For the first five weeks of every Sydney Film School semester, SFS Head of Screen Studies, Peter Galvin runs a Q and A session with various Australian filmmakers from a variety of crafts for our students to get first-hand knowledge of what it takes to work in the Australian film industry. Last week, we were fortunate enough to host Brendan Cowell…
The two-and-a-half-hour “Meet the Filmmaker” session with critically acclaimed Australian actor/screenwriter/director/novelist, Brendan Cowell (Noise, Beneath Hill 60) felt a little more like an exercise in deep introspection than a simple Q and A. He was animated, engaging and energetic; at some points funny, at other points deeply thoughtful and at all times insightful.
There’s an earnestness to Cowell – which is evident throughout his body of work – that lends itself well to the manner with which he offered advice to the present students. He spoke not from a position of authority so much as a position of experience.
The topical lynchpin of the session regarded the best way to work with actors; Cowell revisited the topic many times. As an experienced actor himself, he was full of wisdom regarding what constitutes a good actor and what ingredients must be in place to achieve a good performance.
It’s different for every actor – Cowell was emphatic on this point– and it’s up to the individual filmmakers to ensure that their process caters to different personality types. In all cases, however, the aim of a director is to instill in every actor a sense of ownership of their role.
In Cowell’s words: “Give them love, empower them and then learn from them”
He’s the type of guest that brings with him an archetypical “Aussie Male” but that’s counterpointed by an uncharacteristic sensitivity and openness. He spoke, briefly, about his novel “How it Feels” – a ‘coming of age’ story of three friends from “The Shire” (beaches; not hobbits) touched by tragedy. It explores the language – or lack thereof – that young Australian men employ to communicate emotions.
It’s clearly close to home for a man who grew up in Cronulla – alienated by an obsession with masculine culture. Cronulla, as Cowell pointed out is populated by 97% white Christians. Beneath the idyllic beaches and beautifully manicured landscapes, an anger bubbles away – the Cronulla race riots of 2005 come to mind.
As an official ambassador for suicide prevention in Australia, Cowell also took the opportunity to raise an important and surprising statistic: more Australian lives are lost to suicide than road accidents (in his novel, Cowell explores this problem specifically in relation to his home town of Cronulla). His decision to tackle this subject matter is indicative of a man trying to come to terms with his origins in a place so obviously disconnected from itself.
It follows that Cowell’s advice on screenwriting was similarly valuable. Most of the time, he pointed out, screenwriters are writing to figure something out for themselves. That certainly seems to be the case for Cowell, who, as a writer on hit Australian TV drama, “Love My Way” delved into the dysfunction of an ailing Australian family.
Whereas once he would have made a “quick stir-fry”, he’s now looking to make a more layered “lasagna” – a deliciously concise metaphor.
“Telling stories, to me, is just a way to celebrate a big world.”
Cowell was keen to illustrate a point that’s been made by numerous special guests down the years at Sydney Film School:
It’s not easy to make films – even a man with Cowell’s body of work can often find it difficult to get projects off the ground – but it’s extremely important that we do so. Not to make money, and not to perpetuate ideaologies or myths, but to share our perception and our experience. In Brendan Cowell’s case (and this, unfortunately, is quite rare in mainstream Australian cinema) it’s a uniquely Australian perception and experience.
You can download Brendan Cowell’s book, “How it Feels” from Amazon here (hyperlink: http://www.amazon.com/How-It-Feels-Brendan-Cowell-ebook/dp/B004AHL044)
Make sure you don’t miss next week’s ‘Meet the Filmmaker’ with Australian actor and director of films such as ‘La Spagnola’ and ‘Disgrace’, Steve Jacobs!
TOM EARLS for SYDNEY FILM SCHOOL