RUBEN GUTHRIE – interview with Brendan Cowell


Ruben Guthrie is the film adaptation of Brendan Cowell’s successful 2009 play about an advertising executive who gives up drink for a year in order to win back his supermodel girlfriend. It stars Patrick Brammall, Abbey Lee, Alex Dimitriades, and marks Cowell’s feature film directorial debut. The film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival.
“It took five years for the film to get made,” says writer/director Brendan Cowell when talking about his feature film directorial debut Ruben Guthrie, which hits local cinemas on July 16.
Brendan Cowell is a familiar face through his work on stage, on television with appearances in Love Your Way and through his film work, with roles in Beneath Hill 60 and Save Your Legs (both of which he also wrote) and Matthew Saville’s drama Noise, for which his performance won an Australian Film Critics Award. Cowell makes his feature film directorial debut with the black comedy Ruben Guthrie, an adaptation of his successful 2009 play which was based on his own battle with the bottle.

“In 2007, we were much younger people back then, and I found that I was pushing the boundaries a bit with the drink,” he elaborates when explaining the genesis of the character. “I found that my industry was pretty much surrounded by drink, everything was drink, drink, so I thought I had to save myself and save my relationship. So just as an experiment I would take a year off and see what life was like. So I did, and what I found was pretty alarming. I found out that a lot of people didn’t want to hang out with me anymore, and those who did really wanted me to do it with a drink in my hand and they weren’t really ready to accept the choice I’d made. And then I found within myself that not only was I ashamed of some of the behaviour I had performed in the past, but I started to feel differently in my body, and life was a totally different experience. And I thought there’s got to be enough in there for a stage play.”
There were a couple of sold out productions of the play at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, directed by Wayne Blair of The Sapphires fame. “I decided that this should have a bigger audience so I’m going to take it to the screen,” Cowell says. “It took five years for the film to get made, and it had many machinations. In a lot of ways when we decided to make it low budget I very much brought it back to the play. The film is not dissimilar to the play experience. It pushed the humour a little more. It involved the aesthetic of Sydney a little bit more, because Sydney is very much a character in the film, in a lot of ways juxtaposing his journey through this beautiful Utopian kind of city laid out before him as he has this struggle. That was kind of the process, and then it was very much about the filmmaking.”
In early drafts, the character of Ruben was actually a tv writer with an actress girlfriend, but that sounded too close to Cowell’s own persona. “To write about yourself and to write something truthful you have to try and take a couple of steps away from your own experience in order to peer in,” Cowell continues. Eventually the character evolved and he became an ad executive. That really worked with the themes of selling things and convincing people to do things. “I thought it was kind of hilarious that his sales pitches were no longer edgy and his boss in a lot of ways wishes that he would get back on the drink so that he can create a lot more dangerous advertisements that had made him famous. So while he’s trying to fix himself he still has to drink from the same poisoned chalice. I thought that was a great dilemma for a protagonist.”
Guthrie starts to improve when he starts to look around at his world; he starts to realise that he does have a problem, and he realises that his behaviour affects others. He’s more obnoxious at the start of the film when he’s on the drink. But then he starts to dig up some stuff from the past, which his family are not so happy to hear about. He gets into kayaking, and new age foods and drinks. “I found that when I stopped drinking my work became a little worthy, a little boring,” admits Cowell.
The landmark 1971 film Wake In Fright captured Australia’s toxic drinking culture as well as exploring themes of male bonding, that blokey culture of the outback, and the way in which men communicate or do not communicate. Cowell wanted to capture the same tone of that seminal film and explore the weird stuff that happens in Australia. But rather than the harsh and remote outback, Cowell set his film in middle class Sydney where they drink champagne. “But it’s the same kind of wild ugliness that I’m speaking of,” he adds. “I do seem to tackle the way men do or don’t communicate, it seems to be a theme in my work. I’m fascinated by male behaviour and male depression, male sadness, and male anger. I’m probably still dealing with it myself, and I feel this is an important subject to put out there because it’s something we don’t like to talk about.”

