One of the most influential moviemakers of all time, Orson Welles did it all – a writer, an actor, a producer, and a director. He was a prodigy, playing music, acting, and directing Shakespeare in his early teens. And by the time he reached his 20s, he was breaking new ground on Broadway with Shakespeare’s Caesar (1937), on radio in the panic-induced adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, (1938) and most notably, in film, with Citizen Kane (1941), often touted as the greatest movie of all time.
Long before John Cassavetes made independent filmmaking possible, Orson Welles was working outside the studio system in the years following Citizen Kane, raising money for his own projects, fighting over creative control, and struggling against an industry that didn’t understand him. Quite possibly 40 years ahead of his time, Welles directed only 13 full length feature films, including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Touch of Evil (1958), and Chimes at Midnight (1966).
This month, Welles’ story comes to life in Magician, a documentary by Academy Award-winning director Chuck Workman. The film features new and archival interviews with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, and longtime Workman collaborator Peter Bogdanovich, as well as interviews with Welles and rarely seen footage from unfinished projects like The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep, and Don Quixote. The documentary shows Welles in all his triumphs, struggles, and contradictions.
To gain perspective on Welles’ place in cinema history, we discussed his life and legacy with Workman, a former educator at the USC Film School and a director of film and theater for over 25 years. His credits include HBO’s history of motion picture, The First 100 Years, the Oscar-winning live-action short Precious Images, and numerous features, documentaries, and shorts on subjects like Charlie Chaplin, Andy Warhol, and Martin Luther King.
Mark Sells, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In Precious Images, you begin and end with Citizen Kane. How influential was Orson Welles was on your film career?
Chuck Workman (CW): That’s right. I guess I always thought that that was the biggest film in the history of movies, especially American films. I looked at it as the touchstone of film. From an early age, I saw Welles as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of American filmmakers. And he was always with me. As I got older, I continued to watch every single Orson Welles’ film. And when I made Magician, I got to see them all over again through a different lens, picking out specific scenes. It was quite a different experience.
MM: What was the one thing that differentiated him from other filmmakers?
CW: Along with Kubrick and Altman, he was the American filmmaker who pressed and pushed with cinema more than any other director. He wanted to do more with it. He wanted to make an art out of it. He was more of an avant-garde filmmaker that looked at cinema as an art form; not as an entertainment or a commodity. The unique thing about Welles was that he was working at a time when there was no independent cinema. There was no way to find some money and make a film separately. It just wasn’t happening. And even if he made a film, he wouldn’t have found distribution because the studios weren’t looking to pick up films.
It really wasn’t until Cassavetes that independent film became possible. So, there he was, trying to make his own cinematic imprint in the same way he did in the ’30s with radio and theater, where it was allowed. But there was no way to do it. He got away with it on Citizen Kane, but he was never able to do it again.
MM: So he’s really the father of independent filmmaking. Do you think he would have had more success today?
CW: Yes, he definitely would have. I’m not saying that he wasn’t successful. He left a great body of work. But he would have had fewer problems in his career because he could have made films cheaper and better. There’s the example of the great foreign films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s – Fellini, Antonioni, the French and English. All of these great films he could have looked at for inspiration.
The Immortal Story, his last dramatic film, has that European art look. So, he was adapting and reacting to it, which was made in the late ‘60s. And F for Fake, his last finished feature film is very European in the way that it embodies a free form, essay-like style. I would have really liked to have seen ten more films like this where he didn’t feel like he had to fill every seat in the theater and he could have done what he wanted.
MM: Why did the studios crush his creativity and assign editors to his work?
CW: They were afraid. They were afraid of not making any money. That’s what they’re in the business of. They’re not in the business of creating great films. People don’t know that. Filmmakers don’t even know that. Filmmakers think “I’ll make a great movie and the studios will love it.” But the studios are only interested in making money in the same way the milk company is interested in making money and not necessarily interested in the welfare of the cows.
Mass media movies is a business. And there’s no question about it. So, when they allow an artist to make a film, they only allow the artist to do so up to a certain point. Then, they’ll see the film and want to fix it so that everybody in the audience will get it. It’s not too hard or too difficult to understand. The stars are doing what stars do. The story has a three-act structure that peaks at the right pages. I don’t think Fellini wanted to do that. I don’t think Orson Welles wanted to do that. And I don’t think Kubrick wanted to do that. So, when The Shining came out, there were all these shots of this kid riding his little bike up and down the hallways. People thought it was crazy. Why am I watching this? And yet, that became one of the most interesting parts of the film for various reasons.
They’re looking to get as many asses in the seats as possible. So, if they find anything that’s troubling, they’ll look to fix it. So, they get Welles’ films. They don’t read the scripts. They just look at the dailies and think, this looks pretty good. And then they see it all put together and think, we’ve gotta fix this.
