Nice picture. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Eve.
Dawson Interview 4th Draft (sub draft "F" - text only)
Wellesnet: Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the restoration of OTHELLO that you produced in conjunction with Beatrice Welles and the Paola Mori Estate. What are your thoughts as you look back on that project?
Michael Dawson: I’m glad we did it. It catalyzed an interest in Welles, and turned up the bunsen burner on studios looking at the other art fare in their archives, polishing that stuff up and getting a restoration industry going. I look at it as hopefully having been the basis for promoting the concept of restoration in general, but it was also a factor in restoring Orson Welles’s reputation, and correcting the misassumption that he went downhill after CITIZEN KANE.
Wellesnet: How did you get involved in the project?
Michael Dawson: I had been working on a documentary, called CITIZEN WELLES, for about two years, and I did many interviews for the film. One of them was with Beatrice herself, who later contacted me regarding OTHELLO and said it was one of the few films that she inherited from her mother’s estate. She said that some company in Italy was going to try and release the film, and I said that what she should do to try and stop that is to get a hold of the original elements of the film. If you control the original elements, it can have an effect on what gets released, since new prints have to be made from the negative.
It was my idea to play up the film as a “lost masterpiece”, and unless you know where it is, it’s lost, right? So I did some research and came up with a list of laboratories; some of which had gone belly up, but still existed in terms of archive storage. So after whittling it down to two, I gave my sales rep Mark Caras a couple of phone numbers to call, and one of them said they had the title stored in New Jersey. So we followed up on it and realized it was the original camera negative, with the original soundtrack elements.
OTHELLO was problematic in terms of the way the original elements were stored and the upkeep of those elements. The original negative of the film was not even stored in cans. It had been stored in rusted metal boxes with hinges since the 1950’s. We also found about 250 feet of that negative with masking tape on it right down the center, and there were also rust particles from the cans. But overall it was in good enough condition to use for the work involved.
Wellesnet: Even though the restoration was generally considered a success, you've said elsewhere that there were many problems with the film's theatrical release.
Michael Dawson: One of the problems was that the distributor, Castle Hill Films, played musical chairs with the laboratories and lab elements. While some digital work was done in Chicago, the original analog restoration was being mastered at WRS labs in Pittsburgh, and some other work was done at Castle Hill’s own labs in New York. Somewhere along the line, unbeknownst to us, they got ahold of the wrong elements, an untimed workprint and a badly overprocessed test track, and thought that they were the master interpositive elements. And so the first prints that were struck in Pittsburgh had problems with the visual timing and the dialogue track. Unfortunately, this got far enough along without anyone realizing it that one of these prints was shown at the world premiere screening at the Lincoln Center in New York.
WRS then tried to send them a new test print, but they said there wasn’t enough time because of the strict release schedule, so Castle Hill took the core elements and fixed it themselves. However, in trying to rectify those problems - inherent in the fact that they had had the wrong elements to begin with - they did some additional, and of course totally unnecessary work in New York, and in the process did some things that we disagreed with. For example, at the end of the opening funeral procession, there is this wonderful Latin chanting by monks, and they removed it for the film’s entire theatrical release. When we confronted them with this, their explanation was, “Well, modern audiences don’t understand Latin anyway, so we didn’t think it was necessary.”
Wellesnet: Do you think they really thought that they were entitled to make such a boneheaded aesthetic decision, or was it just a case of them screwing it up at the labs again and trying to rationalize it later?
Michael Dawson: That could have been. There was a gentleman that was assigned to do the additional work on the film in New York, and I think that’s a hard call to make. It could have been an honest mistake that was made, but regardless, they only compounded the issue by later coming up with that bad excuse. They would almost have been better off by just saying, “We fucked up.” But they wanted to cover it up with the “modern audiences” line. That’s when I went to Jonathon Rosenbaum and told him that, as a leading Welles scholar, he needed to call them and tell them, “You can’t do that.” And so, by the time the film was released on VHS by Academy Home Entertainment, the chanting was back in.
I literally had dreams where people were picketing the theatre saying, “Put back the chanting!” But we wanted to get away from the stigma of an Orson Welles film being problematic, even post-mortem, so we decided to be altruistic about it and kept our mouths shut about all the various problems we were having. And there was a tremendous amount of positive reaction when it was released, so why bring up issues at that point? They were later rectified for video anyway.
