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« In Which We Prefer To Be Called Mr. Welles »

Yon Orson Welles

PETER BOGDANOVICH: OK, then, speaking of "maximum discomfort," how did you come to do Macbeth in only twenty-three days?

ORSON WELLES: Because we couldn't get the money to do it in twenty-four. Actually, principal photography took twenty-one days. It kept us pretty much on the tips of our toes. I slept two hours a night in a motel next door to the Republic lot.

Our best crowd scene was a shot where all the massed forces of Macduff's army are charging the castle. There was a very vivid sense of urgency to it, because what was happening, really, was that we'd just called noon break, and all those extras were rushing off to lunch.

PB: Do you think the film suffered from having been made so quickly?

OW: Of course. Larry Olivier's big-budgeted Henry V and Hamlet didn't do us any good, either. I'd imagined, in my innocence, that allowances would be made for the modest size of our canvas. I should have known better. Too bad. If we'd been a bit more successful, we could have done a lot of other, more difficult subjects in the same way.

PB: I like small-budget pictures.

OW: Too bad there aren't more of you.

PB: I made my first picture on a tiny budget -

OW: That's how I'll make my last one.

PB: But I was interested to know whether you would've liked to have made-

OW: I'd love to make Macbeth again with lots of Hugh Hefner bread, as Polanski's done. Who wouldn't? Nowadays people go to Shakespeare - at least they went to Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. Even in England, where the Bard, you know, has always been box-office poison - in the cinema, I mean.

PB: Even Olivier?

OW: Sure. Henry was his only really big one commercially, and the non-English receipts were what made all the difference. As for me, I wish I'd had just one chance at a Shakespeare movie where the money was just normal...Othello was made, you know, in the way we could have got it made. We all got pretty good at following the records.

PB: Like a musical?

OW: They spend money on musicals. But, yes, we had those clicks. Wherever the pauses were, there were clicks on the recording so you knew when to start moving your lips again.

PB: What was the famous problem with the Scottish brogues?

OW: A slight "burr," that was. People didn't like it, so in the end we took the whole show into the dubbing room.

PB: Why did you want the burr?

OW: If Shakespeare could tune in on us now with a time machine - or a time radio - he'd think that modern English actors were speaking in a foreign tongue. All our spoken English had become another language. So how do you speak Shakespeare? Oxbridge? West End? BBC? There are a lot of his gutsier moments which suffer very much from that particular refined, upper-class, southern-English way of speaking, which is mainly what we hear now. It's marvelous when a well-spoken Irish or Scotch actor does Shakespeare. Even the right sort of American voice, too - as long as those middle consonants are kept vigorous. Anyway, why shouldn't all the Scotsmen in Macbeth sound like Scotsmen? The Scottish lilt and color is so right for all that gooseflesh and grue. If I could make the picture in heaven, I'd make it with a Scottish burr all over again.

PB: But?

OW: Feldman had been so nice about everything that, when he asked for the Scottishness to be muffled, I muffled it. That meant postsynching, of course, and made splendid nonsense of my whole proud experiment in miming to playback.

PB: Evidently there was some objection because it was difficult to understand.

OW: In fact, it's easier to understand with Scotch accents, because that speech is clearer, purer, more incisive. It's just a great excuse for people who don't understand Shakespeare anyway to blame it on the burr.

PB: One could say that you made Shakespeare entertaining and exciting, as opposed to a cultural treasure - the way Shakespeare is taught.

OW: Yes, and performed - except by the old Mercury (if you'll excuse me) and the very newest generation of directors in the English theatre.

PB: Your Shakespeare book is still a tonic.

OW: It's terrible what's done to Shakespeare in the schools. You know, it's amazing that people do still go to him after what they've been through in the classroom.

Some excerpts from Orson's introduction to The Mercury Shakespeare:

Shakespeare said everything... He speaks to everyone and we all claim him but it's wise to remember, if we would really appreciate him, that he doesn't properly belong to us but to another world, a florid and entirely remarkable world that smelled assertively of columbine and gun powder and printer's ink, and was vigorously dominated by Elizabeth...

