BL&F 22: DANIEL HUTCHINGS INTERVIEW - PART III
"Finger prints and invitations"
The Present of Django Away
The general public gets ready for Django Away! at Manchester Library Live.
Hugh Moir: So, what’s a Daniel Hutchings Thingy?
Daniel Hutchings: It’s something I’ve made. A thingy (laughs). Well I wanted to define my own way of shooting defined by my material and what I had at my disposal, to define my own work. Making up the Thingy tag was a reflection of this. To try and establish that this is a work that defines its own worth. It also tells the audience to check their expectations of what a “film” is at the door, to encourage them to watch the film on its own terms, its own logic, because it’s not a film, it’s a Thingy. With that, I think there’s also an attempt to Houdini out of the weight of film and comedy history. A way of empowering yourself and making your response to your work as immediate as possible.
But a Thingy can be anything?
Exactly! It can even be the moment before something becomes describable, the moment when words fail you! Like a, er (mocks thoughtfulness) thingy (laughs). It also gets a titter even before the opening credits have run as some audience members see it as a reference to my genitals.
The final Django Away! movie poster.
Of course. It’s also a song on the soundtrack? Where is it in the movie? I don’t recall hearing it.
A short piece of it plays behind Rory Stamp’s chameleonic intro to his scene. The song is a cross between Dizzy Rascal and Max Miller, between Hip Hop and Music Hall, Hip Hall if you will. Or even if you won’t (laughs). The song itself is the theme song to a tv show I’ve had in mind for a few years: my comedy character hosting a magazine show featuring anecdotes, songs, interviews with legitimate interviewees, adverts for new inventions, services and products, games and guests. I love the magazine show format and it’d be so much fun to do one.
Did you put the same kind of consideration into the score and the songs as you did with the visual vocabulary?
Yes. I wrote and recorded the score to try and accentuate all the emotional elements for the audience: to make the funny bits funny and make the touching bits touching, to make the aggressive bits aggressive and make the romantic bits romantic, to make the Joke Off’s tense and make the climax emotionally affecting.
The Django Away! Original Motion Picture Soundtrack features the songs and the score from the film as well as dialogue clips.
Tell me more about what the musical motifs relate to.
Well, the score is comprised of several themes that relate to certain ideas of the Exifestern and my comedy character’s relation to it and the world around him. The Exifestern music is a mixture of Spaghetti Western Scores and Music Hall Comedy Stings to create the atmosphere of a world where joking is no laughing matter. Obviously Django has a name-checking theme, as well as a musical sting, as does Joe King. The Joke-Offs have a musical theme called Crying With Laughter that puts the put-downs in a setting of dread and tension. There is a theme over the pre-titles called Between Laughter and Failure which sets up the implied reactions, or lack of, that everyone that my comedy character will speak to about his Exifestern idea. There is also Comedy Makes Me Cry, which has two arrangements, one for Reality one for the Exifestern, which is the theme for Django and my comedy character’s feelings.
And, of course, you have your Singing Cowboy scene.
Yes, I’ve Seen You Before, which Django sings to the Dream Girl. I was always going to have a Singing Cowboy scene and I was always going to try and do my best to yodel (laughs).
Ok, so the films done and you screened it for the cast and crew. Was this at the wrap party?
Yes, we screened it in the back room at The Castle Hotel, where I’d shot the Comedy Makes Me Cry performance. I did awards for everyone, The Django Away! Awards, and everyone got a framed lobby card of themselves from the film. I made up categories for each character to win so everyone knew how much I valued their work.
Cast members receive their Django Away Award from Hutchings (with help from daughter Emily).
What happened after that?
I wrote a press release and sent it to people who I thought might be interested in the film: film magazines, film sites, comedy sites, cinema clubs, venues that screen films. Out of that I had various responses, with a good portion of them being positive.
Did you manage to screen the film anywhere?
Yes, so far we have screened it at Huddersfield University, Manchester Central Library and Jekyll & Hyde Bar in Birmingham and I’m in the process of organising some more.
Flyers for the Huddersfield and Birmingham screenings that show an earlier poster design while Hutchings worked on the final poster that featured the whole cast.
Images from the public screenings at Huddersfield University, Manchester Central Library and Jekyll & Hyde Bar in Birmingham.
What was the reaction?
Although the turnout was what you would expect for a film without an actual marketing campaign, the largest being 35-40 at the Manchester screening in a room for 80, the responses where wonderful. They laughed at all the places I did when I edited it, they listened at all the places I did and there was applause at the end credits at every screening. I took from this that I had succeeded in making a film where the humour came from the characters and situations and the drama rather than getting laughs from what the audience might see as technical shortcomings or "cheapness”. The film took them on its journey and they laughed with it, not at it. (Pauses) Well, maybe occasionally they did (laughs). But the audience reactions were wonderful. One woman, who must have been in her 80’s, came up to speak to me after the Manchester screening and, she was quite frail, and she said “I want to thank you for making that film. I thought it was really funny. I’m not sure if I understood all of it, but I really enjoyed all of it and I wish you all the luck in the world with it”. That was a beautiful moment because she was frail, as I said, and she really looked like it took quite a bit of effort to make her way across the screening room to tell me that and to then make her way back across again. Another nice moment was in Birmingham when a man came up to me after the film had finished and said, almost tersely, “your film deserves a bigger turn out than what you got tonight. People don’t know what they’re missing”. I mean, there was only about 15 people in the audience, but we were only in a small upstairs room in a bar, so it did feel full, and as I said, the audience responded well to the film. But it was very encouraging that he felt so strongly that the film deserved to have more people see it.
