A decade after producing his epic 15-hour series “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” Mark Cousins has created another cinematic survey of Homeric proportions.
In ”The Story of Film: A New Generation,” whose international distribution is handled by Dogwoof Sales, the writer and filmmaker applies a wide lens to the last 10 years of cinema, asking where filmmakers have pushed the language of storytelling, and where they have blown it up entirely.
Using snippets from Hollywood and Bollywood bangers like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “PK,” from VR masterpieces like “The Deserted,” and from urgent docs like Syria’s “For Sama,” Cousins fashions a compelling, ultimately optimistic collage on where cinema has been, and where it’s going next.
Cousins is set to unveil “A New Generation” at a special Cannes Film Festival screening on Tuesday, but before that, he caught up with Variety to discuss the challenges of making his film in the midst of a pandemic and share his thoughts on whether irreparable damage has been done to theatrical releasing.
How different was the process of shooting and editing the film during lockdown?
I usually look like a backpacker when I’m filming, I have a rucksack and it’s really a very small kit, even though I shoot in 4K. It would have been nice to go out and film things, but the first real difference was that I had the space to think. Lots of us have felt that under lockdown, if we were lucky enough not to be sick. The second was that it was pretty easy to edit this because my editor, who lives 30 miles away, didn’t have to come every day. We just used Zoom and shared screens, so the editing process for this film and many films under lockdown was liberating. I think that will continue to have an effect on filmmaking in the future. When you sit in an edit suite from nine to six, there are dead points where your brain isn’t working and you just think I want to go to the pub. But because of Zoom, you can edit for three hours with your editor and then click off. You can maximize your creative energy, so the edit was very short, around a month.
Were there any genres, geographical areas of cinema you needed to brush up on?
I definitely had to work out what I knew and what I didn’t know, where the gaps in my knowledge were, and there were considerable gaps. I had to plug those as best I could. I would say to my producers, “I’ve heard about this film can you get me it,” or I would look at parts of the world thinking have I seen good films from Syria recently or Lebanon, and if not, why not? Is that because there were none or more likely because I wasn’t paying enough attention, so I try and pay attention in that period.
Curating an analysis of a decade of cinema is a highly subjective exercise, were you concerned about people’s expectations making it?
The job, as I see it, is about storytelling and tone creation and staying ahead of the audience. I feel that when people think here’s a history of the last 10 years of cinema, they will have expectations that certain things will be in there, and many things they expect will be in there. But hopefully there are things you don’t expect and perhaps the process, the meander through these years isn’t as you expected. My job is to stay ahead of the audience and fulfill them in some way.
I think you identify some connective tissue that may surprise people.
We start this film with “Joker” and then we jump to “Frozen.” Maybe some other people connected those films in their brains, but maybe they didn’t. My job is to see a little spark fly between these two films which in many ways are seen as very different, they have different demographics certainly. It’s fun to actually see a connection between films like it.
You split the film into two sections, “Extending the Language of Film” and “What Have We Been Digging For?” Talk about the thinking behind that decision.
I knew from my previous work that I wanted to focus on innovation, the filmmakers who are doing something new in cinema. I’m not saying these are the best films of the last 10 years, but they’re ones that have innovated. When you’ve innovating, you can either push things a bit or a lot. The first half is about films that pushed things a little, that took the horror genre or the comedy genre and tried to push into new territories of content or form. The second part is about something more explosive. In the film you see my camera literally fell into a Loch and I had to pull it out, and I thought what if you have a bath and you wash your eyes and see properly anew? The films of the second half did just that.
Were there any films that leapt immediately to mind before you started?
“Under the Skin” was one, I just thought it was so remarkable, it got under my skin. Apichatpong [Weerasethakul]’s “Cemetery of Splendour” was another one. It’s what David Lynch talks about in his book about fishing, the film is literally about diving down. It shows very different people, an older woman who’s a nurse and a soldier, diving down. They dream together and they meet underneath. In a sense cinema is about that, so those two were pretty much top of my list.
How do you broach the significant technological changes in cinema over the last decade?
A lot of people say that technology has changed cinema more drastically than ever before and I’m always slightly suspicious of that. People in the moment think it’s the most tumultuous time and often it isn’t. You can look at GoPro’s and drone shots and VR and see there’s so much happening and it’s being used in odd, imaginative ways. But I wanted to be a bit cautious and not say we are in a new time because I’m not sure that we are. The wheel has spun again a little, so it is important to acknowledge that when that wheels spins there are new story and emotional possibilities.
Did you always want to ruminate on how the pandemic has changed our viewing habits?
Yes, I’ve read and heard that people will get out of the habit of going to the cinema. But I don’t think it was a habit, it was a ritual. It has a deeper connotation to it, you do it because it has meaning or excitement or euphoria. The reason we go to the pictures is deep, we want to escape ourselves, we want to encounter the sublime, we want an affordable entertainment art form which will regularly make us feel as if we are elsewhere, either physically or mentally.
What do you say to people who view the changes brought about both by COVID-19 and the rise of streamers as an existential threat to movie-going?
I do feel strongly that the big streamers need to understand and appreciate the theatrical experience. I think Netflix has to increase its cinephile credentials a bit and it will certainly do them no harm to leave theatrical windows alone. People are going to wait two weeks If they’re home people, but the rest of us are going to seek things out on-screen. I regularly spend money on a film that’s also streamable on my TV because I will only fully see it on the big screen. I don’t think the streamers are bad people, but they need to improve. In general though I would argue the contrary. People sat on their sofas for a year and a half and ate pizza and watched Netflix and Amazon Prime, but that wasn’t fully satisfying for us as human beings. We want something wilder, bigger, more transgressive sometimes. We want to feel safe and not safe, feel all those things that cinema affords. I don’t think I’m optimistic, I think I’m realistic about that.