Wholly Cinema exclusive interview with Josh Karp- author of “Orson Welles’s Last Movie”.
Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.
When you think of the great lost works of cinema through the ages you think of Erich von Stroheim’s four hour cut of “Greed”, the numerous one or two reelers from film’s silent era, and Adam Sandler’s unreleased six hour cut of “Happy Gilmore” (just checking to see if you’re paying attention…!).
But none of these has achieved quite the mythical status as filmmaking colossus Orson Welles’s unfinished and unreleased final feature, “The Other Side of the Wind”.
A thinly-guised autobiographical look at a veteran filmmaker’s travails and frustrations at making a film in the New Hollywood of the early 1970’s, “The Other Side of the Wind” was shot by Welles intermittently during 1970-76 as he characteristically juggled financing woes along with his never-ending artistic perfectionism in a last-gasp struggle to restore the reputation and legacy of the icon behind the greatest American film of all time- “Citizen Kane”.
Starring his friend and fellow Hollywood directing royalty John Huston as Welles’s alter-ego Jake Hannifan, “The Other Side of The Wind” was left to languish unfinished through all the years after Welles’s death in 1985 until now. Even after numerous attempts by film historians and Welles enthusiasts to attempt to piece together the daunting labyrinth of legal rights and ownership issues, the film’s original camera negatives and footage appeared destined to languish forever in a Parisian warehouse until…
Enter film content giant Netflix and veteran Spielberg producer Frank Marshall (who worked as a PA on “Wind”) and their latest commitment in securing all the rights and agreements of “The Other Side of the Wind” which have led to today’s belated but very real efforts at finally tackling the film’s much-awaited restoration.
Luckily, while we all wait with bated breath for this to finish, we can satisfy ourselves with the great 2015 book that is the ultimate word on the long strange trip it’s been in the making of this mercurial film- “Orson Welles’s Last Movie- The Making of The Other Side of the Wind” by author Josh Karp.
In what’s easily one of the best books in recent history about the behind-the-scenes making of a movie, writer Karp really delves into the blood sweat and tears of Welles the artist and person as well the cast of colorful characters as the book takes on the feel of a fast-moving mystery as the story of cinema’s lost great white whale gets the richly detailed biography all of us fans of Welles, movies and art have been waiting for.
Based in Chicago, author Karp is previously known for his recent bio on National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney as well as his writings for Vanity Fair. We here at Wholly Cinema were more than elated that he took the time to briefly chat with us for this interview…
Wholly Cinema: : What interested you in tackling this book?
Josh Karp: I was really lucky- it’s a great story, it’s got great characters and it had a mystery to it as well which I didn’t know at first. All of that made it a million times easier to work on as the material was just so great.
I love movies and I love the movie industry and all that stuff but I’m pretty well driven by finding a real good story. But what’s happened with every book I’ve ever written is I get about half way through and then think “Oh, my God, I’m never going to finish this…”- I’m going to have to give money back to the publisher and I end up looking for some kind of distraction. I can’t remember exactly but I ended up pulling out an Orson Welles book from my shelf. I wasn’t one of those big Welles guys who studied all about him and all that but in this book there was a story about “The Other Side of the Wind”- so then I just started to really dig into it and read all these other books and articles about Welles and John Huston.
WC: What were some of your experiences researching your book?
JK: There were bits and pieces of the story- and they were all good- but no one told the whole story. So I thought, OK, Orson Welles is coming back to the US and making a movie about a guy coming back to the US to make a comeback movie and it’s got him, it’s got John Huston, it’s funded by the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law, they run out of money, and some of the money gets stolen. I thought this is great- and every bit of digging I did it kept getting better and better. You couldn’t make this up.
Sometimes you just stumble on stuff. For instance, there was a huge bunch of Welles documents at the University of Michigan that I didn’t even know about which had so much of his correspondence from the movie. It was so much fun trying to piece together everything.
WC: Now that veteran producer Frank Marshall and Netflix are officially presiding over “The Other Side of the Wind”, are you involved as well considering how immensely detailed your book is?
JK: Not really. I mean, I know what’s going on through occasional communication with people I know involved in the project but I’m not involved with the piecing together of the film and its restoration.
WC: What was the most surprising thing you learned after writing the book?
JK: Orson Welles is easily the smartest person I’ll ever write about in my life and probably most talented. And he was flawed- just like anybody. And he knew his flaws, I believe, and just accepted himself like that. He knew there were always going to be money trouble and he just thought he could just raise money from this other picture and use that money to pay for this one. I mean, just the chaos of his life. I think I would’ve died living two weeks of his life- just from the stress.
WC: What was it like to interview filmmaker/actor/Welles’s lifelong friend Peter Bogdanovich (who plays a pivotal character in the film)?
JK: It took me about a year and a half to pin him down for an interview but Peter was great. He’s very thoughtful and had a lot of things to say about the film. He’s a real film historian as much as he’s a filmmaker and has probably forgotten more things about movies than I’ll ever know. Orson is making a movie that, admittedly or not, is imitating his own life and then after he shot Bogdanovich’s stuff and he’s living at Bogdanovich’s house they have a falling out that is absolutely an imitation of what happened in the movie- and that to me was the kind of convergence of Welles’s art and life that was amazing.
WC: Have you ever thought about doing a book on another “lost” film- perhaps “The Day the Clown Cried” by Jerry Lewis?
JK: I’ve always been interested in that film and obviously that’s another great story about an unfinished/unreleased film. The thing I find interesting about that film as well as “The Other Side of the Wind” is that here you have two guys who are both geniuses trying to do something brilliant and obviously something doesn’t totally work or something happens. I like the idea of people going for something big and perfect and not totally getting there. That said, when I was in journalism school I had a professor- one of the toughest people I ever met- who told me she got to spend the day with Jerry Lewis once. When the day was over, she walked back into her house directly past her family, grabbed a bottle of wine, got in bed fully clothed, drank the entire bottle of wine and stayed there for three days. So- it wouldn’t be as fun as writing about Orson Welles but I think there’s a great story in the making of that film as well.
WC: What’s your gut feeling about how the finished film will turn out?
JK: Well, there’s a colossal amount of footage and, assuming it’s all there, I will say that the film has a style that’s very ahead of its time- it’s stuff that we all accept as part of film and TV now but back then no one had really done it. It’s MTV before MTV- it’s all that editing. I assume that the editor (Affonso Goncalves of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and HBO’s “True Detective”) they have working on it now will do a great job picking up the rhythm of the film. I don’t know what audiences will make of the film but to me it’s a great story and it’s reflective of a certain interesting time and place and one of the best things about the film is the performances Welles was able to get out of Huston and Bogdanovich are unbelievable. They’re both playing versions of themselves but he’s able to bring out their vulnerabilities so well- there are two or three moments between them in the film that are totally heartbreaking.
WC: What are you currently working on?
JK: I’m writing a television pilot as well as doing some stories for Esquire and trying to think about another book. Also, I recently optioned the film rights to the Orson Welles book and I’m writing the screenplay as well which has been really fun.
Viva La Cinema!