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The Independent Critic

 Hello, Michelle ... The Michelle Danner Interview 
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What do Christian Slater, Penelope Cruz, Gerard Butler, Isla Fisher, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Rock, James Franco, Gabrielle Union, Salma Hayek and Sally Kellerman have in common?

These Hollywood A-listers have all called Michelle Danner their acting coach. Ms. Danner has acted and directed in over thirty plays in New York and Los Angeles, with her favorite acting credit cited as the Dramalogue award-winning Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo. She directed the world premiere of Mental the Musical, winner of several 17th annual Ticketholder Awards including Best Acting and Best Musical Score. Last year, she wrote and directed You're on the Air, an improv-based comedy now under development to become a movie. She produced and acted in the award-winning short Dos Corazones, which won Best Cinematography and the Audience Award at the Malibu Film Festival. Her feature film directing debut came in 2006 with How to Go Out on a Date in Queens with Esai Morales, Kimberly Williams, Ron Perlman, Alison Eastwood and Rob Estes. The film won four LA Film Awards, including Best Director and Best Movie. After its nationwide release, the film aired nationwide on ABC as the Sunday night "Movie of the Week" before its release on home video.

In 2000, Ms. Danner raised $1.3 million and founded the Edgemar Center for the Arts and the Edgemar Theatre Group. In 2005, she achieved one of her Edgemar highlights by picking up Best Musical of the Year award from the Los Angeles Music Awards as producer of The Night of the Black Cat. She was the acting coach expert on comedy for the WB show The Starlet, and was featured coaching Andy Richter in July 2009 on The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien.

It's her latest film that brings Ms. Danner to chat with The Independent Critic. Hello, Herman ... an adaptation of a John Buffalo Mailer novella that she first directed for the stage before deciding that the story needed to have a cinematic life. Fresh off a vacation, Ms. Danner caught up with The Independent Critic by telephone before heading back into the editing room to continue her work on the soon to be released film starring Norman Reedus and newcomer Garrett Backstrom.

 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Let's start off simple. Tell me about your new film Hello, Herman ...

MICHELLE DANNER

Hello, Herman ... is the story of a teenager who, out of confusion and rage, carries out a high school shooting similar to that of Columbine. It's a story about prejudice and isolation and everything that leads up to what happened.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That was one of the first things I picked up while watching the film's trailer. It's not that the film excuses or makes excuses for the boy's behavior. However, it seems to very much make it clear that "we," meaning society, have created these children through our own actions.

MICHELLE DANNER

Very much so. Certain members of the media only serve to heighten or sensationalize Herman's story, a scenario that certainly plays out in real life. Whenever we have a tragedy in America, the media becames part of it. It's no longer just delivering the news, but also creating it.

Parents are also responsible for bullying. Bullying is learned behavior.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That seems to really play out in your film. Even just from the trailer, it's painfully clear that Herman's actions, as devastating as they are, are still learned behaviors. He learned them at home, at school, with his peers and so on. There's that old saying "It takes a village to raise a child," but a village can also tear down that same child. Without excusing Herman's actions, your film seems to say "We created this behavior. Now, what are we going to do about it?" This seems like the kind of film where people are going to leave the theater needing to talk about it. What made you decide this was a story that needed to be told on the big screen?

MICHELLE DANNER

I'd known the story from John Buffalo Mailer (Richard's Note: Norman Mailer's youngest son), and as the mother of an 8-year-old boy the themes really resonated with me. We staged the screenplay at Edgemar last Spring, and Steven Spielberg, Paul Haggis, Oliver Stone and others came and were moved by the material. We really knew we had to make the film. We had one person attached to the film, but that didn't work out. One person suggested Norman Reedus, and we met on multiple occasions. He does amazing work here. He hasn't seen the film yet, but when he does he'll be amazed. Garrett Backstrom is a newcomer and does an incredible job.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I don't want to spoil the film for anyone, but you have this young man, Herman, played by Garrett Backstrom. He commits what is truly a heinous crime that really transcends that of Columbine, but what strikes me as amazing about your film and Mailer's script is that it takes us inside the world that created the crime and the world that, in a very serious way, continues to perpetuate it. Herman comes into contact with a journalist, played by Norman Reedus, who sees Herman's story as a way to further his career. The film really doesn't let anyone completely off the hook - essentially, it says "We're all part of the problem."

MICHELLE DANNER

Children aren't born mean. They learn it at home, at school and now on the internet. I felt it was absolutely necessary to bring attention to the growing problem of cyber bullying.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Herman seems to be swallowed up into this vacuum. It seems like at virtually every corner someone failed him. It makes me think that it's almost a miracle that more children don't do this type of thing. There's a sense of being disconnected from the world and, ultimately, from hope.

