Interview: Brendan Cowell

Brendan Cowell and Patrick Brammall.

Brendan Cowell and Patrick Brammall.

“When I started doing damage to others, bringing others down and really disappointing people that I love, that’s when I kind of clued into the fact that I was living a deeply unsavoury life.”

Every time I ask any filmmaker the question, the answer is almost always the same, “The advertising budget is virtually non-existent.” Surely though, for a filmmaker with a profile as highly recognised as Brendan Cowell’s, a few extra dollars would be thrown into the promotion kitty of his directorial debut, Ruben Guthrie.

With Australian films it’s all about awareness. You want as many people as possible to know that you exist and with our limited marketing budget, word of mouth is key. I don’t think our budget is limited, I think it’s standard. We’re not 21 Jump Street.” Cowell told Cinema Australia during an early morning press junket just moments after appearing on The Morning Show.

“We can’t get ads on The Block and Masterchef and billboards at the airport. At the same time I really think Australians will go and see things if a guy that they rate says it’s good, and I think that’s more important than a tweet and a poster. In a lot of ways we’re desensitised to doing what we’re told to do.”

A handful of people, mostly media, have been lucky enough to catch preview screenings of Ruben Guthrie and I wondered what the feedback had been like from the people closest to him. Are they of an honest opinion? “You’d be surprised. The feedback has been brilliant but with reviews, if you’re going to believe the good ones then you’ve got to believe the bad ones. It’s all been wildly positive which has been fantastic and I think because it’s a comedy the film is a really good time.” sells Cowell, sounding like his film’s lead protagonist himself, ad man Ruben Guthrie.

“It’s smart and it’s funny but it’s got something for the audience to chew on. It has a talking point, it has an argument, it has a big fat issue right in the middle of it and I think that the fact that we can do both is really satisfying to audiences. We’re finding that people really appreciate that.”

When you came up with the character, Ruben Gethrie, did you always anticipate telling his story on stage first or film?
That’s a great question and an interesting point. I’d say I probably thought about both. I thought there was something quite theatrical about the stage and one chair and being isolated right in the middle of a stage with all these people coming in and knocking him around like a pinball. I think I was in more of a theatre state of mind back then in 2007, 2008. I was very much thinking in terms of theatre. I think that actually the play was a great workshop for the film. I’ve had a dozen productions of this play that the script, the characters and all the dialogue is so well harnessed and layered by the time I got to screenplay stage, so I’m kind of grateful to the fact that it was a play first. Writing a screenplay in isolation in your study on your own is not like having a full-blown theatre production of a play where you get to see every single detail and it’s so helpful as a step before film.

Ruben Guthrie is a rare bread of Australian film because it comes with an established audience, much like if it had been developed from a book. What differences, if any, can audiences who have seen the stage play expect in the film?
Well I really enjoy the responses from the people who haven’t seen the play. The aim of the film was to take it away from the play in a lot of ways and let it be a standalone piece. I think people who have seen the play are appreciating watching it because they go, “Oh, I remember that.” and “I’m enjoying what they did with that character.” Look, the film’s about alcoholism and a guy trying to change, sticking his head out and swimming against the stream. I find in this culture that we don’t often support people who lash out or speak out or swim against the current and I think the film is very much a hilarious yet troubling look at our culture and the way that we embrace change. This is a guy trying to say, “I don’t want to drink for a year.” And the people around him are telling him that that doesn’t quite suit them. I think it’s a really interesting conversation. I haven’t met many Australians who couldn’t relate to Ruben’s situation at all.

 Jack Thompson, Patrick Brammall and Brendan Cowell.

Jack Thompson, Patrick Brammall and Brendan Cowell.

You’ve said you decided to take a year off brooze because you’d been drinking like a ‘mad fish’. Was there a definitive moment during your excessive drinking that made you realise you needed to take a break?
Yeah, I think I had a very low opinion of myself at the time. Doing damage to yourself is not a problem when you’re a bit depressed or feeling a little low on yourself. But when I started doing damage to others, bringing others down and really disappointing people that I love, that’s when I kind of clued into the fact that I was living a deeply unsavoury life. I love my friends and family and it was more about that to me. It was like, “Look what you’re doing to others.” It was then that I realised what I was also doing to myself, that turned me around. Like Ruben Guthrie I was also jumping off buildings in a way, I was putting myself in dangerous situations. A lot of other addictions like online gambling can be played out in private, sex addictions can be played out in hotel rooms, heroine addiction in basements, but drinking seems to take place in public. It’s a very public humiliation that very often happens with booze.

