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"No One Gets A Free Pass In Life": Brian Dannelly on "Struck By Lightning"

After his feature debut "Saved!," it took director Brian Dannelly eight years to find his way back to the teen genre with "Struck By Lightning." This favorite from TFF 2012 is now available on VOD and in select theaters beginning January 11.

Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Struck By Lightning. How do you describe the movie in your own words?

Brian Dannelly: Struck By Lightning is a film about an overachieving high school student willing to do anything to escape his underachieving town, school and family.

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Did you know Chris Colfer before, or did the script just come to you?

Brian Dannelly: I did not know Chris before the project started, but I did know [producer] David Permut, and he sent me the material pretty early on in the process. I was attracted to the script because it was a high school movie written by someone who was just out of high school (Chris was 19 at the time), which is rare. I loved how it was about a character who was kind of unlikable, surrounded by peers who hated him, raised by an alcoholic mother and an absent father. And the only person he can open up to is his grandmother—who doesn’t remember him. Plus, the protagonist is killed in the first few minutes and then narrates the story.

From a director’s perspective, these are daunting challenges, but I thought I might be able to make the film work. I was also incredibly attracted the script’s theme: “It’s the journey, not the destination.” This is a sentiment I’ve never seen fully realized in the teen genre, and I think the idea applies to people in and out of school. It’s universal and it’s about making the most of each day.

Tribeca: I’m not giving anything away by saying that the lead character dies in the very first scene (it’s even in the synopsis). What challenges did that present for you as a filmmaker?

Brian Dannelly: My approach was to get to it right away—set up that we’re going to be going on this pleasant journey, and then—ZAP, our protagonist is killed. If I did my job right, by the time you’re halfway through the film, you probably have forgotten that this character is going to die, and you are hopefully as caught up in his day-to-day challenges as he is.

Chris Colfer and Sarah Hyland in Struck By Lightning/ Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Tribeca: What a cast, including Chris, Sarah Hyland, Allison Janney, Dermot Mulroney, Angela Kinsey, Christina Hendricks! What can you tell us about the casting process?

Brian Dannelly: All the actors wanted to be a part of Chris’ first project. Chris is very likable, thoughtful and smart, and I think they were eager to support him. Chris wanted to cast Allison Janney from the very beginning, and we had lunch with her and it was pretty clear, from that moment on, there was no one else who could play that role the way the way she could. We were very, very lucky that Chris was able to attract these performers.

As far as casting his high school peers, we brought a lot of people in for these roles, and then, to make sure we had the right mix, we had a four-hour chemistry audition, where we mixed and matched our callbacks and narrowed it down to the actors we felt best worked together. We were also looking at their ability to improvise and be spontaneous. Once that session was over, it was pretty clear who the cast would be. I was also very lucky to have worked with both Allie Grant and Carter Jenkins very early on in their careers, and I adore them and love that they were willing to come on board.

I think we all thought we died along with Chris’ character when Christina and Dermot came on board. It was a real thrill to have had an opportunity to work with them. They brought so much to their characters.

Tribeca: Your last film Saved! also focused on high school students. What attracts you to that age group? What was high school like for you?

Brian Dannelly: I did not want to do another high school movie after Saved!, and it seemed like those were the only scripts being sent to me. I fought doing another high school movie for a long time, so I ended up working in television because the material I was getting was much more interesting than the feature scripts being sent to me.

However, I was itching to make another movie, and when Struck By Lightning came to me, it was perfect timing. Working with young actors is so much fun because they are so open and willing. I also love how each generation has a high school movie that speaks to them. I think it’s the first time you “own” a film, because it’s a reflection of your experiences at a moment where you are just beginning to understand who you are in the world (and who you want to be). It’s an incredibly dramatic time—the stakes seem higher, and the pain seems deeper, and it’s a rather heightened place to tell a story. That tends to make for a good narrative.

