Huntley key grip-turned-director dishes on making movies in Chicago (2024)

Just ask Danial Miller to name the greatest actor he's ever worked with.

Ask him, and he'll tell you: Maureen O'Hara.

"Hands-down, bar none!" he said. "This lady could turn on the tears and you'd want to cry. She was that convincing."

Miller, who lives in Huntley, worked with O'Hara on Chris Columbus' 1991 domestic comedy "Only the Lonely." His job as the dolly grip consisted of moving the camera as needed.

Danial Miller (yes, that's his name) has a favorite director, too: the late John Hughes.

"He was awesome to work with," Miller said. "He was a born storyteller. Many times, instead of actually filming the movie, we'd be sitting around John telling a story. Nobody would stop him. We'd just listen to his stories."

Miller worked as a dolly grip on several Hughes productions, including "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Uncle Buck," "Home Alone," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "Baby's Day Out."

Last week, Miller's new horror web series, "The Shadows of Hidden Hill," premiered on YouTube. The series takes place in a cursed town where people die but won't stay dead and must be killed again by the local chief of police and his buddy, the undertaker.

Miller directs the local series, now in production.

In May, Miller's directorial debut, a film short titled "The Casket," won first place at the Catlow Theater's Barrington Area Local Film Festival.

"That lit a fire under us," Miller said of the victory, "especially our executive producer (Barrington resident) David Barrie Jr., who wants to do everything first-rate. He tends to like the horror stuff. I like the drama side, like 'The Casket.'"

Huntley key grip-turned-director dishes on making movies in Chicago (1)

Danial Miller, center, who grew up in Hoffman Estates, directs a scene from his award-winning film short "The Casket," which took first prize at the Catlow Theater's Barrington Area Local Film Festival last month.

After a "gripping" career in the movies, Miller wanted to write and direct. He prepared for the switch by taking a job as the key grip (the supervisor of grips) on the low-budget horror tale "Dig Two Graves" shot on location in southern Illinois three years ago.

"It was the first and last time I ever do a low-budget feature," Miller said. "I knew I wanted to get our own movies going, and I thought this would be a perfect chance to see how these guys handle the situation with basically no money."

What did he learn?

"A lot, but mostly I learned what not to do. Whenever we'd go to a new location, it would be an hour or two hours away. This is crazy!

"You don't have to actually go to a real place to change the setting. You can fake it where you are. They wasted a lot of time and money with people just driving around."

Miller, 59, was born in Chicago but grew up in Hoffman Estates. He graduated from Conant High School, then attended Harper College in Palatine.

In 1976, he took a job as a stagehand at Chicago's Lyric Opera. He became hooked on a theatrical feeling. "Once you get a taste of it, it's hard to let go," he said.

His showbiz career might have ended there, but along came John Landis' "The Blues Brothers," pushing Chicago to new heights as a movie production capital.

"I was riding the crest of that first wave of Chicago movies," he said. But later, a writers strike threw movie production into a spiral.

Miller bought a "boom truck" (with a telescoping platform for up-high work) and went into the construction business. Even so, when crews found out he had a boom truck, they pulled him back into showbiz to dress sets.

For Michael Mann's "Ali," for example, Miller and his truck dressed Chicago's 79th Street to look period. He did the same on Lincoln Avenue for "Public Enemies."

Miller and Barrie now operate a Barrington production company, Grip Write Productions, for creating commercials and film shorts. Miller will continue directing, guided by his experiences with his accidental mentor, John Hughes.

"He met my four kids and he never forgot their names," Miller said. "When we had wrap parties, it was all family-friendly. He'd have goody bags for the kids. He was a great, decent human being, a true regular guy just doing what he wanted to do."

• Know suburbanites in showbiz with good stories to tell? Contact Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire at and

John Malkovich spit take

“Several months ago, I was working with John Malkovich, who literally spit in my face!” Danial Miller said. “He was sick. Twenty-four hours later, I was sick!”

The infectious expectoration wasn’t a comment on how Miller performed his job on the set of Sandro Miller’s photo shoot with model Malkovich, dressed up as famous people.

“He was acting,” Miller explained. “Have you ever seen Malkovich in a fit of rage when he’s acting? A lot of saliva is coming out of his mouth! It happened to wind up in my face.”

Huntley key grip-turned-director dishes on making movies in Chicago (2024)


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