There aren’t many people who can point to a career full of success as a performer, teacher, storyteller, entrepreneur, and expert — like Michelle Danner.
The legendary acting teacher and co-founder of the Edgemar Center for the Arts and the Los Angeles Acting Conservatory, Danner’s also now well-established as a successful feature film director. Danner’s latest film “Bad Impulse,” is a psychological thriller about family secrets and modern technology, starring Sonya Walger, Grant Bowler, and Paul Sorvino. The film recently won Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 International Independent Film Awards and the Best Director Award at the 2019 Culver City Film Festival.
Raised in a show business family and with a deep appreciation for all of the performing arts, Danner also continues to run the boutique “Cinema at the Edge” film festival and is currently preparing to direct a new one-person play, Bonnie Culver’s “Norris,” starring Anne Archer, based on the memoirs of the widow of writer Norman Mailer.
PH: Hi Michelle, how are you doing? How has work been for you the past year or so?
Michelle Danner: I did know several people that got Covid, many that luckily recovered but some that passed away and that was enormously sad. This pandemic has affected all of us. I was heartbroken by how many people died, the ones that I knew and the ones that I didn't. But I personally have had an extraordinary year. It was life changing. I discovered many things, one of them was to slow down the treadmill of life and because I finished principal photography on a movie right before the lockdown, I was able to calmly edit, without feeling that usual pressure of having a deadline. I was able to teach my students through Zoom classes which I at first rebelled against but I found a lot of value in it and we all stayed creative and we all collaborated with each other. I also got to spend more time at home with my kids, creating memories and in depth conversations. So all in all, a year like no other!
PH: Can you talk about how you got into the industry? What has your past work experience looked like? How did it propel you to where you are today?
Michelle Danner: I am the daughter of a producer, former president of William Morris Agency in Paris and so from a very young age I was introduced to the world of show business, attended the conservatory of Paris at Versaille, worked on French literature and then moved to New York when I was a teen and studied with Uta Hagen and Stella Adler and did a lot theater before moving to Los Angeles. My love of literature, art and theater started at a very young age, I read 3 books a day, went to the museum, the theater, and watched movies non stop. I started out as an actress and then became fascinated with the process and the craft of what it was like to create a character, so from acting I went to teaching and that became a stepping stone to directing theater and then film.
PH: Let's talk about some of your recent films. What's the premise of "Bad Impulse," and how did you make your vision come to life?
Michelle Danner: Bad Impulse is a psychological thriller about a father who installs a high tech security system after a traumatic incident only to find that it slowly destroys that which he most wants to protect.The writer Jason Chase-Tyrell was inspired by "The Shining" so we watched that again a few times and other horror movies and I felt the key to telling that story was the family and I was lucky enough to cast some really good actors with Grant Bowler and Sonya Walger and the 3 children that created that dynamic, we improvised in our rehearsals and I was really happy with how it came to life, I was drawn to telling that story because of family and how far one would go to make sure nothing bad happens to them. Also having Paul Sorvino helped to create that world of danger and big brother watching. For me, the acting is what makes the vision of the movie happen.
PH: You have another film coming out soon, "The Runner." Can you share a little about the film and what the production process looked like?
Michelle Danner: We almost didn't shoot it and we're going to postpone it for spring of 2020 so I am grateful that we did it. "The Runner" started a few years back, watching a news report, being moved by it, writing a treatment and then asking my friend Jason, who I had just worked with on "Bad Impulse" to write the screenplay. We shot it in 4 weeks in Los Angeles. I was lucky to have this wonderful cast, introducing Edouard Philipponnat, a student of mine and Elisabeth Rohm as his mom and then Cameron Douglas as Detective Wall. In independent films you have to be very organized, I had a great team, my wonderful Co-producer Josephine Hies, my great Director of Photography Gigi Malavasi, my Production Designer Alessandra Manias and Costume Designer Larae Mycehl who already worked with me on "Bad Impulse" and my Editor Teferi Seifu who edited as we went along so I could see as it came to life. This is my 5th film so it's not my first rodeo but in every movie there are always obstacles that you have to overcome.
PH: You got to wrap filming before the pandemic, but how did the pandemic affect the release of the film and promo? Or did it at all?
Michelle Danner: We were lucky to film right before the shut down. It hasn't affected the release, we are talking to several distributors now, continuing our successful run at film festivals and hoping to announce soon when the film will be released.
PH: Not only are you a filmmaker, but you also co-founded the Edgemar Center for the Arts and the Los Angeles Acting Conservatory. What inspired this? And what does your daily work look like?
Michelle Danner: I've always wanted to involve the arts in one place and keep giving birth to new works. This is one of the main reasons why I believe in a cultural Creative Arts Center. Creating projects that bring people together, collaborating and including the audience as part of the process.
PH: Can you also talk about the weekly acting class you teach?
Michelle Danner: I saw that there was a need for students to have more structure, more programs, the Los Angeles Acting Conservatory offers programs for Acting and Filmmaking where our students get to collaborate again and be part of an on-going web series and create movies for our annual Film Festival. I split my time between teaching classes, this last year mostly over zoom, coaching privately, rehearsing. I'm currently working on 2 wonderful One-Woman shows. I am directing Anne Archer as Norris Church-Mailer in "A TIcket to the Circus" written by Bonnie Culver and I am rehearsing with Deborah Lavine for "Miss Margarida's Way" written by Roberto Athayde and I am also preparing to shoot a movie in the fall. I'm equally passionate about film and stage. They stretch different artistic muscles. I have an extraordinary faculty of teachers that are committed to our students and their growth.
PH: You're an inspiration to the industry and also at home. Your son is an inspiring filmmaker. What kinds of advice do you give to him (and others) who want to pursue a career in this industry?
Michelle Danner: My biggest advice is to take the time to study the craft and to study the industry, to learn about what is a good fit for different film festivals, to study different genres, if you're making a horror movie vs an action thriller vs a slapstick comedy. You need different skills to make them come to life.
PH: What have been some of the biggest lessons you've learned?
Michelle Danner: And that brings me to one of the biggest lessons that I've learned is to be patient, if you are determined and focused, it's not a matter of IF it will happen, it's only a matter of WHEN.
PH: In your opinion, how do you see the industry evolving and changing?
Michelle Danner: Yes, I think there is a huge evolution and it has to do with actors no longer being willing to wait to be given chances, they're saying yes to themselves first, writing for themselves, directing, creating production companies, knowing the stories that they want to tell and making it happen.
Learn about Michelle Danner's acting here.