Richmond filmmakers explore lurid tales of death and dying

by Ed Moy

Adam Chin and Graham Cowley compare working together on their web series "Graham's Tales" to musicians recording an album together. 
Chin also points out that the process of creating each new episode is similar to cutting a song.
"A long song was epic at five or six-minutes," Chin says. "And short ones were sometimes two-minutes long. So, we took the lead from records." 
The Richmond District-based duo recently assembled a greatest hits collection of episodes from the web series to create a "Graham's Tales" documentary feature film, which they have submitted to film festivals in the United States and internationally.
"I took the best 22 episodes and put them in a certain sequence. We call it our play list and album," Chin says. "We're sort of being old school. We felt we were making a record album." 
In addition to providing lurid tales from Cowley's years in the death and dying trade working as a San Francisco Medical Examiner's investigator, the documentary also includes the true story of when death came knocking on Cowley's own door as "death got personal."
Chin offers viewers first-hand accounts of true-life cases through Cowley's vivid descriptions, including segments on how a person dies from gastro-intestinal bleeding, and what it's like to investigate the scene of a decomposed and rotting corpse.
Born and raised in the north of England, Cowley grew up near the Scottish border in a hardworking coal-mining town. 
As a youngster, he was exposed to American television shows and the rebellious rock music of the '60s, which led him to leave school by age 14.
At first, Cowley attempted to become a shoe maker but eventually decided to join a band, which he claims gave him a "false sense of self."
Later, a friend helped him get a job working in an autopsy room, where he got his initial exposure to the "blood and gore" aspect of handling corpses.
After several years of saving up money, he decided to pursue his dream of moving to America.
However, Cowley was unable to acquire a U.S. work visa and settled in Canada, where he hitchhiked from Toronto to Vancouver in 1974.
Broke and homeless in Vancouver, he eventually got a job at the local morgue in the autopsy room.
After 10 years, Cowley made the move to America, relocating to San Francisco.
A vagabond of sorts, Cowley worked a variety of jobs, including actor, dishwasher and Super Shuttle driver during the '80s.
At one point, Cowley was surviving on corn flakes and Mars bars and living among the homeless, but eventually landed a position with the San Francisco medical examiner, where he worked for 23 years before retiring.
Cowley moved into the Richmond District just two weeks before the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the city.
In 1990, while moonlighting as an actor, Cowley met Chin for the first time through mutual friends in the neighborhood.
An independent filmmaker and computer graphics artist, Chin was born and raised in San Francisco.
His computer-animated film "Opera Industriel" (with Richard Cohen) won a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and his live-action short film "Normal Deviate Behavior" (with John Voltz) won a Golden Carp Award at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. 
In 2004, Chin wrote and directed a feature film, "Maladaptive," which starred Cowley.
Afterwards, they remained friends, with Cowley continuing to work for the medical examiner and Chin for Pacific Data Images (later bought by Dreamworks), where he spent 10 years assisting with animated lighting effects for movies, including the "Shrek" series, "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Rise of the Guardians."
But it was at the end of 2012, after Cowley retired from the medical examiner's office and Chin took a sabbatical from his computer graphics work, that the two began conceiving of the "Graham's Tales" web series.
"We both had stressful jobs," Chin says. "It came together because now we're a little older and at a point where we can meet and reflect on our lives and what we've done."
Chin, who lives just three blocks away from Cowley, says they were spending a lot of time hanging out watching movies together. At the time, Chin was attempting to write a screenplay but was suffering from a creative blockage.
"Graham has a lot of weird stories," says Chin, recalling how the idea for "Graham's Tales" emerged from the "concept of play and creativity."
With that sense of playful creativity motivating them to go out and do something, they chose to visit the apartment building where the classic Steve McQueen movie "Bullitt" was filmed.
Once Cowley began telling stories about his experiences working in the medical examiner's office, Chin felt as if he'd discovered "filmmaker's gold."
The duo have since refined their creative process with Cowley typically writing down ideas for topics to cover the night before shooting and then having conversations with Chin the next day about what they plan to do before going out to shoot.
For each episode, they drive around the City to various locations, where Chin shoots interviews with Cowley telling tales for viewers.
Chin feels the process is comparable to a television news reporter going into the field to gather information for a story.
"Sometimes we'll come back with a different story than we intended," Chin said.
For more information about "Graham's Tales," visit the website at