Cowlin’s film insight translates to directing

Betsy Jarosick and Drew Whitford

John Cowlin, South’s film studies teacher, has watched over 4000 movies in his lifetime: Jaws, Heathers, Memento, Mad Max, Blade Runner, Casablanca, Conan the Barbarian; the list goes on and on. Whether it’s a 70’s Italian horror ripoff or a modern-day action movie, a big hit or an obscure film, he’s seen it. However, Cowlin doesn’t just spend his time watching movies, he analyzes the messages the movies are trying to convey to the viewer.

“Most people will spend more time watching movies than they will reading books,” Cowlin said. “At the very least, they watch more movies than books they read because it only takes two hours to watch a movie. So, if you’re going to learn how to read a book, you might as well learn how to watch a movie. Think of all that time in your life, when all of a sudden it’s more meaningful.”

Cowlin first started teaching film as a fill-in for another teacher who no longer had room in his schedule for film classes. Cowlin said that his classes have a set curriculum but focus on different aspects of film each semester. A lot of class time is spent watching movies and the remaining time is spent analyzing the movies or learning lessons on various parts of them. Cowlin said he teaches students to take the style, story, as well as filming process into consideration when watching a movie because it gives them a better understanding and viewing experience.

“It is those moments when I show them a film they’re unfamiliar with, or at least a genre, time period or something in cinema they’re unfamiliar with,” Cowlin said. “They probably wouldn’t otherwise access it, and all of a sudden, it really rips through them.”

Cowlin does not just educate students on film. In the past few years, he’s become a theater director at South. Though movies and plays share some characteristics, Cowlin said there are a lot of key differences between theater and film.

“As soon as you put something on a stage as opposed to recording it and showing it back, it’s more immediate and in some ways it’s more real because it’s actually happening in front of you,” Cowlin said. “On the other hand, I think you can look at theater as more false than cinema because in movies you can have small, tiny gestures and you can whisper. You can do really subtle things because the camera is close to you and you can see what the actor is doing, like when the actor will barely smile, but on a stage, when you’re back 30 feet, you can’t do that.”

Senior Jessica Whalen has been the student director in the Freshman/Sophomore play, Wonky Tales, alongside Cowlin for the past two years. She said student directing comes with many different roles, such as watching full scenes. Along with working on the show as a whole, Whalen collaborates with Cowlin and the other students individually to make sure every aspect of the play is spot on.

“Mr. Cowlin sort of had the final say, but I got to put in a bunch of input and the students got to put in a bunch of input,” Whalen said. “[Some input included] the name of the show and changing the names of the roles.”

Freshman Daniel Dai has also worked with Cowlin on his role in the Freshman/Sophomore play. Dai said that Cowlin gave students notes and advice on their scenes and kept everything together during rehearsal.

“He does really [well],” Dai said. “A lot of times when we’re rehearsing a scene, I think he really gets into the scene. In fact, maybe ten percent of each scene is him, just being in the scene.”

Cowlin said that he is happy to be

directing the students because he is able to

help them communicate stories in a way that is not taught in a traditional English class. 

     “I like sitting down with kids and helping the m communicate stories; that’s how I see high school theater, as communicating in another way,” Cowlin said. “In English, you communicate in speech, an essay or a story, but with theater, you get to communicate in a much more physical [way].”