It begins with a death — a car accident that takes the life of a legendary director on his 70th birthday — and ends with a giant phallic symbol toppling over. In between those two moments, you get young film critics arguing, old actors kvetching, a Jim Morrison doppelganger, a naked woman wandering around an abandoned back lot, John Huston dispensing insults by a swimming pool, an orgy in a public bathroom, mannequins being used for target practice, empty drive-in theaters and the world’s greatest sex scene in a moving car. There are many, many moments in The Other Side of the Wind that are likely to stun and surprise viewers who dip into this insane, incredible slab of 1970s Hollywood-eats-itself operatics, but they are all trumped by one single title card: “A Film by Orson Welles.” The fact that anyone from casual movie fans to hardcore autuerist apostles now get to see this film is arguably the biggest shock of them all.
Part time capsule and part still-ahead-of-its-time stylistic experiment, this story of an old filmmaker who, high on countercultural fumes and his own critical appraisals, begins taking advantage of the new freedoms (Zooms! Nudity! Ennui!) was designed as a flipped bird to an industry that had shunned Welles in his later years. Despite the fact that the central character is a bitter old maverick director being trailed by a young protégé — played by Welles’ real-life buddy Peter Bogdanovich (!), who took over the part from Rich Little (!!!) — the legendary artist insisted that the work was not autobiographical. In terms of being self-reflective, however, it puts The Lady From Shanghai‘s hall of mirrors to shame, with a host of meta-touches, long-held grudges, wink-wink references and Orson’s personal philosophies on display. And that doesn’t even take into account the movie-within-the-movie, an Antonioni-meets-Russ-Meyers New Hollywood send-up starring Oja Kodar, Welles’ professional and personal companion.
When he first started preliminary shooting for The Other Side of the Wind in 1970, the idea was that this would not only settle some scores but serve as a comeback as sorts. He just needed a little financial help to keep things going and to finish it. And that’s when things … well, they got a little complicated. As Josh Karp’s 2015 book Orson Welles’s Last Movie details, what followed was an epic saga of starts and stops, smuggled reels of film, botched partnerships and bitter feuds that resulted in Wind being one of the great “what if” films in his long, storied career. For years, numerous parties had tried to put together something from the various shoots, notes, scattered-to-the-four-winds footage and an overlong work print that Welles had left behind after his death in 1985.
Then, starting in 2009, a casual conversation at Cannes kicked off a nearly decade-long hunt that ended in a completed — or as close to complete as humanly possible — version premiering at the Venice Film Festival this past August.
Now, after several festival screenings, a brief theatrical run and a perpetual spot on Netflix (the streaming service helped fund the effort to finish the film), producers Filip Jan Rymsza and Frank Marshall — along with Morgan Neville, the director of a Wind companion documentary titled They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead — respectively talked to Rolling Stone about various bumps on the road to actual making this mythic “lost” Orson Welles movie a reality.
When did this Welles project first come across your radar?
Filip Jan Rymsza: It actually started with this piece in Vanity Fair, about these treasure hunters looking for the missing reels of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. At one point, there was a part about his various aborted projects — and one of them was this thing called The Other Side of the Wind. That was the first time I’d ever heard it mentioned.
Then, in 2009, I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was asked if I’d heard about this film — someone had mentioned that the rights were available and that there was this Croatian party that was involved; at this point, I didn’t know any of the players. I said, “Absolutely. There’s this unfinished Welles film floating around out there? It sounds fascinating.”
So I was introduced to “the Croatian party” — that was Oja Kodar. I was sent the script, read it and met with Sasha Welles, Oja’s nephew, in L.A. He had about 10 hours of a work print of the movie digitized, albeit poorly. It was very incoherent, the cut were very elliptical, it was clearly a lot of bits and pieces of assemblies. But you could look at this and see there was promise there.
