Peter Bogdanovich first met Orson Welles in 1968, at a time when Bogdanovich was probably best known as a film writer and scholar (he'd only directed one film at the time, the thiller Targets
) and Welles was warming his many irons in the fire, including acting work, TV pilots, unfinished screenplays and several pictures at various stages of production. Welles was impressed with a monograph Bogdanovich had written about him for the first retrospective of Welles' work in the States, and, as Bogdanovich recalls, gave him a call out of the blue, intoning, "Hello, this is Orson Welles - I can't tell you how much I've wanted to meet you."
That phone call and eventual meeting kicked off a friendship that lasted until Welles' death in 1985, and that resulted in a book of interviews between Bogdanovich and Welles (This is Orson Welles
) and a film (the still-to-be-released Welles-directed The Other Side of the Wind
, which starred John Huston, Dennis Hopper and Bogdanovich).
Bogdanovich not only remains an expert on Welles' work and someone who can speak eloquently to the director's legacy, as he will before a screening of Welles' Touch of Evil
at the Indianapolis Museum of Art this Friday. He's also still working on Welles' behalf, trying to see through the editing and release of Other Side of the Wind
, for which filming was completed by 1976, but which has remained unfinished and unreleased because of ongoing legal complications, first involving the investors in the film (chiefly the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran) and then the Welles estate.
Bogdanovich spoke with NUVO last week about Other Side of the Wind
, Touch of Evil
, Welles, film as art and other related topics. The results, edited for space, are as follow.
NUVO: You met Welles when you were younger. I wonder if his words and lessons about filmmaking and Hollywood have gained any more resonance as time has gone by, and if you've drawn any parallels between your career and his.
Bogdanovich: I was younger than he when I met him, and hadn't been through a lot of the crap that he had been through. As you get older and you go through some of the same shit, you understand what he went through. Orson's biggest problem was that he never had a hit picture, except The Stranger
, which was a moderate success, but wasn't the kind of picture that he wanted to make. So he never had a hit, so people couldn't say, "Well, maybe he's got another one in him." I've been fortunate that I've had a few successful pictures, box office successes, in the '70s and one in the '80s, so people are more likely to take a risk with me. My biggest problem had nothing to do with Hollywood but rather with the murder of Dorothy Stratten, and luckily Orson had nothing like that in his life. That was my biggest stumbling block. His biggest stumbling block was that he never had a hit, and he had a reputation for being difficult.
NUVO: In This is Orson Welles
, You mentioned that acting for Welles (in The Other Side of the Wind
) was a breeze.
Bogdanovich: It was so much fun, yeah. Orson made everything fun, particularly when he was shooting. He could be very amusing at dinner, but he was just great when he was shooting. He created an atmosphere on the set of enormous congeniality and openness, where everything seemed possible and nothing seemed impossible, and you just wanted to do the best you could for him.
NUVO: What have you taken from Welles, both from his films and from watching him work?
Bogdanovich: Well, I always tried to have a congenial set, and so did he, so that was something we had in common. But I think probably the main thing was to keep things loose and have the possibility of changing an idea at the last minute, changing a line of dialogue or changing everything at the last minute, because until you shoot it, it's not shot... And he also didn't set the dialogue absolutely in stone; he would change it up a little bit before he shot it, which gives it an element of freshness... He was a great director, and a great man, and I loved him. He was contradictory and complicated, but a real artist. People should be aware of more of his films than simply Citizen Kane,
and Touch of Evil
is a very entertaining film.
NUVO: Since you'll be speaking at a museum that's starting to get more involved in film exhibition, I wonder what you think an art museum's role can be in creating a forum to consider film critically.
Bogdanovich: Well the Museum of Modern Art started it in the '30s by placing film as an art that belongs in museum. It was a trendsetter that set the stage for others. Certainly if you elevate films to a place in a museum, it gives them a certain resonance that they might not have otherwise. I programmed three retrospectives at the museum - four, actually - but three in the '60s: Welles, Hitchcock and Hawks. There had never been a retrospective for any of them in the States. So that was pioneering work. I think museums can be very helpful. Anybody who takes film seriously and doesn't treat it like just of the season it came out - which is how it used to be - has got my vote.
NUVO: I wonder what, aside from being in a museum, makes a film a work of art - is it matter of craft or content?
Bogdanovich: I don't have a list saying this is art, and this isn't. I know it when I see it. I think personality has a lot to do with it - the personality of the filmmaker - and how much of that is in evidence in the work... Most of the A pictures today would've been considered B pictures in the '30s, '40s or '50s. In fact the B pictures of the '30s, '40s and '50s are now the A pictures, and the A pictures are not being made, or they're the independent pictures. Somebody asked me if I thought The Last Picture Show
could possibly be a studio picture today, and I said, "No, I don't think so.
NUVO: So then how do you tease out the personality of a Hollywood filmmaker - like Hawks, Ford or Welles - over the course of his career?
Bogdanovich: Well Hawks is very simple, because he has an enormous amount of consistency in terms of themes and genres and what he was interested in. So even though he made every possible kind of movie, his personality is very apparent if you look for it. Same with Ford, Hitchcock, Orson. Directors like Wyler or Zinnemann are more impersonal, and that's the kind of film that the French New Wave thinks didn't endure. They call it the cinema de papa - daddy's movies. They love the directors who were personal - who took the genre in Hollywood and invested it with their own personal concerns, obsessions, views, etc.
NUVO: Is that something you subscribe to?
Bogdanovich: Yeah. I asked Howard Hawks which directors he liked over the years, and he responded that he liked the ones who made you know who the devil was making the picture, because the director was a storyteller, and he had his own way of telling it. Sometimes directors have their own way of telling it, but they're not particularly good - or they date, like DeMille. DeMille was the popular director in the world in his lifetime, but his pictures date. It's not that there's no personality, it's just that the personality dates. Time is the ultimate arbiter.
NUVO: Do you think we'll see The Other Side of the Wind
Bogdanovich: It's so complicated I don't even know where to begin. But to put it in a nutshell, we've been trying to work it out, with [the help of] Showtime for about ten years, and they're very keen to do it. There are just various legal entanglements that keep cropping up that prevent it from going forward. And my guess is that it'll be resolved in the next few months, and that we should be able to start editing it. I've been saying that for a long time... Once we get past the legal issues, I think it's a six to ten month job to get it cut, because there's an awful lot of film to go through...
NUVO: Are you frustrated at this point, or has it been so long that you've come to terms with this delay?
Bogdanovich: There's no word to describe how frustrated I am. Frustrated is too easy a word: It's agony. Orson asked me, if anything ever happened to him, would I finish the film? He asked me that in 1975, and he died 10 years later. And now it's another 25 years later, and we're still trying to do the job he asked me to do. It's kind of grotesque.
NUVO: You've said of Touch of Evil
that it's "technically... Welles' most advanced film."
Bogdanovich: He and I talked about it and there are certain things that he did in the picture that he said would be impossible in Europe because they don't have crews there that are as good. He said the best crews for films were in America. And certain crane shots or dolly shots or sustained scenes couldn't have been done in Europe, but he was able to realize them in Hollywood because the crews are so good. I think, technically, it is still spectacular to look at: Great shots, great editing.