Empowering Artists and Shaping Careers with Michelle Danner
Michelle Danner is a film and stage director, author, world renowned acting coach and founder of the Creative Center for the Arts. She has taught acting for the last 27 years and has worked with many A-list actors, privately and on set, including Zooey Deschanel, Penelope Cruz, Andy Garcia, Selma Hayek, Michelle Rodriguez, Donald Sutherland, and many others. She was brought in for her expert coaching on the WB Show, "The Starlet," and was featured with Andy Richter on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien." Michelle has directed and acted in over 30 plays in musicals in New York and Los Angeles. She is also well established as a successful film director. Her current release "The Runner," is an action thriller and true life coming of age story about a troubled teenager who was forced to go undercover to expose a drug kingpin.
Hear our interview with Michelle here.
NOTE: This episode was recorded prior to the Writers Guild and Actors Guild Strike.
ON THIS EPISODE:
[01:31] On what she’s most passionate about
[02:04] On her childhood
[04:38] On when she decided to have a career in the arts
[05:08] On her first professional role
[06:21] On directing and acting
[07:07] On moving to Los Angeles and her career at that point
[08:50] On celebrities she has worked with
[11:16] On her approach to teaching actors
[14:07] On how she approaches working with seasoned actors vs. new talent
[16:17] On working in both theater and film
[20:06] On her film “The Runner”
[23:11] On her core creative team
[24:02] On success stories from coaching actors
[26:04] On helping actors prepare for auditions
[27:44] On how the entertainment industry has evolved for women
[31:09] On being drawn to women’s stories
[31:44] On what a woman director would bring to the disaster film genre
[32:50] On skills she brings to the set as a woman that are unique
[34:23] On hiring crews for her films
[35:35] On her involvement in the writing process
[36:24] On her biggest professional challenge and how she overcame it
[39:45] On working on multiple projects at the same time
[40:10] On the advice she would give her younger self
[42:22] On lessons she learned from the famous people she met as a child and young woman
[43:38] On her proudest career achievement
[44:40] On advice for people lacking in self-confidence
[45:15] On her definition of success
[46:16] On the biggest professional risk she ever took and how it paid off
[49:14] On the status of her film “Miranda’s Victim”
[49:38] On her upcoming theater projects
[51:07] On how she deals with feeling unmotivated
[51:43] On actors she would love to direct in the future
[53:02] On her dream for women
[54:21] On the pop culture icon she would be for one day
Passionistas: Hi, we're sisters Amy and Nancy Harrington, the founders of The Passionistas Project, where we give women a platform to tell their own unfiltered stories. On every episode, we discuss the unique ways in which each woman is following her passions, talk about how she defines success and explore her path to breaking down the barriers that women too often face.
Today we're talking with Michelle Danner, a film and stage director. Author, world renowned acting coach and founder of the Creative Center for the Arts. Michelle has taught acting for the last 27 years and has worked with many a-list actors, privately and on set, including Zooey Deschanel, Penelope Cruz, Andy Garcia, Selma Hayek, Michelle Rodriguez, Donald Sutherland, and many others.
Throughout the years, she was voted the favorite acting coach by backstage readers. She was brought in for her expert coaching on the WB Show, "The Starlet," and was featured with Andy Richter on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien." Michelle has directed and acted in over 30 plays in musicals in New York and Los Angeles.
She is also well established as a successful film director. Her current release "The Runner," is an action thriller and true life coming of age story about a troubled teenager who was forced to go undercover to expose a drug kingpin. So please welcome Michelle Danner.
Michelle: Hi, how are you?
Passionistas: Thank you so much for joining us today.
What are you most passionate about?
Michelle: I'm passionate about creativity. I'm passionate that I wake up every morning and I feel a current of electricity inside of me that drives me to be creative and to fill myself with art. Well, that's fantastic. That's a great way to wake up every day.
Passionistas: Where does that come from? Tell us about your childhood and, and, uh, your family's experience in the business and how that impacted you.
Michelle: You know, I did. Yes. It probably comes from. You know, some of my environment, my father, when I was I think three years old, was asked to be the president of the William Morris Agency in Paris, in France, and so I was born in New York City.
And when I was a little girl, we moved to Europe. Um, and I remember distinctly my dad, who was an incredible father taking me to the office and I was playing under the desk and I was privy throughout the years. Still these big, you know, celebrities come and talk about their dreams. So I remember, you know, from all over the world, from Maurice Chevalier to Benny Goodman, to Sammy Davis to this very famous Brazilian singer, Eliana Pittman.
I mean, there was a huge list and. You know, so, and, and then people would come to the house. My, my parents would have dinner parties and impromptu dinner parties where, you know, they would just come and go to the kitchen and pull whatever they could find and make a big rice, a big paella, and play music and, you know, the piano, the guitar sing.
Um, so I, I really grew up and, and my grandmother was a painter. She painted an impressionist paintings and she would take me to the museum and I studied at the conservatory of Versailles. I studied at Paris, so I grew up with lots and lots of art surrounding me. I would always go to bookstores and the libraries and buy a lot of books and just be an avid reader.
And then when I grew up in school, I fell in love with, uh, Alexander Duma, the Queen's necklace. Um, "The Affair of the Queen." I think it's been made in several, you know, uh, movies. And so I adapted it for the stage and cast about 40 kids in school. And the teachers loved me, uh, and also hated me because I basically discombobulated the whole school.
It was like chaotic for like a month because we were rehearsing and putting up the performances. But that was a little bit of my, my upbringing. Um, it was very, you know, I was lucky I was in Europe. We traveled different parts of Europe, you know, I always went to museums. I went to the theater. I went to the movies.I read a lot. So I was always very much immersed in art.
