There has never been a film with a longer gestation period than Orson Welles’ at-last completed The Other Side of the Wind, and ace documentarian Morgan Neville paints a frenzied, impressionistic picture of the movie’s electric, chaotic, agonizing, stop-and-go creation in this fascinating, self-consciously stylized account. Drawing on footage from the film itself, which began shooting in 1970, as well as from fresh interviews and an amazing trove of diverse Wellesanalia, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead employs a quick-witted, fractured-attention-span style that could be meant to equate with Welles’ own proclivity for juggling many ideas and projects at once. Created to be shown on Netflix in conjunction with the unveiling of Other Side of the Wind itself, this has a built-in audience among buffs and anyone curious about the complex creative life of one of the titans of the century of cinema.
The documentary’s title references a dark joke Welles told about hypocritical film-industry titans who wouldn’t lend a hand when he needed it but, he predicted, would sing his praises once he was gone. It’s a great irony now, of course, that others were able to find the means to complete his movie when he could not. It makes one wonder if Welles, were he alive today, might possibly have found a home at a place like Netflix, where, provided with a certain budget each year, he could have cranked out the sort of small, crafty essay-like films to which he was gravitating in the 1970s (F for Fake, Filming Othello) on a regular basis — not to mention Other Side of the Wind, which, in the manner of its making, was closer to a very elaborate home movie than to a conventional feature.
A fascinating account of an agonizing creative process.
Faced with the challenge of telling the start-and-stop tale of Other Side of the Wind‘s intermittent production while also creating a character portrait fed by comments from many friends and collaborators whose frequent one-hand-on-the-elephant perspectives are designed to combine into a picture of the entire animal, Neville here adopts a style very different from anything he employed on the stellar likes of 20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
To intermix with the myriad movie and TV excerpts and frequently fresh archival footage he’s dug up around the world, Neville has elected to film his many interview subjects in black-and-white from odd and extreme angles, as well as to not identify them onscreen. From one point of view, this approach merely adopts the attitude that, since virtually no one could claim to know the complete man (a perspective around which Citizen Kane was constructed), any portrait can only be partial and nothing is definitive. It’s a method of commentary used in a less formal but thematically similar way in Other Side of the Wind.
On the other hand, there are some witnesses here who knew Welles very well indeed, who lived with him and were privy to his more honest, unguarded thoughts. But only inner circle experts could really judge who’s well qualified to comment and who’s just throwing stuff out there that they’ve heard. In a way, then, it’s as if Neville, inspired by the scattershot commentary of the party guests in Other Side of the Wind, felt he’d been given permission to be a bit wild, even chaotic, with his documentary film style, an approach that proves both apt and a bit frustrating.
As did Kane, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead begins with its central figure’s obituary and soon fans out to to include commentary from a few of the multitudes who will eventually get their two cents in about the great one. Welles’ own remark that, “The greatest thing in movies are divine accidents,” is pointedly applied to Other Side of the Wind, an ambitious but homemade-style production centered upon a birthday party for grand old maverick director Jake Hannaford (played by grand old maverick John Huston), who has just finished shooting an arty and sexy low-budget New Hollywood-style film.
The pic’s early shooting was done entirely under the radar at a private home in Carefree, Arizona (the house was right next to the one that Antonioni used in Zabriskie Point). The crew was largely comprised of enthusiastic young people, led by eternally loyal cinematographer Gary Graver and dedicated production manager (and later producer) Frank Marshall. New Hollywood royalty such as Dennis Hopper and Paul Mazursky turn up, and the doc offers a privileged glimpse of comedian Rich Little (Welles was a big fan) playing the role of a hugely successful New Hollywood director (based on Peter Bogdanovich) who peppers Hannaford with questions throughout the party. After a while, however, Little abruptly left to fulfill his own engagements, whereupon Bogdanovich himself stepped into the part he inspired (there’s also a clip of Bogdanovich in the role he had initially played, doing a jacked-up Jerry Lewis imitation). Audiences may be surprised by the home movie/student film nature of the shoot; grand old men of Hollywood cinema were imagined making films on giant sound stages with dozens of old-line crewmembers, not with a bunch of hippies out in the desert subsisting on Frescas and junk food. As Welles puts it, this was “kind of a departure in picture-making.”
But this early stage was normal and productive compared to what came next: five years of on-and-off filming, followed by more than four decades of editing, near-deals, financial and legal controversies (some involving the family of the former Shah of Iran), Welles’ death in 1985, ownership wrangling, footage being moved around and hidden away, promising completion prospects (Showtime was close to doing it for years), the death of Graver (who knew more about the film than anyone but Welles), the protectiveness of Welles’ longtime paramour Oja Kodar and much more.
The frenetic style Neville employs to tell this roller coaster of a tale is arguably in sync with the crazy-quilt nature of the tale itself; the filmmaker clearly made a firm decision to take this route rather than to stick with a more scholarly, traditionally informative approach. It generally succeeds, even if at times it goes a bit too far and may not supply all the gritty details some viewers and scholars might want (for a more straightforward and thorough account of how Other Side of the Wind was finally edited and finished, see Frank Marshall’s 37-minute useful documentary A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making).
What’s great about They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is that it’s got virtually everybody who had anything important to do with Other Side of the Wind under one roof, from the stars to the loyal Welles-worshipping youngsters to the literal hangers-on who rode dangerously on the backs of speeding cars to get shots. You can’t help feeling crestfallen upon learning that the only reason Welles agreed to receive the third American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1975 was that he thought the goodwill and prestige accruing from it would inspire someone to step forward with finishing money. No one called.
There are funny/curious/unexpected moments: Welles editing an explicit sex scene for his buddy Graver, who paid his bills partly by shooting porn; the great one obviously tipsy during the shooting of a wine commercial, and an analysis of how the theme of betrayal is paramount in Welles’ films and life, an issue that comes home to roost when Welles has a falling out with Bogdanovich after the great one moves into the latter’s home in the late 1970s as the younger director was experiencing his own career reversals.
First and foremost, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead has a great deal to offer to Wellesians, but also to film students and the merely culturally curious who like to learn what goes on behind the scenes in the lives of deeply creative but flawed human beings. Did Welles have a fear of completion, as some have suggested? Why didn’t Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas or any of the other young wunderkinds help him out? Was he sometimes prone to provoking the eventual betrayals that marked his life and were such a recurring motif in his work?
Welles is a subject of fascination that just keeps on giving.
Production companies: Netflix, Tremolo
With: Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Orson Welles, Steve Ecclesine, R. Michael Stringer, Larry Jackson, Neil Canton, Joseph McBride, Simon Callow, George Stevens Jr., Mike Ferris, Jonathan Braun, Henry Jaglom, Richard Waltzer, Glenn Jacobson, Cybill Shepherd, Eric Sherman, Gary Graver, Jeanne Moreau, Mary Ann Newfield, Dominique Antoine, Louise Race, Yves Deschamps, Josh Karp, Bob Random, Michael Fitzgerald, Danny Huston, Pat McMahon, Frank Marshall, Beatrice Welles, Andres Vicente Gomez, John Huston, Celeste Huston, Rich Little, Connie Barzaghi, Sean Graver, Cathy Rucker, Keith Baxter, Howard Grossman, Robert Kensinger, Freddie Gillette, Cameron Mitchell
Director: Morgan Neville
Producers: Morgan Neville, Korelean Matteson, Josh Karp, Filip Jan Rymsza
Director of photography: Danny Grunes
Production designer: Jade Spiers
Editors: Aaron Wickenden, Jason Zeldes
Venue: Telluride Film Festival