative arts background?

Fogelman: The bulk of my experiences have been good, it’s not a meaningless job if it’s done right. A great film or TV executive is like a great book editor, they can tell you the right direction to go to make the project work better. That helps you get what you want. When I’m in the producer’s role, I find it’s best to be non specific. If for example, if there is a 20 minute lull in a film, I will point it out, but I won’t be specific. I want them to creatively control their product, and fix it. That’s book editor type stuff, and it’s a complicated dance. What is the best piece of show business advice you ever received, and how do you apply it in the circumstances of all your projects?

Fogelman: Yes, I’ve received some advice over the years. [laughs] Once I was talking to an executive, and indicated we should go to another person because they’re not an a-hole. He said, ‘Dan, in the end they’re all a-holes. Just make the thing you want to make.’

Al Pacino told me one as well. When he began his career, he was a modest theater actor. He was then cast in precisely the right thing at the right time, and he became a huge movie star. He described it like being shot out of a cannon, and Al’s personality was not one of a publicity seeker. He told me that his mentor told him, ‘Al, you’ve just got to adjust.’ So basically at a certain point you just have to adjust, and then go do your job.

”Danny Collins” continues its limited release in Chicago on March 27th. Featuring Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Josh Peck and Nick Offerman. Screenplay written and directed by Dan Fogelman. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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