Making a feature film is a filmmaker’s biggest dream and biggest fear. The dream of captivating an audience with a body of work that you created can cement your place amongst other greats. It can propel your status from amateur to pro. Doors are suddenly opened and elite contacts are now associates. What happens though, when your fear of failure keeps you from pursuing the prize? You’ve put the plan on paper, you’ve put the cast and crew together and found the financing and now you just need to pull the trigger. This is the moment of truth or consequences. In my opinion, if you don’t believe in yourself, you won’t be able to make a feature film. There is so much psychology at work when making a feature film. You need tremendous confidence in yourself and be able to lead the charge.
James Hutson is one such individual confident enough to take the risk and giant leap into the elite group of feature filmmakers. We met up for a coffee to discuss his first soiree into feature films. His film Dark Harvest is an action story that revolves around the growing and distribution of cannabis. There are dirty cops, car chases and villains throughout this well constructed and heavy suspense driven movie. There’s also a lot of pot, guns and Cheech. I had the opportunity to view the screener and was immensely thrilled till the very end. Once I learnt it was James’s first feature I was extremely fascinated how he pulled it all off.
“How many hats did you wear in the production of this film?”
“I wrote it, directed, acted and was one of the producers. I also cast the actors and sold my home to finance it.”
When you search out the word tenacity, you’ll find a photo of James beside it.
“Where did the idea for this film come from?”
“I used to be involved in the cannabis production business in the past. While I was a starving actor, I’d work with the police to help train their new recruits. As an actor they’d interrogate me, chase me and arrest me. When I was working with the police I’d ask them to tell me some interesting stories and I’d jot them down on paper. One such story they told me was about a tenant in a building that spotted a man through her window in the adjacent building that she thought was cutting up hash on his living room table. She called the cops and an officer came up to her apartment, looked through the window and confirmed it. The officer then called the swat team in to perform the bust. A sergeant had asked the officer if he was completely certain and the officer replied, I know hash when I see it. The swat team busted through the man’s door only to find out that he was a sound engineer cutting up insolation. The cop had earned the nickname, John I know hash when I see it Simpson. I used that story in my film. I’m also a film noir fan and when you combine all of the experiences together, you get Dark Harvest.”
Whenever I’ve heard writing panels speak to new writers, I remember them saying, ‘write what you know’. James has certainly done his homework and has shown great intuition in his storytelling. It is important to note that James has worked as an actor for many years in the industry. He worked on Christopher Nolan’s film, Insomnia for one month before shooting it and another month while filming. He was a crucial asset throughout the casting process of Nolan’s film. He was fortunate enough to be mentored by both Nolan and John Frankenheimer. Christopher Nolan is his favourite director.
“You have Cheech Marin in your film. I love him from the Up In Smoke days. What is the story behind casting him?”
“I had already started filming but after a couple of months unfortunately found myself over my head. I took a break and stepped away to regroup. I edited the footage I had compiled to make a teaser. It enabled me to attract more talent to the project and to give everyone a sense of the story as well as getting other producers on board, assemble a crew and put a shooting schedule together. I also realized that if I was going to be able to market the film, I was going to need some star talent in my movie. I initially thought of Harvey Keitel, so I flew to New York and met with some of the people close to him. Unfortunately he wasn’t available. I then contacted Mickey Rourkes people and he said he was interested but kept me waiting on a definite answer. I decided to reach out to Cheech Marin’s casting agent and had sent him the script. I received a reply within 48 hours that he would do it. I was over the moon. I flew to LA and went to discuss the film in Cheech’s home. I brought the footage I’d already shot. Cheech showed me around his house and he wanted to know more about my history and living in Vancouver. He had lived in Vancouver years ago where he met Tommy Chong. We both discussed our experiences with cannabis and afterwards he turned to me and said, I like the script, let’s go make this movie.”
Cheech is a very recognizable celebrity everywhere he goes. While James was down in LA they went for a walk and people immediately knew who he was but were also respectful of his space. In addition to casting Cheech in his film, he also had some other A list talent in Hugh Dillon, the lead singer of Headstones, Tygh Runyan, AC Peterson, Viv Leacock, Derek Hamilton and Chelsey Reist. Most of the actors were friends of James.
Ninety nine percent of the film was shot in Vancouver with the exception of travelling to Havana, Mexico and Toronto for some pick up shots. While in Toronto he rented a fake police car and drove around the city with Hugh Dillon handcuffed in the back seat. Gorilla filmmaking at its best!
