Orson Welles' Last, Unfinished Film Heads Toward Completion With $2M Indiegogo Campaign
Thirty years after the master filmmaker's death, mega-producer Frank Marshall is assisting the movie he worked on as a gofer.
On October 13, 2014, a young producer named Filip Jan Rymsza boarded a plane from New York to Paris, nervous and excited. After five years of struggle — begging, wheedling and cajoling, and working his way through a thicket of legal and financial complications — he was about to get his first physical glimpse of Orson Welles’ last film.
Rymsza, 37, the managing partner of Royal Road Entertainment, had been given permission to see 1,083 elements of the movie, including both the negative and the accompanying sound recordings, both part of a massive trove of material that altogether weighed 1.6 tons. This was the marrow of The Other Side of the Wind, the legendary, unfinished movie that Welles worked on from 1970 to 1976, before a blizzard of problems brought it crashing to the ground.
Arriving in the Parisian suburb of Bagnolet the following day, Rymsza (2004’s Sandcastles) was ushered through a back door into a bland warehouse. “It was surreal,” he says. “It was a totally nondescript warehouse with just a metal door and no signage, with just boxes and boxes of film on two pallets. But everything was there.” That included the entire negative of the film, all of it in pristine condition.
Six months after that magical moment, Rymsza and two other producers, Jens Koethner Kaul and Frank Marshall, are taking a major step forward in bringing Wind to the screen.
On May 7, the colleagues — each of whom fought for years to obtain the rights, before joining forces in 2012 — will launch an Indiegogo campaign in an attempt to raise $2 million, the amount they say is needed to finish the picture. The campaign will run through June 14 and, among other things, will offer investors a limited number of 35 mm prints, tickets to the premiere, and canisters from the original film.
Filip Jan Rymsza
“Had this been around, Orson would not have had the problems he did,” says Rymsza. “He was always trying to keep control.”
The first drafts of the Wind script were written in the late 1950s by Welles, the iconoclastic director and star of 1941’s Citizen Kane and 1958’s Touch of Evil, says Josh Karp, author of the recently published Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind.
“Orson left Hollywood for Europe in the late 1950s, after his famous dispute with Universal over the final cut on Touch of Evil,” says Karp. “[That caused him] to miss his eldest daughter’s wedding, so he could write a passionate 58-page memo, meticulously detailing how the film could be finished.” Afterward Welles decided he could no longer work within the studio system, whose executives, he said, had “no madness to their method.”
In 1970, Welles returned to the U.S. and began work on what was meant to be his comeback movie, Wind. “It’s the story of a legendary director who’s fallen out of favor in Hollywood and has just returned to make his own comeback movie,” says Karp. “The film is shot documentary-style, but there’s also a film-within-the-film, which is the one the director is making, and that’s done like mock-Antonioni, beautifully shot and filled with meaningless symbolism. You’ve got a story that immediately is bizarre: Welles has just returned from a decade in Europe and is making an innovative, comeback movie, about a guy who’s making an innovative comeback movie, after being in Europe for 10 years.”
Welles had written various scripts over the years, but he changed them constantly as he shot. “He had been working on the script at least since 1958, and possibly as early as 1955,” says Karp. “He said it was like a Victorian novel, [one] that he knew so much about — the characters and their history and their families — that he could have written three volumes. But this script was only going to be a guideline: he would use it for the backbone of the story, and would tell the actors, ‘Here’s who you are, here’s what happened to you yesterday,’ and ‘Here’s where you are today,’ then often have them improvise dialogue.”
In August 1970, using $750,000 of his own money, Welles began shooting at a house he was renting in Beverly Hills. “He was an insomniac,” says Karp. “He would keep working on the script each night when he couldn’t sleep. There was this ever-evolving storyline that changed with what was happening during the making of the film.”
At some point during the shoot, for reasons that are unclear, Welles uprooted and moved back to Europe — to the utter surprise of one of the cast members, Bob Random, who had been told to take a two-week break and then reappear for more work, only to find his director’s phone had been disconnected.
Shooting resumed in Arizona in 1971, and Marshall — now one of Hollywood’s leading producers, with credits including Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Identity — took part as a gofer, and later line producer.
