Dan Hartley

Chicago is lucky to have it’s own Film Festival. Annually we escape and we learn through new movies- ones that are original, moving and unique. Last film festival, I met with director Dan Hartley, who was showing his feature film Lad: A Yorkshire Story, which has won twelve international film festival awards including 4 Gold Remi’s. The movie made me weep, but I’m a softie like that! Meeting Dan was fun to talk to, a kind and softly spoken spirit. But deep down lies an adventures soul with endless ideas and imaginations. Dan was raised in the Yorkshire Dales, England until the age of sixteen when his family migrated to Australia.

When he returned to England, Dan undertook a degree in Law at Newcastle University. He started his career in the film industry as a runner, “I thought it would make a solid foundation for whatever I did next”. Little did he know, he was soon to be handling an enviable role in one of the most successful movies to date. Dan was employed by Warner Bros. as a video co-ordinator on Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone, a position he held through all subsequent films. As a head of department on Harry Potter Dan led a team of video operators providing video playback, set- editing and detailed compositing for Visual FX. As such he has supervised multi-camera days involving upwards of fifteen cameras in elaborate and difficult shooting scenarios. His other credits to date are Clash of the Titans 2, Bourne Ultimatum, Eragon, Maleficent and most recently All You Need is Kill starring Tom Cruise.

A humble character, he’s very articulate, well composed and full of smiles, he’s one of the warmest and coolest persons you’ll meet! We were lucky to chat to him, so here’s a chat with Dan- let’s get inspired!

Hello Dan, welcome to Chicago. Is this your first time out here?
It certainly is my first time to Chicago though I’ve long wanted to visit as I’d heard the architecture was stunning. Even so I was stunned by how beautiful the city was. I’d been advised to take the architecture boat tour and it ranks as one of the best excursions I’ve ever taken. Really informative and I loved how much variety there was. I also managed to take in a number of restaurants though it was a whistle-stop trip so I didn’t get to any of the places I was recommended which was a shame, and I’d have liked to see more of the area outside downtown but that will have to wait for another trip.

What other states have you visited?
On this trip it was Chicago only but Lad has been to a number of festivals this year so I was in Anchorage, Alaska for a week and Houston, Texas for another.


Growing up, how much of American culture has influenced you?
I grew up in a small farming community in an isolated part of the UK but from the earliest point in time America has loomed large in my imagination and a large part of that is a result of TV and movies. Like many directors of my age, Star Wars was a pivotal film but then we also had a huge amount of TV, such as the Dukes of Hazard, A Team, Cagney and Lacey. It’s a country that I really enjoy visiting and I’ve spent a number of summers in Alaska, Pennsylvania and California. I hope eventually to explore more of the interior, especially the rockies so there’s that to look forward to. It’s certainly an inspirational country and there’s a strong sense that people are do-ers rather than back home where there’s a slightly less optimistic outlook.

I agree.. that’s why I’m here! What do you like about American culture?
I’ve visited the US far more than any other country and there’s a lot to admire. At its best it has fantastic food, incredible geography and a friendly, welcome atmosphere. What I don’t like is the dominance of corporations and the abuse of democracy through corrupt politics.

Pros and cons to every country.. You seem to enjoy working on projects that involve children/childhood adventures. How does this relate to your personal experiences?
I’m incredibly nostalgic, sentimental and sensitive so all these qualities lend towards making coming-of-age movies and I remember distinctly how much I enjoyed my childhood but how the transition from boy to man was daunting and uncertain. Ultimately I always look for the drama in a situation and so that milieu is a great place to explore. The great thing about working with child actors too is that if you find good cast, then you get so much emotional honesty and that’s very captivating on film. As adults we learn to hide some of our feelings and so often our persona acts to protect us from being hurt, whereas children haven’t necessarily learnt to do that and so in many ways they make the best actors, because they are just being themselves.

From Law to production- what happened?  Was it luck or a subconscious passion?
When I was sixteen my family migrated to Australia and through changing to a better school I was able to get really good grades which gained me admission to study law back in the UK. I didn’t particularly intend to become a lawyer but I thought it would make a solid foundation for whatever I did next. Having moved countries like that, I  benefited from a different perspective to some of my peers in that I realised that the world is full of opportunities and that with enough determination there was no reason that I couldn’t do anything that I wanted to do, within reason. So when I started my third year of study after a summer job in Pennsylvania I started writing a screenplay and realised that I really wanted to become a filmmaker. I then managed to get some work on a couple of film sets as a runner and this led to me working on Harry Potter which in turn led to a promotion and enabled me to start making short films on the side.


