The Edinburgh Dialogues #1: Mark Cousins

I’ve been speaking to former directors of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, an event I’ve been attending since the early 80s. In the wake of this year’s event, which was, to focus on the negative aspects, underfunded, sparsely attended, and roundly (though not always fairly) criticised in the press, I wanted to provide space for a debate about the fest’s future, and reminisce about its past with people who know it from the inside and love it. Those who don’t know Edinburgh and have no particular stake in the festival will hopefully still be entertained by the stories of the unusual history of the world’s longest continuously running film festival.

I’ve been using e-mail, face-to-face meetings and Facebook, and will use whatever other means present themselves, not necessarily stopping short of the ouija board and Vatican time machine, to interrogate the men and women with insider knowledge and strange passions. Mark Cousins, film festival director, Moviedrome presenter, documentarist and interstellar bon viveur was first to get back to me —

DC: 1) What is your best memory (or memories) of running the EIFF? Films, people, events…

MC: I’ll never forget David Cronenberg suggesting, minutes before we went on stage to an audience of 800 people, that we pretend that the clips of his film CRASH that we were about to screen were directed by some unknown filmmaker.  He and I had to look at them and work out the personality of that filmmaker.  It was an improved Scene by Scene, and the audience played along, and it was great.

I recall, too, Shohei Imamura shedding a tear on the stage of the Cameo cinema when he saw the audiences’ reaction to his masterpiece tale of the Southern Islands.

And I will not forget dragging up as Greta Garbo to be the date of the great Hungarian director Andre de Toth for the screening of PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, only to discover that he had dated the real Garbo.

DC: 2) What was the worst part of the job? Assuming there was one.

MC: The worst bit was the routine, how locked my diary was – I had to be somewhere specific or do something specific each month.  I would have preferred the schedule to have been more creative than that.  It wasn’t the amount of work that was the problem, but its pattern.

DC: 3) Any regrets for things that couldn’t happen? (I recall the plan to turn Edinburgh Castle into Oz…)

MC: It would have been great to have realised the Emerald Castle idea, yes.  But we got SO much done, that I don’t really regret this one.

DC: 4) You threw the best parties of any festival I can recall. What’s the secret, asides from hefty sponsorship?

MC: Oscar Van heek and his team organised the parties.  For my part I made it clear that the idea of play should be central to the EIFF experience – this is the sort of thing that Pat Kane writes about.  The parties tried to create a mood, a sense of fun and, crucially, welcome which helped made the festival feel like an occasion.  We didn’t have big sponsorship for them.

DC: Recently, apart from producing a TV series based on his epic book The Story of Film, Mark has been involved with cinematic projects alongside Scottish movie phenomenon Tilda Swinton, notably The Cinema of Dreams, which can be characterized as nothing less than an attempt to set up a cinephile heaven on earth, for a limited run, in the town of Nairn in the Scottish highlands, and the 8 1/2 Foundation, aimed at bringing world cinema to schoolchildren. Another project was a flashmob in festival square, inducing hundreds of strangers to come together and do Laurel and Hardy’s dance from WAY OUT WEST.

DC: 5) Yourself and Tilda were invited to offer suggestions as to how to enliven the festival this year. Some of them came in for a lot of stick in the media, and only a couple seem to have been taken up. Any thoughts on this?

MC: Lynda Myles also suggested ideas.  Our suggestions were radical and tried to rethink what a festival is, especially in terms of form – there’s never much discussion of the form of film festivals.  It’s usually their content that is the issue.  We were proud of our ideas – we called them All That Heaven Allows – and most people in the film world who saw the document endorsed it very strongly.  I wasn’t at loads of the EIFF this year, as I am rushing to complete my film, but when I was there I saw none of our ideas on form realised.

Shane Meadows and team receive the Michael Powell Award from festival patron Sir Sean Connery.

DC: 6) One idea which was chosen was maybe my least favourite of your ideas: abolishing the Michael Powell Award (for best new British film). I can see that it was expensive to run, but would have preferred reducing the costs via a local jury rather than dropping it altogether, since awards help attract films, and what this year really needed was more strong films. Would you care to disagree?

