BL&F 3: DANIEL HUTCHINGS INTERVIEW - PART I
"Walter Mitty for the Digital Age"
The Freelance Giggle-oh and the genesis of Django.
Hutchings in a permanent state of readiness for his phone call from "The Big Time" in Hutchings' Half Hour.
Daniel Hutchings: Now the film's finished, I wonder what kind of questions I’ll get asked about Django Away!
Hugh Moir: Well, let’s start at the start. How did you get into comedy originally?
I think I’d always wanted to do comedy secretly, so much so that my brain didn’t let me know for a long time. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had an insatiable interest in whatever I felt was humorous, which is not exclusive to the genre of comedy of course. But it was always from the point of view of an audience member. There had been times, every few years or so, where I would find myself in a situation that felt a little like I was performing comedy, having the attention of a group of friends for example, but it never felt quite right. I’d always feel like I hadn’t spoken with my voice afterwards. So I think my brain put a block on my desire to be a funny person, to make me go the long way round, so I could know exactly what I wanted to do and what I might be able to offer an audience.
So when you did begin, was it live performance or filming that you started with?
Well, I did some performing when I studied my MA in Filmmaking at Manchester School of Art but that was for films and I didn’t perform my own material.
The evolution of Hutchings' comedy character. From his web-series, through his early ideas for live performance and his Half Hour, into his Freelance Giggle-oh Stage Act* and his first Thingy.
*not to be confused with the Thingy of the same name that followed Django Away!
So when did your act as we know it come about?
After graduating, I had a lot of ideas that I was bursting to get out of my system. So I came up with the idea for Hutchings' Half Minute, 30 episodes of 30 seconds of fun, to experiment with filming and explore my comedy character. He’s “an aspiring entertainer aspiring to entertain” who lives on the outskirts of the entertainment industry and he’s beginning his recorded career with a web series. The episodes are swift experiments in fun ideas, both verbal and visual. But the series starts and ends in his “luxury penthouse apartment”, which is actually a tiny attic space. I did this to establish the character so when you watch the series you would feel like you were getting to know him better through his ideas as well as enjoying each episode in its own right.
The script for episode 10, House of Cards, which shows Hutchings' description of the action in an episode with no dialogue.
The storyboards for the episode, including estimations on time length of each segment of the sequence.
An early flyer for Hutchings' Half Minute.
How much consideration went into your character or did you go on intuition?
Well I did define some Comedy Rules for my act. They were: no blue material, no references to political events, no criticisms or critiques, no parodies.
That doesn't leave much to work with.
I think it leaves you with everything! All my material would be either an expression of joy or be about wanting to express or inspire joy. It would all be about celebrating and expressing.
Why is that important to you?
I don't want to exclude anyone. Even one person feeling like the butt of the joke in a room full of people laughing feels too divisive. It's also the start of segregating your audience to entertain when I wanted to inspire and celebrate.
Where did your comedy character's uniform come from?
Before I began filming anything, I spent a lot of time deciding on the costume and hairstyle of my character. With the double denim, plimsolls and a grey coat, I thought he could be perceived as being many different things depending where he is: an artist, a pseudo-bohemian, a mod, a slob, an academic, a cheap skate, a rich eccentric slumming it. And the hairstyle gives connotations of all sorts from The Beatles to a Lego Man, a floppy haired poet to someone who’s had the same hair cut since he was a boy. It would depend what setting you saw him in. I felt excited about this kind of recognisable blandness my character would have and I could feel a lot of potential scope when it came to material and my performance.
Where there any comedians who influenced the development of your comedy character?
There were certain things that came to mind when I was considering all the angles. The opening titles of Mr Bean for example. When he fell out the sky from that white light. Was he an angel? Was he an alien? Was he put on earth as a gift or was he dumped here to get rid of him? I guess it raises more questions than it answers (laughs).
Angel or Alien? Mr Bean's origin seemed mysterious to Hutchings.
But they’re often the most inspiring things.
I agree. Rik Mayall’s energy was influential. Specifically how Richard Richard tries to fill his time and the existential slapstick that ensues. I also loved the scene in Filthy Rich & Catflap when Richie Rich does his vaudeville act. Norman Wisdom’s Gump character and it’s incompetency instigating amazing things was on my mind too.
