What I wish I’d known when I was 18: Barney Howells
We decided it must be really good fun being Barney Howells after reading his short biography on Partizan’s site: “Born into Mancunian squalor, Barney’s upbringing was typically urban, peppered with Ceilidh Dancing and L.S.D. As a child, Barney would stand on one leg for hours, nose glued to the telly watching endless repeats of “Rent-a-Ghost,” “Why-Don’t-You.” and “Grange Hill” This experience set him up perfectly for a career as a film-maker.” We felt it was only our duty to investigate how Howell’s life and work have evolved since his YDA success in 2008.
What do you wish you’d known when you were 18?
As I remember it I knew everything when I was 18.
Luckily I was proved wrong.
You moved from the UK to the other side of the world to Melbourne last year. What was behind this decision?
Like most of the good decisions in my life I had a strong guiding hand in the form of my wife Nat. Her mother is Australian and had returned from living in the U.K in 2001. We visited a few times and both fell in love with Melbourne. It’s such an easy city to be charmed by.
We applied for visas and had them granted in 05, but then life took over plans. It took us until last year to pry ourselves away from London. And at just the right time too. We escaped financiapocolypse by the skin of our teeth.
What keeps us here is the obvious great lifestyle and an industry that has welcomed me warmly and keeps me challenged.
The European and Ozzie sensibilities are very different don’t you think? How has this affected your work?
I have generally tried to focus on the broader similarities. Humour, taste & a wealth of cultural references bind us Pommies to our Aussie cousins. It has been really refreshing that I haven’t had to adapt too much of my style to suit the new market. I was worried that I’d come over with a reel of fruity European work and be shot down in flames, but so far the reaction we’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive.
To temper the love-fest though, I’d say clients out here are far more empowered, and it can be tricky hurdle to overcome to win their trust not only in your execution, but in some ideas as a whole. I think that this makes some of the tremendous work that comes out of Australia all the more admirable, and I personally relish the challenge of a tricky marketeer. Doing the client dance is one of the more perverse pleasures of the job!
So from the urban life in England have you now adopted the surfin’, sporting, camping with the crocodiles lifestyle?
Yeah, not quite. I had this buzz phrase that I was telling everyone was the reason we were leaving the U.K: “Change of Lifestyle.” I had this naive notion that by moving from toxic London to Australia I’d suddenly become this fit, tanned, sporto. Not so, I gained about 10 kilos in the first 6 months attributed directly to the abundance of red meat and cold beer. Outdoor life meant a BBQ and a tinny. I saw it as valuable cultural assimilation. Nik was horrified and sent me packing to the gym for the first time in my life. Now I can say honestly that there have been positive lifestyle benefits, but you can only take the boy so far out of Manchester..
Gods&monsters … good name for your production company in Melbourne, how did it come about. Is it a reference to the 1998 film?
The credit for the name goes to my amazing producer Nik Round. He assures me it isn’t based on the film, or the associated plot; namely the older dude attempting to seduce the younger, hotter dude. I can only take his word on this.
My take on the name is that it’s pertinent to the changing roles we have to undertake in this industry. Sometimes we’re the good cop, other times the robot renegade cop.
And you’re still signed to Partizan in the UK and US?
Yes, I am tremendously lucky to still be chowing down on my proverbial cake. Partizan are an incredibly supportive company and I owe them a massive debt of gratitude for nurturing the promise they saw in me, and for continuing to look after me on my Aussie odyssey. I hope to do more work with them this year now that I have settled in here. It’s fantastic to be counted amongst their number. Not only do they have some of the finest talent, they are wonderful people too.
What were the most informative experiences you had becoming a director? Was your’s a film school route or learning on the job path?
I have been very lucky to have had some incredible formative experiences in my short career. Straight out of university the strong hand that I mentioned earlier ushered me into a runners job at Glassworks Post Production in Soho. I saw a lot and learnt a lot quickly (Like there is no such thing, nor has there ever been a Pneumatic Tape).
I got my first production job from producer Desley Gregory and director Mehdi Norowzian, they employed me as a runner and then as Mehdi’s assistant. I spent five years with Mehdi initially researching visual material for his treatments and progressing to shooting ‘B unit’ material for him. I travelled the world with him and learnt so much about the process. I began shooting my own stuff but I knew that I couldn’t maintain a full time commitment to Mehdi and develop my own work.
I became a freelance director’s assistant, working on treatments for a number of the great and the good in Soho. The most rewarding and informing experience of this time came through working with the directing collective Traktor. A couple of the guys would work very closely with me and I got to go out shooting with them. I was involved in a number of their jobs and it was an incredibly privileged position. The swagger and style that those guys have is awe-inspiring and I am thankful to them for letting me see behind the scenes at the circus.
Any advice to new directors trying to make it today?
Keep good company. There are people trying to break into all of the associated fields of film-making. The guys working through the camera department, the stylist’s assistants, the junior editors; these people will help make your dreams come true! Be good to them and they will be good to you too.
Keep feeding your creativity. Absorb all of the things that inspire you and give them your own twist. Remember the words of Jean Luc Godard “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take things too”
Keep on truckin.’ There may be no telling when your break will come, but if you love what you are doing and it comes from a good place then someone will eventually recognize that and reward you for your talent and perseverance.
We first noticed your X-box spot Master Your Environment a couple of years ago. The framing was spectacular. Was this your big break?’
It was a real highlight. I have a lot of pride in the film. It was one of my first jobs with Partizan and it was a tough shoot. I was proud firstly that we actually pulled it off given some of the “trickier” aspects. Then when it was finished it was shown internally at Partizan and it had tremendous response. It was so fantastic being the new guy and getting praise from all these people whose work I rated so highly. It was also the first piece of work that I had featured in Shots, which was another piece of personal satisfaction, and I think from that exposure I received all the running jumping slo-mo scripts from across the globe!
V-05 is fun too but totally different style. Any challenges on that?
The first thing that springs to mind was the cyclone that destroyed our set before the first day of filming. But we were in Rio so nothing could dampen the enthusiasm and excitement on the project. I have friends who live there and I can honestly say it was one of the most fantastic places to shoot. They took us out to Favela parties and the Maracana, we worked very hard and played a bit too!
Yoplait got us hooked. Love the style, the execution, pity about the voiceover but we’re sure that’s not your doing, and we could listen to the track all day long. Was it as easy going on the shoot as the final spot looks?
I’m really glad you like it! I have to say it was the most pleasant job I have ever had the privilege to work on. Massive credit for that has to go the creatives at BMF David Klein and Jol Temple. They made it really easy for me, they were brilliantly collaborative. Everything and everyone pulled in the same direction.
The music was composed by Level Two music here in Melbourne, and they were just fantastic to work with too. Music is hugely important to me and I like to get the ball rolling as soon as a brief comes in. It can be so subjective and I think getting your references right upfront is the first trick. Cornel at Level Two took those references and crafted something unique and beautiful and I tip my hat to him!
What inspires you?
I am inspired by a lot of disparate things. All of the obvious sources of influence push my buttons; film, music and especially photography. Over and above that I am an avid consumer of current affairs, the most fantastic stories come from the real world. The minutia of other peoples lives inspire me. I am a furtive and prolific eavesdropper. My family and friends constantly inspire me. Travel is a tremendous inspiration. Being alive is pretty inspiring.