Bright Lights Film Journal

Orson’s Charmed Circle of Fragments: A conversation with Josh Karp on his new book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind

Welles and cinematographer Gary Graver during the shooting of The Other Side of the Wind. Courtesy of Photofest

I could begin to see how the movie was art imitating life and then morphed into life imitating art, with such a palpable sense of the greatest director who ever lived possibly becoming lost within the creation of something he thought would be cleansing and provide some form of redemption. That only scratches the surface …

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From the late 1940s until the early 1970s, Orson Welles worked mostly in Europe, struggling to make personal films with the freedom he’d only enjoyed once in Hollywood on Citizen Kane (1941). The movies he completed on his own terms in this European period include Othello (1952), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1966), and The Immortal Story (1968). But Welles hankered to return to American filmmaking, and in 1970 began shooting The Other Side of the Wind in Los Angeles. He worked initially with his own money but later with financing from the emerging Iranian film industry and a Spanish co-producer. The production spanned more than half a decade, but Welles never completed editing the film. The project has been tangled in legal and financial complications since the late 1970s. Welles died in 1985.

Among Welles’s many unfinished projects, The Other Side of the Wind is the most legendary. It tells the story of an aging director (played by John Huston) returning to Hollywood after years in exile to make an art movie nobody understands. The few fragments that have appeared over the years suggest a total departure from Welles’s signature work. It’s clear he never stopped searching for new modes of cinematic expression.

At the end of 2014, Royal Road Entertainment announced that it had brought all formerly disputing parties together in a legal agreement that would see the film completed and released during Welles’s centennial year. Soon, it seems, we will finally have a chance to see more than fragments.

By happy coincidence, Josh Karp’s new book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind has just been published by St. Martin’s Press. It is the first detailed account of the production of this most unorthodox of film projects. Based on interviews with surviving participants and in-depth research of primary documents, Karp tells an often amusing tale of 1970s Hollywood. It’s a story of creative genius, irresistible chicanery, devastating betrayal, and wild times with some of the era’s most interesting personalities.

I first met Karp in Chicago during the winter of early 2014. To coincide with the publication of his new book, we continued our discussion by long distance email.

MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR: Congratulations on the book, Josh. It’s a much-needed account of a cloudy period in the career of Orson Welles. It’s still incredible how many mysteries there are still to unravel about this legendary filmmaker.

Had you always been an Orson Welles fan? And when did you first hear about The Other Side of the Wind?

JOSH KARP: I’ve always admired Welles and really loved his movies. I wasn’t then, nor am I now, however, a Welles scholar. I would never hold myself out to know as much as someone like Joe McBride, Simon Callow, or Jonathan Rosenbaum. My exposure was more as a fan, who loved old movies, loved Citizen Kane, Ambersons, Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. I went to see the restoration of It’s All True and that type of thing, but I wasn’t someone who was really deeply involved in the world of Welles other than as someone who liked movies and knew what a great director he was. By the way, I also grew up in the 1970s, so I’ve always been the right age to recall him as both the director of Kane and other great movies, as well as him being the guy from the Paul Masson wine commercials.

As for coming to the film itself, I don’t remember where I first heard about it, but I was intrigued right away and the whole thing made me really curious for a bunch of reasons. First, there were incredible stories – Huston driving the wrong way on the highway; the strange financing situation; people playing characters loosely based on themselves; the moment where Welles screamed “Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?” – and then thinking about it myself and realizing that since he was directing and producing, he was kind of referring to himself. That stuff was just so fun and entertaining. But I also noticed that there were lots of conflicting versions of stories and also no comprehensive book dedicated to the film and what it meant. And that was the most important thing that attracted me. I’m not sure I have great instincts, but I did have an instinct that this movie was incredibly meaningful and said a lot about Welles at that time in his life and also about Welles’s entire career. I could begin to see how the movie was art imitating life and then morphed into life imitating art, with such a palpable sense of the greatest director who ever lived possibly becoming lost within the creation of something he thought would be cleansing and provide some form of redemption. That only scratches the surface, but it just felt like it had the potential to be a story that was more than entertaining, something profound, that not only spoke about the career of Orson Welles but addressed all kinds of other things in the process.

