Duncan Cowles on Scary Adult Things
Duncan Cowles – long one of Scottish short film's most exciting talents – takes his brand of skew-whiff documentary to BBC Scotland with his first TV series, Scary Adult Things
Edinburgh-based documentarian Duncan Cowles likes the rough edges of filmmaking; moments that other directors would resign to the cutting room floor are his key building blocks. For Cowles, the awkward conversations with interviewees while the camera is being set up are more revealing than the interviews themselves. The mumbled digressions and the self-deprecating asides he makes while recording voiceover make the final cut. The effect is to make his documentaries feel more real, while also exposing their inner mechanics.
His first TV show, Scary Adult Things, currently screening on BBC Scotland, is full of these idiosyncrasies. The premise centres on Cowles' own early mid-life crisis – he’s 30, he still lives with his parents, but wonders if he should have a mortgage and a pension by now. Over six half-hour episodes, he investigates whether he’s been living his life all wrong by speaking to other millennials from across the country. Cowles spoke to me on Zoom from his childhood bedroom at his parents’ house, where he still lives, to discuss the new show and his career.
The Skinny: Scary Adult Things seems to build on some of the themes in your earlier short film Taking Stock, which examined your life as a freelance documentary filmmaker. Was that the starting point for the show?
Duncan Cowles: I initially had a handful of ideas that I thought were maybe either standalone or little mini online series, but I didn't imagine suddenly it would be like a six-part TV show. I knew BBC Scotland were looking for ideas, so I sent them over, I think it was like four pitches. They liked them, but the chat was, ‘How about instead of these standalones, you make it one series.’ The idea was almost like, ‘Duncan investigates.’ I go and dabble in each thing.
I know the commissioner, Louise [Thornton], had seen Taking Stock, and she liked its voiceover style and how it was being quite honest, but also self-aware and deadpan. So all that stuff was in there. So I went away and looked at the idea of Digs, the living at home first episode, and pitched that as a pilot that I could go and make to see if the whole thing would work.
You shot that back in 2019, right?
Yeah. Back then it had a different name, funnily enough. It was called Dealing with It. So it was me, like, dealing with stuff. But we changed it to Scary Adult Things.
Why the change?
When I was running the two options past people, they just responded better to Scary Adult Things. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds like something I'd click on. But Dealing with It, that sounds like it might be a bit of an effort.’ So we change the title and the pilot was well-received from the BBC end, and then pitched as a series with all the different episodes.
It got commissioned just before lockdown, and then suddenly I was panicking. 'What do we do now?' 'Are they going to cancel it?' But it kind of worked out... [the pandemic] was a blessing in disguise in some ways because it gave us a lot of time to then do the research, which we did in lockdown – finding contributors and really fleshing out episode plans. And then, in late summer, we were allowed to go out and film it with all the restrictions and stuff, which I think worked OK in the end.
Can you talk a bit about your very particular style of filmmaking? You don’t make documentaries in the conventional way, let’s say.
It's developed over quite a long period I guess, through different projects. At the art college [Edinburgh College of Art], I was trying different styles out but no matter what I was trying, my personality or, I guess, my clunkiness and awkwardness, always seemed to filter in; it was like I couldn't quite get away from it. Even stuff like the film with my mum and the lamp [The Lady with the Lamp, 2012], that came out of me trying to do a different film. It seemed like the most interesting and successful thing was always the sort of bit that could be seen as a failure or an outtake almost, that was the thing that people wanted.
You also like to put yourself in your films.
Yeah, I became more comfortable with that. I said: I'm going to show you everything, even the failures, and I'm going to show me behind the camera. I'm going to show how ridiculous the scene is or how filming something can change it, whereas obviously a lot of documentaries will hide the process.
I think I thought by showing it all it was more honest I suppose, and kind of funny, like the humour of filming comes into it. And I enjoy the ability to put my own point of view across at different levels. Obviously in some of the stuff I've done, that's maybe more minimal, but with [Scary Adult Things] I've been allowed to do whatever, which has been quite nice.
Have you developed techniques for creating those awkward moments that make it into your films?
A lot of the time it's just hoping that something happens. I find that whenever you film there's always stuff like that, it's just normally that for most people, that's the first thing they get rid of when they're editing. Whereas I find they’re the more human moments. You know, when you turn the camera on someone it quite often changes them. They begin to perform or present the best version of themselves. But the bits where they're silent before the interview or when they're getting mic'd up or when you're just doing the soundcheck or whatever, those bits I always find you get more of that human quality about someone.
You learn more about them through those little moments than you would from them telling a story they've probably told ten times already.
There’s an episode where you screen someone your favourite documentary at the Dominion in Edinburgh while on a ‘friendship date’. I wondered what that film was and what are your other favourite docs and influences?
A couple of folk have asked about that. I didn’t give the name purely so that I didn't have to go and get permission. It was Nobody's Business by Alan Berliner. He's an American filmmaker who's made a whole load of feature films about his own family and other relatives. They're really good but they are a bit fiddly to find. The one I showed in the Dominion was recorded off a VHS and then burned on to an mp4. So it had the BBC Two logo from, like, 1995 on it, so there were a few reasons why I didn't show it. [The Dominion] also screened it in the wrong aspect ratio, although I'm not going to hold that against them, they were doing their best.
Berliner's work is a big influence. And then there's the more well-known names of, like, Nick Broomfield, some of his stuff, and growing up, Louis Theroux to a certain extent. He's obviously not the director, but more of a presenter, but still his presence on camera has to be an influence, I would say. But there are a lot of different things that feed in. Self-aware and personal work always appealed to me the most, rather than stuff that's maybe more polished film, which I enjoy, but I really like it when you can see the filmmaker and his or her motivation in the telling of the story.
The moments of excruciating awkwardness in your films also remind me of things like Alan Partridge and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Are socially awkward comedies an influence?
I suppose so, yeah. I think that comes with filming at times anyway, and my lack of being particularly on the ball – sometimes I'm a bit all over the shop. And I just go with that. Plus I’m never really sure what's going to come out of my mouth most of the time, which gets a bit worrying.
The Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque style was talked about in pitching because Larry David takes bits of his own life and infuses it into the show, and I did a similar thing. So each episode has a thing like, OK, I'm going to go speak to this girl on my street, or I'm going to go speak to my mate because she's into fitness. So I take those people from my real life and then put them into the show, which I was quite keen on doing as well as branching out to find other contributors.
You also seem to enjoy eating on camera. I reckoned you could make a supercut of about ten minutes of you snacking in the show.
There's loads more that wasn’t even included. I don't know why, I just think it's one of those things where there's a rule where you don't show that stuff. It's almost like, if you're told not to do something, I'm like, ‘I'm gonna do that.’ And it's all part of the journey as well; I like the reality of it. Someone said to me the other day, ‘What I like about the show is that you showed the Scotland that I know, which is stopping at service stations or suburbs in the Central Belt – maybe the stuff that we don't always see on screen'. We've all sat in a supermarket car park and had a rubbish sandwich, you know? And I do eat a lot. I mean, that's part of filming, you need a lot of energy to lug all that equipment about.
Now that you have this big BBC commission, will you finally move out of your parents' house into your own place?
Well as you can see, I'm still here? I do hope to be able to move out quite soon but I don't have anything like immediately lined up. I think hopefully this year. I don't know if that'll damage the brand too much, though.