Netflix has been giving Oscar-winning filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) the chance to make and present movies that most studios or TV networks shy away from. Starting today, the streaming service gives another acclaimed filmmaker a chance to complete a movie that has languished in a lab in Paris and enabled patient fans a chance to finally see it.
But The Other Side of the Wind is a little different because the filmmaker, Orson Welles, has been dead for 33 years.
Welles co-wrote (with his mistress Oja Kodar) and shot the movie from 1970 to 1976 and was unable to assemble a complete cut of the 100 hours of footage he shot during his lifetime. He had only compiled about 40 minutes of cut film by then.
The film concerns a once-acclaimed director named J.J. "Jake" Hannaford (played by real-life writer-director John Huston) who is trying to complete a comeback film titled The Other Side of the Wind despite the fact that he has run out of money, the studio is cold on the film and his leading man (Robert Random) has walked out during a scene. Hannaford dies after his chaotic 70th birthday party, surrounded by critics, aides, a documentary crew and his disciple Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich, the director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon).
Welles' detractors like Charles Higham contend that the director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil had a phobia of completing his movies. For example, both an adaptation of Don Quixote and a film of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (with Welles playing aggrieved moneylender Shylock ) also remained incomplete when he died.
WELLES' ALLEGED FEARS
In the case of The Other Side of the Wind, however, the film's status had nothing to do with Welles' alleged fears.
Josh Karp has literally written the book about the, until now, incomplete movie. When his book Orson Welles' Last Movie: The Other Side of the Wind went to press in 2015, he recalls worrying because Bogdanovich, The Bourne Identity producer Frank Marshall (who also worked with Welles on the movie) and others seemed close to rescuing the effort from cinema purgatory.
"I talked to my editor, and I said, 'What are we going to do? What if the movie comes out while the book has just come out?' She just kind of laughed, 'You've been working on this book for 2 1/2 years. If you've been writing about a movie that hasn't been made for 30 years, you're honestly worried that it's just come out? I don't think you're going to have any problem with that," Karp says from Los Angeles.
Part of the reason Karp beat Welles to the finish line in spite of the director's formidable head start is that the latter couldn't even get his hands on the footage to complete it.
Welles had used some of the cash he'd earned from projects like frozen pea commercials and The Muppet Movie to get the movie started, but an ownership struggle for the film ensued, preventing Welles or anyone else from getting it released. The struggle makes Karp's book suspenseful but didn't help Welles, his collaborators or his fans.
"It couldn't have been a weirder situation," Karp says. "You had the family of [Iranian financier] Mehdi Bushehri, who was the Shah's brother-in-law, who financially really owned the film. Orson and his mistress [who also plays the enigmatic star of Hannaford's movie] through a codicil in [Bushehri's] will owned the 'moral rights' to the film."
HEIR TO HIS ESTATE
To an American that might mean nothing, but in France where Bushehri's company, Les Films de l'Astrophore, was based, an artist has a moral right to his or her work in perpetuity. Further complicating matters, Bushehri's daughter, Beatrice, was the heir to his estate.
Taking the film to the States for cutting could have prevented Bogdanovich, whom Welles chose to complete it, from doing so because American intellectual property laws aren't as accommodating to creators.
Thanks to lawsuits, personal animosities and deals that fell through, Welles and many others who worked on the movie (including Huston, Cameron Mitchell, Susan Strasberg, Edmond O'Brien, Paul Stewart, cinematographer Gary Graver, etc.) never saw it completed.
Marshall, Bogdanovich and Polish producer Filip Jan Rymsza launched an IndieGoGo campaign that raised about $400,000 of a $2 million goal, and then Netflix took an interest in the project.
Welles may have been right when he famously declared, "They'll love me when I'm dead."
In the 1990s, Beatrice Welles-Smith helped release her father's adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello, and Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) re-cut Touch of Evil to the specifications in a memo Welles sent to Universal.
Similarly, the successful recent reissue of Welles' Shakespeare adaptation Chimes at Midnight has forced critics to reassess his legacy. Getting to see Huston and Bogdanovich give performances worthy of the actors in their own films is a plus, and with The Other Side of the Wind, Welles anticipated "found footage" movies decades before The Blair Witch Project hit screens.
"You can think of MTV first coming or maybe (Oliver Stone's) Natural Born Killers," Karp says, "but he was doing that 10, 15 years before anyone [else] was doing that quick cutting style. All of it is unreal. I was fascinated by the way he was using the media, where it was using stills, using 35 mm, using 16 mm, using hand-held Super 8 footage, using color, black-and-white, just walking a tightrope."
"Beatrice says that every frame of her dad's films was like a painting," he adds. "In the book, somebody said, 'It's almost like he needed a medium that didn't exist yet because there was so much going on.' And he could also make a real narrative film."
A FORMIDABLE TALENT
The movie also establishes that Graver, whose work was little seen outside of soft-core porn and exploitation films, was a formidable talent. His shots of Huston's weathered face are worthy of master still photographers Gordon Parks or Margaret Bourke-White.
"The great story and also the great tragedy of this film is that Gary [Graver], because the way Hollywood worked at the time, was relegated to these Roger Corman, Al Adamson biker pics. He loved, loved making movies. Graver's son, Sean, said something. 'My dad viewed every minute that he wasn't shooting a movie as a wasted minute of his life,'" Karp says.
"Gary gave the rest of his life to Orson and The Other Side of the Wind. Gary was this really talented guy who never got to have the kind of career he should have had."
If the film has now given Graver a formidable coda for his career, it has also launched a new one for Karp. He has helped produce Oscar-winner Morgan Neville's (20 Feet From Stardom) documentary about the tangled production They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, which also debuts on Netflix today.
"To be involved in making a film was the most fun I've ever had professionally," he says. "One of my favorite things was sitting with the two editors, Aaron Wickenden and Jason Zeldes, and we were watching it, and I remember doing this interview, I remember this guy said this, and it would be perfect for right there. They would look up the person's name and from two keywords. In two seconds they would find it and put it in. As somebody who's a writer, to have impact on something that's appearing on the screen was the most fun."
Netflix has made both his book on Welles and his book on National Lampoon co-founder Douglas Kenney (A Futile and Stupid Gesture), but Karp admits he has one regret about pursuing his book on the former.
"I don't tape interviews unless I'm worried that I'm going to get sued by somebody," he says. " I interviewed Rich Little (who worked on the movie for three weeks, only to be replaced in the finished film by Bogdanovich), and he did re-created conversations between Orson Welles and John Huston, as Orson Welles and John Huston. You kind of forget that somebody who's a good impressionist is like, scary good. I was dying, and I was thinking how could I not be taping this? It was so good."
MovieStyle on 11/02/2018
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