MC: Our suggestion to cancel the Michael Powell Award was nothing to do with budget!  We neither saw the budget of the festival, nor asked to.  All our suggestions tried to be about renewal and innovation.  The Michael Powell Award was great – we said this clearly – but the EIFF needed and needs to keep ahead and replace previous approaches – even good ones – with exciting new ones.

DC: (An EIFF press release has just announced that the Michael Powell Award will return next year, with the surprising suggestion that the award was only put on hold for a year because it was the 65th anniversary of the fest. This seems like an attempt at a slightly Orwellian rewrite of our collective memories of what was originally said… One of the big problems this past year has been doubt about what’s going on, as the festival alternately reveals no information about its activities, or else backtracks and pretends it hasn’t said what it already said. A period of glasnost is called for.)

7) The move to June has been much criticised this year, which seems like a red herring to me as it worked fine in the first year. Hannah has already written defending the move, but if you’d like to say anything about this (since I believe you proposed it during your tenure) I’d welcome more.

MC: Yes, I was for a move when I worked at the EIFF in the mid 90s.  As I recall, I suggested that immediately after Venice would be a good time – and that a partnership with the London Film Fest would work.  I have never been convinced by the argument that the EIFF is not strong enough to stand outside August.  It isn’t a baby lamb with quivering legs.  I agree that the debate about June this year seemed like a non-sequitur.  It got caught up in the other issue, about artistic direction.

(The EIFF press release also says that the festival’s calendar slot is being reconsidered…)

DC: 8) How do you think the festival should go on from here to win better press and bigger audiences? Should it cater to the industry or the public first? What do you see as the biggest problems?

MC: I put my thoughts on these issues into the All That Heaven Allows document that Tilda and Lynda and I sent.  Everything in the culture world should be led by passion and ideas, I think.  The EIFF should be passionate and ideasy about films and festivals.  The question of how it caters for industry, etc is a second order one.  Important but not defining.  Whoever gets the job as artistic director must describe a bold, welcoming, exciting cinephile direction for the festival, and then the team must make it happen with enthusiasm and imagination.  The biggest problem I think is that the film festival world is overcrowded and many of the fests are samey.  See my attached short article on this.

A secondary challenge is the shrinking of arts pagination in, and the partial demoralisation of, the Scottish press.  Scotland’s festivals need great coverage – writers who see them in an international context.  We have this to a certain degree but not enough.

A third problem is the fact, that some of those who make the EIFF happen, from what I hear, are uncertain about how, or whether, the festival should change, and where they stand.  I think there’s a degree of pulling in different directions.  This lack of common cause has created dubiety and some rancour.  The collective spirit has to return, because festivals are made with such spirit.

MC: Here’s the initial proposal for All That Heaven Allows —

The ancient idea of the festive is lovely.  It’s a time in the year in which you live more fully.  A festival is a world that, like Brigadoon, comes alive for a while, burls your brain, heightens your senses, allows you to commune with your fellow citizens.

Edinburgh was, in 1947, one of the first places in the world to apply these ideas to the celebration of film.  Our Edinburgh International Film Festival helped invent the form of movie festivals.  It challenged snooty opinion that melodrama director Douglas Sirk was an empty populist.  It played the bagpipes when hard-boiled American director Sam Fuller arrived at Edinburgh Airport.  It rethought women in cinema.  It had its own sense of style and glam – messy, ludic.

In the 60s and 70s, more film fests joined the fray and by the 80s and early 90s a classic film festival form was set – red carpet premieres, competitions, juries, a retrospective, awards, VIP areas, industry events, panel discussions, etc.  

But since this standardisation, so much has happened.  There are now about 2000 films festivals in the world – a five fold increase since the 80s.  About 4000 films are made each year of which, at a guess, maybe 400 are great or exciting, so that’s 2000 fests chasing 400 films.  The digitisation of film, and the internet, has speeded film culture up and allowed instant connectivity between movie lovers and the film world.  And, most of all, money has gotten in on the film festival act.  Festivals these days are assessed for their economic impact and their attraction to tourists.  Sponsors ask for and get events that flatter them. In return for funding film festivals, the film industry requires them to be a kind of funky shop window for their wares.

