When Netflix announced March 14 it would be financing and distributing a finished cut of Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind,” the company opened a new chapter in one of the wildest, most frustrating sagas of film lore.
The legendary director shot his final film between 1970 and 1976, but a series of financial setbacks kept him from realizing his vision before his death in 1985. In the 32 years since, surviving members of the production had attempted to complete the project, but for legal reasons were unable to procure the more than 1,000 reels of negatives from a vault in Paris until the streaming giant stepped in this week.
The negatives are now safely in Los Angeles, in the hands of the team that will edit the film, according to a March 14 note from producer Filip Jan Rymsza. A short video released the next day on Yahoo details the process of shipping the reels.
This clears the biggest hurdle that had stood in the way of prior efforts to finish Welles’s vision: the ability for Rymsza, producer Frank Marshall, and director and Welles protégé Peter Bogdanovich (who co-stars in the film) to physically get their hands on the negatives.
But a project of such unprecedented nature is still going to have a lot of unanswered questions. Netflix declined to comment to IndieWire or make any of the principal players from the film’s restoration available for interviews. One unknown factor is how much the service paid for the rights, though during negotiations an April 2016 report on the fansite Wellesnet had said the company was willing to pay upwards of $5 million at the time.
Also unknown: how long the project will take and what the release plan will look like, factors that won’t come fully into focus until the team has had more opportunity to sort through the footage. Yet the possibility of finally nearing completion on the film has Welles fans and scholars optimistic, or at least more so than they’ve had cause to be for more than three decades.
So what is “The Other Side of the Wind” — or, rather, what did Welles intend it to be, what will we see on Netflix, and why does any of this matter? Here’s a cinephile’s primer.
What’s the movie like?
A self-reflexive satire of the New Hollywood scene, “The Other Side of the Wind” is made up of two distinct parts that cut between each other, shot in a largely improvisational manner.
The first part comprises scenes from the 70th birthday party of a macho director named Jake Hannaford (played by real-life macho director John Huston), a pompous auteur who exhibits some similarities to Welles but is largely modeled after Ernest Hemingway. The scenes are shot in a mix of styles, cutting between the cameras of the party guests and news reporters, decades before “found-footage” techniques became prominent. Bogdanovich, who plays a young director whose relationship to Hannaford mirrors his own with Welles, offered his house to the director as one of the central locations.
The second part contains snippets from Hannaford’s latest film, a bizarre and largely dialogue-free experiment that is a sort of parody of some art-house hits of the period, particularly “Blow-Up.” This segment stars Oja Kodar, Welles’s mistress and muse of the time period, who also co-wrote the script. The lines between director and creation are frequently blurred: In a climactic sex scene (directed by Kodar), Hannaford belittles his leading man’s performance from offscreen until the actor storms off the set, the incident that leaves the film-within-a-film unfinished at the time of its maker’s birthday party.
“I do think it qualifies as maybe his only feminist film,” said critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has seen around two hours’ worth of footage from the project and will serve as a consultant on the Netflix reassembly. The author of “Discovering Orson Welles” told IndieWire the movie is “a real blistering critique of macho,” as well as “a critique of homophobia,” via a protagonist who projects an over-the-top masculine image but likely harbors secret feelings for his male star.
Still, Rosenbaum cautioned, “I think the people who have seen Orson Welles’s genius on the basis of ‘Citizen Kane’ probably won’t like it.” “The Other Side of the Wind” has a rougher aesthetic than “Kane,” and its reconstruction is made even more daunting by the fact that Welles was constantly changing his mind about what he wanted in the film.
The director had completed editing around 40 minutes of footage before he died, mostly made up of the film-within-a-film segment, and left copious notes behind. Others who have seen this footage divorced from the rest of the movie describe a strange experience.
A. Brad Schwartz, author of “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds’ and the Art of Fake News,” saw the scenes during events in 2015 to honor the centennial of Welles’s birth.
“It’s supposed to make no sense,” Schwartz said. “So if that’s all you’ve seen, it’s really bizarre: very lengthy sex scenes, Oja Kodar running naked around the film studio. If you don’t know what it’s supposed to be, you’re going to look at it and think, ‘Wow.’ It has that ’70s pornography aesthetic.”
Why couldn’t Welles finish it?
The timeline of production woes is a long and complicated one, according to Josh Karp, author of “Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of ‘The Other Side of the Wind.'”
