Director Dan Fogelman sat down with WGBH Arts Editor Jared Bowen to talk about his new film, "Danny Collins."

Read the transcript of the extended interview:

JARED BOWEN: So as you say, the caption at the beginning says, this is somewhat based on a true story. How did you learn about it?

DAN FOGELMAN: So I’m procrastinating work, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do next, and I come across a letter, a news article about a guy who discovered a letter from John Lennon 40 years after it was meant to be delivered. 

BOWEN: And how do you know what’s the moment within you that you know, this is it, this is my next story?

FOGELMAN: It was instant for me on this one. I read the story, and the story was this musician Steve Tilston in England who had been a young and up and coming musician. He had done an interview with a music magazine as a young man saying he was worried about what fame and fortune might do to his art. Cut to 40 years later, and he finds out and discovered that 40 years previously, John Lennon had read that interview and written him a letter offering him advice, and his home phone number. And he didn’t get it until his 60s. So right away I just knew. I knew there was a story there that I read the article like 17 times, and I called Steve Tilston and got in touch with the real guy that day. And kind of bought the rights to the story that had happened, and I was writing within a week. You know, in real life, Steve Tillston’s story couldn’t be further from what happens in this film. In the film, the opening scene in the movie and what happens with regards to the letter from Lennon is almost identical. That part of the story is the true part.

Steve Tilston’s real life: he’s led a kind of noble musical life. He’s made a living in music in England as a kind of British folk singer, James Taylor vibe. Never got widely rich or wildly famous but has never sold out on the other side, musically or artistically. Has a nice family and a nice life. So his big regret upon getting the letter was, this is the worst thing I’ve heard all day, I would have gotten to speak to my hero, John Lennon. But his regret didn’t go much further than that.

The story I couldn’t stop thinking about was what if it had. What if he had become everything he was worried he would become and then at 60-plus, got this letter that could have changed everything. 

Watch the trailer for "Danny Collins":

BOWEN: This is what fascinates me about you is that you have "Crazy, Stupid, Love." come out, which is this really successful movie which I’m sure put you in a very different place. So suddenly you must have been thinking about some of the same things as you find what comes with success in Hollywood.

FOGELMAN: Yeah it’s interesting; its been coming out and talking about the film that I sometimes—I studied literature in college. I went to University of Pennsylvania, and Oxford University, studying the Victorian novel. And I always thought it was interesting when we would analyze these books. I said, was Dickens really thinking about any of this, or was he just writing a story. And I don’t think he was necessarily thinking about any of that consciously when I did this, but now looking back it's obviously something I’ve been battling and thinking about a lot in my own life and career, artistically. So I don’t know that I was doing it consciously, but I do find myself going, wow, that is weird how it all kind of ties in. It’s a battle I’ve been facing. The types of films I enjoy are hopefully the smarter version of a kind of populist commercial fare. There’s not a lot of cool currency in that anymore, and there’s certainly not a lot of cool currency in wearing your heart on your sleeve a little bit. 

We’ve become, I think as a culture, and with the Internet and Twitter and all the things that come with it, we’ve become a little more cynical, and I think it's scarier to kind of say, I’m going to make something that’s going to make you feel. It's going to be positive and optimistic but hopefully not cross the line into schmaltz. And yes, cynics are going to come after you because they’re not, but I’m going to make it for the people who aren’t like that. So that’s another thing I battle as I become more and more neurotic and older.  

BOWEN: So like Danny Collins, how do you—he doesn’t necessarily have the strength in that arena—how do you keep it?

FOGELMAN: I think only with experience and age do you keep a balance, and I’m still kind of finding it. These films, there’s a very weird line with making movies or any kind of art that becomes commerce, that becomes your profession. You know, the purest artist is the person drawing or painting or writing in a room just for themselves and that’s not what I do for a living. It's not. So you know, I think for anyone, including Danny Collins in this movie, at a certain point, the second you go from playing a song on your piano to sharing it with the world and getting paid to do so, the art is immediately corrupted because now you’re doing it for others. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not at its purest form. 

And I think that’s what Danny is battling a little bit; he’s a man who wants to do more and wants to connect in a different way to the music, but he’s really really far along in his journey, and he’s made the choices that have defined him and his legacy, and now he’s trying to start from scratch. It's Barry Manilo, by any other name, deciding to try to become a coffee-house singer and write acoustic songs, and I think that’s a beautiful attempt. You know part of the fun with Al in this film is watching him try to be a better man and get in his own way and fail numerous times. But he’s—it’s the attempt that’s noble, and with that goes for his music, and his family, and all the things in the film. 

BOWEN: This is a very American story in that it's very much about materialism. Do you live in Hollywood?


BOWEN: So to see him not be able—especially in that moment when he has to choose between the Prius or continuing the lifestyle he’s accustomed to in the great big house and the gated community, how much does that factor into real life today, people not being able to adhere to that artistic intent?

FOGELMAN: Yeah, I think what Danny is battling is kind of current for today in a way. We are living in two different universes in the world. There’s the world that 99.9 percent of us live in, and then there’s this world that the Danny Collins live in. And the two are so diametrically opposed, that you know, I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of very, very fancy, very, very ironically famous, and very, very wealthy people early in my life and career, and I’ve seen some amazing things. 

And while yes, we all have the same problems, and we worry about our marriages and our kids and our lives, the day-to-day life is just so uniformly different between my buddies back in New Jersey, who are living kind of normal, healthy lives that I admire, versus the lives that the very rich and famous and "Hollywoody." And I thought that immediately when I saw the letter, that’s something that the movie would be about. 

I think, you know, it’s Danny Collins or Al Pacino by another name, in this kind of rich, over-the-top lavish lifestyle. Seeing how really the other half lives and really getting to see it. Not doing the grass is always greener, I’d like to live like a regular person then actually here is what it is. Dad showing up for the first time in a life. 

Here’s what a mortgage that might seem insignificant to you in your life, but probably keeps me and my wife up fighting half the night and sleepless because that’s what we stress about, and developmental issues in kids and health issues in families: these are the real-world problems that you can't just throw money at, and I think that’s what Danny’s journey is about. At the end of the day, it’s stripping away all of the BS out of that type of character and letting him ultimately become a fully formed human being.

By the end of the movie one of the exciting things, you almost forget that Danny Collins isn’t a real kind of musical existing figure in our own lives. The movie ends and you know its Al, and you know you just watched a movie, but it's almost like, wait Danny Collins isn’t a real singer; he almost kind of created his own version of this Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, and you forget that it's not someone that your parents went and saw in concert.