Interview: Dani Johnson of ‘The Secret Millionaire’

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The new ABC reality series “The Secret Millionaire” places wealthy people in poor communities to give them an opportunity to find the heroes who are working to make the world a kinder, more generous, more connected place. The participants are not clueless spendthrifts. These are dedicated, hard-working people who already make significant contributions, financial and otherwise. This is a chance for them to find new people and places that merit their support.

I spoke with Dani Johnson, who is featured in the show’s first episode. Dani’s site says she was “Raised on welfare, pregnant at 17, homeless at 21, and a millionaire at 23 – now multi-millionaire entrepreneur, best selling author, internationally sought after speaker, and radio talk show host.” Her energy and compassionate spirit kept me smiling all day.

How did you come to this project?

I had gotten a phone call from ABC and our initial answer was no. Four times I said, “Thanks but no thanks; this is not for us.”

Why did you change your mind?

That’s a shocker, isn’t it? God made it completely obvious that it was Him that opened this door and it wasn’t by the hand of man. Growing up on welfare, being exposed to things no child should see, violence, drugs, with emotional, sexual, verbal, and physical abuse, only to end up homeless at age 21 with $35,000 in debt and with only $2.03 to my name, going out and becoming a millionaire by the time I was 23, we have used our business as a model that is two-fold.

One, I have a personal passion for helping people to increase their income, pay off their debts, and live the life they want and to use their influence and money to better the lives of those around them. And two, we’ve done it in secret. The recipients of the millions of dollars my husband and I have given away for two decades in secret. They don’t know it was us. I would much rather the people thank the One who really answered their need, and that One is not a human.

So that was a giant hurdle for us to get over, that they would know it was us who gave the money. But God made it very obvious that this was exactly what were were supposed to do because it is about the heart of the issue, do you do it for recognition or to help. Getting recognition has never been our deal.

What was the first day like for you?

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It was challenging because I was away from my family. I was put in a neighborhood that was all too familiar from my childhood. The conditions were back in what I grew up in. We go into those places but not to live there. It was doable but it was scary, just because of the childhood stuff and being totally away from my husband and kids and our friends. And they told me nothing. I was really being led blindly. I really had to increase my faith, walk in my faith, and trust that I would be safe. That was the harder part.

What did you learn from the people that you met?

The Love Kitchen — the two women I so identified with, they touched my heart because of the level of faith they had for 25 years to come up with money to feed the homeless, 2000 people a week. What level of faith — that is so massive to trust God for that level of money, it really challenged my faith as a business woman.

It took faith for me to stop taking drugs, stop sleeping around, to get out of the pit I was living in, to start my business and become a millionaire, to start five companies, to write books when I had no idea if anyone would buy them. All of that took faith. But this is different! It’s not a calculated risk. Holy moly, I felt like a two year old in my walk of faith compared to them.

The Joy of Music reached inside my heart and it was totally unexpected. I was a total mess on my visit. A year ago I wrote a book called Grooming the Next Generation for Success. I wrote it because I have a passion — 14,000 hours of schooling kids have through high school and not one class on finance or what it takes to succeed. We have a generation that feels entitled because they don’t know better. Parents don’t know how to groom their kids to succeed. Kids are lacking social skills, emotional skills, financial skills.

So when I walked into The Joy of Music — they’re grabbing kids like where I grew up. Kids who have been around drugs. Kids from unsafe environments. And they offer them a place to come to, a beautiful corporate building, where they can learn music — voice, cello, drums, guitar, you name it! All the lessons are free as long as they keep up their grades. They have to come in with their shirt tucked in and their collars straight, all clean. They have to do their part, show up, practice, keep logs of their practice. I spent the day with kids like the ones where I grew up, learning music and how to respect, how to honor, how to reach for that talent inside yourself. And that day, two kids who had spent years there were graduating from high school with full scholarships to universities. Those kids have been groomed for success. They will not come back to what they left.

What do most people misunderstand about the poor?

I daily bawled my eyes out. The poor know Him. The boys who got the scholarships are Christian boys. The families that brought their kids there, they love God. People think the poor are stupid, that they have no morals, that they made bad decisions. I can line up thousands from middle class America that are far worse morally and in their sense of community that what I witnessed at that neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I came in contact with the most amazing, amazing, amazing people, not just the people who run the charities, the people who are being helped. They help each other and stick together. Middle class America is texting, talking on the phone, on Facebook, watching television, busy with their iPads, totally isolated. The poor communities have each other. I came across two amazing mothers, loving and dedicated to their families, just sitting under a tree and talking to each other. In other places, the social interaction is happening digitally, on Facebook instead of community with people.

