Why Karlovy Vary Winner Mark Cousins, Tilda Swinton Are ‘On Fire’ for Painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: ‘She Was an Unstoppable Life Force’

Everybody loves painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, including Tilda Swinton.

“I messaged her a while ago, saying I was making this film. She said: ‘I’m on fire for Willie,’” Mark Cousins, director of biographical documentary “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things,” tells Variety.

More from Variety

“Willie didn’t live a dramatic life, she wasn’t going to fancy parties. Then there was the sexism of the art world and agism. She changed her style, too, and the art world doesn’t like that. The film world doesn’t like that either. It wants a Hitchcock film to be like a Hitchcock film.”

“Abbas Kiarostami told me once he wanted his films to be pure on the outside and rich on the inside. Willie’s life seemed undramatic but inside, there was a raging fire.”

In his Karlovy Vary Film Festival winner “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things,” Cousins peeks inside the mind of the forgotten artist, who passed away in 2004. Partly narrated by Swinton, it also features his own voice.

“I am sort of suspicious of that omnipresent male narrator that knows everything. I find it boring and arrogant. I had to ask myself: ‘Why am I really interested in this woman?,’” he reveals.

“Scorsese and Jake LaMotta in ‘Raging Bull’ are ostensibly very different people. But he had to find an angle and a point of contact before he could make that film. I glimpsed bits of me in her, I think, in that person with no off switch.”

“I live in Scotland too. I am a mathematical person and then there’s this fact that she was just an unstoppable life force. It tells the audience: ‘Here’s where I am coming from. Here’s my link.’ It’s like Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’: you look for the touch of these fingers and for that spark.”

Cousins isn’t afraid of coming close to his subjects, of establishing friendships with the late icons and even calling them by their nicknames.

“She liked being called Willie,” he says with a smile.

“It’s about intimacy, you know? This film is not really about her life – it’s more about her brain. In ‘The Eyes of Orson Welles,’ I was trying to get into his imagination, too. Cinema is a very intimate medium. When you are watching a movie, it’s 1:1. That’s why my voice is so gentle here. It’s like we are sitting there all alone.”

As depicted in the doc, he got a tattoo of her work.

“I was brought up Catholic. I am not religious at all, but my tattoos are like stigmata, you could say. People who find things like that over-the-top tend to be boring. None of this detachment and ‘coolness’ is useful in the creative field,” he says, fending off potential haters.

“When I first went to England, I was at dinner parties where people would just analyze things all night. All right, but when do we put Shania Twain on and start dancing?! When we won the award last night, one of the first things we did was dance to Sister Sledge. Joseph Brodski said: ‘Try to stay passionate. Leave your cool to the constellations.’ I am a Celt. Willie is a Celt, and Tilda. Celts don’t do ‘cool’ particularly well.”

Instead, he bets on tenderness, which came in handy also when discovering her unusual diaries. Barns-Graham, who had synesthesia, left behind pages filled with letters turned into colors.

“Absolutely. ‘Tender’ is the word I use a lot. I was brought up during the war in Northern Ireland and I often say I was ‘tenderized’ by it, the way you tenderize meat when you batter it,” he says.

“People think ‘cinematic’ means ‘Furiosa’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ But cinematic can mean small things and moments that are magnified. You are sitting in the theater, looking at this diary and it’s 50,000 times bigger. Cinema can do it brilliantly. It shows a tear running down Elizabeth Taylor’s cheek and turns it into something epic. If we can take these small artworks and make them massive, it’s special.”

In his career, Cousins has been talking both about the famous and about the unknown, about Hitchcock, Welles and obscure female filmmakers in much-celebrated “Women Make Film.”

“When you are dealing with someone who has been forgotten, you are not only making the film with love for your subject. You are making it in anger and anger is like rocket fuel. Love and anger are a good combo,” he states.

He will work on “The Story of Documentary Film” next.

“In real life, I am not a very confident person. When it comes to my creative life, I am. When I made ‘The Story of Film: An Odyssey,’ many journalists said: ‘It’s so subjective.’ I will tell you what’s really subjective: writing about cinema and leaving out most women or not mentioning African films. There is a rigor in what I do that’s sometimes not seen,” he says.

“Now, I am taking the same format as ‘The Story of Film.’ It’s roughly the same length and I have been filming all over the world. The idea is to challenge, in a very passionate way, what we think a documentary is.”

In “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things,” he is challenging the viewers with a lengthy sequence spotlighting Willie’s paintings.

“Some people will find it boring, obviously, but I wanted to give a sense it went on and on and on, this obsession. Not for months, not for years, but for decades. I was talking to Geoffrey Rush, one of the jury members, and he called that sequence the most important one in the film,” says Cousins.

“There is a certain formula and I could do that in my sleep. It sounds arrogant, but I could: you interview a lot of people, cut really fast, add a lot of graphics and document the rise and fall of a career. But Willie looked at so many familiar things with fresh eyes.”

His triumph in the Czech Republic marks yet another win for docs at A-list events, from Berlinale (“On the Adamant”) to Venice (“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”).

“I was shocked. I met a filmmaker earlier and said: ‘I am definitely NOT getting an award.’ I was sitting [at the ceremony], thinking: ‘Should we have pizza or Chinese later on?,’” he laughs.

“Documentary used to be this ne’er-do-well genre. Then, in the late 90s, they became commercially viable on the big screen with the Madonna film [‘Truth or Dare’] and ‘Buena Vista Social Club.’ Each time reality gets really weird, documentaries start to feel necessary. And our reality is pretty weird at the moment.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.