Deal Near on a Lost Welles
By HOWARD SWAINS, Special to the Sun | April 2, 2007
One of American cinema’s lost masterpieces could finally reach theaters next year after a deal nears completion to edit and release Orson Welles’s final, uncompleted film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” according to the director and actor Peter Bogdanovich.
“The deal is 99.9% finished,” Mr. Bogdanovich, a friend and biographer of Welles, said in an interview last month. Mr. Bogdanovich repeated his claims at an appearance at the Florida Film Festival in Orlando on Friday, according to a report on a Web site dedicated to Welles’s work.
The unedited negatives of the film have sat in a Paris vault for more than 30 years, unseen by anyone other than Welles, who died in 1985.
Mr. Bogdanovich, who also acted in “The Other Side of the Wind,” said negotiations with a “well-known cable network,” which have lasted seven years, have ended with an agreement to complete the film. While Mr. Bogdanovich refused to name the channel, Showtime has long been associated with the project. A spokesman for Showtime said it was “still in negotiations” over the movie.
Welles spent at least five years during the 1970s working on “The Other Side of the Wind,” which stars John Huston as an aging filmmaker directing what turns out to be his final movie. Huston’s character dies in a car crash before he finishes his film, and Welles’s story unfolds in flashback after the death of the central character, a device Welles previously employed in “Citizen Kane,” considered by many to be the greatest film ever made.
Before he died, Welles claimed that the shooting of “The Other Side of the Wind” was almost complete, and the filmmaker is known to have edited between 40 minutes and 50 minutes of the work, excerpts of which have occasionally been screened at Welles retrospectives.
But the negatives were entombed in France against Welles’s wishes after he accepted funding for the movie from an Iranian financier, Mehdi Bousheri, the brother-in-law of the former Shah. Bousheri invested a reported $1 million in the film during its drawn-out production, but the negatives became trapped in the vault of his Paris-based film company in the legal fallout of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Rumors of embezzlement of funding by a Spanish producer also surround the movie.
Welles managed to smuggle a working copy of his film out of Paris, but was denied access to the original negatives for the last 10 years of his life.
Subsequent attempts to edit and release “The Other Side of the Wind” have been scuppered at various junctures either by the Welles estate, managed by Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles, or Bousheri, who was keen to guarantee a return on his investment. Bousheri died last year, essentially releasing the negatives, but Ms. Welles has previously issued legal threats to block the movie’s completion.
Mr. Bogdanovich said that the new deal, which will be completed within the next two months, satisfies all parties.
“We’ve been trying to get it done for 22 years,” he said, referring to the length of time since Welles died of a heart attack.
“The Other Side of the Wind” was expected to be Welles’s most ambitious movie, utilizing innovative shooting and editing techniques new to filmmaking in the early 1970s. Although he denied any autobiographical resonance, it also appears to be Welles’s most personal film, with commentators who have read the screenplay suggesting that it contains a series of thinly-veiled caricatures of people who angered the director during his career.
Huston’s character — the swaggering, white-bearded filmmaker named Jake Hannaford — bears a distinct resemblance to Ernest Hemingway, while Pauline Kael, the film critic, is the probable inspiration for a supercilious character named Juliette Rich, according to Chuck Berg, writing in the 2003 “Encyclopedia of Orson Welles.”
The film also includes graphic sex scenes, some featuring Welles’s long-term partner Oja Kodar, who also co-wrote the movie.
The centerpiece of Welles’s film is a lavish 70th birthday party thrown in honor of Hannaford, during which the fictional director screens excerpts from his movie, also called “The Other Side of the Wind.” Among the guests at the party are television documentary crews, journalists, and film students, who pick up the camera and shoot behind-the-scenes footage of the celebrations, creating multiple layers of narrative and at least one movie within a movie.
“The word didn’t exist at the time, but it’s what we now call a ‘mockumentary,’” Mr. Bogdanovich said. Mr. Bogdanovich’s Los Angeles home was borrowed by Welles to shoot the party sequences.
Welles’s footage is believed to be purposefully rough, representing these multiple “directors.” He also recorded a number of overlapping strands of conversation, and, according to Mr Bogdanovich, had intended a number of trick shots that would have stretched available technology to the limit.
“It would have been difficult in Orson’s day,” Mr. Bogdanovich said of one scene in which Hannaford’s film was to be seen on a drive-in screen as the sun sets behind it. “But we can probably do it on computers now.”
Mr. Bogdanovich said he will work in a supervisory capacity on the editing of the film and is considering adding a further framing device to the story, depicting the lengthy struggle to get “The Other Side of the Wind” to the screen. The credits will, however, read “Directed by Orson Welles,” according to Mr. Bogdanovich.
Frank Marshall, a line producer on the original production, could also be involved in the new release, according to Mr. Bogdanovich.
Welles’s production, which began shooting in 1970, was consistently dogged by financial problems, often causing the director to suspend work on the movie while he took on lucrative acting or voice-over work. The struggle for finances eventually led to Bousheri and the resulting impasse.
Complicated legal disputes over ownership of the film have surrounded its production. Ms. Welles, Bousheri, and Kodar have all made claims to part or all of the copyright. The latter two reportedly agreed to a deal with Showtime in the late 1990s, but Ms. Welles subsequently issued a legal challenge.
The original Showtime deal fell through as a result of the legal wrangling, but Kodar, Bogdanovich, and Gary Graver, the cinematographer on “The Other Side of the Wind,” all continued their attempts to finish the film. Graver died in November 2006, but had previously been to Paris to inspect the negatives, and confirmed they were intact.
In 2002, Graver told the Express of London that Welles had completed the shooting and sound recording of the movie, and all that remained was the editing. The movie “could be considered one of Welles’s great films,” Graver told the newspaper. “Its release could make people re-evaluate Welles’s legacy.”
Lawrence French, a journalist who has written extensively on Welles and has read the screenplay, agreed that the film is a masterpiece. But he also cautioned that editing such a complex picture will present unique challenges to Mr. Bogdanovich’s team.
“No one has ever managed to duplicate Orson’s unique editing style,” Mr. French said. “It defies description. He does things you don’t realize he’s doing. Sometimes it isn’t even logical.”
Provided the deal is finalized, Mr. Bogdanovich expects editing to take at least a year, meaning the movie would not reach theaters until late 2008, at the earliest.
If it finally does reach the screen, Mr. Bogdanovich will have fulfilled a personal request made to him by Welles during a break in the shooting of “The Other Side of the Wind.”
“Orson said to me, ‘If anything happens to me, you will make sure you finish it, won’t you?’” Mr. Bogdanovich recalled. “It was, of course, a compliment and also a terrible moment. He pressed me to give some assurance, and it’s been hanging over us for 22 years now.”