"An Open Letter"

The Filming of Django Away!


Hugh Moir

Hutchings the dutiful father takes his daughter on her first location reccie to do some test shots.

Hugh Moir: In Hutchings' Half Hour, your comedy character checks how many views the previous Hutchings' Half Minute has had online and sees it has had zero views. How close is that to the reaction the web-series had and how successful was Huchings' Half Hour as a pitch video?

Daniel Hutchings: It wasn’t (laughs). It didn’t raise any money for Django so I pulled the campaign. The Half Minutes didn’t quite get zero views, but none of them went viral, most of them stayed in the low hundreds.

And this didn’t discourage you from making Django Away?

(Laughs) Of course not. I was making my own comedy shows! What could possibly be discouraging about that? (Laughs) I was developing and exploring and, most importantly, I didn’t feel I was mis-comminucating. And the videos did get a lot of very good responses from people I knew, friends and family and people I’d meet on the comedy circuit. But there was some nice response from web-viewers too. My favourite being from one John Addy (Hutchings pulls out his phone and checks the videos comments) who said “Wow. This is exceptionally good. I don't know whether to be angry at the injustice of its obscurity or feel privileged to have seen it. Mr Hutchings if you read these comments please accept my thanks for a creating such a wonderful video. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Smiley face.”

Wow, that is a very considered and celebratory comment.

Yeah, that’s enough for me to consider Hutchings’ Half Hour a total success (laughs). But don’t forget, I was embarking on making my first feature film! I was so very, very excited about that in itself! I’d always wanted to go straight into making feature films, as opposed to short films first, as I’m totally in love with how the feature film length allows us to see the dramatic development of a character in one sitting. The journey, the emotional arc, the adventure, all taken in in one go, in a cinema, away from your life, is such a special thing. And I knew the idea for the Exifestern was something that I wanted to explore in a feature.

How did you find the transition of making a feature after your Half Minutes?

I relished it! (Laughs) I did do kind of a trial run with ‘Allo ‘Allo Basterds where I tested out shooting quickly without coverage.

'Allo 'Allo Basterds (spelt wrong, not sweary).

Is that like Inglourious Basterds?

Yes, it’s a straight up Tarantino parody. It’s a comedy short that mixed the characters of Inglourious Basterds with the dynamics of ‘Allo ‘Allo. It’s the first scene of Inglourious Basterds written as a sitcom basically. Very Brooksian! (Laughs) I’d written it as a two-hander for Craig Cunningham and Alex Flitcroft after being inspired by their live act.

How did it turn out?

It was great fun making it with Craig and Alex and I do like the result. But the main thing about it was that my shooting method worked for me and I understood why. I did have pangs about making light of the subject matter though.

Inglourious or ‘Allo ‘Allo?

No, World War II! I mean, I had in my head the kind of rationale you’d expect like (adopts snotty accent) “Its subject matter is not the war but the representation of the war in popular culture” (laughs). I had also designed my own version of the swastika called the silly-stika.

Flitcroft and Cunningham get into character, Flitcroft enjoying himself as Cunningham looks on in mock shock, Hutchings in thought before a take as Flitcroft waits patiently, a prop poster hand drawn by Hutchings and featuring the "Silly-stika". Hutchings and cast with Assistant to the Director Lydia McFerran once filming wrapped, Flitcroft sad to complete the shoot.

(Laughs) Very good.

Yeah, it was inspired by The Three Stooges costumes in their Nazi send-ups. But I knew in my heart that no matter how I distanced myself from the core material of WWII, it did feel like it wasn’t really my kind of comedy, wasn’t my vocabulary yet. But it did confirm to me that I could write, design, cast, direct, film, edit and score a film for no money with talented actors in a suitable location. And once I knew that, I knew the challenge was there in my Django Away! script to do it on a bigger scale.

You Nazty Spy! The Three Stooges film made in 1940.

So, how did you make Django Away with no money?