Wellesnet: I’m still a bit unclear by what you mean when you say that Castle Hill “played musical chairs with the laboratories”?
Michael Dawson: Well, what happened was that they had gotten ahold of the wrong elements to begin with. So after the timing problems from Pittsburgh showed up at the Lincoln Center premiere, we thought “What’s going on with WRS?”. We were not having any timing problem in Chicago, so we began to suspect that they had been given the wrong elements. And so we sent core elements to WRS to make a new test print, which they prepared to send to a gentleman back in New York - an underling of Castle Hill president Julian Schlossberg - who shall remain nameless. We said to him, “At least look at that new print, and if that doesn’t resolve the problems you’ve been having, then we'll send you the original core elements.” But by that time, Castle Hill probably feared for their own attachment to the project if Beatrice found out what was going on. So the people at WRS were told it was too late because of the release schedule, and that Castle Hill was going to take the core elements and try to rectify the situation on their own. Meanwhile, the gentleman told us here in Chicago that he had received that test print from WRS and that it did not resolve the problems.
So Castle Hill did manage to fix the faulty timing, but then the film went into distribution, and when it opened in Pittsburgh, some of the WRS technicians who had worked on it saw that the lab wasn’t in the credits. We had to tell them that they weren’t in the credits because of this additional work in New York, and that the test print they provided had not fixed the issues. And they said “Michael, we never sent that test print.” I was shocked by this, so I told them to send the print to me, and when I looked at it, the sound quality was beautiful and the image quality was gorgeous. That’s when I realized that this gentleman in New York had been playing musical chairs with the laboratories. Whether that was strategic skullduggery I don’t know, but clearly some misrepresentations took place, which unfortunately was the source of the problem.
The additional, and as I mentioned before, totally unnecessary work done in New York, not only eliminated the monk chant, but also gave Schlossberg license to put his name above Welles’s on all the advertising posters done by Castle Hill for the film.
Wellesnet: His name seems almost as prominent as Welles’s
Michael Dawson: I had a long talk once with Oja Kodar, and she thought this was going too far on his part. I agree with her. If I was Schlossberg I would have worried about getting struck by lightning. But what’s interesting is that, for the Image DVD, and the subsequent Cinar VHS release, and the British Second Sight DVD release, as well as the version shown on TCM, his name is not there. It just says Beatrice Welles, a slight change having been made to eliminate the –Smith after her divorce. I’ve always wondered why that happened.
Now the original poster for the film utilized the same image as was eventually used for the Criterion Laserdisc, as well as the Sarabande CD and the Cinar VHS release. It’s the great extreme close-up of Othello and Desdemona, just before he murders her. That was my first choice to use in all promotion materials, and that’s the poster that we used to notify theatre chains that the film was coming down the pipeline. The Castle Hill poster was used in the marketing for New York, LA, and a few other areas, but many of my clients in the midwest actually requested to use the original poster instead, so that was gratifying to me.
MUSIC SCORE RECONSTRUCTION
Wellesnet: One of the great things about the OTHELLO restoration was that it got so much publicity because of all the work that was done on it. However, some purists and Welles scholars say some of that work, mainly re-recording the music score in stereo, was unneeded and that it would have been better to have just released a good 35mm print of the original. But of course, it probably wouldn’t have gotten nearly the publicity or attention that way.
Michael Dawson: Well, one of the issues that we were dealing with in that regard was that there was an Arena BBC documentary on Welles in the early 1980's in which he specifically points out the fact that something abhorrent had happened to the music score and the sound, that it was not the soundtrack that he remembered. Something had gone amiss, so to speak, and that it was wonderful when it was originally recorded. And so in these optical tracks, even in the optical masters, when we listened to it, it was clearly over-modulated, and the frequency response was clipped by at least 10% at each end of the sound spectrum. When we would take out the hiss and other sound artifacts, we began to hear certain nuances that you wouldn’t normally pick up. So we thought, “Let’s re-record this music score.”
