Duncan Cowles is one of the Artists in Residence at this year’s Vienna Independent Shorts. “Yellow Bread” caught up with him to talk about his documentary and photography work, his residency project, his collaboration with Ross Hogg, short films and what is next for him.
Can you talk about your background?
Duncan Cowles: I grew up in Edinburgh, where I’m still based most of the time. I studied filmmaking at the Edinburgh College of Art, where I specialized in documentaries. Post-ECA, I worked for the Scottish Documentary Institute on a wide range of documentaries and initiatives for a few years, but I now work for myself as a freelancer and run my own company, Relative Films Ltd, directing my own documentaries.
You are no stranger to making films about members of your family. Can you talk about your short “Directed by Tweedie”?
D.C.: Yes. “Directed by Tweedie” is a personal film I’m very proud of. It was my first ever funded short film after leaving the Edinburgh College of Art. I wanted to make a film about my Granddad to capture a memory of him. However, I wanted to do something that went beyond just a traditional character portrait. So, I tried to get my Granddad to make the film, and me make the film about him making the film. This didn’t quite work as he had no real interest in filmmaking or any kind of artistic pursuit, but the results were hopefully entertaining and touching for audiences to watch. I’m certainly very happy with it!
How did you become involved in “Isabella”? What can you tell us about your collaboration with Ross Hogg? Will there be more?
D.C.: I’d just finished “Directed by Tweedie” and Ross asked if I’d be up for getting involved in a project he was developing about his Gran. I’d more or less ran out of family members to make films about, so I said yes. We still collaborate quite frequently, although it tends to be on smaller projects, for example the festival trailers for VIS 2017. I’m also filming his sister’s wedding video if that counts?
Can you talk about your short film work?
D.C.: I’ve made so many different types of short film now, and for such a diverse range of different reasons. Some of my work is very personal, and I make them for very personal reasons, such as capturing a memory of someone close to me. I hope, though, that whatever I make doesn’t just become about me and is universal enough to touch others and ideally entertain. If I can make someone laugh, then I’m happy. If I can move someone as well, then even better. If I can go even further and influence someone to make a positive change and do something in their lives such as: phone a family member they’ve not spoken to in a while, then that’s the jackpot!
If I understand correctly, you also do photography. Can you talk about that?
D.C.: Yes, I started out a few years back also doing quite a lot of photography jobs and doing a lot of my own photography. I do that kind of work a lot less now, but I still accept commissions and jobs that come my way. I also always have my camera when traveling and photograph to document my life so I’ve something to look back on, but I do focus a lot more of my attention on film/video work these days.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
D.C.: No, probably not. Since leaving high-school, I focused on filmmaking, and even more specifically on documentaries. However, before that, I don’t know if I knew what I wanted to do exactly. I always knew that I wanted to entertain in some way, so whatever I’d end up doing that was an essential ingredient. Making people laugh and smile can be the best feeling in the world. I hope wherever my career goes, I never lose that.
Who is your favorite filmmaker? Who inspires you in the world of film?
D.C.: Undoubtedly, Alan Berliner. He’s made a lot of very personal films that feature his own family. When I saw his documentary “Nobody’s Business,” I was blown away. It’s a film about his father. Everybody should look it up and find a way to see it. I could write a book on how much I like that film, and the way it has inspired me and my own work. “First Cousin Once Removed” is also staggering.
What is your favorite film?
D.C.: Apart from those two… I really like “Dark Days” by Marc Singer. I remember watching it when I was at high school, and it inspiring me to try and make documentaries. It’s about the homeless community that used to live under the NYC subway, all shot on Black & White 16mm film with a stunning soundtrack by DJ Shadow. Just incredible!
How do you feel about being one of the Artists in Residence at this year’s VIS? How do you think it will help your career?
D.C.: Absolutely honored that someone thinks I’m worth putting up for two months. I never thought I’d ever be invited to do something like this. It’ll help my career immensely! I couldn’t be more grateful. I’m coming up for half way through the residency and I’ve made so much progress with my work. The weather here is also so much better than Scotland. Scotland is cold.
What can you say about your residency editing project, but more importantly, your new short film that you will be preparing during the residency?
D.C.: Yes, the feature film (currently titled “Silent Men”) is about men struggling to show emotions to those closest to them. It’s a personal film about my own difficulties with this, but also a road trip around the UK interviewing a diverse range of men about their feelings. During my residency, I’m editing some early scenes that have been filmed the past few months, and a brand new trailer for pitching the film to funders for production money.
The short film I’m working on is very different. I don’t want to say too much until I’ve finished the proposal, but it’ll be about 4 minutes and should be quite odd. Somewhere in between documentary and fiction, and contains a slow-motion fish!
What is your opinion on the short film format?
D.C.: I’ll always make short films. Even though I want to make longer films too, I can’t see me ever abandoning the format. It can be such an immediate and freeing way of expressing yourself. It’s also a good way to try new things out. The new short film I’m developing, for example, will be an entirely new style to all of the previous.
What else do you have in the pipeline?
D.C.: The feature film is taking up the majority of my time and energy, and then the new short film will hopefully get going soon, but I’m also due to pitch a 22-min TV documentary that I’ve been developing in the Autumn. It’s yet to be seen whether it’ll be commissioned, but I hope so.