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Lessons From Orson

Lessons From Orson

Articles - Directing

In 1970, I directed Orson Welles in A Safe Place, my first film. In 1985, I directed him in Someone
to Love,
his last performance, as it turned out.

In the decade and a half in between, we became very
good friends. We had lunch once or twice a week and spoke on the
phone almost daily for seven years. I learned much-very much-from
Orson Welles. We taped all those lunches, for him to use in a book
that he would someday write: his autobiography.

I would ask him a question and mention a person I
was interested in and whom he had known. Chaplin. Hemingway. Churchilll.
Picasso. FDR. And he would talk.

I felt as if I was meeting the people I had always
been most fascinated by. Of course, Orson had prejudices which influenced
his perceptions of these people and his attitude toward them was
naturally colored by who he was. But his prejudices were so like
mine that I felt as if I were getting to know them the way I would
have done had I been around back then.

On each of my last two films, Can She Bake a Cherry
and Always, Orson did something truly remarkable.
He waited both times until I had a fairly solid first rough cut,
resisting the strong temptation on each occasion to look at any
of the footage in the early stages. Lunch after lunch, for many
months, I would tell him: "Not yet!"

When I finally did have a pretty tight cut ready,
he came to my cutting room, sat in a wheelchair for comfort, smoked
his Monte Cristo cigars and looked at the movie on my editing machine,
reel by reel, talking as he watched-advising, suggesting, praising,
laughing, arguing with the whole mad filmmaking process, being reminded
of the movies he had made: their virtues, their flaws, his ‘mistakes,’
his conclusions.

Both times, it was a virtuoso performance lasting
two days per movie, ten or twelve hours each, following lunch, followed
by dinner, where the talk continued, the ideas flowed, issues/10/images stimulated
thoughts, dialogue provoked memory. And he would talk. I would listen.
Ask. Argue. And learn.

Still, in the 15 years that I knew him, I’d say that
the two main lessons Orson taught me came early. One was positive,
from Orson’s example. The other was negative-also, sadly, from his

Illustration by Aaron Coberly.

The positive lesson was this: MAKE MOVIES FOR YOURSELF.
"Make them as good as you can, so that you are satisfied, never
compromising, because they are going to show up to haunt you for
the rest of your life," he told me on the set of my first film.
He had watched me for a few days and finally came to the rather
surprised conclusion that "you’re trying to do something interesting,
aren’t you?" I nodded, yes. I hoped I was.

"Don’t let anybody tell you what to do,"
he said. "And never make a movie for anyone else, or on some
idea of what other people will like. Make it yours, and hope that
there will be others who will understand. But never compromise to
make them understand. Never do less than you feel you have to."

The negative lesson was simply this: NEVER NEED HOLLYWOOD.
Never depend on it for your financing, for support, for your ability
to make films. Get your backing as far away as possible from what
they proudly call their "Industry" if you have any intention
of being an artist. Co-existence cannot occur, as Orson’s last two
decades sadly showed. He needed them till the end, and they rejected
him till the end. And a half-dozen or more brilliant motion pictures
never got made as a result. And a magnificent artist could never
get back to the canvas that they had pulled out from under him.

So: "Never give them control over your tools,"
is what I hear Orson telling me now, as I view his final screen

"Make the movies you want to make. On your own.
And be free…"

Orson Welles stops to pick
up a stranger in 1951’s Return to Glennascaul.

Orson Welles’ Ghost Story

by Tim Rhys

Two issues ago we talked a lot about America’s renewed
romance with the short film, and at least one video distributor
seems to be taking notice of the trend. Just in time for Halloween,
MPI Home Video has released Orson Welles’s Ghost Story, a
little-known 30-minute gem shot in Ireland in 1951 and nominated
for an Academy Award for best two-reel short subject in 1953.

Originally titled Return to Glennascaul, the
film was written and directed by Hilton Edwards and co-produced
by Michael Mac Liammoir, two of Orson’s stars in his production
of Othello, which he shot in Europe between 1949 and 1952. Othello was several years in the making because of financing
and scheduling problems, and Orson acted in other people’s movies
during this period to help keep Othello afloat. The Third
, Black Magic, and Prince of Foxes were among
these, as was Return to Glennascaul, which he starred in
as a favor to his friends Edwards and Mac Liammoir. These two men
were the founders and directors of Dublin’s highly respected Gate
Theater, where Orson first acted professionally when he was just
16. Legend has it that Orson, looking older than his years, convinced
the two that he was a well-known stage actor from the U.S. Whether
or not they actually believed him, Orson got the part and gained
two lifelong friends.

Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom.

In his introduction, Peter Bogdanovich calls Glennascaul "an evocative, likable and unpretentious effort … awkward in
certain ways but strangely haunting nonetheless." It is an old-fashioned
ghost story, beautifully photographed by George Fleischmann, that
seems straightforward enough, but like all good films, reveals subtler
textures on subsequent viewings. Orson Welles plays himself, driving
down a country road outside Dublin "one spooky Irish midnight
not so long ago," where he stops to pick up a man whose car has
broken down. The man tells him an unsettling tale about what happened
to him a year earlier on that same stretch of road when he gave a
lift to two women who brought him to their house, named Glennascaul
(Irish for "glen of the shadows" shadows being another name
for ghosts).

Besides the photography and fine acting, the film
is notable because it is one of only two times Orson agreed to be
filmed without makeup of any kind -the other being as the scoundrel
Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The famous zither
music of that film has a similar feel to the hypnotic, haunting
solo harp in Glennascaul. The long shadows, dutch angles
and gothic European sensibility are also characteristic of both

This Halloween, after you listen to War of the
again, you could do worse than to spend the evening watching
these two Welles films back to back. One is a major classic, one
minor, but I bet you’ll love them both and you won’t even realize
you’ve been to film school. MM

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