“Did you have rehearsals with the Cheech and the rest of the cast?”
“Once Cheech had arrived in Vancouver, I went to visit him at his hotel room. A lot of actors have their own way of preparing their character so I wanted to see if he’d be interested in rehearsing. Instead he asked me to show him some footage of the film. I obliged and opened my laptop to show him a few minutes worth. After watching it, Cheech said he had it and that he was ready. He wanted to know the vibe and the atmosphere of film. We didn’t end up actually rehearsing together but instead hung out a lot for the five days he was here. It was beneficial to his role because in the story, Cheech’s character is suppose to have known my character since I was a nine year old.”
When Cheech came to set he was always professional and ready to go. If there were ever any script changes, he’d take them in stride. James was so impressed with his level of professionalism and said that he carried himself so well. He always seemed quite pleased with how the filming was going and maintained a great attitude throughout.
“What size crew did you use?”
“I used a small crew of 4 or 5 but they were all pros. We started filming on Canon 5D’s but once I brought in the young camera crew, they offered to take a pay cut in exchange to rent an Alexa. We also did a few shots on RED. Having utilized footage from all three cameras, it made it a little tricky in colour correction.”
One amazing benefit that came out of the production was the friendship formed between Cheech Marin and James Hutson. Once Cheech had learnt that James had financed the film out of pocket, he got the impression that Cheech understood how passionate he was about making the film. When James was at his home he said the inside was like a museum of Chicano art. A painting made by a young artist was hanging on the wall. Cheech had made a comment that he was going to make a star out of him. It was at that moment he had realized how generous his support for new artists extended. To lend his name to elevate another’s success was both amazing and inspiring.
“How many days did it take to shoot the film?”
“It took approx. 40 days to film it. With everything I’ve learnt from making this movie, I could make my next one much cheaper. As a writer/director on the film, you get to see the writing unfold on camera. You really get to see what works and what doesn’t. It seems you always end up cutting scenes or dialogue out, rather than adding more. Once I had completed the final cut, I wanted to show it to Cheech, so I travelled back to California to let him see the finished edit. With his forty some years of experience, he pointed out some scenes that he felt weren’t necessary for the story. I was hoping he’d like the cut but felt slightly dejected. I returned home and applied the new cuts. I then submitted it into festivals and it went onto win 7 best picture awards, 4 best actor awards and best director awards. Cheech’s notes were very helpful and I was very grateful for his assistance. In Cheech’s own career, he’s either been the writer, director and actor so he brings so much experience to the table. I honestly feel like no other actor would have been as giving as he was and feel I really lucked out.”
“Where did you go about finding the music?”
“Initially, Hugh had offered some Headstones music but it didn’t seem the right fit. Tygh Runyan had also offered up some music, but it also didn’t fit. I ended up using music from a local Vancouver rock band, Black Mountain. I also used the music from the District Nine composer, Aiko Fukushima.”
With the vast years working in the film industry, James thought he had all the experience necessary to make this film but he didn’t know anything about the export and distribution side. Cheech came through again and called his lawyer and agents. He asked them to help James with the sale and distribution of the film. He says they’ve been his quarterback for his worldwide sales. Thunderbird Entertainment is the distributor and has put the movie on 6 different platforms for the next 3 months. It’s currently on iTunes, Google Play, Shaw and 3 others. James says he believes they also have a deal with the Movie Network to put it up for 2 years.
The experience has really boosted James confidence as a filmmaker. Knowing the right people and making relationships has made him anxious to start his next project.
“Is there a message in this film?”
“The message is to say that pot should never have been illegal. I believe that policing it has been a waste of resources and has only created violence through gang wars. I’ve always been pro cannabis.”
With James’s newly formed relationship, he’d love to make another film with Cheech. He’d been considering making a psychological thriller next but also loves film noir and comedy. Cheech told him to keep him in the loop.
Cheech has recently wrapped on a film with Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman and Christopher Walken.
Prior to making Dark Harvest, James had previously made a documentary in Cuba.
He’d filmed Fidel Castro doing a speech before he passed away about how he had fixed transportation. After the speech James went and talked to people on the street to ask how they felt. It was quite a different story. He would vacillate back and forth between the Fidel’s alternative facts. He also wore many hats in that production. He was the writer, director, translator and more.
After meeting and speaking with James Hutson, I know he will continue to create great films. You can bank on it.
If you’d like to watch a trailer of the film, you can follow the link at
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