Life with the restless ghost of Orson Welles’ last movie
In 1970, after two decades of European exile broken only by his brief return in 1957-58 to make Touch of Evil — one of the many films a Hollywood studio took away from him — Orson Welles came home to Hollywood to make his last feature, The Other Side of the Wind. Funding the production largely from his own pocket and shooting entirely outside the system, the fragmented filming finally wrapped in 1976. 30 years on, the movie, infamously, remains unedited and unreleased, bound up by bad luck, personal feuds and byzantine legal tangles that saw the negatives actually physically locked out of reach in a vault in Paris for decades.1)
In the intervening years, as scratched and smuggled clips2 and script extracts have leaked out,3 Welles’ final film’s legend has grown.4 Shot on the run around L.A. and in Arizona, with a reportedly dazzling central performance from John Huston, the movie tells a story that strangely parallels its own making: the doomed tale of an embattled, aging, old-school director, trying to make a film to compete with the sex-and-symbolism flicks of the young guns of the New Hollywood of the early 1970s. A movie about making movies, it has become the Holy Grail of Welles’ career, his Rosebud — perhaps the slyest, most mystifyingly revealing statement he ever committed to celluloid.
Welles spent the last decade of his life fighting to have his film released. Twenty-one years after his death, that fight goes on. Rumours about The Other Side of the Wind‘s completion have come and gone in abundance over the years. But, while it pays to have a pinch of salt handy, it could be that we are now getting close to finally seeing the damned thing. The latest whispers are that the Showtime channel, which has been involved in the attempts at having Welles’ film completed and released over the past decade,5 will soon be making an announcement. Keep watching the skies.6
In the meantime, in the absence of the movie, all we have to go on are the tantalising accounts of those who were involved in its protracted making. Two of the most significant of these are Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride.
As well as being Welles’ friend, biographer, confidante and collaborator during the last two decades of his life, Bogdanovich took time out from his prestigious directing career to co-star alongside Huston in The Other Side of the Wind. McBride, a self-confessed “film-buff nerd type” when he was bewildered to find himself with a role in the movie in 1970, has since, with his books on John Ford, Steven Spielberg, and Frank Capra among others, become one of our finest Hollywood biographers. His latest book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career — which focuses intently on the period during which The Other Side of the Wind was made — confirms that he is also one of the greatest Welles scholars.
Here, as the campaign to bring the film to the screen shifts gear again, Bogdanovich and McBride sit down with Bright Lights to recall Welles, Huston, the New Hollywood, and their long years of “guerrilla warfare film-making” on “the greatest movie the world has never seen.”
Damien Love: To begin, could you describe The Other Side of the Wind, in terms of form and content?
Peter Bogdanovich: Okay. The first thing to say is, it’s a hugely ambitious picture. It’s about age and youth, success and failure, love and sex, betrayal and friendship. And it’s about Hollywood and film-making. You could call it a mockumentary. The conceit is you’re watching a documentary on the last day in the life of this old director, a character called Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston. He’s an old he-man type director, who’s just returned to Hollywood from Europe, and is trying to make this very arty film — which is also called The Other Side of the Wind. But his young leading man has walked off in anger, in mysterious circumstances, leaving Hannaford with an uncompleted movie. So, it’s the night of his 70th birthday, and Hannaford’s throwing a big party for all his friends and enemies, anybody he knows. Among them is this young director Brooks Otterlake, who I played, a protégé of Hannaford who’s become more popular than him. Hannaford keeps up his tough-guy façade, but he’s really desperate to raise money. During the party, amid the gossip and bitching, he screens footage from his movie at his house, then again later, after a power blackout, at a deserted drive-in. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, as the sun comes up, he drives off, very drunk, gets into an accident and dies in a car crash. That’s not giving anything away. As with Citizen Kane, the film begins at the end: the first thing you see are shots of this burned-out Porsche and a voice-over — which was supposed to be Orson’s — saying: “This is Jake Hannaford’s car. He died on the morning of his 70th birthday. What you are about to see is a reconstruction of that evening, made with the footage shot that night.” You see, a bunch of film students, TV journalists and documentary crews all turn up for Jake’s party, all of them filming what’s going on. And Orson shot all of it, all this raw, rough mockumentary footage, as well as Hannaford’s film, the movie-within-the-movie, which is very beautifully composed. And so the movie is extremely complicated visually, woven together from all these pieces, 16mm, 8mm, and 35mm, colour and black and white, moving images and still photography. It’s really fast and loose, really cutty, very unusual, very modern, very “today.”
How did you first meet Welles, and how did that led to your involvement in this film?
