Something Cloudy, Something Clear: A book on Orson Welles’ ‘ The Other Side of the Wind’ due out in 2013
By RAY KELLY
While the future of The Other Side of the Wind is always cloudy, one thing appears clear: A book chronicling the making of this unfinished Orson Welles film is in the works.
Josh Karp, who teaches journalism at Northwestern, is writing about The Other Side of the Wind for St. Martin's Press. Due in 2013, An Adventure Shared By Desperate Men (That Finally Came to Nothing) looks at the filming of the 1970's Welles movie starring John Huston as an aging director attempting to revive his career with a hip, artsy film.
Karp has written for Salon, TV Guide, Premiere, The Atlantic Monthly Online, The LA Times Sunday Magazine and other publications. He is the author of A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever and Straight Down the Middle: Shivas Irons, Bagger Vance and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Golf Swing.
Karp, who is conducting some of his final interviews for the book, agreed to field a few questions from Wellesnet.
RAY KELLY: Your previous two books have dealt with golf and National Lampoon. What attracted you to an unfinished Orson Welles film?
JOSH KARP: The simple answer is that it’s a great story and something I could gladly work on for a year or two.
What first got me interested were the stories from the set. I’d read about Rich Little and the midgets; John Huston driving the wrong way on the highway; a movie funded by the Shah’s brother-in-law; Welles seeing the amazing sunset outside the open studio door and saying, “It looks fake.” I just loved all of that.
Then you had Welles and Huston who are almost literally characters out of novels (Huston was once described as “A Hemingway character lost in a Dostoevsky novel”). Complicated, charismatic, larger than life men and remarkable artists.
Someone told me recently that you couldn’t make small talk with either of them, simply because they’d led such interesting lives that you felt foolish bringing up the weather or the Dodgers game.
The biggest thing, however, was the depth of the story. It’s one thing to have great anecdotes and colorful characters. But, the more I learned about The Other Side of the Wind I felt there was something deeper than just a great narrative.
Though Welles claimed it wasn’t autobiographical, the way the story converged with his own life and relationships; and then the way in which the making of the movie began to mirror the movie itself just seemed deeply meaningful and symbolic.
One person I interviewed said that the on set atmosphere was almost surreal sometimes. It was hard to tell what was real life and what was the movie, both on and off screen. To me that was fascinating. That’s the long answer.
Can you elaborate on the title An Adventure Shared By Desperate Men (That Finally Came to Nothing) ?
It’s a working title and may ultimately change. But the phrase is from Peter Viertel’s book Dangerous Friends which is about his relationship with Huston and Hemingway, but also includes a bit about The Other Side of the Wind.
According to Viertel, Huston said he loved working on the movie because it was his favorite kind of undertaking – not unlike the storyline in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – “an adventure shared by desperate men that finally came to nothing.”
And that seemed to capture something about The Other Side of the Wind. A sense of people coming together and working against the odds to do something remarkable, but who ultimately are in it for the experience and love of filmmaking as much as for the result.
For those who were there, the movie was an adventure and people willingly came along for the ride, often without compensation. For just about everyone involved it was a once in a lifetime experience that they still list prominently in their bios 40 years later.
That quality really appealed to me - a filmmaking odyssey and all of the interesting people, events and roadblocks that intersected with it. It kind of begs that essential question about art – namely, what is more important, the act of creation (the adventure) or the result.
How would you describe the relationship between Welles and John Huston?
Certain things quickly became obvious. Welles and Huston loved and respected each other. They had an almost unspoken language borne of their long careers and friendship.
Huston was apparently blown away by the guerilla nature of the production and the idea of having a script that was a launching point for the performance, rather than something to be slavishly followed. He had enormous admiration for Welles as an artist and the way in which he was making this film.
What interests me is that both had so much in common. Each made classics their first time out. Both were painters; expatriates; raconteurs; and consummate artists who could direct, act and write. Both also enjoyed living well and were exceptionally bad with money. It’s overused, but they were mavericks and they were geniuses.
But, what makes their relationship more compelling is that Huston was able to work within the system and Welles was not. At the heart of that was the fact that Huston was able to detach himself emotionally and make movies for the money so that he could also make movies that were art. He was able to not give a shit sometimes. There is a great story in Viertel’s book where he asks Huston why he partnered with Sam Spiegel at a time when he had much better offers from respected producers. Huston’s responded with: “because it was the wrong thing to do.” I think that attitude served him extremely well.
Welles, by contrast, was emotionally involved in his pictures. He couldn’t churn out mediocrity as a director just to make money. He had no problem doing that as an actor, but as a director he needed new challenges and wouldn’t settle for making a bad script into a decent movie, or a mediocre film into a pretty good one. Huston seemed to enjoy doing that. But, there is something very pure about Welles’ refusal to do the same. Both attitudes are admirable in their own way.
How much of the film footage have you been able to see?
For some time I’d only seen AFI clips and the Mazursky/Jaglom scene. But recently I saw a few different versions of the film and hope I will have the opportunity to see more.