Well, I didn’t have any money but I wanted to make it. So, what do you do, not make it? No, you find a way, especially if it’s a story you really have to tell! And this was a story I really, really had to tell. In short, I based everything around resource instead of budget. As a professional filmmaker, I had a camera. As a performer and writer, I’d always collected clothes for shows and possible film projects, so I had costumes for most of the film’s characters. I live in quite a rural area, so I knew of plenty of landscapes that didn’t have anything modern in sight for the Exifestern scenes. So, the question was: what else do you need to start filming your script? The answer was, a shooting method that could give me any scene within a few hours of shooting, that a professional actor would find exciting and that would give me footage that could be easily edited in post-production. I factored in all these elements and defined a model for zero budget shooting where I could take a scene from the page to it’s first edit within one working day. So now, when the question was: what else do you need to start shooting? The answer was nothing! So I simply began filming.

An early wardrobe still of the Django costume still with the sleeves on the jacket.

But you did provide food refreshments?

Yes, but that’s just like inviting some friends over for the evening so that doesn’t count as budget (laughs).

(Laughs) I see. So where did the cast come from? Were they friends?

Well, no! (Laughs) No, I mean, friendship didn’t really come into it because I wanted everyone to feel like they were my first choice. But some people I did already know, some were recommended to me and some answered adverts. I mean, I cast people who I thought had star quality! (Laughs) People were cast because they could bring the character to life with a presence I wanted. To me, the film is an ensemble where everyone gets a star turn.

But how did you get them to commit to the film for no pay?

(Laughs) You’d have to ask them that. I did have my Django Away! Bible with photos of all the costumes and locations and diagrams about the film and the filmmaking and I'd just meet them for a brew and tell them about their part and project. And, of course, I had a full script which I think did a lot too.

Possible costumes for the male characters from Hutchings' clothing collection.

Reccie photos for possible Exifestern and London locations.

But the cast is made up of actors with varying degrees of experience?

Yes, but it is up to me as a director to get a performance no matter how “legitimate” a cast member is. A track record does not result in a certainty. If I feel someone has a quality I’m inspired by, and I can see how to handle them to get the performance, then that's most of the decision made. Obviously people who act for a living have a wealth of experience and discipline to draw on, which was essential for many of the characters, but for some characters, this discipline wasn’t necessary. Also, as I wasn’t shooting many takes or shooting coverage, the stamina and discipline required to execute such things wasn’t required.

So did you rehearse?

Yes, we had full script read-throughs and rehearsals over two day. One half of the cast on one day and one on the other.

Why was that?

Just availability. It was great actually because everyone got to read other parts as well as their own so it was a lot of fun.

Rehearsals after a table read-through. Hutchings, McGowan, Flitcroft, Ryan and Gilligan had fun exploring their characters.

How did you approach directing a cast performing your material after Half Minute and Half Hour which were essentially one-man shows?

On a person-to-person basis. Everyone’s different. But while I wrote the script and saw it a certain way, I championed all of the actors to bring their own ideas of the performance to it. I wanted performances that were larger than life for the Exifestern scenes and ones that captured a certain domesticity in the reality ones. I feel there’s an immediacy in the performances, palpable reactions to my comedy character and his stories, that are more poetical than realistic. I would have “getting what I want” as the prerequisite and aim for “getting something special” that would come from the reaction between myself and the cast member and the thrill that another little bit of my little film was getting a chance to be played out.

Tell me about the dual casting in the film. What inspired the decision for everyone to play two characters, one in Reality and one in the Exifestern?

That was another extension of exploiting the relationship between the reality and fantasy sequences. If I cast each actor in a role in each, then there would be an implicit meaning to how they had inspired my comedy character’s imagination. It would also subtly undercut the linear nature of film plot by implication. For example, we meet Craig Cunningham’s character Spud in the second Exifestern scene, after my comedy character has been talking to a potential private financier in Dr Anderson, and after Spud demands the contents of Django’s pockets, Django presents him with pocket fluff. But when we meet Craig’s Reality character Jim, he refers to a time when he and Pete mugged Hutchings and all he had was pocket fluff. This implies that Hutchings is not starting at the top and working his way down, but rather the narrative is only a selection from his life, implying the film follows the storyteller’s story, not the storyteller. It was also a good way of needing less people to complete the cast (laughs). But no, really, these qualities, as well as undermining the sequential cause and effect of it’s own narrative, are some of the things that can be explored in a feature.