Patrick Brammall was cast as the eponymous Ruben, despite some early reservations that he looked a bit too much like Cowell himself. Patrick seemed to be in the right place at the right time, he had just done some really impressive theatre work and he’s a familiar face on television on tv through shows like Offspring, Upper Middle Bogan, and had demonstrated an affinity for both comedic and drama roles. “It was in the timing,” says Cowell. “He just seemed to have his hand up. ‘Give me a big role. Give me the lead in a feature film and I’ll smash it.’ So we did, and he did. He’s extraordinary. Extraordinary to work with. I guess people can’t see just how good he is just when he’s listening and how much he gives to other actors, how he leads the film so effortlessly around the plot and the story. He really is the consummate professional and an acting Goliath and a gentleman. He was a joy to work with.”
Model Abbey Lee was cast as Guthrie’s Czech supermodel girlfriend Zoya, who walks out on Ruben, saying that she will return in 12 months if he can give up the drink. Initially she was reluctant to tackle the part because she was keen to show that she could do more than just play a model on screen. But Cowell convinced her to put down a test for the role, sending her an impassioned email in which he explained the character in more detail. Zoya wants to get out of modelling, she wants to get out of this alcoholic relationship, and she wants to be a documentarian, to grow and see what else she’s got other than just a pretty face. That convinced Lee who recognised that it was good role. “She was just quite incredible, really. I think we were all a bit blown away. I knew that she would be really good but I didn’t realise that she would be that good.”
Lee adopts a convincing Czech accent for the role. Cowell gave her a few references. Lee was also good friends with some Czech models and got hold of a whole bunch of recordings. She took her preparation and the role really seriously. “She knew there was a lot at stake for her and if she buggered it up she’d be shown up,” Cowell says. Her career is beginning to take off in a big way as Lee has also had a role in Mad Max: Fury Road and plays an assassin in the $150 million dollar action film Gods Of Egypt, opposite Gerard Butler and Game Of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

Veterans Jack Thompson and Robyn Nevin were cast as Ruben’s parents. Thompson had seen the play and was on board immediately when Cowell approached him. “He’s a hard man to track down is Jack, he’s in demand, so we were very flattered when he said he’d do this, and he jumped on it,” says Cowell. Robyn gave Cowell his first job, so there was a huge respect already for her. “She’s probably the most cleverest actor in Australia,” enthuses Cowell. “But this role is really hard with her being the saviour of Ruben and then she probably makes the greatest betrayal of him. Those really big melodramatic kind of moments could have really backfired, but she managed to make it so real and so funny. She and Patrick have worked together a fair bit and they had a really nice relationship and they have such an excellent way with each other you sort of feel they click.”
Although Cowell makes his feature film directorial debut with Ruben Guthrie, it is not something that he has pursued. He is driven more by the individual project than becoming known as an actor/director. “I’m not as goal driven as that,” he says. “It seems to be very much driven by the work more than a singular ambition to be a director. I always wanted to make this film because I could see how I could make it. I prepared like any other director – I just know every inch of the script and watched a bunch of films – but in the end it was about working with the actors and the crew and trusting my instincts on the day. I tried to spend as much time as possible rehearsing the actors on set so that they’re comfortable before we shot. I tried to create an environment where the actors could really run the show. That was my way in.”
Being Sydney born and bred, Cowell was honoured to have Ruben Guthrie open this year’s Sydney Film Festival. “I don’t know if it was a failure or a success but it was the perfect thing for us to have happened leading up to the release in cinemas. It was just great to show the film off in Sydney because it’s a Sydney story. I love this city, I’m from this city, I love coming home to this city and to make a kind of bittersweet love song to your home town is great. And then to play an opening night at the Sydney Film Festival was pretty good.”

Greg spoke to Brendan about the play and the process of adapting it to the screen to find out more.…/0yy0xhhqa3wmfuy/200622_002.MP3


Speak Your Mind