Right after film school
, about the time I was beginning to realize that film school
is a waste of time, the woman who got me into movies in the first place appeared at my door:
"Hey, wanna be in an Orson Welles film?"
She was not the kind of person to make light--about anything--since I'd met her in Vietnam and we'd been through some shit together. I dropped whatever I was doing--it wasn't much--and we headed on over to Peter Bogdanovich's house.
I guess I should mention that, yes, I did know Peter Bogdanovich, since I'd been working on his movie At Long Last Love for an awful long time. An interminable length of time. Peter Bogdanovich however did not know me. Famous hotshot directors do not generally hang with hard-working assistant music editors, particularly if the film they're both working on is in deep, deep trouble.
At Long Last Love was an old-fashioned musical featuring Cole Porter songs performed by non-singing actors like Cybill Shepherd (the director's girlfriend) and Burt Reynolds, Cosmopolitan Centerfold. It was the ultimate vanity project and it was a disaster from the day they cast it till the day it was released. You might say it was never released, it escaped. Just try to rent it. I bet Peter Bogdanovich drove around to every Blockbuster Video in the country and stole the tapes himself.
Anyway, my friend laid it out for me as we drove through Westwood: Peter Bogdanovich was Orson's biggest fan (up till now I had thought I was Orson's biggest fan. I mean the guy who directed Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, A Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai, and Chimes at Midnight is God. Who besides Adolf Hitler wouldn't wanna meet God?).
Orson had cast Peter Bogdanovich in one of those projects he had, one of those personal films that Hollywood dislikes so much, a film about a movie director on the skids called The Other Side of the Wind.
The Other Side of the Wind was legendary for having been in production for something approaching decades. Every time Orson got a little money from a wine commercial or an acting job he'd shoot another little piece of film. I was told that he shot one side of a conversation on a bus in London and then, ten years later, shot the other side on a bus in Paris. The actors would literally age before your eyes. Sometimes he'd even change actors in a role.
It was Rashomon on acid. It was non-linear before the word had even been invented. It was the world's biggest experimental movie, history's most important student film, since Orson never stopped learning and he had no money, and thus depended on film students to help him make the picture.
There was no shortage of film students and acolytes when we got to Peter's place. The joint was positively crawling with L.A. wannabes, which is to say there were no drama majors from Kansas there. I am generally uncomfortable at parties, and this was that sort of Hollywood party, filled with those snatches of conversational bullshit that make you just want to gag. But there was wine, and food, and a lot of excitement in the air because, it turns out, Orson Welles was shooting a party, and we were all gonna be the guests.
We drank and endured the bullshit and the speculation and the Wellesian trivia contests, and somewhere about ninety minutes in, it occured to me (a fledgling filmmaker who was just learning the importance of time in movie production, i.e. that there's never enough of it)-- hey, nothing's happening. I thought they were making a movie here. I decided to go outside and investigate.
It was just getting dark, and the Orson Welles magic was just beginning to feel like it could happen. I wandered across Peter Bogdanovich's considerable back yard and there in the distance in the garden is the crew. Orson is not in sight, but the camera's pointed back towards the house, and fifteen or twenty people are milling about in that apparently aimless way that is a movie set.
I turn to see what the camera sees and: the huge windows of the dining room are filled with the dancing shadows of the bullshit Hollywood party. It's a quintessential Orson Welles shot, and the crew is obviously just waiting for night when God will appear and make it so.
There's not a film student to be found out there in the garden, so I have a cigarette and watch for a while, fully aware of how much extras cost and how privileged I am to be there in the first place.
Eventually I get bored and go back inside. People are actually starting to leave; obviously there are more important parties to attend, and, in discreet little pockets here and there, the smoke and coke is starting to appear.
Hours go by. The food and wine run out and the conversation really turns stale. All present are revealed to be jerkoffs and wannabes.
Slowly however, lights and grip-stands start to fill the dining room. There is film crew activity inside finally. Young men with headsets wearing military-style webbed belts appear. The place starts to feel like a real after-hours Hollywood party and a real film set at the same time, and now--consummate showman that he is--Orson Welles arrives.
