No stranger to the pages of DN, we spoke to BAFTA winning Scottish filmmaker Duncan Cowles in 2018 for Taking Stock, then his 2021 journey into millennial malaise with BBC series Scary Adult Things and now, ahead of the worldwide premiere of his debut feature Silent Men, we dive into his latest three shorts and what to expect from the upcoming feature. Sighscape, Desire Lines and Outlets follow Cowles’ signature deadpan, self-deprecating style as we join him sighing at the sea, wondering why we choose to take our own paths and desperately searching for a film idea to best funnel the grief of losing his granny into a project that will allow him to let go. Cowles assumed his distinctive one man band approach to the making of these shorts, which all ran concurrently to the much larger seven year undertaking of his feature, with each film offering us a glimpse into the delightfully dour Scottish filmmaker’s life. With Silent Men stepping onto the film festival circuit this week with two screenings at Sheffield DocFest (13th & 14th June), we invited Cowles back to DN for a chat about the multi-year production process behind his feature debut, the benefits of hoarding equipment over the years and the building of his trademark voiceover style.

[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]

As well as your upcoming feature, we’re going to chat about your shorts Outlets, Sighscape and Desire Lines; give us a brief introduction to each film before we dive in.

They were all finished at the same time but they weren’t actually all made at the same time, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m that productive. Sighscape came about as a one minute palate cleanser micro short film that came off the back of being very busy doing Scary Adult Things for the best part of a year and having to deal with certain constraints that come with broadcast work and being told what to do. I just wanted a reset film and it was a bit fun, a bit silly and a bit of a breather in between other work. It was made very quickly and then I just didn’t do anything with it.

Outlets came next chronologically, a bigger film about losing my granny. She died in the spring and I made it over the summer into the winter period up to Christmas. I didn’t have a big project on and I wanted to do something to process the feelings of sadness. I was quite reluctant to make a film because I’d previously made a film about my granddad dying and I didn’t want to be the guy that just makes films about relatives dying. But I couldn’t get away from the feelings and every idea I was coming up with just kept coming back to that so I thought, right, I’ll put it into a film. I’ll make it about the process of trying to escape from those feelings of sadness and what the creative mind does. The unstoppable idea generation and the need to put it into something, an outlet for it. Again, once it was almost finished I sat on it for a few months, not sure if I was going to do it or not, not sure if it was quite ready. Then I made a few tweaks a number of months later and decided to release it.

Desire Lines came the following summer, so they weren’t all at exactly the same time but I sat on them with a lot of indecision as to what I was going to do; probably doubting my own filmmaking for a while. Desire Lines was a failed commission. I’d pitched it as an idea for this environmental fund and it got shortlisted, which told me that there was something in the idea, but then it didn’t get picked up so I decided that it must be good enough to be made and I’d do it myself. It became something slightly different as a result. I’ve not got any answers for saving the planet so it was just a way to put those feelings into a little film. I filmed three times and edited it myself and it didn’t take a huge amount of time to make. So, these three films were then ready to go at the same time and I decided right – they’re all going to get put out into the world.

It probably looks like I’m this self-obsessed mad man from a distance but it’s just what I like doing.

You mentioned doubting your own filmmaking, what then made you realise that the films were good enough and pushed you to release them?

The most enjoyable bit for me is actually the filming and the making of it and so it’s sometimes easy to forget about the need to launch them out which is also enjoyable but just slightly more stressful and anxiety-inducing, so maybe it’s easier to just keep them on a hard drive. Doubting my own filmmaking ability is a constant thing in my life and it doesn’t really go away. I ran the films past other filmmaker friends to see what they thought, and their feedback was that they’re a lot better than you think they are. You try to look at it objectively and ascertain if it is good or if I’m being self-indulgent. Especially with personal films, it probably looks like I’m this self-obsessed madman from a distance but it’s just what I like doing. It’s my way of communicating how I feel to the world through films.

Ideally, you want someone to go out, shake the hands and work on the promotion but it’s very rare you find people that can do it without the enthusiasm of the director. We’re talking about these things with the feature film, we have a premiere but you also need to then to launch it out and try to make some sort of impact with it otherwise what’s the point other than satisfying your own creative needs? That’s why it’s nice with the TV stuff, it’s a different thing because they’re maybe not quite as creative but it does the audience bit for you. Scary Adult Things came on BBC Scotland then on iPlayer UK wide which is where most of the audience came in. That was really satisfying because I really enjoyed the making of it and then I got to sit back a little bit, although I was doing promotional stuff I didn’t have to travel loads or do funding applications for impact campaigns and all sorts of stuff that you would maybe have to do in other situations.

