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Dan Fogelman, writer/director of Danny Collins

Bleecker Street releases Danny Collins at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square on March 20th, 2015.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think is so compelling about very flawed characters like Danny Collins?

DF: We're all very flawed, I think. The movie is really about a guy seeking a second chance, but ultimately it's about a guy trying to be a better version of himself. I think that's the human condition and struggle in a nutshell. We literally do New Years' resolutions of things we're going to work on, but the typical person is screwed up by January 3rd. We all wake up every morning determined to be a better version of ourselves---a better husband, father, wife, employee. At the end of the day, you go, "Wow! I didn't do it today, but I'm going to trying again to be better at it tomorrow." That's the story of this movie. My favorite kind of movie is one that can cinematize that struggle.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think it's fair for the audience to judge Danny Collins?

DF: Yes. I think you're meant to judge him. The movie is a character piece about Danny Collins, but the it's all a set-up for the final scene in the movie. You can watch the Danny make mistakes and be flawed, but hopefully go through enough lessons to change that and in the final scene, he's able to behave properly for the first time. It's not like he's a changed man, but it's the first step, hopefully, in him affecting a change. None of us wake up and say, "I'm going to be a better person today" and then become a better person. Change doesn't come that quickly or that easily. It's a very small step that Danny makes, but it's an important one.

NYC MOVIE GURU: If Danny Collins were to ask you for advice on how to be happier, what would you say to him?

DF: Happiness is the hardest thing to chase in life. I think what Danny's character is missing, more than anything, it's not about music; it's about human connection. He's missing a family. Except for the relationship with his manager, he doesn't have real human connection. That's really happiness at the end of the day. You can chase it in your career, you can chase it in a million different ways, but it's about connection with people which is probably the key for him.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why do you think that the longest-lasting relationship Danny is with his manager?

DF: That interesting. If you think about it, they're thrown together by his business first, and they developed a friendship after that. That relationship is an interesting one that's very specific to our industry, but I know many famous people and people from my side of the business--writers and directors--who are inseparably close from their representatives because it's not just a work relationship for some. The lives get so heightened and the careers get so strange that it's almost a necessity.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would Danny have made the same mistakes if he were to go back in time knowing the lessons that he learned at the end of them movie?

DF: Yes, I think so. Al Pacino and I talked about that. What's interesting about the conceit of this movie is that it's about the "What if?" What if you could've gotten a piece of advice at 20 that would have changed the course of your life? The thing is that nobody at 20 is really ready to receive any piece of advice. We wave off the advice. So, the reality of the story and the letter that Danny received is that it probably could only have had an effect if it had been received exactly the way it was received---which is 40 years too late. The sliding doors of it only exists to a character who doesn't realize they would've been able to receive it back then. Sometimes, as I'm watching this movie, I say to myself, "Shit! If only I had had that scene in the movie." I didn't recognize it until I was doing press for the movie. I think it's there, but it would've fun to verbalize it because I would've written a good speech.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was the most challenging aspect of writing and directing Danny Collins?

DF: The main thing that's challenging is the tone. We're trying to make a commercial piece of entertainment that's also about something. We have scenes on a bus that has no business being in a movie between Danny and his son. It's a 7-minute conversation held in a 2-shot. It's not jokey or funny--it's heavy. But we don't leave that bus for 7 minutes. That's a long time in a movie that's meant to feel still populist and commercial, but then we deal with some really heavy subject matter and we're also trying to make people laugh in the same movie. That's really hard. It was definitely a challenge, but I'm proud of it. I think we did it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think it would be fair to classify Danny Collins in a particular genre?

