Actor Brendan Cowell on tackling Australia’s alcohol culture in his feature film directorial debut, Ruben Guthrie.
Ruben Guthrie is a Sydney ad man who has just won a major French advertising award for the fourth year in a row (for his Vivid Sydney campaign). His model Czech girlfriend leaves him, because he can’t restrain his out-of-control alcoholic lifestyle. She says she’ll give him another shot if he stops drinking for a year. But his attempts at sobriety draw pungent criticism from friends, colleagues, and parents. Ruben Guthrie is funny from start to finish. Well-written and acted, with the great Jack Thompson as Guthrie’s restauranteur father, it’s also spikey and moving, exploring Australasia’s big, under-addressed alcohol problem. Head, shoulders, and funny bone Australian film of the year. I raise my ginger beer to it.
Despite having just got into London a few hours ago, director Brendan Cowell was good, funny company when I interviewed him at the Mayfair Hotel during the BFI London Film Festival, over scones and orange juice.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: How much of Ruben Guthrie is biographical? What do you hope people take away from it?
BRENDAN COWELL: If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that I don’t work in advertising, I don’t have a Czech supermodel girlfriend, my parents don’t own a restaurant, my mum didn’t force wine down my throat, I didn’t jump off a roof, and I don’t have a Greek gay best friend who got deported from San Francisco. So none of it’s really true, but it all came from real experiences. I took a year off in 2007–2008 during which a lot of realisations happened, and what I tend to do in my writing is things that happened on a micro level, I exploit on a large, embellished, dramatic level. People in Australia were obsessed that this was autobiographical. But I think that’s because the only stories we tend to make now are about real people. It’s like everything has to be real and then that’s the story! But when I gave it up—and you probably faced this as well—I remember someone saying, “Did you lose weight when you gave up booze?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I lost about 700kg worth of friends.” And you do! You actually have to change your life, alter it by 15% by going to the bar and leaving early. You’ve kind of got to not do that stuff anymore. But then you find joy elsewhere. I found it pretty terrifying and equally hilarious the whole year. So I thought there was a great opportunity to write a very serious comedy.
AB: I’m from New Zealand—both have alcohol cultures as the elephant in the room. People don’t dare tackle it.
BC: No, because that would mean they’d have to stop. I think Australians thought this would be a funny film. Then I think—especially the last half hour of it—it tends to resonate a lot of home truths. For me as a storyteller, I used drinking alcohol to talk about the notion of change. Ruben Guthrie’s trying to become someone else or become himself. But he’s not going to look like the guy that they want him to look like. When people change, when people drink, they hold up the mirror to other people. And that’s really what it’s about. Why don’t we get behind people that are trying to fix their lives or improve themselves? Why do we put our own flaws or issues on top of that and make them the priority? So for me, the film’s more about saying: “Hey, if there’s someone that wants to change their gender or wants to change their political beliefs or wants to give up their high-flying job as a lawyer and start a veggie patch for orphans or whatever, why are we threatened by that?” Why can’t we just go: “Hey, you’ve always felt like you’re a chick, you should go and be a chick.” Why do we say no? I guess what I’m saying is get behind the Ruben Guthries instead of pulling them down with your own issues.
AB: I thought you did that very well, though. Balancing what I see as a serious film with a lot of comedy. Alex, the gay best friend, he was great! I’ve rated Alex Dimitriades since Head On.
BC: Yeah, he was just brilliant. Because I was thinking for that character—the usual character you’d get for that in an Australian film would be the mate who just got out of jail or whatever and he’s going: “Fuckin’ haven’t seen ya, have a bloody beer!” And you’d just be like: “I don’t wanna have a beer with that guy!” Whereas I wanted a character in there that you go: “I wanna go out with that guy.”
AB: Yup, that’s the problem that we have.
BC: Yeah, it’s fun! Going out with him to Icebergs in Bondi, all the pretty girls have come, key to every door would be open, you’d be at the pool bar, girls in bikinis, the best drugs in town, and it’ll be hilarious and fun. So I wanted Ruben to have a really excruciating time trying not to jump on that train. And also, a friendship that’s based on consumption: what is a friendship when you take that out? These are two booze brothers. They’re two guys whose relationship is partying, so what do they talk about over a sparkling water? What have they got left? And Alex kind of is the king of Sydney. He DJs, he knows everyone, he lives on the water, so it wasn’t far for him… Like, that’s nothing. Sydney generates those characters.
AB: I found Jack Thompson powerful as the father. A memorable autumnal role for the great actor indelible in the likes of Breaker Morant.
BC: Jack saw the play and he’s been a real supporter of my work from the start because I write a lot about Australia and Australian males. He’s obsessed with the country and he cares so much about the country. I remember after he saw the play he said: “This is the great pro-drinking play.” [Laughs] But as soon as I put him in the role—if you can get onto him because he’s off and all around the world—he said yes because he just thought the story was so important to the country. It’s funny because his first film was Wake in Fright, which was something I was trying to recreate, like a middle class version. Look what happens Down Under.
Brendan Cowell, centre.
AB: Has making the film changed your creative philosophy at all? Was there anything about making it that surprised you?
