Al Pacino Rocks his New Role as Rock Star “Danny Collins”
Dan Fogelman is known primarily for his writing skills in Hollywood. The notches in his belt are impressive: Cars (2006), Fred Claus (2007), Bolt (2008), Tangled (2010), Cars 2 (2011), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), The Guilt Trip (2012) and Last Vegas (2013). Fogelman is making his directing debut in his latest script, Danny Collins. The film’s star is the legendary Al Pacino as an aging, druggy rock star who’s as miserable in his private life as he is in his career. Although he’s estranged from his son and has an ego that needs downsizing, you can’t help but root for the guy, especially one that John Lennon actually tried to help forty years ago. You see, Danny Collins receives a letter on his birthday from Lennon via his manager, Frank, played by Christopher Plummer (a legend in his own right), that he takes to heart. Lennon offers advice and his phone number to Collins. All of the sudden, the lights go on and Danny Collins decides to clean up his act, write new songs, and reconnect with his long lost son. It does sound a little corny but the film actually works due to Pacino’s heavy grasp of the role and a strong supporting cast, both of which work from a well-written script.
Add the cynical, unimpressed, but sweet, Annette Bening as a hotel manager of the local Hyatt— she’s the love interest of Collins. Bobby Cannavale as the adult son he’s trying to mend fences with, as well as his daughter-in-law and son’s wife (Jennifer Garner), plus a special needs granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg), and you’ve got an attention-grabbing film.
The noteworthy fact of the film is that John Lennon really did write such a letter; only it was to a British folk singer-songwriter, Steve Tilston. When Folgelman heard of the situation (the advice given by Lennon, only forty years too late), he envisioned a story with a guy who really could have been helped. What if the letter really did change someone’s life? As it stands, Tilston had a successful career with no real regrets; therefore, Fogelman changed his singer-songwriter character’s life for his script and ran with it.
The icing on the cake for the film is that it contains nine John Lennon songs and surprisingly has Yoko Ono’s blessing. She’s also expected to attend the film’s premiere in New York; Fogelman told me when we met in the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago on March 10.
SKA: First of all, I want to thank you for writing and directing the film, Danny Collins; at the center of your film happens to be one of my favorite musical artists, John Lennon.
DF: Me too.
SKA: I was going to ask you, are you a big fan?
DF: I am. I was a big fan as a novice. I knew more than the average person about him, but then, in doing the film, I actually… I’ve read more biographies on him than any human being, so I really got to learn a lot more.
Just everything, the sheer … the volume of his work, his catalog as a solo artist, opposed to Beatles, is so extensive, and he did such weird, interesting stuff that it was exciting to just sift through all of his material.
SKA: I loved all of the music and the nine songs.
DF: I know, I know. It’s crazy. It’s funny, it blends into the movie in places, and they’re not all … We have Imagine, and we have Beautiful Boy, but they’re not all his most famous songs, so, for the non-aficionado, it sometimes blends into the movie. Then, afterwards, they go, “What was that song?” or “I liked that song that was playing during this scene,” and I go, “No, that’s John Lennon.” They know it is, but they’re not aware of the song as much, so that’s exciting.
SKA: Could you please set up the plot a little bit for our listeners and readers? I know we have Al Pacino, who plays this aging, druggy rocker, Danny Collins, and he’s given a rather life-altering birthday present by another iconic actor, Christopher Plummer.
DF: Yeah, the basic premise is … It’s based on a real story as well, but back in 1970, a young Danny Collins, played by Pacino, does an interview, and they say, “We think you’re the next big thing in music. We think you’re a Dylan, Lennon,” and he says, “I’m terrified of becoming the next big thing in music and what fame and fortune might do to my art.”
You cut through forty years later, he’s now in his sixties, and he has completely sold out. Everything he was worried about happening to him has happened. On a musical level, he’s unhappy, and on a personal level, he’s unhappy. He is basically hand-delivered a letter that John Lennon had written to him forty years previously in response to the interview.
