Making my first full-length feature film was no big deal—winning the Prix Italia and taking it on tour has blown my mindby Mark Cousins / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
On location: Mark Cousins with a budding Iraqi filmmaker
What’s the relationship between liking and making? If I like Chinese food, do I automatically have the desire to make it? If I like The Smiths, do I want to make music like them?
The answers are no, of course. But why not? Liking and making are very different activities. The latter calls, the former responds. Liking is more passive: it involves less process. You need neither a wok nor a guitar. And liking something while not wanting to make it involves, among other things, a determination not to enter the mystery of the object giving pleasure. Then there’s the fact that making is, in a way, starting from scratch—whereas liking, by definition, isn’t.
These thoughts come to mind for three reasons. First, I’ve been reading François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, who were critics before they were directors. Second, I recently interviewed Paul Schrader, who was an outstanding film critic before he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed American Gigolo; and third, because the critic Mark Kermode asked me recently on his radio show, why, after years of writing about cinema I finally made my first feature-length film, The First Movie. My answer was that, as a boy, I loved both looking at imagery and drawing and painting. It didn’t feel like there was a difference. Each involved getting inside images.
Mark said he would never direct a film. Why not? For the reasons above, perhaps. There’s certainly a lot more process involved in making than liking. Particularly so in film. It’s easier to paint an apple after seeing Cezanne’s apple watercolours than it is to make a film about the mafia after seeing The Godfather. But this is changing. If the cinematic process—equipment, crew, money, marketing—used to be a grand canyon separating liking and making movies, that canyon is closing fast.
At the tender age of 45, after 20 years of showing other people’s films and 20 years of making hour-long documentaries for television, I have just made my first feature-length film. This was not because I’m a slow learner—though perhaps I am. It’s because the process is now simpler. You no longer need to be at the helm of a crew of 150 people to make a movie (I’d be rubbish at that). You just need to have something to say, and a camera, and a small team, and a bit of style.
So what’s it like to be a big-screen rookie when you’ve been a critic? The English director Stephen Frears said to me recently “now you can see what we feel.” And one of the first things I’ve noticed is that being a big-screen director means losing your mind. As I write this, I’m three days into a 25-day, 50-screening tour of Britain with The First Movie, having—to my amazement—recently won the Prix Italia for best arts documentary.
I made The First Movie a year ago. As I described in Prospect last October, it’s about how I visited a village in northern Iraq, introducing the children there to cinema and lending them cameras to make their own films. The First Movie is done and dusted. My thinking about it is complete. Yet for the audiences I am now meeting in cinemas, it has just begun, unspooling in front of them. It’s slipping out of my memory just as it slips into theirs.
If an audience likes the film—the Q&A last night in Southampton lasted more than an hour—then I’m sucked back to last year, as if I’m still making it. Then there are the responses that come at me sideways. A few days ago, after a screening in London’s Notting Hill for an audience of mostly teenage, inner-city girls, one of them asked, “Is there a lot of love in the world?”
One of the first things I’ve noticed is that, during question and answer sessions, I talk as if we have been watching someone else’s work. I describe the height of the camera, the lack of reverse angles and camera moves. I can see and discuss the form, which many directors can’t. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s a danger that the critic-turned-director uses a certain shot just because great directors before did.
Then, joy of joys, there are the reviews. Most of the critics have now printed their verdicts. The bad reviews sear, the good ones disorientate. Such ups and downs are more severe when you are not at home. My girlfriend called me last night and I just couldn’t remember where I was. I felt like I had Alzheimer’s. Turns out I was in a scuzzy hotel in London.
The biggest issue I’ve noticed on this tour, though, is self-loss. The film has become more alive than I am. It calls, I respond. I go where it is. I talk about it. My performing self—the guy who does the Q&A sessions—is a busy boy. And the other me, the guy who pulls his strings, is like an unseen music- hall ventriloquist, nursing a pint while a distant pianola plays.
Find out more about Mark’s film at http://thefirstmovie.net