Why you need to know about aspiring director Danny Cotton
Based in the United Kingdom, Danny Cotton is an aspiring film director who is excited about telling new stories through film in both short and feature length productions.
Cotton’s early beginnings in film consisted of several shorts, many in the horror vein to gain more knowledge of the production processes. During this time of finding his voice through shorts Danny began to experiment and move into science fiction – creating concepts which delved into new worlds without the need for huge budgets or having special effects sequences.
Alongside Cotton’s own works, he gained further experience by diving into many roles on film sets including assistant director, cinematographer, and editor. It was after this first period of short films that Danny created Fabrication Images – a brand to put his projects under. The first production under this company is a dystopian, fantasy, animation, project.
Cotton then entered the feature film circuit, beginning with Matt Long’s Soldiers of Embers, as director. Cotton also wrote and directed No More Lights in the Sky – which went into production as the former feature was finishing principal photography.
Both features went on to have successful festival runs as they await distribution. Danny is currently creating a found-footage feature film – being completely made during the lockdown period – called Ascension Chronicles. Cotton is also writing his next feature film, a science fiction feature entitled Existence Fading, in the hopes of looking for funding options soon after.
Danny likes nothing more than conceptualizing new ideas in his spare time and thinking of new worlds to explore, in the hopes that one day they will be brought to life on screen.
About Soldiers of Embers
Soldiers of Embers follows the story of ex-paratrooper, Jack Bishop, who is adjusting back to civilian family life whilst trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter. Jack always felt guilty for not seeing his daughter grow up whilst he was away at war. The film follows Jack down a dark path of brotherhood and vengeance.
After Matt Long completed the script stage of Soldiers of Embers Cotton was brought on board to add his creative vision to the project. It wasn’t long after this collaboration began that all the pieces came together for filming within the Norwich area. Filming dates were assembled around the cast and crews schedules, many having other jobs alongside this so scheduling was hectic, but rewarding once everything came together.
As filming progressed it was decided that the world going on around the characters should be a character within itself where possible, and as such the theme of life going by was added into the mix to hopefully show where these characters operate in greater sense. Natural light was used where possible to greatly enhance all elements around the actors, and give the areas around them the “character” it needed.
About No More Lights in the Sky
No More lights in the Sky takes place after several disastrous events, causing panic to the masses in the United Kingdom. The UK walls itself away from the rest of the world. The government, utilising a special drug which promises to regain order through “The Rehabilitation Act”, which cures diseases but also causes a reset in the patients mind.
As this new dystopian land slowly becomes a zombified workforce, a young reporter, Justin Truman, takes it upon himself to record what is happening and show the rest of the world. His interviews take him across the paths of many people, and the dire state they are existing in. As he continues up the ladder to those with money and power, showing a clear divide, he discovers a world of individuality and a truth which is much worse than he feared.
As the production stages of Soldiers of Embers were coming to completion Danny was beginning No More Lights in the Sky. The film is inspired by Brexit and other subject matters relevant at the time. It was to become a possible extension of such events and a what could be if things went down a different path.
Alongside this idea Danny wanted to create a piece that could be achieved very simply, fitting round the schedule of Soldiers of Embers, but also have it’s own unique style because of that factor. Also it was to be made low cost and to see what could be achieved with such factors considered but also holding its own strength because of them.
It was decided that it should have a documentary-like feel, to make the project feel more real and raw. Added to this was Danny’s want to achieve the scenes in continuous one shots, to again make the film come across as in the moment. All of this created the right elements to effectively shoot this around Soldiers of Embers scheduling and make something unique in the process. The film was created in 16 days, broken over weekends to fit in everyone’s schedules.
Several scenes were created to begin with and shot, and once reviewed more of the script was written -this different way of writing developed the world in an organic fashion. Once the dystopian segments concerning this locked down state were completed, the second stage was conceptualized through the elements filmed.
New scenes were added to extend the world out and give insights into a bigger picture and pose questions to the audience about the ending of the film and also make them think about the actions of today.
We spoke with Danny about his films as well as his filmmaking style.
Tell us about your filmmaking journey. What did you do before becoming a filmmaker?
The rather random passion I had, and still have as a hobby now, is ten pin bowling and I always thought at one stage I’d go down this route in more of a professional manner. I have been in many leagues and competitions, but it never stuck for me as something to pursue as much as the love for storytelling.
So I set the leagues aside to focus on my dreams of film. I began crafting short films and set off to film them with whomever wanted to join, just heading off into the unknown with a camera and my script in hand. Through this time I kept practicing and learning, often lending a hand to other people’s sets as an AD or production assistant where I could, to see how others were doing it.
I also studied Film, Media and Photography at college, all the time making my own pieces alongside the projects I was meant to be doing. I just kept rolling and cutting, and have been doing it ever since!
What one film inspired you to become a filmmaker?
The first film I ever saw at the cinema, and my main inspiration, was Jurassic Park. As a child I was always interested in archaeology and paleontology, and loved dinosaurs. This was the main reason for going and watching the film at the time.