Frank Marshall: My involvement with this goes back to the beginning. I was 25, and had been a sort of a junior producer on two movies with Peter Bogdanovich and Polly Platt (1968’s Targets and 1972’s What’s Up, Doc?). I came on to this project because Polly asked me to come down to Arizona. I’m not sure what my position was, exactly … whatever I was asked to do, I did. This was Orson Welles, after all! On the third day, he actually said my name, and I felt like I’d been accepted.
For that first round, yeah, it was only about five of us, and we were living in that house where they filmed the party. You got to see Orson’s creative process close-up, and be a part of it. The later part, what I call the period of actual shooting, my title was the line producer. We had call sheets and SAG contracts and catering — it felt like an actual movie. This was 1974 -1975.
You were part of the original production — but at what point did you start making concrete efforts to gather material and finish what Orson had started?
FM: I really didn’t focus on getting all of the remaining material together until the mid-Nineties, when [Wind cinematographer] Gary Graver enlisted my help. By that time, I’d become an established producer, and wanted to find somebody who’d help finance us finishing up the film. When I look back on that time period, from the Nineties into early Aughts, we trying to cobble together a little bit of money from this side, from that side.
FJR: In 2007, Frank had an option with Oja, which had lapsed pretty quickly. At that point, I think he was just planning on finishing something out of the work print. Neither he nor Showtime — who was involved with the project at that point — wanted to deal with the French part of it. [Editor’s note: The original negative had been sitting in a vault in Paris for years; various rights issues kept it from being released.] Which, to my mind, was impossible. I mean, it could have been possible to do something with it, but … I knew that from talking to various parties, including some of the editors, and from looking at various inventories, that it didn’t match up — there was significantly more material in the lab in France that Orson had been editing from. It would have been a great injustice if they’d only tried to finish it from that work print.
In any case, after seeing the work print, I knew there was a movie in there — which was tough to gauge after 11 hours, but still — and I knew there were other interested parties out there. So I started making inquiries. I put in the time to do some research and went to meet the various people who had tried and failed to make this happen. Some of them were very supportive; others were bitter that their efforts had not come to fruition. They were less inclined to offer advice or guidance.
There were three parties that held the rights, yes? Oja, Beatrice Welles and a French production company [L’Astrophore]?
FJR: It wasn’t just the three parties — there were many claimants. The three who held most of the rights … I knew about them going in. What I came to realize, however, was that if one of those parties gets too close to you, or you get too close to them, you end up alienating or pushing away one of the other two. So you had to maintain a sort of neutrality. That was certainly tricky.
But there were many other people who had option material or prior claim to stuff, so part of the process was to show, in a very convincing way, that they had no rights at all. That was a four-year process that eventually resulted in a very thorough document that was about 400 pages. I needed that, because any studio or distributor that I’d go to, the first thing they’d do to would be to head to the Wikipedia page. And when you read that … [laughs] frankly, it’s terrifying. I’d just say, whatever you’ve heard or read, here’s this — it details who the real parties were, who the fraudulent parties were, here’s what you need to know. I needed to have all that ready and at my fingertips for when somebody like Netflix came into play.
Frank was still involved, right? Had the editor Bob Murawski become involved yet?
FJR: Frank was sort of grandfathered into it, and you know, he’s a power player — part of my strategy was to see if I could get the negative and then reach out to Frank, to see if he’d be willing to come over to my side. Obviously he’d legitimize my efforts, and with him came Peter Bogdanovich — I knew they came as a team.
Bob joined on later … we’d originally had another editor in mind, but he had a prior commitment he had to honor. He begin lobbying us hard for the job; I was getting multiple calls from Bob’s agent about it. We didn’t know Bob’s connection to Gary Graver, and to the project; he’d lived three houses down from Gary, and had seen bits and pieces of the film throughout the years. He also has his own restoration company. So when you have volumes of different film materials, shot on different formats — not just 8, 16, 35mm, but also color-reversal — you need someone with a deep film knowledge. Bob knew exactly what he was looking at. He was perfectly suited for this.