Richie Rich on stage at last! One of Hutchings' favourite Rik Mayall's sequences.
Norman Wisdom's Gump character evolved into one of Hutchings favourite screen characters during his Robert Asher films.
Like how striking out with Liz Fraiser leads him to be the first man in space?
Yes. But one of the main notions that was on my mind was from when I used to listen to Hancock’s Half Hour at bedtime when I was a child. As early as I can remember, Hancock was on a tape player to help me get to sleep. I didn’t know what a lot of the lines meant, and I don’t just mean the references, I mean I didn’t know the words and the phrases, so instead of hearing sentences, recognising what they meant and laughing, I heard the rhythm of the sounds and how they built and how that made me laugh. Even now, when I listen to episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour I haven’t listened to for a while, I’ll finally hear what the words are (laughs). One of the biggest realisations from this was the understanding that the rhythm of humour making someone laugh is different to someone laughing because they’ve been tickled by the material.
How did that shape your comedy character?
Because I didn’t want to feel misunderstood, like I had done when I’d flirted with performing comedy when I was younger. Well, maybe misunderstood is the wrong word, more mis-expressing myself. I wanted to find my own rhythms and deliveries and have those serve the material. I think Hancock’s naturalistic performances in his later TV series and his films were also an influence.
Ha-ha-ha-Hancock. Hutchings felt the rhythms of delivery in the radio shows of Tony Hancock before he could understand what they were saying.
Yes, I can see that, but you don’t act like Hancock.
No, I have characteristics that fit my body and expressions but I think I followed his example. I would also meditate on what Jim Morrison said about “pure joy” and how The Doors hadn’t quite captured that quality.
A pure expression of joy. What Jim Morrison wished The Doors could capture was a defining idea for Hutchings.
What was that?
That he wanted to create something that felt like the coming of spring, something that would feel joyful.
How did that influence you?
It helped me focus on the spark of excitement I felt when I thought of being on stage and expressing myself. Like the lighting of a match, swoosh! The possibility of inspiring giggling and joy in strangers is something I’m completely in love with. If I felt that an idea for a routine was taking me away from that, I would bin it.
When did you start performing live?
The same time I committed to my comedy character, when I started making Hutchings’ Half Minute. My first gig was at the Comedy Store in Manchester at their gong show King Gong. I was already confident with who I would be as a performer but as I heard my name being called out something took over, like an out of body experience, and I felt totally at ease and completely excited at the same time. What I didn't expect was people finding me funny when I wasn't talking. I got laughs just from walking onto the stage! I lasted about three minutes but overall it went well, but the main thing was how inspiring it was to hear that laughter. Audience's response’s are to be cherished.
Hutchings' first performance on-stage was at a 'gong show' at The Comedy Store, Manchester, January 2012.
What is your live act like?
My stage act has a structure of a magazine show, at the moment that is, with jokes, stories, songs, games, adverts. My comedy character talks about everyday locations and everyday life, which could be interpreted in different ways by different people, depending on how they perceive his efforts to amuse.
Above clockwise from top left: Hutchings hosting the 'Guess What Someone's Drawning' (sic) section of his show. Hutchings singing his Hello song. Hutchings "works the room" mid-knock knock joke. Hutchings reminds his audience they can watch his set again on "+1".
A flyer for a Hutchings' Half Hour show at Trinity Arts Festival in Leeds, 2012.
Was there any influences on you deciding to use the magazine show format?
Yes, there was a children's TV show when I was growing up called Round The Bend. It was a puppet show set in the sewer and hosted by a crocodile which had lots of skits and parodies in. I used to really love Jasper Carrott's shows too, especially how he used to cut himself into the popular adverts of the day as part of his show. This Morning with Richard Not Judy was a big inspiration too for it's gleeful use of a daytime TV show format.
Round The Bend. A children's TV show from Hutchings' childhood that featured puppets, animations, parodies and a plethora of word play and puns.
Jasper Carrot's fake ad breaks on his BBC series impressed Hutchings with not only their hilarity but also how well the inserted shots matched the production values of the real advert's footage.