Finally, I love old Hollywood, and am always sad when I see that someone got to write a book about Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant or someone else like that. There can only be so many books left like that – and I saw this as my chance to be able to take a fresh angle on the most interesting man I could ever hope to write about – Orson Welles. Toss in John Huston and you have two larger-than-life figures who not only don’t exist anymore, but couldn’t exist anymore. So it was a huge opportunity to write about great men that I might never have again.

How many original participants in the Other Side of the Wind project did you interview?

I think I interviewed somewhere between eighty and ninety people. Some not directly involved in the film, but almost all of them were there and most worked on the film for a period of time. It was a little tricky because I kept finding names in lists Orson had made about who needed to be paid. In one case I found the name of the script supervisor (one not usually named in association with the picture) typed on the bottom of every page of one version of the script. It was great fun in the sense of playing detective, and it was exciting every time you found someone new.

One other thing, by the way, is that Orson went through assistants fairly rapidly and/or also employed more than one at a time. So I was able to speak to people who were with him almost all day for a period of time, even if for only a few months. Their variety of experiences and reactions, as well as their insights into the man behind the curtain, were fascinating.

Orson Welles first met Oja Kodar, an actress and sculptor, in Yugoslavia in 1962. She was his companion for the last twenty years of his life. Kodar collaborated on many of Welles’s later scripts and was intended to perform in most of them. She appeared in F For Fake (1973) and The Other Side of the Wind. Did you attempt to interview Kodar for your book?

Oja Kodar. Screenshot from 1995 documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band directed by Vassili Silovic & Oja Kodar

I went to great lengths to interview Oja Kodar and tried to contact her for more than two years via phone, fax, cell, Western Union, Fed Ex, and UPS (the last three because I could get delivery confirmations so I knew the letters had been received) – anything I could think of, because I really wanted to get her view of what happened. I never heard anything back, but then one day she picked up the phone when I called. We had a pleasant conversation, and she expressed enthusiasm that someone was writing a book about The Other Side of the Wind and said she’d love to be involved. It turned out, however, that her involvement would require that I first write the entire book, allow her to approve the content, and then she would be glad to have me come to Croatia and speak with her. I understood her desire for those things and told her so, but there was no way I could agree to give someone else approval over the content of the book, not to mention the legal and logistical issues (I’d probably still be writing it) that made anything like that impossible. So, regrettably, I had to tell her that it couldn’t work that way, but that I respected her position and that I’d be available if she ever changed her mind. That was the sum total of our discussion. I was disappointed, but I’d been through this on other projects and realized that if you do your homework, dig up enough material, and do enough interview, that you can tell a story just as well, even without the involvement of one or two significant people who declined to talk.

Sure. And a great deal of your research is in primary documents. We almost crossed paths at the Special Collections Archive at the University of Michigan working on our respective Welles projects. It’s only in recent years that the full collection has become available to scholars. It’s a treasure trove. How did you approach researching the Orson Welles–Oja Kodar Papers?

There was only one way. I just dug through stuff for days and days. Those archives contained so much of the stuff that pulled parts of the story together and connected them. Through what was there – most of it later copied by a student of mine who scanned and brought me thousands of pages of documents – I was able to piece together much of the chronology of certain periods, how Orson dealt with various other parties, many of his concerns, the way he worked to some extent, and so much more. Combining those with the interviews, hundreds of articles, tons of books, things gathered from other archives, numerous legal documents, and any other resource I could find that mentioned The Other Side of the Wind, I was able to put together a picture of Welles during the making of this film. And the documents also demonstrate, in some cases, that he had a wonderful sense of humor.

I’ve read the version of the Wind script that was published by Cahiers du Cinéma in 2005. I admit that I found the text a bit of a slog and also a little baffling. Did you find a lot of wildly different variations in the mountain of draft scripts now at the University of Michigan? And can you explain how the story and characters developed from The Sacred Beasts to its later incarnations? Was the script really that important for this project, anyway?

I was overwhelmed by the number of scripts and revisions of the script that were at the University of Michigan. I’m not sure there were wildly different versions of the script, but there were lots of changes of dialogue, and there were things that wound up not making it into the movie – or at least didn’t make it into the movie as best as I could tell.