Welles, who had trouble securing funding for his late-period projects, began by funding the film with his own money. He would shoot for a few months at a time, then go raise funds by shooting commercials and other projects before returning, often moving to different filming locations in the process: from Los Angeles to Arizona to Madrid.
In 1971 and 1972 he hooked up with two key funding sources. One of those was L’Astrophore, a French-Iranian production company run by Mehdi Bushehri, brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. Bushehri, who produced Welles’s “F for Fake” in the middle of production on “Wind,” stood by the director through years of setbacks and delays as Welles continued to tinker with his vision. Finally, the producer’s patience ran out in 1977, Karp said. He was in the process of trying to sell off his stake in the film when the Iranian Revolution came and the Shah was overthrown, jeopardizing the company’s finances.
“Bushehri sounds kind of ominous because he was the Shah’s brother-in-law, but he was a really good, really patient guy who really believed in Welles,” Karp said, noting that Welles tended to gravitate toward even more unsavory people as producing partners.
By this time Welles’s financial stake in his own film had diminished, but because the negatives were being stored in Paris, he was entitled to a French law granting the creator of an artwork certain “moral rights” equivalent to a financial interest. At the time of his death, he was still battling with Bushehri over whose claim to the work would win out.
But once Welles died, rights to his work were divided between Kodar and his wife Paola Mori, bringing the total number of parties interested in “Wind” to three. When Mori died the following year, daughter Beatrice Welles became the estate holder, but Kodar maintained ownership and artistic control of all Welles’s unfinished projects.
The ensuing, decades-long legal battle outlasted many attempts to salvage the film, including by cinematographer Gary Graver, who’d gotten the job after cold-calling Welles but died in 2006 having spent his life fighting to complete a final cut, and by Showtime, which had attempted to strike a deal to finish the film in the 1990s before it fell apart at the last minute.
“It was one of those things where you get two parties to agree and you never could get the third,” Karp said. Nevertheless, he described the period between 1985 and 2014 as one of “constant effort” to finish the film.
Haven’t we been down this road before?
If Netflix’s announcement felt like deja vu, there is a good reason. Rymsza’s production company, Royal Road Entertainment, bought the rights to “Wind” in 2014 and publicly announced a cut would be ready by the next year, but the producer yet again couldn’t shore up the necessary agreements from all parties.
Still, the mood at 2015’s centennial events was optimistic. “There was this big expectation among a lot of people in 2015 that perhaps even by the end of the year, we would see some kind of a cut,” Schwartz said. “The fans were more optimistic than the scholars, because they know what a long road this has been.”
Indeed, that year, instead of a film, Welles fans got an Indiegogo campaign: an effort by Rymsza to raise $1 million to “finish” the movie.
Despite heavy publicity and donations from film luminaries like J.J. Abrams, Clint Eastwood, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, and Sofia Coppola, the campaign only raised a little over $400,000 before closing. And after a long period went by with no updates from the team, backers started posting on Indiegogo that they wanted a refund.
After nearly a year of silence on the page, an update finally came from Rymsza shortly after the Netflix deal was announced. “I can confirm that the negative is finally in Los Angeles and work will commence immediately,” he wrote, adding that donor perks would begin rolling out “in the coming weeks.”
Netflix even agreed to manufacture DVDs and Blu-Rays for the purpose of honoring the campaign’s commitment to those who donated at least $50, he said. Of course, with no release date in sight, those discs are still in the distant future.
Now that work on the film itself can finally begin, a new question emerges: how to ensure, with all the different parties involved, that a finished cut will accurately reflect Welles’s wishes? After all, the director was famous for working out his films in the editing room, something he wasn’t able to finish doing in this case.
Rosenbaum, a friend of Kodar, describes his role on the project as “damage control,” noting that others involved over the years have wanted to reduce the screen time for the film-within-a-film so as to focus on the more narratively coherent party footage. But this approach “goes against Welles’s conception,” he said.
With the amount of notes Welles left behind and the number of original players involved in the edit, Karp believes there is a good chance the film can hold close to his original vision. “You’ve got the potential to make, maybe not 110 percent, what Welles would’ve wanted, but it could be 99.5 percent,” he said. “And that’s the best you’re going to get.”
But it would be a mistake to view this endeavor as something that will finally put a period on the end of the Welles story, not when so many of his supposedly finished films (including “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “Touch of Evil”) still inspire debate today as to what is the “true” cut.
“People are always looking for closure with Welles,” Rosenbaum said. “And the greatness of Welles is the absence of closure.”