Are you a man who sighs a lot?

Yeah, I think so. I’m told that there was a period where me and my girlfriend, now wife, were working at home at the same time, she was in a different room and she said she could just hear regular sighs coming from the other room – I’m not conscious of it but I must be a sigher. I have a slight tendency towards the pessimistic and depressive side of things so that comes with a lot of sighs.

Doubting my own filmmaking ability is a constant thing in my life and it doesn’t really go away.

Those sighs then worked themselves into your love of Scotland in Sighscape.

A couple of them are actually England, I visited my grandma down in Falmouth but the rest are Scotland. I had a lot of the footage anyway, I often go to the beach and just film stuff because I’m a bit weird like that. It’s relaxing to go and film waves, it calms me down and gives me a momentary sort of sense of peace and an escape from everything else going on in the world. The idea came about because I was at the beach, filming and I sighed then I thought, “Oh it’s like a sighscape”. Then I thought I could maybe put them out as little single sighscapes one at a time but then I put them all in a timeline, watched it and thought it was funnier and less work. A lot of folk didn’t really get it but I quite liked that. Some people thought it was maybe a sexual thing as some of the sighs were quite… you know. Everyone had a different interpretation of the meaning and I’m not sure how much there actually is in there – it’s an expression of sighing.

How did you find the right erosion locations to film Desire Lines?

It’s in Edinburgh, Holyrood Park where Arthur’s Seat is and Salisbury Crag are not that far from my flat. I walk around there most days and they were one of those things that you’ve seen your whole life but I’d never discussed them, I didn’t know they had a name until I read an article in the Guardian about Desire Paths. It talked about architects who were analyzing them in certain areas to figure out where paths should go and suddenly, I just couldn’t stop looking at them. I had the idea on the Monday and I was out filming on the Wednesday, it wasn’t a long process. It felt weirdly linked to In the Company of Insects that I’d made about the loss of my grandad as the people in the frame were almost the same size as the insects. The funding application was quickly rejected but I just took myself out to film more, edited it very quickly, got some music done. All three of the films were done for no money, no funding involved, so just me.

Back when I first used voiceover as a student on my graduation film I was told I needed to smile when I speak because it was too depressing. I just remember not enjoying the process of performing in a polished way and trying to do it all in a one-er at the end of the process.

At what point do you work on and insert your voiceover into the films?

It evolves in tandem as the filming changes or I might film something that’s worth commenting on so I’ll add that in. It’s not the usual, do the film and then go and record the voiceover and put it on, I don’t think I’ve ever worked like that. Back when I first used voiceover as a student on my graduation film I was told I needed to smile when I speak because it was too depressing. I just remember not enjoying the process of performing in a polished way and trying to do it all in a one-er at the end of the process. You get different delivery and your voice sounds different on different days and sometimes you capture a moment or a feeling that you’re in and something unexpected comes out into the microphone. I’ve lent more and more into that as a way of working the more I’ve done. For example, the ending of the feature film is very much unscripted, it’s something that I didn’t expect but after trying 20 different versions of a more scripted version, the one that worked is the one that was completely fresh and not something I planned. It should be about the process and not just be a kind of templated workflow with pre-production, production then post and all these traditional steps.

I very much got that feeling watching Outlets, it almost felt like I was sitting there next to you throughout the creative process.

It’s as accurate as it can be in terms of being on that creative journey with me. I came up with more ideas than are in the film, about 30 originally, so there were a few more in the first cuts and then it trimmed and I swapped the positions of some of them. You do have to construct it a little bit more to get that narrative emotional arc right and place which ideas actually work better at the start of the film and which ones, emotionally, are more towards the end. I put them all in a classic editing plan where you put each idea on its own post-it note and then I had a feeling attached to that, then tried to order them in a way that built to the ending. I decided in the run-up that I would force myself to write or try and film one of the ideas each day, even if it wasn’t a very good one. Then I would kind of take stock after that month and see what else I wanted to film and see which of the ideas were a bit more fiddly to film. Sometimes it wasn’t possible due to other jobs, but it was a good way to stick myself into that film and make it.

You’ve had the feature film bubbling alongside various shorts and other projects. How do you keep yourself motivated and balance working on all these projects simultaneously?