Bogdanovich: We first met because I was the first to do a Welles retrospective in the US, and as part of that the first to publish a book on him in the States. I wrote things like, Touch of Evil was a great film, Othello was the greatest Shakespeare film ever made, and these were anything but common opinions at that point. They might have been considered correct in Europe, but not in America. Not then. I sent him that monograph in 1961. He got back to me seven years later. It was 1968, and I was now living in LA. I’d made a film, Targets, it had just opened, and Orson called me out of the blue. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to meet you,” he said. I said, “That’s my line!” He said, “You’ve written the truest words ever published about me … in English.” I said, “Really? I thought they were kinda superficial.” He said, “Well … you haven’t read some of the things that have been written about me.” We met next day, at the Polo Lounge, a hangout in Beverly Hills, and our friendship began. By the end of that meeting, we’d agreed to do an interview book together. One of the reasons he wanted to do the book, which we worked on for years all over the world, was because he wanted to correct the many myths about his career, many of which still unfortunately persist.7 We started in 1969. He was acting in Catch-22 down in Guaymas, Mexico. One night down there, he started talking about this idea for a movie he’d had. I’d mentioned that a lot of the directors I knew who were older were having serious trouble getting work in Hollywood. People like John Ford and Howard Hawks; these men were considered over the hill. Orson got very upset about that. He thought it appalling. He said, “It’s only in one’s older age that one does one’s best work. Youth and old age are the two greatest moments; middle-age is the enemy of art.” He went into this whole thing about it. Then told me the story of this movie, about an old director. The Other Side of the Wind — although it wasn’t called that yet. I asked if he had a script, and he said he had five. He talked about it off and on after that. Then, at the end of 1970, when I was, literally, just about to go to Texas to make The Last Picture Show, Orson called me out of the blue. He always referred to Last Picture Show as “that dirty movie you’re making.” He’d read the script and said it was a dirty movie. So, he said he was in LA, what was I doing next Thursday? I said I was leaving for Texas. He said, “What time?” I said, “Uh, about 2.30.” He said, “Good, meet at the airport at noon on your way, that place where the planes fly low over the street.” I said, “Okay … what are you doing there?” He said, “I’m shooting.” I said, “What do you mean you’re shooting? What’re you shooting?” “I’m shooting a dirty picture. You’re making a dirty movie, so I’m making a dirty movie. The one about the movie director.” I said, “Oh my God. Who’s gonna play him?” “I don’t know. Maybe me, maybe John Huston, I’m not sure. We can keep him off-camera for this stuff.”
Joseph McBride: In the late 1960s I was living in the Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was writing articles about Welles. I’d decided to write a book about him,8 and I was selling chapters to film magazines like Sight and Sound and Film Quarterly in order to get attention for it, and I started mailing some of those articles to Welles. He was very elusive in those days. You never knew where he was. Occasionally there would be a little article in Variety that he’d been seen in London or Paris, it was all very mysterious. So the only way I could get ahold of him was I would mail these things to his lawyer in New York. I had no idea whether Welles ever saw any of it.
Then in 1970, I went to Hollywood for the first time. I was writing a book on John Ford, who is my other favourite film-maker, and I went out there for the purpose of interviewing Ford, but I wanted to meet Peter Bogdanovich, because I was a fan of Targets. It was pretty unknown in the U.S., but I had seen it in Chicago when I was protesting the Democratic convention in ’68, when there was all the violence and the tear-gassing, and I was very impressed. So I went to a film bookstore in Hollywood and they gave me Peter’s phone number! And as it happened, when I called, he said, “I’m on the other line with Orson.” It was bizarre. Then he said Welles wanted to talk with me, would I call him the following day. So I said, uh, sure. I called Welles from a payphone, and he got right to the point. “We’re about to make a movie, would you like to be in it?” I was stunned. All I could think of saying was, “Is this going to be a feature-length film?” This really stupid question. And Welles chuckled and said, “We certainly hope so.” I guess that question wasn’t so dumb after all.
Filming on The Other Side of the Wind started late in 1970. What would you say the popular perception of Welles was in the States at that time?
Bogdanovich: The general conception was of a guy who had made a film called Citizen Kane, and hadn’t done anything since. That was pretty much it. I mean, he was revered in some quarters, by serious film-lovers and film-makers around the world, but as far as Hollywood and the man on the street in America was concerned, he was a kind of has-been who’d done one great film and then disappeared, got fat, and now acted in crappy movies and did TV chat shows. That persisted for a while.
McBride: He was kind of — I wouldn’t say forgotten exactly, but he was at a pretty low ebb in terms of his prestige in America. We would see him mainly in small roles in movies, and a lot of them were very bad films, most of them made in Europe. He was very undiscriminating in terms of what films he would act in. He had complete integrity in terms of what films he would direct. I always saw that as an interesting contrast to John Huston, who would direct any old film in order to keep himself bankable. What Huston would do was, every once in a while, he would direct a really great film, but the price he paid for that was making a certain amount of schlock. But Welles didn’t choose that path. Welles would act in a lot of films to support his habit of making independent films as a director. But the problem with the public was, they never saw the films he directed — Chimes at Midnight hardly got shown in America at all. So all they would see of him was him turning up in supporting roles in things like Start the Revolution Without Me, or the occasional prestige film like Catch-22, where he plays a sort of buffoonish role. So they just thought of him as a buffoonish character who would appear in all kinds of garbage. The reason he came back to Hollywood was to be in The Dean Martin Show, he became a kind of regular sidekick on the show. But then again, he really enjoyed that kind of clowning around and getting the chance to do some Shakespeare on the show once in awhile. And then, once he was back living in LA, he began making all those commercials, so the perception of him was as the guy who would sell cheap wine on TV.
And do you think the way he was perceived in the U.S. — this schism between the artist that he was and the burnt-out celebrity he was perceived to be — actively concerned him?
Bogdanovich: Yeah, of course. And for one simple reason: because it made it difficult for him to work, to get money to make movies. One of the reasons he wanted me to write the book about him was precisely because he wanted to get the record straight, because the record that existed was making it difficult for him to get money for movies. He wanted to correct the misapprehensions. There were a lot of myths about Orson, a lot of things that weren’t true, and he wanted to get it right. This general disparagement of him continued until he died. It did get better after he died — as he predicted. He once said to me, a few weeks before he died, “God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead.” And he was right.
McBride: Yeah, he realised his image made it difficult for him to function. I think that when he came back to Hollywood, he didn’t have very many illusions about being commercial as a film-maker. He’d really given up on that after Touch of Evil. He’d really tried to re-establish himself as a commercial film-maker with that, and made a film that he thought was commercial. But Universal was shocked by it and basically dumped it. The final trauma in his career as a studio director, I think, was being taken out of the editing of Touch of Evil. After that he really had an aversion to working with major studios as a director. Even though he made sporadic attempts to set up projects, I think he had more or less resigned himself to working totally independently. The situation was so completely radical for him that I think he just accepted the fact that he was never going to be a commercial film-maker again.
