Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles/Chuck Workman

Documentarian and Hollywood insider Chuck Workman (the man behind innumerable Academy Award montages) turns his prodigious editing skills and longtime association with film history to a frequently covered but always captivating subject:  the elusive, seductive, and visionary Orson Welles.  Combining interviews with the man himself, Welles scholars such as Simon Callow, contemporary directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Bogdanovich, with footage from both finished and unfinished Welles films (the clips of Don Quixote are to die for), Magician posits a portrait of the artist as both a young and old man alike; eschewing the conventional wisdom that Welles’s career was finished after The Magnificent Ambersons, Workman ably convinces his audience of the continued brilliance of Welles’s output, through and including the soon-to-be-released The Other Side of the Wind. •Availability:  New York – Lincoln Plaza Cinema; Los Angeles – Laemmle Royal. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: I believe Simon Callow asked the crucial question about Welles: Why did someone of such enormous talent let people of lesser talent take control of his films?

 

CW: And I cut to him saying, “Money.” Welles needed money to make a film. That wasn’t the day when you could just go out with your own camera and go back to your computer and edit. You had to hire a crew. It really affected Welles, because he had to suffer fools, and he wasn’t the type to do that. What he would do, though, was make the deal when he could and then still make the movie he wanted. And that’s what got him into problems at the end, because they didn’t quite understand what they were getting when they made a deal with him. He didn’t fight with them. They had the ultimate control—whether it was the moneypeople in Europe or the studios—so they just said, “OK, thank you, Orson, you can go home now” and did what they wanted. In those days, there was no fighting that. I don’t think he was outsmarted by them; I think he just didn’t try to manipulate them as much as other directors might have. And he also didn’t want to just do what was expected. He wanted to do something new and different each time, just as any artist naturally would. So that also probably surprised the people he was working with. It’s very, very difficult to be an artist like him in a commercial situation, which he was usually in.

 

DT: Music affects everyone differently. You end with Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor, which I find one of the most tragic pieces ever written. Welles used it for The Trial, but is there a reason you used it at the end of Magician? In other words, were you making a statement about how you saw Welles’s life?

 

CW: I don’t find it tragic. I just find it kind of personal, in a way, and that’s why it’s lasted for four, five hundred years. It’s just a beautiful piece of music, and we hear it a lot; it’s not quite a chestnut, but it almost is. I use a guitar version rather than the organ version that most people know, and I think that kind of softens the whoosh sound of it. It closed well. For the most part, I wanted to use all of the music that Welles used. For instance, [for the clips from] The Trial I used Satie, which Welles used in a different film. And I used the music from The Trial for the very end. Also, you’re feeling the end of the story and his death and what’s left, so I felt the adagio should go there.

 

DT: It’s really interesting that you changed the music around.

 

CW: I put music from Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons all through Magician—it was almost like the score of the film. I don’t think that’s violating anybody or anything’s integrity. I think it’s a new look at all this material. The music goes with what I thought it would go with. I’ve been doing that for years—using movie scores where you wouldn’t expect them to be. The idea for me was that Bernard Herrmann was our composer, so I could take little pieces of different things and keep the emotional line going all through the film with these various moments, mostly from Citizen Kane. You noticed it, but most people wouldn’t have known it.

 

DT: Let’s talk about how you cut Magician. The pace is very, very fast. Was that to fit everything in, or to match Welles’s own sometimes frenetic editing?

 

CW: It was what I chose to do. That’s my style. In all of the films I’ve done, the documentaries and everything else, there’s a cascade of images. Constantly. I’m asking viewers to watch much more closely than they’re used to. And work a little harder. Some members of the audience don’t like that. They say, “I don’t want to work so hard. I want to watch Gone Girl or something like that, and I want you to bring it to me.” But I’m asking the audience to come to the screen and watch very closely. I did a film on Andy Warhol called Superstar, and the best review I got said, “You can’t take your eyes off the screen.” It’s not so fast that it looks like a mistake. There are just a lot of things happening, because I find—and I’m not the first one to find it; Eisenstein found it, and other people did too—that A plus B equals C and 1 plus 1 equals more than 2. As these cuts are going, there are subconscious things happening constantly in the montage, and the audience, if they’re watching, can pull it all in. If you’re fiddling with your cell phone, or thinking about something else, or you expect something else, you’re not going to really relate to the film. But I’ve found that people do relate to it, and those that don’t just think it was some mistake or it was too fast or something. I used to get reviews saying, “It’s great but it’s too fast.” I always wanted to say, “If it’s great, maybe that’s why.” Maybe that’s why you liked it. The one bad review we got of the film so far was from the New York Times, and I think that lady was looking for something else—or else maybe she was on her cell phone.

