CIFF 2013 – Interview with LAD: A YORKSHIRE STORY (2013) director Dan Hartley
director Dan Hartley with cinematographer David Mackie
On the afternoon of Sunday, October 16th, I met up with Dan Hartley at the JW Marriot in downtown Chicago. He had emailed me about a week or so ago, letting me know that he’d be in town to promote “Lad: A Yorkshire Story” his first feature-length film, and that he’d be available for interviews on certain dates. So, a day after I attending the first of three screenings of his film, Hartley was gracious enough to make time in his schedule for us to talk about it. He talked about how much time it took to make, his approach to both writing and directing, his work on the “Harry Potter” series, as well as his struggle with finding a distributor. Little did he know this would be my first interview with a filmmaker and I’m glad he was because he was quite cordial, relaxed and very accommodating.
“Lad: A Yorkshire Story” is an endearing tale about a rambunctious young teen named Tom Proctor (played by Bretten Lord), who befriends a park ranger named Al Thorpe (Alan Gibson), after the sudden death of his father. While his older brother goes off to join the military and his overwhelmed mother (Nancy Clarkson) struggle to make ends meet, the grief-stricken Tom eventually finds the guidance lacking in his life as he works alongside the kind and patient Al. He’s also introduced to Lucy, Al’s teenage granddaughter, who coerces Tom out of his comfort zone with her persuasive forthrightness. You can read more about the movie by checking out my review here.
For the independently financed film, Hartley worked with predominantly first-time actors indigenous to the Yorkshire village he grew up in. The story itself derives from Hartley’s own childhood and of the time he spent with a park ranger that had an indelible impact in his life during his early teenage years. The result is a touching and funny film that poignantly covers themes such as loss, grief, change and strength.
Now, without further ado, here’s my 30 minutes with writer/director Dan Hartley:
On the picturesque set of “Lad: A Yorkshire Story”
DJF: I’ll be summarizing the story prior to this interview and reviewing the film on my site, but I wanted to begin by getting some background. So, can you talk about your production company, Rogue Runner – how it came to be, how long it’s been around and where you came up with the name?
DH: Okay. It started life as a blog in 1999 when I was a runner in the UK film industry and I was probably about a year into it and I was pretty fed up with the way that runners were treated – and I should think it’s probably not changed that much – but I thought it’d be quite fun to have an anonymous blog written by this slightly exaggerated, antagonistic runner. So, I did that for a while and those that read it really dug what I was doing with it and it was kind of spoken about in the industry without anybody really knowing who it was. And then I got a job on “Harry Potter” and I thought – well, I’d better stop writing that – because I wouldn’t last on “Harry Potter” if I did. So, I had the name Rogue Runner, which is the character, and over the next ten years I worked on “Harry Potter” and each time a film ended, I worked on a short film.
DH: I just progressed like that, right through the franchise and emerged from “Harry Potter” around 2009 or 10, and I felt like it was time to make the transition into feature films and that really was when I set out to make “Lad”.
DJF: I noticed that “Lad” was a short story first.
DH: Yeah. I had a couple of the characters and a ten minute script for several years. Which I tried to get funding through the UK film counsel and I hadn’t gotten anywhere with it. But, it was enough, the characters were enough to start with, I suppose. I had the idea about making a film about a lad who meets a park ranger, but I thought if I just made a ten minute short – which I made in February 2011 – it could be the first ten minutes of the film and I could develop the film and move it on from there. So, It was a short, but only for a very short period of time, because we were literally shooting the film four months later.
DJF: I noticed that you had made a lot of different shorts, so what was it about “Lad” that made you think – this should be a feature film? Did people encourage you to do so or….?
DH: Yeah. One of my first professional shorts was called “Love You, Joseph Hughes” and that was in, 2005, I think, and we did quite well with that film and at the time, I had looked into what to do next and I had spoken with the people I was collaborated with and I mentioned this idea of, from my past, about the lad with the park ranger. And as the year progressed, whenever I saw the same people, they would always ask me – are you gonna make that? That just really like the idea and I realized that when I told people the idea about a boy who suffers the loss of his dad and forms a friendship with a park ranger – it was very simple and everyone understood instantly and they also had quite a warm reaction to it. So, I thought it sort of stood the test of time and deserved to be made.
DJF: Well, I think so. When I saw it yesterday for the first time, it was the first of three movies that I saw – and the experience went from really good, great – your film – to not so good. (both laugh)
DH: ….ideally you want it the other way around….
DJF: Yeah, I guess it’s good to start off great. True.
