The Giant Sieve by Hannah Cowley



Legion upon legion we arrive. Thousands of aspiring writers, actors, directors and producers uproot their lives to situate themselves at the epicenter of the entertainment industry; it is an old story – so many of the gorgeous little houses that line the lower banks of Laurel Canyon were home, nearly one hundred years ago, to the same hopes that bear them now. Those inhabiting: altered in appearance, not intent. Some are lucky enough to be born here, or nearby, immersed from childhood in this industry and able to pursue their careers without enduring the hardships of leaving hometowns, stable incomes, families and friends for alien shores. The funny thing about transplanting oneself to Hollywood however, is that once here, surrounded by it all – everything seemingly within one’s grasp, sometimes tangibly in hand, sometimes just a mere breath away – so many seem to flounder, the original creative impetus to engage with the world diminished. I’m not sure whether it is the compound effect of surviving in a slightly surreal city, or the overwhelming weight of everyone else’s push to realize themselves artistically – or the blurring of desire between realizing one’s art and proving oneself materially (the latter of which seems to take on a preternatural importance here).

While I was still thousands of miles away, juggling University, jobs, a farm and military service, I had more energy and determination to create (from the ground up) my first film, see it through, and be bursting with excitement about the next ones. Now I am here however, two years in, it seems the prospect of creating, from the roots up, has been mollified, subdued. Most of the people I know in what is a rather expansive network, full of fantastic minds and top-tier abilities, seem to oscillate in attitude between two stark opposites: resigned pessimism about the impossibilities of securing the holy grail of film financing, or wild, improbable hope about exactly the same thing. Invariably, what seems to override these oscillations is a sort of inertia; incremental moves gasping toward an uncertain end point. Could it be that the abundance of possibility and opportunity here is, to a degree, suffocating? Or is it that the element of triumph over adversity (in itself a key ingredient in many script-worthy stories) is reduced here, because instead of being a lone warrior fighting for art’s sake against the cyclical drudgery of urban and suburban life, where an artist may revel in bring anomalous, striking and unique, the vast majority of people working (or not working) in this city are striving for the same thing: in all of history has there ever been a geographically determined place for the pursuit of a collective desire? Obviously there are logical entry points around the world for the exploitation of certain industries, coal mining in Yorkshire, Nashville for country music, Scone for the breeding of race horses in Australia…yet Los Angeles alone seems to be a giant sieve accumulating people from all over the globe bound by an unusual commonality. From the cliched valet with script in hand, to the moonlighting waitress, the desire to be heard and “engage” in some way with the great cultural arbiter of film and television is, in Los Angeles, inescapable.

Scene from ‘Flame of the West

Why this should be a problem for an artist seeking their place amongst the shores of opportunity? Does a society moving forward en mass toward realization of a collective dream somehow annihilate the individual artists’ natural sandpaper response to the world around them? Does it kill the objective eye with too much agreeability? Or is it the flicker of a rather Dorian Grey-esque reflection that can unseat the prospective artist, leading the rational to question the purity of their intentions for living, and struggling here: Vanity, or qualified self-expression? Perhaps it could be that the force galvanizing so many to congregate here and strive for success could be considered at best: inspired, feted – and at worst: messianic, narcissism gone mad. Determining the talented from the outright delusional can be a self-defeating exercise, everyone here is subject to the great ‘lottery’ of what some of my peers call “The Dream Factory.” It is this ‘casino’ like aspect (“his first short film got him a $2mill deal and now he’s with WME!”; “she was literally in Starbucks, Spielberg saw her and now she’s in ‘Terra Nova’!) that can bend the minds and weaken the will of those who arrived here clear sighted. So many times I have been enamoured by the verve and tenacity of a talented artist (actor, writer, director), allowed the friendship to develop, only to see the dreaded fog of hope for “funding”, “a private investor”, “matching funds” cross like a cloud of doubt across tense faces…or the tense face is interchanged with the perma-smile mouth of the hopeful pretender, bearing overly white teeth and always uncannily good news.

It occurred to me with a sharp shock that it has been nearly four years since I wrote, directed and produced my first short film. At the time, Government funding for the Arts in Australia had been reduced to a trickle and massive impositions were being placed on the industry commercially so as to make what was essentially a small, subsidized film scene clinging onto the skirts of federal handouts virtually disappear. Dozens of friends (who were invariably out-of-work actors with sorely untapped talent) would sit around bemoaning the lack of work and opportunity. Sort of incensed about it (and coinciding with a story I really wanted to tell), I decided to pool every conceivable resource around me, tell the story and give them all a vehicle, if only to prove that the ‘barely possible’ could be done. The film, ‘Flame of the West’ was scratched together with a free crew (family, friends and a couple of favours), catered courtesy of the end-of-day remains of a feature film concurrently shooting down the road (don’t worry, as ‘Flame’ was shot out in 16 hours total we didn’t go too deeply into e coli territory) and made for a total of $15 (the cost of tapes and a couple of primary school uniforms – high school dresses were too expensive; fortuitously, the abbreviated length aided characterization!). I learnt how to edit, sound edit and compose the music. I had a brilliant supervisor, Markus Innocenti (who I met because he is my father) and a phenomenal sound mixer, Rod O’Brien, who put an inconceivably polished veneer on the film. After a pretty gruelling and exasperating learning process (editing in Los Angeles eliminated possibility of reshoots, pick-ups, ADR back in Sydney) which tested every ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ rule in the book, I had a finished film. Ultimately, ‘Flame’ made it into a few festivals after it got some attention (randomly) at the Short Film Corner in Cannes and got me flown to Canada for a delightful festival whereupon it got picked up for a three year distribution deal with Movieola. It was a long road, but considering that I only would have spent that time seething and complaining, there wasn’t much to lose and at least an education to gain. Probably my proudest achievement from that experience though was that one of the original intentions, to provide a platform for highly talented actors as yet unnoticed by the industry in their home country – absolutely worked. Three of the lead actors have gone on to far greater success than my little film. It was the first film appearance of Andrew Lees, who subsequently shot ‘The Pacific (Hanks/Spielberg) as well as becoming a series regular and household name in Australia, Sandy Greenwood (the upcoming ‘Killer Elite’ with DeNiro/Jason Statham) and Alice Englert (2011’s ‘Singularity’ – just featured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar as Australia’s next rising star). High on the gratification that the impetus to create was worthwhile (despite the many faults and flaws that shooting lawlessly always throws up) and working furiously on the next step up, increased production values, more ambitious stories….something happened. As Morrissey might say, “I was detained, I was waylaid1”: I moved to Hollywood.