Bogdanovich:The Other Side of the Wind was a film that, again, he started financing himself, with his own money, then he got a backer. So of course what people thought of him was very important, because it had a lot to do with his ability to raise money. Finally, he had about a million dollars in it himself, and got somebody to put up another million, so what he had was about a two million dollar picture. But, yeah, I think his “public image” weighed on him. And, yes, I guess the fact that he was back making a movie right in the middle of Hollywood made it more palpable. A lot of people were happy to see him — they gave him the special Oscar and the AFI Life Achievement thing in ’75, and there was a lot of talk about Orson — but nobody gave him any money.
I should ask you to say a little about the characters you play in the film.
Bogdanovich: That first day when Orson was shooting down at the railroad tracks, I said, “What am I gonna play?” He said, “A cineaste. I want you to play it like Jerry Lewis” — I do impressions, you see, and he loved them — “I want you to do your Jerry voice.” And so I went down the day before I left to shoot Last Picture Show, and acted in Orson’s movie, playing this cineaste who talks like Jerry Lewis and asks questions like “Do you think the camera is a phallus??” That stuff just amused the hell out of Orson.9 Then later, at some point, I don’t remember exactly when, but he was shooting in this rented house in Carefree, Arizona, I called him to see how he was doing, and he said he was doing terribly. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Well I just finished shooting with Rich Little. I had to let him go.” Rich Little was a comedian noted for doing impressions, and he’d been playing the young movie director who’s a friend of the Huston character — this kind of protégé who’s eclipsed him. So he’d had to let Rich Little go, and it cost him 25 Gs he couldn’t afford. I said, “Why’d you have to let him go?” He said, “He does great impressions. But he can’t act.” So, Orson’s saying, “I don’t know what to do now, I’ve got John waiting, I’m in terrible shape, I don’t know what to do.” And here was this character who was (a) a young movie director who’d had three big successes; (b) did impressions; and (c) was clearly based on me to an extent. And I said, “Well, why don’t I play it?” There was a long pause, and he said, “That never occurred to me.” I said, “Orson, the guy’s a young film-director who’s had three hits and he does impressions all the time — it never occurred to you?” He said “But you’re playing that cineaste part.” And I said, “Well, you could shoot that stuff again with somebody else.” He said, “My God, of course you could do it. You’d be great for it. My God, will you? You just saved my life.” So that’s how I got that part. And I went to Carefree, and we shot for more than 10 days, some of it with John Huston, then more in my house in LA, and later and on the road, in a car. But I shot mostly in Carefree and L.A.
McBride: I basically play the cineaste type Peter had played at first. Welles had asked Bogdanovich to find him some “film-buff types” to be in the film, because it’s a pseudo-documentary about Hollywood in the Easy Rider era, so he wanted some real film-buff types, just like he had real actors and directors in the film.10 And Peter had rounded up a few friends of his. Peter had thought I was perfect for a film-buff type. He was amused by a few things — not only was I a film maniac, I had been to see Fellini’s Satyricon that first day I met him, and, as I tend to do when I run out of paper, I had scribbled notes on my wrist with a pen. Peter had thought that was very funny, and he told Welles, who thought it was hilarious, the kind of thing a crazy film buff would do. And so Welles told me to write notes on my wrist when we did the first scene, and so for six years of shooting I had to keep writing stuff on my wrist, which was quite a nuisance after a while. It’s hard to keep continuity over six years! But who knew how long this would take? My role was a total buffoon, the most obsessed, obnoxious film buff. I would follow the John Huston character around and ask endless questions. Which I actually tended to do in those days. I was a little intense. Just kept hammering people with questions, and Welles would find that irritating sometimes, too. In the movie, he would have me do that to the point where I got thrown out of Huston’s car — for asking him what effect his father’s suicide had on his film work. I came up with that question, because Welles told me the Huston character was modelled on Hemingway, and I was a big Hemingway fan and so I knew Hemingway’s father had killed himself — and that was one of the reasons Hemingway may have killed himself, that terrible sense of fate. But I didn’t know at the time that Welles himself believed his father had killed himself, too. So I was treading on some very sensitive ground there, but Welles eagerly embraced that line as being disturbing. It’s the kind of thing that cuts too close to the bone for Huston’s character. I wound up shooting 45 days over the six-year period. Three days here, four days there and every day I had some dialogue. But the film is not yet cut together, so how big a part I have, I don’t really know. But Welles at one point said he wanted everybody to have the same-sized part. It’s a very democratic film in that sense — although obviously Huston and the Bogdanovich character are the central relationship.
What would you say about John Huston’s performance? How were he and Welles together?