What did you tell your children about the experience?

I came home very raw, very emotional. I realized how much I value personal time, by myself and with my family. Not a lot of millionaires realize that. They work all the time. I work 20 hours a week and my life is devoted to my husband and my kids and my God first.

My kids have been surrounded by what I experienced in Knoxville. My daughter at age 12 lived with the homeless in a bus. I brought my kids down to a poor community, washing the feet of the homeless, trimming their fingernails, cutting their hair. As a family with 31 of our clients, we served a group of orphans. My children have friends among the children in the orphan programs. So it wasn’t a shock when I told them what I had seen. They said, “Oh yeah, that’s just like so-and-so.” They know what it is like. It wasn’t anything shocking to them at all. But I can’t wait to take them to The Joy of Music!

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Television The Real Story

Interview: Topher Grace and Dan Fogler of ‘Take Me Home Tonight’

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Topher Grace (“That 70’s Show,” “”) and Dan Fogler (Tony award winner for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) co-star in the wild, raunchy, but sweet comedy “Take Me Home Tonight,” a loving tribute to the 80’s and 80’s music and movies. Grace plays a recent college graduate who is a little afraid to get on with his life until he runs into his high school crush (Teresa Palmer) and has one wild night risking everything to try to get her attention. Fogler plays his best friend and Anna Faris plays his twin sister. IMG_9274.JPG
This is like the movie John Cusack never made.
TG: That’s exactly what we wanted it to be. That’s a great review! It’s just as much genre travel as time travel. When we started the process, me and my friend said, “What happened to those John Hughes movies where you can do great comedy and great drama and work with great friends like Dan?” There are movies that are all raunchy now, and they’re great for what they are, or all romance. But we missed those movies from John Hughes and Cameron Crowe like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Say Anything” with actors that weren’t huge movie stars yet.
My producing partner pointed out that “Dazed and Confused” took place in the 70’s and was shot in the 90’s. “American Graffiti” took place in the early 60’s and was shot in the 70’s. I think 20 years are a revolution of time, where the 50’s are like the 70’s and the 60’s are like the 80’s.So if we made this now, we’d be the right distance from the time period. So we married those two themes together and began with the soundtrack.
It’s a great soundtrack! It does feel like a soundtrack with a movie attached — it has such a strong and evocative collection of songs.
DF: There’s a great song for every scene. I love the “Straight Outta Compton” one when we steal the car. I love the “You can Dance” getting into the dance-off.
TG: We wanted it to be like a musical, where the feeling of the character is so much they can’t just talk about it, they have to sing. We wanted the music to be so of what these characters are going through that the soundtrack had to come first.
What is it about 80’s movies that makes them special?
DF: Nostalgia. It was definitely a rabid cocaine-fueled peacock as far as decades go. So even if you weren’t growing up in that era, it’s still a fascinating time because everything is so in your face. I was born in 1976 so a lot of my formative years were in the 80’s and it was a total pleasure to go back and spend some time there again.
TG: We didn’t want to make fun of the time period. We wanted the movie to be about the characters and the decade but not to spoof it. It’s a hard decade not to make fun of. But we wanted it to be more like a time travel back to it. The real trick is that in movies like “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused,” they deal with timeless issues and characters you want to watch, no matter when it takes place.
DF: It’s very relevant today, with economy issues and people getting out of college and not knowing what to do.
TG: I hope years from now, people won’t remember whether this movie came out in the 80’s or later on.
Your father in the movie is an 80’s icon, Michael Biehn of “The Terminator.”
TG: We wanted someone who was of the 80’s but not stuck in the 80’s. He is so talented and so great in the scene where he finds us in the car. And it is funny to think that in real life now we’re past the time when he was supposed to be living in the future.
I really enjoyed those moments that reminded me of details of the era I had forgotten, like Drexel Burnham, the powerhouse financial firm that collapsed after its most important trader, Mike Milken, went to jail).
TG: Yes, we had a couple of Mike Milken jokes in there but didn’t want to gild the lily, as they say.

What are your favorite 80’s movies?

DG: “Bachelor Party,” “Ferris Bueller” is probably my favorite, “Back to the Future,” “Breakfast Club”
TG: Our one wink to John Hughes is the name of the high school in the movie: Shermer. I liked “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” because not everything works out all right. They didn’t pull any punches. There’s stuff coming at you that’s dangerous and sexy and weird. And it has great characters.

