Sweet Dreamers

by Tom Cowan

(1982, 82 mins, 16mm, dir: Tom Cowan)

The following text was written by the filmmaker to accompany the release of this digitally restored version of Sweet Dreamers.

A version of this text was originally published on Peter Tammer's Friends of the Armchair Traveller blog on January 5,2022.

Seeing it again after so long, I now find myself very proud of my most critically derided and unsuccessful movie, Sweet Dreamers, which I made forty years ago, in 1982. I was unsatisfied with it at the time, not just because it was slammed (although that hurt), but because it had changed so much from the original fine “careless” conception. I had originally envisioned it with the title I Ching on a Double Bed, and it was to be improvised from whatever direction the I Ching advised of the lovers.  


Then, following the monster success of my film
Journey Among Women (1977), every obstacle by the bureaucrats was put in the way of an even more experimental movie such as this idea. To get the funding which had already been recommended by the real film-makers on the assessment panel of the Experimental Film Fund, I had to conform to the conditions set out by people who had no real production experience. 

The proposed experiment of an ‘in the moment’ development in the progress of the central relationship, even as it was being filmed, was radical (thinking about it now). But these bozos at the Australian Film Commission stipulated that I had to write a script to get the funding. So I was required to distort the very basis of the proposal which had been given a tick by film-makers. 



Eventually after about two years of wrangling, I got a small grant of $25,000 which was later changed to investment funding. NB: at that time experimental film funding was being changed to investments:

"Experimental film-making must be controlled, this is not the Seventies!”


With all the delaying, that fine careless experimental idea became bogged down and the movie became very conventional in production. I didn’t have the joie de vivre to pull off my original conception. I was disappointed with myself for letting the film bureaucrats wear me down. It was twenty years before I attempted another movie as Bruce Hodsdon reported in his fine piece about not well-known film-makers. There was one nice review by Steve Wallace in Film Review at the time.



It's a film about the hopes and dreams of the ‘70s when so much seemed possible. How dare we hope so naively – this was a problem for the critics. They contended that the male character is unrealistic in his dreams and chauvinist. But that’s not so unrealistic: it is rather an essential struggle which the couple try to face. The script is low key and I reckon: it is not the very small budget but the pacing and being too locked-off for an independent movie that was a problem.

The performances are interesting. Sue Smithers was better than a French actress from a Nouvelle Vague movie. She acted well and she’s lovely. Richard Moir was very generous in agreeing to a role in such a low budget effort and he does a fine job. Bryan Probyn did a beautiful job as DoP and it is nice to look at. He went on to shoot Far East for John Duigan when I was not available and did a better job than I could have done (editor’s note: Tom Cowan has a long track record as a cinematographer). The ingenious music by Brett Cabot makes me proud of him. I’m sorry he left Australia.




After shooting Pure Shit in 1975 for Bert Deling, I used the workshopping method Bert used on that movie for Journey Among Women. Bert came with me to the assessment meeting at the Australia Council where I got the $25,000 grant. So there was a progression or connection in production thinking between the two movies. Similar to the junkies in Pure Shit was the actresses' intensity in Journey Among Women. The shooting was similarly almost out of control. There's a difficult balance between exciting out of control or tight, controlled conformity. It takes practice and practice and rare vision by money controllers and practicioners together.


Then with I Ching on a Double Bed, I wanted to take the improvisational approach further. It traces back to Pure Shit. Sadly that development was stymied. 

I tried a further development of the approach with
Orange Love Story (2004), using story elements of the participants' love experiences and extensive structured workshopping leading to the final scripted yet improvised movie. I got close to my ideal with that one but I still want more.

I developed a very detailed production method called Local Emotion Pictures. I could bore you with it. But I believe we each have to develop the methods that work for us.





Anyway, with all the regrets I had at the time, seeing Sweet Dreamers now, I love it. It seems to say a little something that’s real about the time we had in the 1970s.


Tom Cowan

Melbourne, January 2022


Tom Cowan has directed the feature films THE OFFICE PICNIC, PROMISED WOMAN, JOURNEY AMONG WOMEN, SWEET DREAMERS, ORANGE LOVE STORY and LIFE CLASS, and has also worked as a cinematographer (PURE SHIT, MOUTH TO MOUTH, DIMBOOLA, WINTER OF OUR DREAMS and others).

Published Jan 11, 2022. © Tom Cowan, January 2022.