Hannah Cowley speaking at a Canadian festival

Naturally inclined to anthropological evaluation, I proceeded to lose my first couple of years here just watching the weird parade, or at least, trying to believe what I was seeing. As Christopher Hampton wrote quite memorably in his ode to this town, “Tales From Hollywood”, the rather engrossing spectacle of the “ethics of the fairground.” 2 After running the gamut from sitting with paroled prisoners in $64/8 audience sessions, to having Eva Marie Saint and Eric Idle sit in the audience of a play I was in, or drinking the word’s most expensive Earl Grey tea with one of my directing heroes, it’s fair to say that after two years in Nomads-land “my taste for the bizarre and ridiculous was gratified to the full.”3 So back to work, but what was I originally interested in doing next? A part two to an “experimental war film” shot in Scotland, or, a continuation into the study of war? A very ambitious (and expensive) look at female Soviet pilots, a biopic of the fascinating life of Lee Miller, a radical cinematic look at Catherine de Medici….and back to the reality of working without a budget. So…draw on things that surround. Well I was too busy evaluating and watching to have a burning story to tell about the struggles of Hollywood, in any case – the subject has been done to death. I found it increasingly hard to write with any enthusiasm; the looming spectre of budgets and the perennial fear of being too close to the zeitgeist (and thus on the losing end of ideas circulating with more powerful players more likely to have their film made in time). Re-enter: the inertia of being in a place where too much is improbably possible. I haven’t found the answers to this particular problem, other than to identify it is to be on the track to it’s defeat (as Sassoon would have it, “offense is at the heart of defense”4). Perhaps in line with the narcissists, I am having to dig deep, trawl the recesses of things that used to bother me before everything was “possible” and within reach – or at least visibly within reach at the Chateau Marmont. Fortunately, there are plenty of things that sufficiently irked me in my former life to sustain me for awhile…I just hope that in this land of illusion, the truth in these memories is vivid enough to show through on film. Like most manufactured pop music, insincerity on film is pungent. Indeed, if the mirage of Hollywood has pierced 1 The Smiths, ?Strangeways Here We Come,? “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.” 2 Hampton, Christopher, ?Tales From Hollywood?, Gordon Davidson and Center Theater Group, Los Angeles, 1983, p35. 3 Hampton, Christopher, ?Tales From Hollywood?, Gordon Davidson and Center Theater Group, Los Angeles, 1983, p59. 4 Sassoon, Siegfried, ?Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,? Faber & Faber, 1931. critical ability deeply enough, the only conclusion is that we may as well all return from whence we came. However, casinos are hard to leave, especially when you learn a few tricks to rig the system ever so slightly in your favour – and leaving feels like throwing your lottery ticket away before the results come in…although the lottery is forever changing and noone seems to know what time the results will be drawn, so it’s safer to stay…and stay. I have been warned by so many that whether it is the seasonless Groundhog days or the perpetual striving, years here in the desert disappear like minutes.

Ruminating upon these hopes and fears, the dissolving days, the way in which the waters of inspiration and ambition can somehow become muddied (survival or greed?), it seems there is no discernible solution. Unwilling to leave the lottery for fear of waking in the middle of the night: “What if?!”, and not entirely certain that to stay is just to delay a potentially inevitable departure…a rather hazy image is brought to mind, of a Russian writer and a chemist in a dingy bar, talking about the nature of writing – and intrinsically, the nature of truth. The image is not drawn from experiential memory (but true to form for the film addled brain) from that of a prematurely aged black and white 1979 film. The film’s author: Andrey Tarkovsky. The message, clear despite fuzzy white subtitles, timely: “It’s impossible to write, thinking all the time of success or failure.”5 How ironic (and typical) that there he is again, Tarkovsky sitting in the corner of reason and simplicity, asking once again for the truth, or nothing. I am unsure of how it is possible to remain immune to the successes and failures permeating every breath in this town; short of wearing the narcissists’ crown of solipsism (or a blindfold), there must be a middle way, yet having become accustomed to the magnificent canyons and driving on the wrong side of the road, I just hope it doesn’t involve leaving.

Hannah Cowley is an L.A based writer/director/actor originally from London and Sydney. She most recently acted in Bernard Rose’s “Two Jacks” (2011) with Danny Huston and is currently developing her first feature.


1 The Smiths, ?Strangeways Here We Come,? “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”

2 Hampton, Christopher, ?Tales From Hollywood?, Gordon Davidson and Center Theater Group, Los Angeles, 1983, p35.

3 Hampton, Christopher, ?Tales From Hollywood?, Gordon Davidson and Center Theater Group, Los Angeles, 1983, p59.

4 Sassoon, Siegfried, ?Memoirs of an Infantry Of?cer,? Faber & Faber, 1931.

5 Tarkovsky, Andrey, ?Stalker?, 1979 film, from the novel “Piknik na obochine” by Boris Strugatskiy and Arkadiy Strugatskiy.