“Escanaba in da Moonlight” was veteran actor and playwright Jeff Daniels’ first time directing, but apparently he didn’t feel all that uncomfortable. Daniels said, “I found myself standing on the set and it was as if I was standing there with Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme and Jim Brooks and other (directors) … so you had choices, you had options. It was almost as if I had this team behind me that was kind of in my ear … you didn’t feel alone.”

Escanaba was originally a stage play written by Daniels after he finished the hugely successful “Dumb and Dumber.” Daniels remembers, “I thought, I want to write something for the theater that makes people laugh as hard as they seem to be laughing at ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ There’s a writer named Robert Traver (also known as John Voker) who wrote a book called “Danny and the Boys,” which is a series of short stories about loggers and lumberjacks in the ’40s and the ’50s. There was kind of a style to that – the way they talked and they way they thought – that came out in these kind of comic short stories. So I read that and it kind of opened the door for what these guys could be and how outrageous I could make the story.”

The play “Escanaba” was tremendously successful in Detroit. Daniels boasts, “We ran it for three months and it was a big hit. When we blew up the theater and decided to renovate we needed to keep the staff so we opened it at the Gem Theater, and it ran for 16 straight months and broke the record for the longest running show in Detroit history.”

While popular as a stage production there is always the possibility that a play just won’t easily translate to the screen. The dialogue-heavy world of theater often results in a boring, visually unappealing film. “Escanaba,” however, passes over that hurdle and then some. The screen had a lot more to offer Daniels in terms of getting his characters out of their cabins and into new settings. “The story is the same. Many of the lines that are in the play are there in the screenplay. The screenplay probably expands on that … some of the longer monologues in the play were chopped down or cut completely, but basically it’s all there. The play takes place entirely inside that cabin … but “cut to” is a beautiful thing to be able to write at the end of a scene – you don’t have that luxury on stage.”

Daniels filmed on location in Escanaba. “We should have gone to Canada and shot it just like everybody else because of the dollar and the rebate they give film companies … as soon as I cross the river I’ve got more money. But this is a Michigan film company and we just felt that it was important to use the money we had as best as we knew how and shoot it here. There was an authenticity to the film that we’ve got … The town itself, after they got over ‘Hollywood’s gonna come in and steal our daughters and do all that stuff,’ they couldn’t have been more generous – they couldn’t have been more helpful.”

The crew had the town at their disposal, and Daniels was very pleased that he was able to put as much money into its economy as he did. “We dropped almost a million dollars in that town in three months,” said Daniels. “What was great, the governor saw that and he got interested .. .and then we did it again with ‘Super Sucker,’ our second film which we shot in Jackson.”

Does “Escanaba” limit its audience due to its specific locale? The play experienced few problems with alienating audiences but Hollywood was still relucant to greenlight the Upper Peninsula project. Daniels responds, “Initially when I was shopping the idea, I had a (producer) in L.A. who said, ‘This is a really great idea, but you need to think outside the box,’ which is a phrase they like to throw around. He said, ‘Yoopers in Vegas. There’s your title. Think about that.’ So I just said, ‘Ya know what, if it ends up being regional, fine.’ So was ‘Full Monty,’ so was ‘Waking Ned Divine.’ What I know is that they hunt deer all over the country … so that kind of guys going off hunting, guys going off for a weekend kind of thing – I think everyone will get it. While it’s got a regional flavor to it, I still think it translates.”

Facilitating the transition from stage to screen, Daniels used the original stage actors in the film as well. Daniels brags, “The casting couldn’t have been better and ‘Escanaba’ is the stronger for it. I wasn’t interested in ‘casting up’ as they say. These guys originated the roles; they know them best and ya know, funny is funny. We’re breaking rules and going against the trend of ‘casting up,’ but it’s important as an extension of this theatre company. I’ve got to use as many of those people in the films as we can. They are certainly qualified, and they can certainly do it; and in Escanaba’s case, having originated the roles, they also deserved it.”

A loyal and prolific man, Daniels lives in Michigan with his family and enjoys filming here. He says, “As an actor you’re going on a plane to wherever, and I’ve got family and I want to stay here … I have a theater company here. There’s no reason, especially now with digital video coming, you can’t tell stories from here – I certainly have as a playwright. It keeps me home, which is what my job doesn’t always do.”

The future of filming in Michigan now looks brighter thanks to loyal filmmakers like Jeff Daniels.

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