A film can containing Welles' last work, 'The Other Side of the Wind'
“I had just finished working on The Last Picture Show with Peter Bogdanovich, when Orson called [Bogdanovich’s ex-wife] Polly Platt and asked if she’d like to come to Arizona and work on a movie with him,” Marshall recalls. “She said, ‘Can I bring a friend?’ And that was me. I went as a jack-of-all-trades, and stayed in Orson’s house for at least a month, which is where we shot.”
He adds: “He was incredible, just as you would hope. He was so exciting to be around — funny and smart and fun, and also cantankerous and creative. He had this great sense of humor: We stopped every day at 4 o’clock and watched the original Dick Van Dyke Show. He would sit around and roar with laughter at Dick Van Dyke.”
Welles’ health and girth created problems, says Marshall, who returned to the project again in 1973 and 1974. “He was huge, and I was always waiting for something [bad] to happen, but it never did while we were working with him. He was very, very overweight. It was hard for him to move around, and hard to get him into cars or into the house, so that was an issue. We got a big convertible so he didn’t have to lean down to get into it, a Lincoln.”
The director’s energy was stupendous, nonetheless, Marshall notes. “He would call me at 4 in the morning and say, ‘Looks like it’s going to be a good sunrise; let’s shoot.’ And we’d all scramble out of bed to get there, and say, ‘What are we shooting?’ And he’d say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s get out to the desert’ — and he’d make a shot.”
The toughest time on the movie was when Welles lost one of his stars, impressionist Rich Little, who had been cast as an upstart film director loosely modeled on Bogdanovich. Little simply didn’t appear on-set one day.
“He went off, because he had an engagement in Las Vegas that we didn’t know about,” says Marshall. “The agent didn’t tell us. So we didn’t shoot that night; we shut down the movie. And that’s when Peter and Orson were talking, and Peter said, ‘Why don’t I play the part?’ Then we had to reshoot all the Rich Little stuff.”
Shooting continued on and off until 1976. It was indicative of Welles’ unorthodox working style that the movie’s lead, John Huston, did not even start work until 1974. As the project continued, money problems began to bedevil it.
One of the people backing the film was Mehdi Bushehri, the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. With things heating up in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution, Bushehri pressured Welles to finish the movie. Welles promised to do so, but failed to meet his own deadline.
“He never met the completion date,” says Karp, “and after that it became a legal dispute and [the negative] got locked in a lab in Paris. Since then, it’s just been a mess of injunctions and legal maneuvering, all of which seemed to make things even more confusing.”
Welles strolling along La Croisette, Cannes in 1968
Welles died in 1985. Over the following decades, many of his most loyal friends tried repeatedly to untangle the rights — not least Marshall, who says he has been working on the project for some 20 years.
Those rights were complicated because three different players had some degree of ownership: Welles’ longtime companion, Oja Kodar; his daughter, Beatrice; and the Paris-based Films de l’Astrophore, which holds Bushehri’s stake.
For many years, the three parties refused to come together. At one point Showtime obtained some of the rights; at another Rymsza and his colleague Koethner Kaul had different rights. But nobody ever owned all the rights, until in 2012 Rymsza and Marshall spoke in Telluride and agreed to join forces.
“[Kadar and Beatrice Welles] were both very particular about who was going to be involved, and how it was going to be done,” says Marshall. “I knew Oja, and Filip and I finally sat down with Beatrice in November. The fact that Peter and I knew Orson was of comfort to both.”
Now an editor, Affonso Goncalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild), is at work piecing the film together, based on Welles’ extensive notes, along with input from Bogdanovich.
“We have Orson’s work print that he had smuggled out of France, which is a [roughly] 42-minute cut of the film,” says Rymsza. “We’re using that as a blueprint for the remainder, some of which is in an assembly state.”
He and his team have also consulted the many copies of the script with Welles’ notes, which together create a pile five feet high. “You look at the scripts; you have his annotations and his memos to his editors,” says Rymsza. “We have a huge amount of information.”
If the Indiegogo campaign is successful, the producers hope to finish the film by the end of the year. The timing will be perfect: 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of Welles’ birth.