MICHELLE DANNER

Herman is a young man who wants to be heard. When he films a part of the attack at school and sends it off to Lax (Reedus), he says "I want to tell my story now." Lax is probably the first person who has ever listened to him. He's been disconnected for years, and Lax finally listens to him. It's that lack of connection that we're all guilty of. It's a part of the fast-paced society that we're all living in. Did you see the Dugard interview with Diane Sawyer?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Honestly? I couldn't get myself to watch it. I grew up myself with a lot of violence, and just haven't been able to bring myself to watch it yet. I've definitely been following her story, though.

MICHELLE DANNER

It's difficult to watch. There's a wonderful moment at the end of the interview with the mother of the girl who shared that on the day that her daughter had asked her for a hug. The mother didn't have time to give her the hug. She was late for work. So, instead of giving her the hug she rushes out because she's late for work. There's this wonderful moment where she says "Take the extra minute," because she'd regretted not taking that extra minute for 18 years. That's connection...to really take the time to connect. I think, deep down, the movie is certainly about connection.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Is that part of what you're hoping to accomplish with the film? Accomplish feels like the wrong word, but is that what you're hoping will be the benefit of the film?

MICHELLE DANNER

That's exactly right. I'm hoping that the film will create a dialogue... teens with their parents, parents with their teens. 
THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Your film talks a lot about the media and how how the media can exploit tragedy and perpetuate violence. However, the same can very much be true of movies. There are times you're watching a movie and thinking to yourself "Was all that violence really necessary?" Given the seriousness of your topic, how hard was it to avoid having the film itself exploit the topic or the story?

MICHELLE DANNER

I definitely don't feel like the film is exploitative. I should tell you that the film contains no graphic violence. There's nothing gory in the film. It's actually more powerful without it. I actually asked someone to play one of the parts in the film and I sent the person the script. The first page of the script actually says that there is no blood and no gore, but somehow that page dropped from the script they received. This person said "I don't believe in violent movies like this." I wrote back and e-mail and said "This is not a violent movie." Of course, the truth is that it is a violent movie. Of course, it is. It's even more powerful to not see the blood. It fuels the imagination.

We were shooting one of the violent scenes when one of the kids came up to me and said "Ms. Danner, I just realized that I'm a bully at school. I won't do it again."

There's a line of dialogue in the movie where Herman says "Well, maybe people will learn to be nicer to one another." The line was cut, but that's one of the benefits that I'm hoping comes from the film once people see it. I'm hoping that if people see a Herman in their school, and there are a lot of Hermans, that they'll reach out to them instead of ostracizing and squashing them. If you notice, the title is Hello, Herman ... The dot dot dot is symbolic for connection.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Do you have a vision for how this project is going to manifest out? Are you aiming for a theatrical release? the festival circuit? I suppose I'm asking "What's your audience for the film?"

MICHELLE DANNER

I hope it's on any circuit it can get on. I already have gotten some calls. I'm working on a rough cut that I'm going to show a few weeks from now. I'm going to tent screen it a little bit to get some feedback. There's a team behind it, and I'm hoping it'll have the best possible life.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You're also creating quite the social networking presence for it.

MICHELLE DANNER

I think this is that kind of movie. I think this is the kind of movie that needs that... to be out there and get a little buzz.  The next movie I'm doing is a family movie. It's completely different. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

As a filmmaker who's also a parent and a human being, how do you decompress after a day of working on a film such as this one?

MICHELLE DANNER

When you work on something that you love and you're driven to tell the story it certainly makes you want to go into the editing room. You know, I just came back from vacation yesterday. I didn't have to go back to work today on it. I could have waited an extra day. The truth is that I wanted to go back. So, it's the opposite really. It made it really clear to me that whether I work in theatre or in movies, I want to work in something that really drives me. It makes me happy to work on it and I'm excited about it. It's hard to work on something that you're not 100% excited about or you're just 70% excited about it and you think that's enough. It made me redefine that 70% might not be enough. I should be 100% excited about everything that I do. This project, in particular, was very hard to get made. I was driven by it. I was driven by a force that was bigger than even me. I was frustrated many times. I had a production company that wanted to do it, but at the least minute they backed away. I had a huge star attached to it, but that didn't work out. It worked out the way it was supposed to work out. Norman Reedus is unbelievable in it. He gives a really, really good performance. I think everybody in it gives a really, really extraordinary performance. This is a movie about something that's meaningful. The camera was great ... I did it with something called the Alexa camera. It's a very good camera. I had a really wonderful D.P. and the whole entire team was great. Now, I'm in the editing room with a wonderful editor. I would work with all these people again. We had a great experience. It was one of those that just came together and on a shoestring budget.
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