DF: I think this turns more toward the dramatic than the comedic. I don't know what you call it. It's like life. In a daily basis, we all laugh but also deal with crap that happens and get all upset while different people come out of our lives. Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie and Terms of Endearment---I don't know what to call those movies, but I love those movies, but they're getting made less and less for a wide audience. That scares me because they're my generation's touchtone films, and they're not the kind of films that always win the awards or get mass critical bowdowns. I think they're important, and it's important that people have the movie. It's not as important as stopping ISIS is important, though! [laughs] Or that making sure that people have jobs. But part of our culture is being able to go to a movie theater for 2 hours and shut off the parts of your brain that worry about things, enjoy things, and come out feeling better than you felt 2 hours earlier when you entered the movie theater. So many of our good movies now have the opposite effect: you walk out and appreciate the hell out of a movie if you're a film lover like I am, but I'm exhausted and I don't feel good. I do think that that's an important currency for us nowadays that hopefully will get rewarded by people who see movies like Danny Collins.

NYC MOVIE GURU: The repartee between Danny and Mary seemed like it was hearkening back to kind of banter found in the Golden Age of Hollywood, i.e. between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Would you agree with that?

DF: That was the goal, a little bit. Their dialogue as well as Danny's dialogue with his manager has a particular kind of banter because they're older actors and they can pull it off. We rarely use the word banter. Nobody uses that word anymore. There's kind of a screwball, Preston Sturgess, Billy Wilder-kind of rhythm to the way that Danny and Mary speak. That was intentional, but then when you go to Danny and his son, and his son and Samantha, it's still scripted, but much more contemporary because they're younger. Danny and Mary are in this little vacuum in this little hotel, and we felt like we could get away with it and it could be really fun.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why do you think that we rarely see movies with banter or repartee nowadays?

DF: I cheated a little and said it out loud on camera which is why it's maybe more noticeable to people than if not. The average filmmaker has more of an ability to notice it in this case because I've said out loud what I'm trying to do. Movies nowadays are driven by numorous thing. The awards movies are kind of driven by sparse writing and really beautiful, haunting films that do very little and leave a lot to the camera and the acting and to the weight of that which I admire and appreciate. And then our big commercial movies are explosions and things. I don't know if there's a ton of focus on dialogue-driven films anymore. This film basically, except for a concert and a few other big things, is a lot of a couple people on couches having conversations. It's not intensive. We don't value them the same way anymore than maybe we did back in the old days. Our filmmaking techniques weren't as advanced as they are now, so there weren't any explosions and things like that. No one was making Birdman. So, there was much more dependency on the dialogue and the rat-a-tat-tat to keep people entertained.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which scenes are you proud of the most?

DF: There are two scenes in the film that I've very proud of. The first is with Mary and Danny where Danny has a bad day, and she says that she has a bad day too and she tell him about all the menial things that she had to do at the hotel. And then she asks him why he had a bad day, and he says that he tracked down his grown son that he never had met before and he told me to fuck off and die. The camera goes to Mary and she gives a long pause and says, "It was every reservation that they screwed up in the computer." I've travelled around with this movie in 17 different cities, and uniformly it always gets a gigantic laugh in a movie that's not built to get massive laughs. I'm so proud of that moment because it's such a knotted jokes. It's Annette delivering the line perfectly. I love that audiences get it. We really underestimated what audiences would laugh at because it doesn't all have to be really obvious jokey stuff. That's a really adult, smart joke, and everyone seems to get it. The other moment I'm really proud of is the end scene of the film which is a really intense, dramatic scene between Danny and his son. But, one of the final lines of the film is our biggest laugh in our entire theater every time it plays. It's character-based, and not a joke. If you laugh at that moment, it means that you completely "got" the movie. If you didn't laugh, that means you didn't "get it" or didn't like it. That's really the only indicator. I think that that's exciting on a comedy level or on a dialogue level if you can make people be sitting in their seats watching something and engaging in something while nothing is happening. As a writer, that's what's most exciting.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you interpret the gift that Danny gave the valet?