Passionistas: When did you decide that this was gonna be your career?
Michelle: Well, I mean, I always knew that I, I wanted to act, I wanted to write, I moved to back to the US when my family moved, back when I was a teenager, and I started to study with Stella Adler and with Uta Hagan and, and many other wonderful teachers in New York City.
And so I always knew, I always knew that, you know, this is what I had to do.
Passionistas: And so what was your first professional role?
Michelle: My first pro, that's a good question. Well, Okay, so I played Antigone, but that was in France. I did this whole thing where I. I mounted this production of "Antigone" by Jean Genet, French writer Jean Anouilh, and I went to the, um, to see the mayor and asked them to gimme the municipal theater, which seated 500 people in the outskirts of of Paris Saint-Cloud.
And they did. And I got a whole group together and we mounted this performance at the end, we collected with the hats, whatever donations people wanted to give. And we actually made a lot of money and we split it amongst the cast. So that was maybe the first. Well, no, because before that I was in school, you know, I was asked to play Electra by Sophocles.
Um, um, But I, I was very drawn to Antigone because then when I came back to the US to New York City, I played Antigone again, but I renamed it, I called it The Chess Game of Death." I had a whole thing where the characters were playing chess on the floor. I had a whole vision for it. Um, actually talking about it now makes me think I should remount it cuz that was pretty cool actually.
Passionistas: So you, you had the directing and acting track going at the same time right from the beginning.
Michelle: Yes. I think that I always, you know, had this visual, like, I mean, at first I would ask directors to direct, but I realized that when you direct something, you really sign the painting. You are, you are the person that signs it.
And so I. When I started to make movies, I realized that I wanted to be able to be the one to decide what the colors were, what the textures were. I wanted to decide that, um, as opposed to being at the mercy. I mean, I, I've acted in other people's, you know, movies and that's been great, but I like to be the one to put it together.
Passionistas: So how did your career evolve in terms of acting and directing from that first production that you did in the United States?
Michelle: Um, well, I moved to, to LA with men and I started to teach acting, uh, because a lot of people were asking me to coach them. And so it was a, a natural progression. I started, uh, you know, I, I, I was faced with the choice of driving to Hollywood or Pasadena to do, you know, two or three auditions a day was gonna take up the whole day.
And then I had about eight people that wanted me to coach them back to back, so I. Started to coach more and teach more, and found that to be very rewarding and still do very much. And I'm still teaching not as much as I used to. And then, um, you know, I, I started to direct. And I found that to be very rewarding.
So I think that it's stepping stones in life, you know? It's like before having kids, you have dogs maybe. So everything has been a bit of a stepping stone and a realization that I wanted to just raise the bar and push myself and be more challenged, even now in my choices of. What I choose stories that I, I choose to direct on film, I've noticed that there's been a progression and everything's been like a step up, like, you know, more difficult, more challenging.
So I think that there's something in me that, you know, is driven. I was talking about being driven in that way, but uh, driven to challenge myself. And it's certainly, I think it has to do with the environment that I grew up in when I was a child, and also by nature, who I am.
Passionistas: Yeah. And certainly the world of Hollywood, right? It pushes you to just keep getting better and better and doing more exciting things. Tell us about a couple of the celebrities that you've worked with, some of maybe the standouts.
Michelle: Well, recently I've, you know, directed a movie called "Miranda's Victim," which is about, um, what happened to, um, you know, the person that, uh, You know, was abducted and therefore the Miranda rights were created from that whole court trial trials, I should say, uh, plural.
And so I was lucky enough to have Abigail Breslin play the part of Patricia Weir, and she's been just extraordinary to work with. Uh, what a talent. I kept telling her like, every take, oh my God, this, you know, she just, she's just so good. And, um, My favorite, one of my favorite actors throughout my whole entire life has been Donald Sutherland and Donald Sutherland came to be part of this movie.
Um, I've also always loved Andy Garcia. I've always admired. You know, Dan Lauria has been a favorite actor of mine. I saw him do Lombardi on Broadway. Uh, I've always watched "The Wonder Years." I knew him, um, from New York. So I went to watch him perform off Broadway in some wonderful plays, and he always moved me.
Uh, I always loved him, uh, as an actor and, uh, Brent Sexton and MUAs, I have admired them in this show, the Killing, and I couldn't believe that they both said yes and came and. I've always loved, uh, Emily Vancamp and Josh Bowman in "Revenge." So I've had, you know, this, uh, I, I put together a, a group of actors, literally, um, I, I don't even know how to say it was the cast from heaven and it was incredible.
Um, and they all came and I'm show Kyle MacLachlan, who's a, you know, we're a huge fan of Kyle and he was just so great and I'm sure I'm forgetting people, but, um, You know, I love actors. I love actors, and luckily I've had some extraordinary experiences on set and also coaching actors. Um, you know, I, I, I feel very privileged.
I feel like I have a very good job. Clearly, you do it well to get such high caliber people. Associated with your projects and your acting, uh, classes.
Passionistas: So you studied with so many of the great acting teachers. What, what is your approach to teaching and what makes your style unique?
Michelle: Well, I don't know if it makes my style. Well, yes, I think I probably have a unique style, which is I, I'm probably one of the very few acting teachers. That has been on set as much as I've been on set and have directed. So I understand, you know, what, what an actor needs to bring to their craft in order to, you know, create that character, make those choices, um, you know, deliver, deliver the, those performances that will illuminate the story, uh, and, and really tell it in a powerful way.