It’s quite difficult, I say to myself that I need to make at least one short film a year as a minimum to force myself to at least try and keep that output as much for my own sanity as for a career thing. It’s easy sometimes that you can get busy shooting a charity film, editing something for someone, teaching, or someone sees a short and gets in touch for a commission, then suddenly your weeks fill up and before you know it, the year’s over and you’ve not actually made anything. So it is important to force these ideas out if you are busy. I try to block things into the calendar for filming, you can always move it if you get offered a job on that day but it’s trying to hold yourself accountable which is probably the hardest thing about choosing to be a freelance filmmaker. I enjoy what I do, I don’t regret any of the lifestyle choices I’ve made in terms of short films and all the rest of it.

I imagine you’re a bit of a gearhead, have you got about 50,000 cameras and lights and what’s your favourite equipment for a shoot?

I seem to collect these things, I’m not good with selling equipment to get more kit. I find it hard to say goodbye to the old bits of tech, to the point where now things are becoming trendy again. Like I’ve still got my digital camera that burns the date in so it’s quite handy. I got a job recently and the camera that I shoot on was too advanced for the format they wanted so I had to use an older camera that I almost sold and I wouldn’t have got as much for selling the camera as I got for the job so I tend to hang on to things which is a benefit. When it comes to filming, I do have my preferred camera and three lenses that I go between, I don’t overcomplicate that. Sometimes I’ll add other cameras into the shoot and I’ll have four angles and I’ll set up remote cameras like GoPros and then like a stills camera. I quite like all the different textures in a scene. Desire Lines was deliberately filmed on a lens extender that extended my long lens by double. I shot most of the film on that one lens with that one extender so it was almost me making a short film as a way to try out a new bit of equipment. Similarly, with Outlets it was the first film that I’d done entirely in 4k to learn more of that workflow and what problems occur, file sizes, etc.

I try to get as much quality as I can out of more affordable equipment that is lightweight enough that I can carry everything myself.

There’s a great moment in Directed by Tweedie where he questions your different cameras.

Yeah, it’s bewildering probably to him. That film actually gets used quite a lot to teach filmmaking interviews, it’s a fun way to show how people set things up and what you can do. I was and still do, balancing cameras on books if I don’t have enough tripods and I’ll lodge a battery underneath the lens to keep it stable. You can go overboard with equipment and the really good stuff is too expensive for my level. I try to get as much quality as I can out of more affordable equipment that is lightweight enough that I can carry everything myself. My camera bag is packed down to a minimum and it all fits in and I’ve got just enough of everything to get through. That’s why I like GoPros cause for a one-man operation you can just stick them up. I do have two tripods now so I’ve come a long way since Directed by Tweedie.

The majority of your work is as you mentioned, made as a one man operation. Did this change when making the feature?

Not really, I filmed the whole thing on my own There was an editor for a while and then they left then I edited it a bit for a while, then there’s another editor who I then worked with the last couple of years on and off to get it to completion and I’ve worked with a couple of producers. There’s a composer, a sound mixer and a colourist but they all operate individually too. When you watch it, it’s still very much just me and my camera.

And Silent Men is premiering at Sheffield DocFest.

That’s the world premiere and the start of the UK screenings. Hopefully, there’ll be more screenings later in the year, we’re just working out that sort of stuff at the moment but it’s been a long time coming. I pitched the film at Sheffield a number of years ago so it’s quite nice to kind of come back. All the contributors bar one are in the north of England or in Scotland so Sheffield feels like a good place to to have it open.

I avoided the process of making this film because it was quite difficult not just doing a feature for the first time but also doing the actual opening up to my family part.

Give us the logline for the film.

It’s a personal film that explores my struggles with expressing emotion to my family. Basically, I go and film blokes and explore male mental health with other men as a way to discover how I can get better at doing that myself. The film follows this personal journey but also has these other men in it and we look at different techniques and different ways to process emotion. It took a long time because I avoided the process of making this film because it was quite difficult not just doing a feature for the first time but also doing the actual opening up to my family part. So the whole film is basically me avoiding making a film but kind of making a film and so a lot of time passes. The seven years are very clear in the film, it’s chronological and you see me age and you see the lives of the contributors that I work with move on and I think that’s hopefully a strength of the film. It’d be very uneconomical to make a film like this normally so it hopefully makes it quite unique that it follows a seven year time frame.

Was that multi-year filming period always the plan?