For the most part, people have to engage a film the same way they engage a good book or a piece of music or art. You have to look at it carefully. I’m not asking the audience to go to school, but I’m asking them to pay attention. That’s rewarding in the same way as reading a book and finding various symbols, finding what’s going on beyond the story. I made a film right before this one called What Is Cinema?  where a lot of critics, including J. Hoberman and others, talk about the fact that there’s so much more to movies than story. There’s cinema. Hollywood, in terms of the films that we generally watch, are basically storytellers. Great storytellers. But that’s what they’re basically interested in doing. In this case, there’s a lot of subtext. That’s a long answer to a short question, but that’s what I’m trying to do—I’m trying to give you a larger experience than just telling you the facts and the story. And it takes a little bit of effort sometimes.

 

DT: You accomplish exactly what you set out to do.

 

CW: It’s not that I’m trying to make it faster just to get a lot in. I mean, sometimes that’s a help, like in this case, but that would get old very fast. I’m trying to create an atmosphere in the same way that a painter would use paints or composition or a musician would use chords. The chords become the background and everything goes on top of that. In Welles’s case, I had the chronology of his life and all his movies as kind of a spine, and then I could compose to that, using his images and other images that I found. It’s a high-falutin’ way of explaining the process, but that’s basically the way I’m thinking—to have the viewer say, “I’m getting a lot, I better pay attention, and when I leave the film, maybe there are things that will linger with me.”  That’s what I’m trying to do.

 

DT: Let’s talk about how you organized Magician, especially in regards to the clips that you used. Obviously the film was chronological, but beyond that, did you use the clips to organize the film, or did you choose clips to fit into the film as a whole?

 

CW: I did what I’ve always done; I go through the films very carefully and pick out what I think are good representative scenes. Sometimes they’re just scenes that make me think, “This is great.” In Othello, when Othello and Iago are talking about “Did he lie with her?”  “Did he lie?”  “Lay?” and they’re doing all this back and forth, using these puns to talk about Desdemona, that’s a scene I want to have. It shows you the film. In the same Othello, Welles ran out of funds and didn’t have enough money to buy costumes, so he staged a murder in a bath house because he only had to use towels. So I showed that. There are some things that are obvious to show, but basically I’m looking through the movie and trying to pick out what I like or what I as a viewer think is really significant or important. From movie to movie to movie, I’m trying to show you why Orson Welles is great. I might have ten or fifteen clips from one film, or maybe five or six from another, and then I choose as I’m editing which ones I want to use. Sometimes I do regret that I don’t have everything, but for the most part I’m trying to get what I think is representative for each of these films. I’m also trying to make the argument that the films are really interesting cinematically and get better as they go along.

For so many years people said, “After Citizen Kane and Ambersons, he went downhill.” He hardly went downhill. He just kept making one great film after another. They all had problems of one kind or another, but he still kept doing it. F for Fake, his last film, is spectacular. A tour de force of editing. And Chimes at Midnight is just a beautiful, beautiful treatment of Shakespeare. These are later films. The Trial as well. So I’m looking for the sections that resonate with me, because I think they’ll resonate with the audience. I do the same thing on the Oscars; I’m just looking for different kinds of shots. But basically I’m not looking for anything less for a less sophisticated audience.

I had forty-seven years of interviews with Welles. I was able to go through each of these long interviews, pick out what I liked, and categorize them. So I would have a category called Career and four or five little fifteen- or twenty-second pieces. I had many ten- or fifteen-second comments by Welles in different categories, including each of the movies. I had a category for Hollywood, for personal life, travel, whatever theme to fit in, and I did that all the way through. So when I was in a section that I wanted him to comment on, I could reach into this well and get what I wanted. Often there were clips where I said, “I’ve got to get this in somewhere.” In that case, the interview was leading where I put it, but in many cases it was wherever I needed something. I was really lucky, because I had this great interviewee. As you know, since you give interviews, some people are great at it and some people are not. This guy was the greatest I ever had. He was always charming, always up, very smart, said really interesting, different things about everything, so I knew that I was always going to have something that would work. What I had to really be careful with was not to get too fawning. When you do an interview, you have a tendency—anybody, even Welles—to defend yourself, support yourself in a way, so I had to make sure he wasn’t showing off. Audiences are sharp when they watch interviews. They’re used to watching them. They see if it’s promotional, they can see if it’s truthful. For the most part, he was truthful, but I had to really be careful—how much I had, where I had it, how much I put in. That was a great resource.