McBride: It was fascinating to watch. Welles was about as great an actor’s director as ever existed. And one of his secrets is that he treated everybody differently, he didn’t just have one way of directing. And with Huston, it was fascinating to watch, because Huston was really his peer in a way that nobody else was, someone he respected greatly as a director, and an old friend. He was not the kind of person you could order around or bully. You had to treat him with great diplomacy. But Huston was the most compliant kind of actor, because he always said, being a director himself, he always wanted to be as helpful to the director as possible. But Welles treated him with kid gloves. He would say things that were really quite brilliantly seductive. I remember one scene that I thought was particularly good, where Huston’s character has this young blonde teenage girl that he’s got as a sexual toy. They’d found this young girl in Phoenix who had never acted, Cathy Lucas. She was so obviously not an actor at all it was almost a joke, she was just a typical teenager, but what’s amazing is, when I saw the rough cut, she’s actually really good. Welles somehow makes her poignant. Huston’s supposed to put the lecherous eye on her at one point, and he did it in a way that was crude. It was too much, and it was obvious it was wrong. And there was sort of a pause and Welles looked down, then he said, “John? Do you know who you remind me of in this scene?” And Huston said, “No, Orson, who?” And he said, “Your father.” And Huston beamed, because he was always very happy when anyone brought up his father, you know, Walter, a great actor himself. He said, “Really, Orson, why?” And Welles said, “Well, because he had that kindly, paternal air — but nobody ever had a higher score.” And Huston cracked up. He thought that was delightful. But only an old friend who knew what he was talking about could say something like that and not irritate somebody. But Huston just thought it was great that his father was this foxy old guy. Welles didn’t say, “I want you to play it like that” — but when we redid the scene, it was perfect, because Huston had this kindly, paternal air, and it made it a richer scene, less obvious and crude. It was a quite brilliant way of directing.
Bogdanovich: Huston was great to work with. He had a really funny habit of never saying he didn’t know what the line was. If he’d forget a line, he wouldn’t announce it as actors usually do — “I’m sorry, I forgot, what’s the line,” or whatever. He would just, with great authority say something, which usually had nothing whatever to do with the scene, and then he would simply exit the shot, like that was what he was supposed to do, leaving me and the other characters on-camera saying “… Wha?” Orson found this very amusing, he’d be laughing. John would say, “Was that the line, Orson?” Orson would say, “Well, not exactly John. I dunno what the hell you just said.” And after about 5.30 or 6pm, John would usually have had too many drinks, anyway, so we’d quit.
McBride: Welles actually encouraged Huston to drink a lot, I guess to lower his inhibitions. That’s often not considered a very good directorial technique, but in this case it worked. Actually, Hannaford, in the movie, gets more drunk as the film goes along and in his two best scenes, he’s very drunk; there’s a scene in a bathroom, when he’s really drunk, and he’s unloading on people and ranting about life in general, and it’s brilliant, it’s like the film’s King Lear scene. I guess Welles felt he could get Huston sort of drunk and still get him going as a good actor. Huston didn’t say much on the set, he’d be kind of introverted. It was hard to get to know Huston. But, y’know — maybe he was thinking about The Man Who Would Be King or something. One of the funniest things about the film was, we were shooting and shooting and shooting for years, and at one point Huston had to go, and I asked where he was going and they said, “Oh, he’s going to go and shoot this film called The Man Who Would Be King.” So he went away, it seemed like two months, and dashed off this masterpiece in the mountains of Morocco. Then he came back and we were still at the house doing pretty much the same stuff.
Bogdanovich: Huston was brilliant in the film. For me, this is better than his performance in Chinatown. He loved working with Orson, loved the casual way he did it, and was very, very complimentary of Orson, very attentive and deferential, almost. He told everyone that would listen that the way Orson was working was so much fun and so creative — “guerrilla warfare film-making.” He wanted to buy the movie actually. Before he died Huston wanted to try and help get The Other Side of the Wind Finished and he wanted to cut it, because he was so pleased with it. He’s extraordinary in it. It doesn’t seem like a performance at all, it’s extraordinarily real, very John Hustonish. An extraordinary film performance, the best thing he ever did as an actor.
The character that Huston plays, though, is pretty close to home: he’s this Hemingwayesque figure, this legendary macho director. But then there’s the whole sexual thing about the character that comes out toward the end of the movie. How did he feel about that?
Bogdanovich: Oh, I think he knew it wasn’t him. It wasn’t him and it wasn’t Orson. It was a kind of macho type, Hemingwayesque movie director, like Huston, like Jack Ford, like Hathaway. It was that sort of guy, but I don’t think John ever thought it was him. Although he and Orson had private conversations I was never privy to, but I don’t think that ever came up on the set.
McBride: I remember there was one day Welles was directing some of Huston’s more intense scenes, this was in the house in Carefree, Arizona, and all the other actors had to go sit in this other room for about four or five hours, because Welles didn’t want us watching him do an intense scene with Huston. It was almost like when directors do a sex scene — they clear the set of everybody except the cameraman and the actors. There was something about Huston that was a little removed and distant as a person, but Welles managed to get deeply into him, to get him to be less inhibited and more serious as an actor, but he did it in a very intense way that we weren’t allowed to witness often. I really think the reason Welles didn’t play the role himself was that, if he had, people would have seen it as autobiographical — I think especially the latent homosexuality of the character would have been interpreted as an autobiographical reference, which would have been difficult for Welles, because that was an issue that never got talked about. You could read a lot of his work as being somewhat homosexual in its overtones, because the central relationship in a Welles film tends to be between two men, and it’s a very intense relationship of love and betrayal, usually. In addition, Huston really was a notorious homophobe, so I think Welles was kind of having fun, playing on that and teasing Huston, I don’t know whether Huston actually realised that his character was supposed to be gay. There’s a book by Peter Viertel,Dangerous Friends, where he was writing a bit about The Other Side of the Wind, and he said he thought Welles was kind of needling Huston by making him play this part to some extent. But Huston was such a sophisticated guy, and so cynical in a sense, that he didn’t mind. I’m sure he was aware of a lot of what was going on, and he didn’t seem bothered by playing this kind of character.
It seems that after he met Oja Kodar [Welles’ companion and collaborator over the last two decades of his life, and co-star and co-writer on The Other Side of the Wind], Welles was a lot more open in dealing with themes of sexuality and eroticism.
