Mark Cousins turned millions onto the world’s greatest cinema. As his latest movies premier in Glasgow, he speaks to Neil Mackay about Hollywood scandals, Scottish independence, sexual identity and the search for equilibrium
MARK Cousins walked halfway across Glasgow in the cold, hard rain to make this interview. He walks a lot. Across entire cities. Across Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran, when he’s touring his movies. Across LA.
It kills the anxiety that follows him wherever he goes. The slowness of walking brings him balance.
In fact, if Cousins, one of Scotland’s best-known filmmakers, made a movie of his life, balance might be the great theme.
Perhaps it all started with his childhood in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, where he had the balance of a Catholic mum and a Protestant dad.
His latest movie, which will premier at the Glasgow Film Festival, puts balance back into the Alfred Hitchcock story.
The great auteur currently sits in the public imagination as some proto-Weinstein who terrorised women on set. Cousins claims that’s only half the story. Even the T-shirt he wears is about balance. It reads: “Masculin Féminin” – the title of one of his beloved French new wave movies. Although his T-shirt isn’t making some deliberate point about gender – he’s been with partner Gill, a psychotherapist in Edinburgh, for 39 years – his sexual identity, Cousins says, “is probably bi”.
His politics are finely balanced too. Right now, he backs Scottish independence, but a progressive Labour government in Westminster might change that. Even his notion of nationality is highly poised.
His Northern Ireland identity is the “key signature” in his life, he says, but he’s lived in Scotland since he was 17. Now 57, ask him what he “is” and he’ll say “Scottish-Irish”.
In terms of class, he walks the fine but confusing line of a rough-and-tumble working-class childhood, but a life spent among the rich, famous and beautiful.
Before she died, he spent time with the Hollywood star Janet Leigh; he’s gone boozing with the screen goddess Jane Russell; hung out with Sean Connery; and has Simon Callow and Tilda Swinton as confidantes.
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One of Cousins’s most identifiable traits is his voice. It’s the very definition of equilibrium: a mellifluous, sing-song Antrim lilt that guided a generation of cinephiles through his acclaimed documentaries The Story of Film: An Odyssey, its follow up The Story of Film: A New Generation, Scene by Scene where he interviewed greats like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Brian De Palma and, of course, Moviedrome, the cult series which ran on television for years. He is the directors’ director. People in far-flung countries often recognise him by his voice alone.
When it comes to balance, the only thing that has knocked him off today is the rain soaking his socks on that walk across Glasgow. In the back room of The Glad Cafe on the city’s southside, Cousins pulls off his boots to dry his feet.
He takes a sip of white wine, and wonders at the people he saw on his walk: headphones in, oblivious to the world and those around them. Their lives out of balance. “You need to feel the whole sensory experience – hear the cars, the seagulls, the footsteps,” he says.
Hitchcock in focus
HIS new movie, My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, however, might unbalance some viewers. The film – which explores the work of the director who brought us Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds, Vertigo and Marnie – is weirdly narrated by Hitchcock.
It opens with a mischievous note reading that the film is “written and voiced by Alfred Hitchcock”. At the beginning, viewers hear Hitchcock say: “I’ve been dead for decades but you guys with your mobile phones and modern 21st century – you’ve all said things about me, now it’s my turn.”
It’s a suitably discombobulating beginning for a movie about cinema’s master trickster. Clearly, Cousins didn’t raise Hitchcock from the dead, so what game is he playing? Everything becomes clear at the end, when the audience learns that Alistair McGowan, the famous impressionist, was voicing Hitchcock all along. Cousins says McGowan’s performance was astonishing. “To see raw talent like that was a joy.”
One of the themes Cousins explores is loneliness. That might seem counter-intuitive given audiences associate Hitchcock with fear and suspense. But Hitch’s movies are full of solitude, he explains. “The creative experience is lonely,” Cousins adds.
This film was a long time in the making. Cousins spoke to a host of stars who knew Hitchcock well. Before their deaths he quizzed Janet Leigh from Psycho, and Sean Connery who was in Marnie.
Many say Hitchcock was often alone on set. “That’s related to questions about shyness and lack of confidence in his physical self,” says Cousins. Hitchcock was very conscious of his weight. “Psycho is full of lonely people,” he adds.
Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane arrives at a motel, alone and scared after committing a crime, for her encounter with the ultimate loner, the isolated killer Norman Bates who keeps his dead mother around for company.
Cousins says there is obviously some projection of himself into the film. “This Hitchcock film, like many films, is, of course, in some way about me as well.” At school, Cousins must have been lonely. He was badly bullied, even spat on. An arty kid, a gentle boy, in a school which didn’t get him.
