I spoke to the film’s director Mark Cousins about The Eyes of Orson Welles at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018:
Christian Abbott: Your career deals with topics of international and independent cinema, what inspired you to talk about one of Hollywood’s biggest icons?
Mark Cousins: Yeah usually I don’t do this sort of thing; I deal with Iranian cinema and African cinema because I thought so many people do Hollywood.
Orson Welles has been done so much, there have been so many books and films – and then I saw the drawings. Immediately I felt as though I was seeing a different side of him, getting inside his imagination.
It took me a while to realise what I was actually seeing was his visual thinking, but I knew this was something new. It felt like getting to read someone’s private letters, that sort of intimacy. As soon as you look at the work there were constant themes of alcoholism and despair. There was a fascination with cities in the drawings which wasn’t in the films so much. It was like being in touch with the unconscious mind so to speak.
Christian: Did you want to make a film about Welles before or after you discovered these paintings?
Mark: I was not searching to do a film on Orson, I didn’t even have time to do one, I had to squeeze space. Sometimes something just comes at you quite hard – like the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, said: “Inspiration is like a ball kicked in from nowhere.” This film was a ball kicked in from nowhere. I just knew I had to do it.
Christian: You framed the film like a letter to Welles himself, what was your thinking behind that?
Mark: I’m pretty resistant to the official version of history, one usually told by white guys like you and me. There is a claimed objectivity about that – he did this, she did that. I prefer stories that are told more subjectively than that because there’s room for doubt, comedy, irony, etc. So I knew that I didn’t want a voice of god version of Welles’ art.
My private thought about the film was I’m making a letter to a dead dad. Orson Welles is of course the father to Beatrice Welles who is in the film but in a more general sense, those of us who love cinema, he is a kind of father figure, so epic and flawed. When my own Father died, I gave the first words at the eulogy and they were “dear Dad” and the first words in the film are “dear Orson Welles”. I thought that would help me get an angle and an intimacy but I thought it could also make it universal – if there are emotions in this it makes it even broader than movie lovers, maybe others will find something in this.
Christian: What was the idea behind the moment Welles replies to the letter?
Mark: I wanted to talk about the joker mentality, the satirical aspect to Orson Welles. I then realised I didn’t want my own voice in it the whole time and thought he could be a voice also.
I knew it shouldn’t be him talking about his politics, I thought, why doesn’t he say you’ve missed one of the best bits – the irony, the comedy, the fun, why doesn’t he criticise me? Then I thought how do you write Welles, he talks in a sort of complicated way so I tried to put that in there. He quotes Shakespeare and says things like “to which my line ran”. I would never talk like that so it was quite fun to do.
Christian: Orson Welles in many ways has inspired all of modern cinema, how do you think he has inspired your work?
Mark: His shooting style is the opposite of mine, his camera is sweeping and epic, mine is held back and still so in a superficial way we are different. All this other romanticism and idealism are in my work. There is a bigger than life-ness in his work. I often irritate people by bouncing around and being energetic which is very Orson Welles. That euphoria of his work – I see it in mine too.