EXCLUSIVE: The mission of the filmmaker should be “to preside over divine accidents,” Orson Welles once told me. Indeed, his career and lifestyle seemed designed to foster accidents, divine or otherwise.
A case in point was his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, which took 48 years to complete. It will finally unveil at the Venice Film Festival following a meticulous and painstaking process of re-editing and re-writing funded by Netflix. Accompanying it will be a Netflix documentary about Welles, titled They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which may or may not prove a valid prediction. (Wind will be released in select theaters and on Netflix November 2; check out the exclusive first-look trailer above.)
Going back to Citizen Kane (1941) and the Mercury Theater, the world of Welles was steeped in mythic conflict, confusion and strokes of genius, and the release of The Other Side of the Wind will reinforce this mythology. Wind is not so much a movie as a gripping collision of two movies: one is an edgy, sexy drama about loyalty and betrayal, the other a satiric faux documentary about the egotism of European filmmakers. In true Welles fashion, they were shot in fragments between 1970 and 1977. Welles didn’t even cast his lead, John Huston, playing a legendary filmmaker, until three years into production. He shot one seven-minute sex scene over the course of two years in three different locations.
Admirers of the rotund, free-living filmmaker will doubtless praise Wind‘s frenzied visual style and aphoristic dialogue, but his fans do not necessarily demand coherent story lines. Welles clearly relished shooting every frame of this movie, which starred his Croatian girlfriend, Oja Kodar (she also shared writing credit). It included a sybaritic party scene in which scores of fellow cineastes appear from nowhere, including Paul Mazursky, a stoned Dennis Hopper and several happy but confused looking film critics.
Then why did it take so long to complete? As Morgan Neville’s vivid documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Gone points out, Welles habitually ran out of funding. One Spanish money man simply vanished mid-production. Relatives of the soon-to-be deposed Shah of Iran filled the gap, but they, too, backed away, locking the half-finished film in a bank vault. Welles himself, while a filmmaking genius, was an inept fundraiser, who always believed another benefactor would magically appear; he could never could have conceived an entity like Netflix. The Netflix connection was sealed through meetings between producer Frank Marshall and Ted Sarandos, the Netflix chief who’s been eager to emphasize his fealty to filmmakers.
Both had done their homework on the Welles legacy. Once a charismatic young leading man, Welles believed that the idolatry stemming from Citizen Kane proved to be a curse, with Hollywood repeatedly demanding further strokes of genius. But as Welles kept shooting film after film, Hollywood, he felt, turned on him. He was fired off The Magnificant Ambersons, his cut re-edited. He also was fired off Touch of Evil. Unable to find studio support, Welles would start shooting ambitious projects like Don Quixote, often sneaking scenes after dark on studio backlots, then abandoning them when the funding disappeared.
Wind, he promised, would mark a change. It would be completed on schedule, and would be a perfect “thematic bookend” to Citizen Kane. Given the film fervor of the early 1970s, Welles had no trouble lining up eager aides to join his mission. A young Frank Marshall became a location manager, then an executive producer, thus putting his personal credit card at risk. For Marshall this was a labor of love. He had venerated Welles’ work and yearned to help the master get his career back on track.
Peter Bogdanovich, 27, was another motivated recruit. As a young freelance writer about film and filmmakers, Bogdanovich was inspired by Welles’ unique vision and fascinated by his battles with the studios. Bogdanovich was about to pursue his own directing career with The Last Picture Show when he received an unexpected phone call from Welles.
The fabled filmmaker, it seemed, had an urgent request. “He wanted to meet me to discuss my playing a part in his new movie,” Bogdanovich recalls. “It was a bit part but Orson urgently wanted me to play it and needed to shoot it immediately. I explained I was about to get on a plane to Dallas but Orson said, ‘I’ll meet you at the airport’.”
Welles arrived with a small camera crew and told Bogdanovich he wanted him to portray an eager young cineaste — it was type-casting — and Welles even offered a few sample lines of dialogue. Says Bogdanovich, “I asked him if it was OK if I did the scene as a sort of Jerry Lewis impression. I knew Lewis and did him convincingly. Orson said, ‘fine,’ so we shot it and it may have been a bit campy but he seemed pleased.”
Once Bogdanovich had completed his mini-shoot, he flew to Texas and directed his movie. The Last Picture Show went well for him; when he returned to Los Angeles he checked in again with Welles. To his delight, the mercurial filmmaker received him warmly, in fact promptly inviting him to Arizona where he was now shooting Wind. One of his key actors had just dropped out of the film, Welles said, and he wanted Bogdanovich to assume the role. He would no longer play a cineaste –he would now play a bright young filmmaker who was a key aide to John Huston.
Having had no substantial acting experience, except for his Jerry Lewis impression, Bogdanovich was thrilled by the invitation. In accepting the role, however, Bogdanovich didn’t realize he would be making a virtual lifelong commitment. Not only was he destined to be involved as an actor, but, in years to come, he would devote an abundance of time to the film in many areas. In the film, Bogdanovich in fact replaced Rich Little, the gifted impersonator, who had walked away after
three weeks of confusion over his role. Little admired Welles but he didn’t like his lines and was worried over the ever-lengthening schedule.
“With all its confusions and problems, the shooting of Wind turned out to be the ultimate fun set,” Bogdanovich recalls. “Welles saw it all as a take-off on Antonioni and his imitators. It was a perfect representation of Orson’s vision of film and filmmakers, reflecting his humor and his sensibility.”
Bogdanovich never saw dailies and says, well into the movie, he realized that he was not being paid, but all this only strengthened his dedication to Welles. In fact, he and Welles were to meet steadily over the years as prospective financiers appeared and disappeared. In the course of editing, and doing further pickup shots, Welles ultimately moved into Bogdanovich’s Bel-Air home – an incursion that was not applauded by his then-companion, Cybill Shepherd. To Bogdanovich however, it was all part of the process – a complex, ever-changing process, but one to which he was fiercely devoted.
As with Bogdanovich, Marshall’s 25-year involvement in Wind was prompted by a single-minded motivation. “Orson was the god of filmmakers,” he explains. Over the course of 25 years he conducted “a treasure hunt” for missing footage, and also for missing financiers. Joining him on the complex mission was Filip Jan Rymsza, a Polish-born filmmaker who proved himself a superb detective of missing film. Rymsza locked up the rights in France and also made initial approaches to Netflix, finally meeting Marshall at Telluride where the two formed a partnership.
The finished cut was assembled from Welles’ original script, his partially cut footage, and even from recordings of the notes he gave his actors. Having gotten to know Welles personally, Marshall was guided by Welles’ robust sense of humor. “To me what’s pleasing about the final cut is that it plays like a contemporary film, not like a period piece,” says Marshall. “It was structurally experimental,” adds Rymsza.
These analyses would have pleased Welles, with whom I lunched from time to time at Ma Maison in the ‘80s. His fortunes were unsteady but his attitude remained robust and good-humored. The studio had simply not understood the value of his work, he told me. Though frustrated by his inability to sustain a steady body of work in his later years, Welles still enjoyed reflecting on the “divine accidents” he had survived. And he’d managed, after all, to get some of them successfully on film — with a lot of help from his friends.