Brendan Cowell is the mud-splattered star of Beneath Hill 60, director Jeremy Sims’s frighteningly evocative WWI film about Queensland miners who were shipped to Belgium in 1916 and assigned the task of tunnelling under enemy lines to light the fuse on the greatest explosion the world had ever known. The film’s battlefield recreations are convincing staged and the story’s different focus – it’s not about soldiers per se – provides it an interesting fresh perspective. On the publicity circuit, Cowell sat down for a yak with Cinetology. Beneath Hill 60 is currently screening at cinemas nationwide and you can read my review of it here.
Correct me if I’m wrong Brendan but your mud-splattered performance in Beneath Hill 60 has to be literally your dirtiest role yet, doesn’t it?
I’ve never had that much mud flung on me since I played Rugby league. That was the job, I guess. It was a bit of a shock the first couple of days, being smeared in mud, but then you just get used to it. After a while we’d just launch ourselves into the mud instead of going to makeup, wrestle each other and then you get touched up at makeup and they put a bit of blood in your ears and nostrils and you’re away!
I guess with all those blokes around you weren’t interested in a bit of mud wrestling on the side?
Between takes we had to keep ourselves out of breath because Jeremy (Sims, the director) didn’t want any manifested fake breathing. So we were doing a lot of weird mud dances and sprints and rugby games to keep ourselves out of breath, and also to keep our spirits alive because it was a tough shoot. I mean it wasn’t as tough as those real blokes who were risking their lives in the middle of Belgium but yeah, it was a pretty difficult shoot and we had a pretty amazing time as well.
Were they times when you felt guilty for thinking to yourself “boy, being on this set is hard work” but then you remembered that actual people went through something a hell of a lot more horrible than being on a film set?
Yeah, well that kind of brings you back down to Earth. We had a no whinging policy. Our motto that kind of rang through everything was “no matter how bad it is for us we’ve got catering and a shower and a nice hotel on the beach.” We were doing it for them so we tried to do it in the spirit that you know they fought in, so that was kind of the motto.
As you know, war films and particularly trench war films have been, for want of a better expression, done to death over the years. But Beneath Hill 60 offers a different perspective, being largely based underground in mines. I assume that telling the film in this way was a bit of a catch for you – something that appealed about the project.
I don’t know if we told the film in that way – that’s just kind of the story. This isn’t your regular war story because it’s not about soldiers. They’re not trained, they’re not experts, they’re not even half formed soldiers. They had six days to eight days training and from reading all the diaries the training was pretty average and pretty simple. Then they were issued a gun and a helmet and sent off on the ship for three months to Europe. So when they get there they’ve got no idea how to cope with the surroundings and how to be soldiers really, and they’re right in the middle of some pretty lethal trench warfare. These guys felt more comfortable underground and that was the task they were issued – to dig the trenches. They were actually hungry for the work because it kept them underground, it kept their minds active and it made them feel like they were at home – even though the tunnels over there were rat infested and leaky and you had to be horribly quiet in case the Germans heard you and bombed you. That’s what’s unique about the story: that these characters are miners from Queensland.
When I was looking through the press notes I was surprised to discover that there was very little information about the sets, which is odd because they’re such a powerful element of the film. Could you explain to me what the situation was – when you’re depicted underground in the film, for example, were you genuinely underground? How did that work?
Basically we shot the war scenes in two locations. The trenches were all dug out of a farm that was donated by a Townsville farmer. They shredded that farm, mudded it all down and dug about a kilometre of trenches in all. All the local townspeople got together and made the bags and put the wood in and all that kind of stuff. The soldiers and officers dugouts were actually underneath the ground at that farm but the tunnels were all built in a large hanger in industrial Townsville. There was hundreds of metres of tunnels circling around this big warehouse. So when we were in the tunnels we were actually in a warehouse but when we were in the trenches or dugouts we were underground on a farm. It’s very surreal and it is very odd the way films are made. When people came and had a look at what we were doing, it looked very peculiar.
