May 26, 2015
Our story is about a special group of these, the richest, smartest, the chicest. The jet-set ones. Has to do with a kind of voyeurism. I’d call it emotional parasitism. It has to do with the mystique of the he-man. This picture is against he-men. – Orson Welles
The above quote is from Orson Welles in Spain (1966), a 10-minute short made by Albert and David Maysles in which Welles woos potential investors about a bullfighting movie called The Sacred Beasts. The main character was Ernest Hemingway manqué Jake Hannaford, and after Sacred Beasts went bust Welles transferred Hannaford whole into The Other Side of the Wind. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of another kind of machismo, that of a swaggering 70s auteur, with Hannaford now a doomed director (played by John Huston), his downfall captured in a densely edited collage of 35mm, 16mm and 8mm film. Welles would shoot from 1970 – 1976, but like much of his late work, post-production was never completed due to a tangled series of economic calamities, from a producer absconding with money, Welles’ absent business sense, and Iranian investments locked up because of the overthrow of the Shah. The negative was locked in a French lab with competing rights claims from Welles’ partner and collaborator Oja Kodar, his daughter Beatrice Welles, and the Paris film company Les Films de l’Astrophore, run by Mehdi Boushehri (one of the original investors in the project).
For decades now there have been teases that the film, which was completely shot and partially edited by Welles, would see the light of a projector. Today we are closer than ever to that tantalizing goal, thanks to the efforts of producers Filip Jan Rymsza, Frank Marshall and Jens Koethner Kaul, who helped to negotiate an agreement between Kodar, Beatrice Welles and Bousherhi to gain access to the negative. Now the work begins of resurrecting a feature left for dead forty years ago. So Rymsza and the production team (including advisor Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’s friend and a co-star in the film) has started an IndieGogo campaign to raise $2 million to complete the production of The Other Side of the Wind (you can donate here: www.orsonslastfilm.com). They have much left to do, including logging all of the Welles’ voluminous notes, organizing and scanning the negative, editing based on Welles’ instructions, color-correcting, and producing and mixing the music and effects.
Filip Jan Rymsza and Peter Bogdanovich took some time to talk to me about Welles, The Other Side of the Wind, and the ongoing IndieGogo campaign, getting into the atmosphere on the set, Welles’ famous prudery, and why they chose crowdfunding to get The Other Side of the Wind into the world.
Peter, could you describe what the atmosphere was like on the set, and Welles’ state of mind going into the feature?
PB: He was very buoyant. He called me, this was when I was playing a different role. I started out playing a cineaste, writing a book about John Huston’s character, and the trick was, he wanted me to be asking these pseudo-intellectual questions, some of which he made up, or I’d have to make up. He wanted me to do it like Jerry Lewis, with the voice. So I would ask questions like [imitating Jerry Lewis], “Do you believe that the cinema is a phallus?” [Joseph McBride claims to be the one who uttered this line in his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? – we’ll discover who’s right when the film comes out]. The first day of shooting he called and said, “What are you doing Thursday?” I said, I’m going to Texas to shoot The Last Picture Show”, a script that he had read, and what he referred to as “a dirty picture”. He asked if I could go and shoot with him on Thursday, so I said, “What are you shooting? – I’m shooting a dirty picture. You’re shooting a dirty picture so I’m shooting a dirty picture.” And that’s how he would refer to it, jokingly of course. And I went down to Texas for Last Picture Show. By the time we were shooting again on Other Side of the Wind, some months later, I was playing a different part. I ended up playing a leading role. The atmosphere on the set, there wasn’t very many people there…Orson was very jolly, very happy. He was always in very good humor when he was shooting.
I’m curious about the tone of the film. Is it a satire of the film business?
PB: That’s hard to say because I haven’t seen it – nobody’s seen the whole film. There is a satirical aspect to it. There is also a tragic element too. It begins with his death. At the beginning Huston’s character dies at the end of his 70th birthday celebration, in a car accident. You see pictures of the burnt-out Porsche he was driving. So it begins right away with tragedy. And it’s funny at times. But it’s not really a comedy at all. When Huston asked him what the movie was about, he said, “It’s about us, John. About a bastard director.”
Do you think there’s anything autobiographical in there?
PB: Oh yeah. I’m sure of it. He really wanted to play the part himself. But he felt Huston was more right for it. He said, “I should play the part. It’s a goddamn good part. But he’s right for it, damn it.”