Then I had my own interviews [conducted by Workman]. I organized them the same way, but it took a lot of looking at afterwards to say, “Is there too much Peter Bogdanovich?” or “Is Peter right here, or should I not put it there?” The only one that really goes overboard in praise is Steven Spielberg. I said, “OK, I can get away with that. He’s very credible, so if he’s telling you Citizen Kane is so great and he’s very enthusiastic about it, it’s not over the top.”

 

DT: It’s something we should listen to.

 

CW: I think so too, but there are also negative things. Even his daughter was slightly negative sometimes, but she was wonderful in terms of what she could tell me about him. She had written a book, so she had really thought through a lot of these issues.

 

DT: Of all the interviews you did, who got Welles the best?

 

CW: I think the critics. By critics and academics I mean James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, but they’re not the people you put in because Magician‘s not that kind of film. It’s much more interesting to see contemporaries and other people talk about him. Bogdanovich really does understand him. So does Oja Kodar, his companion for the last twenty years of his life. Although she would never say anything negative about him, she had a very interesting take, I felt, on what he was like as an individual.

 

DT: She brought me to tears.

 

CW: Oh, good. I don’t mean that you should cry, but I wanted her to work. At one point I had a lot more of her in there, and then I said, “OK, I have to kind of…”

 

DT: She was a tremendous interview. She’s the one I thought you were going to say.

 

CW: He would be a hundred next year. He died at seventy. So it’s thirty years that she’s been defending him. She’s amazingly true to his memory. She doesn’t get much out of it in terms of making any money on it, as some estates do. She’s not even part of the estate, but she wouldn’t do the interview until she checked up on me with various other people and made sure it wasn’t some sort of gossipy thing. I loved working with her, but I liked a lot of them. I liked Julie Taymor. People say, “Why’d you put in Julie Taymor?”  I said, “Because she’s smart, she does both stage and film, and she had a huge hit in Lion King and a huge personal problem in Spider-Man. She understands this life in a very smart way, so I put her in, and I thought she had some very interesting things to say. Generally, I let them go for an hour if I can get them to give me an hour, and I find that I can get some very honest and enlightening comments.

 

DT: One of the most fascinating interviews was Welles doing a press conference right after War of the Worlds.

 

CW: Because he was totally making it up. He was playing the part of this bright, young, intense young man who was very innocent. “Oh, I didn’t realize what we were doing,” he said, but of course he knew what he was doing [with War of the Worlds].

I hope I showed that Welles would turn it on one way or another. I cut to another later interview, where he admits, “Actually we knew what it was. It was for Halloween”—which people forgot— “and we were trying to expose the way people swallow what they hear on the radio.” In a way he took the high road, and he was also kind of acting. In the very beginning of the film, he said, “A magician is an actor who plays a magician.” When he did these interviews, especially the early ones, he would play the role of what he wanted to get across.

 

DT: And he was so seductive. Oh, my God.

 

CW: Yeah.

 

DT: Where did the idea of thinking of Welles as an indie filmmaker come from?

 

CW: It came from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who was a great critic from Chicago and has written a lot about Welles. He was the first place I discovered it. Richard Linklater mentioned the same thing…that Welles is the father of indie filmmaking. The problem was, there was no indie filmmaking in the ’40s. It was studio or experimental avant-garde filmmaking, but there wasn’t even Cassavetes at the time. In Europe there wasn’t even a Fellini or a Bergman or that sort of filmmaker. That came in the late ’50s. So either you played the game of what Hollywood wanted, which was to attract as many people as they could, or you didn’t make any films. Welles had to live like that, but on the other hand he was thinking like an independent filmmaker: “I’ll raise the money and I’ll make the film that I want to make.” As an example, if you hire Paul Simon to do a concert, you’re not going to say, “Paul, would you please sing that song a different way.” And that’s the way Welles thought. “You’re hiring Orson Welles. That’s a commodity. You know what I’m going to do, and I’m going to try to do something very strong and very interesting, so leave me alone.” They didn’t want to leave him alone, because they were paying money and it was their movie commodity. That commodity had to appeal to as many people in the world as possible, so it had to be very clear. This goes back to what I said before about putting it right in the audience’s lap rather than asking them to work a little bit.