Personally I tend to be pretty apprehensive about war films, the reason being that over the years there’s been an endless array of films that are very parochially minded, very jingoistic and very patriotic. War films often celebrate the success of one side which inherently also celebrates the failures and casualties inflicted on the other side. In terms of getting the balance right Beneath Hill 60 fares quite well. It certainly doesn’t approach the kind of over powering nationalism of, for example, the flag waving scenes in Saving Private Ryan. Was this a concern for you when you were signing up to this project – that it would somehow glorify the experiences of warfare in order to fit into a dramatically satisfying story?
When I first read the script I rang up Jeremy (Sims) and said “look I’m very interested because it’s fucking incredible story. Is it real? Did you make this up?” He said “no we didn’t” and when I met with (writer) David Roach I said “so what are you trying to do here?” He said “well I don’t want to make this chest-beating American jingoistic thing – like we are the greatest men, we are the greatest soldiers!”
We’ve seen that, and that’s not the nature of these men. We’ve had certain critics say that the story doesn’t have that mighty celebratory punch. Well, it didn’t! These men, I don’t want to put any spoilers in, but what they did at the end of the movie in initiating this feat – well, when you win something you also cause immense tragedy. They then had to remain in Europe for another few years, rebuild the place then come back. Half of them were shell shocked and the rest of them were silently depressed for the rest of their lives, because every time they looked at each other or closed their eyes they were reminded about the horrors of war. They were never soldiers; they were never prepared for it.
The crux of the film is obviously its war scenes, which are by and large terrifically done and I think Beneath Hill 60 will probably have a lot of longevity. I think people will probably study it, for example. However there are also the scenes where Oliver is at home and he connects with a romance with a young girl. These scenes far OK, but they’re nothing compared to the impact of the war scenes. I get why these on the home front moments were included – they give us more information about Oliver’s motivations, history and so forth – but I think the film would have been stronger if it had remained solely at the war front. Do you agree that this format could have worked or do you feel that these home front scenes were absolutely imperative to the story?
There’s been differences of opinion and I can see people’s issues with both. Some people say “oh it’s just so fantastic to get out of those tunnels and have some Queensland air” because a lot of people thought the movie was too claustrophobic. So these scenes do offer a bit of relief, but want I think is clever about what David’s done is that the flashbacks actually give you the time context as well…We actually found shooting the flashback scenes was very sad and very loaded and very dramatic. That’s what I like about them – that there is a lot going on in the flashbacks, it’s not just a normal flashback where you go back to a perfect life and everybody reflects on that. They’re actually incredibly dramatic and they’re a great evocation of the time and how war imposed itself on the time.
It’s a subjective thing. Some people will like that and some people won’t. I could probably handle the whole movie set in the tunnels because I’m a messed up individual and I like movies like that. But other people really love that element and find it really important. I think a love story does add to the commercialism of the movie, and also in getting to know who Oliver Woodward was before and after the war.
I think everybody knows that it’s hard to sustain a career as an Australian actor, even if you happen to be someone like yourself who is pretty well known in the industry. Are you in a position where you’re able to pick and choose your scripts or do you have to sign onto virtually everything to try and sustain your career?
I don’t get offered a lot of roles. I got offered Beneath Hill 60 but that was from working for ten years with Jeremy and Jeremy telling the producers and the funding bodies that if he was going to do it, I was going to do it. It’s very rare to get that kind of backing. I don’t think I can bankroll a movie here. I don’t think I’m a big enough star. Some people know who I am but you know, I’m not Hugh Jackman. I can’t get a movie over the line; I can’t get a movie ten million dollars. I lose out to a lot of roles in Australia and I’m yet to really work in America.
