As the U.K.’s most noted and prolific documentarian of cinema, Mark Cousins has lent his deep knowledge of films and filmmaking — alongside his distinct poetic voiceover tones — to numerous celebrations of the big screen.
Something of a Cannes veteran, having chalked up almost a quarter century of visits (his feature The Eyes of Orson Welles premiered on the Croisette in 2019), this year sees Cousins present two new documentaries.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which was made during the pandemic (one of three films — “I work fast!” he says) and examines recent on- and off-screen innovations in storytelling, had a special screening on Tuesday, July 6 to launch the Official Selection. Meanwhile, for The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, he spent five days with the legendary Oscar-winning producer as he made his annual pilgrimage from London to the Cote d’Azur back in 2019, a festival road trip Thomas has been embarking on for some 45 years.
Speaking to THR, Cousins explains why he never feared for the future of cinema despite the year of lockdown, how he ended up being the first director picked by Thierry Fremaux for 2021’s selection and why anyone venturing to a particular Cannes pier at 2 a.m. one night might be in for a surprise.
How did it feel making a film celebrating cinema just as cinema was worrying about its survival?
It felt good! I’ve always taken the long view of these things. I think that even though cinema has been blindsided by technologies and pandemics and television, some of its essential properties have remained the same since 1895. I think that the pandemic forced us inside our own houses and inside our own heads, and one of the things we find inside our own heads is cinema. We fell back on our own little memories of things, including our memories of cinema. So it actually sort of made sense to me to do this, because cinema isn’t only what we’ll see tomorrow, it’s what we’ve seen all our lives.
As a film historian, did you have any fears yourself about how cinema might emerge at the end?
I worried that people would forget the pleasures and ritual of moviegoing. I knew I wouldn’t. I was waiting with baited breath to get back, and each time the lockdown opened, I was there day one. Day one — Godzilla! But I think, as human beings, as much we like being inside, sitting on our sofas streaming stuff with our loved ones, there’s a deep need and an ancient need for us to lose ourselves in a kind of mosh pit and have that sense of a collective roar, and to get sweaty together and go dancing together. So we’ll never be satisfied with just domestic life. And I think that, even people who are just living domestic life know there’s something more. And one of the things that is more is cinema. And that’s why I’m not scared of it.
A Story of Film: A New Generation celebrates various recent technological and storytelling innovations in cinema. With the lockdown forcing filmmakers to adapt to various restrictions in order to keep going, did you see much innovation yourself over the last year?
Oh yeah. I’ve had the same editor for my last 13 feature films. He lives 30 miles away and would shlep to my edit suite every day. Usually, he and I would work a 9-5 and get a bit bored in the middle. But the whole rhythm of editing has changed — it’s turned into more of a burst of activity over three hours on Zoom, then we’ll click off and go away and do some writing and thinking and meet again after lunch. The editing day has become much more creative and much more responsive to inspiration rather than sitting exhausted in the editing room and it feeling like it’s a marathon.
You’ve got another film in Cannes, the road trip doc The Storms of Jeremy Thomas. Was that your idea or his?
Actually, two producers came to me and said you should make a film about Jeremy and I said, oh yes, I’d love to. When I was 15 his film Bad Timing came out and it was unbelievable. So I’ve admired him from afar. But, as usual, I made a list of all the conventional ways of doing such a film and then struck everything off that. So no talking heads or any of that. Instead, he and I got in a car, I took two cameras and three tripods and about 100 batteries, and we just drove through France for five days. The film was actually selected for Cannes in December — Thierry Fremaux told me that it was the first film that had been selected for Cannes 2021.
Heading back to Cannes this year after last year’s absence, is there a particular festival tradition you have been looking forward to?
In terms of Cannes traditions, I always jump off the pier naked at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, at least once a year. It’s not a pier right on the Croisette, it’s slightly around the corner. Over the years, the bunch of people who do it with me has grown, but it’s always naked.
Interview edited for length and clarity.