In 1970, Orson Welles began filming what would ultimately be his final film. Beset by financial issues, the production never finished and never released, with thousands of reels of film languishing in a Paris vault. More than 30 years after his death, that movie has been completed and The Other Side of the Wind is now available to watch anywhere in the world on Netflix. (Read our review of the film here.)
At the same time, Netflix also commissioned They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary from Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), chronicling Orson’s final years, as well as the saga of The Other Side of the Wind. (Read our review of the film here.) Sitting down with Morgan to talk about his film, it’s immediately clear that he’s a massive Orson Welles geek.
He describes They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead as “the kind of film I wanna watch as a Welles geek”, and Welles as “an endlessly fascinating character”.
The word character is no coincidence: Welles was an actor as well as a director, which meant that knowing the real Orson is a mystery in itself.
“Welles was like a kaleidoscopic character, everything you can say about Welles is, in a way, true,” Morgan enthuses. “I would meet people in these interviews and they would say ‘Orson is the most fatherly person I ever met’, the next would say he’s the least paternal person, the next person said he’s the kindest, gentlest person, the next person said he’s the gruffest, most difficult person. The next person said Orson had the worst luck and all he wanted to do was finish the movie. The next said Orson never intended to finish his movie.”
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead takes that enigma and puts it right at the heart of the film, ping-ponging between the two ideas – Welles, the unlucky artist and Welles, the egotistical filmmaker determined to leave a legacy behind that would always be a subject of debate.
“My take on it now is that Orson was all those things, depending on the moment,” continues Morgan. “Orson himself was an actor and when he walked into a room, he figured out what that room wanted an dhe became that version of himself, so he could be all those things to different people. I kind of wanted the audience, in my case, to be having that debate, because it’s a debate I’ve had – I don’t think there’s a clear answer. Then I make in this documentary a cheeky suggestion that maybe this documentary is what he wanted. Maybe it is! I don’t know, you know.”
“Without [Netflix] , I don’t know if it ever would have happened.”
The project itself arrives as something of a dream for Neville, who never thought he’d make a film about a hero of is.
“I didn’t see an original angle,” he explains. “And then when I found out about the dailies for The Other Side of the Wind four years ago, I thought, if I could ever get my hands on the footage, you could make an amazing documentary.”
But contacting veteran producer Frank Marshall, who served as a production manager on Wind during in its initial shooting and has led the efforts to restore the film, was just the first step in a long process.
“They thought they were going to get the footage imminently,” he chuckles. “So great, we’re all going to be in production in three months. Then that fell apart, then Netflix came in. We were going to do the documentary and feature separately, then Netflix came and said ‘We’ll take it all’.”
A major part of the problem were the endless legal battles that have surrounded the film since its production, with Welles entering into various deals to get the financing he required. Morgan became aware of the film’s legal and financial troubles after he read an excerpt of Josh Karp’s book, Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, in a US magazine. Netflix, though, turned out to to be the ones who had the solution: lots and lots of money.
“Somebody had to write a really large cheque to get this footage out of a vault in Paris!” explains Morgan. “Because there were all these stakeholder sna dpeople who claimed ownership and the reason it had been sitting there for years was it was a mess legally, and Netflix wrote a cheque big enough to satisfy everybody and get the footage out. So without that, I don’t know if it ever would have happened. They were struggling, Frank for decades, to get the footage out. There was another attempt maybe in the early 2000s with Showtime.”
“I didn’t believe it until the footage was being shipped to Los Angeles,” he continues. “That was when I first allowed myself to believe this was going to happen.”
“Every day was like Christmas morning,” he recalls, as the footage arrived in batches for processing. But without any organisation, they had to piece things together as they went.
“It was like this random puzzle, just odds and ends, and so every day we would get a different batch, it was very strange, but kind of exhilarating!” he adds. “We ended up with about 100 hours of dailies!”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun in editing a film.”
All that was without the daunting task of actually finishing The Other Side of the Wind, which Morgan avoided watching until they had almost completed his picture.
“I wanted the documentary to be its own thing and have its own tone and I didn’t want to be thinking about what I was using or not using, based on what’s in the film,” he explains. “But when I watched it, I was pleased with how different it felt, tonally, but how complimentary it was, in terms of the subject matter. So it’s interesting – it’s not a normal… I’ve never done anything like this before! But just in terms of making it, I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun in editing a film.”
It’s not often, after all, that you get a making of about a film that was never really made.
“The fact that he was making a film within a film about a filmmaker who can’t finish a film is perfect to wrap a film around! It’s perfect,” laughs Morgan. “It’s what they call ‘meta’. F for Fake, which is the documentary he made in the middle of The Other Side of the Wind, was hugely influential on me, so I thought this was my chance to pay Orson back for that film and to play with some of the things he was playing with in that film.”
The result isn’t just a fun, post-modern trifle, but an essential companion piece to The Other Side of the Wind, entertaining and informing it, while also improving it.
“I think The Other Side of the Wind on its own, you’re left with so many questions that you need help,” agrees Morgan.
“Something like 90 million subscribers watch at least one documentary a month [on Netflix] .”
The film’s masterstroke is deciding to include Orson himself as both a character and a narrator, who answers back to the voice of Alan Cumming. who serves as the documentary’s presenter. When did they make that decision?
“That was early on, just because it felt like everything was fair game!” says Morgan. “And so much of what Orson was doing was acting at this time and that’s how we know Orson, in the public consciousness, and it became this other way of getting his presence in the film. So much of the dailies, you hear Orson’s voice, but you rarely see him, and a lot of it was asking how we see and feel Orson more in the film. So we went back through virtually everything he acted in.”
The result is almost a reaction GIFs library of Orson Welles on screen.
“It was just collecting moments where we thought ‘we could use that’,” nods Morgan. “We had a collection of looks and other things, like ‘We need a montage of Orson’s noses!’.”
The Other Side that ends up being revealed by Neville is Orson’s playful side.
“Laughter and comedy is something we talked about a lot, as my documentary has a certain amount of humour to it,” elaborates Morgan. “I feel like The Other Side of the Wind, too, everyone talked about the great sense of humour Orson had, but, by and large, his films were very serious. By the end of his career, he was doing more and more comedy. He did, like, a pilot for a BBC show called Orson’s Sketchbook that was kind of Monty Python-esque. I think in that Shakespearean way, as much as he liked tragedy, he loved comedy, and as he was getting older, he was showing that side more. But because people never saw these later works, they never got to see the funny side of Orson too. We tried to honour that playfulness.”
As the film is released on Netflix, it only reinforces the streaming giant’s position as a platform for documentary filmmaking. In 2018, the documentary is enjoying something a moment, and filmmakers and film fans often tell us that Netflix is where they get their non-fiction fix. Does Morgan attribute some of the documentary’s renaissance to Netflix and streaming?
“I’ve been making documentaries for 25 years and there was nothing cool about documentaries when I started,” he says. “What I always heard from people was ‘I love documentaries, but don’t know where to find them’. But now, people can find them as easily as they find comedy or drama and massive numbers of people watch them. Somebody told me, I’m gonna get this wrong, but something like on Netflix, 90 million subscribers watch at least one documentary a month. That’s a huge number being watched! I had this other documentary I made that became a huge theatrical hit, which flies in the face of what a lot of people are saying that people think of documentaries as TV now. I think it’s the opposite, it’s just the appetite for documentaries has gotten greater. Also, the filmmaking has been getting better and better. It’s a good time – it’s a golden age!”
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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