Interview : Matthew Saville & Brendan Cowell


Director and Star of “Noise”

Matthew Saville knows a thing or two about sticking to his guns. Although he’s garnered a reputation as one of Australia’s most promising directors thanks to his work on the acclaimed short feature “Roy Hollsdotter Live” and the popular TV comedy “We Can Be Heroes”, his first full-length feature film “Noise” has been a decade in the making. He admits that he probably could have gotten this low-key drama about the connection between an underachieving cop and a passenger-train shooting spree up and running a bit sooner if he’d been willing to make changes to the script or shoot the film in the cheaper format of digital video. But Saville had a very particular vision of Noise, and admits that his reasons for insisting on 35mm film and an ambitious sound design may have been “partly arrogance, but it was also partly working on it for so long apportioned so much importance to the project that it was almost insulting to think it wouldn’t be rendered in the best possible way”.

His tenacity paid off, because “Noise” is both a quietly compelling character-based drama and a technically superb piece of filmmaking. And attaching top-shelf production values to a seemingly small-scale story was a natural decision, according to Saville. “It made a lot of sense, and it made sense because it didn’t make sense,” he says. “A lot of people said ‘Why do you want to shoot this in widescreen when it’s set in a caravan?’ The answer is because it’s set in a caravan. We have to make it dramatic somehow! I keep bandying the phrase ‘intimate epic’ about – it’s epic in the way we’ve approached it aesthetically but it’s intimate in that it’s about these characters.”

Saville and “Noise” producer Trevor Blainey intentionally set out to make an “international” movie – “a film that would be Australian to its core but which we wanted to show to an international audience,” in Blainey’s words – and this is a solid example of just that. It’s unmistakably Australian in its tone but universal in its themes and ideas. Nowhere is this more evident than in the central character of Graham McGahan, played by Brendan Cowell of “Love My Way” fame. Pretty much the antithesis of the typical screen cop, Graham is self-doubting, self-obsessed and self-pitying. When he’s diagnosed with tinnitus, he sees it as an opportunity to collect a fat WorkCover payday and take off on a Queensland holiday. Instead, he’s packed off to handle the night shift in a police information caravan after a mass murder on a crowded passenger train leaves the local community shattered. And as Graham interacts with the community’s residents, he slowly comes to terms with the responsibilities he has been given.

Graham’s tinnitus – an ear disorder that results in a constant, high-pitched ringing – gave Cowell some insight into the character’s personality and motivations. “Matt didn’t want me to play it like ‘Oh, my ear’,” he says. “I’d never had anything like it, except for maybe going to a Pearl Jam concert and having my ears ring for a while afterwards. But I reckon every guy had some sharp pain or some little lump, and as an Australian male you wait till it cripples you before you go see your GP. ‘Oh, I might be crook because I can’t get up.’ So I thought about that, and it came to me that Graham is that guy. He would have let it go a year. It’s probably really uncomfortable but he’s almost created a friendship with it, if you know what I mean. There’s a great scene where he wakes up because it’s stopped and then he falls asleep when it starts again. That gave me some insight into who he is.”

(Getting a physical understanding of the effects of tinnitus saw Cowell listening to a piercing noise rigged up by the film’s sound designer. “I put on my iPod, so I guess I had iTinnitus for a while,” he says with a laugh. But in a very Graham-like move, he adds: “It used to piss me off so I’d end up turning it off.”)

While Cowell has been making a name for himself as both a writer (he has a number of plays and “Love My Way” episodes to his credit) and an actor, Noise is his first lead. And he was determined to do it justice. “I definitely think I worked a lot harder on this one than I have on anything else,” he says. “Matt has been working on this for 10 years, and because I’m a writer as well I know how hard it can be to get something up. So I wasn’t going to fuck things up for this guy. I gave up alcohol, I lost weight, I read the fuck out it and went ‘I’m going to get every single beat of this’. I honoured his script because I thought he was a great writer, a great director and a great guy. I think Matt probably got the most subtle performance I’ve ever done out of me. I had to trust him with that because I come from theatre, where the performances can be very showy, and Love My Way, which is pretty showy as well. And Matt would say to me ‘That’s great, but I want about three per cent of that’ . Because we’re shooting close-ups on 35mm. All I had to do was think it. I’d never been pushed like that before.”

Saville concurs. “The mantra on the set was ‘Don’t perform it, think it’,” he said. “Because unless you’re a great poker player, your face will betray what you’re thinking. Even if it’s just a shift of the eyes, it gets detected. Anthony Minghella once described directing as singing out a note and hearing it sung back beautifully by 30 people. He said that, I didn’t…but feel free to delete that bit about Minghella saying it. And this was like me singing out a note, and Brendan was like first violin in the orchestra. Everyone else is adding their part but he’s setting the tone.”

For his part, Cowell describes the job Saville gave him as the cast’s “tone captain”. “I guess playing a lead role, the pressure for me was set that tone,” he says. “A couple of the other actors had come from theatre jobs or film jobs where they were playing caricatures. They’d come in and do their character and then I’d do my part, and they’d say ‘Are you doing it like that? Okay, I’ll do that too.’ Before doing Love My Way, I wouldn’t have been confident enough to do this role. But this character slipped into my body and my voice really easily.”

Cowell’s performance is the film’s foundation, and it’s all the more impressive for its subtlety. “I want people to see him at the start and see him at the end and realise that Graham’s a different man but are not sure when it happened,” he says. “I tried to chart it so you could see him becoming a little more interested in someone else, toning down his cynicism. He started at arrogance, went to cynicism, to sarcasm, to sincerity and ended up at earnestness at the end.”

Noise in in selected cinemas now.