But – there are so many different scenes that resonated with me – and I remember someone asked in the Q&A that followed, “What am I supposed to feel?” – which is kind of an odd question, because people are going to take away different things from watching the film.
But, I think what resonated most with me was how – I think, it’s such a tender age, that, especially when there’s a parent who’s absent, due to work (or death), and just not really connecting with the child, then somebody has to pick up the slack. I experienced that as well when I was Tom’s age, you know, I had someone like a teacher or a friend’s father, who helped shape who I am.
DJF: And so that’s why I really appreciated you taking the time and energy to make this movie. Because I think it will, it has for me, but it will resonate with people who’ve experience the same thing.
DH: Yeah. Most mentors, I think – at least at school, if not, maybe in a more profound way – and, I’m not sure all coming-of-age films have mentors, but it certainly is a nice combination I think.
Bretten Lord and Dan Hartley on the set of “Lad: A Yorkshire Story”
DJF: Do you think there is usually somebody or some thing that serves as a catalyst in coming-of-age films? Do you think there has to be some person present to direct that young boy or girl in a certain way?
DH: I think it won’t always be some person, but in my case, the experience, came from the short I mentioned, that was, I think nine minutes long and that was just a boy-meets-girl story and they become awakened with the idea of love.
DH: And the catalyst then is “boy-meets-girl”, so yeah and I think it was because I knew I had that experience, I just had some sort of instinct, but I hadn’t really tried to analyze it.
DJF: I liked that you asked the audience questions after the screening, which is quite rare – and one of them was kind of along the lines of “Why’d you pick my film? Why are you here?” – and the main reason I picked the film is because I’m a sucker for semi-autobio films and coming-of-age stories. But I feel like a lot times in these kinds of films, there’s a sense of emotional manipulation or over-dramatization – and here there’s none of that. I really appreciated that. I just felt like you were trusting your audience and letting us feel what was happening on our own.
DJF: Was that a conscious decision?
DH: Well, I guess that’s, in a way, whether you go down a preachy kind of route. Where, what I really kinda strived for, which is why I went about the film the way I did, was honesty. And I think if you just have an honest story, people will respond most to that.
DJF: Well, it’s there.
DH: You don’t need or want the contrivance, because we’re all sophisticated enough as an audience to have our own understanding of upbringing to bring to it.
DJF: Right. I felt like the setting of the film struck me as a bit curious, because here is a director looking back on his life and yet it takes place in what appears to be modern-day – not in the period you experienced it in, whatever, 70s or 80s. And the only actually reference to a time period is when Tom notices a pin-up calendar that has “November 2008” on it.
DJF: Was that a deliberate decision to have the film take place in a somewhat modern-day setting?
DH: It was a budgetary decision.
DJF: Okay. That’s what I thought.
DH: You know, we didn’t even consider setting it in the past, because we could never have done it. But, organically I would’ve chosen to set it at the time that I was raised.
DH: But all I did to keep it non-date specific was to keep technology out of it, but I didn’t in the end. I had computers screens and cell phones and, at one point I was going to avoid them, but I think it was a better thing to have it contemporary, because it’s, in a way, it’s cheating a little bit, to have it historical, because then you get the nostalgia for free and you’re not working for it the same. I don’t know it that makes sense, but….
DJF: Yeah. I think you’re right. The nostalgia that I picked up was more of an emotional nostalgia, not necessarily a time period.
DH: Well, we love watching films from the 70s, 80s and 90s….
DH: ….and a lot of directors do that. They actually tell their own story and as soon as you start seeing those vintage things and you’re taken back personally into that time period, then you’ve already won over audience to a large extent.
DH: And I think I’m glad that I didn’t do it, because I learned more as a filmmaker by not.
DJF: I think it provides more of an absorbing connection between the viewers and the characters, whereas, it may be more distracting if it was set in a time period. So, how long was the whole process, from pre-production to post?
DH: Well, it was a little unique or unusual, because it didn’t follow the normal convention of, say – you write a script, you try and get money, you cast it – we did everything jumbled about. So, I had already the ten minute short film, but then on November 2010 we started scouting locations – that was the first thing we did – because I hadn’t really visited or lived in Yorkshire in twenty years and I wanted to really explore it again. And then a month later we started casting again and I didn’t know who all the actors/characters would be. For instance, there’s a girl who plays the ranger’s granddaughter (Lucy) and she really didn’t have a place in the film, I just thought we’d probably want the girl in the film. So, I had the boy, his brother, Lucy and the dad and the mom, I think, something like that.