I had no idea what to expect, but what I saw was both fascinating and incomplete. Huston is just incredible and Peter Bogdanovich gives a terrific performance. Welles was right when he said that he would get into heaven for giving Huston the role of Jake Hannaford.
How many The Other Side of the Wind participants have you been able to track down? Who are some of those who have cooperated with An Adventure Shared by Desperate Men?
I’ve interviewed about 50 people so far and anticipate talking to 30 or so more. Joe McBride and Mike Ferris have been enormously helpful, as have Michael Stringer, Jon Braun, Larry Jackson and others. I interviewed both Paul Mazursky and Henry Jaglom about their scene, which was fascinating and has a great backstory. I talked to Bob Random recently and he was great.
There are a few big interviews I am planning on getting before it’s all over, but right now I’m trying to fill in the storyline in as much detail as I can. The one thing I think is really important when you’re working on a book is talking to the less obvious and more difficult to find people. They are the ones who see things that nobody else sees, or have a unique perspective. On my first book one of my best interviews was with one of the mail room guys from National Lampoon. So that’s always one of my big goals. I always try to find the mailroom guys.
What impression have you come away with about Orson Welles from all the people you have interviewed?
The obvious one is that he was larger than life and brilliant. A huge personality and a filmmaker with amazing mastery of the form. The analogies that keep coming to mind for me are John Coltrane and Michael Jordan at their peak. They did the incredible as if it were commonplace – and I think Welles did that as well. And just as Jordan wouldn’t sit and break down the intuitive way he moved on the court, Welles would respond to questions about why he did something a certain way by saying, “I thought it would look better,” which is something Peter Bogdanovich recounted in an article or his book.
Kind of the ultimate example of that is Eric Sherman’s comment about how he never saw Welles look through the camera, yet he always knew exactly what was going to be seen.
More surprising has been the way in which everyone describes him as so immensely human. Not just kind or thoughtful, but genuinely human in a way that is rare for someone with such a big persona.
He was keenly aware of his own legend and happily used the idea of being “Orson Welles” to full effect for all kinds of reasons. But at the end of the day he could be extremely human, instead of always putting on a performance.
What Orson Welles biographies have you found particularly useful in researching The Other Side of the Wind?
I’m working my way through all of them and each has its unique insights and perspective.
The most helpful have been Joe McBride’s terrific books and Peter Tonguette’s Orson Welles Remembered. Peter Bogdanovich’s This Is Orson Welles has been indispensable. Gary Graver’s book has a wealth of information about The Other Side of the Wind and his incredibly important relationship with Welles. Simon Callow’s books have also given me a lot to think about. Ultimately, I get something different and useful from each book.
Based on what you have seen and heard, how likely is it that The Other Side of the Wind may be completed and restored?
Last January, a colleague at Northwestern sent me The Guardian article about an imminent deal to finish the movie. I had a Google alert for The Other Side of the Wind that went crazy later that day. While I knew the strange history and all of the deals that never materialized, for a moment I thought that a miracle was in the offing. Then, shortly thereafter, it was debunked here on Wellesnet.
Since then I’ve learned to be more skeptical. Right now there is a pretty serious rumor that something is going to happen. I hope it comes to pass.
But the more I’ve looked into it, the more complicated it seems. It’s hard to escape the fact that most people I interview say they’ve been down this road many, many times and they’ll believe it when they are finally sitting in a theater or in front of their TV and actually watching the movie.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Shooting began on The Other Side Of The Wind on August 23, 1970 in Los Angeles, and continued intermittently through the spring of 1975, mostly in Los Angeles and in Carefree, Arizona.
Directed by Orson Welles. Scenario by Orson Welles & Oja Kodar. Produced by Dominique Antoine. Cinematography by Gary Graver (in 35mm, 16mm, Super 8, Eastmancolor & b/w). Production Managers: Frank Marshall & Larry Jackson. Associate Producer: Neil Canton. Production design: Polly Platt. Production Company: SACI (Teheran), Les Films de l’Astrophore (Paris). Filmed in Los Angeles, Carefree, Arizona, Paris and Orvilliers, France between 1970 and 1976. Approximate running time: 120 minutes.
Cast: John Huston (Jake Hannaford), Peter Bogdanovich (Brooks Otterlake), Oja Kodar (the Actress), Bob Random (John Dale), Lilli Palmer (Zarah Valeska), Norman Foster (Billy), Edmond O' Brien (Pat), Susan Strasberg (Juliette Riche), Mercedes McCambridge (Maggie), Cameron Mitchell (Zimmer), Paul Stewart (Matt Costello), Cathy Lucas (Marvis Hensher), Howard Grossman (Charles Higgam), Tonio Sellwart (The Baron), Dan Tobin (Teacher), Gene Clark (Projectionist), Joseph McBride (Mr. Pister), Benny Rubin (Abe Vogel), Greg Sierra (Jack Simon). With appearances by Paul Mazursky, George Jessel, Jon Carroll, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Stéphan Audran, Curtis Harrington, Richard Wilson and many others.