Um, But I'm a, I I not dogmatic. I never was, even when I studied with Stella Adler as much as I adored her, and I did, I learned so much from her. But I remember thinking when she was teaching, oh, well there's got to be another way that's not possible. That this is the only way. Uh, and I was determined to find what all the other ways were.
And, uh, and they're infinite. You know, it's, it's just, uh, that's why. Acting is a great craft because there's infinite possibilities attached to it. So I, um, I was definitely inspired by Stella and by UDA Hogan and all my teachers, but I really quickly felt that the actor needed to put together, and I call it "The Golden Box," a toolbox where they put a lot of different tools.
I'm very eclectic, and so I don't believe that there's just this way or that way, and depending on what projects you work on. Uh, you know, you, you pull this tool out or you pull that tool out. I am just a great believer in keep educating yourself. Keep reading, keep watching. I mean, I watch all the time. I just watched some new TV shows yesterday.
I watched, uh, a new movie. Um, uh, I love watching content and seeing what other peoples do and when it works and when it doesn't work. And a lot of times, you know, uh, something could be flawed and yet works on a certain level. It's very interesting and very fascinating to, uh, dissect that. And, um, I have a, my oldest son goes to USC and he studies film in theater and we particularly, um, You know, we're constantly watching things and going to the theater, um, and then going places and doing all the things that I used to do in my childhood.
And he is much, even much better at expressing things than me. Yesterday he was talking to me about the difference between the twists and the paradox and the, you know, narratives. And I was like, okay, interesting. I'm learning from him.
Passionistas: Is there a different approach to working with, uh, a new student who's just learning about acting and someone like Donald Sutherland who's been acting for decades? Like, how do you, how do you approach them and is it different?
Michelle: Well, yeah. For instance, the actor Sebastian Quinn that played, uh, Ernesto Miranda, That's where the Miranda rights came. He, I wanted someone who was unknown. There were a lot of agents, you know, in Hollywood, pitched me some really well known actors, but I really wanted it to be an unknown actor.
He has worked Sebastian, super talented, and in his work, and now he's working on a series and he's just, but um, but he didn't have, you know, the resume that the other actors had at the time that, that were cast and, um, You know, he, we rehearsed, we talked, but somebody like Donald Sutherland and Andy Garcia, just extraordinary actors and Kyle MacLachlan and all these, you know, wonderful veteran actors.
They, you know, recently I was working with wonderful Ann Archer. You know, these actors that are iconic, that work so much. Um, I think. Welcome some sort of feedback. They welcome the third eye telling them, oh, this is, I thought that this was great, or this is, I thought we could explore this. I mean, they like that and they need that as opposed to somebody that's just in awe of them, which I.
You know, we are, and, but just don't say anything. Well, let's do it again. Let's do another take and say, you know, they'll give you another color. But I, I like to, you know, say a few things. I mean, of course. I mean, what can you say to Donald Sutherland? Absolutely nothing. Uh, just grateful that he's there. Um, but, uh, but still, you know, you can see a couple of things.
You know, it's, it's, it's good. They want it. Yeah.
Passionistas: I can't even imagine going through your list of the people you've worked with is so impressive. But then you get to Donald Sutherland and you just kind of stop in your tracks. It's like, I can't even imagine being on a set with Donald Sutherland. Um, so.
What do you, you know, you, you're so prolific in terms of the work you've done in theater and the work you've done in film. What do you need to pull out of your "Golden Toolbox" to make that shift from one medium to the other?
Michelle: Yeah. I'm constantly reading. I'm constantly, like I said, watching. Um, I mean, I feel like working with the actors, um, You know, I don't wanna say it's easy for me cuz I never take it for granted.
So I certainly don't wanna say that, but it does come, it's ingrained in my DNA to work with actors. Recently I've been offered, um, a. To direct, uh, a movie that is a great movie. I'm very excited about it. Uh, I think it'll be announced soon. It's a science fiction movie. And, um, but you know, I was even saying as I was talking to the producers, even in a movie like that where I.
You know, obviously the special effects and the visual effects and, and you know, every year they up the technology in terms of how that's going to look. But when I go see a movie with my kids, and I've seen a lot of them and I've suffered through a lot of them, where, you know, there's just so much that, you know, that goes, like I said, I go to the theater and yes, I'm impressed when the chandelier falls, but if he takes off, he doesn't take off the mask in "Phantom of the Opera" and doesn't break my heart.
It doesn't work for me if I'm not moved by it. And that's the human stories. Humanity is what's important in what people, why people go to the movies and that's when, when people say art can change lives, you know, because it reminds you, it holds up a mirror of what it's like to be human. To feel your humanity.
Um, so, but yet any, I'm very excited about this, this next project, it's going to be, uh, challenging for sure. Um, and, uh, yeah, just, you know, keep, keep working. That's my motto. I, um, was lucky enough to get a phone call a few months ago from Ridley Scott. I was told he was going to call me in the morning that I forgot about it, and then he called at four o'clock in the afternoon.
Um, And basically he had seen the movie that I directed called "The Runner," which had a a great festival run and won a lot of awards. And I knew what he wanted to call me. He wanted to talk to me about the lead actor, who's a wonderful actor, uh, former student of mine, Edwar Filip. But he went on and talked about the runner and talked about, you know, the directing of it.
And he went on and on and on and on, and I was like, oh my God, you know, I can't believe this. And at the end he just asked me about the actor, and I told him, the actor was great, but it was mostly to tell me for 20 minutes. But then he said something, That I will never forget. And I think that that was the point of the phone call.
It wasn't to tell me that my directing was great. And coming from him, of course that meant everything. Um, he said to me, the key is to keep doing it. And he was about to embark in nap on Napoleon. He said, the key is to keep doing it. And I believe that, that's always been my philosophy. It's always been what I've told my students.
