It is not easy to build a straightforward narrative around the life and career of Orson Welles. There’s a reason why actor/writer Simon Callow has been working on a multipart biography of the iconoclastic writer/direct/actor for the better part of the past 30 years. A single Orson Welles movie, such as Citizen Kane or the recent Netflix release of his long-lost The Other Side of the Wind, has enough history and analysis to fill a lengthy book.
Filmmaker Chris Wade seems to understand all of this as well as anyone. His new documentary The Immortal Orson Welles focuses specifically on the last couple decades of the man’s legendary, difficult career. The documentary is only an hour. When it comes to a story as varied, dramatic, and adventurous as Welles’, an hour can be an infuriatingly brief visit to his life and times. Wade seems to realize this, making the most of the documentary’s short running time. The Immortal Orson Welles spends the first few minutes summarizing Welles’ life as efficiently as possible. Again, this is difficult for anyone to do, but Wade hits the essential notes of a man who struggled financially to complete his passion projects for the last 20+ years of his life. If you don’t really know Welles beyond Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, the first portion of the documentary will give you the basics.
The documentary then settles on the last 25 or so years of Welles’ life and career. This phase would include numerous supporting roles in other people’s movies, Welles chiseling away at stuff like Chimes of Midnight, and appearing anywhere with a guaranteed paycheck. Welles sacrificed a great deal for his dreams, although is own stubbornness could clearly get the better of him. The documentary is an opportunity to see reflections from some of Welles collaborators in this period, such as Dorian Bond and writer/director Henry Jaglom. It also features a number of uniquely-presented clips and images. They move well with the remembrances of people whose lives were clearly transformed by working alongside Orson Welles
The Immortal Orson Welles has much to say about Mr. Welles. I had the opportunity to interview Chris via email to discuss the film, as well as other projects.
I understand that while you were working on your recent book Orson Welles: The Final Cut, the notion of a documentary was not on your mind. What elements led you to making The Immortal Orson Welles? Well that book was about two years in the making, on and off, and was basically my own way of exploring Orson’s vast filmography. I found the most interesting section of his career, for me at least, was the sixties onwards. When I got the idea to do a documentary, I focused on the sixties onwards because I found it fascinating. He directed my two personal favourite films of his in that time and worked on some great unfinished works too. It’s a great era to explore, so I decided to focus primarily on that time. But I also knew some people might need a run through of the Welles back story though, so I included info on the early years too.
Between your book and film, you’ve certainly said a lot about Welles. If there was just one major thing about Welles you want people to understand, what would that be? I guess I’m thinking in terms of the many misconceptions that exist about Welles. When I made it, I wasn’t really thinking of one thing people should know. That would have been too lazy, to round him off as one thing. I looked at it from another perspective. We are all a mass of contradictions rolled into one, and Welles was no exception. He was contradictory, therefore very relatable and all too human. He was both pompous and self depreciating, funny and serious, ambitious yet self destructive. Maybe the main thing that shines through for me is that he was a compulsive creator, obsessed with making films. He made some great ones, but was robbed of the chance to make many more. Sometimes he robbed himself of that chance. That’s why he’s so interesting. Flip over one character trait and there’s a conflicting one underneath.
What was the most surprising thing that happened while making this movie? For me it was the sheer thrill I got from hearing these stories in person. It was like grasping history. I found some of Norman Eshley’s stories surprising, but most of all I felt Dorian Bond, Orson’s former assistant, really opened up and offered me an Orson I hadn’t considered before. It was also very surprising how the film began to reshape itself as I edited it, and how it sort of took on a new life. It seemed to have transformed into a film with more of a purpose towards the end. I feel it really captured latter day Orson as a man, not as merely a tortured artist robbed of his tools.
Is the documentary a supplement to your book, or do you think it can exist on its own terms? I don’t think the book has anything in common with the film. I did the book a couple of years ago as a film guide, and then carried on with my other projects. This film came about independently and took on a life of its own when I managed to get these brilliant people to collaborate with me. It was so much fun to do. So was the book. But really, the two are unrelated.
What’s your favorite Welles movie? If you need to, you can have one for acting, and one he directed. My favourite one he directed is definitely Chimes At Midnight, followed closely by Immortal Story. As far as acting is concerned, I don’t think he topped Falstaff and Kane. As for acting in other people’s films, I feel he was brilliant in Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place and I’d be a liar if I didn’t say he was tremendous in The Third Man. There are loads of performances of his I love though, even if some of them are on the hammy side. For every Jane Eyre there’s an oddity like the 70s horror film Necromancy, which I love by the way.
Orson Welles’ career is marked by many unfinished projects. Do you have a particular favorite? I always enjoyed the myth of The Other Side of the Wind, reading about its making, but was glad to see it finally released. As for still unreleased projects, I think The Deep looked like a great film. Dorian talks about it in the documentary.
Why do you think Orson struggled so much in the last 20+ years of his life? I am not so sure. I didn’t know him obviously, but by what people tell me it was the fact that he could not compromise on an idea just for the sake of it being released and him getting a pay cheque. That is rare these days. If he felt something wasn’t panning out he’d abandon it. If the right star wasn’t going to sign up, or the producer seemed wrong, and he therefore felt unsure, he would refuse to do it. It seems stubborn to the point of cutting off his own nose to spite his face, but makes a lot of sense in the end. So I think it comes down to integrity more than anything else. I don’t really fall for a lot of the tortured maverick stuff, though I love the romanticised things about him too. I do feel he was unfairly treated towards the end by a Hollywood that supposedly loved him but wouldn’t help him out. Henry Jaglom talks about that in the documentary, and I feel that was rather sad.
Tell us about your movie The Apple Picker? That was my first step into doing films. I started it in 2016. I wanted to shoot a film with an actual story but it just developed into a rather avant garde piece. I found myself incapable of doing a straight forward story. It’s basically set inside an old man’s mind. It begins with him staring at the moon, before a younger man, maybe him as his younger self inside his memories, putting on a VHS which then plays fragmented moments from his life and imagination, all rolled into one. It was very enjoyable to do and a bugger to edit. But it was a great experience. I followed it up with two similarly surreal films, which you can see online for free or buy DVDs of, before going into documentary films with an artistic slant. Before the Welles one I made a film about the surrealist and jazz singer George Melly, which was a lot of fun to do. So The Apple Picker opened things up for me really.
What do you think continues to fascinate people so much about Orson Welles? Firstly his films are so good. Secondly he is so influential. He was way ahead of his time. Watch Kane and you can see the whole game changes in one movie. We are still catching up with him. I also think he was so fascinating, multi talented, charismatic and enigmatic that there is no way new generations won’t be interested in him. We don’t get people like him anymore either… It just doesn’t happen these days. He was a true one off.
What’s next for you? Well I am working on some more book projects. I just released a new fiction book, a surreal novella with illustrations, and I recently put out a new music CD under my Dodson and Fogg pseudonym. Plus I am piecing together three separate documentaries which I will work on throughout the year. I am also setting up screenings for my films and attending some of them later in year. I have such an exciting year coming up, I feel really lucky to be doing all this totally independently on my own terms. I run Wisdom Twins, releasing music, films and books, and basically get to do whatever tickles my fancy at one given time. But I do work a lot. So I am looking forward to all that and seeing what happens next.