And Welles had already cut some 40 minutes of the film … sort of?
FJR: Something like that. It was helpful that he cut in the way he had to cut; if he had the whole thing, he might have made it differently. But because he had to cut from a limited work print, Orson had to work around a lot of things. We had bits of the beginning, middle and end. Because the film-within-the-film sequences was primarily shot in ’70, ’71, he cut a lot of that part right away … which was great for us. I mean, who could have cut that sex scene in a car other than Orson? Same thing with the end, the scene with the phallus. We had nine hours of footage of that bathroom scene!
Luckily, we were able to talk to [editor] Steve Ecclesine, who worked with Orson in the early Eighties, so we had a clear idea of what he was going for. The challenge was in actually executing that vision. And I can only speak for myself but to me, the end result certainly feels like a Welles movie.
You also had Welles’ annotated script and his notes, right?
FJR: I had seven years before I got my hands on any film, so I had a lot of paper research — a sort of oral history. There was Ann Arbor, where there’s huge collection of his papers. There was a lot of correspondence between various parties. Once I’d acquired the negative, I met with the head of the Cinémathèque Française, Serge Toubiana, and he started turning over all of their paper records. They had what I believe is the only treatment of the film within the film, as well as a character breakdown of [John Huston’s character] Hannaford — his backstory, who he is, all of that.
Funny story: From his archives in the States, I had all the Orson-to-France correspondence. Then, thanks to the Cinemateque, I was able to get all the France-to-Orson replies. It went from having one side of the conversation to getting the complete back-and-forth. The first cutting script, I think it’s from 1975 … that had Orson’s annotations. There were very detailed notes about what he was looking for, certain musical cues. He shot what were then called “the L.A. pick-ups,” and we weren’t sure where they fit in. But the annotations gave us hints. It was like this giant puzzle. By the time Bob came in, I had binders full of stuff.
How did you get Michel Legrand to compose the score?
FM: Michel was really our first choice, mainly because he’d worked with Orson before, on F For Fake (1973). He’s 85 or 86 years old, so we weren’t sure if he was still composing at all. Then we called him, and he immediately went, “YES YES YES! I’ll come right away.” We — Peter and I — had talked to Orson about music during the production, and he’d wanted a jazz score. The idea was that there were these little groups around the house during the party, with different ensembles playing different types of music. But overall, he wanted it to be a jazz score, and he’d contacted Oscar Peterson to do some music for the sizzle reel he showed at the A.F.I. event, when he was being honored. So we knew he didn’t just want mass — he wanted really good jazz. And Michel comes from a jazz background.
One of my favorite moments of this whole process was when he came to synce the music with the images, and he just had this twinkle in his eyes. “I’m here with Orson again!” he key saying. “I’m here with Orson!”
Describe a few of the “Eureka!” moments.
FJR: We were having this all the time — sometimes monthly, sometimes daily. We couldn’t find a lot of the material done around ’74 … we had to go back to what sometimes third, sometimes fourth generation mag [sound]. We’d find bits and pieces of sound on loose film ends. Orson was really sloppy; he mislabeled everything. That line, “He was the Hemingway of the American picture!” — that came in days before we locked. It was on a reel that had some other title on it. You learned not to trust labels on the materials.
We’d been looking for this one piece of dialogue — “Your guy is a big pink lobster,” the line that [actor] Gregory Sierra delivers. It took us forever to find it. We’d been two months into trying to locate the recording when our film editors, who were working on the two flatbeds side by side, were going through reels of stuff. They were playing it really loudly, then all of sudden, you could hear “a big pink lobster!” echoing through the hallway. We all ran into their room and were yelling, “Wait, play that back! Play that back!!!” They were these moments of elation throughout.
How did the companion documentary come about?