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Tribute: Jane Russell

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We lost a true Hollywood icon this week when Jane Russell passed away on February 28 at age 89. Russell had brassy, good-natured quality that made her seem like the girl next door — if the girl next door had a sensationally curvy figure.

She was born in Minnesota, the oldest of six children and the only girl. She was discovered by Howard Hughes, who signed her to a seven-year exclusive contract and famously used his skill as an engineer to design a bra for optimal display of her generous bust. (She later said it was so uncomfortable that she tossed it away). Her bust was also the focus of a widely distributed publicity still for “The Outlaw” and for the film itself — today no one remembers much about it except that its release was held up for two years over debates about the display of Ms. Russell’s cleavage.

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What Hughes didn’t seem to notice was her talent as a comic actress, singer, and dancer. After her contract with Hughes was up she made her best-known films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the wisecracking sidekick to Marilyn Monroe, and The Paleface and Son of Paleface with Bob Hope.

In her later years, she continued to perform, making her Broadway debut at age 60 and recording pop, standards, and Christian music. Her great heart and generous spirit shone through all of her work and she will be missed.

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Actors Tribute

Interview: George Nolfi of ‘The Adjustment Bureau’

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“The Adjustment Bureau” is the first great film of 2011, a big and hugely entertaining film that takes on big ideas — love, free will, destiny, God, and the meaning of life. I was lucky enough to speak with writer and first-time director George Nolfi about being inspired by a short story from Philip K. Dick.adjustment-bureau-poster-3.jpg
The movie is very different from “Adjustment Team,” the original story by Philip K. Dick. How did you approach adapting it for the screen?
The short story is just that, short. And it has a character at the center of it who is explicitly an everyman and so there isn’t much of a character to play there. It was going to need some adaptation one way or another. I was interested in a different thing than Philip K. Dick was. The story can be read from one angle was “Is this real or is this not real?” I wanted it to be — this thing happens and it spins the guy’s whole life on its head and all of his conceptions about the laws of physics and the universe are turned upside down. And he has to accept it because the evidence is just so overwhelming. What does that do to a person?
When my producing partner brought me the short story, I thought, what a great conception for a movie, the idea that fate is a group of people subtly pushing you back on plan. He also said, “You could do this as a love story. Your lead falls in love for the first time in his life and the adjuster comes along and says, ‘Sorry, there’s been a mistake. You weren’t even supposed to meet her.'” For whatever reason, my reaction to that was, “I think I know how to write that.” I didn’t know what I was going to put in the script but I thought the blending of genres would be fascinating and it would get me into territories of these much larger questions that every great system of thought — philosophical, literary, science-fiction, theological — this story would allow me to get there. There are not many stories that make big movies that take you to those questions.
It is unusual for a big-time movie with big-time movies stars to take on questions of life and fate and meaning and free will. I love the fact that it wasn’t focus-grouped away from engaging on those issues.
I optioned the rights and controlled them for six or seven years. I gave the script to Matt Damon and got some thoughts from him about his character. Neither of us thought his character was fully developed yet. I rewrote it to give his character more layers and more interesting things for him to play. And he said yes and we got it financed outside the studio system, from a group called MRC. When we then went to the studios we were able to say, “We have this movie and we have this movie star” and give them a fully-formed movie, so you don’t have this automatic development process where it’s nobody’s fault but things tend to get homogenized.
And Universal was really supportive, right from the beginning. They were on board with the notion of trying something that was really reaching. They were just like — let’s go for it. They thought people would leave the theater feeling satisfied even though we were blending genres. I had no interference while I was making the movie. In post-production they had just a few thoughts which in the Hollywood scheme of things would be considered minuscule. They had thoughts about the music but that was temp music anyway. I didn’t think the original ending worked and they agreed. So it was good people we were in business with and we were all pulling the same way. They were completely supportive of what we were trying to do, and so was Matt.
As a screenwriter, you’ve worked with directors but this is the first time you have directed. What did you learn from the directors you’ve observed?
I was on the set for all the movies I am credited on. And for “Oceans 12,” I knew I was basically going to be there the whole time. I said to Steven Soderbergh, “I’m interested in being director, are you cool with my occasionally ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing?” And he was extremely gracious to explain some of his thought processes about why he was choosing certain shots and so on. But the single biggest piece of advice he gave me that really stuck with me was, “In a perfect world you want to choose your shots and assemble to the movie so that the sound could go out and people could still follow the story.” That’s telling a story through pictures.
Clearly you listened to him! For a writer turned director, this is a very visual film. The effects are very significant and essential to the narrative.
As a writer making the leap to directing the first time, it was very important to me to make a film that was visually significant, to use visuals and music and sound as well as the performances of the cast to tell the story — those are the things you don’t have as a writer. I really wanted to do visual story-telling. I write scripts that are very visual but you can’t know until you try it whether it would come easily to me as a director, but I loved it.
I liked the idea that the Adjusters could do a lot of things but in a way the humans adjusted their options, too. They were nudging each other.
Thematically, I had this idea that the Chairman was limiting the Bureau in all kinds of different ways. That’s too many ripples so you have to go to a higher authority. Or you can’t go through that door unless you are wearing a hat. Or it’s raining out and water kind of blocks our ability. Those are foreshadowing the way that the Chairman will turn out to be supportive of free will.
And of love! It’s a very romantic movie.
I hope so! I hope you experienced it that way. I think it is.
And it is very spiritual, as well.
I wasn’t trying to make a religious film per se, but the most comprehensive attempts to make sense of the world are theological. In terms of fate and free will, that’s the oldest question human beings struggle with. It’s there in Gilgamesh and ancient Greece. Is it fate or do we have choices? There’s a reason for that. Human beings are questioning animals and we want to understand our existence.
Looked at in much less grand terms, most people have some sense that the person they turned out to be, the job they have, their moral code, their interests, their religion, were shaped by what country they were born in, what neighborhood they were born into, their family, their friends, their schools, their chance encounters have put them on a path. Even things considered more deeply personal choices like who your spouse is — you were introduced by friends or met at a wedding or you had mutual interests or whatever it is. So we have this sense that the course of our life is shaped by outside forces, whether a divine hand or your surrounding influences. But we also experience our lives as a series of choices. No religion has successfully answered that. We did an inter-faith screening with an audience of followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and we had a discussion with experts in all all three. They discussed faith and free will and pointed out to the audience that the importance of free will was found in all of them. They have to, in order to make sense of existence.

