Interview with Josh Karp, author of upcoming book on ‘The Other Side of the Wind’
By RAY KELLY
It was a little more than a year ago we learned of Josh Karp’s planned book about The Other Side of the Wind.
Due in late 2013 for St. Martin’s Press, An Adventure Shared By Desperate Men (That Finally Came to Nothing) will chronicle the making and status of Orson Welles’ unfinished film, which stars John Huston as aging movie director Jake Hannaford and Peter Bogdanovich as Brooks Otterlake, a young successful director.
Karp, who teaches journalism at Northwestern, has written for numerous 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.
We first spoke with Wellesnet back in October 2011. He was gracious enough to field a few more questions.
How exhaustive has your research been?
I started working on the book in May 2011 after I sold it to St. Martin’s. I’d done some research for the proposal – but that’s when the real work started. So far I’ve interviewed around 70 people. There are a few left that I’d like to speak with, but I have more than enough to tell the story the way I want to – even if I can’t get the last few sources to speak.
In addition to the interviews, I’ve tried to read everything I can about Welles so that I can understand him in the context of making this picture. Like anyone else, his life story up to that point created and defined him as a human being and an artist – but I also think it was the fuel for the making of this film. Doing that kind of research on Welles has been both fascinating and difficult because there are so many books about him, so many perspectives, and so much fact-versus-fiction to sort through. As a result, I’ve had to read and re-read books and articles about Welles (as well as Huston and Bogdanovich) and that time period in Hollywood because I understand things in a different context and they make more sense the more that I learn.
So the research has been fairly exhaustive and ongoing throughout. Now I’m at the stage where I’m assembling all of it, seeing what I have and what I need and trying to put the right frame around all of it.
How has your opinion of The Other Side of the Wind evolved during the course of your research?
That’s a tough one. It’s ever-evolving and I think that’s the how Welles wanted to leave the film in some ways. My understanding of what it was all really about has come into greater focus – but refining that focus enough to put it in a book is going to be one of the challenges that I face.
You have been fortunate to view a work print of the film. What was your impression of the performances?
I think the performances are what make the movie so remarkable – in particular, Huston and Bogdanovich are fantastic. I think Welles did something incredible with them in that he took two individuals that convey a well-defined, big personality on and off screen and cast them essentially as themselves to a large extent – but he also got something much deeper from each of them.
When you watch the movie or scenes from it, you know that you’re seeing a John Huston performance and a Peter Bogdanovich performance. But, what has been stunning to me is how Welles also managed to extract and reveal their essential character beneath their performances.
For instance, with Huston, we all know who he is – the great adventurer director; charming; funny; smart; fearless and a guy who seems to be living a fascinating, fulfilling larger than life existence at all times. And when I did interviews that came through from everyone, yet there was almost always a moment in the interviews where they said that he also somehow seemed like the loneliest man in the world. There was a vulnerability there that no one has ever seen, and Welles pulled just enough of it from Huston to show us that there is another unseen side to this man and to Hannaford.
He does the same with Bogdanovich, whose character is cocky, glib, funny and slick – but Welles also gives us the subtle revelation that Bogdanovich/Otterlake is vulnerable in his own particular way and capable of much greater emotional depth and kindness than you think at face value. There is a real sweetness in his character that emerges for a moment and lets us see him in a very different way.
One of the widely circulated scenes is the one where Susan Strasberg/Juliette Riche/Pauline Kael says that Hannaford and Otterlake have to be close to each other because they have no choice. And that moment reveals the truth of their relationship – which becomes apparent later when their relationship falls apart in a subtle, but heartbreaking scene.
What has been the greatest challenge in researching The Other Side of the Wind?
The first was to pin down a timeline – as simple as that may seem. When nearly 40 years have passed and a movie was made without the formality of a studio structure by a man who lived out of his suitcase, it’s very difficult to know who was where; when they were there; how long they were there; and what they did when they were there. It’s involved a lot of detective work and trying to use multiple sources to place things in some precise version of the order in which they occurred.
Some folks remember something happening in 1971 and others think it happened in 1974, but someone else swears it was 1975. It’s been a real challenge to even find the correct spelling of (investor) Mehdi Boushehri whose name is spelled about 20 different ways in the books and articles that mention the film. His last name is even misspelled in his ex-wife’s (the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf) autobiography.
The second, equally large, challenge has been trying to untangle what the hell it all means. That is both the most interesting and frustrating aspect of doing any kind of in depth storytelling, but it’s been even more complicated given the nature of The Other Side of the Wind.
It’s clear to me that this was more than just a comeback movie. It was, I think, the merger of a man and his artwork in almost every way given that he was shooting the film primarily in homes where he was living while simultaneously writing, shooting, editing and rewriting the film – thus merging all the phases of his process. Add to that the fact that he cast real life friends playing thinly-veiled versions of themselves acting out aspects of their relationship with Welles – while he was going through the same things Hannaford was going through in terms of financing and his career.
In some ways this was almost eerie, because occasionally the onscreen relationship wasn’t just reflecting the past or present, but was in some ways almost projecting the future of the movie and/or his relationships with the actors. Hannaford never finishes his film. Welles never finishes his film. Even down to the fact that the setting is Hannaford’s 70th birthday and Welles winds up dying at age 70. But, beyond that, there are much more striking, surreal and amazing stories about people realizing that what happened to them in the movie was now happening to them or Welles in real-life after the fact. Those will be in the book and I think they are very significant pieces to the story.
Do you have any insight on whether The Other Side of the Wind may be released? Do you think it should be released as originally intended or as a documentary?
I understand both sides of the argument. There is certainly a good case for releasing it as an unfinished film/documentary. That approach allows there to be some kind of artistic form of coming full circle with an unfinished movie about an unfinished movie being released in unfinished form. On a more practical level I also know that editing was the critical phase of the filmmaking process for Welles, who had a very clear vision for how he wanted to the movie to look and feel and I get that it could be really hard to replicate that.
Many key people who worked on the film believe that it’s the only way to proceed. And I completely get where they are coming from. Their feeling is that it’s like finishing an incomplete symphony by Mozart.
If it were left up to me (which it’s not, thankfully), however, I’d probably go with the approach of finishing the film. I think there is a wonderful documentary to be made about the making of this film, but I think that if the movie is to be shown in actual theatrical release – or on a cable network – it would need to be in a coherent story form – which means a finished film. I think if you have a complete story and a finished film you have a much better chance of generating interest to a wider audience. If you don’t finish it, I think you run the risk of having a museum piece for film scholars and I don’t think anybody wants that.
It’s ironic, this question is not so dissimilar from the one Welles often faced – art versus commerce. You have the purity of the unfinished film in the form it was left by the artist himself; or you have the chance to get more people to see it; have more of an impact and make more money if you finish it. I guess my approach is try to get that impact and the wider audience, while sticking as close to the artistic vision as you possibly can. You can kind of have it both ways – hopefully with minimal give on the artistic end and creating something that might not be an utter and complete fulfillment of Welles vision, but probably pretty close.
I am not an expert on filmmaking, so take this for what it’s worth, but my perspective is that if you found a world-class editor whose ego and personal style were in check and who could work from the notes and material Welles left behind, I think the movie could be completed in a way that would be a close to Welles as you can get without having Welles there himself.
As for insights as to whether the film may ultimately be released, the sense I get is that there may be cause for optimism, but I also know that there are a lot of sticky legal, financial and personal relationships that need to be untangled first.
Post your comments on "The Other Side of the Wind" at the Wellesnet Message Board.