Panning for Gold: Looking for Welles' last lost movie
By Tim Cumming
From The Guardian (UK), January 9, 2002
This is a story about a legendary movie that no one has ever seen by one of the giants of American cinema, a movie about movie-making shot in the director's twilight years with a young, hippie crew, but never completed, and never released. It seemed that the world would never see this movie - until now, that is, over three decades after shooting began.
The story begins in 1970. Thirteen years had passed since Welles had directed his last Hollywood movie for Universal Studios, Touch of Evil, a film Hollywood hated and which European filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut hailed as a masterpiece. After years spent in Europe, hustling countless cameo roles in other people's films to raise money for his own, Orson Welles returned to confront his old nemesis. He settled in Los Angeles, to begin shooting what would become his last, lost movie, The Other Side of the Wind, which is itself the story of an aging director, Jack Hannaford, returning from obscurity to direct his final film.
'I'm going to use several voices to tell the story,' Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, director of The Last Picture Show and an active champion of Welles from the 1960s on. In Welles' movie, the film-within-a-film would be shown at a party thrown in Hannaford's honour. 'You hear conversations taped as interviews, and you see quite different scenes going on at the same time… The movie's going to be made up of all this raw material. You can imagine how daring the cutting can be, and how much fun.'
The lead role of Hannaford was given to Welles' old friend John Huston. 'Orson had come up with an ingenious idea,' Huston wrote in his 1980 autobiography, An Open Book: 'It was to tell the story through cameras being held in the hands of persons being filmed by the major cameras. The plot concerns a director - my role in the film - who comes to the end of his rope.'
Welles always denied any autobiographical intent in this or any other movie, but The Other Side of the Wind holds undeniable parallels to his own career and legend. Having failed to secure funds from Hollywood, it was shot guerilla fashion with the most skeletal of crews between 1970 and 1975.
Filming was completed, but according to Welles' cinematographer Gary Graver, whose association with the director began with The Other Side of the Wind and continued up to his death in 1985, only a few sections were actually fully edited. Two excerpts were shown when the American Film Institute presented him a lifetime achievement award in 1975, and Huston remembers that after shooting his final scenes in Carefree, Arizona, 'the incomplete picture was shown to a selected audience. Orson still didn't have the funds to finish it' - they were as fictional as Jack Hannaford - 'I didn't get to see it,' he adds, tantalizingly, 'but those who did tell me it is a knockout.'
Only now, over 15 years after his death, does a release in some form look imminent. At this year's Telluride Film Festival, Peter Bogdanovich announced that the movie's backers had finally been brought together to discuss its completion. 'I'm not sure it should be released,' he added, 'but I believe that it will be released.'
Welles' inspiration for the movie came from witnessing the entourage that followed Hemingway around the bullrings of Spain, but the real story was to be in the manner of its telling. The Other Side of the Wind is a film within a montage of films, a nonlinear Hollywood Rashomon that explores, as do so many of Welles' movies from Kane onwards, the terminal trajectory of a great man's life as seen through the eyes of those around him.
There is Hannaford's film itself, screened at the party for nonplussed studio executives. It is a cutting-edge, low-budget movie filled with arcane symbolism, nudity and violence, and unlike anything in Hannaford's Hollywood past - just as The Other Side of the Wind was, likewise, a completely new departure for Welles. 1973's documentary essay F for Fake, which he conceived, shot and edited during the filming of The Other Side of the Wind, shares the same dazzling audacity in its editing. But where he wished to take this last movie of his, this autobiographical hall of mirrors, is still, unhappily, a matter for conjecture.
What we have are the bare outlines of its structure. Hannaford's film - incomplete of course - is framed by the party held in his honour, where Hannaford's life and character unfolds for us through the eyes of his camera-toting witnesses - the acolytes, biographers, reporters and critics following Hannaford's every movement - even to the lavatory. A mythology is enacted, suspended somewhere between the old star system and the new celebrity culture. 'It's through these various cameras ' recalled John Huston, 'that the story is told. The changes from one to another - colour, black and white, still, and moving - made for a dazzling variety of effects.'
Huston was not the only director to act in the film. Others included Claude Chabrol, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Bogdanovich - who also supplied his house as a location - and Curtis Harrington, who calls The Other Side of the Wind 'the most famous film never released.' Its making was, by all accounts, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone concerned.
A young actor - now a professional astrologer - named Robert Aiken was drafted in to play the role of a left-wing firebrand for the party scenes. 'The great man did not so much direct as evoke,' he remembers, 'He was a great magician. He would incant. He managed to raise up things that were not really there. He always spoke of the shot or footage in terms of magic or poetry.'
Another witness, Mark Melnick, more or less stumbled into a long nightshoot, and found himself handling a camera and speaking a few ad hoc lines. He recalls wandering through Bogdanovich's house filled with expectant extras and film crew drinking the bar dry before Orson made his awesome entrance in the early hours, clothed in a full-length purple bathrobe. 'The crew were young and painfully deferential,' Melnick remembers, 'Orson would nod when asked a question, occasionally pointing a finger imperiously. I never heard him say a word.'
Huston remembers being given speeches he didn't have to learn ('John,' Welles told him, 'just read the lines or forget them and say what you please. The idea is all that matters'). There was a rough story outline, but no script, at least for the cast. Welles had written four for himself, but what was filmed was very much created in the moment, from intuition, and with who and whatever was available. Carrying the movie's vast canvas of history and character in his head, Welles' directing The Other Side of the Wind was the art of mastering accidents, snatching inspired solutions from situations that other directors would have deemed impossible.
'It was such fun working for Welles,' Bogdanovich remembers, 'It didn't matter what the scene was or what he asked you to do, you would do anything for him - and could: he made you better than you are.' But the creative, convivial atmosphere on and off set was tinged by the director's prophetic fear of the movie slipping through his fingers, as so many others had done.
Filming was continually interrupted to raise funds from cameos and talk shows. Welles spent close to a million hard-earned dollars on the picture, whilst producers and financiers continued to fail him, as they had always done. One Spanish producer absconded with $250,000. Money was raised from Iran, as a result of which the rights to work on his own last picture show slipped into oblivion with the 1979 Islamic revolution.
'I want you to promise you'll finish the picture for me,' he asked a surprised Bogdanovich over lunch one day, early on in the shoot. Over thirty years later, Welles' pensive request hangs heavy in the air, and Bogdanovich's promise has proved hard to keep. Welles died before The Other Side of The Wind was fully edited, and attempts to pre-empt the master's hand are likely to fall short - however close to the source people such as Gary Graver or Peter Bogdanovich were. There has been talk of releasing it in documentary form, with as much of the existing footage as possible interspersed with interviews with the actors. But just how much work it needs for release is a moot point.
Graver has his own copy of the film - since 1993 he and his wife have established one of the world's largest Welles archives - and has shown it at private film laboratory screenings to a lucky few. One of them is Curtis Harrington. 'Graver is trying to set a deal with Showtime to pay for the completion of the film,' he says. 'It's all shot, it just needs final editing, sound effects, the final music and the whole production will be finished.' The problems, he adds, are solely to do with the estate. Only now do the parties financially involved look close to reaching an agreement.
'What we do come up with has no special right to call itself better,' Welles told his sentimental but unforgiving and unforthcoming Hollywood audience at the AFI prizegiving in 1975, where he screened two excerpts from The Other Side of the Wind for the first and only time. 'It's just different." In the coming months, if we are lucky, we will find out just how different Welles' last movie really is.
Thanks to Tim Cumming for sending this along.