I've always, always, what I tell my kids, I always say, just keep doing it. Keep doing the work. Whether you succeed or whether you fail, you learn from both. You learn more from failure, I think obviously. Uh, but you know, it's all good. Of course, it hurts less to succeed. It's, it's less painful. It's painful to fail.
Uh, but, but you learn, you have to be able to take it. You have to be able to tolerate it. But the key is to keep doing it. So I am
just, uh, a great believer. Um, You know, I've learned from everything I've learned, used all kinds of tools. But I do keep studying though. I have to say that, that is my, uh, my journey is to keep studying.
Passionistas: Yeah. Learn something new every day. That's our philosophy. We love it. Um, so you mentioned the runner. Tell us a little bit about that film.
Michelle: That came to me. I'm always attracted, there's several, you know, they say that directors always direct the same movies. Uh, possibly. That is very true. I am very attracted, especially since I've had kids to tell stories that thematically have to do with our kids falling through the crack.
I've always loved "All My Sons" by Arthur Miller and this idea that we're all in it together and it's all of our kids. And when our kids, you know, fall through the cracks, you know that we have to step up. Like that wonderful movie that Ang Lee directed the "Ice Storm." you know what happens to children when you know the adults don't step up. Uh, so I'm, I'm very always attracted to thematically to that. I'm attracted to things that are timely of today. Even the science fiction project, which is great. It's very timely. Uh, I'm always attracted to that. You always, um, But the runner came to me one night cuz I was watching a news report and it had talked about how, uh, police enforcements were, you know, forcing kids to, uh, go undercover wire up to capture the big drug kingpin.
You know, as soon as they had a little misdemeanor on them, like, you know, something, they were selling pot or something, they would just grab them and unbeknownst to the parents and sometimes. You know, tragedies happen. And so there was one particular story I was so moved by and I just started to cry and I went ahead and wrote a treatment and then I called a writer friend of mine, um, and I said, can you please write this screenplay?
And we collaborated on it together. And then I had this student of mine one night. The lights went out, uh, at our theater and I told everyone there were three more scenes. I said, just hold up your phone so that, you know, we can just do all the scenes and nobody feels shortchanged. And this kid, you know, that ended up playing the lead.
Aiden Edward, you know, did a fabulous scene where he sends chills up my spine and I said to him, you know what? I have this script I'm developing. I think you're right for it. Take a read of it. He loved it. We started to rehearse. We were not going to shoot it until April, and then the pandemic happened that we would've never shot it.
But somehow it happened that we shot it a few months before we got in the door of the elevator as the elevator closed. And so I thought to myself it was so closed that we would've not shot it. Cuz you always wanna wait, especially in movies cuz you're, you know, prepared and you get everything, all the dominoes on the table.
We didn't have all the financing, but I said, let's just do it. And that was so great because what that did is that they gave me the opportunity to edit with calm during the pandemic, cuz you know, we just didn't know it was going to happen. How long I. Some days I edited eight hours, some days, five hours, some days, three hours.
I was like, you know, just very zen about it. I wasn't like on that treadmill of life, you know, gotta get it done. We gotta be here. We have to submit it for this festival, you know, that adrenaline that's pumping. I didn't have that at all, and I think that I learned something really, really valuable in that process.
Passionistas: Do you have a core creative team that you work with from film to film?
Michelle: I've worked with the same people. Very loyal. Nice. Same producers I've been with for decades. On end, I collaborate with the same directors of photography. I have a couple, you know, uh, my last director of photography, I did several movies with him.
Um, Um, first ad, uh, editor. I've done three movies with my editor. Yes, because I mean, it's the same for everybody. You notice when you find someone that you work well with, you wanna continue working with them cuz you have a shorthand, you develop a shorthand together. So, um, yeah, it's, it's great when they're available, but you know, from project to project, not everybody's always available, but you hope that when it's green lit, when the time comes, you make the call and they say, I'm in.
Passionistas: Do you have, um, like a favorite success story from your years of coaching?
Michelle: Someone who you started with that not necessarily even made it big, but just had a, had a success on their own terms. Like all kinds of lights light up in my, in my head. There's just too many, there's too many big success stories.
Um, you know, I think, uh, You know, with Edward Phillipe I mean, the fact that he gave that performance and, um, you know, there's just two, or you know, the actor Garrett Baxtrum. I directed a movie called "Hello Herman" screenplay by John Buffalo Mailer, I think now a good decade ago. And, uh, and this wonderful kid came in and I had like auditioned a hundred.
Actors that were between 15 and 18. And he comes in and I ask them, how many times did you read the script? And he said, I read it three times. Like nobody reads it. Three times. Really? Some people do. And that's when they get a job. Um, He said he read it three times and, uh, he came to, to book a movie. I mean, and he's great.
The New York Times and the review said, you know, that his performance was excellent. Uh, I think that's somebody that took it very seriously from the beginning. Yeah. And walked in and said, this is mine. Which is what I tell my actors. You know, when you go in you have to take that script, you have to take it in.
It's not just an audition. I always remember Al Pacino said, you, you know, you, I don't never audition. I only act. And you have to take that character. You gotta take that story and you have to make it yours.
Passionistas: How do you help, um, actors prepare for that though because we've heard so many actors talk about the audition process and just how scary It is. So what kind of tips do you give people to get through beyond that act note, um, what kind of tips do you give people to get through an audition?
Michelle: Well, I think preparation is, is key. Sometimes you have to be sensitive to not over prepare for an audition, but you know, This is where you just have to have a thermometer of sensitivity and you have to listen to your guts.