As for how the story developed, it grew out of a 1937 incident where Welles had a legendary fistfight with Ernest Hemingway that ended with the two of them drinking a bottle of whiskey and becoming friends. By the mid to late 1950s, that incident – during which Hemingway had insinuated that Welles, due to his theatrical background, was gay – had become the basis for The Sacred Beasts, a screenplay about a great novelist (of the ultra-manly Hemingway variety) living in Spain, who has lost his creative powers and spends his life being trailed by a Greek chorus of sycophants, grad students, and others who serve the purpose of telling him that he’s still great. Meanwhile, the novelist has become obsessed with a young bullfighter who serves as a reminder of his lost youth and, very subtly, a possible romantic interest. In 1958, when Orson was in Switzerland visiting writer Peter Viertel, he explained the script. When asked if it was about himself or Hemingway – both lived in Spain and loved bullfighting – Orson laughed and said something like, “Both of us.”

In the mid-1960s, Welles changed the script somewhat. The locus moved from Spain to Hollywood, and the novelist became a swashbuckling man’s man movie director named Jake Hannaford.

Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston in a scene from The Other Side of the Wind. Screenshot from the 1995 documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band directed by Vassili Silovic & Oja Kodar

Thereby inviting closer comparisons with Welles himself. How much should we identify Orson Welles with Jake Hannaford? And what other characters are based on real people?

It’s an awful way to begin my answer – but that’s a very complicated question. But, here’s how I look at it: the character is both very much not Orson Welles and is most definitely Orson Welles. By that I mean that Hannaford himself, the way he is written and the way he is cast, couldn’t be more unlike Welles. He’s much more like an amalgam of John Huston, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Raoul Walsh, and Rex Ingram – the adventurer director, or what Welles called (referring to Huston), “a great director as a figure.”

Then, however, you have a director who is in almost precisely the same situation as Welles – returning from Europe, making an innovative comeback movie, trailed around by critics, fans, and admirers, and beset by money problems with a film that may or may not have a coherent storyline. On top of that, other characters in the film are essentially playing out their own relationships with Welles. None, perhaps, more than Peter Bogdanovich, who began playing a critic who is writing a book about Hannaford (he was writing a Q&A book with Welles at the time that became This Is Orson Welles) and winds up changing characters three years into production, at which point he’s playing Hannaford’s protégé, who is the hottest young director in Hollywood with three consecutive hit movies. This at the very moment that Bogdanovich had made The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon.

Later, Welles gave an interview to Cahiers du Cinéma that was entitled “My Favorite Mask Is Myself.” And I think that’s what he was doing here. The character of Hannaford was a mask of sorts. No, he wasn’t purely a direct expression of Welles, who would never do something like that. But I do think he took a character who is very much unlike him and used him as a mask to make a very personal, semi-autobiographical film about someone who is very, very much like himself.

I’ve recently studied some of Welles’s late unproduced scripts including Assassin (1975) and The Other Man (1977), his adaptation of Graham Greene’s Honorary Consul, and I was struck repeatedly by their negative references to machismo (the anti-machismo theme is already there in Greene’s novel, but that may explain one of its attractions to Welles). This criticism seems to be also at the heart of Wind and its earlier incarnation as The Sacred Beasts, which Welles spoke about publicly in the mid-1960s. In 1981, Welles told students at UCLA that he valued bravery above all other virtues, but insisted “don’t call me a macho, that’s not what I’m talking about.” But it’s been a largely hidden theme because none of this work ever made it to our screens. Can you speculate why Welles began later in life to direct his criticism toward the Hemingway figure who had so dominated popular ideas of masculinity?

I can only speculate as to why it became more significant later in life, but everything that I do know of Welles’s character indicates that he’d never been someone who liked or aspired to be masculine in that manner. I think it was something he’d been dismissive of his entire life and it would seem like the kind of thing he’d have considered to not only be a lesser virtue, but a refuge for the insecure.

Peter Viertel said that Welles had always scoffed at John Huston’s persona (though he also said that Welles probably knew a good rival act when he saw one), but Welles also knew that Huston was a man of great intelligence and artistic integrity. He admired Huston and viewed him as a peer. But anyone who seemed to be of less substantial accomplishment I would imagine he disdained. For example, I believe that he personally liked John Wayne (can’t be sure of that) and admired John Ford immensely. They had something there that made their overt masculinity acceptable. But in someone like Ward Bond, he’d just consider it to be an act of insecurity by someone who lacked the gifts required to redeem that kind of image. I want to add, however, that it is entirely speculation on my part, but that would be my sense of it.

