The acclaimed filmmaker and critic talks to editor Catherine Bray about his film A Story Of Children And Film.

A Story Of Children And Film by Mark Cousins

A Story Of Children And Film by Mark Cousins

Irish filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins recently premiered his new film A Story Of Children And Film in the Cannes Classics strand at the 66th Cannes Film Festival. A documentary very much in the vein of Mark’s 15 hour epic series The Story Of Film, this feature is a relatively compact 101 minutes which should be absolutely up the street of everyone who enjoyed The Story Of Film. Mark used footage he’d shot of his nephew and niece at play to explore the different aspects of childhood in film around the world and throughout the history of film.  Here, he shares with editor Catherine Bray the story of how the project came about, and reflects on his own formative film experience.

Catherine Bray: This film, which I very much enjoyed, has been haunting my experience of watching every other film at Cannes that’s got children in it.

Mark Cousins: It’s always the way, isn’t it? You pick one thing – I don’t know, say if you’re looking at dogs, suddenly you see dogs all over the place, you know? (laughs) I saw Clio Barnard’s film The Selfish Giant with that stroppy wee kid – isn’t he brilliant? What I love about that is the creativity of this child who is rubbish at school. I wanted to give him a good “shut up!” when he was being horrible to his teacher, and yet he’s inventive and creative in his own way.

CB: Absolutely. For your film, you shot the footage with your niece and nephew, which I understand was the jumping off point, but at what stage did it become a big project screening at Cannes?

MC: Well, Cannes was a bloody shocker, I tell you! (laughs) I filmed the footage in November with my niece and nephew, then didn’t think any more about it. I film every day; I film maybe 20 shots a day, so I film the kids all the time. But then I looked at it around Christmas time, and I thought ‘ooh! They’re going through a whole range of emotions’, you know, from shy to nervous to informative to angry to violent. And I thought I could use that look at shyness and stroppiness and showing off and the rest. As soon as I looked at it again, I thought, ‘ooh, there’s a film in this’. There’s always the problem in filmmaking about how to make sure that it’s not banal, how to give it some poetics and also to contain it so it isn’t too big, you know, and I thought this would be a good way to do that. So I wrote up a treatment of about 20 pages. But I don’t like going to the funders until the film is a third made, or something like that. I’m not one of those people who sends in a proposal, waits for it to be commissioned, and then starts. So I started cutting. We didn’t even start this film until February, and it’s only May now, so it’s been quite quick.

CB: That’s incredibly fast.

MC: So then I sent the script to the BFI, to Lizzie Francke, and she really liked it, and then I sent it to Tabitha Jackson at Channel 4 who I’d worked with on The Story of Film – and Tabitha’s amazing, doing The Story Of Film changed my life – and she liked it too. And so, by that stage, we were cutting and so it was just a matter of finishing… I also showed Danny Leigh [Film 2013] this film at rough-cut stage, and he was so supportive; he was the first person in the world who saw this film, and he sent me the most encouraging message about it, I’ll never forget it, he just said: “I wanted it to go on and on”. When you’re making something, you don’t know if it’s any good or not, so to have Danny’s support at that really early stage was fantastic.

CB: It must massively help executives to be able to really see exactly what it’s going to be like.

MC: Yes, exactly. So many times, people are sitting describing a potential film they might want to make. And because I work with such low budgets and with tiny little cameras, it’s easier just to show a chunk of it. Tabitha asked to see 15 minutes of it and we sent the full film! There’s a famous line, I think from George Orwell, that my producer told me, which goes something like “sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to write a short one”. And it often takes hardly any longer to make the full film, in the way that I work, than to make an extract, so we sent Tabitha the full thing, and she liked it. So, it was all very fast. I like to work fast. And there was no to-ing and fro-ing particularly, you know – there was no “oh, we have to completely change this”. We tweaked a few things at the beginning, and Tabitha sent notes, and Lizzie Francke from the BFI gave us some notes, but there were very few changes from the first cut, it changed less than The Story Of Film, which took about six years in total from the very beginning to finishing. And it was great that it changed. When we first went to Tabitha with Story Of Film, I think it was gonna be six hours, maybe even three 90 minute films. And it just got longer and longer, and she just kept saying “go with your instincts; go with it”, and that was great, you know. That kind of flexibility has just really brought out the best in me, I think.

CB: Can you remember any specific examples of what did end up changing in A Story Of Children And Film?

MC: Well, I had a clip for The Wizard of Oz in, and I took it out because it was clear to me that I was looking at pre-pubescent children, and Judy Garland was slightly too old. I took out a clip of Bruce Lee when he was a boy. There was a little magic moment of Bruce Lee when he was a boy, fighting in the streets in Hong Kong, and I was going to use it in the section looking at violent children, but it was too short, really. So we removed a few things, but not very much. I knew that there were certain things I didn’t want to go into, you know, the sexual life of young people, and I also didn’t wanna look at animated films. I wanted to look at films where there’s a real child, and that real child has its own agency. I’ve chosen particular films where the child’s got quite a lot of freedom, and is behaving in quite a fresh way, not too controlled.

CB: It feels very of the moment that we have Spielberg as the Jury president here in Cannes and you’ve made a film which situates E.T as such an important film in films about children.

MC: I know! And Lynne Ramsey’s on the Jury, and there’s a bit of her film Gasman in my film as well.

CB: Would it be ok to ask you a bit about your own background and where your love of cinema came from, and maybe what films you were watching as a child?

MC: Well, I fell in love with movies when I was a kid – around 8, you know. I came from a working class background; my mom’s favourite films were Doris Day films, my dad’s were John Wayne’s. So it’s a reasonably conventional background, where there were no film books, but I just felt drawn to cinema, like a tractor beam, a kind of magnetic attraction. I was really into art and visual stuff – I love drawing and painting, but I also loved science: physics, chemistry, and cinema had a bit of technology in it, and that seemed to appeal to me massively. So by the time I went to university, which was when I was 18, I had seen so many movies, things like the BBC’s Hitchcock season, Orson Welles seasons, and all the stuff that TV used to do in those days. So with all that stuff, I went to university, studied Film History and Art History, but I noticed that some of my fellow students, they were starting from scratch – they’d seen maybe two Hitchcock films, and I’d seen 30. I was passionate about it and when you’re passionate about something, you’ve got a big appetite for it. So I went on to be director of the Edinburgh Film Festival in my 20s, and so then you see loads of films and you meet loads of filmmakers. I remember meeting Bertolucci and the Coen Brothers and becoming friends with Sean Connery, all in my 20s. So my contacts book went from zero to a big fat thing, you know?

CB: But it all started with putting hundreds of hours in watching the films?

MC: Yes, hard work. Absolutely hard work.

CB: That’s often strangely low down the list of a lot of people’s advice for people who want to get into film careers – watch films.

MC: I know, I know! I met a major film producer here at Cannes, who shall remain nameless, and he’s been coming to this festival for 25 years. He’s never seen a film here; he didn’t even know how to get tickets. I said to him that I imagined that he’s so famous that when he arrives in his hotel, there would be a golden envelope with tickets to everything in it; he said “I’ve no idea how to get tickets here; I’ve never done it. I’ve never seen a film in Cannes.” I do not want to turn into that. Too busy to see films, too many meetings… do the meetings elsewhere!

Mark Cousins’ A Story Of Children And Film screened in Cannes Classics