Interview: The Slap Writer Brendan Cowell
People like to watch shows with likeable, valorous people and think, "I'm like that". But you're fucking not.
Every element in The Slap is a pitch-perfect testament to what can come from a rock-solid creative team who are given a bit of money and a lot of time. The eight-part TV series was adapted from Christos Tsiolkas' multi-award winning 2008 novel. Tsiolkas worked closely on the adaptation, allowing changes to be made in order for the material to be best-translated into script format and even writing detailed character histories for the actors. Sometimes-actor, sometimes-writer Brendan Cowell wrote two episodes of the series: Episode 3, which followed perpetrator of the slap Harry (Alex Dimitriades) and Episode 8, which closed the series and told the story of young Richie (Blake Davis). Cowell also played Richie's father in the final episode. Oyster spoke to Brendan about his experience working on what is one of the truest, slickest, most beautiful Australian dramas in a very long time.
Emily Royal: How did you got involved in writing for The Slap?
Brendan Cowell: It was a funny process. I read the book and loved it, loved all the characters. It was so refreshing that there was finally a book with some great conflict and flawed characters, actual human beings and that they were all actively in this wonderful mess. I adored it. So when I heard about how Tony Ayres and Matchbox (Pictures) were cranking up the series I got on the phone to the agent and said "please get me a shot, get me a cup of tea with someone. I want to beg them to let me do it."
You actually sought it out yourself?
Yeah. I went and met with Tony Ayres and he said, "Look, we really want you to do it, you were one of our first ideas," and he mentioned Alice Bell and Cate Shortland and I just said, "That would be a bloody dream." And then there were some problems and I got taken off the project and replaced by another writer, but then that writer fell-through and suddenly I was back in. I didn't care, I just wanted to do it so much.
Do you know who that other writer was?
Cool. How did they decide who would write which episode?
It was kind of allocated, but at the same time it was like, Alice [Bell] was always going to write Connie because she just writes those girls so well and Cate Shortland was always going to write Rosie, because I don't think anyone else on the planet could. I guess I was always going to write Harry, because I'm a fucked-up angry man. I was going to write Manolis and Chris Murphy was going to write Richie but it became quite evident in the writing room that he knew a lot more about European men of that ilk and I knew a lot about burgeoning teenage homosexuals. We made an out-of-court agreement, shook hands over a beer and went in and told the producers that we were swapping and they had no problem with that. When I watch his Manolis episode I just think, "I couldn't have done that," it was just so fantastic.
I know all of the writers who worked on the show got together for a writing workshop at the beginning. Apart from that, how collaborative was the writing process? Did you each pretty much focus on your own episodes as though they were standalones?
Yeah, that's it. Myself and Chris got nominated for an AFI or ACCTA or whatever they're called. But I feel like we all wrote each other's episodes, structurally and story-wise. We were all over each other's because they were all part of the one big tangled basket... So much of the book happens in people's heads, which isn't a terribly dramatic thing to watch, so we had to make it all part of their human lives, which is just a wonderfully creative challenge. For example, in the book there's a flashback to Manolis visiting a prostitute ten years in the past and he couldn't get it up so he fantasised about holding the breast of the young woman. So we thought, why not just make him do that after the funeral in the present?
After that workshop we went off to work our own episodes... then we came back for another couple of workshops where we started to intertwine our stories and come up with other plotlines – cars, bringing Anouk into Harry's world, Rocco going missing.
It sounds like it was a fun process.
It was great. We were all in Melbourne at the start and I'd cook a big Japanese meal and we'd end up drinking wine and talking about the fucking show 'til one in the morning. It was a really good time, we were all very obsessed with it. And it wasn't necessarily a big love-in, it was quite rigorous, there was a lot of dynamic and it was quite argumentative at times.
It would have to be, considering the material you were working with.
Yeah The Slap is shifty like that.
Do you wish that sort of collaborative writing job came along more often? Do you just as much enjoy going off and writing a book, like you have done? Or writing a short-film?
I like all of it. Everyone asks me which one am I going to do but I've been doing all of them for years... All jobs are jobs, to me. A piece of art is a piece of art. How would you turn down a job like writing on The Slap? I wanted to learn a lot and take on the challenge. Then I'll get a role in a play and I think, "I wonder if I could do that?" So that's a new challenge. I don't see it all as being filed into separate boxes.