As for the original question, I think that he’d always probably felt that way and just as his work began to take on other subjects in a more direct manner – perhaps he finally felt free to explore his feelings about this as well.

Huston, Welles, and Bogdanovich during the shooting of the film. Photo courtesy of Les Films de l’Astrophore/Photofest

Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have attributed Welles’s shift to a more feminist outlook – and a less sexually inhibited approach – to his personal relationship and professional collaboration with Oja Kodar. She co-wrote a number of Welles’s later scripts, including Assassin and The Other Man. To what extent was she involved in the development and scripting of The Other Side of the Wind? 

Oja Kodar has said that the Wind script was the merger of two screenplays: one by Welles (The Sacred Beasts) that was the story of a legendary, but creatively impotent, Hemingway-like novelist, living in Spain, who travels across the country following a young toreador with whom he is obsessed; and another by Kodar that had a strong sexual/erotic (and possibly homoerotic in the case of the main character) undertone. To what extent her script was an influence on the final screenplay is hard to say since I haven’t seen separate scripts (i.e., The Sacred Beasts and Kodar’s script, as separate entities) that existed prior to the various versions Welles used while making the film, so it’s very difficult to tell where everything came from, though his description of the film in the 1966 Maysles Brothers documentary Orson Welles in Spain seems fairly close to the idea that became The Wind. That said, he obviously was more comfortable shooting erotic material (like the sex scenes from Jake Hannaford’s film within the film in The Wind) during the course of their relationship. Having gone on record as saying that he found sex and religious ecstasy difficult to accept on the screen, it was clearly something he’d struggled with and didn’t easily embrace. Since Kodar was much more open about that kind of material – both culturally and generationally – I would imagine that she was encouraging in that matter and an influence on his choice to have Hannaford’s film include more erotic imagery and sexual content.

I’ve also heard that Welles had Kodar direct some of the scenes from Hannaford’s film, which was kind of a mock-Antonioni type of movie. That film was an interesting way for Welles to explore eroticism and sexuality because, even though he was the director, he was shooting with a mask on – that of the old studio director (Hannaford) trying to make a modern movie in the style of another director. Which really muddies up his relationship with being more sexually frank as a director in some ways.

Welles, Bogdanovich, and Welles scholar (and actor, here) Joseph McBride during the filming of The Other Side of the Wind. Photo by Felipe Herba, courtesy of Joseph McBride

Welles was uncharacteristically open to the press about his dislike of Antonioni’s movies. What do you make of that apparently plotless Antonioniesque film-within-a-film, also called The Other Side of the Wind? There are clearly some stunning images in Welles’s footage, but I’m not alone in finding it a little implausible that a Golden Age director would convincingly pull off something Antonioniesque in order to appear hip to a young audience (Stefan Drössler at the Munich Film Museum expressed to me the same reservation.) The reason I’m unconvinced is that usually when Golden Age Hollywood directors tried to appear “with it” in that era they embarrassed themselves. I’m thinking of something like Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968).

The Other Side of the Wind was a film that served many purposes. In this case, I’ve always had the feeling that in one small element it was a bit like the christening scene in The Godfather. He was going to take swipes at people and things he didn’t like. Thus, there is the smarmy critic Higgam (based on his critical nemesis Charles Higham); there is Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg’s take on someone like Pauline Kael – though her portrayal and the character are more sympathetic than the way Orson felt about Kael herself); possibly Robert Evans as the studio executive who won’t buy the movie; and others. I think as part of that he decided to kick a little sand in Antonioni’s face as well.

I’m also not sure if he was thinking in terms of how plausible the scenario was in the terms you describe. I think he saw Antonioni’s style as easy to play with – in that he could make something really gorgeous and utilize all kinds of cinematic bravado in making it, but it also gave him enormous freedom to do whatever he wanted – since the conceit was that the film itself had no plausible story. So he could comment on the lack of meaning he saw in Antonioni’s work, have a good time shooting it, and just kind of invent as he went along because whatever they shot – as long as it was beautiful and kind of nonsensical/pretentious – would work.

He never said that specifically, so it’s a bit of guesswork on my part, but I do think that he was really able to have fun with it.