 

DT: Welles left so many of his films unfinished, though. Why did people keep hiring him even though he had all these unfinished films?

 

CW: He was making unfinished films because he couldn’t make the films he wanted with other people’s money. He would start a film with his own money, but it’s actually very hard to make a film with your own money. Things happen. Even with the little films you see at IFC, some kid is going through his credit cards to buy the insurance he needs to put it out. So Welles was using his own money to produce these films, and then he would either run out of money, or years would pass and someone who was in the film would die or grow up so Welles never got the chance to finish them. And also as Welles says—and other people have said—if you’re a writer or a painter, no one would wonder that you were doing this because you’re in process with a lot of different things. It’s totally normal for any artist. But the studios have to get their money back and they have interest to pay, so the idea of not finishing a film and leaving it off for a few years is not expected. Rick Linklater’s Boyhood, which was done over a series of years, would never have been a studio film. They couldn’t have understood that.

 

DT: The clips of the unfinished films were just spectacular. I’m dying to see Don Quixote. How did you find those?

 

CW: They’re around. There are people. First of all, the documentary that Oja was involved in [Orson Welles:  The One-Man Band] had a lot of those unfinished films in it because she owned them. She was the heir to all the unfinished films. His then wife, who was living in the United States at the time with his daughter, inherited the finished films that he owned, which was only Othello, because some group or some studio owned the rest. But as I said, all his unfinished films went to Oja, and she’s been getting them out. The Munich Film Museum is very involved for some reason with that. They’re online, actually. You can find them on the Internet. And there are collectors who might have seen it once in 1960, or it was on television, or they went to a screening and shot it or something like that. We were able to find copies of a lot of these films, then we had time to find better copies. It was very exciting. I didn’t know about all these old films. I knew there one or two—I knew about The Other Side of the Wind, which was his latest film, that I hear is going to be coming out next year around his birthday. It’s going to be finished—Peter Bogdanovich and [producer] Frank Marshall are working on it. Apparently they’ve cleared all the rights, so they hope it may be coming out in May, for his hundredth birthday. If not, certainly next year sometime.

 

DT: As you went through all of the material from his work in theater, radio, TV, and film, do you see a sort of uniting thread, a personal stamp in everything he did?

 

CW: There are critics who talk about this, and I can never figure that out. I try, but to me, because I’m a filmmaker myself, I don’t see that I’m putting in the same thing all the time. But I think that Welles wanted to kind of push the envelope. And every film was like that. If I can put it in an even more common way, he wanted to show off. I think Picasso wanted to show off. And James Joyce wanted to show off. And Norman Mailer certainly wants to show off. So that was the action for me; the subtext of the whole film is that this is Welles trying to show what he can do and the resistance that he got for doing that, and then him trying to do it again. This happened over and over. Look at the films as that, look at them and say, “This guy is really showing me something interesting.” In Touch of Evil, he’s taking his own character and making himself into this obnoxious fat guy with all these jokes about how much he eats. He didn’t have to do that. He could have made the guy into a smooth sheriff that everybody liked. But he didn’t. That was one more thing he tried to do. And I tried to show that. I didn’t have anybody articulating that, but I think that’s the subtext of the film.

Here he was, the star of radio, the star of theater, brought to Hollywood. He has Citizen Kane to make. He could have made a very safe film. He could have made any film, basically, but he ended up with Citizen Kane. It didn’t have to be a film that offended William Randolph Hearst and also had all these experimental things in it that changed cinema. He didn’t have to do that, but he was pushing the envelope; he was, in a way, showing off. His mother asked him to show off when he was eight, ten years old.

 

DT: As a Welles biographer, what do you want people to feel about him?

 

CW: I hope they take away the fact that this was one of the great artists of the twentieth century—in terms of cinema, one of the great American filmmakers. I rank him with Altman and Kubrick. They’re very different filmmakers, but those for me are the three great American filmmakers. Not to take anything away from great directors like Scorsese and John Ford, etc., but those are the people who had a unique view and pressed it and pushed it and made it happen.

You get nothing but resistance. I get it in my little films. “Oh, you don’t have to invent the wheel again, Chuck, just do what you did before.” And I say, “No, I don’t want to do what I did before.” I looked at your website. I saw the people you interview. Those people you’re talking to, most of them, are not interested in doing the same thing again. They’re interested in doing something different. Maybe that’s why you’re interested in them and why other people might be interested in them. That’s what keeps us all going. Welles did this in an extraordinary way, and I hope people get that.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2014

 

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