Bogdanovich: Oh, that’s true. That’s true. That’s self-evident. Oja’s Slavic, Hungarian, y’know, and she was kind of funny sexually, by that I mean she would make jokes and things, and Orson had always been rather reticent about that kind of thing. She brought him out. He was definitely influenced by her.
McBride: In his later work, The Other Side of the Wind, F For Fake, The Immortal Story and the screenplay for The Big Brass Ring, suddenly all these themes come out, and that, to me, is his Oja period. She encouraged him to deal with sex and other issues he’d been avoiding. His films up to that point are rather chaste, almost puritanical in their treatment of sexuality, but then there’s a sudden explosion of the treatment of sexuality in the work of this older director, which is kind of interesting.
Can you describe a typical day on the set of The Other Side of the Wind? Was there such a thing?
McBride: Every day was different.
Bogdanovich: Every day was different.
McBride: But there are certain general things you could say. Welles worked long, and I mean long, days. One of the big myths about him was that he was sort of a fat, lazy guy who just sat around and ate and drank. But he was an extremely hard worker — the days on The Other Side of the Wind tended to be 18-hour days, which is really exhausting for anybody. And the crew were all very young guys. The cinematographer, Gary Graver, was young and he had a bunch of young people he worked with, the camera guys and sound guys were as young as 19 years old, so they were able to work long, long hours. The reason the film was made at all was partly due to the accident that Gary Graver came into Welles’ life. When Welles came back to Hollywood, Gary called him out of the blue, there was a little item in the trade press that Welles was in town, and Gary was a fan and called him and said he’d like to work with him. What Gary said was, he could make a film very cheaply for Welles with his crew of several guys, so Welles realised he could make a film for very little money — here’s this young guy, and why not.11 And Welles was indefatigable. He’d just keep going. However, there’d be times, I remember one day he just decided he’d go home and take a nap. That reminded me of Charlie Chaplin — if Chaplin didn’t feel good, he wouldn’t come to the studio for a week or a month. He could do it because he owned the film. And Welles could do it because he owned his film — but you could just never do that if you were working for Warner Bros., say. That was appealing to Welles, because he could work like an artist, when he felt like it. And he contrived a situation where we all went along with that. Sometimes it was frustrating, because you never quite knew what was going on. Sometimes you’d be all revved up and there’d be nothing happening. But most days it was very intense. The other thing about Welles was, it was tremendous fun to be around him. He made the shooting great fun because he would be constantly telling stories and jokes, and that kept the set entertained and loose, unlike a lot of movie sets. It was like a big party, even though it was very disciplined at the same time. But Welles felt people should have a good time when they were making a film.
Bogdanovich: It was always a lot of fun. A small crew, between six and ten people, all overworked, and a bunch of different actors at various times. Orson would arrive and he’d be very friendly and very funny and charming, and kind of do everything he could to make the actors comfortable before getting them to change into costume — which in my case was my own clothes, but he’d often pick out which clothes I was to wear from a bunch I’d brought up there. I’d brought two suitcases full of clothes, and he went through them to pull out my costume, pulled out a sweater, another sweater, two or three pairs of slacks, then said, “There, put those on.” I said, “You know, these are my clothes, but I’ve never worn them in this combination.” He said, “Well there, you see, now you know how a successful young film director dresses.” It was just him jollying me up and wanting me to be comfortable. That’s what he was like, he really made life comfortable for the actors on the set. And then he’d tell you what the scene was — there was a script, but he’d often rewrite the scene, a little or a lot. You’d be getting pages just before you made it, then he’d interpose things as you were shooting. He was very encouraging, funny, rather casual in a way, but very, very together. I remember one time shooting at night, it was a scene with Oja Kodar. I had to run up with a rifle — I don’t remember exactly what was going on — but every time I got up to her, I’d break up, because I just felt ridiculous, and then she’d break up and we couldn’t get it. We did that about 10 times. Finally, Orson said, “Alright, let’s just do it.” And I came running up, and I didn’t break up, and Oja and I were sort of getting into the scene — then from behind the camera, I hear Orson breaking up. I don’t know if we ever got that shot. It was like that. It was a light-hearted atmosphere, even though there was a lot of work being done. The house was total chaos. He trashed that house in Carefree, but I remember laughing a lot. A lot of the time we were laughing, having a really good time.
McBride: When Peter was in Europe shooting Daisy Miller, Welles was living at Peter’s home in Bel Air, and we were shooting The Other Side of the Wind there for three or four months. It was kind of extraordinary. There would be hordes of people running around Peter’s house. I thought Peter was very nice to allow his beautiful house to be taken over — but I don’t think he actually ever knew just what was going on there in his absence.
Bogdanovich: When I got back there were certain camera marks on the floor… but it was okay. Over the years, I’ve actually met a lot of people who’ve said, “Hey, I was in your house in Los Angeles.” I say, “Really?” They say, “Yes, I was acting for Orson Welles …” He had crowd scenes and a lot of extras. Literally, I’ve met 10 or 12 people like that. “I was in your house …”
McBride: I remember one time sticks out. One night I showed up at Bogdanovich’s house, and there were a lot of people standing around, and it was kind of dark inside the house, and Welles said “Get in front of the camera.” And I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “We’re doing a musical number.” And I said, “Well, okay. I can’t sing.” He said, it doesn’t matter, just move your lips, you don’t have to know the words. We’re doing ‘The Glow-Worm Song.'” This goofy novelty song from the 1940s. I was wearing glasses without lenses, because he said the lenses reflected the light, so he made me take them out, and I couldn’t see the cue cards. So I just stood there and looked confused. Which was perfect for my character. And the actor John Carroll was leading people in this song, even though he wasn’t actually present that night and would be filmed later. He was an old Republic Pictures actor from the ’40s, he played one of Hannaford’s stooges. And Welles just decided to do this. “We’re doing a musical number!”