Are those the kind of responses that attract you to doing screenings?
Yes. I love the environment where you surrender to watching a film, much like you would at a live performance, unlike watching something at home where you always have better options to spend your time than watch a film you don’t like till the end (laughs). But I’ve always loved going to the cinema. When I was little, my local cinema was a wonderful Art Deco building and its two screens were the original two screens. They were absolutely huge! If you got a seat in the middle, which is best for eye-line and for the sound balance, the screen was pretty much your whole field of vision. I mean, I know I was smaller then, but I’m sure those screens were bigger than the IMAX one’s I’ve seen since. And they ran local adverts in amongst the trailers and had a break before the feature where an ice-cream girl would come out. They also ran old Children Film Foundation serials before the features during the summer holidays. I think those formative viewing experiences really defined my feeling of how it should feel when you see a film. That when you’re sitting in front of a screen, in a room that’s neural territory, with no distractions, you really feel like your sitting inside your own mind. That’s the best way I can describe how immersive it feels to me. And when you feel like that, you realise that cinema is as much to do with where you see a film as much as what a film’s internal qualities are. There’s something empowering about thinking of that huge canvas when making a film, of that dark room with no distractions. Where little details that might go unnoticed to a person or two watching it on TV but will strike a chord to a group of strangers seeing it on a larger scale together. I also think it’s helpful when you consider who might see it: that these dark spaces, that exist the world over and are attended by people with all sorts of cinematic tastes, keeps alive an intoxicating feeling that your film could potentially be seen by anyone in the world at anytime.
What4 Specials on two of Django Away's public screenings.
Was there any negatives about these screenings?
There was a certain sting of embarrassment as, even though I was totally prepared to build the film’s audience, to put it in front of peoples eyes and ears almost one by one, there is always the El Mariachi-fantasy where someone will see great value in the film and know how to help put it in a context where it can take on a life of its own. But this slight sting of not achieving overnight success was nothing compared to the freedom I felt when I realised I was free from that fantasy of the “Starmaker” because I realised I was not only expressing myself as I had always wished, but that I was already building my audience. And, of course, I always saw it as a marathon, not a sprint (laughs).
Apart from being invited to screen the film, did you have any other positive responses to your press release?
Yes. I had some nice emails back, some curious enough to ask where they could see it, some even asking for a copy of the film! I sent DVDs that had extras of cast interviews and documentaries on public screenings as well as some lobby cards and other ephemera to give a little sense of cinema magic. From this Ryan Lambie invited me to write a piece on it for the film website Den of Geek. Sophia White also interviewed me about my career in general for the comedy website Illegitimate Theatre which she was writing for.
A home-printed special edition DVD of Django Away! that includes various ephemera including lobby cards and a poster.
Taking inspiration from Film4, Hutchings made a series of short What4 Film Specials that feature interviews with cast members and documentaries on public screenings to help spread the word on the film.
Websites that responded to Hutchings' press release announcing the existence of Django Away!: Ryan Lambie at Den of Geek invited Hutchings to write a piece on the film's making....
....Sophia White interviewed him for Illegitimate Theatre....
....and the British Comedy Guide listed it as part of its online comedy encyclopaedia.
Django-on-Demand on Vimeo.
Why did you decide to self-distribute as opposed to going through a distributor?
None of the distribution companies have replied to my emails yet (laughs). But, you see, not achieving a fantasy saved me again because once I did some research about self-distribution, and found Vimeo-on-Demand, I started to get really excited because I knew I could not only design and control the user interface and keep the rights to my work but I could do this worldwide! Once I discovered this, I realised that this was the perfect setting for home viewing because the instantaneous process of simply uploading the film and designing its page is in keeping with the desire to keep the distance between my imagination and my audience’s as short as possible.
Is that short distance the main benefit that low-budget films offer?
My low-budget films, yes. But if you think about what that means to the inception of a film, it’s quite extraordinary! When I decided I was going to make Django Away! I wanted to start at the start. To start at the beginning of what I considered to be the creative process as a performer, filmmaker and director. I knew that to start at minus £15,000, minus £20,000, minus £200,000, minus any number of money, I would not be able to make the film as I envisioned it. So I started at what I thought was the start: the realisation that with Django Away! it was not cheap now or a bigger budget later, it was no budget now or no film whatsoever!
One of Hutchings' equations from pre-production that attempts to define what could make a filmmaking project successful.
What is your favourite moment of Django Away?