I had to audition along with about 57 other guys for I Love You Too. I get sent a couple of scripts and I don’t always do what I’m offered. I’m pretty fussy and I like to look back on my career, and I’m gonna have to say this: I can look back on what I’ve done now and I’m not embarrassed by any of it. I’m proud of every single project I’ve done. I don’t think I’ve done any shit. I look at a lot of actors who get a name in TV or get a name in film and they’ll just put their hand up for any job as long as there is a camera and a bit of money. I find that disturbing. I think Australians are really quick to get bored of their actors. There’s not a lot of work and you’ve got to choose your jobs well. I prefer to pave a career for myself that I’m proud of, and I want to surprise my audience. I want Australians to watch me and go “wow, I didn’t recognise him in that one” or “wasn’t that an interesting turn?” That’s kind of the way I see it. But no – I definitely don’t have 15 scripts on my desk at present.
So in other words Brendan it’s good for your professional credibility that you don’t have any Wog Boy skeletons in your closet, no You and Your Stupid Mate?
No, I do have some stupid mates though (laughing). I’ve got plenty of them.
I think you’re going to be greeted with a lot of positive appraisals of your performance in the film, quite deservedly, just as you were with Noise. But given the state of the Australian industry and its ongoing struggles, how great an effect in terms of getting more work does one really good performance actually have?
Noise was my first lead role in a movie. We went to Sundance and there was this incredible momentum behind the movie. A distributor bought it in America and I was thinking “fuck, I’m gonna have a movie come out in America that I’m the lead in!” I thought the film might win some awards because the critical acclaim was the highest of any film that year and people were just going bananas for it across the board. But then the box office didn’t reflect that and it wasn’t reflected at awards time, and the movie kind of fizzled. It had a high cult status and I didn’t do a movie for three years after that. I went back into the theatre, I played Hamlet, I wrote my own stuff, I made a bit more television but no script came across my table.
Noise helped me get an agent in America and so forth but nothing really happened. I don’t expect much from anything anymore. I don’t mean to sound bitter or cynical or spiteful – I think avoiding spite is the greatest achievement of any actor, especially in this country, because it is hard and there’s not a lot of work. These are commercial movies so possibly if the mainstream audience go then, you know, I might be seen as a more commercial or mainstream option, which can only help by career. I try not to think like that. It’s hard not to but I just love filmmaking so much. I know that sounds a little elusive or cliché but I this stuff is the hard work for me – promotion and things that happen after the movie. Being on set is a freakin’ luxury and working with blokes like Jeremy Sims and actors like Steve Le Marquand and getting down and dirty in the trenches with the camera and crew, it’s just…You never know when you’re gonna be on a set again. I know how many fantastic actors there are in my age group and how lucky and fortuitous it is for me to get these roles. I just feel blessed when I’m shooting and can’t wait for the next chance, if and when it comes. It’s like falling in love – you really never have any idea when it’s gonna come again.
I sort of sarcastically remarked on Twitter after I saw the film that, for obvious reasons, it didn’t exactly take full advantage of Bob Franklin’s comedic abilities! I know he has a small role, but what was he like on set?
Oh, he’s hilarious. He’s a brilliant bloke and he was brilliant for the role and a very funny man to hang out with. I guess that’s the thing, there’s so many great actors in the film. I mean there’s Chris Haywood and some of the younger blokes are fabulous little actors. I wish we could have made Band of Brothers. I wish we could have made ten one hour episodes and really got into all those lives. But we had to tell a specific story. Bob is great and he brought a lot to the film.
As you know, virtually every Australian actor who achieves even a small degree of success in film or television tends to try their luck in Hollywood. When are you buying your plane ticket?
(Laughing). Well I’ve had a couple of small shots at it, very small. I’ve just kind of got the representation going and I’ve been over. I haven’t connected with anything but I’ve gotten close to a couple of things. I guess I’ve gotta move over there for ten years or something, don’t I? I don’t know. I’m writing a novel that’s coming out here later in the year, and I’m doing a play in Sydney in September. I think unconsciously I book as many jobs in Australia as I can so I don’t have to go over there!