Simon Basketter: I became interested in Orson Welles from the BBC Arena interviews when I was young. You talk about watching his film Touch of Evil when you were young. What was your journey like?
Mark Cousins: Yes, I saw those long Arena interviews with Welles when I was young, too. He was like someone from another era, seemed to have lived everywhere in the world, and talked about the biggest things in life—power and corruption, with a sense of the absurd.
His films have stayed with me since, and are a touchstone. I didn’t, however, think I’d ever make a film about Welles—too daunting and intimidating.
SB: In your film you separate out aspects of Welles as pawn, knight, king and jester. What lay behind those choices?
MC I had long wanted to structure a film in such an archetypal or chess piece way, but most of my subjects weren’t big enough for such a robust shape. Welles is a colossus, so the approach suited him.
SB: Was the use of Welles’ sketches, drawings and paintings as a route to looking at how he viewed things accidental?
MC No. It was only when I saw the artworks that I thought there was something new to say about Welles. They sparked the idea for the film, and led to its themes.
SB: What effect did immersing yourself in someone else’s work have on you?
MC Welles became more of a human being. He’s been a legend, a myth almost, but spending time with his sketches, doodles, drawings and letters helped me see the off-duty, playful man. Also, hearing stories from his daughter Beatrice helped humanise him.
SB: Welles’ politics are often portrayed as incidental, but you put them at the forefront. Why are they so important to his work?
MC: Welles once said in an interview in Paris that his politics are more important than his art. He certainly spent as much time—on radio, in articles, in ghosting speeches and in lectures—talking about politics as he did about cinema.
I put his activism, his interest in social justice and his anti-racism first because they are Welles at his most admirable. They are the core of his convictions. He was radical. His BBC talk on the police, for example, where he advocates curbs on them and oversight of their crimes, was daring for such an elite man on establishment television.
His hunting down of “Officer X”, a cop who blinded a young African American soldier, was passionate and brave.
SB: What would Welles’ “muscular liberalism” make of today’s muscular illiberalism?
MC: He’d be boiling with rage. Welles’ imagination was formed by the 1920s and 1930s—the era of European fascism. That same imagination would easily understand Modi in India, Orban in Hungary, as well as Trump and Boris Johnson.
SB: How would you like your film to change our way of seeing Welles?
MC: I’d like people to feel that they have snuck into the cathedral of his imagination through the back door.