What was his relationship like with Huston?
PB: They were long-time friends. They both made their first feature the same year, 1941, and Orson was in a couple of films that Huston made. They were friendly. John was particularly impressed with Orson’s method of shooting, because it was so unorthodox. So unlike the big studio pictures that John used to make. John found it refreshing to have a small crew, changing the dialogue a little bit every day. What seemed like a haphazard form of shooting but it wasn’t, because Orson knew exactly what he wanted to do.
Peter, you mentioned the unorthodox style of the film. He’s using 8mm, 16mm, it seems ahead of its time. The editing seems very dense. Did he tell you what style he was going for?
PB: I remember him saying that the editing would take a while. The kind of thing you can shoot in eight weeks but takes eight years to cut. It ended up more so [laughs]. The conceit of the picture is that you’re seeing a kind of documentary of Huston’s last day on earth. It’s put together from all this footage that was supposedly shot on the day of his birthday by various people. Students, TV news, all these different kinds of media were invited. In the story, after he died, the documentary of that last day is put together. That’s what we’re seeing. Interspersed with that, during the party sequence (the bulk of the movie), they stop and they show clips from the movie the Huston character is making. They show it in the projection room, and eventually in a drive-in screen. Which are also very densely cut. Shot in 35mm, and very, I guess, arty and complicated. Orson cut most of that stuff already.
I was going to ask, of all of the challenges of this film, the greatest would have to be editing the rest of it together, considering the existing footage. Have you hired an editor?
FR: Yeah, we have. Alfonso Gonçalves, who has worked with quite a few interesting filmmakers. He’s involved with the Todd Haynes, they did Mildred Pierce together. He did Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Only Lovers Left Alive. Even though he’s had success he’s chosen to remain in art cinema. With each film, his editing takes on the character of the film, so he’s somebody who has amazing intuition, and was malleable. We were very excited by the prospect of working and collaborating with him.
We’ve done a lot of due diligence in terms of going back through the script, the notes. There were five feet of scripts, an enormous amount of data to process. All the way from the beginning, through the very long process, as Orson would re-write. To the cutting script, which had a lot of annotations in it. Orson sent it back and forth, a lot of times across the Atlantic – he had his editors doing some work in Paris. There is a wealth of information.
Filip, how did you first get involved?
FR: Six years ago. It started here in Cannes. I was simply told without any sort of detail that the rights were available, and that was my entry point. That plus the script. That was enough to plant the seed, to pique my curiosity, and then for the next three years I was trying to find my bearings, figure out what it is that that meant, that the rights were available. That was the biggest challenge. It was a very complicated title. That was how the process began, finding a way to acquire the negative and be able to finish the film.
The negative was at a French lab that went bankrupt?
FR: That is correct. It was under court order, because the French operate under Napoleonic law. So moral rights were split in a way where it was up to me to bring all the parties together, and figure out a way to lift that court order. Everybody had to agree to a method by which to finish the film, but also to allow us to do so.
Who were all of the parties that you had to bring together?
FR: Three main parties. Mehdi Boucherie, Oja Kodar [Welles’ partner and collaborator], and Orson’s daughter, Beatrice, who is in charge of the estate.
How difficult was it to get them on the same page?
FR: It was a challenge. Everybody is motivated by something else. The commonality here is everyone eventually wanted the film done. The emphasis now has shifted to getting the film done.
Why did you decide to go the crowdfunding route with Indiegogo?
FR: They approached us back in December, and we started talking about it internally. Everybody decided this was very much in keeping with the way that Orson went about his films. And being able to retain control, something that he fought for his entire career. We just thought it would be a wonderful thing to bring the film to his fans, and secondarily, it’s a very expensive undertaking, which bucks the independent film model. It’s a film that’s expensive to finish, also we had to account for the rights, and it would be different if this was a restoration or re-release, but this is a new film, that will have a 2015 release. We needed the extra money to be able to finish it and bring it to distributors, and that way we could retain control.
What stage are you at now? Have you scanned the negative?
FR: No, it’s still in the future. We’re still doing a lot of organizing. Once you start scanning you really have to go into it knowing exactly what you’re looking at. What we’ve been doing is cataloguing, and putting together the negative in a strategic way, putting it into scenes, and separating the camera negative from the inter-negative. So once it goes into the scan we’ll know where everything is. We’re also very much relying on the IndieGogo campaign because this will help us accelerate this process. These funds are important for us to finish the film in a manner we think is fitting of such a great piece of art.