Bogdanovich: He also shot on the MGM lot, but MGM never knew. I’d arranged for his crew to shoot on the back lot, but I didn’t say that it was Orson Welles. I said it was a UCLA college student crew, and Orson hid down below in the car, so he could get into MGM without being recognised. Every time a security guard or someone passed by, he’d hide. And they shot for about 24 hours, they didn’t take a break, they just kept shooting because they knew they couldn’t be there again, and they had to be careful so no one ever knew it was Orson Welles. That’s gone now. That whole lot is gone.
McBride: I mean, you’d get to sit around with these amazing people like Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge and John Huston. Y’know, you could talk about the golden era of Hollywood or whatever. There was a scene on a bus, where I had a long speech, the longest in the film that I had, and I was supposed to be reading transcripts of interviews the Huston character had given, and I was supposed to read this diatribe he had said about hippies. And I didn’t really get the point of it, and I didn’t feel I was up to the scene. And Welles took me aside and he very gently said he was going to give the speech to Edmond O’Brien. He gave me a beautiful explanation, “Eddie is such a magnificent ruin.” O’Brien was a wonderful actor, but he was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. We didn’t know that then. We thought he had some kind of brain injury or a drinking problem or something. He was still able to do scenes, but he was very eccentric. So what he does in the scene is, he grabs the transcript from me and begins reading it, and it made the scene so much better. It was a brilliant improvisation, and made so much more sense, because O’Brien was playing this old doddering reactionary character, raving about hippies — like a lot of old actors and directors in those days would rant and rave about sex and hippies and stuff. That’s the kind of improvisation Welles would do, he’d evolve the film as he went along, based partly on the personality of the actors. That’s one of the reasons he was such a great director — he would see what was happening in front of him, and kind of go with the feeling that he got. Welles had this ability to get people terribly motivated, where we’d all be fully aware that this was a great privilege, that we were all doing something very special. That this was a very groundbreaking film.
One of the themes in The Other Side of the Wind is the whole “New Hollywood” of the early 1970s, the so-called Easy Riders — Raging Bullsera. What were Welles’ thoughts on that generation of film-makers?
McBride: For me, the answer to that lies in an article he wrote in 1970 for Look magazine, called “But Where Are We Going?” It’s a strange article. It’s ostensibly his reaction to the New Hollywood, but it’s actually a cautionary piece attacking the auteur theory, the idea of worshiping directors and treating directors like gods. He connects that to fascism — when he sees pictures of directors up on a crane, looking very dramatic, all he can think of is Mussolini on his balcony. He’s also quite scathing in there about how, he says, “Any young idiot can go out and get a film made these days.” He really sounds bitter. And there were all kinds of bad directors who got to make films in that period because they were young — some had talent, and a lot didn’t, and yet Welles, with his great track record couldn’t get work. Although, actually, I think the reason he couldn’t get work is because he did have a track record, of controversial flops and things like that. But if you had never made a film, people were more willing to let you make one in that period. It was sort of crazy. In a way it was good, because a lot of new people were given a break, but in a way it wasn’t good, because a lot of garbage got made. So his article is quite scathing to that whole mindset. And I think that was his attitude. The Other Side of the Wind is partly his reaction to that. He’s contemptuous of the New Hollywood to some extent.
Bogdanovich: I think he had mixed feelings about it. Very mixed feelings. He thought that maybe the work was gonna debase the audience, because the movies were getting so vulgar. He thought that some of the younger film-makers were simply making films like the films they liked when they were kids. Some of the work I think he liked. It’s complicated. He was very encouraging to me — I don’t actually remember him talking very much about some of the other directors, I don’t really recall a lot of conversation about that. He had a slight impatience with a lot of it, but, then, I don’t think he saw that much of it, y’know.
The Other Side of the Wind has a lot of themes strung through it: an old director and New Hollywood; an exploration of machismo and sexuality; Welles himself once called it “a film about death.” What do you think the film is about?
Bogdanovich: Oh, y’know, age and youth and success and failure and betrayal and friendship, and … like that. It’s also about Hollywood and film-making in general, in a way.
McBride: I was standing near Welles on the set one day, and Richard Wilson, Welles’ longtime aide, was in the scene, and he asked “Orson, what’s this movie about?” And he said, “It’s an attack on machoism.” So I guess, in his mind at least, that’s what the movie is about. It started out it wasn’t about movies at all, it was about bullfighting, about a famous man who followed bullfighting, based on Hemingway — you know that story about Welles and Hemingway having a fistfight, back in 1937? I always wondered if that planted the seed of the whole thing.12 And, obviously, Welles had been thinking about the changes in Hollywood when he’d come back, that it was a very different place and he was reflecting on the fact that a lot of young directors were getting to make films. So I think there were a number of things he wanted to get off his chest. Some sexual issues he wanted to explore; his view of Hollywood, old age and mortality. He was having trouble getting work precisely because he had age and experience — his experience was being held against him, because he’d had these disasters like The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil being taken away from him. And yet he had made Citizen Kane and all kinds of great work, and yet it didn’t help him. So that was really rankling him. That’s probably what the film is about, too.
[To Bogdanovich] I first interviewed to you about The Other Side of the Wind back in 1997, when there had been a real effort to get the film finally finished and released, probably via the Showtime channel, but those plans stalled. Recently the rumours have been that the Showtime deal has been reactivated. What is your understanding of the current state of play?