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Behind the Scenes Directors Interview Science-Fiction Spiritual films Writers

Burlesque

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material
Profanity: Some bad language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of alcohol, character abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense confrontations, car window broken with a tire iron
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 24, 2010
Date Released to DVD: March 1, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B002ZG976U

Somewhere on the continuum that connects “Showgirls,” “Glitter,” and drag shows is a place for “Burlesque,” a vanity project from producer Christina Aguilera for pop star and would-be actress Christina Aguilera. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. It just means it is not a good movie. It’s more hallucination than story, but hey, If you think of it as a slightly deranged long music video divathon it can be a lot of fun.

Aguilera plays Ally, a spunky small-town girl who buys a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and find a home at one of those only-in-movies places that is about to go broke but is always packed to capacity because it puts on big-budget musical numbers with expensive (if tiny) costumes and choreography. Oh, and at least one regular customer is a zillionaire (Eric Dane of “Grey’s Anatomy”).

She starts as a waitress under the direction of a friendly bartender (Cam Gigandet of the “Twilight” series, “Easy A”) and talks her way into getting hired as a dancer. The club is owned by Tess (Cher looking so diva-esque she might as well be a drag queen playing Cher) and her ex-husband Vince (Peter Gallagher, looking seedy). Vince wants Tess to take the generous offer from the zillionaire. Even though she really does not have another option (she doesn’t even try to find one), she just keeps on going, attaching bugle beads with a glue gun, counseling a girl with an unexpected pregnancy, and, of course not just creating all the musical numbers but belting out the only songs in the show that are not lip-synched.  

And then it turns out that little ex-waitress has what another character refers to as “mutant lungs.” It also turns out that not being good at blending in may be a problem in the chorus, but it’s part of what makes a star.

The story is dumb. The dialogue is intended to be sassy; it’s also dumb. Aguilera cannot act and Cher, who used to be able to (she was hilarious in her most recent film, “Stuck on You” in 2003), has two insurmountable obstacles: her face doesn’t move and her character is supposed to be both imperious and tenderhearted, savvy but clueless. However, Aguilera is indeed a star and the musical numbers are entertaining. They may be sadly chopped up by people who spend a lot of time choreographing dances and then think the audience can’t pay attention to more than one step at a time. But I appreciated the shout-outs to greats like Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holliday, Bob Fosse, and Madonna, and respect Aguilera’s respect for their traditions and for burlesque as well. It is still a lot of fun to see those bugle beads bounce.

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Drama Musical
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