Now with the issue of stereo, you have modern movie theatres with modern sound systems, and we just felt that, to re-release this film, we wanted to at least accommodate the better technological environment that existed in theatres across the country, as well as to allow people to really listen to the music score in it’s “full glory”, so to speak. The other side of that is that, if they had just rereleased a 35mm print to theaters, that advanced techno environment would have only magnified the original soundtrack's flaws.
Wellesnet: Jonathon Rosenbaum raised awareness of the fact that the music score had been rerecorded in his article, OTHELLO GOES HOLLYWOOD. One of his accusations was that Michael Pendowski was hired to transcribe the music by ear even though Lavignino’s original score still existed in Italy.
Michael Dawson: That was an error on Jonathon’s part, and I think that partly stems from an incident where Mike had been up all night celebrating something else, and was tired, and I had not debriefed him of who Jonathon Rosenbaum was, that he was a leading Welles scholar. And I think an argument ensued, and there were some negative feelings generated by that argument, and I think it was the first domino to get knocked over in terms of taking issue with the music score.
But it had been researched, and there were these music societies that we looked to, to find those original score sheets. We did find what they call the “workscore sheets” that were used at the time the music was originally recorded. And they were a match, almost one to one, with what Michael had done in the reconstruction. Then there was the issue that Jonathon had attended an affair in Italy, and one of the children of Lavignino had told him, “That’s not my father’s score.” So that was also used as another weapon against Pendowski.
If you read Rosenbaum’s article, he claims that in the scene where Rodrigo tries to kill Cassio there were forty mandolins. We tried to point out many times that, even at the time, when we were still between the two worlds of analog and digital, we had the technical capability to tell how many mandolins were utilized, and there were not forty. I tried to point that out to Jonathon, and it gets to a point where there’s a certain disdain on the part of technicians towards film critics, because sometimes they go out on a limb, not really understanding certain aspects of production. We were able to confront him and prove that there were not forty mandolins. But then there is a resistance to that proof, because then you can’t use that as the foundation for your argument.
Wellesnet: It seems like grasping at straws. I mean, you don’t see forty mandolin players onscreen; why would there be forty mandolins on the soundtrack?
Michael Dawson: Well yeah...even as an incidental thematic situation. Remember, a Welles film was made as a “paycheck to paycheck” production, with Welles darting around Europe, appearing in other people’s films - sometimes not very good films, although he was the best thing in them – to get paid, and to pick up short ends for missing footage. With leftover footage from that particular project, he’d put somebody in a wig, throw a robe on ‘em, and get his reverse shot. Under those circumstances, the idea that financially he would have been able to put forty mandolins in a studio for a recording...that’s one issue just from a purely historical point of view. To get down to the technical analysis of the soundtrack, forty mandolins were not used.
But you know, to me the whole issue reflects what I call the “dirty plate” syndrome, where people become used to a particular aesthetic, so there is an innate nostalgiac connection to a particular work of art. The Sistine Chapel is a great example, where you had hundreds of years of candle soot, not to mention 20th-Century air pollution, brought about by downtown Roman traffic, that created somewhat of a varnish. And when it was restored, the colors became vibrant, almost day-glow colors. But that’s how they looked when Michaelangelo came down off the scaffold.
Similarly, we were trying to eliminate what we thought were technical flaws in the OTHELLO soundtrack, flaws which seemed to add to the paradigm that Welles continued to go downhill after CITIZEN KANE because he had separated himself from the studio system and became an independent filmmaker, way before it became vogue to be an independent.
We disagreed with purists in that we thought those technical flaws were due to a lack of funding for post-production, and everybody in the business knows that when you lack funds for the “Main Canvas”, so to speak, one area in which it shows up is in post- production sound. So we wanted to eliminate those technical flaws because we saw them as distractions. They’ve been used as examples of flaws, so by eliminating them, you can better appreciate the aesthetics that were there to begin with, without being distracted. However, purists grab on to the idea that these technical flaws are actually aesthetic virtues, and that’s where I’m willing to have a debate.
There’s another way in which Jonathon’s argument can seem almost facetious, which is that, if you have two different orchestras record Beethoven’s 5th, you’re likely to get a fairly wide variation in the interpretation and approach to rhythm, texture and dynamics, etc. The thing with OTHELLO is that we were required to adhere to what’s known as a “click track”, which is based on 24 frames per second. So any variation that’s happening from the original score to the re-recorded score has to happen within 1/24th of a second. That puts a template, or almost a cookie cutter on what you’re doing.You’re locked in pretty tightly with how it was originally recorded.