In the light of all these changes, the standard form of film festivals needs updating.  As an early innovator, Edinburgh should lead the way.  Last year’s opening screening of The Illusionist, in which the film was encircled by a kind of circus, was a lovely move in that direction.  David Puttnam’s keynote address at the 2009 festival, was a fabulous look into the future of film. Scotland is at the top of the UK, the brain bit.  In a playful, enlightened way, the EIFF will in 2011, its 65th year, the year when it should be getting its pension, burl our brains, hoik its kilt, and shine a Stevenson lighthouse light into the crammed, gridlocked, moribund world of film festivals.  Lynda Myles, who was EIFF director during one of its boldest times, and Tilda Swinton and I have been asked to help that rethink happen.  We are honoured by the invitation. By the end of January we will have sketched what we think of as an outline treatment for a radically new, forward thinking EIFF. We’ll have invited some exciting guest curators. We hope our sketch will be a bit like a manifesto – campaigning, big-hearted, Scottish as hell in its subversive sense of humour, devotedly cinephile, open to the world.  We hope it’ll help to create new rituals, new forms of festival – festivals have form as much as content.

So, we’re just sketching the festival’s new form, under January skies – we aren’t its artistic directors or its overall guest curators, as has been reported, nor are we employed by the festival. Once we’ve done our bit, like all wise screenwriters, we’ll quietly retire and let the great staff interpret the script as they wish and put on the show.

Last year Tilda and I launched a wee foundation for children in cinema, and the idea is now being replicated around the world.  In a modest way, this shows that passionate, innovative ideas about film that originate in Scotland, can influence film culture around the world.  The EIFF, this splendid treasure, can do just that.  We are delighted to be part of its think tank.  Douglas Sirk directed a masterpiece about being what you want to be, All that Heaven Allows.  We’re naming the 65th EIFF’s transformation after it.

Mark Cousins

DC: Alas, those at the top entrusted with realizing this vision within a tight schedule and budget, with limited cinephiliac knowledge and a less ludic spirit, and further hampered by internal divisions, were able to produce only a shadow of the grand design. I was reminded of Douglas Sirk’s remarks about his own title, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS —

“The studio loved this title, they thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way around. As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy.”

Buy Mark’s book — The Story of Film Soon to be a major TV series!

16 Responses to “The Edinburgh Dialogues #1: Mark Cousins”

  1. I think it’s valuable to rethink and discuss the form of festivals, and perhaps a shake up was/is needed. However, I can’t see how a serious shuffle like the one proposed to EIFF can happen by people essentially outside the festival, who are then not responsible for delivering it! Sorry Mark, I always felt that the very mechanics of that seemed an impossible task for the festival staff and ANY incoming director.

  2. Thanks Sonja. My own feeling was that Mark’s brand of idiosyncratic playfulness needs someone like Mark to sell it to the public and make it happen. There’s been confusion about how active a role Mark and Tilda (and the less-publicised Lynda Myles) were supposed to play), but if they were always supposed to hand the ideas over and stand back, then there is a flaw in the approach.

    I think it’s generally difficult to execute somebody else’s ideas, especially if you then have to make hard choices about which ideas you can afford, and which are essential and which can be abandoned. It’s a bit like directing somebody else’s script: clearly, it can be done, but it’s actually harder than doing your own.

  3. Matt Lloyd Says:

    Excellent point both of you, and one I put to Mark myself. As the producer of Ballerina Ballroom and A Pilgrimage there were times when I didn’t quite ‘get it’ – I was all for practical or cheaper solutions, and there were times when Mark had to put his foot down and say ‘we do it this way or not at all.’ It was only when it finally happened that I truly understood why we were doing it this way.

  4. Of course events like those are kind of unprecedented, so they succeed on their own merits, whereas any incarnation of the EIFF would be compared, generally unfavorably given the disposition of the Scottish press, with past years. So it’s all the more important to be able to stand confidently behind any new ideas, which is harder if you’ve inherited some of them.

  5. Wow — the festival began the year I was born!
    Lovely pick of Mark Cousins with Tilda. Plus the ATHA document is Fab!

  6. Yes, it was a bold and exciting plan. Some parts may have been better than others, but it needed to be tackled as a whole, not piecemeal. And there just wasn’t the time.

  7. Patrick Ronsome Says:

    No festival anthem? No festival pants? aboohoohoo.

