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Mark Cousins on Orson Welles, Sketching With Film, His Boots, ‘Citizen Trump’

Doc filmmaker is serving on Karlovy Vary Film Festival jury

Film historian and documentarian Mark Cousins, serving on the Karlovy Vary Film Festival main jury this year, is screening his latest film “The Eyes of Orson Welles,” which considers the seminal director’s off-screen art. The doc plays in the fest’s Out of the Past section, which this year focuses as much on great filmmakers themselves rather than showcasing their work.

Showing alongside “Hal,” Amy Scott’s docu on Hal Ashby (“The Last Detail,” “Harold and Maude,” “Being There”) and “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” by Marina Zenovich, Cousins’ tribute and investigation of Welles as a graphic artist unfolds as the Irish-Scottish filmmaker treads in his subject’s footsteps – and sometimes even his boots.

One critic called your film a “wayward, very indulgent but deeply felt love letter to Orson Welles.” Does that sound like a fair description to you?
Not really. To be wayward or indulgent, the film would have to go off on tangents, I think, but it stays close to the man, his politics, love life and interest in power. It is deeply felt, though.

You make the case that Welles’ films were an extension of his work as a graphic artist. How did you arrive at this idea?
I spent ages looking at the drawings and paintings of Welles and started to see in them how he thought visually. He drew when he was off duty, or relaxing, or upset by work or love. We see those feelings and emotions in his art, but also his sense of composition and form.

You’ve said your film is a letter to a dead dad and that filmmakers today are all Welles’ children in a way. When did the Orson Welles bug first bite you?
At the age of about 8, I think, I saw “Touch of Evil” on TV. I was too young to understand that it’s about race and sex, but wow – I loved its nighttime, seedy atmosphere, its rooms and twisting choreography. When I later went to L.A., the first thing I did was visit the locations of the film in Venice Beach.

How did you manage to enlist the help of Beatrice Welles, your subject’s daughter, in this project?
I met her at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival – I was introduced by Phil Hallman of the University of Michigan. He’d recently acquired many of the papers and possessions of Welles.

What was the most astonishing discovery you made with her help?
I thought I knew Welles’ work inside out but I came to realize how great his film of “Macbeth” is, what a wild charcoal sketch of the play.

You make the argument that Welles was primarily a visual artist and that this is what caused him so much trouble in the studio system. Do you think he would have fared any better today?
Yes, in part because the equipment has miniaturized and production costs have decreased. Welles was essentially an experimental filmmaker. He could make his experiments more cheaply now. We could have an “F for Fake” every year.

How did you arrive at your technique of using a handheld Osmo Pro for your documentary work? What does this enable you to do best?
The Osmo Pro gives a more elegant image than a handheld shot, with some of the feel of tracking. For “The Eyes of Orson Welles” I wanted the audience to feel that it was gliding through Welles’ world. The Osmo Pro is good at gliding.

What do you think Welles would have shot first with a rig like this?
I think he would make a film called “Citizen Trump.”

You’ve said your style of speaking to the subject of your film on the voiceover is a way to avoid the historian’s voice. How did you first formulate that approach?
I spoke directly to my dad when I did the oration at his funeral. It felt warmer and more personal to say ‘you’ rather than ‘he.’ It was a relationship rather than an account. I liked that and applied it to my work.

Do you feel any energy from Orson Welles when you wear his boots?
His boots are far too big for me – his ankles were three times the width of mine – so I can’t wear them. They sit on my desk. Objects of veneration. A bit fetishy perhaps?