The story of Orson Welles’ unfinished and final film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” which will screen at the New York Film Festival September 29, is the stuff of legend. Produced over six years from cobbled-together funds, the chain of title was a legal nightmare: French courts held the film’s negative captive, while Welles’ partially edited workprints had been held in Croatia since his death in 1985.
Producers Filip Jan Rymsza and Frank Marshall (who cut his teeth on the rag-tag film 44 years ago) brought together the various rights holders, including the Welles family; Netflix acquired the negative and united the available elements. Then, they faced a potentially even bigger problem: How do you salvage an incomplete, long-neglected and complicated Orson Welles film without Welles himself?
To capture this story of technical and filmmaking challenges, IndieWire interviewed the filmmakers behind the monumental effort, and screened the 40-minute “A Final Cut For Orson,” a featurette (set to be released November 2nd on Netflix, along with the film itself) that focused on the technical challenges of the task — not to be confused with Morgan Neville’s far more polished, 90-minute Netflix documentary, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” which also screens this weekend.
The Scavenger Hunt: What Do We Have?
Despite their decades of effort to save the film, the truth is Rymsza, Marshall, and Peter Bogdanovich — Welles’ longtime friend who co-stars in “The Other Side of the Wind” — didn’t know what had been shot and what had been preserved.
“We didn’t have any script notes, so we didn’t know whether Orson had shot the whole script,” said Marshall. “We didn’t know what we were getting until we just started opening film can after film can and logging it in. It was very tedious.”
Once the vaults were opened at Technicolor – the post-production hub for the extensive restoration process and where all the elements were to be stored – the enormous amount of footage Welles had shot was beyond anything the men anticipated.
“There was the huge amount of footage to deal with,” said editor Bob Murawski (“The Hurt Locker,” “Spider-man,” “Army of Darkness”). “This one had about 100 hours, which is a 50:1 ratio for a two-hour movie.” That’s seven times the standard ratio, which is about 7:1.
However, they were thrilled to see that the negative itself, shot in a different formats (including 8mm, 16mm and 35mm film), was well maintained. In fact, over 95 percent of the finished film came from shots newly scanned from the original negative, rather than having to rely on work prints.
“Paradoxically, because no one could access the negative, it was never touched and the cans were never opened,” said Rymsza. “So it was beautifully preserved and in great shape.”
However, in a cost-cutting move, Welles had cut the negative to print the shots he liked and knew he would use. In an effort to reconstitute the camera-original source, they turned to Mo Henry, a third-generation negative cutter who started her career on “Jaws,” and has worked with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to the Coen Brothers to Christopher Nolan. She took on the monumental task of trying to reassemble the negative and prepare it for digitally scanning.
Searching for Clues: Welles’ Disjointed Work Prints
José María Castellví/Netflix
While Welles was never able to regain control of his film’s negative, he was able to smuggle his work print to Los Angeles, where he periodically edited it on a Moviola for 15 years. When the restoration team finally took possession of the 85 boxes of work print, they knew this would be the starting point to determine Welles’ intention and vision for the film. Only once they assembled and screened these scenes — conformed, as best as possible, to Welles’ vision — would they know how far Welles got in his editing.
In the featurette, we see Rymsza, Marshall, Bogdanovich, and Murawski screen the assembly — and the cameras capture their dismay. Rymsza declared Welles had left them with “a disjointed mess” and Murawski wondered, “Is there a movie here?” Part of the problem was there were no camera reports to help capture how the project evolved as Welles did reshoots and rewrites over six years.
“Initially, we worked from purely script order and a lot of it didn’t make sense because of how layered the pickups [scenes] were and what Orson had called ‘The LA Pages’,'” said Marshall, referring to scenes that Welles wrote by hand but never put in the script. “We weren’t quite sure where those things fit because they were just looseleaf pages. Then we had to figure out how they fit in the overall [film].”
Eventually, the film revealed itself just by watching and rewatching footage. Connections between scenes, which were stored in separate boxes with different labels, were found as the foreground action of one matched the background of the other. “The moment [one thing] fell into place, it would unlock another scene,” said Rymsza. “It was a lot of Bob moving scenes around, moving a small piece, and then all of the sudden the puzzle revealed itself to us.”
Forensics: Finding Welles’ Unique Editing Pattern
Welles’ film was always structured like a film-within-a-film-with-in-a-film. The story is about an aging film director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) attempting to make a comeback with his new film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” which was shot in color 35mm and styled to be a dig at the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and the European art films that were all the rage in 1970. Hannaford screens footage from his comeback film at his big 70th birthday party, which is filmed by a number of filmmakers using different types of cameras. Welles wanted the audience to experience the birthday party as if it was constructed from the different sources — color, black-and-white, 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm.
“The editing was so unique, no one had edited in this style before Orson,” said Rymsza. “It’s forensics and you try to figure out why did he leave things the way that he left them.”
Luckily, some of the scenes Welles was able to bring to a fine cut were of the birthday party, which Murawski used as a model. After a while, the editor was able to plug into Welles’ unique editing style and the Russ Meyer-like “punishing rhythm” he was trying to create.
“[Welles] was really trying to create movement through rapid editing,” said Murawski. “He was at a point in his career where he no longer had access to sophisticated equipment like cranes and dollies as he did when he was working on big studio movies. Nor was he working with experienced, professional film crews who would be able to execute the kind of complicated, sophisticated, virtuosic shots he was famous for. Think of the opening shot from ‘Touch of Evil.’ Completely impossible under these circumstances. So he devised a new technique for creating that hyperkinetic sense of movement.”
Digital Technology Solves an Analog Mess
Murawski believes the very nature of how the party was shot made it incredibly difficult for Welles to finish editing “The Other Side of the Wind” on film. The biggest problem was the mixture of film formats.