At the end of 2010, we shot the short film in February 2011, and then I had to go back to work, because I ran out of money. So, I did four months on “Wrath of the Titans” as a crew member. In that four months, I actually worked some with the kids and we did some more casting. We actually wrote the film in the same period that I was doing this work and we started shooting in August. So, it was very quick. It was a really strange and quick process. We shot two weeks in August and then took the footage, edited it as per the script and realized where the areas were and what it could be improved and rewrote the script and shot it again in November.
So, about a year – from very beginning to the end of shoot.
Lining up an interior shot for “Lad: A Yorkshire Story”
DJF: As far as the writing process, how many drafts did you go through?
DH: I don’t know if I know, really. Because it wasn’t, it wasn’t one of those formal – here’s the first draft, here’s the second – but, probably, I’m guessing five.
DJF: And then you had that as the working script to go by?
DH: Yeah. Yeah and because I had the workshops, I mean, some of the scenes – and what I find compelling – is that you have scenes where the ranger is really taking the lad under his wing and is teaching him about life and how to overcome his grief. And that dialogue is in the film and it comes from the audition that the ranger, played by Alan Gibson, did for me.
DH: So, this is a man who walked into a room, responding to an open casting call, who’d never acted before. And he delivered the two pages that I’d written and we then said, okay we just want to freestyle it now….so, imagine….my producer is six-foot two and harry (laughs) and imagine he’s a boy of fourteen who’s just lost his dad and you’re trying to give him some words of comfort. And this man, this man who became an actor, Al, just freestyled it and was so perfect because it was honest, that it’s in the film verbatim.
DJF: That must’ve just floored you. I mean….
DH: Yeah, it did floor me. It was one of those castings where I just sat there – and, he starts the casting badly, because we tell him he has to pick up a piece of wood like he’s working on a style. And we watch and nothing happens. And then after a few seconds, he goes, “Oh, you mean now?” (both laugh). And we were like “Oh God, what do we got here?”
And so, it started like that and by the end, my fiance, who was in the room, I ushered her to sit next to me and sit and watch him. And he was just so compelling. And that’s how the script developed and that’s why I don’t need other drafts, because I do a workshop and that scene might just be kind of perfect and it will just go in the film.
DJF: I think the most compelling roles in the film, for me, where the three characters played by Alan Gibson, Bretten Lord and Nancy Clarkson. Just because their scenes together were so engaging. Alan’s character is pretty even-keel, you know, but he offers so much to Tom, that is emotionally gratifying. I was just so grateful to be able to see actors on the screen and not notice the acting. They just felt like characters. Characters that a lot of us know and can relate to from our own lives.
DH: Yeah. And they were characters. The film was cast with people from that community and they were chosen, irrespective of any acting, just because when they performed their audition they were just really compelling and charismatic and natural. So, that, combined with workshops and the, sort of organic development of the script, meant that you were going to see real people.
Nancy Clarkson as Tom’s mother in “Lad: A Yorkshire Story”
DJF: We’ll get to the workshops in a moment, because that’s definitely interesting to me. But, the more I think about these characters, the more I find myself thinking about the title. The movie could’ve just been called “Lad”, but it’s a “Yorkshire Story” and it’s evident from the start – like you mentioned earlier – these characters, these actors, are indigenous to the area. That’s something I really appreciate, because in an International Film Festival, I want to be exposed to people I wouldn’t regularly come across. I just had to mention that. So, these workshops, these were rehearsals to bring the actors together or…?
DH: These were, well, I took a year to engage as an actor in a workshop in London and one of the exercises we would do would be role play and various things, the method studios, and I learned a lot about acting techniques and stuff. One of the things I brought to the film from that was – you can do something really interesting if you just say to one actor, take him to the side and give him specific direction. I forget the scene, I’m trying to remember the scene with Bretten, the Lad, and Lucy, the granddaughter. And I told him, no matter what happens, you stay in that spot and keep fishing. No matter what happens, you are never to leave that spot. And her direction was, you got to get him to leave. And you just put them together with conflicting goals. Drama comes from conflict, so from that two or three minutes of scene, they wrestle with how to say what they want to say or how to get an apology – it’s fascinating. A lot of the workshops were very simple conflicted desires and then I would just add layers of character or circumstances and then the subtext became apparent.
DJF: I was wondering as I was watching the film, if you had used that kind of method with Lucy and Tom, during the lunch with the kiss – because his reaction was priceless.
DH: (laughs) I tell ya what, he’s so much fun. Pretty much from the moment we cast him and we met his parents – and I learned he grew up in the same village I grew up in – and his dad was someone I vaguely remembered from my childhood. The way they brought him up though, it was just like, he wasn’t a kid. They talked to him they way the would an adult. They took the piss out of him – they joked with him, they didn’t treat him in any fragile sort of way. And they’re just tremendously fun people.