PB: It’s a great help that Orson left so many notes, so that post-production is already organized for us. Orson would change things every day.
How detailed are the notes, do they include instructions from shot to shot?
FR: Yeah. Some of them address specific scenes he was working on, certain things he wanted printed. Quite a bit talked about the Lilie Palmer scenes [she plays Zarah Valeska, a ranch owner], specific things that he wanted. Even if you look at some of the rushes, certain scenes he had already blown up. They are fairly extensive.
If you do not get the full amount requested in the IndieGogo campaign, are you still confident you will get the film released?
FR: Yeah, we’re confident, but we don’t want to take any urgency from the campaign. It is not an arbitrary amount that we landed on. It’s part of a bigger budget. The budget for this is much bigger than two million, but that’s what we thought we would need to do it quickly. If we fall short of the goal, obviously we’re still going to finish the film, but the process could drag out. Now somehow we’ll have to find, whatever the shortfall is, will still have to be accounted for.
Does the film push anything content-wise for Welles? I’ve read that he was prudish when it came to sexual matters.
PB: That’s true, Orson was. I think Oja Kodar, his partner and writer, who worked very closely with him, she being European (Hungarian and Croatian), she had a different kind of attitude about sexual stuff. She was more open and free about it. Orson was usually amused by her. I wouldn’t say embarrassed, but she knew how to make him blush, which was quite charming. He was reticent about sexual stuff, but he made an extraordinarily sexy sequence in The Other Side of the Wind, in the front seat of a car. Quite an amazing sequence. Let me put it this way, he overcame his reticence, and came up with a very powerful sex scene.
FR: It’s interesting on the note of authorship. He could do it maybe because he was wearing the mask of the John Huston director, so that was liberating. It was something that he saw as taboo, and in this regard, could justify it in that manner.
How much input to Oja have on the script?
PB: They worked together on it from the beginning.
Was there improvisation on the set?
PB: No, he was very specific about what he wanted us to say. Usually he would come up with a slightly revised version of what was in the script. He would go to the typewriter and re-type it, give it to us, and say, “This is what I want you to say”. There wasn’t a lot of ad-libbing.
Peter, considering how many formats Welles was using for this film, and the density of the editing – how do you think he would’ve adapted to using digital tools?
PB: I think he would be absolutely thrilled with the digital process. I don’t know if he would do it himself, like he did with film. He did all the editing himself on a flatbed. With the digital he would love it, because it’s so fast. He would have welcomed this technology with open arms.
FR: He was very playful, I was told, from the various editors that we talked to. He wanted to see a lot of things. He would have various editors cut the same sequence in different ways. There was a playfulness to it, and obviously in an online editing system, he would be able to do that, backtracking the clips and stuff, having to print all that – it certainly would have made his process much easier.
PB: Oh God, yes.
You are still aiming to get the film released for 2015?
FR: If we can get the money it becomes realistic. But if we don’t, then less so. We never operated with a delivery date in mind. We always thought it was a process. There are so many unknowns. We certainly didn’t realize we would be going through so many scripts, which we’ve been going through since November. We certainly didn’t realize that with the negative, there would be so much material. 1.6 tons. And a lot of it is already cut up into tiny pieces. A lot of it will have to be reconstituted. And it’s all mixed up. Initially it wasn’t really well catalogued. Everyone was working off of a handwritten inventory from 1974. So having to go back and create something for a digital workflow – put everything in an Excel spreadsheet and make things searchable – these things take a lot of time. At first I thought we could knock that out in a few weeks, and here we are now, having started in November, and still doing parts of it. It’s labor intensive. The more resources we have, the better and faster we can do it.
So you intend to have a full theatrical run once the film is ready?
FR: Absolutely. That’s why we’ve been going through this process, to bring on a like-minded distributor, somebody who saw a theatrical life. We just think there’s a wonderful marketing opportunity to something like this. It’s not an obvious film, but we feel there’s a way that this can be done. Our whole approach has been to do this in the manner it would have been released in ’76 or ’77. So we hope it’ll have a nice long theatrical life.
PB: It’s not dated. The material isn’t dated. It’s a period piece now, because it was shot in the ‘70s, but I don’t believe it’s dated in any way. It’s very modern. And it deals with egos, deception, betrayal, and all the things that Orson was interested in.