Q&A: Writer and director Dan Fogelman of ‘Danny Collins’

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(Photo courtesy of Teaser-Trailer.com)

(Photo courtesy of Teaser-Trailer.com)

Accomplished writer Dan Fogelman, whose work includes, “Cars”, “Tangled”, and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” makes his directorial debut with the feature film “Danny Collins.”  Starring Al Pacino as the titular character, “Danny Collins” follows a washed up rock star who turns his life around after he discovers a 40-year-old letter written to him by John Lennon.  The DePaulia sat down with Dan Fogelman to talk about the film. “Danny Collins” opens March 19th.

This is your first time directing, so what was it like transitioning from being a writer to a director?

Well you wake up a lot earlier.  And you’re working harder of course and talking with the actors a lot more.  But you know, when I was writing films I was always on set a lot.  I wound up getting very close with all the directors I’ve worked with and so you learn a lot in that way.

Because when you’re the director, you’re the boss; it might be like running a school newspaper or running a small business.  Every single decision funnels through you, whether it’s the color of the couch or whom you’re going to cast as Al Pacino’s son.  So there’s a huge amount of decision-making, and essentially what people are looking for is leadership.


How’d you come about directing the film?

Well I wrote it, and I didn’t sell it.  So when it went in, I said I’m directing it and you control it that way.  Once you sell a movie, you no longer control who’s going to direct it.

So you know if I wrote this, and Steven Spielberg called wanting to direct it, it would’ve been my choice until I sold it.  Once you sell it, the second someone important wants to direct it, you’re going to lose it.

I was at the point in my career where I was ready and people had been giving me the opportunity to do so, so it wasn’t that hard but five years previously it would’ve been a lot harder to convince people.


The character Danny Collins is based upon the story of English folk sing Steve Tilston is it not?

It is, it is.


How’d you come across his story?

I was procrastinating on the Internet.  I had just written a movie called “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and I was between scripts and didn’t know what to write next.  I was staring at a blank computer screen for a month, so I needed to write about something and I came across one of those weird news stories about a musician who receives a letter from John Lennon forty years too late.  And that started it all.

I called the guy, I bought the rights to what happened to him and I started writing the screenplay.  So I basically procrastinated my way into my next movie.


Tilston’s career is a lot different than Danny Collins’s, so where did you decide for reality to meet fiction?

Well the rest of it is all made up.  The letter story is exact, but the rest of it I pretty much took liberty, because in real life Steve Tilston never sold out musically.  He’s still a musician.  Accomplished though not very well known, rich or anything like that.  But he’s lived a very true artistic life.

So, that doesn’t make for the most interesting movie.  So I took Steve’s story and applied to Al’s character, a very different kind of musician.


Was there anybody in particular that you based Danny Collin’s character off of?

We talked about a lot of people.  Like I went to a Rod Stewart concert, and we talked about Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie.  So we talked about a lot of people, but what’s cool about the movie is what Al did and they way we dressed Al a certain way.  By the time the movie’s over, you kind of get this feeling that Danny Collins is this real person, with this real life one hit wonder song.


Those songs he sings are original right?  How’d you guys come across those?

Well the song, “Hey Baby Doll” which is Danny Collins’s famous catchy song, is one we knew we needed.  So we put the assignment out to the whole world; like you guys could’ve written this song if you knew how to get in touch with me.  And at a certain point, we selected one out of hundreds and I just knew at the time that was the song we were going to use.

And then the other song that Al writes later in the film in a sort of essence of Bob Dylan way that was written by Ryan Adams.  Ryan Adams is like my generation’s Dylan so we sent him in.  And he did the score and the song at his studio.  And I remember hearing it, and thinking that’s the song we’re going to use.  So then we taught the song to Al, and Al then actually learned how to play the song on the piano.


When you were writing the film, did you always have Al Pacino in mind for the role of Danny?

You know I sometimes picture people, but I don’t always.  I pictured Al.  I pictured Jen Gardiner always, as his daughter in law.  I picture faces, so you know one day I might picture your guy’s faces when writing a movie.  But these were all kind of top choices for me.  Once you got Al; it’s very easy to get other actors.

You got Pacino, so you start picturing other actors at the top and you make your wish list, with people like Annette Bening or Chris Plummer.  You don’t realistically think you’ll get them but as you can tell for this film we got extremely lucky.