I was a lot like Chris’ character in high school (although less ambitious). I didn’t have many friends, and I was made fun of, but honestly, I didn’t care. I knew I wasn’t going to be sticking around for long. I was just itching to get out and become the person I wanted to be without fear of being who I was. The hope of a better world outside of school really helped me survive. I think looking back at those years as an adult has helped me be more empathetic towards the popular kids, as I have some perspective.

No one gets a free pass in life, and we all face different challenges at different points in our journey. We’re not defined by who we are at one particular place in time, but by who we become as a result of our experiences and our willingness to grow as human beings. My being unpopular in high school drove me to do better things and to be a more empathetic person—that ultimately is a real gift.

Chris Colfer and Rebel Wilson in Struck By Lightning/ Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?

Brian Dannelly: I tend to be very organized and prepared, and I work with the same team a lot (Bobby Bukowski—DP, Wendy Chuck—Costume Designer, Linda Burton—Production Designer, Christophe Beck and Jake Monaco—Composers), so there weren’t a lot of crazy moments. We shot the film in two weeks and four days, so there wasn’t room for a lot of error.

I suppose the most interesting thing was I waited to cast Rebel Wilson until the day before we shot her character, and about a week into production. Her character, Malerie, was very difficult to find, and I think everyone was a bit nervous that I waited so long. I’m pretty sure everyone is happy about it now—Rebel is amazing.

The other cool thing was my neighbor, Michael Von London, had just cut his first solo record. We walk our dogs together, and he gave me his CD, and almost all the songs were perfect for the movie. I couldn’t tell anyone that he was my friend (people tend to be biased), so my editor cut the music in. Everyone loved it, and he has three songs in the film.

Tribeca: How was directing Struck By Lightning different from your past work? Was there one particular lesson you took from the experience? Any advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Brian Dannelly: Struck By Lightning isn’t all that different from my past work, as I am always drawn to material that has a conspicuous underdog as the protagonist (Weeds, United States of Tara, Pushing Daisies, Suckers and Saved!). This shoot had to be more efficient and I think my confidence as a director has really grown since I made Saved!

My advice to anyone wanting to be a director is to focus on everything you can learn about the craft and the tools you will need to use to tell your story (camera, production design, wardrobe, music, editing, etc.). I found attending grad school at The American Film Institute very helpful, as it not only helped me be a better filmmaker, but it helped me learn how to navigate the studio system and be a better collaborator. You also have to be very in touch with who you are as a director—what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses and how can you keep developing both? Being a calm and confident problem solver doesn’t hurt, either.

Chris Colfer in Struck By Lightning/ Courtesy of Tribeca FilmTribeca: What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

Brian Dannelly: I love New York—I lived there for three years—so I’m very excited about being back in the city with this film. I am also very excited to be attending the Tribeca Film Festival for the first time—everyone I talk to seems to love this Festival—and it will only be the third time Struck By Lightning has screened in front of an audience so, that’s always fun! If the Festival is half as good as the launch party in Los Angeles, it’s going to be an amazing event.

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

Brian Dannelly: John Hughes.

Tribeca: What’s your favorite New York movie?

Brian Dannelly: Parting Glances.

Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?

Brian Dannelly: World’s Oldest Teenager.

Tribeca: And finally, what makes Struck By Lightning a Tribeca must-see?

Brian Dannelly: Face it, you can’t spend all your time watching lengthy foreign movies, documentaries and art-house films. You’re going to have to come up for air at some point, and Struck By Lightning is the perfect way to spend a little time having a good laugh and maybe shedding a tear or two.

Watch Struck by Lightning on VOD and digital platforms starting December 19 and in select theaters on January 11.

Brian Dannelly co-wrote and directed Saved! in 2004 (it later premiered as a musical at the Playwrights Horizons in New York). Dannelly was the creative producer for the first season of Weeds, also directing several episodes. His TV work includes episodes of Pushing Daisies and United States of Tara.

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