And that guides you, you know, that dictates how much you need to do, but sometimes you need to read the script three times. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you just need to read the script once. Um, I would say you should at least read it once. Um, you know, think about the character, think about the choices, but, um, Yeah, I mean, I think the idea of, you know, really, um, making choices, physical choices.
I was watching this actor that I absolutely love Damian Lewis on Colbert a couple of nights ago, and he talked about how, you know, when he studied, you know, he went to the zoo and he looked at, uh, you know, and, and, and the animals, um, and. I just think that there's so much value in finding the right physicality, the moment that you find how your character moves, how they speak, how they breathe, uh, their point of view about the world.
I remember seeing an interview with John Malkovich once. He said, I only ask one question of my characters as I prepare. And I was like, oh, let me get my notepad. I'm writing this down. What is it? And he said, what is my point of view about the world? And I thought to myself, well, that's a fabulous question because that opens up all kinds of script analysis, a whole entire character breakdown.
Passionistas: How have you seen the industry evolve for women in your years in the business?
Michelle: Well, for instance, recently in, in my meeting yesterday with the producers of this movie that was offered to me, uh, you know, these big budget disaster movies are usually, as I started to really look into it and dig into it, are directed by men.
Wonderful men directors, but nevertheless, 99% men direct that genre. One movie. I'm sure there's more, but you know, just in my original, uh, research here, Mimi Leader directed "Deep Impact" years and years ago, and I didn't find anybody else really, or everybody else was a man. Um, so I thought, you know, that was part of.
My, what I was saying yesterday, it's like, let a woman direct one of these big movies. A woman should do it. Um, I have never particularly, and I'm sure that I have been discriminated throughout the years because I have been a woman, but I've never, you know, felt the sting of it because I'm just way too proactive and I just do my own thing.
And, um, but, um, I think that. Hopefully, thankfully things are changing and women are getting, you know, more opportunities. I mean, we do feel that. I think, no, I just saw this wonderful movie called, I think "Women Talking." Um, that was, did you see it? Yeah, I think it's great and creative and it's about something, it's about this subject that you're we're talking about.
It's about the place of women and women having voices. And this movie that I directed, "Miranda's Victim" is very much about that. I mean, it's so incredible that this young girl is 18 year old girl in Phoenix, Arizona, 1963, had the courage. She was brave to speak out and go through several trials. So that her rapist was convicted.
You know, I went and I went to Phoenix, Arizona and I walked from the Paramount Theater when she worked that night to when she took the bus and she got off the bus and she was abducted into the desert when she was raped. And I went to the houses where she lived and he lived, and the courthouse where he was indicted in the museum where he has a big presence in, I'm talking about Miranda.
And I thought to myself, you know, I was at the corner of the bus stop and I started to, I started to really get emotional. I started to tear up and I said, oh my God, what if she hadn't been the one to get off the bus that night? Well, he was a predator. He was looking, he would've found someone else, but that's someone else maybe would've not had the courage to go after him, but she did 1963 against the wishes of her family.
I mean, the strength that you have to have, and I love those stories. And I think, you know, I mean if you look at the movie "Suffragette" now, the movie of Meryl Streep, I mean, every woman would wanna go vote after that because all those women that paid the price for the people that couldn't vote, um, So obviously there's been an incredible evolution and yet not enough because we know what happened in the Supreme Court with Roe v. Wade. Um, there's, you know, not, not enough. Um, but you know, I think women will continue to stand their ground and speak their truth and develop strong voices because we need that.
Passionistas: Do you find yourself drawn to women's stories or to creating roles that are like powerful roles for female actresses?
Michelle: Well, absolutely, absolutely. I mean this, like I said, this last movie, Miranda's Victim, it rests. I mean, it's a great ensemble of actors, but it does rest on Abby's shoulders. On, on Patricia Weir's shoulders. And this next movie I'm going to direct also has, you know, the, the key, which is also great in these big disaster movies is that the, you know, the key person that saves, you know, humanity is a woman.
Passionistas: What do you think a woman director. Would, will bring to the genre and you, but women in, in general will bring to the genre of disaster movies that's been missing.
Michelle: Well, you know, I just think that there's this, you know, cliche idea that men are stronger and they can, you know, deal more with that kind of a big budget movie and they can, you know, It's the same thing that happened, I think with Trump and Hillary Clinton when he said, you know, she's not president material, but I am because I'm a strong man.
And she's, you know, um, you know, there, there's a preconception, there's like a cliche idea that because you're a woman, you're not gonna be as strong as a man, which is of course so incredibly ridiculous. But, you know, women have to keep proving that over and over again.
Passionistas: Well, and we're great at multitasking, which is I think one of the keys to being a great director. So I'm sure you bring skills to the set that men may not bring, you know? Do you feel like there's a, a certain, um, a different approach you take as a woman to directing than than men do? Whether that's interacting with the actors in a different way or just in terms of process?
Michelle: Well, I can tell you that I like, uh, very concepts. I'm very sensitive to energy and if somebody has bad energy, they have to stay very far away from me. Uh, I don't, I don't like that energy. I had a second. I. You know, uh, second ad that was just too frantic for me. And, uh, I, I just, I need, I need people that stay calm. I'm very calm. They say that I'm very nurturing on set.
Um, I do my best work if, you know, I'm focused. I need that kind of concentration. So there's never any yelling. I don't like yelling. I mean, there's a difference between, you know, assertiveness and aggression. So if the first ad has to, you know, and I, I knew he was like the right first ad for me because, you know, for him to, you know, bring it in, you know, there's a difference between yelling at people and just using a loud voice so people can hear you.