Well, there are too many to pick just one. There are many, many moments of joy for me, when I watch it, and these moments are the performances of the cast, often highlighted by how they’re shot or the score, but fundamentally the performances. There are several moments in each and every performance in each and every scene that have that certain something to me, that gives me goosebumps. I sincerely love the entire cast in Django Away! and it wasn’t until we were half way through the shooting and I was looking at the working edits of the scenes that I realised it was an ensemble film in my favourite sense of the term.
Can you pick out some of these moments?
I don’t like to pick out things I like in a performance because it implies that the rest of the performance isn’t remarkable or is perfunctory. Having said that, here goes (laughs). The expression and interplay in the moment after Westwood invites me in to tell them about my movie and before Lee begrudgingly ok’s it. The pause of shock on Timothy Victor’s face when he gets splashed with the water and the huge laugh the follows. Dr Anderson’s posture of strength after her rotting tooth analogy. The way Spud jumps out as fast as he can from behind his tree that isn’t actually that fast. Rory’s hug getting through to me as a sincere attempt of nurture. The Music Hall tribute of Lee Cobb and Bonneville’s Boys exchange and the sympathy shown Madame Bonneville by her two friends. The cuts that reveal I’ve been talking about the terror of Joe King to an audience of children. The way Sylvia speculates on what her and Django dreaming of each other before they met could mean and Django's pause as he takes it in. Pete’s slamming of me against the wall and the way Jim slides into frame in the following close up. Punchline Pete’s terror at Joe King sinuous mind games. The moment where Django’s Mentor’s eyes cross as he’s being laughed to death. The effect of all the laughing faces on Young Django. The way the sound of the laughter follows Django, like a bubble, as he tries to escape his own feelings. The way Susan isn’t quite sure what to make of my secret fantasy of being an entertainer. Django’s line “a throne without a king is just another big chair”. How sickly and sweaty both myself and Mr Patient look in the Jokeaholic scene. All the audience cutaways during the Comedy Makes Me Cry performance. The interplay and timing between the German film producers, myself and Frances in the last scene. And, of course, cutting to “you have been watching a Daniel Hutchings Thingy” as Life is Our Dream strikes up for the end credits and seeing all the characters again with the actors who played them. Just wonderful. To me, just wonderful.
Looking at Django Away! now, what kind of meanings do you think an audience would see in it?
Well, how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go? (Laughs) I was aiming to try and inspire repeated viewing because with low budget films you can’t really compete with bigger films on a spectacle or high production cost level. What a lot of low budget films do is they have something sensational in the transgressive sense, namely sex and violence, but, as these were not the material or approach I was using, I realised that the value I did have was in imagery and situations that might strike some kind of chord with the audience and inspire them to want to see the film again to try and get a handle on those feelings. If I supported these emotive elements with lots of subplots and subtexts that revealed themselves a little more each time, then it could seem like a different film every time you saw it.
Another of pattern Hutchings sees in filmmaking. This one attempts to identify the core values of how a film can build an audience.
Well, each scene is quite different to the preceding one. Was there an attempt to create humour through incongruity?
No. I had an overall construction of the film and I wanted the layers of the film to peel away as the film progressed whilst simultaneously funnelling down under the weight of my comedy character’s Exifestern ideas. I thought the way to visually reflect these subtexts was to tap into different forms for each scene: to start from the objectivity of the media then through the epic scale of cinema, but then get into social behaviour with scenes about machismo, romance, sadism, and then into isolation, impulses between good and evil, and then come back out again with the rationalising of one-to-one psychology, which in turn leads out to how we view our own past and then finish with the objectivity of the media again, then the visual form of the story would not only have as much of the narrative’s drive as anything in the film, but it would make it a journey and feature film experience worthy of being seen on a big screen with an audience.
An early sketch of Hutchings' notion of Django Away! as a journey of tunnels that lead from the outer world into the inner world and back again. Each tunnel reflects the environment of a particular scene and shows how the later scenes reflect the earlier scenes. In a typical narrative, the protagonist would've learnt through experience and have a better chance at dealing successfully when in a similar situation. But the narrative of Django Away! is not defined by its lead character, it only gives us something to measure him against. This leaves the audience to decide whether he is becoming more successful or not based on their own world view and interpretation.
How much of these ideas do you think are consciously understood when watching Django Away?
Everything is seen, understanding comes afterwards (laughs). I considered and aimed to manifest all these qualities to be implicit so Django Away! could be a film that would bloom upon repeated viewing, rather than simply being understood upon the first watch. Even if only one image, or piece of dialogue, or sequence, or feeling you had, stays with you after the credits have rolled, eventually that will bring you back to the opening credits again to see if it has the same effect.
What would you like people to take from Django Away?
I would like them to take whatever they will from it. I tried to fuse it with a feeling of intimacy, of cinematic and comedic intimacy, in the hope that the film would touch people, uplift them enough to really value their instinctive interpretations of the film and to take their feelings about the film away with them after the end credits have finished. I hope the film makes that connection for people. The connection to an audience is something that's very dear to me.
Looking back, what do you think you achieved with this film?
(Pauses for thought) Well, I made Django Away! Who else can say that?
I’m sure many people would like to! (laughs)
(Laughs) And that’s just the cast!