Bogdanovich: Well, a major American cable company has been negotiating with the parties involved, which involves Orson’s estate, Oja Kodar, and the Iranian Medhi Boushehri, who invested some money into the picture. I don’t want to say which network, but it’s been going on for six years now, the negotiation, and I would say we’re one signature away from it becoming a reality. Orson, at one point in 1971 or ’72, said to me that if anything happened to him before the film was finished, that he wanted me to finish it. I said, “It’s not gonna happen, Orson, why’d you even bring it up.” He said, “I’m very Anglo-Saxon that way, I don’t mind talking about death. If anything did happen, I’d want you to finish it. Do you promise?” And I said yes. So, ever since he died, in ’85, I have tried to figure out ways to do it. And that has been a heavy burden. It’s very frustrating, because virtually all of it is shot and about 40 minutes has been cut by Orson. The rest is in vaults, in daily forms. There’s notes on a lot of stuff, there’s a screenplay, and it’s gonna require quite a bit of work to get it done, mostly editing, but luckily now we have computer editing, which makes things a lot easier. Orson would have loved that — he’d have loved to have lived to see computer editing, it moves things much faster, you can try stuff far more quickly than you could years ago.
So you’re confident it will be seen?
Bogdanovich: Quite. I’m confident it will be seen within the next two years. Of course, I’ve been thrown a lot of curveballs, and so was Orson. This is nothing if not a circuitous tale of woe, but it seems to me that it should be seen, and I think it will be seen. It will never be seen quite exactly the way Orson would have wanted it — because that’s impossible, that died with him. But all we can do is try to put the footage that he shot together the best we can based on his notes and scripts, and the memories of those people who were there when he made it, and based on the template of the sequences that he left behind that he’s fine-cut himself.
From what you’ve seen and what you remember, if it were to be seen, how relevant would it seem? Would it have any impact on the way Welles is perceived today?
McBride: This is partly what I write about in my new book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? He was doing all kinds of fascinating work in his later period, 1970-1985, after he came back to America. He was breaking new ground all the time, trying new things, experimenting with the medium in ways he hadn’t done before. He was doing this all through his career, but the problem is people didn’t see these films. They thought he was just sitting around eating and drinking and making commercials. But he was shooting almost every day, his own films, but he was doing it in a way that was totally contrary to the norms of the industry, so for the media, he just didn’t exist. The media are very rigid in America: if you’re not doing things in the commercial way, there’s something strange and wrong about you. So people don’t know that he was always fresh and interesting. People always wanted him to do Citizen Kane again, but that was the last thing he wanted to do, because that was a film that was of its time. What could you do that would be similar, anyway? They had this irrational idea that he’d made this one great film, and everything else was a failure. But I think, when The Other Side of the Wind is finally seen, people might be struck that he was trying some new, looser styles, with handheld cameras and fast cutting, the modern style that evolved in the ’60s, and also dealing with nudity, sexuality, homosexuality, and dealing with the youth culture, and all kinds of stuff he hadn’t done before. Y’know, as a student film buff, I loved Citizen Kane because it was so perfect and designed. Every shot was meticulously crafted and to me that was what a film was supposed to be. So I was kind of surprised when I arrived on the set of this film and found Welles shooting with hand-held cameras and the actors were improvising, and if something happened, Welles would put it in the film. It really surprised me that he would be doing something so spontaneous. But he told me, “Movies should be rough.” He had evolved into a different style of film-maker, he was always changing and evolving, and not just trying to remake what he had done before, or replicate his success. Hitchcock got frustrated that he kept having to do the same kind of film all the time, but he did it in order to keep viable. But Welles would never do that. That was the basic problem Welles always had. Well, there were two: One was that he was an artist and he was intransigent, he wouldn’t do it “their way.” But the other was he never made the same film twice. A lot of great directors do repeat themselves. Like a John Ford. You knew pretty much what a John Ford film was going to be like, and a Hitchcock film or a Howard Hawks film. There was more consistency in their careers. But not with Welles. He was always trying something totally different every time.
Bogdanovich: It’s hard to say how relevant it might seem. It was a massively complicated and interesting conception, very much in the Orson Welles style, by which I mean the very different way of approaching things. He didn’t do the same thing twice, so it’s very much in Orson’s way. I think it’s very modern from what I’ve seen, both cut and uncut. And it’s quite relevant to today’s world, even though it deals with that other world of the early 1970s: it’s still love and hate and envy and competitiveness, and life and death and making movies — those things are all pretty much still the same. There are arty movies today, and this is about a kind of arty movie that Huston was making, trying to be “with it.” Orson’s last film is certainly in a modern idiom. And maybe, when they see it, people will see that he was doing some pretty interesting and pretty unusual work right up until the end, and regret that he wasn’t allowed to finish it — and finish a lot of other things he wanted to do as well:King Lear, The Cradle Will Rock, The Big Brass Ring, The Merchant of Venice, The Dreamers — there were a lot of movies Orson could have and should have made. But what he left behind is what he managed to make, despite all the jealousy and the small-mindedness and the vicissitudes of art and trying to be an artist in the second half of the 20th century in America. If that sums it up pompously enough.
