Michelle Danner Talks The Runner
Many of the best films are more than just powerful pieces of entertainment: they also serve as teaching tools from which we can learn about art and life. If there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about the correlation between art and education, it’s Michelle Danner, the director of the new thriller, The Runner, which will be available on video on demand starting August 19. The accomplished actress turned award-winning filmmaker has been passing on her knowledge to others for over 27 years as an acting teacher.
“Every time someone goes deeper in their work and brings more humanity to a scene … every time you see a student have a lightbulb that goes off, it reminds me why I do it,” Danner says. “Having a front seat to all this talent makes me want to create projects, and work with them, on stage and in front of the camera.” Before founding the Creative Center for the Arts and the Los Angeles Acting Conservatory, Danner studied under such giants as Stella Adler and Uta Hagen, and her own list of students has included Christian Slater, Salma Hayek, Gerard Butler, Seth McFarlane, Penelope Cruz, Chris Rock, Gabrielle Union and Zooey Deschanel.
“Having a front seat to all this talent makes me want to create projects, and work with them, on stage and in front of the camera.”
It was in one of Danner’s classes that she discovered a magnetic and deeply committed young actor named Edouard Philipponat, and she asked him to read the screenplay for her new film, The Runner. Philipponat was so taken with the script that he lost 37 pounds in order to be more convincing in the role of Aiden, a teenage drug addict turned dealer. The Runner follows Aiden as he makes a name for himself as the guy high schoolers go to in order to score drugs in an affluent California neighborhood. When Aiden is busted for possession of cocaine, a manipulative cop, Detective Wall (Cameron Douglas, It Runs In the Family) gives him the choice of spending 10 years in prison or helping them catch a bigger fish. Aiden is then thrust into a sting operation to catch a major drug kingpin.
“It started with me watching a news report late at night,” Danner says, “about how police would find these teenagers in schools [who] did bad things like selling drugs, selling pot, and forcing them to go undercover.” Danner was so moved by this disturbing story of young people put in harm’s way that she began to cry, and her answer on how to process this was straight out of Shakespeare: to hold the mirror up to nature. “I wrote a three-page treatment, and I sent it to my really good friend, Jason Chase Tyrell,” Danner says. Danner and Tyrell had previously collaborated on the 2019 psychological thriller Bad Impulse, and the two worked quickly and efficiently to craft a dramatic story that captured the untold, harsh realities that Danner wanted to expose.
“It really taught me that, for everything that I direct from here on, I must be really connected to it in one form or another.”
The Runner has gone on to play at over 30 major film festivals and has been quite possibly the most successful and most personal of the five films which Danner has directed. “I was connected to what I wanted to tell in the story,” Danner says. “And it taught me something. It really taught me that, for everything that I direct from here on, I must be really connected to it in one form or another. So I got the lightbulb.”
Danner’s future projects include a romantic comedy involving astrology, as well as the true story of the case of Ernesto Miranda and the landmark Supreme Court case establishing that all suspects taken into custody must be advised of their rights under the law. As for Danner’s leading man, Philipponat can be seen as Tsar Alexander in the upcoming epic Napoleon, starring Oscar winner Joaquin Phoneix and directed by Ridley Scott. The legendary filmmaker behind Alien, Gladiator, Thelma & Louise and Blade Runner happens to be a fan of The Runner, and among the most special moments in Danner’s journey to bring the film to the screen was when Scott gave her a ring to her to tell her how much he loved it. “It’s sort of like having God call you,” Danner says with a chuckle. “It was very generous. He didn’t have to do that.”
The Runner will be available on video on-demand services everywhere on August 19, where audiences will find an unflinching and absorbing film about a young life gone wrong, as well as a system that all too often fails to protect those that it is meant to serve.
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Dale Dickey and Wes Studi Carry A Love Song in their Hearts