Why the chuckling ghost of Orson Welles haunts Cannes
The festival was supposed to finally show the premiere of a lost masterpiece almost 50 years in the making
Somewhere, the ghost of Orson Welles is laughing. This was supposed to be the week that would finally see the premiere of a lost masterpiece almost 50 years in the making, a film that has been called the Holy Grail of cinema: The Other Side of the Wind.
Welles’s experimental final picture, still unfinished at the time of his death in 1985, was the story of a director’s battle to release an unfinished, experimental film. Ironically, life continues to imitate art. It was set to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but it was pulled from the programme after a petty squabble between the festival and Netflix, which has financed the film’s reconstruction – despite a desperate appeal from Welles’s daughter Beatrice for them to reach a compromise.“I saw how the big production companies destroyed his life, his work, and in so doing a little bit of the man I loved so much,” she wrote, in an e-mail to Netflix chief Ted Sarandos. “I would so hate to see Netflix be yet another one of these companies.”
The Cannes row is only the latest hurdle in a journey that makes Terry Gilliam’s “cursed” The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (which closes Cannes this year) look like smooth sailing. Welles planned to shoot the film in eight weeks; he ended up taking six years, constantly rewriting and recasting. Legal battles, a lack of funding and even the Iranian Revolution all contributed to the film lingering half-finished for decades.One of its main backers was the last Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law; after the shah was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the new regime tried to seize the film as a government asset. They soon backed down, but in the ensuing confusion the film became the subject of a complicated legal tussle between Beatrice Welles, a French production company, and Welles’s lover, the Croatian actress Oja Kodar, who was a co-writer on the project.
For a long time, Beatrice resisted all appeals to finish the film. As she once put it: “I protected Wind like a lioness protects her cubs.” In 1998, US channel Showtime reportedly offered $3-million for the rights, but they were unable to find a compromise with the various warring parties and the deal fell through.“It’s like a lost Picasso rolled up in a cupboard somewhere,” Filip Jan Rymsza, one of the producers working on its restoration, said in 2015.
“Decades of legal battles have kept the film from being finished. Even in 2011, as we were close to resolving all that, the French lab that stored the original camera negative went bankrupt. The materials went missing, and it took us years to recover them. When we did I sat there thinking, isn’t there another way? Hasn’t this film suffered enough?”
Rymsza launched a crowdfunding campaign to finish the restoration, before Netflix swooped in with the necessary capital in exchange for distribution rights. Rymsza feels “conflicted” after the Cannes furore, as he recently explained in a post on a crowdfunding page: “There would be no The Other Side of the Wind without Netflix, but that doesn’t lessen my disappointment and heartbreak.”It was hardly Welles’s first film to suffer. The director spent his life battling studios, distributors and the press, ever since his astonishing debut with Citizen Kane in 1941. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst saw the film as an attack on his reputation and ordered a media blackout, pressuring cinemas to ban it.Whether or not Welles was the greatest director of his generation, he was certainly the unluckiest. Citizen Kane’s negative was destroyed in a fire in 1970; footage for his documentary It’s All True was dumped into the Pacific Ocean; two out of three reels for his The Merchant of Venice were stolen after the first preview screening. Welles spent even longer plugging away at a Don Quixote film than Terry Gilliam did; he wrote more than 1,000 pages of script for that project, which he began filming in 1957 and was still tinkering with in 1985. It’s a tragic symbol of how far Welles’s star had fallen by the end of his career that his last recorded film role was as the voice of an alien planet for 1986’s Transformers: The Movie.After he was fired by his studio RKO in 1940, Welles financed his films out of his own pocket. His constant struggle to scrape together funds led to some of his most inspired work. After failing to pay costume suppliers for a street-market scene in his Othello (1951), Welles told the cast to pinch the towels from their hotel rooms and wear them instead. A few smoke effects, et voila: the market had become a sauna, where a knife-fight – lit through shafts of steam – provided the film’s most thrilling set piece. Othello went on to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
But Welles’s financial difficulties also forced him to take on demeaning advertising gigs. The same year he began filming The Other Side of the Wind, he recorded a series of voiceovers for Findus food adverts. He stormed out of the studio, fed up with being asked to talk about frozen peas, fish fingers and hamburgers; outtakes capturing that moment have become a popular Internet meme.Welles channelled his anger at film industry bureaucracy in a 1962 film of Kafka’s The Trial, but saved the full force of disillusionment with showbiz for The Other Side of the Wind. When it premieres on Netflix later this year, it may give Welles the last laugh. The film is understood to be a scabrous satire of Hollywood, filmed in two radically different styles; half found-footage mockumentary, half glossy arthouse spoof.
