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Al Pacino plays an aging rock star in ‘Danny Collins’ — anyone in particular?

Dan Fogelman is everywhere recently. After co-writing a parade of animated movies – “Tangled,” “Cars,” “Bolt” – the 39-year-old wrote screenplays for three movies released in three consecutive years, including “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” while also becoming the showrunner on the extraterrestrial comedy “The Neighbors” and the musical “Galavant,” both for ABC.

“Danny Collins,” which is opening in art-house theaters now, is Fogelman’s first time behind the camera. His directorial debut is about an over-the-hill rocker who can still sell out arenas crooning the same cheesy ballads to the same graying groupies who have followed him for decades. He’s engaged to a gold digger half his age, keeps cocaine in a cross around his neck and drinks himself into a stupor nightly.

But he starts to reassess his mindless and hard-living routine after he receives – a little late – a letter from John Lennon and Yoko Ono written 40 years earlier. The pair wanted to tell Danny not to let fame and fortune get in the way of his art. Oops.

Somehow, despite a modest budget, Fogelman managed to corral massive talent, including Al Pacino in the lead role, fill his soundtrack to the brim with Lennon tunes and film a huge concert scene at the Greek in Los Angeles. Watching the movie, you begin to wonder how a first-time director (just 34 when he wrote the script) managed to pull this off without big-time funding? During a question-and-answer session after a recent preview, he divulged the details.

Is there a real-life Danny Collins?

In fact there is, believe it or not. After Fogelman wrote “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” he was brainstorming for a new project and surfing the Web when he stumbled upon a crazy story about English folk singer Steve Tilston. During an interview with a rock magazine decades ago, Tilston was asked if he thought fame and fortune might corrupt his artistry, and the singer responded truthfully that yes, there was a good chance he would sell out like so many before him. Lennon and Ono read the interview and wrote to Tilston in 1971, encouraging him to value art over money, but the letter didn’t reach the singer until a collector brought it to Tilston’s attention in 2005.

How did Fogelman recruit such a stacked cast?

In addition to Pacino, “Danny Collins” stars Christopher Plummer, as Danny’s manager, Annette Bening, as a hotel worker that Danny falls for, Bobby Cannavale as the son Danny has never met and Jennifer Garner as Danny’s daughter-in-law. They all signed on after Pacino did, Fogelman explained.

“Al came on and then (the script) reads differently,” he said. “It’s really about getting that first piece of casting done.”

And how did he get Pacino? He actually wrote the role of Danny with Pacino in mind, then sent it to the actor’s agent. Fogelman didn’t expect much of a response, if any. But Pacino read the script, liked it and could tell it was written for him. Fogelman may not have realized it at a time, but Pacino was switching gears professionally, more interested in movies about “old age and the issues of decline,” as a New Yorker profile last year put it. “Danny Collins” was a perfect fit.

How did Fogelman afford all those Lennon songs?

The movie features nine songs by John Lennon, three of which are tied to the script. (For example, “Beautiful Boy” plays around the time Danny meets his son for the first time.) During the making of the movie the director was warned again and again not to get attached to using the songs. But he ignored the problem, assuming it would work itself out. And it did. Producers sent the movie to Yoko Ono, who was apparently quite charitable. You can see why considering the movie is, as Fogelman puts it, a love letter to John Lennon and the way he lived his life.

How did Fogelman manage to get a huge crowd to the Greek Theatre for a fake concert?

Fogelman credits one of his producers who is friends with the band Chicago. The group was performing at the Greek, and the aging crowd seemed like a perfect fit for a fictional Danny Collins concert. So during a 10-minute intermission, Pacino took the stage to sing the awful, catchy “Hey Baby Doll” (sort of a “Sweet Caroline” clone), the tune that made his character famous.

There were a few hitches. The film crew had to make sure concertgoers didn’t head for the bathrooms during the break, enticing them to stay with T-shirt cannons. To make the scene believable, the crowd also had to sing and dance along. It took only a minute or two of call and response before the audience latched on to the simplistic lyrics and tune.

According to Fogelman, he had gotten all of the footage he needed within a few minutes, but Pacino was having so much fun onstage, he wouldn’t leave until the 10 minutes were up.

Where did that “Hey Baby Doll” song come from?

Fogelman actually put a call out to musicians specifically seeking something in the “Copacabana” vein. The jackpot song came from Ciaran Gribbin, the most recent lead singer of INXS. A more distinguished job went to Ryan Adams, who wrote the score plus the song Danny pens after his life-changing Lennon letter.

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