Product Placement: Lee & Herring Style. Who would've thought an evil empire would be behind such an innocent item.
What kind of reaction does your live show get?
People of all ages, shapes and sizes, tell me they really enjoy my act. At comedy venue gigs, the audiences usually have a very sophisticated understanding of comedy and, for the most part, they understand what you are trying to do. At other venues, on a street corner for example or going door-to-door, people take your act more at face value. This means you can catch people unawares and get some really joyful spontaneous giggling. There are different levels of comedy, and I like to play with this, but ultimately I’m trying to make the world a happier place one laugh at a time.
How does performing live differ from your filmed work?
It’s from the same well. One is performing a character in front of an audience in the same room as you, the other is for an audience spread across time and space. But there are, obviously, different considerations and methods of expression. The thrill of immediate laughter is wonderful as is the thrill of capturing ideas and expressions in time.
So your comedy character is consistent between your live work and with the one you play in Hutchings’ Half Minute and Half Hour and in Django Away?
Yes, the various performances are chapters in the adventures of my comedy character who I play in all my films and live performances. I approach my work with my comedy character like a huge lifelong novel. It started with Hutchings' Half Minute then onto Hutchings’ Half Hour, then onto Django Away! and beyond! I see each project as the latest chapter in a book that continues from where the last one left off. If there is ever a career retrospective after I die, all of the projects could be watched as one chronological story.
Hutchings' diagram of his comedy character's inner workings through the first episode of Hutchings' Half Hour.
That’s a very large consideration, like a consideration an author would have. I know you are inspired by cinema Auteur Theory. Where did your interest in it come from?
Well, looking back, I think the first recognition of authorship was Galton and Simpson. I knew their names from listening to Hancock and Steptoe & Son so I think that was the first time that light bulb went off and I made the connection. The notion that the comedian isn’t just gripped by spontaneous hilarity, that there was more that went into it than met the eye, or ear in the case of their radio shows (laughs).
Galton & Simpson par excellence! Steptoe and Son became their benchmark for all their work before and since.
Yes, of course. Were there any examples of cinema authors that were formative influences or did that come later?
I knew the names of Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers from all the opening titles of the Carry On’s so I understood the same people were making those even though the subject of the movie would be different each time. Then, later on, I began to notice the Zucker Abrahams Zucker names with Kentucky Fried Movie, Top Secret and their Naked Gun movies. But I think it would be Mel Brooks who was probably the first comedian that I recognised as performing their own material but also filming it as well. In hindsight, I think that was the first time that I understood the idea of someone’s world view being directly translated into their films. Even though each film was informed by a genre or another film, what Mel Brooks did was to use that to inform how his film looked. But it was his sense of humour that formed the material and performances. Lonestar in Spaceballs, for example, is obviously inspired by Han Solo, but you don’t need to have seen Star Wars to find Bill Pullman’s character funny in it’s own right. But I think my official introduction to Auteur Theory proper would've been the series Moviedrome on BBC2 with Alex Cox and Mark Cousins in the 90's.
One of Hutchings' favourite Carry On's, the one at your convenience.
The United Appeal for The Dead. A high-point in screen comedy from Hutchings' childhood.
Spaceballs The Trailer!
Moviedrome introduced a whole generation to the idea of being cinema-literate.
Speaking of Auteur Theory, how did Tarantino influence Django Away! because you had the idea before Django Unchained came out didn’t you?
I had the idea when Tarantino announced that he was making a Django film called Django Unchained with the tagline ‘The D is Silent”. The obvious joke came to mind for a film starring me called Django Away! with the J being silent. I really fell in love with this because, on paper, it’s a great title for a Western! You can hear the hero’s horse-back cry as he gallops into the sunset: “DJANGO AWWAAAAAAAYYYYYY!” But it also has the undermining meaning of “Go away Dan”. I loved this joke so much, I decided I would make a full feature film called Django Away!
Early poster for Django Away inspired by the teaser poster for Django Unchained.
So it was the thrill of the joke that inspired the commitment to making a feature film?
Yes, everything grew from that moment of inspiration. But I also felt many threads leading off this film title, that there was a lot there to explore, more than in any of the other ideas I’d had.