The key to a successful TV series is giving the writers a bit of money and a lot of time. And also, making sure that at the top of the food chain are creatives. If you have those things, you'll have a really successful show. The script will turn out really well, then really good actors will put their hands up and want to do it, then all of a sudden good directors roll in and you have a really good show.
It's a domino effect.
It starts and finishes with the fucking script. Tony Ayres is a writer/director and he ran the show. He's probably the quiet achiever; the unsung hero. He's a creative and he's the Executive Producer, so you're dealing with a creative person. So every person from the top down is about the beauty of the show.
You're all working under the same mindset.
Yeah. The reason why Six Feet Under and True Blood are such good shows is because Alan Ball is the Executive Producer. To have that kind of infrastructure, somehow the show comes off really well. Every good show that I've worked on has had that.
You mentioned Six Feet Under and True Blood, do you watch much TV?
I've been doing it a lot lately because I want to turn my novel into a series and there's been development on that. I've just finished the fourth season of Breaking Bad.
And I've watched three seasons of Skins. I just watched The Street. And The Inbetweeners, which is kinda funny. I'm in a play so instead of coming home and getting drunk, I can just watch two episodes of something and have a cup of tea.
That's much healthier!
Much healthier. There's something really satisfying about chewing up a series, isn't there?
I just finished the season three of True Blood, and it's really good and everything, but I just kind of don't give a shit any more.
I know what you mean! It's like, so much happens these days, I miss the old days when it was just Sookie and Bill and Eric was still a badass with long hair. I know Christos hasn't written a sequel to The Slap, but is it something that you'd think about doing a second season of for television?
We always said to Christos, "Come on let us do a second season" but he said, "Well what would The Slap be the second time around?" So I'd say maybe Hugo goes to school and gets slapped by the teacher and we could just keep the series going. Hugo goes to uni and get slapped by a lecturer, Hugo goes home and slaps Rosie.
It's got legs.
No, Christos would have to go and write another book. Even though you have these marvelous characters, it was about that event. Anthology's really hard ? we watch Mad Men to see what Don Draper is going to do, will him and Betty get back together? We watch The X-Files to see if Mulder and Scully get together. We watch Breaking Bad to see if Walter is going to get caught. Why would we tune into The Slap when we don't have a central couple or event. There's Anouk over here and Aisha over here – it's 'the slap' that keeps everything together.
Do you think there's a villain in The Slap? Or is it just a long, muddy series of events?
It's a series of muddy people, really. They're human. I think the reason why a lot of people hated the characters was because they recognised themselves. People like to watch TV shows with likeable, valorous people who are well-balanced. They think, "Yeah I'm like that." But you're fucking not. Every human being has demons, which result in flaws. That's what becoming an adult is all about – recognising those flaws and finding a way to live in society as a good person. That's what The Slap is about and that's why it's real and awesome TV. It's about acknowledging what it's like to be human.
It's like the fact that parents these days want to be parents but they still want to be young. We all love our lives and our freedoms. We want to still feel like we would fuck like teenagers or just nick off one day and leave the kids behind. There's a lot of parents I know, who are married, who think their lives are day-to-day and sometimes wish their kids weren't there, even though they love them.
It's different now compared to older generations, where you get married, have kids and shut up. Today, there are so many Apps on your iPhone and so many types of milk at the supermarket that the modern day parent is going, "Yeah I guess I'm happy, but there's so much out there, is this the right thing for me? What would've happened if I had stayed with that girl."
It's like, "What if?"
Exactly, "What if?" The Slap illustrates that – these people aren't the world's best parents, but they're big-hearted people who love their kids.
What's next for you? You said you were adapting your book, How It Feels, for the screen.
Yeah, we're in development on that. I've also got a feature film that I wrote called Save Your Legs, which is a comedy set in India. We start shooting this month in India and I'm in that one as well, so that's all guns ablazing. Just tapping away at some film and TV ideas and finishing off my play.
Heaps going on.
Heaps of shit going on. And I'm renovating my house.
Is it just a bit of a fixer-upper? Or a total overhaul?
Massive rebuild. Big eco-bachelor pad.
So you're not in a relationship right now?
Hey, don't ask those kind of questions! Very sneaky. No, I'm seeing Tony Hayes, who plays Gary in the show. We're in a relationship, but it's complicated. Isn't that what you say on Facebook? "It's complicated"?
You better go and change your status.
I'll go and do that now.
Good luck with everything, it was great chatting!
Thanks, you too.
The Slap is available now on DVD.