Given his empathetic nature, his respect for women, his liberalism, it may seem strange to some that Cousins picked Hitchcock as his study. Hitchcock’s reputation has been shredded by stories of how disgracefully he treated Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds and Marnie. Hitchcock grabbed Hedren violently and tried to kiss her, isolated her, controlled her, threatened her career, demanded sex, and humiliated her.
“He behaved really badly with Tippi,” says Cousins, “and I believe every word she said. It was extremely inappropriate. He did a terrible thing to her. However, Janet Leigh loved him, Carole Lombard loved him, Ingrid Bergman loved him. The majority of women in his life really liked him.” Cousins speculates Hitchcock had a ‘pygmalion complex’ about Hedren. He had made her a star and thought he owned her.
Cousins says: “We need to be evidence-based. We have to listen to the women who worked with him and see what they said and believe them. That’s what I’ve done. I quizzed people. I quizzed Janet Leigh a lot on this. So we just need to be truthful about Hitchcock and what he was like – not in any way downplay the terrible things he did to Tippi, but not to poison his personality either.” Cousins feels a one-dimensional image of Hitchcock dominates in “the public imagination that’s become impervious to truth”.
HE’S certainly not soft on misogyny though. MeToo was a “revolution that we needed”, he says, adding: “Things had to change, especially around gender and sexuality, and the film industry particularly needed radical change … On gender and women’s rights in the film industry, there’s still a lot more to go. It’s not equal. We need to keep pushing. But there’s a parallel danger of puritanism … There’s a danger when revolution calcifies”. There’s a risk, then, of movements “becoming oppressive and fundamentalist”.
Cousins also knew director Bernardo Bertolucci. His and Marlon Brando’s reputations were badly tarnished by what happened on the set of Last Tango In Paris. Maria Schneider, 19, was humiliated and reduced to tears during the notorious rape scene. “I felt a little raped both by Marlon and Bertolucci,” she later said.
“Bertolucci behaved appalling on set,” Cousins says. “I challenged him multiple times. There’s no excusing that. But that doesn’t mean he behaved the same in other circumstances, nor does it mean he’s all bad.” He believes, however, that the film is today “unshowable without contextualising material”, adding: “Nobody could show it without saying something about the abusive or inappropriate behaviour that happened during its making.”
War and faith
WE’RE all morally grey, Cousins believes. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he says. Christianity loomed large in his childhood, and he’s envious of anyone raised atheist.
He endured an Irish Catholic education, despite his parents marrying “across the divide” in Northern Ireland’s highly sectarian society. His Troubles childhood left him with a “well of sadness”. Most of his generation, Cousins says, “saw some tragedy and perhaps experienced it in a personal way”.
Movies were an escape from the reality of civil war – especially horror movies, often banned black-market video nasties. Cousins recalls watching The Exorcist, and his auntie blessing the video recorder with holy water.
“It was like Derry Girls,” he smiles. His family left Belfast during the conflict and moved “to a second ghetto” in Antrim, a rough violent town in the 1980s. War, he says, is “immersive”, just like cinema. “It’s a tide that comes up the beach and suddenly you’re drowning.” Horror movies became a cathartic release. “It was safe fear as opposed to real fear”.
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Cousins would later risk his life in Sarajevo during its brutal siege at the height of the Bosnian War, “putting on films underground on cheap video” for the city’s residents. “Wow, to see the role cinema played in people’s lives in Sarajevo – they needed it, they were hungry for it.” Cinema helped keep those Sarajevo audiences sane, just as movies helped keep him together during the Troubles.
Anxiety still marks his life. Is it just Northern Ireland’s past that makes him so anxious or something else? “It’s everything in life. Life is scary. You find ways of dealing with it. For me, it’s walking a lot.” His mind calms when he pounds the streets as his imagination can run wild. It’s good for the soul.
VIOLENCE followed him into school, however, at the hands of bullies. For a while, it gave him a visceral hatred of men. “I put all men in the same category as aggressors,” he says. “That was a big mistake. When the whole bullying thing happened, I just said, ‘OK, I’m done with men, I don’t want anything to do with them anymore. They’re horrible’. But of course any stereotype is incorrect. Just because these men were horrible doesn’t mean all men are. I taught myself that lesson.”
Most of his friends are women. He grins when talking about the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale and her beautiful apartment on a glamorous Parisian boulevard, or working with Jane Fonda.
Yet his attraction goes both ways. When it comes to his sexual identity, he says: “Bi probably is the closest. These words aren’t brilliant anymore. Certainly I’m attracted to men as well as women … I’ve never thought of myself as heterosexual, and I’ve never thought of myself as gay. Both seemed like liking mountains but not lakes.”
He and his partner Gill didn’t have children. “I just thought I’d be a rubbish dad. I felt pretty unformed. There might be some future moment where I become an adult but that hasn’t happened yet.”
In truth, he talks of films as if they’re his children.