Mm-hmm. Um, And so I knew that he had the right sensitivity for me, uh, because I really, you know, I just like everything to be very harmonious. I always joke if we could have, you know, candles, uh, classical music and flowers all around us, we, but, you know, I, I'm just saying as an example, uh, just because I like to stay home, I really do. I don't work well if things are very, you know, agitated and anxiety.
Passionistas: I love that. I love, I love the idea of that energy on a set. You don't find that very often. They're usually very frantic. Um, do you, do you find yourself trying to, um, hire a lot of women for your crew?
Michelle: No, but, uh, but yes, I just, I hire the best person for the job. Mm-hmm. Whoever the best person for the job is. I interviewed, for instance, with my script supervisor, which is a big job when you're a director. Cause that's the person that's next to you, you know, um, there's a, I interviewed a couple of women that I really loved, but then there was this kid that came on and he was not a woman.
And, uh, you know, I ended up picking him. Um, you know, I just don't wanna give it to who I think is the best person. But if, you know, after I, I finished, if I find myself having picked, you know, 99% of men, which doesn't work like that anyway, that are the best person for the job, then I go, no. But, but it doesn't work like that because my costume designer was a woman.
Hair and makeup were women. Uh, you know, it doesn't, A lot of my producers were women and a lot were minorities. You know, it usually works out really well in terms of a balance.
Passionistas: And what's your part in the writing process on your films? You said you've hired a writer for, you know, you, you've done outlines and then you hire writers. So how involved are you in the writing process?
Michelle: Well, pretty involved. Every, every movie that I have done, I have contributed quite a lot. I have given a lot of notes. Maybe micromanage it, uh, every part of it, you know, I found a wonderful composer. Um, But also, you know, the first movie we've done now three movies together, and the first movie that we did, I think that maybe we gave her too many notes, but then she was like, well, okay, this is the way, this is the way it is with those people, you know, they're gonna gimme notes.
Um, no, she's great. Holly Hamburger, she's fantastic. And, uh, and now, yeah, I, I give a lot of notes. I'm very, very hands on.
Passionistas: What would you say has been your biggest professional challenge during your career, and how did you overcome it?
Michelle: Probably, and that's reflected in this last movie that I did, is I wanted all to happen and there's limitations always.
So we lost time on the set in "Miranda's Victim" in New Jersey cuz there were thunderstorms. And then when there's thunderstorms, there's the app and you have to shut down 30 minutes and another 30 minutes. And we lost half a day. And so I had scheduled to do the very last day this, the big rape scene, and a whole day I had given a whole day for it, and now I only had half a day and you know, we were losing everything, the locations, the actors, the whole thing.
So I had to find a way. So I walked down satin, I can't remember exactly now, but I think I had like 27 setups, which is unheard of and impossible to accomplish. And I rallied everybody together and everybody told me not gonna happen. You're not going to get it. There's just no way it's going to happen.
And I looked at everybody, I said, just watch me. And I really went for it. And I said that we were gonna be out of one location exactly at that time, 11:30 PM and we were. And the last five minutes I got that shot of the car, the vintage car being followed by the police, I would've never gotten that shot.
But I pushed for that. And then we did not enter a meal penalty, which I'm also producer in a movie, so I also, I'm aware of that. And then we moved to the other location and, um, I said, we're gonna do all this. There. And my director of photography said, there's no way we're gonna lose the light. The light's coming in, the sun is rising at 4:30 AM And I said, Nope, we're gonna shoot till 5:30 AM we're just gonna black the windows of the car and we're gonna make it happen.
Uh, and I did, and I went and I just, you know, was it was handheld in the car and I go, do this, do this, do this, do that. And we finished exactly at 5:30 AM and it was apocalyptic. The sun rose on the ocean. Everybody, the whole cast was there. It was a wrap. It was very emotional and I had rented this house and you know, my housekeeper was at the house and I said to her I'll be home exactly at 7:00 AM and I was home exactly at 7:00 AM It was like, I went home and I was like, shell-shocked because not only did I get all the 27 setups, but I got them exactly.
Like, at the exact time I said I was gonna be out of this, I was gonna be on that. So I felt like a little bit like a machine, uh, which was interesting because. That last scene was the rape scene, and a lot of people were emotional and walking away from the set and really being moved by it, and I just had to really stay focused and I was moved afterwards when I saw the dailies, but when I shot it, I was just really in the zone of trying to get all these shots because I knew that if I didn't get them in that moment, I was never going to get them.
Passionistas: Wow, that's really impressive and, and a and kudos to you and I'm sure your ad for helping you get through that day.
Michelle: I had a great team, great first ad, great director of photography, great steady cam, you know, operator. Everybody that I had was just fantastic. Well, a steady company was handheld in the car.
Passionistas: You talked about the the disaster movie. Um, do you have multiple projects going at the same time? Do you have other things that you have coming up?
Michelle: Well, you have to, as a director, you have to be in development for different things because, you know, to get the financing, to get the cast is always challenging.
So, um, yes I am, I have different projects that I'm in, develop development, you know, with, and we'll see the one, you know, the next one that goes.
Passionistas: Looking back at your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Michelle: You know, uh, be patient. Don't feel like you have to. I mean, it's very much the lessons that we learned during the pandemic and that's why I think, you know, obviously it was a toll of, of lost life that was, you know, tragic during the pandemic for the people that stayed home and had a pause and had to reprieve like me, like my family.
And actually I didn't get Covid today. Uh, and neither did my oldest son. My youngest son got it and my sister got it, but I, I didn't get it. Um, so I'm still waiting cause I feel it might be inevitable at some point. Um, but, uh, you know, this idea, which is what my dad always tried to tell me and I never listened.
