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FIRST PERSON | Mark Cousins on His Epic “Story of Film”

FIRST PERSON | Mark Cousins on His Epic "Story of Film"

EDITORS NOTE: “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” is filmmaker Mark Cousins’ 15 hour documentary that chronicles the artistry of cinema. It is currently screening – for free – at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is screening in five 3-hour segments Monday through Friday at 10am, and then again in two larger chunks Saturday and Sunday. Cousins offered his thoughts on taking on such an ambitious project in the following first person account.

There have been lots of books that tell the history of the movies, but so far almost no films. You can sit in a room to write a book about movies, but to tell the story of how a flickering Victorian novelty became a global artform on film, you have to travel the world, lug your equipment across China and LA, to Tokyo and the streets of Mumbai, to the urban canyons of New York, the film schools of Paris, to Eisenstein’s Moscow and Bergman’s Sweden.

My producer John Archer and I did just this over the last six years, to make The Story of Film: An Odyssey, the 15 hour documentary that we are world premiering at Toronto. We’re exhausted and exilerated.

We started small, with development funding from Scottish Screen and MEDIA 2, enough to make a ten minute taster of what we thought would be three 90 minute documentaries on film history, an adaptation of my book The Story of Film. We filmed in Cairo, with a crew of 5, shooting hand held with the “Fig Rig” wheel that Mike Figgis devised. When we edited the footage, our ten minute taster became 50 minutes about arab cinema and melodrama in the 50s, and so 3 x 90 minutes seemed too short…

We showed the taster. On the strength of it, the UK Film Council gave us more development money. With it we filmed in Japan, China, Mumbai, Kolkata and Australia, mostly without a crew this time, because money was so tight and because we could travel lighter this way. By this time we had abandoned the fig rig and were shooting only on a tripod, often at the magic hour in these places, and at teh grave of Yasujiro Ozu, the village where Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali, in Amitabh Bachchan’s house as he talked about Bollywood, and in Baz Luhrmann’s garden as he raved about what he calls “participatory cinema”. We cut that footage and our development taster was now running three hours. Our film was finding its tone.

Then i made my first feature doc, The First Movie, in Iraq. I shot it all myself and loved doing so, and realised that I wanted to shoot the rest of The Story of Film too. When the UK’s More 4 TV station saw The First Movie, the made an offer to buy the UK TV rights of The Story of Film, which we then thought would run 12 hours. This tipped us from development into production.

Mark Cousins at the Filmmakers Lounge in Toronto. Photo by Brian Brooks.

Now was time to tackle the biggie – American cinema. LA location producer Helen du Toit and I holed up in Los Angeles for a month and, helped by Buck Henry and Telluride festival co-director Tom Luddy, we interviewed Robert Towne, Gus Van Sant, Paul Schrader, film historian Cari Beauchamp, legendary actor and producer Norman Lloyd and key others. We walked 25 miles across Los Angeles, filming the city, its film historical places, its people. From this shoot, and from a week in New Jersey and New York, we pieced together a portrait of American silent – the world of Edison, silent comedy, film noir, 60s comedy, Charles Burnett and the birth of Black American cinema. We edited this footage, eked out the budget even more (we weren’t really paying ourselves anything) thanks to Cannes director Thierry Fremaux, we filmed in haunting Lumieres sites in Lyon and soon our film was 9 hours long. My editor Timo Langer and i guessed the running time of the remaining sequences – there was still the small matter of European, south African and African cinema to shoot and cut, and we had hours of footage from a previous film we made about Iran – and the total looked like 18 hours. I reckoned if we hones this down we could get it to 15 hours but any less and – I told my producer and Tabitha Jackson our Exec Producer at More 4 – we’d have to cut out Woody Allen, Robert Altman, people like that…So they gave me 15 hours.

We then filmed in Senegal and Burkina Faso in West Africa, snowy Paris for a fortnight in December, luminous Copenhagen to interview Lars Von Trier and conjure the world of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Stockholm and, finally, Moscow.

By this time we were dreaming The Story of Film. As writer, director and DP, I was working 90 hour weeks. Producer John was doing three jobs too. We were subtitling hours of footage, recording commentary, grading and dubbing in Glasgow in Scotland, and completing the editing in my flat in Edinburgh. We were in a tunnel of work, racing to deadlines – Toronto and Telluride had accepted the film and the More 4 transmission started on 3rd September. We were living on 4 hours sleep a night. The BFI came on board with further funding, as did Film 4.

We started doing sneak tester screenings, and got rave comments from them, which was great, and the press were asking for DVDs, but we were still cutting, manically. The film was out in the world before it was finished.

Now it is finished and we are en route to TIFF. After the broadcast of the first hour on UK TV, I got an email from a colleague at the Daily Express newspaper saying that his 13 year old daughter, who watched it, now wants to see Lillian Gish movies. If we get that little girl excited by movies, that alone might make all the sleepless nights worth it. In her 80s, Gish was asked what is the most important thing in life. She answered with one word. Curiosity. I think that curiosity about the movies is what has fuelled us through all these sleepless nights.

In the era of DVD, blu ray, streaming and VOD, hundreds of thousands of movies are available, often a click away. At times of such plenitude, it’s easy to get bewildered – what should I watch next? The Story of Film: An Odyssey is the story of 1000 films from 5 continents and 11 decades of movie history, our passionate suggestions of what to watch next.

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