Your film, Lad: a yorkshire story, had a number of funny bits. Does that portray your character or did you feel it fitting to balance the movie’s melancholy ?
There’s a number of films that have come out of England – and specifically Yorkshire – which I really admire that have struck a really good balance between drama and humour. I knew that in telling a story that is essentially about mourning and growing up that I didn’t want the film to be bleak so I made a conscious decision to try and introduce humour into the film as often as I could. As to how that relates to me personally, I’d say that I’m not particularly a comic writer but I (hopefully) have the ability to create comic characters and there’s a strange thing that happens in writing where once you’ve created the characters, the humour actually comes from then. It sound strange but often when I’m writing I feel more like a conduit than a creator, as the characters come to life in my mind and I feel like they write the dialogue and I transcribe rather than write it.
What inspired you to write and produce your own movie? (and other than writing, directing and production, what else are you good at in a typical movie set)
I’ve been working on my directing career for around fourteen years now so I always intended to direct a feature film. Along the way I’ve made a lot of short films and eventually got to the point where I felt I was ready. When I’m directing I get a strong sense that this is the job that I was born to do so it feels less like a choice than a calling. In terms of the other question, I’d say that editing is something that I feel quite confident with. Over the course of the Harry Potter films I did a lot of editing on set as we were shooting and that gave me a really good sense of what is needed to tell a story as well as the nuts and bolts of how to shoot.

Have you considered acting as well?
I always hoped that I would eventually act but I think its quite unlikely now. I spent a year at an acting school a couple of years ago so as to inform my directing and it was really interesting to go through the experience and l learnt a huge amount. Ultimately though I realised how much work was required to become a good actor and I’m not sure I’ll ever be in the position to devote that much time to it, in preference to writing and directing etc.

How come you’re not in Hollywood/New York or ahem, Chicago?
I think the first priority has to be to raise my family in an environment/location that we want to be. I’d find it hard not to live close to mountains for instance. Equally there’s a huge amount of work in London and the majority of US studio films are now shot overseas so I don’t think there’s any requirement to be over there. I’m not familiar with how it works in Chicago but I’d love to shoot a film here.

We’ll have to know when you do and naturally stalk your shoots. What’s special about where you’re living and how does it allow for your creativity?
London is a great city. I have a wife and recently we had a baby boy called Archie. Being a parent is inherently inspirational. I absolutely love it. And as a filmmaker I’m bound to bring that experience into my films – we actually shot a short film with Archie already – Archie’s first birthday – which is on YouTube and has proved very popular!

Fun! I’m now inspired to have a baby and a baby video 🙂 What inspires you? Did you have any role models?
Landscape inspires me the most. I generally start each film by location scouting and as I really like to understand the setting of the story before I begin to write. I’m not sure about role models… I’ve certainly had mentors – the director I worked with on Harry Potter was very influential in my development and obviously the ranger who was in my life growing up was inspiring.


What was it like working on one of the most successful movie brands of all time, Harry Potter?
It was a wonderful experience in many ways. I worked on all the films so spent nearly ten years of my life working on them. The kids were lovely, the crew were very much like family but in a way we were isolated from the mania as we literally working away in a studio miles from anywhere. It’s certainly something that I will always be proud to have done – in much the same way that I imagine the Star Wars crew – knew they were doing something monumental.Now that you’re planning for Black Ice, (upcoming movie), how do you maintain that sense of excitement throughout filming?Every film I create, short or otherwise I’m very excited about making it. Firstly there has to be something in the story which I’m attracted to. With Black Ice, it’s a thriller set in Alaska – so again location is important – but also its exciting to make a film in a different genre and see what I can learn about fulfilling and challenging audience expectations.

I’m sorry but I had to slip this in- define your style in 3 words?
Classic. Honest.

If you were to ‘do it all over again’, would you? And what would you change/cut out?
There’s a scene in the film involving the boy taking a slurry spreader to spread manure over the local bank. We hadn’t expected to get permission so when it came through we weren’t prepared. As a consequence I’m not very happy with that sequence and know I could have done a lot better so I’m disappointed with that. There’s another scene too with the bank manager in which the actor who was supposed to play the role fell ill so we had to use the owner of the house and so the scene never came out as strong as it needed to be and for awhile I removed it from the final edit, only to put it back when I saw how the audience responded to it.

What’s a quote you live by?

Do unto others as you would have then do unto you

Any special disciplines, mantras, habits?
I found a process on Lad that really worked for me – scouting the locations and then casting the film – before I’d written the script. I found that workshops and improvisation could then be used really effectively to give the script honesty and make sure that it was written from within rather than without, if you like. I vary where I write – I wrote a lot of Lad on the train going back and forth to Yorkshire from London. Sometimes I wrote in the library, sometimes I wrote at home. Although I’m quite fixed in many ways, I find that I like to vary how/where I write. Silence is important and a bottle of wine is often welcome!

Lastly, what was your biggest challenge and how did you over come it?

Thankfully I’ve not faced too many challenges – not compared to some people – particularly in relation to grief, loss or depression say so I don’t really feel that I have an adequate response here. Making films is challenging but when you have a good crew and are well supported its amazing what you can achieve. I’ve always found that if I set a date when I intend to start shooting then it invariably works out – people are very supportive when they see that you’re determined and not easily deterred.

Check out Dan’s movie Lad: a Yorkshire Story‘s trailer here
Head Shots – Grant Legan
Photos in action – Nancy Rahman
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1 Comment

  • This is a great article. I appreciate how honest Dan is over some of the questions, especially admitting some of things things he’d like to change in the filming and casting. I also couldn’t help but smile over his favorite quote being the “Golden Rule” (what we called it in grade school), it’s a great motto to live by. Thanks for sharing.

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