I don’t want to appear to be anti-Jonathon Rosenbaum, because I still consider him to be an associate and a friend, and I have great respect for his writing ability. It’s just that we have this gentleman’s disagreement about the OTHELLO music score. But there’s no real point of contention about the visual portion of the film.
Wellesnet: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Gary Graver told you that Welles had wanted to record both MACBETH and OTHELLO in stereo?
Michael Dawson: Yes, and I also had a conversation with Chris Welles Feder some years ago when we showed OTELLO at Lincoln Center, and I’m pretty sure she said the same thing, although I’m not positive. But I can tell you that Gary Graver was adamant about it in our conversations. If you look at the reconstructed MACBETH by the Folger Archives, which is really a reassembled construct of the original edit, they play a 5-minute suite from the music score before the film even begins, and it’s wonderful.
Wellesnet: Sure, MACBETH has a great score too. Jaques Ibert.
Michael Dawson: Which only supports even more the idea of Welles having wanted to release both films in stereo. So that was a big part of our own impetus.
OTHELLO ON VIDEO
Wellesnet: Thankfully, as you’ve said, all the technical problems caused by the distributors were ironed out by the time the film started to appear on video.
Michael Dawson: There was some additional work that had already been done in New York, when it was released on Academy Home Video VHS, to replace the Monks’ chanting back into the film.
Wellesnet: Were there any prints seen theatrically that did have the monks chanting?
Michael Dawson: I don’t think so.
Wellesnet: When I saw the film at the Fine Arts Theatre in Chicago, not only was the monks’ chanting not there, but they had also put a widescreen scope on the film, so that most of the visual compositions were ruined, with parts of people’s heads chopped off constantly. I actually walked out and asked for my money back, and they had fixed it when I went back again the next week, but I cringe when I think of how many people saw it that way in it’s first week.
Michael Dawson: Sure, a lot of people probably walked out thinking “Well, that was odd. Why would Welles frame things like that?”...thinking that chopping off people’s heads was something HE was doing, this “great genius”...all the miscomposed shots just further evidence of his decline. An ignorant projectionist using the wrong lens gating is one of those nightmarish, uncontrollable things that can happen during a theatrical release. There was also a big flood in Chicago at that time, right in the area of the Fine Arts, which made it difficult to get to the theatre.
Wellesnet: Yes, I seem to recall that, now that you mention it.
Michael Dawson: And for the Los Angeles debut, there were the Rodney King riots, which obviously put a big damper on theatre going. It was an interesting time, to say the least.
But that reminds me of another interesting issue we had with Castle Hill which points to the difference between film and video. We had wanted a particular stock of film used for the theatrical release prints, which was very resistant to scratches and tears. They didn’t use that stock, unfortunately. Now you can only screen each individual print about thirty times before it begins to build up it’s own artifact degradation due to projection, and at one point, years later, I remember seeing a retro screening of the film, and the print they showed was in a horrible condition. So the irony was, here you’re showing a ‘restored version’, but the print was so bad that it completely negated that concept.
Wellesnet: The “restoration” was in need of a restoration.
Michael Dawson: Fortunately all that’s not an issue on video. We had had the WRS- provided test print and other elements transferred into digi-beta masters, to at least preserve their work for digital video formats, and that’s what we began supplying Castle Hill with in later years, when the film would go into distribution on Turner Broadcasting or Image Entertainment, or whatever. So after the Academy VHS release, the image was further improved for the Image Entertainment DVD, which essentially is the “Chicago’ version of the film.
The irony is that there was a VHS version released after that, in the waning days of VHS, by Cinar, a Canadian affiliate of Bonneville, the company that had picked up the rights after Academy Entertainment went belly up. The difference between that and the Image DVD is that the Cinar has an absolutely pristine image quality, with literally zero artefacts. The downside to it is that it’s VHS analog format, not even standard definition digital. But other then the Image Entertainment DVD and the Academy and Cinar VHS releases, the UK DVD, and the version shown on Turner Classic Movies, are all basically the restored Chicago version.