BC: Film is so much about intimacy and about making small things bigger. I think if anything, that’s what I learnt: that you’ve got to trust the simplicity and then create complexity out of simplicity, not the other way round. And that’s the best stuff in my movie—the smaller stuff that becomes quite epic. But the only thing I would change is that I wanted to direct this film, and now it’s just made me want to direct films. [Laughs] I just got a taste for it. I could’ve shot forever. I was just having such a great time on set. I loved working with the actors and the crew. I loved post-production, it’s definitely an incurable disease.
AB: Is there a New Zealand release date yet?
BC: No, we were really upset we didn’t get into the New Zealand International Film Festival. They went: “It’s too Sydney.” And I went: “Well, there’s a fair few New Zealand films that are a little bit too New Zealand, but we love ‘em for that!”
(Ruben Guthrie is available on home video and VOD in New Zealand from December 3.)
AB: I thought the alcohol analysis etc. was very relevant.
BC: Maybe it’s too close to home. But then you look at Once Were Warriors and stuff like that, it’s pretty hectic. We really embrace those kind of movies. We loved Boy, we loved Whale Rider, so we were really pumped and quite confident New Zealand International Film Festival would embrace the film.
We were all a bit taken aback. They said it was just too insular in the Sydney world. But Lars von Trier’s never left Denmark. You can write about the world by writing about your village. I think it’s really important—like you were saying about Vivid Festival—he makes ads about the thing that’s killing you: alcohol, the city, his girlfriend’s in them, and it’s all about beauty which is actually what’s quite sickening. So I really wanted to make a Sydney film because I think that’s part of his problem. You know what I was saying about the smallness? Films really struggle when they try to be broad and appeal to everyone. I think the more you talk about one thing really specifically, the more it’ll be recognisable. I think why my film works is because I can tell you where nearly everything came from. They’re tiny little moments of truth that I’ve turned into big cinematic moments.
AB: Starting as a play, what did you discover about film as a medium? What does film have that theatre doesn’t?
BC: Theatre’s a two-hour wide shot. What I used in the play of Ruben Guthrie was about isolation. On a stage, you can have a man alone on a stage and that can be emblematic of how alone he is. But I can’t really show you how tempting a beer is. Whereas in film, you can get right down on that bottle, make it look like a woman’s body with sweat dripping off, and you can use the sound. So I made the film more about chaos and being overwhelmed and utter visceral temptation because cinema can make you taste things and smell things that theatre can’t. Theatre is a room full of ideas, but film is more a room full of feelings. The camera can make you feel stuff more viscerally. As soon as I realised that, the film got smaller and smaller into that detail.
AB: Any filmmakers you’d cite as an influence?
BC: I looked at the great addiction films like Trainspotting and then I looked at the great Australian films about the national character like Wake in Fright. So I kind of put those two films together in a lot of ways. Trainspotting balances humour with cinematic braveness and playfulness, with a really fucking horrible story so well. It’s so funny, so difficult to watch, and so worrying. Wake in Fright’s a great and hilarious exposure on probably what’s really at the bottom of the alcoholic part of Australia.
AB: Filth with James McAvoy shows Irvine Welsh’s still got it.
BC: Porno was the one that missed the point a bit. Filth was brilliant.
AB: The end was pretty rough but I guess that’s what it’s about.
BC: It’s like that TV show Transparent. I like to balance comedy with drama because for me, that’s what life is like. It’s very funny and very tragic all at once. I like to get the beauty and the ugliness together and the comedy and the tragedy together, and see if I can create a tone out of those two juxtaposing things.
AB: Any questions you haven’t been asked yet that you wish you had?
BC: I like being asked about the filmmaking process and the way that I work and the actors and such. Whereas it tends to be people asking me about the autobiographical things and the alcohol. There’s hundreds of articles online about it from the play and everything. I go: “Really?” For me, it’s a movie now and it’s set in space in terms of my life. So I love when people ask me about the soundtrack or the production design or even the catering—I just want to talk about what happened on set!
AB: Those two impressive actors mentioned, anything you took away from them in the process?
BC: Everyone’s friends on opening night when the movie’s good. Until that point, you’ve really got to push everybody to get what you need in the edit. And often actors will look at you and go: “I can’t do that. I won’t do that. I don’t believe you.” You’ve gotta commit to your vision. I wanted my performances quite big and quite fucking brutal, and getting the actors to go up there, they’d go: “Really?” Then when they saw it they went: “You were right!”
AB: There’s usually got to be some tension on set to make something good, push it further.
BC: Yeah, and it’s okay if they go: “The director’s being an arsehole, he’s being brutal, and I thought we had it on the fifth take but he made me do 20 more in really cold water at five in the morning” to their agent or whatever. But then they watch the performance and everyone’s going: “You are amazing in the film!” and they go, “I loved working with Brendan!” Just get the performance you need. Friends at the premiere is the only thing you need to worry about.
AB: The wonderful Blue is the Warmest Colour stripped back the curtain on the bland PR junket circus.
BC: Well, I didn’t make my actors actually have sex. Maybe they did after we wrapped, but I can’t control that.