He said, you don't have to rush. You're going to get there. It's that documentary that I saw when I was raising, you know, my kids a race to nowhere. You know, it's like when you drive, it's the same analogy that I always use is when somebody's frustrated cuz you're too slow and they pass you and they masculinize and they honk.
And then you know, a minute later, two minutes later, you're sitting at the light in the same exact place and you look at each other and it's like, yeah, well, you know, you wanted to. And it's not necessary. It's not necessary. And so I think that that's one of the biggest things that I would've told my to my younger self is chill.
It's gonna happen. You don't, you know, and I remind myself sometimes that during the day, like even today when I woke up, you know, I just got a lot of things to accomplish today. And I'm like, it's all right. It's gonna get done with calm, it's okay. You know, you have to do it and it's gonna happen. We don't have to be on the treadmill.
We don't have to take, you know, the express lane. You can take the slower lane and trust that you're gonna get there.
Passionistas: You know, you were surrounded by so many amazing people when you were a kid, Sammy Davis Jr. and Edith Piaf.. I, I can't even imagine. But, um, did you ever get any advice from any of those people or did you learn anything that you observed from being around them that has guided you?
Michelle: Yes. I mean, absolutely. I think that there's a common denominator, which is an incredible work ethic. I think to sustain that kind of career, you know, with iconic performers, that kind of career, that has that longevity, you have to have an impeccable work ethic.
And I have observed that. I've observed that that is the case. And many people, you know, a focus, I mean, it doesn't mean you don't take time off and you know, slack off and stuff, but, but overall as a predominant, you know, domino that drives you. I, I see this work ethic, and for me, the definition of work ethic is, you know, many times doing it, focusing when you don't want to, when you don't feel like it.
I mean, I always say I always get a laugh in class. I never wanna do anything. But that is the absolute truth. And the reason why I get a laugh is because they know it's the truth. I just don't wanna do ever anything, but I push myself to do it, cuz I know it's good for me.
Passionistas: I mean, you've had such an incredible career, and this is probably a difficult question for you, but do you have a proudest career achievement?
Michelle: Well, I'm really happy with this movie, Miranda. I'm getting particularly a lot of great feedback and it's okay if I don't, you know that there's not, everybody likes everything that you do. You always have to be prepared to have a good percentage of people that won't. But I, I push to shoot this a movie on film. Not on, on HD. So, you know, it's like one hope that I'll be on, on a set at some point again in my life when I will hear those words, you know, check the gate upon a good gate. We're moving on. I just love those words. Um, it's just great to work on film. It looks so beautiful and, you know, I, I pushed for that and I think that, I was right.
I was right for the look of, of the movie and what it gave to the authenticity of, you know, telling a story and, uh, and that era being an actor, being a director, being in the entertainment industry period requires so much confidence. Yes.
Passionistas: Do you have advice or tips for people who maybe are lacking in self-confidence?
Michelle: No, but everybody's insecure. I think that's also common denominator amongst everyone. Everyone is insecure, including me. I'm highly insecure. Um, but. It's okay. You can be both very insecure and also confident. You can have both. Both can live inside of you. So, and, and it's necessary to, you know, have that vulnerability only.
I think that vulnerability can you achieve certain things artistically, but also there's a healthy part of your ego that should feel like you can do it.
Passionistas: What's your, um, definition of success?
Michelle: Uh, to me it's tied into, you know, uh, happiness and that's tied into gratefulness. I think that, uh, you know, success is not the amount of money that you have and it's not the amount of, you know, uh, great reviews that you get on a project.
Um, You know, I always say that if I had to pick between having a life where I would have, you know, all of these kudos and, and these awards and, uh, and, and my, my loving family, you know, I, I made the end of the day. You, you can't take, I. Any of that with you. Those last moments of your life have to do with the people that you love, the people that love you, what you've given to them, what they've given to you.
Um, that to me, is the most important thing in life. It's that, that's what I, I consider success is who you touched in this world.
Passionistas: What's the biggest professional risk you ever took and how did it pay off?
Michelle: I'm just living in the, in this last moment. I think that, um, you know, this movie Miranda was definitely a professional risk.
I mean, the, yeah, there's. As I was casting it, and my casting director is in the UK and I was just up all night because she's in the uk. So I go to sleep for 45 minutes and then wake up and this actor, you know, is interested and this actor, this and this, that, and you know, the. Trying to get the right cast for this movie was part of vision of the movie.
I mean, yeah, there was, you know, the choice of shooting it on film and the color palette and making certain choices in the story, telling the story, but the cast was a huge part of the vision of it. And, um, So I feel like all of that was, uh, was a risk. And then I really felt that. And when I was in New Jersey and I was about to shoot the day before and the day of, the morning of, I woke up early and I went swimming and I looked at the ocean cause I had a house on the ocean.
And I thought to myself, wow, you know, this is, uh, but, but you know what's great about taking risks is or not great, is that you're uncomfortable all the time. And that's been like a message that I've also given to my students is how uncomfortable we premiered "Miranda's Victim" at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
We were their opening night movie on February 8th, so not too long ago, not even a month ago, few weeks ago. And I remember driving up there and thinking, we're gonna watch this movie with over 2000 people in this big historical theater called the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. And. Uh, I'm so uncomfortable.
I mean, I don't know how people are gonna receive this movie. What's the reaction going to be? Um, and, you know, it's, it's, uh, that's the risk. The risk is to staying in that zone of not, you know, being comfortable.
Passionistas: And how was the reaction?