John Lennon had read the interview he did as a young man in 1970 and wrote to him saying, “You control your destiny. You control your art. I will help guide you through this. You sound like a nice young man. Call me; here’s my phone number.” He didn’t get the letter until he was in his sixties.
SKA: That is an incredible story right there.
DF: That really happened to a guy in real life, a musician in England named Steve Tilston. The exact same situation happened to him, the only caveat being that Steve Tilston is a guy who stayed true to his music and never really sold out, musically or otherwise.
When I first heard the story, I called Steve and I told him, “I want to do a story about what happened to you, but not about your life because, frankly, your life isn’t cinematic in that way because you didn’t fall,” whereas I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy who might have and then got the letter.
SKA: Sure, sure. That’s wonderful. I love how you included a photo of him and a little bit of him at the end of the film.
DF: Yeah, it was important. I think, also to frame, it’s such a crazy thing to think that the sliding doors and missed opportunity of a letter from John Lennon forty years ago. Even … It’s early in the movie when Pacino gets the letter, but I always found that when I first saw the cut … My editor brought it to me as I was shooting because it was my first film and I wanted to make sure I was doing things right. We shot that very early in the film, that scene.
When it’s out of context, I found it heartbreaking, just the receiving of that letter, to a guy who is so depressed and so unhappy.
Anyway, a long-winded way of saying I thought it was important to frame that this really did happen to someone so it didn’t just seem like, “Oh, a guy had a crazy idea for a movie.” This really happened in real life.
SKA: The film explores a father and son relationship with heavy issues, such as forgiveness and redemption, and you explored this in another film, a mother-son film relationship in The Guilt Trip with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. Do you see any similarities in both of these films?
DF: Well, maybe. I think my parents must have really screwed me up, but … Yeah, I think so. I think, in the movie with Barbra and Seth, they drive each other crazy the way only a mother can drive you crazy, but there’s initial love and early love there, and I think it’s very relatable right from the start.
DF: The goal of that film was always that the moment you see this guy bickering with his mother; you know that relationship instantly.
This relationship in this movie, it’s a little more … It’s hard to latch onto at first. It’s a negligent father showing up for the first time to a forty-year-old son, so you can’t quite … It’s not one you identify with right away. I think you identify with Bobby Cannavale’s character, his family, because that’s all of our families, but…
By the end … I think it’s not relatable in quite the same way. What’s interesting about the movie is that, I think, the last scene of the movie becomes one of the first times you’re really actually able to relate in that kind of way, when you recognize a father-son relationship. The whole movie, really, without giving away too much is, I always saw the movie as … If you look at it as a character study for Pacino’s character who is named Danny Collins, the first 142 minutes of the movie are really a setup for the final scene of the movie. That’s, I think, what the goal was.
SKA: Yes, and what a final scene. Oh boy. Typically in film, we see the negative side, I feel, of a father-son relationship, such as The Great Santini, those kinds of films. What are you trying to show in your film about fathers and sons?
DF: Well, it’s interesting. It’s this core human dynamic, fathers and sons, and they don’t tend to talk about feelings much. We did a screening last night and I was saying, “Men don’t how to physically even hug our own fathers.”
SKA: It can be awkward, right?
DF: Often, the first time that many kids see their fathers cry is at their grandfather’s funeral because they’re not used to seeing men cry. It’s actually changing, I think, as our world expands. Men are now taking more of a caretaker role with their children and allowed to be more emotional, but still, it’s a complicated relationship.
I think that’s what is interesting about it semantically is that they don’t have to say a lot. One of my favorite films that isn’t well-known, but it was the first time I ever was really emotionally affected by a movie in a movie theater. My mom took me to see the movie Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it?
SKA: I actually haven’t.
DF: It’s not well known … It’s a young, young, young Tom Hanks before he was a gigantic star.
