“It was like dredging up the Titanic,” says Ruth Hasty, Post Supervisor on The Other Side of the Wind. That description sets the tone for this behind-the-scenes documentary, which gives a very real sense of the challenge Orson Welles’ unfinished film posed – and, more importantly, the reverence with which everyone attempted to complete it. (You can read our review of the finished thing here.)
First started in 1970, Welles’ movie featured a cast of luminaries, including John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg and Oja Kodar, Welles’s partner during his later years. But financial and legal issues left the production spiralling way past 1976, ultimately languishing in a vaul in Paris until 2017 – when producers Frank Marshall (who served as a production manager on Wind‘s initial shooting) and Filip Jan Rymsza spearheaded efforts to restore, finish and release the legendary opus.
The film itself tells the story of famed filmmaker J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (Huston), who returns to Hollywood after years in self-exile in Europe with plans to complete work on his own innovative comeback movie. A satire of the classic studio system as well as the new establishment who were shaking things up at the time, it’s a mockumentary with a film-inside-a-film that’s post-modern enough to feel contemporary even in 2018. All of which made stitching the puzzle pieces together all the more difficult.
First, of course, there was the challenge of actually getting their hands on those pieces.
“Somebody had to write a really large cheque to get this footage out of a vault in Paris!” Morgan Neville told us in an interview for They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Netflix’s official companion documentary for The Other Side. “Because there were all these stakeholders and people 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.”
A Final Cut for Orson briefly gives us a glimpse of that awkward battle – Neville chose to omit that from his film to avoid being bogged down in the legal back-and-forths – with three parties claiming ownership of the reels, including Orson’s daughter and Kodar. Netflix, strangely, doesn’t get a mention, but the primary focus is on the actual process of finishing the movie. Orson, we learn, had edited 40 minutes together, which gave them a feel for the tone and pace he was going for – they just had to extend that to the 1,083 elements across 100 hours of dailies, each one unsorted and out of sequence.
Wrestling down that to an initial three-hour assembly cut is an interesting artistic and technical endeavour; once the first step of handling the nitrate is over, digital technology is essential in matching footage together across the mountains of celluloid. Marshall suggests, wryly, that if would have been impossible to do this without computers, as if the film were waiting for the right time to be finished. Editor Bob Murawski, who knew The Other Side’s original DoP, also shares some great insights into continuing the style of Orson’s existing material – and the chance to see Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand join the project and compose music to pull the fragments together is worth tuning in for alone.
The music for this documentary, though, is almost entirely reverential, as somber strings convey the hallowed mood of what’s being undertaken. It only highlights the thing that’s missing from an otherwise candid piece: Orson himself. We get some clips of his voice on set, and one of the crew speaks of the thrill of seeing him on the negatives holding his cigar, but everyone is so eager to speak highly of the legend – even close friend Peter Bogdanovich, whose utter devotion to his mentor continued in the face of some tough treatment – that the film lacks the abrasive, often amusing streak that defined Welles, and his work.
Indeed, it’s telling that the most entertaining material in the movie isn’t to do with Welles, but with John Huston. With no post-production carries out by Welles, John’s son, Danny Huston, steps in to do some ADR for the movie, recording lines that weren’t clear enough on tape. He does an uncanny impression of his father, one that slots seamlessly into the project. “I remember a doctor asking my father how many cigars he smoked,” says Huston, with a fond smile. “His reply was: As many as I can.’”
For a full, rounded sense of the director in the context of his final film, the playful They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (which contains more footage from The Other Side and more insight from Bogdanovich) is the essential companion piece. A Final Cut for Orson is less substantial, but nonetheless provides the final piece of the Welles puzzle.
A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.