In Features, Issues

Jeff Daniels directs Escanaba

Jeff Daniels. Photo by Richard Kern.
For 10 years and between acting stints in films like Dumb and Dumber, Gettysburg, and Two Days in the Valley, actor Jeff Daniels has been writing and directing plays staged at his Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan. Daniels formed the company, named after Woody Allen’s film starring the actor, to spotlight midwestern theater talent after he moved from Hollywood back to his hometown. The Purple Rose is now a nationally recognized regional theater, and it has just spawned its first offshoot – a film division dubbed Purple Rose Films.

Says Daniels, "The theater proved to me that there is a talent pool here in Michigan. It’s smaller, but it’s here. Time and time again Michigan will see a studio come in and shoot in Detroit, and they’ll bring all their own people from New York or L.A. I didn’t build the theater that way, and I don’t plan on doing that with Purple Rose Films. It’s what I remember about The Purple Rose of Cairo; the people were a handpicked team that Woody had assembled over the years, people he knew, liked, and could count on. [Acting in that film] was like watching him walk into a huge comfort zone. I want that."

Together with producing partner Bob Brown, Daniels just launched the company’s first film, Escanaba, based on the theater’s long-running play. Of the film, a comedy about "Upper Peninsula deer hunters," currently in post, Daniels says he was inspired, in part, by Preston Sturges. "I know it’s ignored at the Oscars," he says, "but I love comedy, the art and the science of it. And I love the way Sturges was able to use comedy to express himself." Brown banded together a group of regional investors for Escanaba and now plans to do the same for other films. And Daniels, while he readies his debut feature for distributor screenings, says he can’t wait to direct again. "In a way, I feel as if the last 30 films were a setup for what I’m going to do with Purple Rose Films," he concludes. "It’s like, ‘Thanks for teaching me so much and giving me so much experience with some of the best people in the business. I’m ready to start my career now.’" – Scott Macaulay


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