written by Chris Familton
On the eve of the cinematic release of Autoluminescent, the new feature length documentary film about the life and music of Rowland S. Howard, I chatted to directors Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn about the global process of creating the visual document, their memories of Howard and the emotional journey in light of Howard’s passing in December 2009.
Autoluminescent rose from the connection that Lowenstein and Milburn made with Howard while filming interview segments for their 2009 film We’re Livin’ On Dog Food which documented the eighties music scene in Melbourne. They realised that there was a story to be told about Howard, his outlook on life and of course the uncompromising musical history of one of this countries most enigmatic and original artists.
The dual direction of the film is an interesting and curious element but as Lowenstein explains it was essential to the type of documentary everyone wanted to make. “The Rowland story needed to have at least two perspectives, if not more because the story wasn’t just about a musician, his music and the history – it was also about his emotions and his relationships. We [Milburn] knew each other and had worked with each for a long time and we knew that the combination including Andrew de Groot our producer and cinematographer would bring out in the short space of time all the nuances we knew were inside the Rowland story including his relationship with woman, his friends and partners and his literature and everything. We needed that extra dimension rather than one person’s narrow minded view.”
Any apprehension about having to negotiate differing opinions about the direction of the film were quickly allayed when the project began and the two directors fell into their naturally comfortable roles. “It was more successful than we thought it would be. In a way we would collaborate but we are both editors and we would work on separate editing machines and sequencers and bang away. I’d be doing the musical history and journey and Lynne would do the more poetic and emotional sequences and then we’d combine them together. The parts then create this really interesting dimension. We physically put sequences together that deal with all the different aspects of Rowland’s existence. He was definitely a different person to the male musicians he worked with compared to the women in his life and the female musicians and vocalists he worked with. We tended to divide up the subjects against who was most interested in what chapter of his life. It was a layered process with the three of us and also having Mick Harvey (Boys Next Door, Birthday Party, Bad Seeds), Genevieve McGuckin (co-producer and Howard’s long term friend/partner and band mate) and Rowland’s brother and sister who would sit and look at the overall thing and make comments and we’d go back to the chopping black and make any changes,” explains Lowenstein.
The personal connection that exists between both directors and their subject is what makes Autoluminescent such an absorbing film and that relationship stretches back to the late 70s when Miburn was fresh out of high school and Lowenstein was first learning his trade. “We’re both connected with the music. Lynne saw the Boys Next Door play for the first time at their local community centre when she was just out of high school and I was first introduced to their music when I was at film school. My friends would drag me along to the Tiger Room and also living in a shared house with punks and hippies helped. We knew them as acquaintances over the years but not so we could sit and have long conversations or anything. I think me and Andrew de Groot were in our final year of Swinburne Film School when the 2nd years kids like Paul Goldman (acclaimed music video director) were making the ‘Shivers’ video so we were aware of and would bump into Rowland on Fitzroy St and nod at each other. It wasn’t until making this film that we got to know him and we would have like to get to know him a lot more but that wasn’t to be. There was a sense with the entire Boys next Door that they were on a road to somewhere. To Lynne and I, Nick was always the one doing something outrageous but Rowland was the one we’d gravitated towards. We were at many parties and Roland was one in particular that we’d find the most intriguing.” says Lowenstein. “Rowland had that special otherness. He was a little more mysterious as Nick was a natural frontman. Rowland countered that with a fierce intensity which was really intriguing,” adds Milburn.
The process of putting together a documentary like Autoluminescent was logistically complex given that many of the interviewees were scattered across America and Europe. With little budget it meant that they had to improvise in the early days of filming and take opportunities as they arose. “It certainly helped having Mick on board but predominately it was Rowland. Even after he passed away his name got people to talk or donate footage. Mick and Genevieve were very influential in pointing us in directions but the logistics of the interviews and footage and stills was complex. Some people were very generous and other people wanted things like $100 per second for film – it is ridiculous that people think film can be a cash cow. The logistics were very difficult. In the early days of filming overseas things we didn’t have any money so we had to take a camera and find someone over there to do the filming when I was over there for a film festival or something and suddenly duck to London, Ireland or New York to interview somebody and catch the subway and drag equipment around. It certainly wasn’t glamorous,” Lowenstein recalls.
“We had to cut some of the early interview footage we had before we got the camera equipment we wanted to use. We lost the sound sometimes but once we got going on the second overseas trip we were filming on high quality cameras and it was important to Rowland they had a sense of style and visual atmosphere. Luckily you can do that now without huge amounts of money being spent,” says Lowenstein.
As Howard’s liver cancer took hold and his health declined the cameras kept rolling at his behest. It would have been easy to make these moments a focal point of the film yet both Lowenstein and Milburn were keen to maintain the artistic statement of Howard to the end. “Even when he was incredibly sick at the hospital and people said we couldn’t film and he was still into being filmed – even though we didn’t use some of that footage as his dignity wasn’t there – he was still into the whole concept of what he presented us with, what we took on board and what we wanted to do with him as well. He trusted us enough that we wouldn’t show him in an undignified light. Everyone talks about how he dressed and his style and it was important that in any interview where he looked particularly wrecked we didn’t use the picture of that. We wanted to pay homage to that image that he chose to present to the world from a very early age,” stresses Milburn. “It wasn’t of interest to us to show him on Interferon looking dreadful. It was important to be honest and appropriate though and the texture of some of those scenes speaks volumes.”
As with any moment in life when someone dies the filmmaking process was at times a very emotional journey for all involved. In particular McGuckin, who had the longest and deepest history with Howard had to relive a lot of pain during the production. “It was definitely very hard to not be emotionally involved when we filmed Genevieve five or six times but we realised it was a very cathartic experience for her. Even this process of releasing and publicizing the film, putting up posters and things is very important for her. She is carrying the torch really. I do think even though it was painful we did feel it was important rather than forgetting about Rowland. He had been so much a part of her life since she was 15 or 16 and it was heart wrenching to see sometime go through that ‘what do I do now’ thing. But it has been an uplifting process, like the end of the film.
“It would have been easy to make everyone cry at the end but it was important that Rowland’s spirit lived on in someway. It wasn’t just Genevieve, it was distressing a lot of people in the interviews. In a strange way it even distressed Nick [Cave] in the interviews. Even though he was keen to play down the Nick/Rowland thing they were incredibly close and they obviously had their moment where they went their own way but with Roland’s passing he was able to admit just how close they were. He showed a lot of himself that he didn’t realise he was showing – in a good way – it was one of the most emotional and honest things I’ve seen him say. It was quite telling I thought.”