After watching the film I was amazed at how Stephen Spielberg had managed to bring dinosaurs back to life, and needed to know how this was achieved! I did not actually begin to make films after this time, but my gears shifted into learning more about film as opposed to other career options. From that point on, stories became my life and I slowly built this into filmmaking.
What’s your experience with mentors? Do you think mentors are beneficial to up and coming filmmakers?
I sadly have not worked with mentors for films. What I have done and learnt has been through teaching and I’m constantly reading film books and learning what I can, on and off set. I feel that if you have a story to tell and a vision in your head you will be able to get out there and do it.
However, that being said, I think having a mentor would be a great opportunity for any upcoming filmmakers so take the opportunity if it arises. Learn everything you can from them and then you can better find what suits you on your journey.
You’re very big on world-building. What tips would you offer filmmakers to help build their worlds properly?
Yes, it’s kind of something I’ve always focused on, even just as a hobby in my off time. I like to sit and conceptualise new spaces in which potential films and characters could inhabit. Some become just that, others I have sitting and waiting for the right story to hit me.
I’m not a great artist but I like to draw and do images like maps, as that kind of thing allows me to get what I have in my head onto a space where it can be looked at and studied in greater detail. I’ll draw fantasy type windmills and from that I’ll see the farm, then the entire area. It just keeps expanding from that initial drawing and I’ll see where it takes me.
It’s all about imagination and freeing your mind, especially in the constraints that today’s world can set against you. So the best thing I can say is simply get yourself a note/sketch pad, make sure you’re in a space without interruptions and allow yourself to explore.
If you have an idea for a film then base it around that, pick something small and build up piece by piece. You’ll soon see how pieces start to fit together in your world as you go; and enjoy it, this stage is really fun!
You started out in horror but moved to sci-fi. What inspired this change?
Yes, earlier on in my career I was big on horror and it was a great genre to learn and practice film techniques. I had always desired to start there as it felt like it would be the best place to pick up some pieces and also have a lot of fun in the process.
However Science Fiction, is where I’ve really always wanted to be. It’s what I really think around and have the biggest fascination with. However science fiction (and my ideas!) can lend itself to needing big budgets so I decided to start with horror, keep the effects practical and slowly build up my sci fi ideas as I’ve gone.
Through a slow progression, I’ve now done a few pieces which I term sci fi concepts – films which are set in a science fiction world but do not need anything flashy around. That is going on somewhere else, but the drama within has these tropes. I’m now looking at creating some films which take this further, and showing more of what people will understand as sci fi.
When working, you tend to wear a lot of hats. How hard is it to handle multiple roles?
Yes, particularly for No More Lights in the Sky as I was the Writer, Director, Camera Operator and Edited the project also. I find this quite normal to be honest as I like to be hands on through all processes. I always feel that if you’ve written a script, you should consider directing as well as you know the world and it’s characters off by heart. It won’t be for everyone, but I always put those roles together whenever I can.
I like to edit also, so I’ll often do this naturally alongside any projects I’m doing. I wish to focus on the writing and directing more-so in the future, but I do find it comfortable to be wearing more hats also. I find that it all just fits together this way.
Tell us about your creative process.
After coming up with an idea I’ll usually start with my world building, and see how it all fits together in my head. I’ll play with it a bit, not looking for structure in a script sense immediately. As this is happening I’ll be jotting down any scene ideas I have on sticky notes and using a wall in my office to start assembling them together.
Looking at what I have from this, I’ll then start assembling sequences in my head and grouping scenes to fit. From this map I have on my wall I’ll get my basic overview that will form the script.
As I start to write, I will try and make a first pass but more often than not, I’ll have another idea which will reform an earlier part so I’ll jump back slightly and then carry on. I’ll keep this process going until the end.
With my directors hat on whilst I do this ,I will also be thinking visually, drawing and perhaps even doing a few storyboards – not as anything final for the filming but as an aid to get a further sense of where I’m taking the project.
It is also important through this to get the support and ideas from others you trust to be honest with you. Don’t be afraid to put your idea out there and get feedback, as it will help you move forward more effectively with your ideas.
You filmed your most recent projects back to back. What was that experience like?
Yes, upon having the idea for No More Lights in the Sky during the production of Soldiers of Embers, I knew I wanted to try and make them both happen around and at the same time. The challenge came from making No More Lights flexible enough in its execution so that it would fit in with the schedule of Soldiers.
However, having the awesome Matt Long at the producing helm it became a very easy task to manage. When there was an occasion we weren’t shooting on Soldiers, we’d try and fit in a No More Lights day to fill the gap. This made schedules more intense but always kept us going and productive on something. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it this way for both these projects but not sure if I’d like to do it again!
Your film No More Lights in the Sky is set in a documentary style. What creative choices did you make to focus your story as a mockumentary?
As above, this film was meant to be created in a flexible and efficient manner to allow for it to fit within the structure of another film. So I knew I’d need a certain format to both give it the style of which I was aiming at but also keep it as easy as possible.