So, with Bretton I could play a bit with him. My girlfriend used to say really inappropriate things to him on cards (laughs), just to try and get him to squeal and his parents didn’t seem to care. And we just got in to this method of being ruder and ruder, just to see his reaction. And then in the beginning of the film where he’s given a porn magazine from his brother, well the trick there was to not let him know what was going to happen in that scene. So, when he’s given it, his reaction is genuine.
He was just at that perfect age of 13 or 14 where he had some exposure to sensuality, but no experience.
DJF: That’s great.
DJF: So, you kind of indoctrinated him into those kind of magazines then (laughing).
DH: Well, certainly – the beer was real. The cider was real. The magazine was real. The scene was real. It was all real.
Al Gibson as park ranger Al Thorpe, working on a style.
DJF: Well, there you go. There are several really emotional scenes in the film and you manage to balance them out with some needed levity. And one scene I’d like you to talk about – how you prepared for it, staged it and filmed it – was the scene when Tom’s mother got the news while she was watching him play football.
DH: Yeah. Well, I have to say, because of the speed of the production, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for planning done in advance. So, we would literally, the night before shooting, we had our script and separated the scenes and we had them on this big board and sort of jigsawed them around and said, “Okay, tomorrow we’re gonna shoot these two or three scenes and….” I can’t remember which block the football scene arrived. But I didn’t really talk to Nancy too much about it, she understood what was required, which was, she was about to lose her husband. I knew she had real range and strength as an actress, so….you know, the thing with directing, always, is if you cast it right, you don’t actually have to do that much.
You just have to create an environment and trust your actors. I mean, it was quite a tough day because we’re shooting and there’s all these kids and cameras….
DJF: Right. There’s one on the sidelines, one in the field, for Tom’s point of view….now, did you tell Bretten what was gonna go down with the scene?
DH: Yeah. He knew.
DJF: Again, I just thought his reaction was so genuine.
DH: Yeah, you know. Perhaps that’s all him, because I wouldn’t have written his reaction. He would’ve just been reacting. He just says, “What’s up? What’s up?” And, there’s no trick to that scene beyond Nancy really just understanding what was required in the moment and Bretten reacted as he does so well throughout the film. He’s just very intuitive.
And, he’s a very dyslexic kid. He doesn’t do well in school, but he’s got so much intelligence in so many ways.
DJF: And the obvious intuitiveness, as you mentioned….
DJF: I like how, that scene was about all we got in regards to the subject of the loss of the father. There was no funeral scene, there’s no – because what else is there really to say? The majority of the movie is about this young boy and what would become his surrogate father.
DH: I wanted it to be sudden. Because that’s how quickly it can go.
DJF: Yeah. And it was almost like a “less is more” approach. You know, it’s more important to show instead of tell. I’m sure some viewers may wonder how he died. It matters, but it really doesn’t. It happened and we have to move on, both in real life and as a filmmaker.
DH: Yeah and the challenge was, actually, was to figure out when that moment should occur. I had about fifteen minutes of footage before that, that I didn’t want to let go of. But, it just meant that we would then be waiting to get into the story, because the story really begins at that point. So, I couldn’t dally around too much. It meant that I had to cut out scenes with the lad and his dad and various other things there.
Al Boughen, the real life inspiration for the park ranger in “Lad: A Yorkshire Story”
DJF: At the post-screening Q&A yesterday, you mentioned how your father is alive and there’s that element of the movie that falls under the “semi” part of the semi-autobiography and it’s inevitable that you’re building up certain elements to make the drama work. But, is there any other aspect that you created for the movie, that didn’t necessarily take place in your past?
DH: Well, a lot of the scenes have their basis in my life. They’ve just been adapted. I remember being distinctly being the young brother to my older brother and trying to join in with games that he and his friends were playing out in the same hill that I shot on.
DH: And I was a little weedy kid and I was like, “Come away. Can I play?” and they’d run off and leave me. So, lots of scenes have that sort of thing. I once got in trouble with the police because I smashed a window at a bus shelter on Halloween night and I felt terribly guilty. I was taken to the police office by my dad and they were absolutely fine about it, but I – it stayed with me.
DJF: Yeah. It scared you.
