We’ve been fans of documentarian Duncan Cowles’ darkly comic yet contemplative short films for a while now, and even spoke to him a couple of years ago about his humorous take on the world of freelance filmmaking Taking Stock. Scary Adult Things marks Cowles transition from short-form to long, taking his signature comedic style from a ten minute short to a three hour series. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to manage but Cowles’ particular brand of self-deprecation is perfect for TV and Scary Adult Things finds the filmmaker tackling wide issues surrounding the place of the millennial in contemporary society. DN spoke with Cowles ahead of the series finale to talk about its inception, the move to TV, and creating long-form work that feels authored.
How did the series get picked up?
Aye, I feel like there’s a longer version of this answer that could be written… but I’ll just summarise the main bits so as not to waffle on. I pitched a few ideas to BBC Scotland back when the new channel was gearing up for launch back in 2018. They were well received and I was encouraged to think of the different ideas I had under the one banner of me going and investigating things. One of the ideas Digs which had started life as a stand-alone series idea in itself, then became the pilot, and later episode one of Scary Adult Things in Summer of 2019. I partnered up with production company Studio Something who helped me make the pilot and develop the concept. The pilot was well received, and we began work on the proposal for the full series, which then got green-lit early in 2020.
Give me an extra few months to make it, I’d probably still be sitting here saying it’d have been nice to have a wee bit extra time to play around.
How did you find the process of creating a six episode series as opposed to a short film?
It was a lot more intensive. Most of my shorts are probably around ten minutes, whereas the series as a total is much nearer three hours total runtime… It was made quite quickly all things considered, once research was done, I was out filming for about eight weeks straight almost every day, and then straight into a few weeks of editing and then the online process. Except a couple weeks off at Xmas, there really wasn’t much space in my life for anything other than making Scary Adult Things.
It was long hours around the clock, and to keep on schedule you had to accept compromises and at times just move on. If something went wrong, there was no time to sit and dwell on it, you had to move onto the next thing. Whereas in a short film I might spend a year fiddling about with something to get it perfect. I liked the satisfying quick turnaround of a TV series, and creating a lot more material, but also at times found myself wishing I had more time to make some wee bits even better. I think you’d always feel like that though… give me an extra few months to make it, I’d probably still be sitting here saying it’d have been nice to have a wee bit extra time to play around.
The show has been getting some great praise! What do you make of the Louis Theroux comparisons and the reaction your style has garnered from those outside of the short film/festival world?
Yeah, it’s been super nice to get all the positive feedback. I sometimes think my short films largely just get seen by other short filmmakers, so the feedback is filtered to an extent, but with the show it’s been put in front of folk who’ve never seen any of my work before. I was slightly nervous about that, but the fact that people have really engaged with it and the style of it has been amazing.
I’ll happily take the Louis Theroux comparison, I watched his programmes growing up, and have loved a lot of them over the years. He’s not the director of his programmes mind you and doesn’t film them either, so there are of course big differences between what we both do, but in terms of on-screen presence I’m more than happy to be compared to him. He seems like a nice bloke.
Could you talk about applying your personality to Scary Adult Things and creating TV that feels authored?
It’s a fine balance between being authentic to my style and voice and also keeping it an accessible TV series that people who aren’t familiar with my work will still enjoy. It’s hard to describe how I made that work, a lot of it was in the editing, experimenting with voiceover, but it was filmed obviously in a very deliberate way which included me as an onscreen personality too. I didn’t try to force humour, or script much, I let my personality just happen naturally without worrying about it too much. I don’t like it when I can see in the footage that I’ve tried too hard… it’s better when I’m out my depth a little and just being myself.
When it came to the interviews in the show, how extensive was your planning? And how much did you figure out on the day?
It’s a mix. There was a researcher on the show who I worked with closely so she would conduct a Zoom interview with a possible contributor first before we decided whether they were right to film or not. I’d then watch back some of her Zoom call to see if the contributor was the right fit for what I wanted to look at and question. I didn’t want to overdo the research as I wanted to keep my encounters with people fresh and spontaneous. It’s a fine balance between researching enough to know a shoot will work and be about what we want it to be, but also not learning too much in advance that stamps on your own curiosity and excitement to go and film with someone.