The dynamic of Django Away! swings between reality and fantasy. Where did this idea come from?
From that joke. In the moment I thought of it I solidified the notion of moving between fantasy and reality: the joke’s dual meaning perfectly illustrated the logic of my fantasy character, Django, and of my reality character simultaneously. The fantasy is the cowboy cry and the reality is the “go away, Dan”.
So how did you get from thinking up a one-liner that most people would struggle to stretch into a parody trailer to the script for a feature film?
Well, that’s a slightly longer story (laughs). I thought I’d make a crowd-funding pitch video about how my comedy character came up with the idea for Django Away! to inspire possible investors. As with many things that peak my interest, I got a rush of ideas and before I knew it an idea for a three minute pitch video had grown into an idea for a sitcom! So, during two cold winter weeks, I wrote, designed, filmed and edited Hutchings’ Half Hour.
Trailer for Hutchings' Half Hour: the narrative link between Hutchings' Half Minute and Django Away!
What happens in it?
It’s set during the filming of the final episode of Hutchings’ Half Minute as my comedy character imagines all the fun offers he’s going to get once his series is finished. It’s the “aspiring entertainer" as a Walter Mitty in the digital age. I was really excited to explore what his life is like when he is not onstage performing "maximum fun for children of all ages”. I was also inspired by the idea of combining elements from Reality TV with the Sitcom format and a sketch show dynamic. I thought it would be a fun idea to make a sitcom but make it about where I was at in my career. I'd make it quickly, myself, and put it online so it would have a feeling of immediacy to it, like a reality-situation comedy.
The Walter Mitty dynamic of Hutchings' Half Hour is illustrated in this poster.
That makes me think of shows like The Royle Family and Him & Her. But Hutchings' Half Hour isn’t in real time and your performance is much more overtly comical than in some of the Half Minutes and in Django Away!
That’s because he’s performing to himself. He’s imagining himself being funny, like a comedy equivalent to singing in the shower (laughs).
In Half Hour, you imagine you are visited by Tarantino, a la Elvis in True Romance, and he gives you advice on your career. What was it about Tarantino that attracted you to him for comedy material?
It was because he’s the only contemporary Auteur who is a household name and has a global appeal. I was inspired by Tarantino and his status and myth. I also thought of his success as a perfect inversion of my comedy character’s (laughs). I also think he is a fantastic gateway to other forms and times of cinema for many young film fans across the world. My tribute to that being the Reed-Godard-Scorsese bubble lineage that I wanted to continue.
....2 or 3 Things I Know About Her....
....Odd Man Out....
....Hutchings' Half Hour.
Mark Cousins illustrates it in his The Story of Film. There’s a shot in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out where James Mason stares down into some bubbles in a drink that is re-worked by Jean-Luc Godard in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and again by Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver, each time the bubbles seeming to mean a different thing to the character gazing into them. I really loved Mark Cousins’ idea of a lineage to these shots so I thought I’d put my take on it. My comedy character gets lost in the fizz of his vitamin c drink and comes up with the idea for a Taxi Driver sitcom starring himself as Travis Bickle and his flatmate Latka Gravis from Taxi. He is then visited by Tarantino who tries to give him career advice.
Local press coverage for Hutchings' Half Hour.
Where did the advice come from? Did you write it?
I re-worked it from Tarantino interviews but just to make it fit a conversation. I tried to keep it as true to his interviews as possible.
After exploring the “reality and fantasy” dynamic in Half hour, a sitcom with sketch show trappings, what did you think this dynamic could offer when it came to a feature film?
In Hutchings’ Half Hour I played with the idea of taking the Walter Mitty-passive-imagining-dynamic and using it in a more active way to drive the character arc into action rather than catharsis. During this I really fell in love with the dynamic. I began to see great potential to imply meanings and back story in a reality-to-fantasy story by using jumpcuts and juxtaposition with a narrative that has how reality and fantasy inspire and influence each other as a subtext. When it came to writing the script, I took these ideas, and the “go away, Dan” joke, and constructed a narrative that would imply that each person my comedy character speaks to about his film is completely unsuccessful. The film would begin with my comedy character trying to make his movie by attempting to pitch the idea of the Exifestern to all the big movie companies. After then trying to tell some smaller producers about his movie, we would cut to the fantasy sequence to illustrate his ideas, but when we cut back to reality he is talking to someone else, someone who is a little further away from being able to help him get his film made.