There’s a scene … They’re an estranged father and son, and Jackie Gleason’s going through a life-threatening illness at the end. Tom Hanks is wheeling him through a hospital. Jackie Gleason puts his hand on his shoulder and, without looking at him, he says, “Of all of the people in the world, you’re the last one I ever would have thought would come through for me.” It’s so heartbreaking and touching.
SKA: Oh my goodness.
DF: He can’t say “I love you,” and he can’t … It’s the things that are said between the lines that I think are really the most touching between people.
SKA: Sure, sure. Well, I think you’ve captured that, actually.
DF: Thank you.
SKA: The casting of Bobby Cannavale as Danny’s son is such a noteworthy choice because his work in Blue Jasmine. He’s such an explosive actor anyway, and then pairing him up with Al Pacino; I thought was just brilliant. You’re just sitting there waiting for the fireworks, but you know that Al Pacino has to hold back because he’s trying to get what he wants.
DF: They’re both really restrained, I think, in the movie, which is … You could imagine, if you told me Bobby Cannavale and Al Pacino in a scene fighting, you would think it was the biggest, most gigantic, explosive … They’re both so restrained and, I think, real in those scenes together.
SKA: Yes, it was refreshing to see them in these types of roles.
SKA: So how in the world do you direct someone like Al Pacino? I read that you do encouraging improvising. Did that happen?
DF: It did, a lot. We did a lot of improvising. It’s a very scripted movie, so the dialect is old-fashioned banter between he and Annette and he and Chris Plummer, particularly the older actors in the film.
That’s not improvised inasmuch as … They have freedom. It’s not like it’s a locked-in thing. Al can turn a phrase. He says interesting things that I use to this day. Annette is so … They’re all so facile that, yeah, you just let them go. You don’t put those five actors in a movie and then try and restrain them. You try and restrain the performances and the tone, but you don’t want to make them start thinking about every exact “the” and “and” for payoffs.
SKA: Sure. They were so natural.
DF: Christopher Plummer, there is a final scene in the movie that he has with Bobby that was one of my favorite scenes in the film, where he comes to talk to Bobby towards the end of the film. There’s one summation line where he is summing up Danny Collins to Bobby. It wasn’t working, what was scripted. We were on the day, and it wasn’t working.
I think about it now in retrospect that I was comfortable enough to tell Chris Plummer this, but I just went up to him and I was like, “Chris, what about trying something like this?” Then he made it his own. It wasn’t what we scripted, but, talking about Danny, he says, “He’s got a good heart, he just keeps it up his ass half the time.” We got one take of that.
It was just giving Chris a line right there, and he just did it. The actors give you that comfort. As accomplished, famous, and talented as they are, it was a very comfortable set to do that kind of thing.
SKA: Sure. Annette Bening, she was amazing in this film. I love the fact that you wrote such a strong woman’s part for her. She was just sweet, almost like the character; I think it was Mary Steenburgen in Last Vegas. [Fogelman wrote the script for Last Vegas.] I saw some similarities there.
SKA: Just a person you’d really like to know and have as a friend. Yet, she wasn’t impressed by Danny Collins one bit.
DF: Right, right. My mom, I always talked about my mom, who in her forties or fifties, got divorced. She worked at a Hallmark store behind the counter and she loved it. She would work with all of these young kids and everybody loved her. My mom, I would take her to premieres once in a while and stuff, and she wouldn’t know a celebrity if they smacked her in the face, and she could probably care less. I thought of that a lot.
SKA: That’s great, sure.
DF: Yeah, it was a bit of the model, but she’s so charming, Annette. In the film, I really sense a charm offensive from her. Everything she does is really incredibly winning and appealing.
SKA: Sure. I absolutely agree. Crazy, Stupid, Love. I have to talk about that for a little bit. I just love that movie.
DF: Yeah, those directors did a great job. They’re close friends of mine, and they’re really, really good.
SKA: What I’m finding here is your characters are so well-developed. Do you have a magic formula when you know like, “Okay, the audience is going to care now.”? How do you know when enough is enough?