Morgan Neville: When Josh’s book was coming out, I read an excerpt of it in Vanity Fair, and I could not get enough of it. So when I finally got the whole book, the entire time I was reading through it, I kept thinking, “Oh my god, if I could ever get my hands on this footage, I would love to make a documentary about it.” That was when I reached out to Filip and Frank, and they said: Good news, we should have the footage in six weeks, we’re just about to cut a deal, we’ll be in Cannes next year, you can make your documentary, we’ll finish the feature, we can all collaborate!” I thought great. This is going to happen, and happen soon.
FJR: We’d actually helped place that excerpt, yeah — through Josh, Morgan reached out to me and said, “I have this idea for doing a documentary on this material in the style of F For Fake …it’s one of my favorite docs.” I told him I didn’t have the bandwidth — I was too busy trying to wrangle distribution and everything else. But he said, listen, so long as you can give me a grant of rights, I can take care of financing. Sure, no problem.
MN: Cut to: Three years later, as I’m finishing up Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I got a call from Filip: Great news, we’re six weeks away from closing this deal, we’ll be at Cannes next year …” I thought, why does this sound familiar? No one thought this movie would ever get finished. But I started interviewing folks, going through outtakes in the footage, all of that.
FJR: Later, I got a phone call from my attorney, who was handling the intellectual property side of things, and she asked, “What’s Morgan doing with all of these outtakes?” Well, he’s making this feature-length doc about how Orson tried to make The Other Side of the Wind, and he’s using this footage for that. There’s a huge sigh on the other end of the line, and then she replied, “Well, that’s considered a sequel, prequel or remake … and you don’t have the rights for that.”
It took me an additional year and a half of re-negotiating with everybody so we could get a pass and Morgan could make this. But at that point, I felt like it was necessary — we all sort of philosophically loved the idea of feature and a doc. Plus Frank had this idea for a short film (Final Cut for Orson) on how we found the materials and finished the film. That was what I took to Netflix.
How did they get involved? It was after the Indiegogo campaign for funding, right?
FJR: They came in right after the crowdfunding campaign ended. They’d been following the project — I got a call from [Netflix’s Director of Content Acquisition] Ian Bricke a few days after it was over, and he said, “We’ve been observing this, we’ve been really impressed with how you’ve handled the moving parts of all of this, would you be up for grabbing lunch?” They moved pretty quickly after they’d made their presence known.
So when I met with Ian, I told him, listen: We’re almost done of getting this movie finished. Morgan is doing a documentary about the long, storied, crazy history of this film; it would offer an incredible context. And then Frank and I are doing a small piece about traveling around and hunting down all these assets. So I think there’s really three movies here.
Ian replied, “This doesn’t just sound like three movies, this sounds like an event. We’ll take all three.”
What do you think this movie finally being out there means for Welles’ legacy?
FM: It does sort of complete his legacy, although there are three, possibly four other movies out there that did not get finished. It bookends Citizen Kane, in my opinion.
MN: I think the popular notion is that at the end of his life, he was a has-been doing nothing but TV commercials. What the public didn’t know was that he was making the most forward-looking films of his career; we have a quote in the doc that he started a s a professional and became an amateur, in a good way. But at the end of his life, Welles was doing the most avant-garde work of his career. The Other Side of the Wind proves it.
FJR: I think Welles is so confounding, and there are always probably — well, not probably, certainly — going to be these projects that will remain unfinished, unrealized. He could have completed [his adaptation of Charles Williams’ 1963 novel] The Deep; there were other things he abandoned or choose not to finish, for whatever reason. Lack of interest, maybe. But I don’t know if we’re ever going to get a sense of closure with him. I think Orson will continue to not only intrigue people, but to never have closure on him. He’s so contradictory. You read all those letters of his, and you try to get to the bottom of them, to try and figure out the man, and he continues to elude you. I think that’s his brilliance.
But I’m just happy that we no longer have to debate what The Other Side of the Wind could or could not have been. It’s here. We no longer have to imagine it. We can now look at it.