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Pacino, Lennon and “Danny Collins”: A Chat with Dan Fogelman

With writing credits that include Pixar’s hit, “Cars,” Disney’s rollicking faerie tale, “Tangled,” and the delightful all-star comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” Dan Fogelman has chosen rather unexpected subject matter for his directorial debut. The R-rated dramedy, “Danny Collins,” stars Al Pacino as the titular rock star who hasn’t written a song in decades, coasting on his past successes by croaking out old lyrics at sold-out venues. When his manager, Frank (a wonderfully crusty Christopher Plummer), gives Danny a recently discovered letter written to him 40 years ago by John Lennon, the musician suddenly ponders what his career would’ve been like had he received these words of encouragement at an earlier age. He decides to rebuild his identity from the ground up, entering the life of the adult son (Bobby Cannavale) he never met, as well as the man’s wife (Jennifer Garner) and adorable, ADHD-addled daughter (Giselle Eisenberg), while pursuing a possible dinner date with a witty hotel manager (Annette Bening).

Using the real-life letter written by Lennon to folk singer-songwriter Steve Tilston as its inspirational jumping-off point, Fogelman’s script is uplifting without ever succumbing to schmaltz, partly because there are no easy answers for any of its characters. It gives Al Pacino his best big-screen showcase since 2004’s “The Merchant of Venice,” and is sure to please countless crowds during its theatrical run. Fogelman spoke with RogerEbert.com about rehearsing at Pacino’s house, his careful use of classic Lennon tunes and his insistence on making sweet films in an industry where sweetness is deemed uncool. 

Both “Crazy, Stupid Love,” which featured three of this year’s Oscar-nominated actors, and “Danny Collins” make excellent use of their accomplished ensembles. 

“Crazy, Stupid, Love” may be a good model for this film, since Steve Carell centers everything with his performance. Al’s in every frame of “Danny Collins,” and a cacophony of different people are always coming into and out of his life. I’ve learned that if you can fully form a character, even if they’re not entering a script until page 30, or if the [actor playing the part is] not getting as much screen time as they normally get in the movies and TV that they’re starring in, they’ll do it if it’s a real part. Having Al at the center of it doesn’t hurt either. In the case of “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” everybody wanted to work on a comedy/drama with Steve Carell. When he signed on, it made a big difference in terms of what people we could get involved. 

One of my favorite sections in “Danny Collins” takes place in the middle of the film. The first twenty minutes of the picture are a quiet start to the story. Al’s character is in a really low place, and you need to sell how alone and depressed he is. It’s funny but it’s not as energetically funny as the movie gets. He goes home to New Jersey and there’s a sequence where Danny literally gets passed off from one great actor to another. It goes from Jennifer and Bobby to a night with Annette Bening, and right before that, Chris Plummer has a great scene with Al. In twenty minutes, you meet four different characters. 

Ultimately, I’ve been very blessed. There can be terrible people in Hollywood. I write stuff that’s sweet and hopeful, and it helps when you cast actors who are heartfelt people. When you tell me that you like this film and “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” it tells me a little bit about who you are, just instinctively. You like things that make you smile or make you hopeful instead of hopeless. The actors were like that too and that’s the energy you’re feeling with them. It felt the same way when we did “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” I was surrounded by all these famous people who were so incredibly talented, and I was struck by how kind everyone genuinely was. I enjoyed hanging out with all five of the actors in “Danny Collins” outside of the movie.

What a thing for Jen Garner to be going toe-to-toe with Al Pacino in a three-minute monologue. Bobby and Al are so close in real life, and it was great to see them pass off that torch in their mano-a-mano scenes. Annette and Al have never worked together—they know each other very well socially—so that was such a fun experience to pair them onscreen. There’s a “Crazy, Stupid, Love”-style montage where they’re falling in love over the course of an evening together, and we did a lot of playing around with improvisation. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever shot on a set with these two, going untethered at one another during this charming, romantic evening.

I was struck by how relaxed Pacino appears to be in this film. When his character is caught in tense situations, you expect him to explode, but he subverts the audience’s expectations at every turn.

Al is so well-known for being such a big, expressive actor, because he’s been in iconic parts that are, by their nature, gigantic. But he’s a stage actor. His work is so contained and small in films like “You Don’t Know Jack” and “The Humbling” that you feel like you’re watching it in a really tiny theater in New York. So it’s not that Al isn’t great at doing that sort of work, it’s that he got incredibly well-known for doing something else. That’s what’s exciting for me about my film. It plays into all of the ways that Al is fun and charming without ever getting gigantic, and it allows him to do some heavy duty stuff—quietly, between the words—as well.

