Interview: Dan Fogelman, Writer/Director of “Danny Collins”

Posted on March 19, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Copyright 2015 Bleeker Street Films
Copyright 2015 Bleeker Street Films

Dan Fogelman wrote “Cars,” “Tangled,” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” and now for the first time has directed with “Danny Collins,” starring Al Pacino and Annette Bening.  Fogelman told me he was wasting time on the internet because he did not know what he wanted to write next when he came across a headline about a musician who did not find out that John Lennon wrote him a letter until 34 years after it was sent.

I had just finished the movie Crazy Stupid Love and I was trying to figure out what to do next. And I was just completely stumped and procrastinating and sitting in front of the blank computer for months on end and looking at the Internet as you do when you are procrastinating and I came across this musician who receives a letter from John Lennon forty years too late.  I called him that day. I tracked him down immediately and I told him I heard his story which became the jumping off point of this story the letter, and the receiving of the letter. That’s exactly what happens in the film “Danny Collins.”  Literally we wrote out pretty much the same letter. So that is all absolutely true, he was a young musician in the early, early 70s. They said, “We think you are the next big thing”. He said, “I’m terrified of what fame and fortune might do to me,” and cut to 34 years later John Lennon had read that interview had written him a letter offering him advice and he didn’t get letter until the present day.  It got sent to him care of the magazine and somebody saw a handwritten letter from Lennon, it got sold to collectors and just never came across his bow until 40 years later. So I couldn’t stop thinking about that, the what-if of the entire situation.

Pacino plays Danny Collins, an aging rock star who can still fill a stadium with his baby boomer fans, who are happy to sing along when he plays his hits. But it feels stale and empty to him, and when he sees the letter from Lennon, he realizes he could have taken a different path and been truer to himself as an artist and a man. Fogelman said,

His life has become everything he feared that it would become. And when I first talked to Al about the character, we talked about the dark place that this guys is in. He is alone, he is very lonely, he is very alone and he is very unhappy with the way his musical career, the direction it has taken.  And who he is as a person. He is a drug addict and a drunk and he is dating well beneath his appropriate age range and who he is. And he doesn’t have a family which is a big part of this. He doesn’t have that human connection with people. And so he gets this letter at 65 years old, and that kind of sends him on this course correction.

Lennon’s letter was written to reassure a young musician that success and fame do not have to be corrupting, but in the case of Danny Collins, his concerns about that were justified.

Any form of art is also commerce nowadays. I mean some art becomes popular posthumously but any artist who becomes famous in their own lifetime learns that art starts becoming commerce and vice versa. You are making your living off of it. Your identity is defined by it, your legacy is defined by it, whether it’s music or writing or acting or television or film or journalism. I think when you are defined by your art it is a weird line.

A central  image of the story is Collins’ arrival at the very ordinary kind of place he has not seen in decades — a small chain hotel in New Jersey.  The design of the hotel had a very specific inspiration.

When I first heard the story of the real guy, Steve Tilston,  I knew exactly what I wanted the story to be about. I knew I wanted it to be about family and reconnection. And so I got a couple of images in my head. I said,  “Where would be the craziest hotel in the world for Al Pacino to just check into indefinitely?”  And I pictured the Woodcliff Lake Hilton which was the hotel in New Jersey that I went to every eighth grade party. I was actually a best man four different times in that hotel.  If Al Pacino walked in, they would be ill-equipped to handle him. It would be such a disconnect.  We had to shoot the movie in LA but we recreated the Woodcliff Lake Hilton in California and we actually screened it back in that neighborhood and nobody realized that we weren’t actually in New Jersey. New Jersey felt like the most normal place in the world to me because it is where I am from.  So the street we had for Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner, with that neighborhood we tried to paint that kind of picture like when I go and visit my friends – the issues they are dealing with, and the kids, that kind of picture.

As Collins, Pacino wears heightened, rock-star attire in the early part of the movie, a striped jacket, scarf and pocket square.  And then, as his life becomes more normal, connected, and authentic, his clothing is toned down.  He even mentions shopping at Banana Republic.

Danny was a bit of a dandy which I like.  When you see Al, in real life, he is kind of vagabond.  He has a very cool bohemian look and he is always in black, a sloppiness but it is kind of a put-together sloppiness.  That carried over to Danny Collins because for him it is all an act. It is all performance for him to seem really sharp and dandy.  He is referred to numerous times in the movies as a ridiculous man and the outfits needed to be able to be both ridiculous in palette but also really precise in the cut and the fit and the accessorizing. And so he always has a scarf and he also has varied vibrant prints and stripes.  And we start taking that down as the movie goes on.  He is never going to be a guy who walks around in jeans and a T-shirt.  By the end, though, he has a black shirt, but he is still wearing it wide open. He has become a fully formed regular human being as much as he is capable of.

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