He’s quietly furious at “culture war” claims that movies have been ruined by diversity, that films like Moonlight, which won the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, are too “woke”. “Does it even need rebutting?” Cousins asks. “It’s so evidently untrue. If somebody looks at Moonlight and only sees a film about sexuality or race then they’re only looking at the third level of the film. It’s a great work of cinematic poetry, a masterpiece.”
Cousins’s love affair with film is painted on his body. His arms are inked with tattoos. He only started getting them in his 30s, when he realised, he confesses, that he wasn’t young anymore. One tattoo memorialises Sarajevo, another is a huge eucalyptus bloom. “When I first went to Los Angeles, I smelled this gorgeous smell, and thought what’s that? People said eucalyptus.”
Another tattoo reads ‘the oar and the winnowing fan’. It’s a story from Homer: Odysseus is told to walk inland with an oar until he finds someone who has never seen a boat or the sea and mistakes the oar for a fan that winnows wheat.
“It’s about in-betweenness,” he says. “That’s really important to me in terms of Catholic and Protestant, sexual identity. I’ve always loved the kind of cinema where you forget if you’re a man or a woman, you’re not gay or straight, you’re not anything – you’re just in this fantastic liminal state.”
THERE’S something liminal about the relationship between his career and family. His father, like many working-class Northern Irish men, Cousins notes, died young at 56 – something which taught him to prize his health. His mother is still alive. He and his family found themselves in “different worlds” after his international success.
“One of my regrets is that my dad was a big fan of Jane Russell. She was so beautiful and sexy. I got to know her and we’d go to the pub. My dad was gone by then and I just wish I could have introduced them.” His career meant he “moved class, and when you’re in a world that isn’t part of your parents’ world, you can’t expect them to totally get it, or want to talk about it or be affirmed by that”.
His fascination with in-between states has shaped his far-travelled adventures. Cousins is obsessed with that part of the world where East meets West – Iran in particular. His next major work, charting the history of documentaries, will bring the work of Arab moviemakers to Western audiences. He wants it to honour the “majesty of Arab culture”, and counter the “humiliation” he feels has been heaped on the Middle East.
Politically, he’s an in-betweener. “I’m a floating voter. I sometimes vote Labour, SNP or Green. But I don’t think the centre is holding. We’ve lived through such a long time of ethical bankruptcy at Westminster. Even those of us who aren’t instinctively nationalist are running out of patience.”
GIVEN his political “liminality”, he’s not deeply partisan on Scotland’s constitutional question. Today, he would vote Yes, but he doesn’t like the words “nationalism” – understandably for someone who grew up amid civil war – or “independence”. He sees the SNP as a progressive party, and says he’s “grateful to live in our country which is more progressive than its neighbours”. But he believes the SNP should change its name and dispense with the term “national”. The word “independence” is also misleading, he feels.
If Scotland leaves the union, we would still be dependent on our neighbours, like England and Europe in particular, he says. Cousins mourns Brexit. Leaving Europe was “about the penis”, he claims, meaning it was an assertion by some Brexiters of national machismo and their fear of feeling weak. However, if a “progressive government” was voted in at Westminster, he would likely vote No. “It’s not an ‘in principle question’ for me, it’s about equality, social justice, good robust health institutions, social care.”
He warns against indulging in stereotyping over England. “My mother-in-law comes from working-class Lancashire and has almost nothing in common with those Lincolnshire Brexit ultras. England isn’t a monolith.”
Although he has felt sneered at by the “Anglo elite” because of his Northern Irish roots, he cautions Scots against “any kind of superiority complex towards England”. He’s also conscious how much his own art form – the moving image – played a role in Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump: all those targeted yet misleading online adverts and conspiracy theories which helped foment a culture war and a flight to the political extremes. “Images have always lied,” Cousins says. “Cinema is ethically neutral.”
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He follows the lead of director Jane Campion who, he says, “creates the kindest, most friendly environment on set”. He hopes those he works with see him as an empathetic boss. “If there’s an actor and she’s wearing high heels and her feet might get sore, then I’m aware of that stuff.” A director can be steely when it comes to seeing their vision through to the end but still “really soft and gentle”.
In a final act of balance, Cousins’s other new movie is The March On Rome – an exploration of Mussolini’s coup d’etat, also premiering in Glasgow. With Giorgia Meloni now sitting as a far-right prime minister in Rome, the film attempts to assert some honest equilibrium into Italian politics. For his troubles, though, Cousins, inevitably, became the target of hate from Italian fascists. It hasn’t fazed him. “Cinema,” he says, “can be on the side of the devils as well as the angels. It’s my job to be with the angels.”
My Name is Alfred Hitchcock: UK premiere, GFT, March 2; The March On Rome: Scottish premiere, GFT, March 10