How had your previous onset experiences enhanced your approach to directing your first feature?

They were everything. Whether or not all of the films have completely worked or not, I’ve been a part of many movies that have gotten made over the last couple of years, and I’ve been blessed with the number of times that has happened. So many great scripts don’t get made because the pieces didn’t come together at the right time. Because of my success, I’ve been able to be on a lot of sets, and it’s kind of a smorgasbord. You go, “I like the way that guy works with the actors” or “I like the way that guy talks to his DP” or “I like how she does rehearsals.” Growing up in Pixar was essentially film school for me. You’re watching every frame of a movie being created by the best. John Lasseter became my first mentor. He and his storyboard artist, Joe Ranft, who passed away, are legendary guys. I had no training in screenwriting and I got the job writing “Cars” on a freak whim. You just learn a little bit from everyone. Sometimes you go, “I don’t like the way they do x, y or z, I’m not going to do that when I direct,” and you develop your style before you’re even directing.

You’ve said that your films are not for cynics, and that their tendency to wear their heart on their sleeve may be considered unhip in today’s movie marketplace.

Yeah, anytime you’re in the territory that we’re treading here, you become ripe fodder for cynics. I’m a film buff and a director, so I love all movies. I go to a lot of [For Your Consideration] screenings around awards time, and oftentimes, especially over the last five years, they’ve become a bit of a depressing slog. You hit a point where you’re like, “Oh my god, I can’t do it.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate them, but sometimes I think, “Where are the movies that are lighter and still weighty, in that they’re about something?” I’m not walking out of these films going, “I had such a good time at that movie. I enjoyed that so much.” I appreciate all of them and I love many of them, but it feels like the currency of laughs and smiles and a good kind of cry has become uncool somewhere along the line. I don’t know why that is. 

With animated fare geared toward children, you’re awarded more for that type of tone. For my money, I thought Steve Carell should’ve gotten an award nomination for “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” What he did was so hard to do, that kind of comedy mixed with heart. That’s not the type of movie that gets attention during awards season. Even audiences, to a degree, are more comfortable with that tone in an animated film. They allow themselves to be overwhelmed by it. Cynics aren’t hating on the heart in a Pixar movie. Right now, Disney is hitting one [home run] after another. John Lasseter went to Disney Animation, and the results were “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.”

What was the process like of weaving the Lennon songs into the narrative fabric of the film?

We had two or three songs placed in the script that stayed where they were in the movie. The ones that are most literal, where you’re noticing the action, are probably the use of “Working Class Hero,” “Imagine” and “Beautiful Boy.” The rest we found in the course of editing the movie. We had nine Lennon songs, and we didn’t want them to be on-the-nose. Every time someone is sad, we didn’t want to simply use a song about someone being sad. It was more about feeling. We allowed ourselves, in a couple areas, to be more literal and make it effective. If you did it every time, the audience might start rolling their eyes, no matter how good the music is. 

When Al’s character has a kind of collapse late in the film, we used “Cold Turkey,” which has a music bed that is really dissonant. You don’t even notice necessarily that it’s a Lennon song, it sounds like we’re just scoring dissonance. The song is actually about a lot of things that are relatable to that scene. It’s almost as if it was just kismet the way some of the songs fit in without being too obvious. It felt like Lennon wrote them for this movie. [laughs]

One person who deserves awards consideration for his work in “Danny Collins” is Bobby Cannavale. His scene with Garner towards the end of the film is brilliantly acted. 

This is one of those things that you find. He recites a little nursery rhyme to his daughter at the beginning of the movie that was scripted to get her [to calm down]. When we were reading it in Al’s backyard, I said, “This is going to resonate, I think people are going to remember the words,” because something stuck out about the way Bobby was delivering them. As his character is leaving the house, toward the end of the film, I said, “Jen, what if you recited the rhyme to Bobby right now?” We did it on the fly, along with the shot itself. It’s a single tracking shot that carries Bobby from the piano over to her, where it kind of rests in a two-shot. That was something that my DP, Steve Yedlin, and I came up with on the day. Our first take was the one we used in the movie. I actually never get like this, but I was getting emotional behind the monitors and I said, “Jen, do you want to do one more for safety?” We did only one more take, but it was almost too emotionally exhausting on the actors.