Reading your account of the way the Wind project unravelled, I was struck by similarities with Welles’s situation on Mr. Arkadin in the mid-50s. It is notable that these were the only two Welles screenplays to have gone into production when derived from an entirely original idea – not an adaptation of a novel or a play, nor a collaborative work like Citizen Kane, which at least partially involved Welles adapting material by Herman J. Mankiewicz. The difference seems to be that the producer of Arkadin, Welles’s friend and secret Comintern agent Louis Dolivet, fired Welles when he failed to deliver the film on time. But for Wind, Welles was allowed to continue shooting and editing for years without ever having to meet a deadline. Can you say something about the producers of The Wind and the particular conditions that allowed Welles so much time to make the movie (and ultimately not finish it)?

The financing of The Other Side of the Wind was an extremely unique situation for a number of reasons, which included the fact that Welles’s financial backer was a Paris-based production company run by Mehdi Boushehri, who was married to the Shah of Iran’s twin sister. The company (Les Films de l’Astrophore) was established as a way of getting Iran into the film production business (and to establish it as a viable location for filmmakers from the West) by pairing with well-known directors. Welles was their first partner.

Though Welles started with his own money and did take on other investors, it was Boushehri’s company that wound up supplying more than half of the money that had gone into the film. Over the years, it’s been assumed that they were bad producers and sketchy characters (an affiliation with the Shah certainly aided that belief) who put an incredible amount of pressure on Welles to deliver. From the documents I read and the interviews that I did, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, Boushehri, far from being a Shah loyalist, was a kind, sophisticated, deeply cultured and good man who believed in Welles and was incredibly understanding about his needs as an artist. Perhaps, in some cases, too understanding. Without a lot of experience in production – Boushehri gave Orson a lot of rope with which to work, and the really substantial pressure to complete the film didn’t actually come to bear until 1976 when things weren’t going well in Iran and Orson’s producers suddenly were under the much stricter supervision of Iranian bankers/financial people who wanted to know what their million-plus dollars (roughly ten times their initial investment) had funded during the past several years.

Though there certainly was conflict at times, I think Boushehri really believed in Orson as an artist and did a great deal to resist attempts to put a strict timeline on completion of the film – which they finally did at the end of 1975, but allowed Orson to select his own completion date, which he set at April or May of the following year.

Finally, are there any anecdotes about the making of the film you were forced to leave out of the book and would care to share with us?

When you are dealing with Welles, John Huston, and The Other Side of the Wind, there are far too many good stories – some of them perhaps apocryphal, but good nonetheless. And even some of the ones that can be validated or you know to be true can’t possibly make it into the book because it could simply go on forever.

One of the strangest and most amusing stories ever told to me came from one of the members of a group that called themselves VISTOW (Volunteers in Service to Orson Welles), who were hardcore members of the crew who did anything that was needed, whenever it was needed, and many of whom were there for most, if not all, of the production of the film over the course of six years.

The story I was told by one of them went like this:

Orson often had money problems and sometimes had to sneak out of hotels without paying the bill. On one such occasion, a VISTOW member was asked to return to Welles’s suite to collect some belongings Orson had left behind.

When he arrived at the suite, he immediately noticed what seemed to be a pinkish-orange carpet that ran from the hotel bedroom, across its living room, and all the way into the bathroom. Upon closer inspection the man found that this “carpet” was made of shrimp. The man then remembered that Orson was frequently on strange and extreme diets, and that he’d recently gone on one that consisted entirely of shrimp. He also recalled that Welles – not one for half measures – had ordered a gigantic amount of shrimp from a guy in New Orleans who was known as being the supplier of the best. So now he understood why there was shrimp there in the suite – the question, however, was why there was a carpet of the shrimp leading from the bedroom, across another room, and into the bathroom.

He went into the bathroom and figured it out. Orson had realized that he would have to leave the hotel in a hurry. The problem was he had a huge amount of shrimp that would undoubtedly go bad if left sitting in the bedroom (I have no idea where he intended to refrigerate it). As a result, Welles had tried to flush the shrimp down the toilet. And then he had obviously realized that it was an impossible task.

The crewmember, who’d done all kinds of things for Welles over the years decided that this was where he drew the line, collected Orson’s stuff, and left without cleaning up the shrimp.

But, yes, it leaves you with the amazing image of this great man trying to stuff huge amounts of shrimp down a hotel toilet.

Hard story to get additional verification on – but probably the most outrageous and hilarious one that never made it into the book.