Brian & Karl make films that speak their own languages
By October 2015
In 2011, a short film titled Skwerl, but published under the tag ‘How English sounds to non-English speakers’, was uploaded to YouTube by ‘Brian and Karl’. For three and a half minutes a young man and woman have a discussion over dinner in a completely nonsensical version of English – sample dialogue: “No, crustacean is trap. I mean, why the crest soldier for the Magdalene nation?” Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston originally created Skwerl for a Sydney anthology film night called Kino, held in a dingy warehouse. A few months later, the beautifully crafted short had been watched by millions of people.
“Karl was sat there on the couch one day, saying, ‘I wonder how English sounds if you don’t speak it,’” Fairbairn recalls. “And we were just going through YouTube and there’s that Italian pop song [‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’ by Adriano Celentano] and a couple of girls with their webcams out making sort of sounds, but no one had done it dramatically, or that well, or that convincingly.”
Today Skwerl has clocked up more than 14 million views, and, according to Fairbairn and Eccleston, it has been used as an instructive video for English classes in Beijing and as a police training video for intercultural awareness in the US.
The young couple are now based in London, and as Brian & Karl they are also making a name for themselves as emerging talents in the world of music videos.
Following the success of Skwerl, local independent musician friends begged them to serve as directors on backyard-shot homemade video clips. Rosie Catalano, Sarah Belkner and Brendan Maclean benefited from their originality and flair.
“It is a way of making films, it is a way of telling stories, and you kind of have an in-built audience,” says Eccleston. “For us, the idea of the fans of the independent musicians in Sydney we knew, that we could access that kind of audience, was an attractive proposition, even though in some cases they’re quite small. It’s almost like a surrogate for filmmaking – it’s us testing the waters.”
Fairbairn and Eccleston also developed a strong relationship with Double J favourite Jack Colwell. Last year their video for Colwell’s track ‘Far From View’ captured an international audience with its mash-up of melodramatic pop and David Lynchian VHS aesthetics. The pair sank their own money into what amounted to a passion project. Shot just six days before their move to London, the ambitious production almost broke the bank.
“[Colwell] wanted something super low-key, and then we just got a little carried away,” Fairbairn says.
Adds Eccleston, “It was ‘Let’s make the most expensive self-funded music video ever.’”
“But then that’s the video that found us an agent,” Fairbairn points out.
Speaking from their Stoke Newington apartment, the two of them are nearly identical in black T-shirts and wire-framed glasses, their heads balding in the same places. Their appearance recalls early photographs of Gilbert & George, though Brian & Karl don’t share the high-art pretentions of that famous duo; they’re happy, for now, in their mostly commercial world.
Their music videos have ranged from backyard love affairs and semi-naked races run in reverse to underwater shoots. The pair have filmic ambitions, and there is precedent there: the formal innovations of music video in the ’80s and early ’90s have given rise to a generation of visually audacious filmmakers – the likes of David Fincher, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze – who have gone on to write and direct Oscar-nominated feature films.
The music-video industry can be exploitative; film school students are often grabbed straight after graduation and offered gigs by big labels for little to no money. But there is a creative freedom inherent in the form that Brian & Karl have, in turn, exploited. “It’s totally been our film school,” says Fairbairn. “Most of our stuff has been on tiny budgets – it’s how we’ve learnt. We’ve made loads of mistakes.”
Brian & Karl aren’t strangers to publicity. They were invited to the popular TV show QI, and, in a rare departure from the quiz format, host Stephen Fry threw to the couple, sitting in the audience, for some awkward banter about Skwerl with the show’s panellists. The appeal for a language aficionado like Fry is clear, but he likely also appreciates the pair’s playful queer aesthetics.
Their latest short film, Putting on the Dish, is a world first: it is scripted and performed entirely in Polari, a form of Cockney shorthand that gay men in Britain used prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. A pair of young gay men meet on a park bench and have a sharp, quick-witted conversation that is basically unintelligible to the common viewer. Luckily, the screenplay has been uploaded to Brian & Karl’s blog, and it’s a entrancing piece of work:
ROBERTA: Has she always been that way then, Phyllis?
MAUREEN: She’s a walking meat rack. Fantabulosa bit of hard. We used to act dicky together at the croaker’s chovey. Noshed me off once while I was giving a fungus his drabs.
ROBERTA: That’s skill, that.
MAUREEN: Oh she used to do it all the time.
When we were at the exchange together she’d one lill on my colin and the other on the switch. Never even got off the palare pipe.
Sad to think of her in the queer ken really.
ROBERTA: What do you mean?
MAUREEN: Well, she’d a run in with the lily law, didn’t she?
“We were really anxious about not getting it right,” says Eccleston. “‘Is this a realistic situation, is this the way the language was used, is this too hyperbolic …?’ We read the Polari dictionary from cover to cover, we did a lot of reading around how it was used, and the gay scene, and so on, but it’s partially just going with instinct and gut.”
Their recent music videos pay homage to classic gay iconography. The duo’s new one for Colwell, ‘Don’t Cry Those Tears’, is what you might call NSFW (not safe for work). Awash in deep blues and purples, it is set in a steamy gay sauna. The young pop star, clad in leather jacket and Sonic Youth T-shirt, is surrounded by sultry muscle-bound types who watch him mouth his lyrics. Colwell’s character is the purest expression of Brian & Karl’s collective work: the outsider becoming the centre of attention.
Eccleston himself saunters past Colwell at the start of the clip, naked, buttocks bared, coyly turning his head. I ask whether this will be an ongoing Hitchcockian-style cameo for the co-director. Eccleston laughs. His butt is also the “basket” ogled by the two covert men on the bench in Putting on the Dish, a basket so good that it would “stretch your corybungus”.
A higher profile can bring additional stresses, though. They can’t quite focus at the start of our interview: they’ve hit an obstacle while working on their next music video, which is for a big-name band – a step forward in their career trajectory. Mid interview Eccleston takes to the phone, and I sit quietly while he argues it out for the next few minutes.
The pair have pitched more than 50 video ideas this year alone, and only three have come anywhere near getting the green light. Judging by their body of work, however – a work of distinct bodies, replete with strange, musical languages – Brian & Karl needn’t worry about music videos for long. Fairbairn says they’ve already got plans for a new short film. “We definitely want to make something in English next.”