- Briefly: Welles raised $1 million for The Other Side of the Wind himself and received a further $1 million from a Paris-based Iranian company, Les films de l’Astrophore, headed by Medhi Boushehri, who happened to be the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law. At this point, a Spanish investor embezzled around a quarter of a million from the production and disappeared into Europe. The Iranian company agreed to provide further funding to replace the missing cash, on the condition they received a higher percentage, with the result that l’Astrophore finally owned around 80 percent of the film, and were denying Welles the right to final cut. At this point, the Iranian revolution happened, the Shah fell, and the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and all foreign assets, including the negative of Orson Welles’ final film, came under his jurisdiction. Shit happens. (And then your biographers come along and start theorising about your “fear of completion.” [↩]
- The two most famous of these are a long, frenzied segment depicting Hannaford’s entrance to his party, and a sex scene in a rain-swept car in L.A. at night that out-Lynches David Lynch. Both of these, along with clips from Welles’ mountain of unfinished and unreleased late work, can be seen in Vasili Silovic’s essential 1996 documentary, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band. [↩]
- A fascinating, lavishly illustrated edition of the complete screenplay — or one version of it — was published jointly by Cahiers du Cinema and the Locarno International Film Festival in 2005, to mark the festival’s Welles symposium. [↩]
- Indeed, the very notion that The Other Side of the Wind is Welles’ “last movie” is part of its legend. As ever with Welles, the truth is far more complex; after Wind wrapped, he continued shooting films and film-essays for nine years, literally until the day he died. When he suffered his fatal heart attack, Welles, seemingly undaunted by the rejections and disappointments that had greeted his efforts to attract studio backing over the preceding two decades, was working at his typewriter on material he planned shooting later that day: an abridged Julius Caeser in which, true to remarkable form, he would play every role. Of his myriad of late projects, however, The Other Side of the Wind is considered by many who worked with him as the most significant, and the closest to completion. Gary Graver, cinematographer on all Welles’ late works, himself called it “the film that bookends Citizen Kane. [↩]
- A Showtime deal to finish and release the film was looking in great shape at the end of the 1990s. The owners of the movie — Welles’ partner and co-writer Oja Kodar and the Iranian investor Medhi Boushehri — had reached an agreement; Joseph McBride was in place as producer, along with Rick Schmidlin; and Peter Bogdanovich and Welles’ cameraman, Gary Graver, were going to collaborate in the editing and post-production. But then, as a source intimately involved in the deal back then puts it to me, “Welles’ daughter Beatrice stopped it. She basically goes around trying to get money or block projects, claiming that she has ownership rights of one kind or another. The thing is, Welles explicitly left The Other Side of the Wind to Oja in his will, so it seems that Beatrice has no legal rights to do anything with this film. But y’know, when studios or companies are hassled like that, they often back away. If Showtime is still interested, I guess the idea is that Beatrice will have to be pacified in some way. On some films she’s been paid off, y’know. When Universal did that superb revised version of Touch of Evil, based on Welles’ memo, she actually complained to Universal that they were ‘tampering with Daddy’s vision.’ And of course, the irony is, they were untampering with the tampering that had been done to Daddy’s vision back in 1958. But she managed to block that video release for a while, and I think Universal wound up finally paying her some money and then she went away.” [↩]
- At the time of writing, early October 2006, Peter Bogdanovich, who remains involved in trying to have the film completed, reports that “Things are now moving along very well with The Other Side of the Wind, and there should be an announcement within the next 2-3 months.” [↩]
- This indispensable, fantastic, and fantastically entertaining interview book was finally published as This Is Orson Welles in 1992, seven years after Welles died. A revised, expanded edition was released by Da Capo Press in 1998. [↩]
- McBride’s superb critical study, called simply Orson Welles, appeared in 1972. A radically revised and expanded edition was put out by the industrious Da Capo in 1996. It remains, as Cinema Journal put it, “one against which others are going to have to measure themselves.” [↩]
- The “phallus line” has since become something of a bone of contention. Peter Bogdanovich has claimed several times that he delivers the line in the movie, but in fact the line was suggested, and is spoken, by Joseph McBride as the film’s pesky cineaste figure, Mr. Pister. “Peter sure loves that line,” McBride adds. [↩]
- Among the actors and directors glimpsed playing themselves in the movie are Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Chabrol’s wife Stéphane Audran, Henry Jaglom, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, and Richard Wilson. Citizen Kane‘s butler, Paul Stewart, can also be seen as one of Hannaford’s hechmen. [↩]
- Following a long battle with cancer, Gary Graver, the Vietnam-veteran cinematographer with whom Welles worked exclusively over the last 15 years of his life, died on November 16, 2006, while this article was being written. He was 68. Of all the players involved, Graver campaigned the most tirelessly to have The Other Side of the Wind completed and released, and kept the film’s flame alive down the decades by screening extensive assemblages of scenes — along with clips from the mountain of other projects he shot for Welles — at film festivals around the world. He was involved in the attempts to have the movie finished right until the end; that he died without having the chance to see it released throws new perspective on how frustrating, time-wasting and ultimately ridiculous the arguments keeping it in limbo have been. Welles worked with some of the greatest cameramen of his age, of course, and is instantly associated with black and white. But, working on miniscule, home-movie budgets, Graver’s colour cinematography captured some of the director’s most sublime shots: the twilight montage of Chartres cathedral in F for Fake; the unutterably beautiful fragments of Welles’ unfinished adaptation of The Dreamers. Joseph McBride says that his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, “is almost as much about Gary as it is about Orson; Gary was the hero of the book. He was a great guy all around, a wonderful artist, beloved by all who knew him.” Welles himself nicknamed Graver “Rembrandt.” [↩]
- Welles first conceived the movie — which was originally called The Sacred Beasts — in the early 1960s, as an attack on the artist as macho man and the jet-trash, cafe-society crowd that followed the bullfighting circuit. The main character, a burned-out artist running on past glories, was modelled on Ernest Hemingway, whom Welles had observed haunting Spanish bullrings with his flunky entourage in the late ’50s. Welles had first met Hemingway years before, in 1937, when he was hired to read the narration the author had written for the documentary The Spanish Earth. The two got into a fist fight when Hemingway complained Welles read “like a faggot.” When shooting on The Other Side of the Wind finally started, Hemingway seems to have remained on Welles’ mind: Jake Hannaford’s fatal birthday party takes place on July 2nd, the date Hemingway put a shotgun to his head. [↩]