    A rather fuzzy and often off-point set of responses…and surely Mark did influence this year’s festival? The lack of awards and red carpet was a point he made with the Nairn festival and he has often been querulous regarding awards, eg Scottish Baftas. So maybe he didn’t suggest cancelling the Powell awards for budgetary reasons but it sure sounds like he isn’t keen on awards per se. That’s a pity, because filmmakers and distributors DO like prizes – and it’s another incentive for them to bring their good stuff to the EIFF

    Also: “I have never been convinced by the argument that the EIFF is not strong enough to stand outside August.” yet he proposed a partnership with the LFF – so does he or doesn’t he think the event needs some sort of propping up?

    Also don’t quite see how June is a non-sequitor issue – if you are planning an artistic direction then surely you’d be mindful that most of the distributors really really hate June, because that affects the films available to you and may compromise your artistic vision.

  8. I was wondering when the pants would come up. (Festival underpants which, once bought, grant admission to screenings upon being flashed at staff.) Not an appropriate idea, perhaps, but only one of many, most of them better. Unfortunately the festival ran with it long enough to provoke embarrassed laughter.

    There WERE red carpet events, it’s just that the festival didn’t prioritize them. The press love these things, so I guess they’re useful for publicity, but they’re a matter of complete indifference to me so I can’t get excited about that.

    Abolishing them, and the awards, was supposed to create space for other exciting innovations which would have been equally attention-grabbing. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite happen — some of the ideas were shot down, some of them were reduced in scale, with the results we know.

    I agree about the awards (see above), a useful way to attract films, and a treat for winners. Hannah McGill will have more to say about this. When my producer was circulating our short film, he specifically targeted fests where we could win stuff.

    June can certainly be seen as a side-issue because the festival got BIGGER audiences when it first moved there (though this may be down to the bigger advertising spend). But I suspect a move back is almost inevitable: see Jim Hickey and James Mullighan’s upcoming comments on this.

  9. Matt Lloyd Says:

    The irony of the August/June dilemma is that not only do the industry prefer August, but also that August is a far better time to do something completely anti-industry, because the available audience is more open to taking risks then. When you’re the only show in town, there’s an expectation that you have to cater for everyone.

    In practical terms, August is an ever-worsening nightmare – costly, fewer venues available, over-reliance on Cannes for programme. But having been pro-move for the last few years, I’m coming round to the view that EIFF has to accept that the concurrence of the other festivals is an integral part of its identity.

    That’s not to say for a second that normal service will or should resume if EIFF returns to August.

  10. If this year’s festival had been in August, everything would have been much, much worse. Although we could have used the Art College, a useful venue which is unavailable in June due to the degree show.

    The thing is, the festival historically HAS had something for everyone, with the gripes usually being low-level complaints that there’s too much of one thing and not enough of the other. This year the complaint was that there wasn’t enough ANYTHING, which comes down to time, money, and a consistent vision.

    Several of those I’ve spoken to do see a move back as inevitable: among other things, it’ll give the newly appointed director (the job’s just been advertised) more time to put together a killer show.

  11. Matt Lloyd Says:

    True enough, though I think there’s a big difference between having something for everyone and being expected to have something for everyone.

  12. Patrick Ronsome Says:

    Why make a move back to August? Why not the end of July, or in September when there are still more visitors in Edinburgh than June, plus Venice/ Deauville guests and films could make the hop over to Scotland.
    By the way, making the Teviot the social hub was another example of poor thinking – a 40 minute round trip schlep from the cinemas? Hardly an improvement on previous Cineworld crawls

  13. I’ve discussed the social hub issue with James Mullighan, so expect more on that.

    The date of the fest is likely to move, but no decision has been made as to when: most of the demands have been for August, so that seems likeliest. September would cause a near-clash with Toronto, one of the world’s most important festivals, and bring us dangerously close to London, our biggest competition. July seems possible. Of course, in an overcrowded calendar, any date has problems.

  14. Matt Lloyd Says:

    July certainly possible now that Cambridge has moved – but too close to Cannes to exploit the selection there satisfactorily?

  15. I’ve been going to the Edinburgh International Film Festival every year without fail since 1983 and the Crash event was definitely an all-time highlight. Looking forward to this year’s. Good to see someone else cares.

  16. This is my first year programming, so it’s rather exciting!

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