Orson Welles’ Final Film Is Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Orson Welles
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This is perhaps a story that can be told in a single sentence: Netflix is releasing Orson Welles’ final film.

According to the Huffington Post, the details of the story are every bit as strange as that single pronouncement. Forty-eight years after the infamous auteur began production on what would be his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, the film has finally been completed and released by Netflix.

In 1969, Welles was living in self-imposed exile in Europe after a series of confrontations with Hollywood studios had left him on the outside looking in. The director of Citizen Kane, which occupies the top spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest films ever made, saw RKO Pictures slash 43 minutes from the director’s cut of his follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons. Some critics have suggested that The Magnificent Ambersons could have supplanted Citizen Kane as Welles’ touchstone work, but it was not to be. “The destroyed Ambersons, and destroyed me,” Welles said. From that point on, Welles continually battled against the studios over the content of his films, until the final straw came during the making of 1958 noir Touch of Evil. Welles left Hollywood and struggled to get his films financed since.

He was starring in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 and shooting in Mexico in 1969 when he did an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, who at the time was working as a writer and critic. While commiserating about the state of American film, Bogdanovich mentioned to Welles that Welles’ contemporary peer John Ford was also struggling to find work in Hollywood. This set The Other Side of the Wind in motion, as Welles was so moved by Ford’s struggle that he decided to make a film about an aging director’s rivalry with a younger Hollywood director. Welles hired the great John Huston, another Welles contemporary cut from the same cloth as a brilliant performer both in front of and behind the camera, to star in the film as the older director.

Danny Huston and Frank Marshall (Credit: Bryan Bedder/Gerry Images) Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

Principal photography on the film began the next year, but from the very beginning, the film was besieged by problems. The film lost funding over and over again, was slapped by an unexpected tax bill from the IRS, and was plagued by an alleged embezzlement scam on set. Welles couldn’t afford to pay his crew, and he and cinematographer Gary Graver resorted to shooting and editing adult films to pay the bills. Welles fired Rich Little, the actor playing the younger director, weeks into filming and replaced him with Bogdanovich. The film was rescued in part by financing from the French production company Astrophore, which provided the lion’s share of the film’s budget. Production on the film ended up being shut down so many times that it took the crew six years to complete principal photography.

Then the real problems began.

Astrophore, the production company that had largely funded the film, was owned by Mehdi Bushehri, who was the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. When the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the film’s negative was impounded in a vault in Paris by Ayatollah Khomeini. Welles engaged in a nearly decade-long battle over the rights to the negative. In the meantime, he was forced to edit his own workprint of the film until 1983.

Welles died in 1985. The film remained in the vault in Paris.

The three beneficiaries of the film’s rights– Oja Kodar (Welles’ partner and co-screenwriter on the film), Welles’ daughter Beatrice, and Bushehri’s heirs– failed to reach an agreement on the copyright. Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall, who was an original producer on the film, and Polish producer Filip Jan Rymsza battled to gain control of the negative for over thirty years.

Finally, in March 2017, Marshall and Rymsza acquired the original print from the Parisian vault. The bounty included over 1,000 reels of film featuring 100 hours of footage. With the negative in hand, the producers were then faced with the yeoman task of reconstructing a 40-year-old film without its director.

The crew had about 45 minutes of edited footage from Welles’ workprint, so they at least had a sense of the style and pace that Welles had in mind. However, restoring the sound was difficult, and ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) with the original cast would be impossible since many of them had died by then. The producers had to hire sound-alikes to complete the film, including actor Danny Huston to impersonate his late father.

“It’s quite magical connecting with his voice,” Huston said in the accompanying featurette of the film as he watched his father onscreen. “It brought him back to life.”

The struggles were still not over, even when the film was finally completed after nearly 50 years. The film was pulled from Cannes after French theater owners demanded a 36-month window between theatrical and streaming release dates. When Netflix refused, the Festival booted the film from competition, causing Netflix to pull all of their titles from the festival. Thus, most people will experience Orson Welles’ final film on the streaming service, an almost-ironic juxtaposition of classic and modern cinema. The final film of one of the greatest directors ever has finally been brought to fruition by a streaming service seeking to alter the landscape of cinema as we know it.

The film itself is largely Welles’ original work. Post-production added the ADR and some visual effects and made a change to the opening voiceover, but otherwise, Welles’ original product remains intact. The film itself is a mockumentary about an aging film director (a character inspired by Ernest Hemingway) who is scrambling to finance his next movie, a ’70s art house picture that satirizes the work of Michelangelo Antonioni as a plotless series of languid, psychedelic sequences. The Other Side of the Wind bounces back and forth between the director’s world and the world he creates in his work. When viewed in the context of Welles’ own struggles and the film’s long and winding road to fruition, it is as if life has imitated art imitating life.

Somewhere on the other side of the wind, Welles is smiling.