“This would not be that much of a problem today, since everything would simply get transferred and then edited on a digital system like the Avid,” said Murawski. “But when this movie was shot, that technology didn’t exist, so all the smaller formats first needed to be optically ‘blown up’ to 35mm before Orson could edit them. Something that created an entire layer of cost and complexity. To me, it’s not surprising that he was unable to complete the editing of the movie. It was too logistically difficult.”
Marshall agrees, seeing an irony in that the film almost needed to wait for technology to catch up to Welles’ demands. No place was this more evident than when the team had to match their three-hour rough cut back to the 100 hours of original, but not fully intact, camera negative. To accomplish this task they went to Video Gorillas, a company that brings the same artificial intelligence used in driverless vehicles to visual imagery.
For “The Other Side of the Wind,” the company scanned the 280,000 frames of the Avid-edited movie and found the exact matching in the eight million frames of camera negative. The Video Gorillas algorithm took two-and-a-half days to go through 2 trillion frame comparisons to complete the task.
Visual Effects: Creating the Shots Welles Couldn’t Afford
There were also shots Welles never got a chance to shoot. Specifically, there is a scene where Huston’s character fires a gun at mannequins that explode upon impact. The original production lacked the expertise or money to create these shots.
“Once again, technology is at a point today where we could get these shots and it was seamless,” said Marshall.
Marshall recruited John Knoll, chief creative officer and VFX supervisor at ILM, to use his shop to first rebuild the dummies, then shoot them being blown up against a green screen in a way that would seamlessly match Welles’ footage.
The Vital Opening Narration Welles Never Recorded
Courtesy of NETFLIX
One of the biggest challenges was how to start the movie. The first line of the script is “OW’s Voice Over,” which meant Welles intended to do the opening narration himself, but he never recorded it. There is no voice like Welles’, who first became famous doing radio plays, and wrote and performed some of the most incomparable narration in film history. Complicating the problem was the information contained in the opening narration was vital to the story. There was no skipping it.
Bogdanovich came up with the idea of slightly rewriting Welles’ narration so that he could perform it as his character — a young, hotshot film director, not unlike Bogdanovich at the time of filming — but years later, now older looking back at the events of the film, not unlike Bogdanovich today.
“Peter’s solution made the film current. It was him now the older filmmaker, reflecting on [what happened],” said Rymsza. “That was such great idea on his part, because suddenly it brought the movie to 2018 and made it more relevant.”
Lost Audio and Voice Alikes
Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock Screen Shot
While the negative was in good shape, much of the quarter-inch production audio from 1974 – which included the dialogue-heavy party sequence – was never found, leaving the restoration team with beat-up third- and fourth-generation audio from Welles’ work print. This created a number of problems, beyond horrible sound quality.
The production audio included Welles’ animated and active direction of his actors, which often revealed to Murawski what he was going after in the scene and how it should play. However, while the image of these entire shots could be found in the negative, the audio was limited to what Welles cut into the work print.
“The minute we realized we weren’t going to find the quarter-inch, we hired two film editors to reconstitute the sound,” said Rymsza. “We wouldn’t have the heads or tails, [which meant] we’d be missing two or three lines, so we’d go through alternate takes and we would be fishing for a word here or a word there just to make sure we could reconstruct the original performance.”
It took the two additional editors two months, but what they found allowed, in many cases, for a performance to be extended. It also supplied vital audio pieces for supervising sound editor Daniel Saxlid to fix the sound; according to those who screened the early assemblies, it was impossible to understand 80 percent of what was being said.
Saxlid and technicolor sound mixer Scott Millan used post-production software to seamlessly blend different performances and takes, sometimes only using a single word or phrase from an alternate performance, while digging into the sound itself to make it clearer and smoother. When Saxlid couldn’t solve a problem, ADR supervisor Anna Mackenzie had to bring in pitch-perfect voice actors, known as “voicealikes,” to mimic the late actors.
At the center of the party scenes was Huston, who — as fans of “Chinatown” know from his Noah Cross character — has a distinct, cigar-chewing drawl. One of the most enduring parts of the behind-the-scenes featurette is watching Huston’s son, actor Danny Huston, do an incredible job mimicking his father in the ADR sessions.
“It was strange to see my father projected on the screen, then say the words, and then see my father speak them back to me,” said Huston in the documentary. “All I have to do is think of my father and find the ‘Ah-ha’s’ and ‘action,’ ‘cut.’ … it was quite magical connecting with his voice and it just brought him back to life.”
Michel Legrand’s Score
In Welles’ notes and script, he indicated that New Orleans-style jazz would be playing at the party. “When we were at a very rough assembly, the idea was we wouldn’t be doing a score at all, that we would be using source,” said Rymsza. “That the party would be various rooms, and in each room there would be a different band, like with ‘Touch of Evil’ at the beginning where as you went from room to room there would be shifts, so it would be all digenic.”
The restoration team soon realized the film would benefit from a score to pull the various elements to together and play as a unified whole. Ironically, the temp tracks were all by legendary composer Michel Legrand; in addition working on classic film scores for Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Clint Eastwood and Robert Altman, he collaborated with Welles on “F Is For Fake.” That made him the logical first and only call to do the score.
Legrand created a virtually wall-to-wall score that perfectly captures the film-within-a-film playfulness and is in perfect sync with the avant- garde element of the Welles’ vision. Also, being a master of combining modern jazz and film composition, he created a perfect bridge between score and the on-screen music for the party scenes.
“One of the highlights for me was all of us sitting there with Michel and spotting the score,” said Marshall. “Watching him work with that little twinkle in his eye and being so excited about seeing Orson’s movie and what he was imagining what Orson would have wanted.”
“Other Side of the Wind” will hit theaters and Netflix on November 2nd.