'Nick Broomfield without the ego': Meet Duncan Cowles

Documentarian Duncan Cowles is one of our favourite filmmakers on Scotland's lively short film scene; we take a look at his wonderful new film Taking Stock, and catch up with Cowles to find out more about the film

Feature by Matt Lloyd & Sanne Jehoul | 11 Dec 2017

Duncan Cowles has always put himself in his work, whether thematically – tackling his awkward relationships with various family members – or literally, wandering into the frame, peering quizzically into the lens. He’s Nick Broomfield without the ego, laying the documentary filmmaking process open. While his subjects may seem mundane by comparison, his approach is sincere. He has no wish to expose anyone, merely to forge a meaningful connection, thereby giving value to the act of filmmaking.

That's why his latest work, Taking Stock, is as tragic as it is hilarious. Forced to shoot stock footage for cash, Duncan’s craft is stripped of all that gives it meaning. Without a subject with whom he can interact – goldfish and poison dart frogs notwithstanding – Duncan is left to reflect on his own existence and the value of the images he creates. A montage of stunning, disparate shots is linked only by his trademark mumble, deflating blandly uplifting images of sunshine on a field of corn, or the gently undulating surface of a lake.

In its all too brief four minutes, then, Taking Stock unveils another aspect of the filmmaking process: the inauthenticity and construction of even the most innocuous shot. At the same time, it’s an indictment of the gig economy, a generation of freelancers accepting an illusion of freedom at the cost of job security. Duncan is a 27-year-old living at home, earning a pittance by uploading random footage to a website in the hope that at some point it will mean something to somebody somewhere. [Matt Lloyd]

Duncan Cowles on Taking Stock and freelance life

At The Skinny and Glasgow Short Film Festival, we’ve known Edinburgh-based filmmaker Duncan Cowles for a good while now as a unique upcoming talent in Scottish documentary film. In recent years he’s seen success after success with his short films, winning awards for works like Directed by Tweedie and Isabella (co-directed with Ross Hogg). Just last month he was nominated for a Creative Edinburgh Award for Directed by North Merchiston, a series of five shorts made in collaboration with some of the residents at the North Merchiston Care Home. Taking Stock, a Random Acts commission, is more self-reflective than ever, with Cowles’ trademark deadpan humour complementing his ruthless self-deprecation. We spoke to Cowles about Taking Stock, the trials of being a freelance filmmaker and the other projects he has in the pipeline.

Sanne Jehoul: What was the genesis of Taking Stock?
Duncan Cowles: I’d created all this stock footage and had spent a lot longer on filming, uploading, and tagging it than I should have. I’d been talking to everyone about how this extra income could grow into a decent pot of money, allowing me to live carefree for the rest of my life. I was obsessed, watching videos online of people who were making a living off it and travel the world. After a couple of months I began to realise that I wasn’t going to sell anything, since a million other people out there are trying to do the same thing. When I told folk that I’d only sold one seven-second clip of a frog, they found it hilarious, so I came up with the idea of turning it into a film. If my mates find it funny, then others might too, and it means the whole exercise wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Did you script the voice over or did you just mutter along to the visuals to figure out what would work?
I did write a rough script, which was a requirement of the commission, but I didn’t stick to it. It worked as an initial guide to help me select the right footage, and then I improvised the mumblings quite a few times. It drove me a bit loopy to be honest. Every time I recorded and re-recorded it, my voice seemed to shift tone slightly, so matching it up or replacing parts in the edit was an absolute pain. Credit goes to Anthony Ing, who composed the music and mixed the sound to make it all feel consistent.

For anyone who knows you from your successes on the short film circuit, this ‘stock footage filming’ part of your life might come as a surprise. How does it weigh up against each other?
People see the highlight reel of my life online and generally only ask me about the interesting stuff. That leads to a lot of presumptions, so with this film I wanted to show how mundane and quite unremarkable freelance life can be at times. Being stuck in your own head, over-thinking things, feeling alone – those were the aspects I wanted to touch on and have a laugh about. You can be screening your films and winning awards, but the next day you might need to film some dude talking about search engine optimisation, and you can’t turn it down. We do what we have to do to survive, and plenty of it isn’t hugely riveting.

Do you have any advice for creatives who might feel like throwing it all away for a job in a bank?
Yes, please do. The fewer people in freelance filmmaking, the more work available for me and my mates. Just kidding. It’s not a life for everyone, but if you can make it work, it’s hugely rewarding and satisfying. Right now I’m really enjoying what I’m getting to work on, the people I meet, and the freedom to manage my own time. I do often work around the clock though. Think carefully about whether you can be bothered with that or not. I wouldn’t judge anyone for sacking it all off. Sorry, that’s probably the least inspiring advice ever.

What have you got in the pipeline at the moment?
I’m making a 30-minute documentary for STV about the 14-hour ferry between Aberdeen and Shetland. It’s a lot of fun, although the North Sea can get fairly choppy. I’m also working on my first feature documentary, about blokes being a bit useless at showing emotions to people they care about – based on my own uselessness at this. And on top of that I’ve got plenty of bits and bobs to do for other organisations. The aquarium in which I filmed some of the stock footage got in touch after seeing Taking Stock on Channel 4, and they might want to work together to produce some content, so I could be back filming fish and frogs again very soon.

Oh, and to the dude I filmed talking about SEO a few years back: I mean no disrespect and enjoyed every moment of it. Give me a call if you need any more film work done.

Matt Lloyd is the director of Glasgow Short Film Festival and Sanne Jehoul is coordination and a programmer of Glasgow Short Film Festival, which takes place 14-18 Mar. For more info, head to glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-short-film-festival

To find out more about Duncan Cowles, head to duncancowles.com or check out Cowles' work on his Vimeo page