Just Agree Then is the perfect film for 2019

A deadpan documentarian (Duncan Cowles) and an experimental animator (Ross Hogg) spent two weeks in the Austrian Alps making a film together and disagreeing wildly. The result is Just Agree Then, and it's the perfect film for our divided world

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 Dec 2019
  • Ross Hogg and Duncan Cowles

The best double acts require discord. From Laurel and Hardy getting into another fine mess to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s duelling Michael Caine impressions over bowls of pasta in The Trip, the blend of fierce rivalry and genuine friendship is what gives these duos their comic energy. The same dynamic is at play in the new collaboration between documentarian Duncan Cowles and animator Ross Hogg.

The pair had previously worked together on 2016’s Isabella, an experimental short about Hogg’s 92-year-old grandmother, who was suffering from dementia. Blending live-action and animation, the extraordinary nine-minute short was a deeply-moving exploration of the eponymous Isabella’s fractured memory as she neared the end of her life. Isabella’s huge success – it won awards at Glasgow Short Film Festival and Hamburg Short Film Festival, among others, as well as a Scottish Bafta – lead to the Edinburgh-based filmmakers being thrown together again at the European Forum Alpbach in the Austrian Alps where they were tasked with collaborating on a film that “presents their vision of the world today”.

The result of that two-weeks residency is Just Agree Then, a hilarious film about contrasting artistic visions as Cowles and Hogg’s disparate art forms and stylistic sensibilities go to war. A film about disagreement proves the perfect mirror for our increasingly divided world, and ahead of another contentious general election, its message of misplaced confidence, blatant ignorance and dissatisfying compromise couldn’t feel more timely.

As Just Agree Then arrives online, we caught up with these talented young filmmakers to see if we could get them to agree on something… anything.

Just Agree Then (2018) from Duncan Cowles on Vimeo.

The Skinny: How did you two originally meet?

Ross Hogg: We met on the ceilidh dancefloor at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2014. In the absence of partners, we paired for a waltz, and the was the beginning of a blossoming relationship.

Duncan Cowles: Ross was introduced to me by a mutual friend back in 2014 and wouldn’t leave me alone.

How would you describe your working relationship?

RH: Generally, I think it works pretty well. We both have different skills and areas of expertise that can complement each other, so unless Duncan’s in a bad mood, things normally work smoothly.

DC: Not ideal. I think Ross benefits from it a lot more than I do.

How did Just Agree Then come about?

RH: A few years ago we first collaborated on a short film called Isabella, about my grandmother, which led to us attending a lot of festivals in Europe and incidentally making connections with people and organisations. As a result, in 2018 we were asked to take part in a short residency in the Austrian Alps, to make a film, by a combination of Vienna Shorts Film Festival and the European Forum Alpbach.

DC: The only catch was that we had to work together…

They asked us for it to represent our “view of the world today”, which was open, but also as two Scottish people being forced out of the EU against our will, being funded by a European country to make a film, at a European summit, it was clear the direction we needed to take was going to tackle the divisions we are facing every day when we turn on the news.

So it’s all about Brexit, right?

RH: Spending time in the Austrian Alps during a tumultuous political time in the UK was definitely hard to ignore. If the UK and the EU were two filmmakers, sorting out Brexit would be the task of making a film together.

DC: Yeah. In a better world this film wouldn’t exist.

The documentary-animation hybrid is still a pretty new form. What are its advantages and disadvantages?

DC: I’ve always been intrigued by the hybrid animation doc stuff. For example, the feature film Waltz with Bashir does something powerful, but I actually think more often than not animation/doc/live-action fusions fall flat on their face due to jarring animation sequences plopped in due to an absence of archive or strong visuals. I think to do something special the animation has to be as intrinsically thought through as the rest of the footage or represent something artistically. There’s plenty watchable docs that put animation in them and they play fine I suppose, but I would only want to use it to raise the piece rather than just fill space on the timeline that you don’t want to have a talking interview head etc…

RH: Yeah, unusually I agree with Duncan here.

Duncan, you seem to be impressed by some of your early shots on Just Agree Then. Is it important for a filmmaker to be proud of their work?

DC: Not necessarily, I was more just trying to inspire Ross with those comments, get him excited you know? He’s always so grumpy. I was always saying to him, 'come on man, we’re in the Alps! Let's get inspired, check out this frame, let's film some stuff and then go swimming'… but he was always grumbling away about something or other.

RH: Bollocks. Duncan was the one wasting time, always moaning about going swimming. He even dragged me a couple of hours away to a neighbouring village to go on this double loop-the-loop flume.

DC: You loved it.

RH: To be fair, it was quite good.

Ross, I got the sense you didn’t feel appreciated on this project. Is Duncan hard to work with?

RH: Not normally, but on this film it was like banging my head against a brick wall. He never really listened to any of my ideas. At least when he wasn’t away skiving up a mountain or sitting in the sun with a coffee.

DC: Fake news.

Duncan, you seem less impressed with the footage you captured when you put it side-by-side with Ross’s animation. What can animation do that documentary can’t?

DC: Yeah, having to fit in next to Ross’s “animation” meant you don’t get to see the full resolution of those shots, which I have to say… really does negatively affect the whole thing.

RH: See what I mean?

With a very contentious general election looming, what can we all learn from Just Agree Then?

RH: Definitely don’t follow what the title suggests. Like Brexit, it was fudged together last minute and should not be a mantra to live by. I think it’s important that we disagree. That’s how we find faults and how we make positive changes.

DC: If I can attempt to be serious, I hope that people attempt to listen to everyone's point-of-view, no matter how wrong someone appears, rather than jumping straight to anger and frustration. That’s the easy reaction. The whole Brexit situation is ridiculous, and the general state of politics is fairly awful, but if everybody could take a deep breath and listen, maybe we’d get somewhere.

I mean, either that or that the Austrian Alps is a pretty solid place to move to post-Brexit.

What are you both working on in the future?

DC: I’ve an upcoming feature film I need to finish, which is still a bit away from being done, but it’s closer to being finished than started… Also a new short film, and some TV documentary stuff. All of which is bound to be much better than whatever Ross has been doing…

RH: There are a few projects I’m looking to get off the ground next year, and my most recent short film, The Last Train, which I made with illustrator Sean Mulvenna, is now online on the BBC iPlayer if anyone fancies a look.

DC: Wouldn’t bother. You’re better just watching Just Agree Then instead.

Will you work together again?

RH: Yeah, I’m always up for working with Duncan if the right thing comes along.

DC: No. God no.

Take a look at Just Agree Then in the player above or on Vimeo
Check out Cowles' previous work at www.duncancowles.com; check out Hogg's previous work at rosshogg.com