You mentioned Michigan, which is where I was born. How did you end up in the Great Lake State?
It’s home. I grew up in Chelsea, my wife Kathleen grew up in Chelsea. After ten years in New York, we had a kid, and we wanted to raise them in a place that we understood. She’s surrounded by family on both sides, so when I’m using the airport to go to work, she’s got a place where she can raise the kids that is outside the industry.
That was the reason we went there, and it worked in ways that we didn’t know back then. The kids have seen the world, but from outside the industry looking into it. They went to London when we shot “101 Dalmatians,” and they got to meet Jim Carrey on the set of “Dumb and Dumber.” It’s been a great ride for them, but then they’re in the Midwest, where nobody’s famous. They understand. We did it family first, career second — a close second. It keeps you sane. You end up taking movies for the right reasons, instead of “I’m not famous enough this year. I need to do something that makes me more famous. I need to marry somebody who is famous.”
You must be a hometown hero.
I think, whether it’s Chelsea or it’s Michigan, they pull for me. I’m like the Detroit Tigers. They want me to win. The support is great.
What do you do when you’re not working on a movie?
I play a lot of guitar. I’ve been doing a lot of gigs the last seven or eight years. I did them initially to raise money for my theater company, but I really enjoy just walking out with a guitar, plugging it in front of 200 to 1000 people. I’m always working on improving the show and writing new songs. I just wrote a play for my theater company. And then I play golf, with friends of mine or my boys.
What instigated your relationship to music?
When I moved to New York in ’76, I was 21, and I bought a guitar just because I knew I’d be sitting around. I needed something to fill my time, and I wanted to learn how to play. I did a lot of musicals, and I still wanted music to be a part of my life.
I picked up the tab books of Stefan Grossman and Doc Watson, guys like that, and really started to understand how to fingerpick. Later on came the blues and the Delta blues. I went down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, made the pilgrimage to the crossroads, and Robert Johnson’s grave. I never kept a diary, but I would write these songs, and a lot of them are just godawful, but they went into the notebook. Nobody was going to see them. They were just for me.
Now, I write for that audience that’s going to be sitting there that night. I don’t write for Billboard or to sell songs to some country and western guy. I’m observational, then I try to turn it into something that the person sitting there can relate to. That’s where you get songs about road rage called “Have a Good Life (Then Die),” and dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too.” And getting shot and killed by Clint Eastwood, I drop some Hollywood stories in there and try to make it musical with “The Dirty Harry Blues.”
You directed two movies, “Super Sucker” and the Michigan-themed “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” Is this a hat you’d like to wear again?
Nah, I didn’t like it. I’ve always been attracted to writing. I was interested in why Woody Allen was rewriting a scene in the middle of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” [and] Jim Brooks would rewrite little lines in “Terms [of Endearment].” I couldn’t care less about the camera or what kind of lens was on there: “What do you got on there, a 75? Why is that?” As I look back, I’ve always been interested in story structure, how to write well. Guys like Shelby Foote [or] Lanford Wilson. That’s been the driving force.
“The Answer Man” opens in limited release on July 24th.
[Additional photos: Lou Taylor Pucci and Jeff Daniels in “The Answer Man,” Magnolia Pictures, 2009; Jeff Daniels on the set of “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” Purple Rose Films, 2001]