Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Dan Hartley, director of Tom’s short film, “White Other.” Tom had met Dan on the “Harry Potter” set where Dan has been working as the Video Playback Operator for the films; Dan is currently working on the finishing touches related to the release of the last in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2” when not scouting out locations, film festivals, or investors for his own films.
In speaking with Dan, I learned much about the independent film-making process, what it was like working with his actors, spending ten years in the “film school” that was set of “Harry Potter,” and how he hopes to turn “White Other” into a feature film. Through his lyrical anecdotes, you can see why reading a script written by him would induce such film notables as Tom Felton and Oscar-Nominee/BAFTA Winner Imelda Staunton into working for him for free.
Lily: “White Other” is not your first short film. How did the story come to you? Is it like any of your other work?
Dan: White Other is my eleventh short film. Eleven films in eleven years. There’s actually a film I want to write called Level Eleven too but I’m already going off topic..
So, how did it come to me? It actually started out as one of three stories that I was interested in making, all of which were based on the idea that a stranger comes to a hospital, has an ulterior motive and then only when they leave do we find out what it was.
Of the three ideas White Other was the strongest and also the one that enabled me to do something different – which is to explore the world of gang culture and knife crime. Now in England, this has been a hot topic for many years but generally our experience of it is through the news and there’s always a moralistic angle that doesn’t go any way towards helping us understand the circumstances behind the crimes.
So, that was the hook for me. The opportunity to get into the shoes of one of the kids who is stuck in a cycle of violence and try to understand what he’s feeling, what choices are available to him and how he sees the ‘other’ world, which is what Imelda’s character represents.
Again I’m off topic but I think that’s why the title seemed right to me. Because society has a tendency to classify people and in classifying these youngsters as criminals and outlaws, we don’t take responsibility for fixing the problem. By calling the film ‘White Other’ I’m kind of teasing the audience to look at how they classify themselves and those around them.
So it isn’t like any of my other films as regards subject matter but I hope they all have one thing in common, that they tell a story and invite the audience to reflect on what they’ve just experienced. Oh and I generally like my shorts to have a twist too!
Lily: What got you in to film-making?
Dan: I broke up with a girlfriend and began writing a script the next day. That was Valentine’s Day in 1997. I’m still writing but luckily I found another girl
Lily: Independent film-making is notoriously hard to find funding for. How much did WO cost to make, and did you pay for all of it out of your own pocket? Were there other investors/production companies invested in this film?
Dan: It is incredibly difficult to fund a short film, particularly as it’s almost impossible to recoup the money that goes into making them. On top of that they generally take up about four months of full time work, require dozens of people to work for free and involve loads of favours and goodwill.
So, I’ve became resigned sometime ago to the fact that the only way I was going to be able to make them was if I fund them myself. Which is why I’ve generally done about one a year. That’s all I can afford! As regards White Other, the budget was around $15,000 and if that sounds high, it’s not because of my actors who very generously gave their time for free, nor the crew who also worked for expenses only.
Ultimately in any sort of filmmaking the audience is used to seeing high quality films and so even though we’re working in the independent sector we really need to compete with films that are made on much higher budget and with greater resources.
So, nope, no financial support but a huge amount of goodwill from friends and crew within the industry whom generously gave up their time, equipment or expertise.
Lily: How long did it take to shoot the film? Where was it shot?
Dan:The film was shot over two days in Ealing Hospital, West London. We hired a ward that was about to be redecorated so we had the run of the entire floor which was fantastic.
Lily: Do you plan on releasing it to any film festivals across the globe?
Dan: We’re just now beginning our festival run, with Anchorage International Film Festival will be premiering the film, with hopefully dozens of other festivals around the globe to follow.
Lily: Your other films have relatively unknown actors; how did you get such internationally known names to star in WO?
Dan: For that I owe the many years I’ve spent working on Harry Potter. Now that might sound like I had it easy but I’ve been working on the films for ten years now and it was only when they came to an end that I felt the time was right to try my lucky and ask for a favour. That’s no reflection on the actors who are both incredibly personable and generous, but rather etiquette on set supposes that people don’t go bombarding the actors with requests for favours as they have a job to do.
I must say now, I’m bloody glad I asked.
Lily: Did you work with them both much on the Harry Potter sets? As the Video Playback Operator, you got to see the majority of their footage as it was shot. Did you subconsciously use this footage as if you were auditioning people? How did you approach them? Were you nervous?
Dan: As a Video Playback Operator I basically get to see everything that’s filmed on set and what’s more I’m generally within earshot of the director so I’m privy to how he makes decisions (it’s generally a he!) and also how he works with the actors and crew. So, essentially it’s a great job for anyone who wants to direct because you’re basically getting paid to learn how to direct. Harry Potter was for me a ten year film degree and I’ve really tried to learn as much as I can from the craft of the directors who I’ve worked for.
So it’s not really a question of auditioning the actors, rather learning the best bits from the directors. Indeed when it came to working with actors, I think there’s no substitute to enrolling in an acting class as I did a couple of years ago and putting yourself in their shoes. That’s the truest way of understanding how they feel, what they need to know and how best to work with them. Then again, when you have someone of the calibre of Imelda Staunton on set, there’s very little you need do as a director..
Lily: The HP cast and crew seem like a very tight-knit community. With WO being shot during the final months of DH filming, was everyone you spoke with regarding the film supportive of this outside endeavor? Was there anyone in particular that was a mentor to you, a sounding board for your directorial ideas?
