by Edwin L. Carpenter, Editor – The Dove Foundation
“Our goal is to make a good high quality family film,” Michael Damian said to me in a recent phone interview with The Dove Foundation. He and his wife Janeen accomplished that and the end result is “Moondance Alexander,” an enchanting film. The movie stars Kay Panabaker as the high school girl who doesn’t quite fit in but finds a passion for a certain horse when he crosses her path one day. Don Johnson also stars as Dante, a stable owner and horse trainer who proves to be a mentor for young Moondance. Lori Loughlin rounds out the cast as Gelsey, Moondance Alexander’s mother and a widow.
The DVD was released on April 29 and it has won some awards, a Dixie Film Festival Award for best feature film and for outstanding actress for Kay Panabaker. It also has won awards for the screenwriters, Michael and Janeen Damian.
“How did this story and film originate?” we asked Michael.
“Well, my wife and I have a film company, Riviera Films, and we wanted to make a family film. We were thinking about different stories, different ideas, and then Janeen said, ‘Do you remember the story with my pinto pony Checkers when I lived in Mississippi’ and I said, ‘Yes, that’s right’. She said, ‘You know, I found the horse, and I met this down and out, could-have-been-outcast horse trainer in Mississippi. I was convinced that this horse was a champion, hundred jumper. I didn’t really have any friends and I was sort of a loner. I took this little pony and this trainer helped me and we went all the way to the Memphis Classic. It was her journey and I just thought it was a real inspiring, uplifting story.”
“I thought that A—People would find it entertaining and B—People would find it inspirational. That’s kind of how it all began. We modernized it obviously. Her adventure took place in the 70’s. This is not a period piece. It takes place in 2007. It was a thrill writing it and it was a thrill directing Kay Panabaker and bringing Janeen’s story to the screen.”
Olympic silver medalist figure skater Sasha Cohen appears in the film and Damian said, “From the Olympics to ‘Moondance Alexander’!” He also noted how pleased he was with Lori Loughlin, Don Johnson, James Best and the rest of the cast. He was very impressed with Kay Panabaker.
“Kay is just wonderful in ‘Moondance’,” he said. “She’s so real and honest and lovely.” Damian noted that a lot of people have suggested she resembles a young Judy Garland in appearance. “There’s a certain wonderful magic and a glow in her eyes and her smile, there’s something that’s charismatic, hypnotic—it’s just so lovely to watch and see her perform.”
Damian noted a scene from the movie that is strikingly as it happened in Janeen’s real life. “In the mother-daughter scene in the bedroom, when Moondance is kind of down—that emotional scene was typical of Janeen. That was pretty much verbatim the words that she spoke with her mother. There were a lot of tears from Janeen as she watched the video monitor as we were shooting. Watching Checkers jump brought back so many wonderful memories for her.”
We asked Damian about special features on the DVD release. “Yes, we have three special features,” he said. “Basically the behind the scenes, the making of the movie feature, and cast interviews and we also have music of the film and how the music was made, and special footage shot in Prague when we did the orchestration. The music is one of the characters of the film as well. It helped enhance the emotion and the excitement, and we have a music video from a young performer, Laura White, who sang the closing credits song. So it’s packed with a bunch of extras.”
We asked what challenges Michael Damian faced in getting the film made, and he said, “You’re kind of going against the grain of Hollywood to make a family G-rated movie. We had to inspire people to share our vision and to believe in what we were doing. That was a bit of a challenge. Once we got people to share our vision—financiers—a really wonderful executive producer, Frank Muggia, who’s just a great guy and helped us get the financing for the film—that was one of the big hurdles right there. Without that you just don’t have a movie.”
“Once we got that, then it was really to find the dream cast, which we were fortunate enough to get. The next phase was to find the dream horse. That was a tall order. We ended up using three horses. There’s Picasso, there’s Trigger, and I’m blanking on the other one, but I got them mixed up all the time! When they did the dying on them I couldn’t tell which one was which, which was a good thing! We didn’t want anyone to notice a difference. We needed a horse to jump. Then you needed a horse that was really great at doing tricks. A third horse was just a great horse for Kay to ride. And believe it or not, one horse couldn’t do all that.”
In concluding our interview with Michael we asked him about the kinds of remarks he has received regarding the film, and he said, “People have said how it touched them emotionally. It inspired them and it brought back childhood memories for adults and seniors. Kids want to get a horse!” he laughed. “They can relate to Moondance’s struggles, the peer pressures of school and how kids can be pretty mean. Kids would say, ‘I’m sort of like her. I’m not really that popular at school. I completely relate to her and thank you, it inspired me.’”
“The only way we can change things in Hollywood is by people going out there and supporting family films and not just our films but other family films. That’s going to send a strong message back to Hollywood, and it will help filmmakers like us to make other family films. It really just starts with all of your readers going out there and supporting them.”
Michael hopes to see family films become more prolific in Hollywood. The Dove Foundation does too.
Read Dove’s Review of “Moondance Alexander“