by: Jay Carlson
Indie Revolver recently had the opportunity to sit down with first time director Dan Fogelman to talk about his new film Danny Collins starring Al Pacino, Annette Bening and Christopher Plummer. You might not know Fogelman by name (not yet anyway) but most likely you’ve seen more than one of the films he’s written, whether it be one of the Disney animated films like Cars, Bolt and Tangled or one of his more adult films like Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Last Vegas. Fogelman jokes, “I either do movies for four year olds or eighty year olds.”
His track record as and in-demand screenwriter began to open doors for him, giving him more opportunity to branch out into directing. “All the movies were getting made, I was developing relationships with actors so a lot of opportunities were coming at me to potentially direct something. “Would you want to adapt this book to direct it?” or “Would like to meet to possibly direct this movie at a studio? They’re interested in talking to you.” But it wasn’t really something I was chasing and when I wrote this script I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to hand it to anybody else and that it was time. It was kind of coinciding, I felt I was at the experience level where I was comfortable now and the material kind of spoke to me so.. I controlled it. And so I sent it to Al saying I want to direct this and that’s how it kind of went out in the world.”
The script he’s referring to is Danny Collins. Danny Collins stars Al Pacino as aging 1970s rocker Danny Collins, who can’t give up his hard-living ways. But when his manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40 year-old undelivered letter written to him by John Lennon, he decides to change course and embarks on a heartfelt journey to rediscover his family, find true love and begin a second act.
As the film’s opening title card informs us, the film is (kind of) based on a true story. “I had just finished Crazy, Stupid, Love and I’d had a great experience on that film and a lot of people really liked the movie and I was kind of stuck, I didn’t know what to write next. And as I was kind of procrastinating at my blank computer is when I came across the real life story that had and I said this is my next thing I want to write.”
The real life story Fogelman is referring to was that of a British singer/songwriter by the name of Steve Tilston who gave an interview to ZigZag, a British rock magazine, in 1971 in support of his first album. Tilston was asked if he thought fame and fortune would prove toxic to his songwriting, to which he replied, “Yes, yes, of course it will. My heart will suffer.”
Unbeknownst to Tilston, John Lennon read the interview and wrote him a response, saying that the money didn’t change anything, ending his letter “So whadya think of that?”
Lennon mailed the letter to Tilston in care of ZigZag Magazine, but it never made it to the musician. More than likely, someone at the magazine received the letter and realized its value. Tilston only became aware of the letter 34 years later, when it surfaced in 2005 to be authenticated.
It was this premise that got Fogelman’s gears turning, “I saw this story and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about the real-life story of this guy who got a letter 40 years too late from John Lennon. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Not the real life guy’s story, that (story) wasn’t that cinematic. The “What If” of wow, what If there’s a kid who’s really worried about his career going off the rails if he got rich and famous and what it would do to his art? And John Lennon had written him a letter, his hero, that he didn’t get until he was in his sixties. I couldn’t stop thinking about that guy. And then I started thinking about Pacino. And right within a week of seeing that story I had sat down and written the screenplay. I was writing it for Pacino but I had never met Pacino. I was writing it imagining Pacino. You’re actually sinking into a kind of quiet Al, an Al that maybe you haven’t seen in a while on the big screen. But once he gets that letter he starts to come alive. And we modulated how alive he becomes so it never got too crazy. It becomes fun for the audience to watch Al get that charisma and spark and that Pacino swagger, but then never take it too far. I wrote it for him to hopefully be able to flex all of his muscles a little bit.”
Over the years Pacino has become known for his larger than life performances in films like Scarface and Scent of a Woman, something that Fogelman realized going in. “Al is a New York theater actor at heart, he’s a Shakespearian theater actor. And he is one of the most interesting small actors out there. He’s just not known as much for it because people, as he says, like to put a gun in his hand and give him big things to say. And it works really well, as a country and a world we ate it up. But he’s very comfortable doing a David Mamet play or a very quiet play on stage by himself, and he’s beautiful at it. You don’t want to rob him of all the things we love, the charisma and charm and the ability to pull off a big moment. I hate the movies that are like, “Here’s what you want,” and not give you any of that and then you’ve got to give a great critical review even though you’re getting no pleasure from this fuckin movie. It’s like, no I don’t want to see Al Pacino with a gun to his head for two and a half hours just being depressed and quiet so that’s the line and that’s what I told him. I said, “Al, if we get this right it gets you the ability to do everything in one two hour span that you’re so good at.”
In the film, Al Pacino steps out of his comfort zone and performs onstage as Danny Collins. “I knew he needed to (perform himself). I mean, Al’s not a natural, gifted singer. I was never too concerned about because neither is the character in the film and I had thought it was very important that it be clearly Al and not a fake singer pretending to be Al. I thought that it was really important to see the struggle of a guy who admittedly, I mean, one of his first lines of dialogue in the movie is “I don’t even know if you can call what I’m doing singing anymore.” And that was always scripted and he says “I’ve been abusing my body for four decades.” The craft has left him or the craft that he might have once had and even the songwriting is a muscle he hasn’t used in a while. I think that that’s what’s sweet about the journey. And I think it’s what makes his song that he eventually writes really beautiful and it’s got this Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan vibe to it. It’s a really simple stripped down raw attempt for a guy to recapture something as an older man that he doesn’t have the skillset that he had as a younger man. I think there’s really something kind of emotional about that.. that journey.. musically.”