No, I thought it’d be done in a year to be honest but it took longer. I think it would have been more conventional had it been made over a year. The avoidance and the fact it’s taken longer hopefully makes it more of a unique journey in film and it’ll stand out compared to other films in the mental health space that have been made over the years. It’s a little bit more self-aware and again, the process of filming and filmmaking is a part of the whole thing, so yeah hopefully different enough to justify its existence in the world.

Your 2017 short Alexithymia looks at a man lacking emotion, was that a jumping-off point for Silent Men?

I started that short unsure if it would be part of the feature then I decided it was going to be its own little thing. It’s very different stylistically and tonally. That was very early before I started any actual work on the feature but the idea was definitely around at that time. The idea of communication within families and opening up to loved ones features throughout most of my work. My graduation film looked at my family. Me and my dad’s relationship and his relationship to the grandpa that I never knew and it feels like this film is a sequel which picks up that journey and takes it further and deeper.

Because Silent Men was made over such an extended period of time, did you find your style of filmmaking changed over those seven years?

Yeah, I think you see me getting better at filming. Some of the early scenes are a bit embarrassing but somewhere in the middle of that I did Scary Adult Things for a year and had an eight week shooting period of filming on my own with all these multi-cams and so there is a tipping point in the film where you go past that and suddenly see me be far more competent at filmmaking. There’s almost a B storyline of me getting slightly better at filming which is just as you would hope over that period of time. With every film, I hope that it feels like you’re getting a window into someone’s diary. It should have the emotional weight, or you should feel like you’re getting that access to something in a genuine, honest way. I don’t like it when films don’t allow you in enough, and you feel like you want to be part of that, especially when it’s a personal film. It’s an enjoyable thing to be able to share a bit of your world and point of view with people, makes you feel slightly less alone in the world which is an added benefit that I like about it. It might reach the point where I have nothing to say and my life gets completely boring but if that happens, maybe I’ll have to rethink things.

Let’s go back to funding, how were you able to finance the feature?

I was lucky enough to get funding to develop the feature from Screen Scotland and The Whickers. I did my best to stretch that development funding across as long a period as possible and then after a few years you get a bit more. I’ve tried to be very economical with it and make it last. If I’ve got other work on I’ll pay myself from that and try to balance it and be sensible with it. I’m not the most expensive filmmaker, I’m good at doing things on a small budget. It is just me and my cameras so I like to think that’s a strength to working with me as a funder or as an organisation. It’s a small budget but it’s been enough to make a film in this way. Having that support has been amazing. It’s as much about the money as it is someone having faith in your film idea to be honest.

With every film, I hope that it feels like you’re getting a window into someone’s diary. It should have the emotional weight, or you should feel like you’re getting that access to something in a genuine, honest way.

Now you’re married and I assume, not living at home any more, where are you drawing your inspiration from?

It’s a good question. I’m making a short film actually this year as and when I can which will be finished next year if all goes to plan, just as something fun to do after a big project. It’s a bit more effort than Sighscape but I’m also trying to work out what the next big project is and what that’s going to look like. I feel like this feature is a culmination of the past 10 years of short filmmaking and TV work so hopefully people like it. I’m very ready for it to be done but I’m not ready for a world without working on something big and meaningful. You always get a bit of a dip after a project where you’re relieved but glad to have something done, but if you don’t move on to something else you could end up with a gap of time where you get frustrated because you’re not working and the longer that goes on sometimes the harder it is to break out of so I’m quite conscious of making sure I don’t drop the camera.

Because your films are so personal, do you ever get any backlash or hate?

Occasionally. Generally, people are polite enough not to actually tell you but sometimes you get a little bit of feedback that’s a bit more critical. People’s own family situations can be quite personal and different to yours and so sometimes people might look at my life and think you’re lucky you’ve got this going on, you’ve got a family that loves you and that can be upsetting. The Lady with a Lamp for example, a lot of people who didn’t have their mum any more got quite upset and critical of that film which I think misses the point of the film but I can understand where that comes from so it’s not something I take too personally.

I’ve got used to a certain level of criticism over the years, but it’s balanced out by a larger proportion of people being complimentary and enjoying something and it being meaningful to them. I’ve had people tell me, “I saw your film with your grandad and it made me go and film with my grandad and he’s no longer here but I have this footage and I wouldn’t have had that if I hadn’t watched your film.” and there’s certain emails and things that I get like that which reassure me that I’m doing the right thing. Some people just don’t like my filmmaking style as well and they make that perfectly clear to me, some friends and my own dad don’t like half my films. But obviously, if everyone doesn’t like the feature I’ll be really upset.

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