DH: And my dad remembered that scene when I made the film. He was like, he knew the connection. So, I just dug around for things that I remembered and then made them fit the narrative of the film. But, yeah, the main thing is that I did befriend a park ranger when I was about fourteen. He was a neighbor in the village and I would spend my weekends with him. I would just volunteer to accompany him – weekends and school holidays – and I just so distinctly remember the feeling of being in his Land Rover, whilst he was rolling a cigarette or having his lunch or having tea or coffee out of the thermos – and feeling, that feeling that I guess kids get with their dad.
DH: And I just hadn’t – you know, being taken to a football match or a sporting event or whatever that might be – because my dad worked seven days a week, more or less throughout my childhood – we hadn’t had that shared experience. Other than the shop where I eventually started working in. His shop. So, I just – that was the core. Remembering that and having it represented well on-screen.
DJF: And to this day, can you build a killer dry stone wall? (laughs)
DH: Dry stone wall? I never did make a dry stone wall. I would style. would repair paths. I did a bunch of things, but never the wall.
DJF: That was an interesting way to empower the lad, because he actually found some type of talent and, again, here’s Al, encouraging him in subtle ways.
DH: Yeah. It’s – I feel really lucky with the rocks. Because it was kind of staring me in the face, but I didn’t see it for quite a while through that year of filming – with the rocks and what was going on here. He would eventually participate in this dry stone wall-building competition. But, the piece of that jigsaw only really came together between the first section of shooting and the second, I think. And then once I had that, it just really seemed perfect.
Because, of course that’s why the film is set there – fossiling is important and it just really tied the whole film together. So, I was very happy about that.
Walking up to the quarry on the set of “Lad: A Yorkshire Story”
DJF: So, how has your family responded to the film?
DH: Well, they love it. They’re very proud of me. Proud of it. They currently are (smiles), financially exposed as a result of helping me make it. So, I mean they’ve said if we need to write this movie off, so be it, it’s worth the risk.
DH: But, I think it’d be a terrible tragedy if I don’t manage to recoup on the film. Just because we really feel – we’re really proud of it.
DJF: Well, I hope you do. Because I really feel it meets a niche in the subgenre of film, that of coming-of-age, but it offers much more than what we usual see. It’s almost a genre mashup, combining a family drama and coming-of-age. It’s a tender, funny and poignant film. I was very satisfied watching it and I want more people to see it. So, that’s my next question to you – probably a frustrating one – how are more people going to see it?
DH: Oh. Yeah, that is frustrating. I toured all around the UK and went to some national parks. We won twelve awards at festivals that we took it to in North America. One of the best received screenings was in Germany. So, wherever I go, I really feel there’s an audience for the film. But, if I take the British situation, when I speak to distributors over there, they will say “we think it’s a small film that will do really well in Yorkshire” and they can’t seem to understand that because it’s got “Yorkshire” in the title, well, they think it’s just made for Yorkshire – whereas, your comment in the beginning was quite apt. You watch a film to see what different cultures are like, to experience it. And it is curious that you mention that about the title, because it’s both a blessing and a curse.
(knock knock knock)
That’s someone at the door. Should we….?
DJF: That’s alright. I’ll edit it. Let me get that. (walks over to the door and tells housekeeping to come back in twenty minutes).That was housekeeping. I told her come back in twenty – we’re almost done.
DH: Yeah, so – calling it “Lad: A Yorkshire Story”, you’re the first person to ask about the title and I’ve never been quite certain how I feel about it myself. Because, in a way, it should just be a simple “Lad”, but I think it (having “Yorkshire” in it) actually helps because it opens up my audience, because people want to engage a bit more in this Yorkshire story as well. But, how are they going to see it?
DH: At the moment, we retain all the rights. We have a sales agent, who’s trying to secure a distributor. If we’re unsuccessful, then I will probably give the film away for free, rather than have it not seen. Because, it’s a tricky one – in some ways, you want to think, if I keep progressing as a filmmaker, maybe it will have it’s moment in the future. But, the danger as an independent filmmaker is that you can very easily give away your rights for free. I mean, the sort of contracts that you’re offered are – I’m gonna give the film away for three years, seven years, ten years – the distributors are gonna take all their expenses out, and then if they sell territories then I’ll get some of that money, but they’re not obligated to sell anything.
So, you can very easily be in a situation where you’re signing a contract and suddenly your labor of love is owned by someone else.
DJF: And there it goes….
DH: Yeah. I’ve seen one or two of those contracts and just don’t like it. So, watch this space (www.roguerunner.com), I guess….
DJF: Of course. I’m gonna let people know about you’re website as well as the shorts that are there. My goal here is to just bring exposure to a film that I really enjoyed. And I want to thank you for your time.
DH: Well, thank you.