Goodbye to a Mentor: Dan Ireland

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It was a gray afternoon driving home from the Ahrya Laemmle Theatre in Beverly Hills after the memorial service for film director Dan Ireland. Friends and family shared stories and clips from his films, grieving his unexpected departure. Traffic was heavy on the I-10 through downtown LA. To my right, the lane suddenly ended. Several cars were trapped, unable to merge. We inched along and then ground to a halt, gridlocked. When cars moved forward, I stopped and made a gap for the stragglers to enter. It dawned on me this was what Dan always did. He let people in, never so absorbed by the Hollywood fast lane that he couldn’t help you get where you were going. The audience at his memorial reflected that: Oscar-winners sat beside aspiring actors, school teachers mingled with film composers. He connected everyone, genuinely caring for each. His love of cinema was equally genuine: making independent, female-centered films at a time when Hollywood had turned to big budget, CGI bonanzas.

In 2012, I took Dan’s film acting workshop. I had performed since age six but film was a new frontier. Very quickly we students became Dan’s family. He delighted in our discoveries, our foibles, even our interpersonal dramas. He had directed world-renowned actors and yet took time to guide me, became my friend, and collaborated on a screenplay that I workshopped in class. I worked tirelessly both in class and out. Quickly I became one of his best students. He threw every kind of role at me, waiting for me to blink. I never did. There wasn’t any reason to be afraid with Dan.

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His class was my refuge: an escape from being new to LA, unemployed with no car, an unpaid intern at a production studio, living off trail mix to afford metro fare. When I couldn’t afford to keep coming, he insisted I stay and “audit” his class. I audited his class another six months, making the three hour commute by bus and train out to West Hollywood. Dan arranged my nightly ride home with students. One night, no one could take me so Dan offered himself. In the parking lot, his “I’ve-seen-better-days” convertible was miraculously transformed, sparkling in the moonlight like a diamond. He spared no expense (there were at least six coats wax).

“Why?” I asked, amazed.

“Because I get to drive home Miss Hanna,” he admitted like a shy schoolboy.

“You’re such a dork,” I said, deeply moved. It was a fairytale moment. I was his Cinderella, nothing less would do than to turn a pumpkin into a coach for me.

Standing outside the Laemmle after the service, I saw someone park Dan’s convertible out front. It was lifeless and dull, covered in a thick layer of dust. The fairytale was over. I turned away. Nearby, the crowd of mourners was somberly networking (this is Hollywood, after all). I imagined him breezily putting an arm around me, marching me up to his friends, Academy Award winners and all, and introducing us – hoping we’d discover those things in common he already knew. Instead there was only muted conversation where his boisterous laugh should be. It was up to me to shine by myself now. I couldn’t face it. (Sorry, Dan. I went home and wrote this instead.)

As Ernest Hemingway once said, “Write hard and fast about what hurts.” When I was two years old, my father passed away. My earliest memory is seeing him on his death bed. For months after he died, I would pick out men in grocery stores, shout “Daddy!” and run up to them full speed, throwing my arms around them. My mother was furious, shaming me into not doing it again. I went through a whole lifetime without anybody to throw my arms around. But every time I saw Dan, there he was: arms wide, face full of joy, a heart bigger than the whole wide world.

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Everyone seemed to know the side of Dan that was the manic-pixie-dreamguy. He had a whirlwind romance with life. Endless friends and adventures. I realize now that I was privileged to glimpse behind the mask. Privately he doubted his rose-colored view of people, feared that not all were worthy of his trust. If those he befriended used him merely for gain, it crushed him. In his own words, what he gave was a gift – his friendship, mentorship, love, loyalty, even his films. He cast his friendship wide, like rose petals into the wind, never grudging where it landed. But there was a special section of his heart marked “reserved.” Those he called “his girls” (the actresses he launched into stardom) had each earned this honored place through tireless work, a fearless heart, and above all, an ability to give. He never gave up hope that one especially diligent protege of his might someday join those ranks.

Since his workshops, I started a business, wrote and directed several short films, edited many more, and juggled multiple side gigs. I put my acting career on hold to pay the rent. With every achievement I brought to Dan, he reminded me that my passion is acting. He was right. My abilities are many, but my passion exists in performance. When he died, I realized I had run out of time to make him proud.

I suppose death is like driving in a lane that suddenly ends. You don’t get a choice. Everyone buzzes past, convinced their own lane will go on forever. But every king of the express lane, white-knuckled commuter in the middle, and freewheeling joyrider is “just passing through.” Our time is not unlimited – it’s a gift. So when you see someone stuck in the wrong lane, hoping somebody lets them in: let them in. It might make all the difference. And if they get to where they’re going: it was because of you.

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Hanna Nielson

About Hanna Nielson

Hanna Nielson is a professional writer-director-editor. She holds a Master's in Screenwriting from the University of Leeds, and BA in Cinema and Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa. Her talents also extend into acting, photography, art, and entrepreneurship. She has previously lived in England, Ireland, and India and now resides in Southern California. After several years at a post-production studio, she gained versatile skills in all areas of production and post-production. She has worked with clients in the music industry, entertainment industry, private and public sector, as well as non-profit organizations. She routinely acts as a "one-woman show" in writing, filming, directing, and editing projects including trailers, webisodes, music videos, short films, and feature documentaries. Currently she works freelance and maintains a network of devoted clients.