My Indie Film: Django Away

In the first of a regular indie filmmaker series, Daniel Hutchings talks about how he made his comedy western, Django Away...

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be running a series of articles where independent filmmakers can describe the unique challenges of putting together their work, and what drove them to pick up a camera in the first place.

First up, British filmmaker Daniel Hutchings talks about his zero-budget comedy western Django Away, from his initial ideas 2012 to the thrill of the actual shoot…

For me, 2014 turned into 2015 in a haze of post-post-production euphoria and emailing as I worked through a specially compiled list of people I simply had to tell about my zero-budget feature film Django Away!.

This haze was effortlessly blown away when I received a reply from this very site, which, after watching the misadventures of my comedy character and his “Exifestern” (a mash of “Existential” “Sci-fi” and “Western”, in case you were wondering) tales, wanted to know if I would be interested in writing a piece about my experiences making it. I jumped out of my seat in excitement and immediately bumped my head on my low ceiling. But even this misfortune was not enough to dull my excitement.

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Where would I begin? 

Maybe in 2012, when Tarantino announced that he was making a Django Unchained, a film to add to the Franco Nero-inspired-unofficial-franchise, with the tagline “The D is Silent”. When I heard the news, I thought, “My name can be abbreviated to Dan! I’d love to do a film called Django Away!, like a cowboy’s cry, and make the J silent. It could cut between fantasy and reality and be a film within a film about my comedy persona trying to make his own Django film, the world’s first Exifestern, with everyone he speaks to replying, ‘Go away, Dan'”. 

Perhaps I could start a bit later, after I’d failed to get anyone interested in making it as a low budget feature. I’d written a script I thought was esoteric in its ideas, unusual in its narrative and would appeal to children of all ages. In short: everything I thought a good low budget film should be. I remember lying awake one night and thinking, “I love the ideas in this film too much to let it go. I have to simply start filming it and make it shot by shot no matter how long it takes.”

Starting at a low point could be a dramatic beginning to this article…

It is definitely important to mention how I tried to give it as much production value as possible by scouting locations meticulously and designing costumes by making ensembles from my own and borrowed clothes to create the Exifestern world. The colours of the costumes were designed to fit with colour schemes I designed for each scene, and a visual development I had for the whole film. Would people find it interesting reading if I wrote about the non-coverage shooting method I defined that allowed me to shoot a scene and assemble a rough edit of it within one working day? I certainly hope so. I’m thinking of writing a book about it.

I fondly remember how I put all these designs in a big book to make my ideas as accessible as possible for when I met with actors and possible crew members. To my surprise, both actors I knew through the comedy circuit and those who I knew through friends of friends were not only interested, but seemed to be inspired by the notion of making Django Away. (Note to self: Not sure if that joke works in type.)

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I built a wonderful cast of actors that had either experience or talent or, in most cases, both. I would discuss with each actor the character they would be playing over a brew beforehand, but once on set we would quickly rough out the blocking then get to the fun part: shooting. I kept an eye on where they were positioned when I intended to make a cut so I wouldn’t have continuity problems in the edit. No scene had problems in post-production and nothing had to be re-shot.

Oh, and I must write something about everyone in the cast playing a character in ‘Reality’ and in the ‘Exifestern’ world, and how this was to try and imply how my comedy character’s stories were being inspired by the people he met and how he felt about them. How important is it that I’d like this ‘company of players’ to be seen in the tradition of O’Lucky Man and the Carry On cast? Not essential, but a nice detail.

My motto throughout the project was “keep it smaller than a farce”. No shoot had more than a camera operator and Ryan J Harrison running sound. It was definitely an inspired collaboration with Ryan on the sound design. His ability to bring out subtexts in sound is such a wonderful element of the final film. I was fortunate he replied to my ad and even more fortunate he was inspired by the script enough to work on the film for fun.

An extension monitor is invaluable to an actor/director, especially when they’re filming some scenes entirely on their own. Those early shoots were fun. Just me in a field somewhere, dressed head to foot in beige, acting out my Exifestern, not knowing where it would take me or whether anyone else would ever see it.

I think the main thing I’d like to impress on anyone who reads the article is that the film grew because I felt inspired and this, I think, became infectious. Everyone who worked on it approaching it like any other film they’d work on, rather than just a cheap one. This made it a magical and transformative project, and as soon as I dropped any pretence to be “professional” and began to simply make, things really began to fall into place.

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Oh, and the soundtrack. I know I wrote it, but it’s got some great songs as well as a Music-Hall-Meets-Morricone score. I’m looking forward to its digital release with all the dialogue quotes in between the tracks. 

I think I should probably end with a little bit about where I think the film might go. Well, I’m going to continue contacting my email list and try and get it screened at film nights and arts venues. Anywhere where I can get my film in front of its future audience’s eyes. Maybe video-on-demand? Maybe even do a Pop-up Cinema tour? Maybe Django Away! can make Dan go away too? (Does that one work in type?)

But before I wrote one word I thought I’d better re-read the email to make sure my eyes hadn’t just made up what I’d read to please my brain. But yes, I had been asked to write about my film for Den Of Geek – but within 1100 words or so.

“Well, I can still trust my eyes,” I thought. “But all these thoughts alone must be close to 1100 words!” After a moment’s confusion, I laughed as I thought “If making Django Away! taught me anything, it’s that I relish the challenge of getting my ideas across in any way I possibly can.”

Django Away is showing at Library Live!, Central Library, Manchester on the 19th March at 6pm and the Juniper Film Club, The Jekyll & Hyde, 28 Steelhouse Lane Birmingham on the 13th April.

More screenings to be confirmed throughout the year. You can find out more about the film and screenings at Daniel’s site, PresentsInc.

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Are you an independent filmmaker? Would you like to write about your own experiences for My Indie Film, or do you have a short film you’d like us to know about? You can find out about our future plans here.