Interview with ‘Ruben Guthrie’ Director Brendan Cowell

Brendan Cowell InterviewGrowing up in this fair country of ours, it doesn’t take too long to realise that the phrase “Australian drinking culture” is a tautology. We Aussies love our booze; we forge friendships over a couple beers, we pick up at the club after a suite of shots, we share a glass of wine with our boss on Friday afternoon. The titular subject of Brendan Cowell’s second feature, Ruben Guthrie, loves his booze too – perhaps too much. The film spends a year observing Ruben’s (Patrick Brammall’s) attempts to stay off the juice in a society that’s absolutely deadset on pushing a drink into his hand.

The film is based on Cowell’s play of the same name, which took inspiration from his own experiences giving up alcohol. “I took an inventory of what happened to me in that year [that I gave up alcohol],” Cowell explained to me. “A lot of things that people around me said, and a lot of things I realised I noted down and I ended up with a full textbook – I thought, Jesus, there’s got be a play in this!”

The film throws a series of obstacles in the way of Ruben’s attempts to stay sober, from a fully stocked home bar to a series of family and friends who just want to party with the ‘old Ruben.’ “I lost a whole bunch of friendships,” says Cowell, “y’know, “let’s go for a walk on the beach, a power-walk on Saturday morning.” And they go, “A power-walk? What are you bloody talking about, give me a call when you’re back on the can.” I missed my nights on the booze as much as they did, but at the same time I’d never felt so good. I also felt a little bored, and a little frustrated: sometimes I just wanted to throw life away. And that’s the nice thing about drinking, sometimes you can just go “Ahh, fuck it. I’m gonna have a drink. I’ve had enough of this week.” You can just go home and smash a bottle of wine with your mates, and things do feel better. When you’re not drinking, you don’t have a crutch. And when you’re not drinking and you don’t have your girlfriend there, you don’t have someone that can make you feel better, you don’t have the substance to make you feel better. So you end up very alone.”

That sense of isolation became the focus of Cowell’s award-winning play, which featured the likes of Gyton Grantley in the lead role. But Ruben Guthrie’s adaptation from stage to screen required a shift in focus. “A screenplay has to be written through the eye of the camera; it has to be about what you’re seeing. Theatre is basically about the ideas,” he says. “The play was very much about isolation: one man alone on stage. The film’s more about being claustrophobic and bounced from one world to another, and about this man reeling out of control. About the fact that the ground might give way at any time, that he’s never safe. I’ve shifted the tone of it, and that’s the way we shot it – to make it feel like he couldn’t escape.”

While I haven’t seen the play, it’s easy to see that the film’s strongest scene – where its unapologetic protagonist details a six-day bender to an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting with pride rather than shame – would’ve played just as well in the theatre without the brief flashbacks. It’s an entertaining scene, but it’s also illustrative of how thin the line between desperation and celebration is when it comes Aussies and alcohol.

“Y’know, I went home with the blonde girl and I did this and I bloody spewed up in the cab,” says Cowell, mimicking the braggadocio heard in pubs and offices every week. “And everyone goes “Haw haw, you’re a legend!” Why? You’re not a legend. You’re sad. But for some reason we tend to think that we are heroic in the way that we self-destruct, that it’s something to be proud of. [Ruben] is probably the most popular, happy, successful man in Sydney but he’s also the most alone and terrified.”

If you’ve read my review of Ruben Guthrie, you’ll know I was comparatively underwhelmed by the film overall; the simplicity of its premise might’ve played well on the stage, but I found its relentless fascination with the enablers surrounding Ruben both tiring and implausible. A number of other critics have pointed out the preponderance of product placement in the film, which is littered with references to real-life brands and, despite its subject matter, almost plays like an alcohol advertisement itself (it’s perhaps the first film about alcoholism that’ll make you want a drink). When I asked Cowell about the product placement in the film, he interrupted me to object to the term:

“It’s brand integration, it’s not product placement; it’s all integrated into the story. There’s no, “Hey, this drink is a great drink, audience,”” he clarified, before explaining that authenticity was the driving factor behind such integration. “We approached a lot of brands; it was my idea to have them involved with the film. I’d seen the way Mad Men had used Heineken with Betty Draper and Lucky Strike and Jaguar. I thought people are gonna really believe this guy if they see his house on the water, they see his supermodel girlfriend’s actually a supermodel, and they find out he’s got a car brand and the Destination New South Wales brand and he’s got Randwick Racecourse – I mean, this guy’s no joke. Million dollar contracts on his shoulders. So the more familiar and authentic it could be, the better.”

He was more circumspect when asked about how said brands felt about being incorporated into a film about the perils of getting smashed. “Vivid loved the fact it showed off Sydney. They knew it was a bittersweet story and they were really happy to be involved. Other brands … weren’t. They went “Oh, can you take out the swear word, can you take out where he does that?” You go, “No, we’re not. This is the story.” I maybe massaged some stuff to make everybody agreeable, but there was no compromise at all – it was a take or leave it kind of deal.”

If I was a good film journalist, at this point I probably would have asked Cowell to elaborate on such massaging, but with my time limit fast approaching I felt obliged to ask the question we all really want answered – what advice would Todd (Cowell’s character from short-lived – and hilarious – SBS series Life Support) have to give the Australians of 2015?

“Look, it’d probably be about keeping your beard hygienic, you know,” Cowell laughs, “for the younger generation. And rip in while you can, you know what I mean. It’s not about the amount of tools in your tool belt, it’s the fact that you gotta know what to do with them.”

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