So it helped to take a year off?
Yeah. I think it helped. It helped me write a piece called Ruben Guthrie. I got to know myself again because I was skidding through life. When you stop drinking you get a really good look at drinking behaviours and you go, “Wow, I’m that guy.” And you can’t believe it. I feel like there really is a schizophrenia in terms of the sober you and the un-sober you. You are different people and that’s alarming when you realise it. I went to bed with a mirror and woke up to myself.

I binge drink like most Australians. Half way through Ruben Guthrie I decided I wanted to take a break from drinking but by the end of it all I wanted to do was go to the pub and have a beer.
Yeah, It’s a failure of a film in that way isn’t it. [Laughs]. I think that because on stage you can’t languish and dress things up as much and you very much analyse the ideas of things whereas in film we can create a lot more drink porn. We can get close up to the bottles and you can hear the schweppervescence and in some of the shots with whisky there’s ice tumbling in. Something sensorial takes over the intellectual and you go, “Yes I know it’s bad but fucking give it to me!” I feel like that’s what happens with Ruben, he really want’s that white wine that’s in the ice bucket and he wants to drink it with the people he’s usually drinking with. I guess that the essence of the film is that trick, I think the film is a bit of a trick. It’s a dark and probing comedy about this temptress called alcohol in this city that’s also a temptress. I think if people end up having a drink after it and then ask themselves why they’re doing it then that’s probably the idea.

Both you and Jeremy Sims have films coming out around the same time based on plays you’ve both developed, and you both have cameos in each other’s film. Tell us about your relationship with Sims. Were you always bouncing ideas off each other?
Yeah Simsy and I have been good mates for a while now and there’s a bit of a tribe of us theatre makers who are moving into film like Wayne Blair and Simon Stone, we’re all mates. Simsy gave me my first job and then we did Beneath Hill 60. When I was casting the role of Ray I couldn’t really imagine anyone giving it that kind of energy that Sims would be able to give it on screen. What happens when you start making films is that people decide you’re not an actor anymore and I think that really happened to Jeremy. He’s one of the best actors in the country but because he does all his own stuff you never really see him on TV or in film anymore. I think his scenes with Patrick Brammall are some of the best scenes in the film – he just rips it apart. We’ve got a really good camaraderie. I think coming from the theatre you have that nice tribal aspect towards your storytelling because we’re all in this together.

Robyn Nevin on set with director, Brendan Cowell.

Robyn Nevin on set with director, Brendan Cowell.

Patrick Brammall and Robyn Nevin have an incredible dynamic in Upper Middle Bogan as mother and son-in-law. Did that influence your decision to cast the two as mother and son in Ruben Guthrie?
Not at all. I’ve never seen Upper Middle Bogan.

You cast the two though, right?
I’m responsible for everything that you see in the film from the colour of the pillow slips to the fish, the casting, everything. I cast them separately because I thought they were great for the roles that they were cast in. Then I realised that they actually had quite a long working relationship. I thought that with them playing mother and son that they would slip into a groove of working together effortlessly because they have a really great relationship and a really great friendship. As soon as they’re on set they give each other a big hug and they start laughing with each other and I thought that was great. They work really well together. They finish each others sentences and they genuinely love each other as people.

This is the first feature film Sarah Blasko has composed the music for. Is she someone you’d always been a fan of?
Blasko is a really close friend of mine and we became really close friends when I was playing Hamlet which she ended up doing all the music and being on tour with the show. When I was performing in that piece I often thought, “Wow. This girl’s voice just has to be in cinema.” Her voice is just painfully beautiful. I talked to her about it for years but I don’t know if she ever really believed me and then one day I told her we were making the film and I asked her if she wanted to do the soundtrack. Straight away she took it. As she does with all of her work she took it incredibly seriously and she came up with that song Half Way to Heaven which finishes the film. After reading the script she sent me a rough version of that and I was just blown away. It was one of the most phenomenal pieces of music I had ever heard. Everyone I play it to just starts crying. She’s extraordinary. It’s really nice when you finally get to make a film to call up people that you love and respect and ask them to make something with you.

You’re one of the hardest working Australian filmmakers with a bunch of theatre, film and television under your belt as writer, director and actor. Is there anything you have in development that you can tell us about?
I’ve got a bunch of stuff in development. I’ve got another film that I’m going to make about my grandmother with (producer) Kath Shelper and a couple of little TV things. I’ve got nothing else coming out so I can’t really say, “Hey, tune into this.” But I think Ruben Guthrie at the moment is my entire life and it’s all about flogging that at the moment. I do hope to start making another film next year. I can’t really say I will because all of the stars have to align and the finances need to come together. I really just want to make another film.

Ruben Guthrie is in cinemas from July 16.

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