Dan: Across the years and throughout all my short films I’ve had a huge amount of support from the crew of Harry Potter. Many times the same crew who I’m working alongside during the week, have given up their time on the weekend to come and work on my short film. I’ve also been encouraged by the producers and directors over the years and have always been able to seek advice or get an audience for the films after they’ve been shot.
So, yes I’ve been incredibly fortunate and I do class the crew of Harry Potter as family. I don’t think there has been, or ever will be a film franchise where so many people have worked together for so long and there’s a lot of friendship and comaraderie that goes with that.
Lily: Feltbeats Admin @Estrella89san would like to know, what made you decide that Tom would be good for the role of Ray?
Dan: In essence I would have to say that’s because I think Tom is a terrific actor who I thought would be hungry to take a role as complex as that of Ray and make it his own. I think what Tom has demonstrated through his portrayal of Malfoy is a deep commitment but also terrific acting instincts. I was certain that if he had the chance to take on a challenge he’d commit himself to it entirely and relish the opportunity, which is exactly what he did.
Lily: What was it like working with Tom from a directing stand point? Does he take direction well?
Dan: Tom possesses many great qualities which made him a pleasure to work with. He’s very charming, very generous and also really passionate about his work. So just on a personable level he’s great to work with.
What I think made it special though was that this was an opportunity for Tom to craft a character in a way that he hadn’t done before – particularly I suppose because he was so young when he began playing Draco but more so because he’s just one piece in a very complex puzzle that’s already been crafted by Joanne Rowling.
With White Other, the puzzle is inside the character Ray and I think Tom had a lot of fun playing with the audiences perception of the character by choosing what to reveal and when. And to that end I would say he took direction incredibly well. He was really eager to find the character that I’d written and absolutely committed to bringing him to life with authenticity and believability.
Lily: Was there a lot of improvisation allowed, or did Tom and Imelda stick fairly well to the script?
Dan: They finished film is almost exactly the same as the script. I think due to the time restraints it wasn’t practicable to go down the improvisational route though I would have loved to.
Lily: What was it like working with BAFTA winner and Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton?
Dan:A masterclass in acting. What I think is remarkable is that most of our understanding of Lynne – Imelda’s character – is through reaction shots. She’s not actually saying anything and yet we see this incredibly complex inner life. We feel her regret, her anger, her doubt, her misgivings all in the one moment! She’s a stunning actress. But also she’s great fun to be around. She’s got a mischievous sense of humour and she’s incredibly humble. In fact when we were clearing out of the hospital on the Sunday, I saw her carrying out the rubbish bags..
Lily: Without giving too much away, FeltFan @NorahBA9 asks what emotions are you hoping the audience will draw from watching the film? Are these the same emotions from your other works?
Dan: Well I certainly want people to be surprised by the ending. For my taste, I really enjoy a short film that has a twist, or a revelation at the end and I’ve generally tried to have that in most my films, so there is a continuity in that respect. In terms of White Other though, what I would hope is that they think a little more deeply about the specific situation that gang members find themselves in, that the audience sees beyond the cliché and that hopefully that instills in them a desire to improve the situation.
Lily: You’ve mentioned you would like to turn the film into a feature length presentation. Is the script already written? Have Imelda and Tom shown interest in resuming their roles? Will the release of the short impact whether it will be made?
Dan: At the moment there isn’t a feature script for White Other but what has been interesting is seeing what came out of the interaction between the character ‘Ray’ and his Facebook friends. I think that I’d like to involve the fans in the creation of the feature film, for instance the first question might be do we go back in time and learn what happened to Ray before the hospital visit or do we go forward from then and find out where the story goes next. I think next year could be very exciting as we work on developing the direction of the film. What ultimately we want is to show investors that people are really interested and involved in seeing the story progress.
Lily: The website for the film is very innovative in that it uses various multimedia techniques to allow viewers to solve clues in order to see the film. How did this idea come about? Were some of the clips real events that took place, or were they also written and shot by you specifically as companion pieces? Would they be included in the feature length if it gets made?
Dan: I think as with Ray’s Facebook page, the website kind of grew from a simple idea but actually became a fundamental part of White Other. When I did the research into the film and learned about some of the people who had been effected by knife crime and also got an understanding of the territories, or in this case, postcodes, it made me want to ground the story in realism. So the first news report is of a real crime and then all the other videos are responses in one way or another to that, or to Ray’s background.
What that hopefully does, is give the audience a much greater understanding of the world that Ray comes from and to see and hear some of the other characters who were involved in his past. I guess it’s like a taster of the feature film, an opportunity to try out some storylines and see what develops. If we get the go ahead I think we would continue to expand on this idea by making the website an interactive part of the finished film.
“White Other” was released online for a short time as a sneak peek for those that took part in the film’s innovative Facebook campaign. Receiving such reviews as “truly one of the best & dramatic, most moving performances I have ever seen in my life,” “The ending left me stunned. This really is AWESOME. Tom Felton is no doubt a wonderful actor!” and mutliple cases of “OMG Brilliant!” the film will be released and shown at film festivals across the globe through 2011. It’s first scheduled screening begins tomorrow at the Anchorage Film Festival in Alaska, USA. The film will also be available for purchase online in spring 2011.