Were there any other influences on the dual casting?

O’ Lucky Man! It’s such a wonderful film with its casting because it's got such depth with its notions of archetypes in social and work structures that not only push the humour and terror of Mick Travis’ journey but also contextualises and defines Mick too. It’s a wonder performance by McDowell because he plays Mick as a leaderless follower rather than making it about innocence into cynicism. I also love the idea of having The Presents Inc Players, a regular cast where I can extend and explore these ideas of archetypes with the same actors playing different characters, and the familiarity that comes with it, to create a Daniverse within my films. I think that comes from the Carry Ons again. I mean, Joan Sims doesn’t play the same Joan Sims in each film, but she’s always Joan Sims.

Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man, with it's dual-role castings, influenced Hutchings casting methods for Django Away!

Joan Sims' various characters through her Carry On Career. The Carry On franchise was also a influence on the dual-role casting of Django Away! but in a different way to O Lucky Man.

Now, you had an idea for some guest stars didn’t you?

(Laughs) Yes! It was the idea that Joe King and Django’s Mentor could be played by guest stars.

Why? Was it so the film would have a name or two attached?

Well, it would of course be a real kick to work with actors whose work you are extremely interested in, but it was more to give a link between how my comedy character would be inspired by the actors work in Reality and how they would figure in his Exifstern.

Who did you have in mind for Joe King?

Paul Kaye. Mike Strutter was a character on my mind when I was thinking of who Joe King was before I wrote him. Roger Lloyd-Pack I think would’ve been great too, I could really see that. Ben Chaplin because I could see him as an extension of his Matthew Malone character from Game On. And Stewart Lee, who I think would’ve done a brilliant dressing down of Django.

Casting Wish List. Paul Kaye (as Mike Strutter), Victoria Wood, Rik Mayall, Ben Chaplin (as Matthew Malone), Roger Lloyd Pack and Stewart Lee.

Wow, impressive list! Who did you have in mind for Django’s Mentor?

I coyly approach Victoria Wood but she wasn’t free to do it. My second choice was Rik Mayall. I sent him the script, with a cover letter explaining how I would shoot the scene, to his agent, first class. I really thought he would be up for it! But the very next day it was announced he’d died.

Hutchings' cover letter that accompanied the Django script sent to Rik Mayall via his agent.

Some things are not to be. What did you think would convince someone like Victoria Wood or Rik Mayall into working with you in the way you did on Django Away?

It seemed entirely possible to me at the time that someone would be so enamoured with the script, which is to say that they would see in the writing all the things I had in my head, and the possibility of working in a different way, that they would happily spend half a day filming with me (laughs).

Why would you think that?

Well, because I was that in love with the script! I mean, I’m sure I’ll try the same thing with my next film for exactly the same reasons! (laughs). I don’t think it’s that ludicrous. I had designed the role of the Mentor so I could film it within half a day, wherever was convenient. I think it was also taking at face value what John Waters said about casting stars.

What was that?

That he’d just call up people he wanted to be in his films and offer them the role (laughs).

You don’t he did that in hindsight?

No I think he did, but he’s John Waters (laughs) and I’m not (laughs).

The Incredibly Strange Film Show episode on John Waters where he discusses how he successfully cast Tab Hunter.

Well, yes (laughs).

But I was lucky with the lack of success I had because as I got more and more scenes filmed, I began to see that the film would become unbalanced if it had a “name” in.

In what way?

In the way that people would expect the film to be in keeping with that person’s work. It would draw attention to the difference between what was happening in Django Away! and what people would be used to in a comedy film, rather than Django Away! just having a logic of its own. The film became an ensemble art-comedy instead of a cheap comedy with a recognisable name in for a few minutes.

So, back to Django Away! How did shooting actually begin?

Well, I had a cast, but still no-one to help me behind the camera. Then I met Dave Birtles while I was doing a filmed interview of his partner Emma Clarke. I was shooting it at their home and Dave popped his head round the door while I was setting up to shoot and we hit it off.