Michelle: Oh, it was incredible. It was an incredible night. I'm still, still shell shocked by it, I mean, You know, what's it like to watch a movie with, you know, that you've done with all these people?
And I was sitting next to my children and the cast were all, you know, and, and people were just really responding and, you know, there's some moments of levity in this drama. And so they responded to that and people were crying at the end. And it was, it was pretty extraordinary. I still don't know how much I've really taken it all in.
Passionistas: I don't think there's anything quite as exciting as watching people react live to something you've created, whether it's a film premier or a theater or something. It's really, really an amazing feeling. Um, yeah. So what's the stage now of "Miranda"? It's done, it's in festivals. Is is, do you have distribution in place? Are we gonna be able to see it soon?
Michelle: Not yet. Uh, we have our sales agent CIAs wrapping it, and they're gonna find the best partners, you know, the best distributors for us. Um, we're excited about that and we'll say anything can happen right now, so anything can happen. But I, I expect that it will be out in the fall.
Passionistas: And do you have any plans to do more theater anytime soon?
Michelle: Well, I have a virtual theater event that we're gonna launch. I've been working on it with the wonderful actress Ann Archer. It's called A Ticket to the Circus. It's based on the memoir of Norris Church Mailer, who's the wife of Norman Mailer? The mother of John Buffalo Mailer.
So there's a little tie in of, remember I told you that he wrote "Hello Herman," a script I directed with Norman Reedus. I'm very good friends with him throughout the years. I've known him for decades and, um, been very honored when he asked me to direct this and, and Archer. Is wonderful in it. So it's going to be a virtual theater event that's going to air, and then we're gonna do it live on stage.
Um, I'm also working on a one woman show. I've been working on it for a while, "Ms. Margarita's Way." Directed by the wonderful Deborah Levine. Um, so I do have, uh, several projects in the works theater wise. My son is writing a play that I think we're gonna stage. Um, and, uh, there's, yeah, there's just, uh, a lot.
Like I said, you know, we started this by saying, you know, waking up every morning and feeling the creativity. And that's really what happens is every single day, you know, we put one foot forward. And, uh, but that, uh, that foot forward is very creative.
Passionistas: It's amazing how much you do. And you said that you would do nothing if you could, but you just do it cuz you know it's good for you. How do you, how do you get motivated when you're not feeling motivated?
Michelle: I just stop. I go, I take a break, I do nothing. I go swim. Swimming is a big part of my life. Uh, I take a walk, I play tennis. Um, I just could do so. I let you know. I just, um, I let it go. I stop pushing myself and then I'll find at some point that I will be reinvigorated again. And I trust that.
Passionistas: So you've worked with so many amazing people. Who's the one who are the one or two people that you haven't worked with yet that are your dream, uh, actors to be in one of your projects?
Michelle: Well, yeah, I have worked with a lot of people that, because, you know, this cast and Miranda's victim were very much like my first choice actors.
Like, you know, I, that actor and that actor. So I did. But um, I mentioned earlier the actor Damien Lewis. I just, you know, love this actor. He's just fantastic and everything he does, he changes himself, he changes his voice. Um, he's just, you know, he's just a real actor. Um, I was watching Sam Rockwell on Broadway in "American Buffalo" like two days after we wrapped principal photography in New Jersey.
We went to see him, uh, closing matinee of, of that play. Uh, He was extraordinary. I, I certainly love him. Um, I mean, I love James purified as English actor. Um, I, um, you know, in terms of females, um, God, there's so many. I mean, this is, there's just so many, obviously, would, I love to work with Meryl Streep one day, or Judy Dench.
I mean, no question about it. Um, yeah, that would be, that would be a dream. I was watching Julianne Moore in a movie yesterday. She's quite extraordinary. Um, yeah. There's so many wonderful actors, so we'll see. Yes, we'll see. With the projects to come, you know who I'm going to be working with.
Passionistas: What's your dream for women?
Michelle: Well, I mean, I'm obviously, I'm a great believer in women's rights. Mm-hmm. I think this thing that happened with Roe v. Wade is crazy. I mean, women that have means, you know, can deal with it, but women that don't have means, uh, You know, it's, it's very difficult and I think I, I have a good feeling something's gonna happen to rectify that.
Um, but you know, for women to, uh, you know, they, they, there's this sentence, I don't love this sentence, but you know, your place at the table or your seat at the table, and you know that, uh, people, women keep carving out. I mean, I didn't even realize that. Very few women directed these, the big disaster movies.
I didn't even realize that until I researched it. So I think it's interesting that we don't realize, you know, how many, maybe less opportunities women are given until you don't really look at that. So for women to continue to have, you know, equal opportunities as men and um, and I'm sure that they will keep thriving it.
And of course I'd like for a woman president, I would like to see a woman president in, in my lifetime.
Passionistas: So one last question is, um, if you could choose any woman in history or a female pop culture icon and walk in her shoes for one day, who would you choose and why?
Michelle: You know, probably I would say Meryl Streep. Just, you know, you said in pop culture, right? Not just like in politics. Yeah. I would say Meryl Streep because I think that, um, To me, uh, I see she's has a loving family and uh, and she was able to contribute to the arts on such a, you know, high level of excellence that, you know, she would also be someone that I would invite to my dinner party.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project and our interview with Michelle Danner. To learn more about her acting classes, visit michelledanner.com and to stay on top of her film releases, follow her at allinfilms.com.
And be sure to visit ThePassionistasProject.com to sign up for our mailing list, find all the ways you can follow us on social media, and join our worldwide community of women working together to level the playing field for us all.
We'll be back next week with another Passionista who is defining success on her own terms and breaking down the barriers for herself and women everywhere.
Until then, stay well and stay passionate.