Mark Cousins tells 'The Story of Film'
The Northern-Irish cinephile talks Dave Calhoun through his latest odyssey
Mark Cousins has turned his bestseller, ‘The Story of Film’ into an epic 15-hour documentary. But he’s not resting on his laurels: as well as talking to Dave Calhoun, he’s chipped in a quiz to our ‘Pub Walks’ issue.
Back in February I bumped into writer, filmmaker and passionate cinephile Mark Cousins on a Sunday morning in the middle of a square in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
We were in this hot and dusty West African city for a film festival and in the city’s Place des Cinéastes to join a ceremony to honour the memory of dead filmmakers. We watched as the Burkinabe director Gaston Kabore led a moment of silence, and joined hands with others as we circled the square, in the middle of which was a huge sculpture of an upturned camera.
The forty-six-year-old Cousins was filming for his epic, 15-hour television series, ‘The Story of Film: An Odyssey’, an extension of the book of the same name he published in 2004. He had come from Dakar in Senegal, where he had also been shooting, and the next day he would return to this spot to film this unusual sculpture and temple to filmmaking in the middle of this busy, exciting city. Why? ‘Because this, here, is the future of film,’ he said. Such is Cousins’s inquisitive, global and enthusiastic outlook
on film. It’s infectious and it’s at the core of his new series, which takes us through the history of innovation in cinema, with Cousins’s gentle, Northern Irish accent and learned enthusiasm guiding our way among clips and interviews gathered from across the globe.
Six months later, Cousins and I speak again, this time on the phone. He is in a Glasgow editing suite putting the final touches to his series.
You travelled the world for ‘The Story of Film’. And it took five years. But am I right that it was mostly just you and a producer?
‘Yes, that’s it. We knew we had to make it in an indie way because we wouldn’t get much money. Also, if we did try to get more money we would be more compromised and asked to make it more about movie stars or showbiz, you know? Taking not very much money meant we were independent. We were editorially free and fleet of foot. We could jump on a flight and get a sequence on African cinema for about £1,000.’
What was your attitude to interviews? You don’t seem to use them as a crutch. They’re sparing, and, when they come, feel essential.
‘That was crucial. I did not want to make one of those programmes with talking heads all the time. I felt that in a 15-hour film we needed about 40 or 50 characters, something like that, and I think we have about 45 interviews. I wanted to choose people who had done great work or were eyewitnesses to great times. So we have Stanley Donen [director of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’] and we have the brilliant Japanese actress Kyoko Kagawa who was in all the Yasujiro Ozu pictures and Akira Kurosawa films, and we have Robert Towne [writer of ‘Chinatown’] and other great people. We’ve also got the very interesting Judy Balaban, who wasn’t in movies, but her dad ran Paramount Studios and she was engaged to Montgomery Clift and just knew everybody. I was interested in people who could conjure up an era and mood in film history.’
So you picked films and people according to the quality of their work or how interesting they are?
‘It was the quality of their work or what they could conjure up well. I’m not a movie snob, and I’m not against commerical cinema. “Avatar” is in this series, and the work of Steven Spielberg at its best. I wasn’t only going for obscure people. But nor did we try to get big stars just because they are marquee names. We tried to be blind to that question of celebrity and look at questions of innovation.’
One of your motivations seems to be to reclaim film as art and not just as a business. Would you agree?
‘That’s crucial. I remember interviewing Lauren Bacall years ago and she said to me: “The industry is shit, it’s the medium that’s great.” She was right, I think. If I ask myself what was my motivation, yes it was to defend cinema in a certain way. But, also, I was in Amsterdam a few days ago and looking at Van Gogh’s paintings and thinking about how he liked to paint the fields around the sanitorium, and my main reason for making “The Story of Film” is because I find film beautiful I want to describe it. More than trying to redress an imbalance, it was the desire to describe something beautiful which is the history of the movies.’
Did spending so long making this series change you and how you think about film?
‘I think so. Both the book and the film came out of a drive I did in my camper van from Scotland to India. I got such a strong sense of the rest of the world, and particularly the Middle East and the inbetween bits. The series came out of internationalism, and making it has made it clear to me that I’m not one of those pessimists who thinks culture is getting worse and movies are going down the tube. Movies have broadened out. They started as a babbling brook and now they’re a big, wide river – and all over the world. So I’m left with a sense of the vitality of the movies and their unpredictability.’
Click here to have a crack at Mark's film quiz