There’s an equally devastating moment where the camera simply rests on Cannavale’s face as he watches his daughter frolicking in the backyard. 

That scene has my favorite use of a Lennon song in a movie, “#9 Dream.” I was behind the camera, we were on a long lens, and that girl was in the foreground. Bobby was looking at her, and I saw that he was staying [in character], so we just kept rolling. That little girl—we weren’t even directing her—just kept jumping in and out of the frame and it worked great. Sometimes that stuff just happens and you get lucky. It wasn’t planned. That’s what is most exciting about making a film. 

Garner reveals an emotional depth here that she rarely gets to display elsewhere.

Jen is so likable as a human being, and she’s so beautiful and accessible. That shouldn’t be a quality that keeps her from getting weightier parts, and I don’t know if it does necessarily, but I think she’s the real deal as an actress. That’s why I was excited to get her. That scene with Pacino was one of my favorite things to shoot because I knew that Jen was going to kill it. It’s a long monologue to give an actor and it’s all Jen. She’s just very lovably beating the crap out of him. It’s heavyweight stuff, and I’m happy that she gets to be seen in that way. I like movie characters that are recognizable versions of ourselves but they’re also a little bit prettier, a little bit smarter, and can deliver perfectly timed one-liners. You need actors to pull off that dialogue to make it feel natural, because it’s all a little heightened. 

One actress who has recently emerged as an utterly captivating screen presence is Melissa Benoist. I thought it was funny how in both “Whiplash” and “Danny Collins,” she performs most of her scenes from behind a booth. 

She does good booth acting. [laughs] She’s got such a face, she’s going to be a gigantic star. She was cast as Supergirl not long ago. Once all of the big actors came on to the project, we knew that we needed someone to be in a lot of scenes with Al and Annette. Every young actor in Hollywood was coming in to audition, and Melissa came and got it. She’s going to be very, very famous. She and Josh Peck, who plays the valet, came over to Pacino’s house and were rehearsing in his backyard. I was like, “This is weird, huh?” and they were like, “Yeah.” But these young kids in their early twenties were so good and they didn’t allow their work to be overshadowed by fact they were acting opposite Al Pacino and Annette Bening—not on day one nor in rehearsal at Al’s house. I was very proud of them every time they would finish a take.

Rehearsing at Al’s house must’ve contributed to the family atmosphere onset.

Yes. I was there an awful, awful, awful lot. [laughs] It was great. This movie didn’t have a big budget. Though it feels like a commercial film, it was done very independently, and we needed that time to work through scenes together. If it weren’t for Al allowing us to rehearse at his house, I don’t think the film would’ve been as good. 

Do you personally relate to Danny’s struggle to maintain his artistic integrity in the face of market pressure?

I think we all do in life. Nobody goes to their job and says, “I want to be the hackiest version of myself.” That’s especially true in the case of art versus commerce, but it also applies to anything we do. Nobody sets out to be a bad person. Even though being a famous sell-out musician rock star isn’t a very relatable character, his journey is what makes him relatable. We all wake up making that New Year's resolution to be the best version of ourselves, and usually we fail by the end of the day. Then we wake up the next day saying, “I’m going to be a better father, a better husband, better at my job, I’m going to be nicer to my boss or my employees.” We all set out to do that, and we often fail, but it’s the attempt that I think is heroic. What I love about this character and what I find relatable for myself and my own career, is the effort he puts forth to do the right thing. He’s really trying, he just doesn’t have the tools. He’s a bit of a lovable putz. It’s not until the very last scene of the movie where he’s stripped away all the artifice that he has a chance to be a fully formed human being. We leave him with that chance and I think that’s hopeful and real.

Are you planning to direct more of your scripts?

I’m a writer first. When it’s a movie I feel impassioned about and I can’t imagine someone else doing it, I’ll direct it. But I just produced a film with an amazing director [Alfonso Gomez-Rejon] that just won all of Sundance, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” It was so inspiring. I didn’t write the script but I worked for a long time with the writer [Jesse Andrews] on it. I love that kind of partnership. To see someone take the material and put their own twist on it was a really fun thing. As a writer, I don’t have to get up early and I can get to set late. My friends [Glenn Ficarra and John Requa] who directed “Crazy, Stupid, Love” are brilliant filmmakers, and I loved working with them. But there are some movies that I imagine I won’t be able to let go, like “Danny Collins.” 


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