Hutchings' Diagram of Construction for Django Away!
Were there any practical aspects of this structure that were beneficial?
I could see it gave me a way to cut from the action in one scene to the action in the next without having to stage establishing shots which would require Western buildings, extras, etc, because we would be following the story-telling rather than a “plot”. This was key in being able to make the film on the scale that I did and to give it an intimate feel that would fit with that scale.
Were there any other experiences that contributed to your development of the script?
I was hired to work as a storyboard artist by Victoria Wood on her film That Day We Sang, the dynamic of which moves between reality and fantasy. I spent a lot of time coming up with visual ideas on the fantasy/reality transitions for Victoria to pick and choose from. I had already worked on the Manchester International Festival’s stage production of That Day We Sang as Filmmaker/Head of AV so I knew the script and it was very much an influence on my conception of Django. Victoria’s use of fantasy to show the depth of her character’s imaginations and their un-realised desires and using that as a way to drive the narrative was very inspiring. The experience also sharpened up my ideas of how to visualise transitions between fantasy and reality. Once that project wrapped, a BBC primetime film, I took my camera, walked out my front door and began filming. After having generated so many ideas on That Day We Sang, I had developed a great confidence in my visual sensibilities and my visual vocabulary, especially ideas of how to visualise transitions between fantasy and reality. In fact, I had to rein them back and simplify them so I could execute them within the scale of filmmaking I was going to use.
"Where's Wally?" See how many times you can spot Hutchings in the background of this behind-the-scenes video from the production of Victoria Wood's That Day We Sang.
How much were you aware of the Spaghetti Western genre and was the original Django starring Franco Nero an influence?
I knew and enjoyed the Spaghetti Western genre and the Corbucci and Nero Django character, but what I found more interesting was the fact that Django had an unofficial franchise! The notion of a series of films, entirely unconnected in both who made them and what happens in them, being connected simply because they have a character called Django in them I found very inspiring. I felt Django to be a form of folk hero, defined entirely by who happens to tell the story this time, totally unencumbered by the notion of continuity or back story. I thought it’d be wonderful to have a comedy Django to add to the legacy.
The notorious Django Kill...If You Live Shoot was renamed against director Giulio Questi's wishes to ride the popularity of the Django character.
The film is informed by the iconography of the Western but the world in which Django is imagined isn’t a Western but an Exifestern. Where did this idea come from?
In interviews following the release of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino hinted at what his next project would be by saying he’d like to do a Western, but set in the South and call it ‘A Southern’. This reminded me of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s description of El Topo as “An Eastern” due to it’s mix of Eastern philosophy and the Western genre. What both had done was to take a well known genre and applied their own ideas, settings and visual vocabulary to re-interpret it. So when I was developing Django I was faced with the question “how do I make a Western relevant to my comedy that will sustain a feature film?” The answer to this question began with the idle thought ‘how would it effect what people say to each other if you bruised physically when you were hurt emotionally?’ This idea of seeing the physical effects of verbal violence instantly illuminated the world that my Django would exist in: Cowboys became Jokers who used words instead of bullets with the sound of laughter being fatal. Django would be impervious to jokes as he didn’t have a sense of humour. He would be the joker with a conscience, who made it his mission to make people laugh out of joy rather than spite. This kind of laughter would, of course, heal your ills rather than hurting you. To be able to establish these elements as quickly as possible in the film, I made the setting an alternative reality where Humankind evolved without developing weapons and thus they’d discovered how to physically injure others with words alone.
Alejandro Jodorowsky's Eastern.
It's an interesting premise. How did you come up with the "Exifestern" term?
To make this allegorical story easier to relate to I took a leaf out of Jodorowsky’s book and invented a genre title that was a mix-up of it’s elements: existential notions on the nature of laughter, Sci-Fi logic and the Western iconography combined to make The Exifestern. It was also a declaration of intent. My film would be a genre of it’s own: the best Exifestern ever!