It is set across a single day: June 2, the 70th birthday of irascible director Jake Hannaford. One half is a film-within-a-film starring Oja Kodar and Canadian actor Bob Random, also called The Other Side of the Wind. It’s Hannaford’s comeback movie – a sex-and-drugs-fuelled send-up of Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point and other “New Hollywood” films that Welles saw as style without substance. Hannaford’s film has gorgeous sets but no plot and no dialogue; it’s the work of an old director shamelessly ripping off the next generation, in a desperate attempt to keep up with them.The other half, meanwhile, is made up of scenes from Hannaford’s lavish birthday party, appearing as if recorded on whatever the guests happened to be holding; a mix of still photos, Super-8 footage and handheld 16mm film, in both black-and-white and colour. Its satire skated daringly between fact and fiction. Welles included a character based on his young acolyte Peter Bogdanovich.
He original cast stand-up Rich Little in the role, but when the comedian dropped out with no notice Welles gave the part to Bogdanovich himself. Meanwhile, Easy Rider’s director Dennis Hopper was cast as a shallow-but-trendy director, and was allowed improvised his own dialogue while “clearly stoned” (according to film historian Josh Karp). While rambling, Hopper blurted out a gem: “The whole thing becomes a movie in front of that camera.”Though Welles swore the film wasn’t autobiographical, it’s easy to imagine he was putting his life in front of the camera and hoping it would somehow turn into a movie. He claimed to have written enough for “a three-volume novel”, but chose to begin filming without a script – and without a lead actor. Playing Hannaford himself would have been an admission the character was a self-portrait, but it seems Welles was reluctant to give the role away. It was only after four months of filming that he chose another director, John Huston, for the role. When Huston asked Welles what the movie was about, he is said to have replied: “It’s a film about a bastard director… It’s about us, John. It’s a film about us.” Welles would happily lie to secure filming locations. According to Karp, he told a wealthy family he would like to rent out their home in order to have a quiet place to write his memoirs – then turned it into a film set without their permission. His crew pretended to be amateur film students in order to rent an MGM lot for just $200 a day, even though this meant having to smuggle Welles through security.He would fire cast and crew with wild abandon. The few who stuck it out through the whole troubled shoot took to calling themselves “VISTOW”: “Volunteers in Service to Orson Welles”.
One VISTOW was film critic Joseph McBride, cast as a film critic called Mr Pister. “Since I was a nonactor, I willingly put up with his bullying treatment and autocratic instructions,” McBride wrote in 2017. “I have kept my laughable JC Penney’s Mister Pister suit in a box all these years, in case any reshoots might be needed.”
Welles’s reliable line producer Frank Marshall was fired more times than he could count, but never got far before the director called him back to solve another crisis. Marshall went on to produce The Sixth Sense, the Bourne films, the Indiana Jones films and the Back to the Future trilogy, but never quite escaped Welles’s orbit.Today, he is one of the two main producers for the reconstructed Other Side of the Wind, alongside Rymsza. “I don’t know what I’m going to do after the movie comes out,” Marshall, 71, recently told Vanity Fair. “It seems like I’ve worked on this every month for the last 40 years.”
In reconstructing the film, Rymsza and Marshall faced a monumental task. Over 1,000 rolls of film had to be carefully reconstituted by hand and scanned – a process that took three hours per roll. Welles didn’t number his scenes, so they had to rely on his handwritten notes and actors’ memories to decide on the correct order. Welles only finished editing 41 minutes of the film; the rest had to be pieced together from raw footage.
But according to the few people lucky enough to have seen it, the resulting film is something groundbreaking. A small private screening earlier this year, attended by filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino and Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, reportedly left its audience awestruck. “On a style level, it’s cut in a way that feels slightly beyond where we are now,” Johnson has said. “It’s got a very fast, collage-like feel. This movie keys directly into what’s grand and tragic about [Welles’s] later years. It taps directly into the fuse box of that tragedy. I’ve seen it twice, and I need to see it a dozen more times.”When it is finally released on Netflix, viewers will be able to watch The Other Side of the Wind a dozen times back-to-back if they want – an experience that would have been impossible in Welles’s lifetime. That is, if it’s released on Netflix. We shouldn’t count our chickens too soon; judging from the film’s rocky history, it’s not impossible that the Holy Grail could slip from our grasp once more.
© The Daily Telegraph