It is hard to call this a “making of” documentary, considering Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, remained unfinished and unseen for over forty years. Blame the Islamist extremists in Iran. Welles received bridge financing from a film company owned by the Shah’s brother-in-law, so when the new regime came to power, they bottled up Welles’ unedited footage in a legal quagmire. They also launched a reign of terror against secular, tolerant modernity, but that is for another documentary. Morgan Neville and the surviving cast and crew chronicle the film’s making and unmaking in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (trailer here), which is now playing in New York and streaming on Netflix.
There is even disagreement among Welles’ close contemporaries whether he truly uttered the title phrase. Regardless, it does sum up his career rather aptly. Like Jake Hannaford, the central character of Wind, Welles had just returned to Hollywood after a long period of European scuffling when he commenced work on Wind. In many ways, it would satirize both Hollywood and European art cinema. Not coincidentally, Hannaford’s homecoming birthday party takes place in the fab desert pad next door to the house from Zabriskie Point. There are a number of intriguing little details like that in TLMWID that might counter-intuitively make this the film you should start with, before watching Wind, so you know what to keep an eye out for.
Rather awkwardly, Wind probably isn’t as interesting as the story behind it. As usual, Welles shot whenever he could, proceeding for months without nailing down his lead actor. Eventually, John Huston would play Hannaford, which was a truly brilliant bit of casting. In fact, some of the best parts of Dead address the friendship between the two larger than life movie legends. It rather boggles the mind, but both Rich Little and Peter Bogdanovich were cast as Hannford’s’ more successful protégé, with Bogdanovich replacing the impressionist when he was forced to leave to fulfill prior obligations.
Neville got on-camera just about everyone we would want to hear from, including Bogdanovoch, Little, Danny Huston (the accomplished actor-son of John), Cybil Shepard (who was involved with Bogdanovich at the time and appears briefly in Wind), Frank Marshall (the future super-producer, who worked on the film as a production aide), filmmaker friend Harry Jaglom, Beatrice Welles (his daughter), and actor-biographer Simon Callow. It would be nice to have had Oja Kodar on-camera too, but at least Neville has some audio reminiscences from her. However, Alan Cumming’s shticky introductions are completely unnecessary.
There is some fascinating cinema history in TLMWID, but it also sets the record straight on some points. Most crucially, it gives Gary Graver credit for his under-heralded work as Welles’ final cinematographer. In addition, Neville and company decisively dispel the myth Welles never really wanted to finish his pictures, but the notion he was often his own worst enemy remains in full force. It briskly but comprehensively chronicles an intriguing but frustrating episode in Welles’ intriguing but frustrating career. Highly recommended for Welles fans, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is now playing in New York, at the IFC Center and also streams on Netflix.