How did Dave get involved in Django?

I told him about it and how I was on the lookout for crew members. I gave him the script, he read it and he said he’d like to run camera for it. So to get rolling we shot the “desert” scenes which are soundless scenes with only me in.

Where did you shoot those?

We shot them at Lytham St. Annes' beach at 5am on a very cold September morning. It has a very flat beach and when the tide is out, which it was at 5am, you get a totally flat landscape. We shot so early because we had a lot of wide shots to get and we needed to beat the dog walkers, of which there are many at Lytham, and I of course wanted the over night time-lapse for after Django collapses.

Location photos of Lytham St. Annes' beach, where Hutchings and Britles shot Django in his desert, and Hutchings and McGowan in costume prior to shooting the Dead Funny chapter with Dave Birtles.

Yes, that shot looks very fantastical. How much of it was done in post?

I did spend a lot of time to make it look the way it does (laughs). The sun bobbing down and up in the sky is an overlay which is copied, flipped and reversed after it’s set so it comes up the other side and stays symmetrical. But the change in light on the landscape was pretty much captured in the shot. I accentuated it a little, but it was pretty much there. We arrived about 20 minutes before sunrise so we just about had time to set up. I flopped down and we captured the change in the light. The shot is actually about thirty minutes, which was an hour after it’s been copied and reversed, and was speeded up to what you see in the film. Which runs at about 20 seconds, if memory serves. Once the sun had broken, we shot the rest of the sequence, managing to beat the dog walkers by doing all the wide shots first (laughs).

Hutchings' storyboard for the desert sequence. Hutchings storyboarded the entire film so he could show cast and crew alike what framing they were working with with each shot.

"One of those speedy-up-things so it's morning really quickly" took thirty minutes of lying down at the crack of dawn on a windy beach on a cold September day. After twenty minutes Birtles did wonder whether Hutchings had fallen asleep but waited for Hutchings to shout "cut none the less.

What did you film next?

We shot the street-bound performance sequence where my comedy character’s progress has run it’s course and he’s asking random people in the street if they want to help make “dan go away” and telling some knock knock jokes and doing some dancing for pennies.

Was that filmed in London?

No, it’s cut together within the London Trafalgar square sequence, which was shot about nine months later, but native Mancunions will notice that it’s at the top of Market Street in Manchester.

How long did you have to shoot to get those responses? They’re all strangers?

Yes, none of them are staged. I did two sessions of about half an hour with a break in between to review the footage and check the sound. Pretty much anyone who responded to my “act” is in the film.

What came next?

We shot Shaun McGowan’s scenes. The water scene and the Jokeaholic scene. That was me Shaun and Dave again.

Why those scenes?

Shaun was free (laughs). But I thought it was very important to get the water scene because I felt it was the scene that summed up the film and I wanted it to show to possible cast and crew members. It's got the long wide shots, the slapstick as well a the set-up for the Joe King character. I had also done the Jokeaholic routine quite a few times live and I wanted to film it with those experiences in mind.

You did the Jokeaholic routine live? Like a ten minute set?

Yes (laughs).

How does it go over with a live audience?

Different every time! I can never tell what the reaction will be. It’s a funny premise, but delivering it sincerely, more often than not, really pulls the audience in and, by the end of the set, you can feel them willing you on. I think it’s because it becomes allegorical for any crutch an audience member might have without it being about confronting that crutch directly so it becomes something that gently champions through sympathy.

Now by this point it’s late 2013 and you broke filming?

Yes, I went to storyboard for Victoria Wood on her film That Day We Sang which took me from October 2013 through to the end February 2014. But when I came back to it, Dave had set up a business so he wasn’t available for filming anymore.

Was it a shame to loose Dave?

Yes it was. Dave Birtles is a wonderful cameraman with a great eye for composition and a very keen understanding of visual vocabulary and it’s effect on the character and on the audience. He also understood what I was trying to achieve visually and had a wonder knack of finding it very quickly.

And you didn’t find anyone to replace him straight away?

No. I couldn’t find anyone else so I continued by filming all the scenes that o