One after another, the viewers’ comments pile on the praise: “A great work of art that will stand the test of time. True, honest, raw but beautiful, just as the Dales and the people who inhabit them”, “a little gem” and “Will become a classic!”
The public response to the film Lad: A Yorkshire Story is looking very good. But for director Dan Hartley it has been a long wait for audience approval on this scale. In fact his film may well classify as the slowest rolling snowball hit of all time.
“It is just a huge relief that the film is now finally being seen by a lot of people,” said Hartley this weekend.
After five years of hurdles and setbacks his small-budget story of a boy facing life-changing events amid an awe-inspiring rural landscape is racking up big viewing figures, first more than one and a half million on YouTube and now 400,000 after its proper release on Amazon, as well as a growing stream of positive reviews from the public. But the story, which is based on Hartley’s own childhood experiences growing up in the town of Austwick, really began 10 years ago, he said.
“I was so naive at the beginning, after making the film, and I thought I was over the hardest part. I’d edited the film and got the trailer and the poster, so the distribution was going to be simple.”
The film was made in 2011 with a cast of newcomers and help from the community soon after Hartley had left film school. With a few short films already under his belt and an abandoned career in the law behind him, he noticed all the producers he met were especially drawn to his idea of telling the story of a friendship between a park ranger and young teenage boy in danger of losing his way in the world.
“As a boy I had left Yorkshire with my family for Australia and felt uprooted. I was absolutely in love with the dales and had a friendship with a ranger back then that really helped me. I had such a homesickness for it and I think involving the community in this film was my way to avoid any misplaced nostalgia, yet stealthily to feel I was still part of it.”
Hartley took a friend and business partner back to see his childhood playground and they began the search for a young star to play the boy, “Tom”, eventually finding Bretten Lord. “He was so charismatic and it was clear he was going to be a star, so we had to quickly find our park ranger, Al, before Bretten grew up although we didn’t even have funding at that point.”
A former SAS soldier, Alan Gibson, who had also never acted before, was offered the role of Al and filming began in the hills around Settle. Unfortunately for Hartley by the time he had finished the DVD market had slumped, the recession had bitten and a film with no well-known names in it was viewed as too heavy a risk.
Without a distribution deal, Hartley took the film around to national parks to show audiences there. “I could not find one that did not respond really positively, so I knew I had my audience. But I had no way to reach them. It is a responsibility making a film and people have put their faith in you, so I kept on fighting. From the outside it looked like madness.”
Several film festivals were, however, keen to show the film and it earned a cluster of international awards for acting, cinematography and direction.
In the meantime Hartley, who is now 46, went back to his work on the sets of big-budget pictures, including the Harry Potter series and a succession of Ridley Scott projects. And, although he could not forget Lad, he started to develop other personal projects.
“It probably held me back about five years in my career, if I am honest. And there have been low points. My son was born as I was editing it and then for a while I was trying to sell it while sustaining the relationship with my wife. In the end I suspected the journey with this film would just go on.”
Four years later Hartley signed a modest deal with American distributors, in spite of the fact it offered minimal returns.
“I was working on the Spider-Man set, I think, when I got the first of a string of emails from people telling me they had seen the film and loved it. It turned out it had been sold off in a bundle of independent films to YouTube for $150 and already had 250,000 views. It was a real validation.”
Hartley is now reconciled to the notion that he will never earn any money from the film which he made for the comparatively tiny budget of £65,000, but he is delighted it is finding an audience.
At last his Lad is following in the footsteps of other Yorkshire favourites such as Ken Loach’s 1969 classic Kes and the recent critical hit, God’s Own Country.
“To be honest I find it too painful to watch God’s Own Country, although I am sure it is a well-deserved success,” confessed Hartley, who now lives in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.
However at least Hartley now has a legion of new fans to comfort him. One who posted online has picked out the honest way the story is told, while another, from someone who admits he is “no film critic”, reads: “I felt the roles the actors were playing meant something to them. Which meant more to me and the Mrs than a million pound paycheck actor/actress doing the same job.”