I didn’t try to force humour, or script much, I let my personality just happen naturally without worrying about it too much.
Prior to the shoot, I would write up some questions, loosely plan an activity to do with them, and give them a quick call the day before to say hello. Other than that I just went with the flow and allowed things to happen when filming… Things always change in the moment, that’s one of my favourite things about documentary is how at the end of the day you can’t control real life, no matter how much you try… I like to lean into that.
So much of the comedy comes through in the editing, do you think about those moments when they arise during the shoot or are they constructed retrospectively when looking back through the footage?
Yeah, humorous moments naturally presented themselves when viewing the rushes, and the best ones were funny unedited, so we focus on those first in the edit. You have to turn hours of footage with one person into a five minute sequence. It’s tough to be honest, as you have to lose so much. We have to focus on one or two funny moments, work on bringing them out, and giving them the space to breathe in order for the comedy to work. You can’t just have a gag reel of funny bits, that is exhausting and an audience loses interest.
If something is actually funny, like truly funny, it’ll be funny no matter how many times you see it.
Some humour came through the voiceover as well, and that was super fiddly, and every time I had to change a line and re-record something, the whole scene would change, and timings would have to be readjusted. I was changing and re-recording lines all the way up until the last day of the edit. It’s tough, and sometimes the new take isn’t as funny as the old one, but you have to just move on. You can lose yourself down a rabbit hole otherwise.
One thing I will say, and I learnt this at art college… If something is actually funny, like truly funny, it’ll be funny no matter how many times you see it. So if you’re viewing the edit for the 50 millionth time, and still laughing, you know you’re making something good. Myself and the editor would still laugh at certain moments all the way till picture lock, and if we stopped finding some bits funny, they tended to be the first ones to go when we were forced to cut the episodes down to length.
I wanted to ask about the recurring motif of you eating various things on camera.
I’ve no idea exactly where the inspiration to eat on screen so much came from. This sounds silly but I sort of forgot that was maybe weird or unusual until it was released and people started commenting on it. I guess I just felt like it was part of the journey, and would let viewers feel like they were really there with me every step of the way, no matter how mundane or odd it was. It’s maybe one of those things people don’t normally show in documentaries, like the presenter eating… and I just thought well, it’s a pretty big and important part of the filming journey, so I’m going to show it. That’s the reality of documentary filmmaking when you’re on your tod, danish pastries and meal deals in supermarket car parks. There’s lots more footage of me eating that wasn’t used, maybe I’ll do a super compilation one day…
What’s your biggest takeaway from making the series both in terms of the themes you were exploring with millennial pressures but also in your own filmmaking practice?
I think making the series reminded me how much I enjoy meeting people and creating new work. It was such a privilege to be able to make the thing and enter people’s lives and then share it with an audience. Sometimes it’s easy to forget why you chose a hard, and at times difficult to sustain, career in documentary filmmaking but making Scary Adult Things reminded me why I became and remain a filmmaker.
With millennials, I think my biggest takeaway was how everyone is just doing their thing, and that’s cool. I like the semi-weird things that people do and the different ways that people live their lives. It made me feel like it’s a healthy thing to just do your thing, and try out stuff, whatever it is. A lot of folk we see online are just like me and you, and most of us are just winging it. So don’t worry about what other people think, ignore the pressures that often come from social media and just focus on you and making your wee world a decent place to be.
Can we expect a second series?
I’ve certainly lots of new ideas I’m working on, but it’s too early to say whether a second series would happen. I’d love to do another one, but it isn’t really up to just me…
What are you working on now?
I’ve a feature documentary that I started back in 2016 called Silent Men that I need to finish. It’s all filmed over five years and looks at my struggles to open up and express myself to those closest to me. It’s been a tough and gruelling journey and the edit is complicated, but I’ll get there. So keep your eyes peeled for that.
You can stream all episodes of Scary Adult Things on BBC iPlayer now.