I happen to glance over to my left, towards what I imagine to be the library. There is a single candle burning on a table in an otherwise darkened room. The enormous last-decade-of-his-life figure of the great Orson Welles slowly fills the candlelight like an out-take from Citizen Kane.
He is heavily bearded, wearing a green suit, and he moves as deliberately as a convict making the Last Walk to the gas chamber. Nobody else seems to notice. The drone of what's left of the party continues behind me. Orson Welles carries a large bound volume under his arm. The Script, I assume. The gospel of The Other Side of the Wind according to Orson Welles.
God sits slowly, heavily, wearily. He reads, never glancing up, never acknowledging us. Eventually he withdraws a pen and writes in The Script, and gradually I become aware that there is now complete silence in the dining room. Those of us who can still stand stare, wide-eyed, like kids who've snuck downstairs and caught their parents fucking the neighbors.
Orson Welles took his time composing his thought, I wanna tell you. He may have sold no wine before its time, but we all witnessed the fact that his movies, at least this one, moved at their own speed too. After what seemed like an eternity, and what was certainly at least half an hour, Orson Welles capped his pen, put it in his pocket, and turned out of his cone of silent candlelight to look straight at us, his captive audience.
As if somebody had given a secret signal, the dining room came alive. The camera came in on a dolly, a phalanx of news photographers appeared, and the assistant director started giving orders.
We were finally suddenly making a movie. With the man who gave the world Citizen Kane, number one on everybody's ten best list. The Crew was extremely young and painfully deferential. Orson would nod when asked a question, occasionally pointing a finger imperiously. I never heard him say a word.
The scene, apparently, was some sort of party (duh) to which the press had been invited. There were cameras everywhere. Still cameras, video cameras, 16 millimeter movie cameras, 8 millimeter home movie cameras; I think you get the picture. Dozens of opportunities for films within a film about a man who makes films for a living. Hollywood Rashomon. This, as I understood it to be that night, is The Other Side of the Wind, Orsen Welles's great unreleased masterpiece.
I was in hog heaven. Orson Welles is so secure and so goddamn smart and totally in control. I'd been around a few sets already. Done a bunch of commercials and some documentaries. I was dying to get my hands on one of those cameras.
As if connected to me telepathically, Orson Welles spoke. He pointed at me and in that famous timbre said:
"Give him the NPR."
The prop guy and the assistant director looked confused, almost stricken. The Eclair NPR was the documentary camera back in the day. An elegant French-built co-axial 16 millimeter jewel with a 12 to 120 mm Angenieux lens. I'd shot with the thing for months at a time.
The assistant director got pissy:
"But Mr. Welles, he doesn't know how to hold--"
"NO!" thundered God Himself:
"GIVE THE CAMERA TO THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GLASSES."
Which God's angels proceeded to do with great respect and humility.
And then God gave me lines. Actual words to say. Whether they stayed in the movie I have no idea, because nobody has ever seen The Other Side of the Wind. It's all tied up in the estate and all of that.
All I know is that thirty of us or so had the opportunity of our young lives to see genius in the flesh in love with his work. The scene took a couple of hours to shoot, and I don't remember too much else from that long night's date, except for this, the most important piece of filmmaking advice I've ever received, worth four years at any film school I think:
The director of photography was looking through the camera, quite a while later. Orson had relaxed comfortably into the role of mentor and leader to us all, like any good director really, and the D.P. says:
"Nope. Wait. No good. There's a grip stand in the shot."
Sure enough, the shiny steel apparatus could be seen in the frame, obviously a mistake. The assistant director nervously leaped up, authoritatively, because, after all, time is money:
"Quick," he said, "you!"--pointing to an extra--"Go stand over there!"
At which point Orson Welles exclaimed:
And everybody froze, waiting expectantly for the world's greatest director's unforgettable command.
"Get a pillow," he said.
"Never give an actor a job that a prop can do."
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers