We’ve seen a few different musicians take their turn as directors in the horror genre including Rob Zombie and Dee Snider. Well, it’s time to make room for a relative newcomer to our beloved genre – Gabriel Cowan. Cowan, who enjoyed a successful career as a musician, is now making his mark in the industry with his recently released body horror flick, Growth.
In its third week of release, Growth is ranked #2 on the iTunes horror genre chart amidst solid films like The Crazies, Daybreakers and Let the Right One In.
Even though Cowan touts himself an indie kind of guy, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t enjoyed a slew of success in the entertainment industry before becoming a filmmaker. In high school his band Comfort Station was featured on MTV as one of Los Angeles’ fastest up-and-coming bands, and at the age of 18 Cowan was hired for his first professional recording session with legendary musician Robbie Robertson for the Barry Levinson film Jimmy Hollywood.
Cowan went on to acquire a recording contract with Geffen Records, and after making a name for himself under the Geffen banner, he formed Ear Two Thousand with friends Sam Music and actor David Arquette. In 2000 Cowan received the first of two platinum records for songs he wrote and recorded for the Scream 2 and Scream 3 soundtracks.
In 2004 Cowan pursued his passion for filmmaking by earning a Masters Degree in Film Directing at CalArts, and in his first two years he wrote and directed over 20 short films. He also co-directed and co-wrote a feature film with partner John Suits entitled Breathing Room, which was eventually picked up for US distribution by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2008.
A few months after graduating film school, Cowan wrote and directed Growth, a sci-fi thriller that examines the ways in which power, physical/mental/financial, can seduce and change people. It was released earlier this month through Lionsgate.
In honor of the recent release of Growth, as well as Cowan’s brand new venture into producing feature films for first-time filmmakers, Dread Central caught up with the writer/director to talk to him about his experiences working on the indie level as well as this new direction in his career.
Cowan discussed his career change that came about six years ago. “After I did the touring musician thing, I realized I needed to make a career for myself so I started doing music for commercials. But the more I did that work, the more I just felt stuck, and I can remember I reached my breaking point while working on the music for a shoe company commercial. That’s when I decided to get my masters degree in filmmaking.”
Even though it was mostly a shoe commercial that was a catalyst for the new direction in Cowan’s life, inspiration to make the change also came from watching his bandmate Arquette make his films and from a conversation with Julie Corman, who encouraged Cowan to explore his voice in the horror genre.
“David does a lot of indie films, and I had always found it fascinating to see how it all comes together while watching him work on set,” explained Cowan. “When I made the decision to become a director, I reached out to Julie Corman for advice, and she told me I should follow my gut and make a horror film.”
Just because Cowan is only beginning to make a name for himself in the horror genre, it doesn’t mean he’s a newbie in the world of the dark and the fantastic. Horror has been a huge part of Cowan’s life since he first laid eyes on a certain notorious resident of Springwood.
The director said, “When I was 10 years old, I became obsessed with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which then led to me asking my mom for a Fangoria subscription because I just couldn’t get enough of horror. I was also a huge fan of the 80s television series ‘V’, and I would write letters to NBC begging to be able to visit the set; that’s how much horror was a part of my childhood.”
“The biggest appeal of the horror genre to me is hooking the audience, and I love exploring deeper subtext within a horror story. Most of my first films weren’t even horror, but it didn’t feel like a weird transition into horror since I’ve loved the genre for so long. The stories that speak to me are the ones that hit you in the gut and manage to still make you think,” added Cowan.
Growth‘s story originates in 1989, when a breakthrough in advanced parasitic research on Kuttyhunk Island gives scientists a jump in human evolution, endowing subjects with heightened physical and mental strength. But true to horror movie standards, the experiment goes horribly wrong and produces a lethal parasite that mysteriously kills off three quarters of the island’s population with the survivors fleeing for their lives.
The film then picks up some twenty years later when Jamie Akerman (Mircea Monroe), who lost her mother in the outbreak, returns with her boyfriend (Brian Krause), and together they uncover the key to Jamie’s disturbing past and the horrifying secrets long suppressed by the town’s leader, Larkin (Richard Riehle). They discover a new strain of parasite has emerged, and it’s up to Jamie to put an end to it all. Many fans would be surprised to find out where Cowan got the inspiration for his story.
“Part of my inspiration behind Growth comes from what happened during the 2008 election,” explained Cowan. “You see politicians saying whatever it takes to get elected, and almost the very next day you see these same people completely flip-flopping on a lot of what they stood for just so they would be elected. So I wanted to explore the idea of how much people would be willing to sacrifice in order to get what they want from life and the dark places it can take you.”
“In the film you meet Justin, who’s very meek and sickly but has always had a desire to be strong. He discovers there’s a parasite that he can infect himself with that will eat away the bad parts of his DNA to make him everything he always wanted to be. But when you take those kinds of risks, you end up going to very dark places, much like Justin did,” Cowan added.
Part of the challenge to independent filmmaking is the ability to adapt to circumstances you have no control over that could very well determine whether or not you get to make your movie. Cowan learned that first-hand when he had to scrap the notion of using practical effects for his creature when a snafu prevented the special effects company from completing their work on the project.
Cowan said, “We had a lot of challenges with production, including the need to pretty much make the creature completely computer-generated, which is something that hit us out of the blue. We had to scramble to get 180 VFX shots done in three months. We ended up using Thinkwell Architecture Firm for the VFX work, which sounds a bit unusual, but they hit a lull with the recession, and since they already had the technology to do the work, we hired them for Growth.”
Another adaptation Cowan had to do to his filmmaking approach involved a scene in the movie that required filming in Korea. Due to budgetary restraints, it was impossible for Cowan to be overseas filming, which made the director think outside of the box on how to get the shot he needed without breaking the bank.
“For one of the sequences in Korea, I ended up directing the entire scene through Google Video from my office in LA,” Cowan explained. “It’s amazing what you can do with technology these days. What could have been an insanely expensive sequence ended up costing us $2,300 in the end, and I love that I could do something that most people would have thought was impossible just a few years ago.”
Something else that makes Cowan stand out in terms of indie filmmakers is his generosity and commitment to his entire team. “Everyone that works on our films is part of our profit-sharing. Every person takes some kind of an ownership stake in the projects they are part of. That’s the incredible thing about independent filmmaking.”
That giving spirit Cowan has on his own features is also part of a new venture he’s embarking on alongside producing partner Suits. The duo are investing in the future of the horror genre, one feature film at a time.
Cowan said, “John and I are now producing for first-time filmmakers on projects that are under the 300k budget level. We’ve got two first-time feature filmmakers that are currently in production on their own films, and from there John and I are hoping to generate about four movies a year. Both of my parents are philanthropists, and we have been fortunate to make our movies on our own terms so we wanted to give back to the independent film community.”
The producer went on to discuss the first two projects which started production last week.
“The first film is called Shadow Man, which explores the concept of creating a machine that takes you back into your own memories to experience life-changing trauma so that you can deal with it and move forward,” explained Cowan. “However, in the film, the Justice Department finds out about the process and wants to use it on criminals to determine their guilt in the crimes they’re accused of. During the first trial run of the machine, they end up getting one of their own trapped in a criminal’s mind, and it’s up to him to find his way out of the disturbed mind of a criminal.”
“Static is a little trickier to explain without giving away the biggest twist to the story, but what I can say is that it’s a very unique take on home invasion. You’ll be shocked at how good it is,” Cowan teased.
Special thanks to Gabriel Cowan for taking time to speak with Dread Central!
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