Wellesnet: But the Rosenbaum argument had already returned when the film was issued on Laserdisc by Criterion.
Michael Dawson: Yes, Criterion was using the contract they had with Image Entertainment, but under the persuasion of Rosenbaum and other Welles scholars like Peter Bogdanovich, they decided to illegally issue the original, unrestored version instead, without telling anyone.
Wellesnet: Obviously, it was pretty bold of Criterion to just disregard that contract. You’ve said that Beatrice went after them because they didn’t ask her permission, but would she have given that permission if they had asked?
Michael Dawson: Probably not, because at the time, the thinking was...“This doesn’t make any sense. Why are we getting into a war of the restored version vs. the original version?” Criterion had a Laserdisc utilizing the promotion image for the restoration, and they even advertised it as being the restored version, complete with re-recorded music score by members of the Chicago Symphony and the Chicago Lyric Opera. Then they released it, and had the liner notes by Rosenbaum explaining that no, it was the original version instead.
If you look at the Criterion OTHELLO Laserdisc credits, you’ll see that they are probably the most voluminous production credits for that company ever, and that was because of all the technical reworking and applications that were utilized to improve the sound quality and the image quality, so that the gap between the original version and the restored version wasn’t so wide.
So there were people who bought the LD, thinking they were buying the restored version, and we received about 100 letters complaining when they found out it wasn’t. But here’s a second thing: there were also a lot of people who bought it thinking it was the restored version, and never bothered to read Rosenbaum’s liner notes explaining that it was not. So after watching the film, they concluded that the “restoration” was not very good. Unfortunately, Beatrice felt victimized by this too, since people would say, “Oh, she did a lousy restoration.” There are scratches there, it has a really high artifact level, the sound is not that good, they talked about fixing the lip-sync, but the LD is still out of sync, etc..
Wellesnet: Well, there was a lot of publicity surrounding the fact that the film was restored for it’s theatrical release, so it’s natural to assume that if people bought it on any video format, they would think it was the restored version.
Michael Dawson: Absolutely, and so there was a negativity because people thought “Oh, we’ve been hearing about the restored version, and after taking a look at the laserdisc, it’s a decent version of it per se, but it doesn’t look restored. And they said they re- recorded the music score, but it doesn’t sound that good to me.”
Wellesnet: “There’s no CSO...”
Michael Dawson: Exactly. And we got even more letters complaining about that, then from people who found out from the liner notes that it was the original and not the restored version. It was about two to one. And so what came out of all this was a kind of schizophrenia regarding the restoration, with some taking issue with Beatrice, and some taking issue with the restoration in general. People can argue all they want, but I’ve had people come up to me and say that they were with the other argument, but after watching the restored version again, they’ve begun to realize how much more pleased they are with that.
Wellesnet: You say you found the OTHELLO negative in a New Jersey warehouse. Was the Criterion LD made from the same source?
Michael Dawson: No, what they used was a 35mm release print, given to them by Gary Graver, from what I understand. They did not utilize the original camera negative, or an interpositive or a dupe negative melements. They were not in posession of those elements.
Wellesnet: There’s been a bit of talk concerning a possible 3-DVD set of OTHELLO, a ‘la Criterion’s THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN, pairing the Chicago restoration with the original (Criterion LD) version, and then including the original European cut as well, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1952, and has slightly different cutting.
Michael Dawson: Yes, you could include that as a “European cut”, since it does have different editing towards the beginning and was an edit by Welles, but then you get into an argument of saying, “Wait a minute. You’re re-releasing an earlier edit that he had? Which one rules, his earlier or his later?” Assuming he did one final edit on the film, there’s a strong argument that that’s the way he wanted the film to be seen. But I would have no qualms about seeing a set which including the original Cannes, LD and restored Chicago versions.
Wellesnet: What do you think the chances are that we’ll see it?
Michael Dawson: It’s an effort of going back to Beatrice and seeing if she’d be interested in doing that. It’s certainly a worthy project to be pursued, just as another theatrical release of the restoration would be, but there hasn’t been any talk about either that I’m aware of. Of course, right now my concentration is on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT.
Coming Soon, Part 2: The Chimes at Midnight Restoration