DF: I think that it's a gift of letting go. I think that he's still very, very flawed. That's what I like about the film. At the end of the movie, he's not a changed man. He's actually still going back to the wrong things for partially the right reasons, but not all. He's still making grandiose gestures and giving up and throwing cars away. What I like about it is that, yes, it's fun on a cinematic level to watch the young valet get into the car, and it's funny, but it's also, like, he's not completely "getting" it. We don't change completely and uniformly.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What does it mean to be a grown up? Does the term "grown up" even exist if we're always still growing up and learning new things?

DF: We call it a grown up because when you get to a certain age, you have a family and look a certain way, but we don't. I did a movie called Last Vegas. It's just a fun comedy and it's so fun to watch those guys. What continues to surprise me is the way that an over-60 to 70-year-old crowd talks about the film, in particular, one moment late in the film. None of my friends have seen the film nor will they ever, but almost all older people seem to have seen it. There's one scene when Michael Douglas says, "My mind can't comprehend how old my body has gotten." That really seems to resonate with people of a certain age, so we all feel like kids, still, even though our bodies are betraying us as we get older.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think there's something wrong with society's value system?

DF: We're so messed up on so many levels. I think that's it's a little about what the movie is about--all the bells-and-whistles. I know a lot of really unhappy famous people and a lot of unhappy rich people, and I kind of think that the only common indicator I can think of people who seem like the happiest human beings seems to be human connection with people who they care about. I think we all put our priorities in the wrong basket. I think you can also find in this film a little exploration for the one-percenters, the people on the other side. The stress of maintaining life on a day-to-day basis for regular people is a struggle. It seems silly to Danny Collins that his son is sitting and worrying about a $200,000 mortgage, but that's the kind of thing that causes husbands and wives to be lying in bed fighting all night, and it's the biggest issue in marriages---stressing about money. So, on each side, I think there's things that people don't realize of the class systems. We all think we want to be famous or be around famous people, but it could be a very lonely, tiring existence, too.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging is it for you as a director to detect if an actor has charisma? Do you think that charisma is something that can't be learned ?

DF: People can study acting, but they can't study charisma. It's odd. If I had one gift, which I don't think I have that many, it's that my radar for judging whether or not people will be good enough for a part seems to be nicely attuned right in the middle. So, when I'm laughing at something, I think that it's a good indicator that a general audience might laugh at. If I find something too cloying, I don't have the critic radar yet, but I know people's radar which is pretty atuned to my own. It's just gut instinct really.

NYC MOVIE GURU: An actress once told me that charismatic people don't realize that they have charisma. Do you think that's true?

DF: That's exactly right. That's very, very true---almost to a degree that charismatic actors worry that they don't have charisma. I like to shoot on camera likable people. When Ryan Gosling was going to do Crazy, Stupid, Love and they don't me, I was like, "Ryan Gosling?!? He's like the best actor I've ever seen, but all I've seen him in was heavy-duty films." I sit down with him and realize that he's the most charismatic human being I've ever been in a room with. Sometimes you have to sit with a person, too, to really know that the past roles haven't dictated it yet.

NYC MOVIE GURU: People strive for perfection, but perfection is all in our mind. Do you see that as a paradox?

DF: Yes, I think so. When you make something, even though everybody else can see that the circle is not circular, you still think that it is circular. Everyone thinks that their film is perfect at first--not actors, though, because they're always judging themselves. When you're writing it and just can't see that it's not perfect, that's dangerous.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Who are some actors from the Golden Age of American Cinema that you can imagine starring in Danny Collins?

DF: William Holden. At the right age, Katharine Hepburn working at that hotel would be really fun and crazy.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would this movie work in black-and-white?

DF: As long as I wasn't do it just to seem cool. It would work, but I'm curious why it would need to be black-and-white. This movie could have worked in 1960 or 1950, but to just do it nowadays in black-and-white like Nebraska, I don't know if it would make sense for this.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What films would make for a great double feature with Danny Collins?

DF: Kramer vs. Kramer, but maybe you'd want something different like Heavy. Danny Collins feels like a complete meal, though, like, you feel satisfied from it, so I don't know. Maybe Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? going in a darker way.

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