Russell Brownley on Mastering the Art of Storytelling

“Get on a plane, go as far away as you can and tell stories.”

That’s Russell Brownley’s advice, and he’s more than qualified to dole it out seeing as he’s done just that for over a decade. The cinematographer/director behind such films as De Passage and The Craftsman Project was first introduced to me as someone who’s “travelled the world more than anyone else”, and looking at his list of projects, I’d have to stay that’s a fair call. Starting out as a film school graduate who just wanted to travel, surf, and film people’s stories along the way, he’s now shooting commercials for brands like Nike all across the globe, without compromising his unique brand of character-based storytelling.

I linked up with Russell to chat about his involvement with multimedia arts festival We’re All Going to Die, (going down this Friday, 20th November in Sydney), where he’ll be premiering a brand new short film. For his piece, Russell will be addressing ‘life’, one of the many human experiences that the festival will be exploring in depth in its quest to “kick fear in the nuts”.

Ghana. 2017

Do you find your documentary films end up translating into your commercial work as well?

People started wanting to watch stuff that was authentic because they didn’t want to be tricked anymore, they wanted to see real stories. That’s what myself and Stefan (Hunt, creator of ‘We’re All Going to Die’) do to pay the bills, but it also lends back to what we love, and that’s filmmaking and telling stories. Trying to put a smile on people’s faces. I did a bunch of surf documentaries back in the day with Reef, and made surf films for different outlets like Fuel TV over the years.  I’ve gotten into the commercial world in the past few years and it’s great, but it’s so reel-driven. People all seem to be doing the same thing, because I feel like a lot of filmmakers do what they know will get them work and I catch myself doing that too.

Still from short film based on surfer Mikey De Temple ‘My Saturday Morning’

And for me, what ‘We’re All Going to Die’ did was to stop my fear… my fear is rejection. I fear doing stuff that people might not think is relevant, or isn’t cool, hip, edgy. The festival kinda gave me this clear vision to be like ‘Hey, just make a little short about something you’re really passionate about.’ And for me I’m really passionate about kids, taking care of those who have less than me, and being a dad. My film is more or less that mixed with my love of raising this small human who is actually half of me.

When you were younger and you’d finished up at film school, did you always have the self-confidence that you could make it into a career?

For me, I had no idea you could even make it into a career. And when I started to do that, that’s when I got scared. I feel like I’m tricking someone sometimes, ’cause I’m still doing the same thing I was doing when I was 19, walking around with a Super 8 camera. It’s funny because that’s turned into a job, and I get so scared because I love the work that I do for a living, and I don’t want to ever lose that, so I think that’s one of my biggest fears.

Noah, Ghana. 2017

You’ve got so many projects to your name, what have been some of your favourites to work on?

I did a surf film for Reef about three years ago called De Passage. Surfing films are tough because they’re either respected for their art direction or based around the action. And I think this was the first time that we just said, ‘Ok, not all surfers are gonna like this, but at least it’s the kinda thing you can put on and say it’s beautiful or put it on at a party and just let it be’. It was really fun because it was less about the actual surfing and more about the art direction. I also did a documentary in Bangladesh years ago about surfing, with some local kids there.

Russell shooting the North Shore lifeguards of Oahu

Who do you look to for inspiration?

Obviously Wes Anderson, it’s insane he’s even a person. Everyone rips off Wes Anderson. Every time you see a whip zoom, that’s Wes Anderson. Spike Jonze, all his music videos in the 90s is what got me through high school, a lot of skate filmmakers like Ty Evans. Also guys I work with today, like Nick McLean who’s a great surf filmmaker who worked with me on De Passage, and Stefan who has always pushed me a bit further.

Chichen Itza, Mexico. 2017

Taika Waititi was definitely on the list of influences for De Passage, because I love the fact that Taika digs into cultures that a lot of the world doesn’t know about, like the Māori population in New Zealand. And for De Passage we wanted to dig into the French influence of Tahiti, which is a weird subculture within itself.

What would you say to a kid out there who’s contemplating the leap into filmmaking?

I think about my early trips to Indonesia and even a Reef film I made years ago called Cancer to Capricorn. There was no social media, no YouTube, it was very early. Now, it blows my mind that not only can you shoot something, but you can get it out there. Just get a camera and make movies, shoot no matter what. And put it out there, because you can, and I couldn’t (laughs). All you’ve got to do is use these outlets to project and don’t just take the photos that Instagram wants you to take, but get on a plane, go as far away as you can and tell stories that not only inspire you, but hopefully inspire others.

Thailand. 2017

What do you want to do before you die?

This festival has really helped me to think about that. My dream project is to do a feature film shot in a developing country, somewhere like Haiti, Belize or Indonesia—a place where the country becomes a supporting character in the film. I do a lot of documentary work in places like that, but I want to go and do a true feature and hire the local people as actors and crew. A lot of the work that I’m doing right now in different countries around the world, is scouting for that. I meet people everywhere I go, whether it’s shooting a commercial or documentary and I want to tell their story in the bigger epic.

Check out Russell + a stacked lineup of artists showcase their work at ‘We’re All Going to Die’ this Friday by getting tickets here.

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