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Morgan Neville on the Multitudes of Orson Welles and How ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ is a Critique of Machismo

Written by Joshua Encinias on December 26, 2018 


Twenty years after making the TV documentary The Hustons: Hollywood’s Maverick Dynasty, Morgan Neville returned to Huston and Orson Welles lore with They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making, unmaking, and resurrection of The Other Side of the Wind.

Neville joined the producing team of Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, and Filip Jan Rymsza sometime before the project’s crowd-funding campaign. The producers promised to finish the film and Neville committed to telling this part of Orson’s story.

In our conservation with Morgan Neville, we discuss Hollywood’s abandonment of Orson Welles; even mega-producer Frank Marshall’s involvement couldn’t procure the necessary budget to finish the film for decades. He also talks about the multitude of contradictory personalities Welles held throughout his life, and he comments on the stark contrast between Welles and Mr. Rogers, the other person of interest in his hit documentary.

The Film Stage: I think F for Fake and your documentary help contextualize The Other Side of the Wind.

Morgan Neville: Wind is incredibly dense, and even my approach to the documentary is not that it’s an explainer; it’s me trying to pay homage to F for Fake. How do I honor Orson’s matter of storytelling in telling a story about him? For me I saw it as Orson had shot 100 hours of his movie within a movie about a filmmaker who can’t finish a film at the end of his life. To make a film about that, it’s the most perfect meta-text of all time, to have all that material, and it’s not just the film, it’s all that other stuff that was going on and understanding what Orson was working out in his life through the movie. I feel like in some ways when it came finances and to studios, he felt that he didn’t a lot of agency, but by putting it into the movie he could control the narrative. It gave him a chance to seize the reins over these characters who were vexing him; the Pauline Kael’s, the studio chiefs, the Robert Evan’s and all these other characters.

The Robert Evans character was much more subdued than the real Robert Evans.

[Laughs.] The real Robert Evans was much more over the top, but it was also just… with Orson, what’s interesting was having just interviewed over 40 people about Orson and having just read and studied Orson my whole life, that people disagree completely about what Orson thought or did. People would say “he was absolutely like a father to me” or they’d say “he was absolutely not a paternal person” or he was loving or cruel or creative or all these things that seem contradictory and I think that he really is somebody who, more than any person I’ve ever come across, contains multitudes. He is somebody who I think all these things are actually true. I think Orson was like the hall of mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai; he was all of these reflections of different sides and I think, depending on if he sat in this chair or that chair he would be a different person. He was constantly readjusting who he was and I know examples of when he would say something and immediately after would say “I never said that” and he was completely comfortable contradicting himself, more than almost anybody I ever met. In a way I feel like he’s somebody who contains many truths and to reduce it to a rosebud is not doing him any favors—it’s selling him short.

In framing your documentary as an homage to F for Fake, why did you choose Alan Cumming to be your Orson stand-in?

The first thing is that I felt we had to have a narrator because Orson loved narration. Not only did he narrate F for Fake, but from the Mercury Theatre through many of his feature films to some of the trailers for his feature films, he always narrated. He loved the narratorial voice and he felt that the narrator is the character in a way and not just a voice of God or just an objective voice. I felt that like it would be great to integrate a narrator who is helping to guide us. I think the Alan Cumming choice was just trying to find someone who occupied a similar space between comedy and drama, between stage and film, between England and America. This kind of theatrical character, there aren’t that many actors who check all those boxes. He felt right to me.

In the documentary there’s talk of Jake Hannaford’s (John Huston) latent homosexuality. When I heard that in the documentary, it made me think Hannaford does have an interesting relationship with Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich). Almost a socratic relationship with a pupil. Also, if you want to talk about the male gaze, Gary Graver’s camera is obsessed with John Dale (Robert Random) and his body in the film.

Without a doubt, the Hannaford character is pining in someway for the John Dale character. Even in the script or in the outtakes, Orson was kind of reinforcing that this was a pattern that Hannaford had; have a young man and kind of obsess over him in some way and that would lead to that person running away which is what John Dale does. So I think that is absolutely there. The film, it’s interesting when I see people referring to the film in the context of Me Too, I feel like Orson’s made the whole film because he hated machismo. I mean he really did. The seed of the idea originally stemmed from when he met Hemingway in the late 30s and they ended up getting into a fight because Hemingway said Orson was speaking with a queer voice or something to that effect, so Orson starting hamming it up and talking more effeminately and then he and Hemingway ended up getting into a fight.

A physical fight?

A physical fight. This was when he was doing the narration for The Spanish Earth in 1938. Hemingway ended up narrating the film himself though Orson’s narration survives too in a separate track if you want to hear it. But I think Orson never really understood or found that people who were excessively macho were people who were hiding something underneath and were overcompensating by acting as He-Men. He just hated it and I think that’s the main distinction between Hannaford and Orson is that that was not a part of Orson. I think everything else about Hannaford is about Orson, but I think that character profile was not Orson at all.

How did it come together for you to make the documentary?

There’s a book that came out called Orson Welles’s Last Movie that Josh Karp wrote maybe four years ago and I read it when it came out and loved it and I thought if I could ever get my hands on this footage I would love to make a film about Orson using his own footage. At that point, I ended up connecting with Josh and he told me that Frank Marshall and Filip Rymsza were trying to get this footage out and was on the cusp of happening and we made this pact that “when you get the footage, I’ll make a documentary” and that was great and it should happen imminently and it didn’t. It took another three years of trying to find the money and trying to negotiate, and there was no assumption that our films wouldn’t be happening at the same time either. When Netflix came on board they heard about both films and they said “we’ll do it all” and that was amazing because nobody else would have done that. What it really took was somebody to write a check big enough to pay off all the stakeholders who claimed some ownership of the film and literally no one else would write that check because Frank and Filip spent years; Frank spent decades trying to find someone to do that.

That’s unbelievable. There aren’t many bigger producers than Frank Marshall, and if he can’t find anyone…

I know, and I feel confident in saying there’s nobody but Netflix who would have funded this and make it happen. After a few years I didn’t believe it was going to ever happen and then one day a year and a half ago I got the call saying “we’re gonna close the deal and it’s really gonna happen this time.” So we started making the documentary before we even had the footage and they started ramping up too. I started the interviews and footage was being shipped from Paris and it had to be cleaned. Mo Henry, this legendary cutter, came out of retirement to cut it so then the footage was coming in dribs and drabs and there was no rhyme or reason so when we were making the film there were these batches of dailies that was like one puzzle piece a day and then day after day the picture starts to emerge. What I was doing was different too. I wasn’t trying to reconstruct the original photo, I was trying to pull it apart and look at pieces and listen to Orson’s directions and all these things in a scene and then say “what am I getting out of that?” which was great. That was really complicated but really fascinating to do and then we didn’t look at each other’s films until we were almost done. When I finally watched the feature, because I wanted to make my film first, and then near the end I was like “I know what my film is, I wanna see what their film is” and I was just really pleased at how kind of distinct they both were but also complimentary.

Your two most recent documentaries have been about one person. Having spent so much time, so to speak, with Orson and Mr. Rogers, how would you contrast the two? I know they couldn’t be more different.

They’re so different. I’ve thought about this, I mean the similarity is that they are both people who could care less about what is popular and what society thought. They were people who had their own inner direction and never wavered. In that way to me, that’s the definition of a heroic artist; someone who is able to perceive when the rest of the world tells them they’re wrong. I find that inspiring and romantic and everything else, so in that way, they both had a significant impact on my life, one as a filmmaker, one as a person.

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