Actor, Teacher & Director Michelle Danner talks Hello Herman
by Sanela Djokovic
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Michelle Danner is an accomplished woman, and not the kind of accomplished you can really keep score of, but the kind that really makes a difference, the kind that creates real influence. While she has been guiding, teaching, instructing famous actors and unknown actors alike for the better part of the last twenty years, Danner is now trying to extend her influence, this time as the director of the provocative and socially-conscious film Hello Herman, starring Norman Reedus and Garrett Backstrom.
Hello Herman revolves around a teenager who carries out a massacre at his high school, and lives to talk about it— a subject matter that is darker, more complex and controversial one than her directorial debut How to Go Out on a Date in Queens, starring Jason Alexander and Ron Perlman. Upon reading the play, Danner did not flinch in her resolve to make a film that is relevant and could hopefully create a dialogue.
“I’ve done some test screenings and everybody is telling me how brave I am to tackle the subject matter, but I didn’t think of that,” says Danner. “I just thought it was a really great subject matter to talk about— about our kids and why they’re driven to do what they do.”
A recent event highlighted the importance of investigating tragedies in our society on a human level.
“To me its very much like what happened […]in the news with the father Josh Powell setting his house on fire with his kids inside. When something like that happens, that is so tragic, you really get to look at the things that don’t work in our society,” says Danner, referring to the double-homicide/suicide that took place earlier this month.
Danner calls her turn into directing a natural progression from her acting background. Growing up in France, her father opened a branch of the William Morris Agency in Paris, and the likes of Maurice Chevalier and Sammy Davis were frequent visitors in her home. She began taking acting classes and her world opened up. “I aquired a love for the theater, a love for literature, a love for movies.”
At the age of 17 she moved to New York, where she studied acting with Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof, to name a few. “I did a lot of plays in New York, and then I moved to Los Angeles, and I was equally fascinated by theater and by film. Theater is my home.”
In fact Danner is the artistic director of two theaters in Santa Monica, including the Edgemar Center for the Arts. “A lot of magic happens. We have an art gallery as well and we do outreach with underprivileged kids and senior citizens. We have a lot of different programs.”
While theater may be home for Danner, she appreciates the magnitude that films can carry.
“I love that when you make a movie it becomes the biggest classroom in the world,” states Danner. “Movies are so important, especially now with the technology that’s available and then the means of distribution that are available with the internet, how you can reach so many people.”
She is hoping that Hello Herman can teach people something about human interaction.
“To me the movie is about reaching out and connecting and hearing someone and seeing someone. So many of our young people, teens, they feel that they are not seen or not heard.” says Danner. “And to take a moment. We live in such a fast-paced society. You know, you go, go, go and then finally you stop and you have to listen to someone and you have to listen to them with an open heart. I think if we do that more and more, fights get avoided and tragic events get avoided.”
Danner finds that her experience as an acting teacher has sharpened her abilities to connect with people and communicate with them. “I also teach acting and I’m always reminded on a daily basis to stop and breathe and look at someone. Now, sometimes in my personal day-to-day I can get short-fused and when I see that in myself I stop it.”
Her acting background also informed her approach to directing, “I know how to talk to actors. I understand actors. I love actors and I speak their language. If there’s a scene playing in front of me and it doesn’t work then I feel like I would know what to say to change it and to get it to go a different course.”
That is not hard to believe. Michelle Danner has instructed actors such as James Franco, Gerard Butler and Salma Hayek, among several others, a job she finds very rewarding. “There’s nothing more fulfilling than working with someone on a movie and seeing that they are getting a lot of accolades for the movie and the movie is featuring a lot of people, or working with someone on an audition and they get it— its absolutely very rewarding.”
On her own films Danner has opted not to use a casting director, instead relying solely on her intuition. “It comes from the fact that I have a vast knowledge of actors. I know a lot of actors. I instinctively cast. I know if someone is going to be right for a part. I feel it. And, so every actor that I cast in my last movie there is a different story attached to each casting event and I just know. I cast very instinctively. I know it, if they can play it and almost don’t need to read someone.. I just know it by looking in their eyes and talking to them a few minutes.”
While rehearsing for her upcoming role in Ghost by Henrik Ibsen, working hard to get Hello Herman seen and raising two sons, Danner seems to thrive under pressure and enjoys being challenged. Directing a heavy indie like Hello Herman must have had it’s challenges, but she looks back at the experience with great positivity. “This particular experience, with this movie, was a really extraordinary experience, because we didn’t have a lot of time.. We had a great cast, a great crew, a great camera, but very little time and everything came together in a magical way. There’s something about indie filmmaking, low-budget filmmaking, how you rally all the troops and people know.. You know you have 12 hours to get these scenes and that’s it— you’re not going to come back to that location— You’re done. Everybody’s energy laser-beamed together and I find that absolutely fascinating. I’m really happy with this experience and I’m sure there will be more.”
And, after only a few private screenings all the hard work seems to be paying off. Danner has not only gotten good feedback about the film, but has also received strong emotional reactions. “People feel that it could change lives. A couple of teens broke down emotionally watching it and they said that it really impacted them and affected how they were in school in the weeks to come.”
From acting to teaching to directing, Michelle Danner has conquered several worlds of creativity and Hello Herman may be the most challenging yet— examining the mind and humanity of a young man who walks into his school and kills several people, but as someone who is always up for a challenge this story is relevant and essential one to tell, for society and for herself.
“I like to constantly challenge myself, to be something that feels meaningful and feels right for me. I love to tell stories and I love to keep myself busy— All of those are important jobs for me, but my most important job— I always say this, is that I am a mom and I have two beautiful sons,” states Danner. “And, I say this to my students as well, especially students that have children and find it challenging to juggle having a career and being a mother, and I think its very possible. I spend a lot of time with my kids and I do a lot of things with them, but also they do see that I take the time to pursue certain creative dreams that are inside of me. There’s always a balance and you have to find it.”
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx
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