If there's one thing that's for sure about the Head of Collarts' new course in Screen & Media, it's that Sean Cousins is passionate. Over 20 years of filmmaking, Sean has lived in India, filmed bears in Alaska, seen the effects of pollution on national parks and more, but he's not one to spin anecdotes; instead, he's an inspiring advocate for telling human stories through the screen.
He makes it clear through our interview that he's not the average university teacher who is content to sit behind a desk, and in his own words, his worst fear is becoming "an old man who loses touch and yells at clouds". We sat down with Sean to chat about the lessons learned from documentary filmmaking, the power of the youth, and the beauty behind engaging storytelling.
Could you tell me a bit about your background in screen and media?
I’ve been making films for 20 years. I made mostly documentaries, but also television commercials, reality shows and factual entertainment, and I've made over 100 hours of cut telly. I’ve been really lucky to work with ABC, SBS, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and more. I sort of fell into documentary and found that it was a really wonderful place to work. I love the small crew and the travel, and there's a lot of it. I had some amazing adventures with Nat Geo, like filming bears in Alaska.
I also run Filmmaker Abroad, a travel business where I give aspiring filmmakers the opportunity to go and make films overseas. I mentor them on the basics of filmmaking and working on set while building skills in the field, because learning hands-on is the best way to learn film craft.
Wow, that sounds like an amazing experience. Were you always interested in filmmaking from a young age?
In truth, I didn't really grow up with a passion to make films. I was lucky to get to go to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) during my first undergraduate degree in Sociology and Philosophy, and while I was there I made friends with another exchange student who showed me their film school. I then came back to Australia thinking I might want to make something. But I grew up on a farm and I didn't really think that people like me made films. Being an artist was seen as ludicrous, and so I needed that re-imagination of myself. When I lived overseas, I got the opportunity to be who I wanted to be before I had the courage to say that what I really want to do is not write about films or philosophise about films — I want to make films. And I've always been curious; I see myself as a lifelong learner.
How does being a lifelong learner manifest in your work?
It manifests every single day. It really matters to me that I stay up-to-date with world events, but also with the world of ideas, and one of the things I love about teaching is being around young people who have great currency in new ideas. It's inspiring. We've really come to a point now where we are listening to younger or disadvantaged voices and I really endorse that.
How do young people inspire you?
Because they're at the start of their creative journey and they are full of question and wonder, and I have the privilege of knowing things they want to know, so it's really nice to be able to share my views and values with them. Because they are the future, and they take the responsibility for the appalling state of the planet seriously and they want to do something about it. They're coming at me with things I've never thought of in five decades.
It’s inspiring to hear you say you can learn something from them too, like a more collaborative and progressive teaching experience which is what we preach here at Collarts. Do you think that collaboration is important to working in screen and media?
Film sets are like a Goldberg machine. There are lots of moving parts and everyone has to be responsible for their own department for it to work. We would love students to try to learn all the different roles and to enjoy the experience of being a Director, Producer, Director Of Photography, Sound Recordist, etc, but collaboration is fundamental to this degree. Our ambition is to have graduates with industry best practice, expectations and standards and the way to do that is to work in a structured, creative, collaborative environment—they really respond to that.
What kind of opportunities are there for Screen & Media students to work with those from other courses?
At Collarts we have a rich tradition in Music, and there are already Audio Engineering students who have been taught in post-production film sound. Our students will be working with audio students, musicians, and composers from the get-go, and these are relationships they can continue building through their degrees and beyond.
We can also see a situation where a Comedy student could write a comedic script and our students help with filming, and Animation too: there's amazing work in that space and not many colleges have the resources to be able to get those collaborations to work, but a combination of live action and animation is a rich part of what's happening in the world. I find it exciting that we have the potential to facilitate those sorts of collaborations with our degree.
"WE'RE LOOKING FOR GRAINS OF TRUTH IN THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE... WE WANT TO SEE OURSELVES REFLECTED OR BE APPALLED OR INSPIRED BY THE BEHAVIOUR OF OTHERS."
You said you fell into documentary-making but that you ended up loving it: what about documentaries do you love the most?
Documentaries tell the truth. I say to my students “we're in the truth business” and even when we watch narrative cinema, we want to find the truth. We like characters that resonate with our own experience and through whom we can vicariously go on a journey, wherein documentary, there's no artifice. You go on the journey with a protagonist who is experiencing reality, and so the smallest things are dramatic. There's potential for drama everywhere because humans are fascinating, and so I make documentaries because I love people stories and I'm interested in the human experience.
What's something really valuable that you learned while making documentaries?
That we live in unspeakable privilege in this country. It's obvious that we have a lifestyle that's the envy of most of the world here, and I think too few Australians appreciate that. But having worked a lot in the developing world and knowing how hard the majority of the planet does it in terms of putting food on the table and raising a family and fundamental expectations... We are profoundly lucky here. This is not the normal experience on this planet. You live in a bubble of privilege. It’s definitely an important lesson for a filmmaker to learn.
Then would you say learning stories are at the heart of filmmaking?
Yes, but we have to be aware that we are a voice telling a story. We come with a perspective; culture, gender, race, social, moral, ethical values all inform our choices. So how we think about 'truth' is complicated, and as storytellers we're looking for grains of truth in the human experience. That's why stories engage us. We want to identify with those experiences and we want to see ourselves reflected or be appalled or inspired by the behaviour of others.
It’s also important to consider the “why”. The first question you ask yourself should be: “Why does this story need to be told?” It helps you thematically to understand what your film's about, but it also helps you endure: if you remember that this is something that matters, it reminds you that there's a reason to make this film. If you don't understand the “why”, you can't go far into the “how”.
What advice would you give someone who is searching for the perfect story?
Get out from behind your laptop. You have to get out into the world. If you're going to find human stories, you're not going to find them on the screen. You have to research, and it's time-consuming — sometimes painful [laughs] — but we all have good instincts for stories once we've developed those skills, and we do that in the degree. Finding stories is about meeting people and being genuine and curious. You have a right to tell stories, and if you learn to tell them well, you’ll be okay.