Speak of the music, Fogelman puts musician Ryan Adams to great use for the film. The Alt-Country rocker contributes a song to the opening scene of the film. Fogelman says of the song, “Yeah, I believe he altered… but I believe the early, early song, Ryan had said, that.. It’s a while ago now, but I remember him saying that “I have this thing that I’ve always loved but was never sure about, but I feel like it’s maybe what you’re looking for.” And he played it for us and I think, changed it up and adjusted it.”
Adams also contributed by writing the song that Pacino is seen writing throughout the last two acts of the film as well and co-scoring the film with Theodore Shapiro. “The stripped down song that becomes Pacino’s song that carries the second half of the movie, THAT Ryan wrote for us. Like particularly for Al and for the film.” When asked about Adams’ work on the films score Fogelman elaborates, “He worked with Teddy Shapiro, who is a super incredibly talented and accomplished guy who did a bulk of the composing score… We used Ryan’s songs and music all over as score and he took a listen of the movie and just kind of, he basically just kind of creates a bunch of music and then Teddy finds a way to let that inspire score and uses pieces of it and so they share a composing credit on the film.”
Miraculously, the film features numerous original John Lennon songs throughout the film including Imagine and Working Class Hero. “I was putting all these songs in my cut and everyone, including my lovely producers, particularly my main producer Jesse, who’s been with me for six years on this project was going, “Damn, what are you doing to yourself? Can you make a list prioritizing them, at least?” And then Yoko’s camp responded and they saw the movie for what it is, the underpinning of the movie is a bit of a love letter to Lennon. He’s kind of this voice, carrying a through line underneath it all subconsciously. They worked with us and we were able to.. we got the call that we were basically told that we could leave all the music that we had put in, in the film.”
It would seem like making a first film with such an established cast would be daunting for a first time director but Fogelman says, “It was surprisingly not difficult. In fact, in many ways it made it easier because everybody was such pros. It was definitely jumping in the deep end a bit with Pacino starting in the title role for your first one, but he’s the loveliest. He’s really a great guy. You look at the poster and it’s got these five gigantic names on it and especially with Pacino and Annette and Plummer, like these kind of legendary actors who are older than me. They happen to also be the nicest people. I always say when you do this kind of stuff you have to pretend they’re nice but these guys are genuinely nice. And that makes a big difference. You know you spend a lot of time preparing for the film and knowing these people and by the time you’re shooting it’s no longer intimidating because they’re kind and they’re nice and you know them so it makes life a lot easier.” Fogelman jokes, “I mean if I had walked into day one of shooting with Al Pacino and Annette Bening and Christopher Plummer and they were all dicks it would have been different. ”
Working with movie stars one could imagine needing to deal with egos on set but Fogelman says this wasn’t the case “No. None Whatsoever. As Normal as can be other than the fact that they’re incredibly famous and well known.”
One role that proved a little more difficult to cast was that of Danny’s grown son, Tom, played by Bobby Cannavale. “Originally, very early on, coming off Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Steve) Carell was involved with it and even considered playing the son.” Pacino then brought up Cannavale, “Al very early always wanted Bobby. They had done Glengarry Glen Ross together and I’ve been an admirer of his since, like, Station Agent. So it was just a matter of would we be able to pull off the financing for that version of the film? It’s such a big part in this movie. It’s ostensibly where you end the movie. It’s the core relationship in the film. I’m so glad it worked out because there’s such a genetic coding between them. I think they feel like father and son in real life. They love each other like father and son a little bit, they have a very close relationship, Bobby and Al. Al really admires him, I think he’s somebody like an actor that Al has given the next generational seal of approval to. He really thinks he’s the real deal, which I do, too. He’s a heavyweight actor. He’s got a real alpha-male masculine presence, which is not common. At an age and a type that doesn’t always get necessarily represented. Our movie stars tend to be a lot prettier and he’s got, there’s just a real man there. A man’s man. That was very important for this film, a kind of salt of the earth dude. Allowing Bobby and Al, who are both most known in their respective careers for these big, showy performances, whether it be Scarface and Scent of a Woman or whether it’s Bobby killing people in Boardwalk Empire, I thought this was an opportunity. Most of their scenes are very, very intimate, quiet scenes. . I like that both of them have the chance to flex that muscle when they’re known for BIG SHOWY STUFF and it’s a lot more quiet. They’re explosive actors, and with that you get iconic, explosive parts and then you become known for that. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not all they can do either. “
On finding his niche, Fogelman elaborates, “To me, Crazy, Stupid, Love and this film are most in the zone of what I set out to do when I decided this was what I was going to do for a living. I don’t know what you call that type of movie. It just feels like… a movie. My dad really likes this movie and my fiancé’s parents really like this movie but also my fiancé really likes this movie. I like those type of films. So, I don’t know what that all means. It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking a lot about it a lot with the animated films. You get more leeway to do stuff that’s unabashedly heartfelt and sweet with animated films. In our increasingly cynical world with more and more internet, it’s harder to put a live action adult movie out that wears its heart on its sleeve because you get hit for it. There’s just no way to pull it off without getting hit. To make a commercial heartfelt film is scary but I’m going to keep trying. I don’t know what you call them and I don’t know what the market is for them anymore, but it’s what I like. You just have to keep chasing that.”
Danny Collins opens tomorrow. I highly recommend you give it a look. You won’t be disappointed.