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Mark Cousins, the Irish film critic who wrote the book and directed the film that tells the history of cinema, reveals how the 900 minute movie came about and how it was made.

In 2001 I wrote an article in the London newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, suggesting that someone should write a history of the movies like EH Gombrich’s The Story of Art – a jargon free book aimed at a general audience and young people, focussing on innovation. Then I drove from Scotland to India in my campervan. En route, 9/11 happened, I spent time in Iran and Kurdistan, and my life shifted eastwards. 

When I got back – skinny, blonde, forever changed – a letter was waiting for me. It asked me to write the book I proposed. And so I did. It took 11 months. I sat in my room and typed and grew sideburns. The book, The Story of Film, was published (that surprised me in itself) and then translated. I saw it in book stores in Beijing and Mexico City, LA and Tokyo and took sneaky pictures of me beside it. The book was off on a gallivant, into the world. 

"suggested that I make a documentary film based on the book"

Then in 2005 my producer, John Archer, suggested that I make a documentary film based on the book. I thought he was nuts. The film would need to be big – my first guess was three hours or more. Little did I know. Europe’s MEDIA programme gave us some development money, as did Scottish Screen. We eked the money out, did a bit of shooting in Cairo, filming ourselves, setting an unplugged style of working. 

Then the UK Film Council gave us a wodge of money, and we filmed more, in the same way, in Japan, India, China and Hong Kong. Then the UK TV channel More 4 gave us a bigger chunk and suddenly the film that might happen was happening. We were in production. 

We were making a history of cinema. The film started to emerge and I could see what kind of thing it was: passionate and fuelled by wanderlust. I was using no still images or graphics and not many interviews. I was filming at dawn and dusk and using a lot of voice over, aiming to be a bit like a magic lantern show. And we were drawn to places where great films were made: Kolkata in India for Satyajit Ray; Toho studios in Tokyo, Kurosawa’s old haunt; the Beijing Film Academy because of the great movies of the 80s; the old LA movie studios; the canal in Paris where lots of the poetic realist films of the 1930s were shot. 

"the scale of the job"

It soon became clear that the film needed to be rather longer than three hours. Six hours seemed more likely then, as time went on, eight, then twelve, then fifteen hours. And the pace picked up. We started rushing between cities and landscapes. As the scale of the job emerged, life seemed to go from 25 frames per second to 50 and then 100. 

The Story of Film contains about 1000 film clips. To choose each we had to watch the film in question, then film a place or person to explain why that scene matters, then I wrote the script to put the clip into context, then we edited it, and re-edited, got its screen ratio right, subtitled and graded it, recorded the commentary and mixed the sound. At a guess, this is twenty hours per clip, which makes 20,000 hours on the extracts from other films alone. Which is 375 weeks, or more than seven years’ work.

"My hair was going grey"

And as The Story of Film grew, I started to notice other things. My hair was going grey. We were all dreaming of sequences, edits, locations. Because I had travelled the world rather than sat in a room, making the film had, at first, felt much bigger than writing the book. For example, we filmed with a mini crane at the Hollywood sign at dusk and on the Great Wall of China. And instead of writing about Stanley Donen’s direction of Singin’ in the Rain, or Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 double whammy of The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, I went and met Donen and Bertolucci. All these things are far bigger than writing.

And yet, in a way, filming The Story of Film over six years and 5 continents has felt smaller than writing the book. Or maybe I mean more intimate. Talking to Baz Luhrmann about the fish tank scene in Romeo + Juliet, then editing the sound of what he says over the fish tank sequence itself is more intimate, closer to the film, than merely writing about that scene. I feel that I’ve been touching the films themselves. And what else emerged as we filmed and edited? I began to notice that the flickering medium of film is great at exuberance and sadness (or is that because I have felt exuberant and sad?) And I noticed that wherever I went in the world – LA, Telluride, Paris, Moscow, Dakar, Edinburgh, Senegal, Tehran, London, Tokyo – film was already there, like a welcoming committee, working its magic.

"an odyssey"

The Story of Film has been an odyssey for me. I was in my 30s when I started it, and am 46 now. It took me to Burkina Faso, and Yasujiro Ozu’s grave, and the streets of Kolkata at dawn. I will remember, for the rest of my life, Stanley Donen’s sharp tongue, and the beauty of Sharmila Tagore, and Jane Campion talking about the panic attack chalk scene in An Angel at my Table, and, in Cairo, the great director Youssef Chahine predicting the downfall of Hosni Mubarak five years before it happened. 

But if one thing sums up this odyssey, it’s this: We went to Sergei Eisenstein’s apartment in Moscow and talked to the brilliant keeper of his flame, Naum Kleiman. Over tea and cake, surrounded by notes from James Joyce and Meyerhold & Einstein, I asked Kleiman about something I’d never quite understood, an idea of Eisenstein’s called “non-indifferent nature”. 

Kleiman described to me a poem by Pushkin. He pictures a baby being buried and writes that nature is indifferent to the burial. Eisenstein picked up on this poem and argued against the legendary Pushkin, saying that nature isn’t indifferent. What Eisenstein seems to have meant is that when a filmmaker photographs nature, she or he is not indifferent. Their camera captures the passion they feel for what lies before it. The shot is a mirror of themselves. It shows their curiosity, their care. It is an intercession. 

It is our hope that The Story of Film is fuelled by such things. That you can see our finger prints on it. That it’s up to its subject. That it is non-indifferent.

Published October 25, 2012

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The Story of Film: An Odyssey – Australian screenings:
Newtown Dendy Sydney: 2 November – 5 December 2012
National Film & Sound Archive Canberra: 26-28 October & mid November, 2012
ACMI Melbourne: 27 September – 11 November, 2012

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