If 2018 could be remembered for anything good, it is because two of the most extreme examples of film development hell finally saw release: “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” directed by Terry Gilliam, and Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” released by Netflix thirty-three years after its creator’s death. Like Gilliam’s project, Welles’ film has its own behind-the-scenes documentary, daring to tell a more interesting story than the film itself.
“They’ll love me when I’m dead” may well be something Orson Welles said, but that was not true in the New Hollywood of the 1970s – the old one kicked him out for making uncommercial or downbeat films, leaving him to scrape together funds for his work in Europe by resorting to cameos and commercials. Welles had the reputation of “Citizen Kane” loom over him for the forty-five years from its release to his death, especially when the film students and scholars that rose up in that time lionised his craft as a cinematic auteur. He still couldn’t get his films made – the ones that did were the scholars, like Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Spielberg. In this environment, the only option for Welles was, effectively, to make a student film.
When it eventually appeared, “The Other Side of the Wind” could not be more of a self-portrait: an old-time director, played by old-time director John Huston, is making a film that attempts to evoke the vogue of atmospheric European productions by directors like Michelangelo Antonioni (and starring Oja Kodar, the film's co-writer and Welles' lover), while being followed around by journalists with tape recorders, forever asking about his life and his work, because there can be no difference between them. The film is shot like a documentary – point-and-shoot, get as much footage as you can, and make sense of it later. The film within the film itself is wordless, arty, impenetrable, and unfinished - the fictional director also ran out of funds.
“They’ll Love Me When I Dead” is linked by Alan Cumming, who appears to be turning into James Mason, and while it tells the story of a man that could never finish his films due to circumstance, you get the feeling that Welles probably deserved it: the unplanned nature of the production, with a constantly rewritten script, is as chaotic as the outtakes show. The money was scraped together from various sources - Welles would use an American Film Institute ceremony, held in 1975 in his honour, to unsuccessfully make a bid for funds to complete the project. One source of funds was a son-in-law of the Shah of Iran, which ultimately led to the film being impounded by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. Peter Bogdanovich, a defender of Welles’ reputation, later cast in the film as a confidante of Huston, later had Welles living out of his house for two years, filling his rooms with cigar smoke and Fudgsicles. The director of photography, Gary Graver, spent fifteen years answering to Welles every day, but was not paid by him, and resorted to camerawork on over a hundred porn films, to make ends meet, most notably for the notorious Ed Wood – Graver would later spend eighteen months carrying around Welles’ ashes in the boot of his car.
The documentary ends with a reminder of other Welles projects that went unfinished including, appropriately enough, a version of “Don Quixote,” as if to prove that anyone attempting to film that story must be quixotic in their own way. As much as Orson Welles left behind, his reputation means what was left behind will come to light: with “They’ll Love Me When I Dead” focusing squarely on Welles, we do not get the story of how it took until 2014 for the litigation around “The Other Side of the Wind” to finally end, and how it was eventually completed – that needs its own documentary. What we do get, however, is an idea of the Orson Welles that was drawn upon to finish the film, the Welles that put into the mouth of John Huston: “We can borrow from each other, but what we must never do is borrow from ourselves.”