I have a keen fascination with “the one shot” and trying to push myself to create longer, roaming scenes which give full life to the story I’m shooting. So with this in mind, and also the reporter aspect of the film, it made sense to shoot raw and rough, keeping shots going in a documentary format.
For the efficiency aspect, this helped us in making the project happen. We would book in 2 scenes for a day, and shoot until the magic one happened. We wouldn’t need anymore setups or extra days which would slow us down. It would be within the moment, practiced until right, and then moved on. All of these elements came together to make the documentary style of shooting the best format for the piece.
What inspired you to create No More Lights in the Sky?
I was looking at events such as Brexit, and knew that the politics around it would cause a divide between people, and still are to a certain degree. I wanted to make a film which covered similar themes, but I’m not one to do anything that’s a direct reference of the situation presented.
I wanted to do something that would make people think about events such as these, but give something new in the process. So I decided to set it a little in the future, where a dystopian world could be formed, which would lend itself to not being real so people could be detached from it but also make them think about the actions of today – possibly leading to a world like this in the future.
It was made so that people would ask more questions about what is going on around them, and get them thinking about their actions but creating something entertaining in the process.
What was your experience like on set during Soldiers of Embers?
Soldiers of Embers was an absolute blast on set! Every scene we did was charged with the energy of all on set as everyone was so pumped and eager to make it happen! For many it was their first time on a feature but any nervousness was immediately taken away for the love of the craft and to get the job done.
Everyone chipped into other roles where needed and there was a great sense of family from all involved. It was a full on working unit, but also fun at the same time. Thanks to Matt we had some great locations and characters to utilise within, and everyday was different and rewarding.
The thing I’ll take away from it is the sense of friendship that came from so many people working together, unified for the common goal of creating a film, and I hope this continues into any future projects.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I’d love to see myself in a position where I’m making features which really show off my style and stories to great effect. It will take some building up to but I’ve got some grand plans and ideas being cooked up and I’d love to be taking things to higher levels and showing the science fiction visuals that future features I’m writing will have.
One of my dreams is to have my company, Fabrication Images, more established and have a creative space/studio where I can support other filmmakers on their journeys also – it will take longer than five years but in that time I’d like to be thinking and planning this out more so it could be a reality some time in the future.
What has been your biggest success and failure so far?
The biggest success would have to be seeing both No More Lights in the Sky and Soldiers of Embers released around the world on many platforms. There is always a great satisfaction to see your work out in the world on any platform, but to have had a distributor have faith in a project and pick it up also is just another level.
Myself and the teams have worked hard to get to this state so it is really nice to have your work out for audiences to see.
The biggest failure would probably be not being a bit further down the progression line into the film world as I could be. You have to work hard to be in this field and it’s only been through these features that I’ve seen my potential and grown in quality and the speed of which I work.
Failure is not a bad thing necessarily, as long as you learn from it and push past it you will see success on the other side. So by learning this through my features, I now have a new work ethic and have made a promise to push myself further and faster each day.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would you choose and why?
It would have to be the film Inception. It is the film that inspires me the most to do what I do, I love the concept and ability to travel through layers of the mind. I can watch it again and again still having the same feelings like the first time I watched it in the cinema. I feel that I could always take something new from it on another viewing, and also just watch it for the thrill of the journey if I wish to turn my brain off a bit also!
What do you hope your audience takes away from your films?
I would love for people to watch my films and keep the story, and once again world, firmly in their minds. Obviously the aim of the game is to entertain, but more than this I would love for people watching to think about the backgrounds surrounding the films and piece bits together that I may not have represented in them.
The expanse within storytelling is immense and I would hope that I can get imaginations flaring, thinking on what else within these worlds would they want to see or experience.
What’s next on the docket for you?
I am currently working on a feature film that is being made during the lockdown period called Ascension Chronicles. It was made via each actor being sent a segment of script and then returning the completed videos so I compile them into the final product.
It is a found footage style film, with once again a little of the science fiction concept flavour within concerning an infection/attack from unknown forces outside of the characters homes. It will be more about what you hear rather than see as you follow the characters over seven days.
I’m also writing a new feature film at the moment called Existence Fading which revolves around a young woman living in a world where everyone stays at home permanently, working in VR simulation, in return for gaining rewards each month. That is until the young woman suffers a power cut and goes outside to learn a truth which has been hidden for many years.
I’m looking to blend some Black Mirror elements into this and add in some Inception vibes along the way. All in all, I’m very excited to keep experimenting with this one and see where it takes me.
Could we see any episodic TV from you in the near future?
A few people have asked this question before, but I’ve never really thought about doing episodic TV. However, I’m never going to say never as I’d love to direct a good story whichever format it’s presented in. I do also have a few ideas which could easily be changed into a longer TV format, depending on how much I want to expand them.
If one director could direct the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
Linking the above question about my one film for life, I’d love to see Christopher Nolan do it. Having an interest much like him with films in a non linear mind scape fashion, it would be interesting to see him use a similar approach on me. My new sci fi ideas see me never thinking in an A to B fashion, and having the story of my life presented in an order that doesn’t go in a straight line appeals greatly!