Welles is coming from a generation where the director was hired to direct a film. Not to edit it. So, he was either fired or he had to walk away. He tried to politely and professionally affect the end. But surprisingly, he didn’t have any tantrums. He was never bitter.
MM: Why do you believe Citizen Kane is the most important movie ever made?
CW: Cinema is so much more than storytelling. Most of the films we look at, that we watch, and enjoy, whether it’s from Hollywood or very obscure, have a story. Think about Shakespeare. He was just copying someone else’s story. Romeo and Juliet was someone else’s story. Hamlet was someone else’s story. It was the style that made him popular, much more so than the storytelling.
So, it was the style of Citizen Kane, the way it was made, shot, acted, edited, the music, sound, etc. – all these various things added up to something that was much more than the story of one person. Even the structure – it wasn’t necessarily linear. So, now we look at Pulp Fiction and think, “Wow, they just killed off one of the characters and then he appears in the next scene?” This was something that was done in Citizen Kane.
Welles said: “It’s the greatest electric train set to work on a movie.” And it was if you weren’t constrained to make a product. He had great collaborators. The one opportunity he had to use his genius was Citizen Kane. All the other times he was chasing after something, he was looking for money, he was running out of time, he was trying to please the studios, etc. But with Citizen Kane, he didn’t know you couldn’t do certain things or that certain things were hard to do.
MM: Do you think we’ll ever see a remake?
CW: Well, there was a remake of Psycho, wasn’t there? Certain classics will always be remade. Somebody says they can and they do. The problem with Citizen Kane and the reason it couldn’t be colorized 25 years ago, was that there are certain contracts still in force today, especially in Europe, that say you can’t fool around with it. Welles had total control. He died and you have to leave it that way. He had final cut.
So, I don’t know if it will ever be remade. And honestly, I don’t think that it should. When you’re remaking a film, you’re essentially remaking the story. And the story is less important to Citizen Kane than the style.
MM: What was the most difficult part of making Magician?
CW: I had a lot of challenges because I had to go through a lot of material to figure out what to use, but the biggest was probably structure. In just about every film you make, you have to figure out what the overall structure is going to be. You can go the classic three-act route as we discussed earlier, where certain things happen at certain times, i.e. the hero has a crisis, the hero gets through the crisis, etc. and that’s what people are used to watching. The audience, even a very sharp audience, is used to a certain kind of structure in film.
Even for a documentary, you have to have some sort of dramatic structure so that audiences have something to follow. Here, I had his life and I could easily follow that. I had his movies in order. But together, they didn’t necessarily make the kind of structure you could build on, where you could have a climax, see someone in trouble and see how they get out of it. So, I was constantly looking at and tweaking that.
At the same time, I wanted to show all of his films, but I didn’t want to make a biography to tell you how great Orson Welles was. I do feel he was great, but didn’t want that to be obvious. I wanted the audience to be able to make up their mind. I wanted to put in fun things that may have contradicted that and wanted to show all of his idiosyncrasies to show that he was not perfect.
MM: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
CW: Everything that I’ve done with integrity, where I was trying to do my best without being focused entirely on the paycheck. I look at the majority of my films the same way. I try to bring the same Chuck Workman to them. So, if I’m cutting a trailer to Star Wars or I’m making Magician some 30 years later, I have the same things going through my mind. I hope I’m getting better at it? But at the same time, it’s the same experience for me. You get very excited about trying to do something, you experiment and play with it, you do it and it works or fix it until it works, and then you show it and other people feel that it works – that’s a great gratification. And to be able to make a living at it is even better.
MM: What should independent filmmakers take away from the legacy of Orson Wellles?
CW: They should assume that Citizen Kane was a lucky break. Or think, what if Citizen Kane didn’t happen, i.e. what if it was just a well approved film? This would force them to look at his whole career because they should be thinking about a body of work and what they’re going to do next. Most professional filmmakers or true artists are already thinking about their next film before they’ve even finished their current one. Not just to take the next offer, but to constantly think about filmmaking as a career. I’m going to do a little short, now I’m going to try a documentary, or now, I’m going to try that animated film. It’s about moving forward.
Also, the persistence that Welles had. Persistence is so important in filmmaking because you have so many negatives and all these idiots telling you what to do. So, you have to be persistent in your own ambition and your own vision of what you want, understanding when to relent and when not to relent.
This is what Orson Welles tried to do his whole life. He didn’t usually get it right, frankly. Sometimes, he pushed his vision too much; sometimes, he should have taken some advice here and there. But we have this whole body of work from Citizen Kane onwards as a result. He kept trying, regardless of all the different problems he encountered, to make more and more films. MM
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is currently in select theaters across the country.