Interview: Mark Cousins on The Eyes of Orson Welles, documentaries and Netflix
Josh Slater-Williams | On 17, Aug 2018Reading time: 9 mins
Director, critic and curator Mark Cousins returns with essay feature The Eyes of Orson Welles, a documentary, divided into five chapters, that explores the legendary filmmaker through a subject that’s rarely come up in the multiple existing biographical portraits of the man: his paintings and sketches, many of which have never before been displayed for public consumption outside of this film. (Read our review.)
Invited to his Edinburgh flat to see a few of Welles’ drawings up close, prior to a summer exhibition in the city, we spoke to Cousins about collaborating with Welles’ daughter, Beatrice, avoiding clichés about the filmmaker, inspiring documentaries, Donald Trump, and his thoughts on Netflix’s handling of Welles’ final film, which is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
How did you meet Beatrice Welles and how did this project get started?
I didn’t intend to make a film about Orson Welles, but I’ve been fascinated by him for a long time. I look at my shelf and it’s full of Orson Welles books; he was a sort of father figure in a way. And then I went to Michael Moore’s film festival – I’m on the board of Michael Moore’s film festival in Traverse City, Michigan – and lo and behold, there was Beatrice Welles. And she had just done a deal with the University of Michigan to sell quite a few of [her father’s] papers and the University of Michigan people were there and Michael Moore, and they invited me to meet her and we just got on like a house on fire. She’s not what you would expect at all; she’s quite lively, quite wild. So, quite quickly, within 20 minutes, there was the idea of making a film. She probably had the idea for a long time. She said to come to her place and she lives in the Midwest, so two months later I went there and I saw the artwork. And I thought, holy fuck, I could definitely do something like this. I try to look for something new if possible, and I thought, oh, there’s something new about Orson Welles.
Was she familiar with any of your work beforehand?
I think so. In fact, yes. She seemed to have seen The Story of Film. I don’t know whether she was just very well briefed, but I think she’s actually seen it. That made a difference to her, I think, because she’s the keeper of the flame and she needs to entrust… you’re handing stuff over to people, into other hands, so she needs to entrust the work to people who care. And I think she knew that I would.
Where did you get your Orson Welles tattoo?
I actually got it in Traverse City, Michigan. Michael Moore had put on Citizen Kane and Chimes of Midnight, which, of course, each of which I’ve seen like a hundred times. But it had been a long time since I’d seen them on the big screen. Citizen Kane looks a bit different in the era of Trump, and I was wowed again by it. And as you get older, as I get older, it means more to me. When I first saw Citizen Kane, it just seemed too technical for me, but there’s an elegy to it and a sense of ageing and a loss of youth. All of those things I identified with, so it moved me a lot more. So, I went out that afternoon and got the tattoo, so when I met [Beatrice], it was still sort of bleeding.
That’s a hell of a way to meet someone.
[laughing] Here’s the bleeding tattoo of your father.
In The Eyes of Orson Welles, you make a comparison between Charles Foster Kane and Trump. Do you perhaps hope he goes the way of another Welles character, possibly the cop in Touch of Evil?
The cop in Touch of Evil has self-knowledge. And the reason why he has self-knowledge is because he’s a recovering alcoholic and he’s had to think about himself. He’s still, in some ways, a bad man, Hank Quinlan, but he’s had to investigate himself. Donald Trump has never done that. As he’s lying on his deathbed, will he think about that night he saw Mount Kilimanjaro and was really alive? I don’t know if he’s ever seen Kilimanjaro. That night that I had sex with that somebody, was I really alive? There might be a moment for Trump late in his life where he suddenly has a flash – when was I last alive? But there’s no sign of it.
“Why bother when so much has been said? You have to avoid the clichés.”
What are your thoughts about Netflix distributing Welles’ now completed final film [The Other Side of the Wind]?
Well, I think that those people are good people. I’ve never met them, but I’ve read a lot about them and people tell me they’re good people. They’re cinephiles, so they’re on the side of the angels. But I think they fucked up a bit with Cannes, in that they played hardball too much. They should have graciously accepted out of competition for that film. I think they know that they made a mistake. I think that they do need to understand, at least from my point of view, that they need to increase their theatrical window somewhat. It’s not going to threaten their audience. Those people sitting at home with a pizza and beer on a Friday night are not thinking, ‘I’m not going to watch this because it’s already been in the cinema’. People who watch Netflix are often people who don’t go to the cinema very much because of their kids or something else, so it’s not a conflict. And I think Netflix are getting there. So, in principle, I’m very, very, very for Netflix, but I think in this instance, they made a mistake.
Did a structure for the film come about fairly early after seeing the artworks?
Before, even. For me, the structure of a film comes first. It’s the first thing. I don’t know what you’re like when you write something, but I know that I cannot write structure and a sentence at the same time. I need to know the shape and then I can try to write a good sentence within that shape. So, with this film, within 90 seconds, two minutes maximum, I knew what the structure should be. I’ve never been a good reader, but have been good on the engineering aspect of things. I even believe looking beneath the fuselage of something, so I knew that this should have been a roughly four or five-part structure. It shouldn’t be chronological, it should be almost like chess pieces – pawn, knight, king, etc. But Orson Welles lends himself to this kind of thing, this kind of structure. Not everybody does. I’ve had the idea for the structure for a while and lots of my previous subject wouldn’t lend themselves well, but this one did.
An interesting element of the film is that it’s not a gushing portrait of the man. It doesn’t shy away from Welles’ various contradictions. How important was that aspect for you?
Really important, because if you are going to say something about Welles… and again, I go back to the point of why bother when so much has been said? You have to avoid banality. You have to avoid the clichés. What are the things that people think about Welles? Started at the top and worked his way down, so I don’t even touch on that. One of the other things that people think about Welles is that he sabotaged his own career, so I don’t even touch that. I didn’t want to get into the received opinions about Welles. I wanted to get into territory where I know what I find wholly admirable about him, which is his social justice stuff. I find that absolutely courageous and admirable. That’s why that’s the biggest chunk and that’s why it’s upfront. So, I think, hopefully in that first bit you think ‘God, he was a really good guy’. And then when you go to the second bit, which is about love, you see that he was more complicated than that. His love life was somewhat less admirable and he was guilt-ridden, quite rightly, I think, for the heartache that he caused. For me, that’s a satisfying thing. You fall in love with somebody and then you slightly fall out of love with them. I didn’t want to shirk any of those things. I’ve made him as admirable as I think he is. And I think, also, I showed the less good side of him and that’s why I ended with that quote: ‘We’re large, we contain multitudes’. Because he really contained multitudes, didn’t he?
What are some of the great documentaries that inspire you?
Maximilian Schell’s film Marlene is very, very good. [Shohei] Imamura’s film called History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess; I love that film. Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black; I absolutely love that film. Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. They are some of the ones that really inspire me. I think that I’m really inspired by films that are sort of a non-PBS approach to [documentary] cinema. I don’t mind PBS. I like PBS, they do good work. But I want more flavour, individuality, surprise and spikiness.
Does taking the Welles route of acting as well as directing appeal to you at all?
No. I’ve never been asked that before. I’m just terrible in front of a camera. I hate it. I’ve always been rubbish in front of a camera, I think. And I’m totally shy and a behind-the-camera kind of person. It’s not that I don’t have a degree of ego or exhibitionism; I think lots of people do. But when the camera runs, I want to be behind it, I want to disappear. And when I’m behind the camera shooting something, I just disappear. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Photo: Jane Bown / Topfoto