DF: I don’t know. I think you ride the line. Hopefully, I’m still early enough in my career that I haven’t lost perspective on where the line is. These movies are hard to do. In the business, they call them execution-dependent, right? Finding the line, and many will disagree. I have an optimistic view of the world and of people, maybe naively optimistic.
You don’t want to tread into schmaltz or to saccharine. Then, at the same time, you need to make people feel. Where that line is, you just have to trust your gut, I think. I don’t know what the formula is for it as much as just I know where I start feeling. You know what I mean?
DF: When I start feeling, I hope that’s when others are starting to feel. It’s hard. The final scene of this movie is very emotional for people. I was always very curious what the moment would be. I found that for every person, it’s a little different.
When I was trying to calibrate it with my editor in the edit bay, I was guessing where it would be and I think it’s around there, and you can hear it, but then some people earlier and some people later. It’s a really interesting thing to feel. You feel it.
It’s a thing. When you do what I do for a living; you start being able to literally feel it when you watch the movie with people.
SKA: Sure, but how wonderful is that? Even when you’re reading a book, it can bring you to tears or it can make you feel. That’s why I love movies so much, because they can. I got that Danny’s son would not let him touch him.
SKA: Then, when I saw the scene, I knew you got it. I raised two sons, so I know about different moments. I’ve lived them. I watched it very closely, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, and then you know?”
DF: Yeah, that’s where it gets me as well. It’s an interesting thing. It’s what I like doing the most. It’s why I like doing movies that are a little sentimental and a little positive. Because I like trying to continue to find where that line is, where you can really make people feel in a way that you want a movie to make you feel.
SKA: Exactly. Well, I think it was probably at the right point. What do you enjoy most about directing?
DF: Actually, I love editing. I like … When you have an actor like Al, he does so many different things, so that’s really, really fun. We didn’t have a lot of time on this movie.
The great part of editing is we weren’t overdone with coverage. Sometimes, some directors on some bigger movies, you have 800 takes of the same line that you have to sift through. This wasn’t that. This was limited, but it was just fun watching Al do all of the little things with his eyes. He is so soulful in his eyes.
You don’t always when you’re directing on set, you’re not seeing every single thing at once. You’re watching the camera, you’re watching the actor, you’re watching the dialog. When you get into the edit bay, you can focus a little bit more. It’s like, “Let’s see what I got for myself.” It’s like giving yourself a Christmas present.
SKA: Yeah, no, that’s exciting. Well, thank you for that answer. What’s a typical day like for you when you’re in your writing mode?
DF: I go away. I used to go to a little cabin that I’d rent. Now, my fiancée and I have a little ranch that I go up to by myself, usually without her. I write very, very quickly, but very sporadically. I’ll write a movie or two a year, but I’ll write the first draft in a week or two.
Then, usually, it’s a lot of time rewriting. Movies, nowadays, it takes 3, 4, 5, 6 years to get from script to screen, so yeah, the process happens a lot. During that process, you work with the actors. You adjust the script or the director, and it keeps going like that.
SKA: What else would you like to say to our readers and listeners about the movie Danny Collins?
DF: I hope they go. I know how the movie plays very confidently in a theater with regular people. I hope people will go and experience that as opposed to waiting for it to be on TV or whatnot because, even though it’s a movie that ostensibly you should be able to find on TV, it’s a really fun movie to watch in a theater and feel the energy of the audience laughing, emoting, and clapping at the end.
SKA: Yes, oh, they were clapping last night.
DF: It happens every time, it’s one of those, and I hope it will do well critically and stuff, but these movies are hard to gauge like that. I know how it plays for people, and I hope it does well because of that.
SKA: Great, great. Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
DF: No, thank you, it was so nice.
SKA: Best of luck with the film.
DF: Thank you. It was so nice to talk to you.
Sarah Knight Adamson ©March 24, 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images, Bleecker Street Films