About sixty years earlier, Columbus had bumped into a couple of new continents and the Conquistadors were busy opening them up and exploiting them. Down in Italy...men had taken the hoods of the dusty, dusky old Middle Ages off their heads and had begun to look around. Books were being written instead of copied; people had stopped taking Aristotle's word for it and were nosing about the world, taking it apart to see what made it run. All kinds of established convictions were being questioned and money in huge sums was being made. This bustle and uncertainty and excitement had gotten across the channel and into the moist English air...

To know something about Shakespeare we must know something about that England in which he was born; still more important we must know something of that peculiarly pure theatre he found in London and for which he wrote. It was neither new nor clumsy. It was not a rude thing but rather, like the classic theatres of high convention in China and Japan, a refinement. England's stage came out of the church when the actors got too entertaining,. It lingered for a couple of hundred years in front of it in the marketplace and then moved into the inn yard...

Poetry has since then been neither necessary nor possible because when you can make the dawn over Elsinore with a lantern and a pot of paint there's no call for having a character stop in the middle of the action and say a line like, "But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill," even supposing you could write a line like it. You can't see and hear beauty, fully, at the same time...because poetry is its own scenery and because we've stuck to physical scenery and isolated our actor from his audience...we've stuck to prose. Before the Restoration, theatres were courtyards around platforms where you went to hear and be heard. Since then they've been birthday cakes in front of picture-frames where you go to see and to be seen....

PB: Would you agree that Shakespeare was the biggest influence in your life?

OW: After you. Next.

PB (laughs): Well, you once said that you think Shakespeare was a pessimist.

OW: Yes, but, like many of us, he was also at least a part-time idealist. The optimists are incapable of understanding what it means to adore the impossible. Shakespeare, remember, was very close to the origins of his own culture: the language he wrote had just been formed; the old England, the old Europe of the Middle Ages, still lived in the memory of the people of Stratford. He was very close, you understand, to quite another epoch, and yet he stood in the doorway of our "modern" world. His lyricism, his comic zest, his humanity came from these ties with the past. The pessimism, of course, is closer to our modern condition.

PB: You also said he wasn't interested in the bourgeoisie.

OW: That was an age, you see, where there was lots of room at the top. In his plays, the common folk are mainly clowns.

PB: You'd say he was a snob.

OW: He was a country boy, the son of a butcher, who'd made it into court. He spent years getting himself a coat of arms. He wrote mostly about kings. We can't have a great Shakespearean theatre in America anymore, because it's impossible for today's American actors to comprehend what Shakespeare meant by "king." They think a king is a gentleman who finds himself wearing a crown and sitting on a throne.

PB: You had a lot of very long takes in Macbeth.

OW: They were enormously long: never shorter than five minutes and often right up to a full reel in length. I think about five reels were like that - in other words, without cuts.

PB: Which Hitchcock did later in Rope.

OW: Well, we'd already done it in Ambersons. Originally we had a whole reel that was a single take -

PB: At the dance?

OW: Yes, and that was cut into for a few stupid seconds by some cloth-headed expert in a darkened room. By the way, I saw Roddy McDowall the other night and he said, "Whenever I want to really enjoy myself I get a print of Ambersons and run it again." And I said, "You idiot! You're in a pretty good picture of mine called Macbeth. Why don't you run a print of that?" "Oh?" he said. I had to remind him he was our Malcolm, and very convincing he was, too.

PB: In terms of schedule and budget, which is cheaper - long takes or a lot of short ones?

OW: That depends on what you've got to work with - your equipment and your cast. If you have a big efficient unit, a long take is certainly cheaper than a short one. If you have a small unit, it's the opposite.

PB: Do you think the length of shots or the angle of shots has a subconscious effect on an audience?

OW: I never think of an audience for a movie. That's the advantage of film over the theatre - when you do a play, you make it for an audience; when you do a movie, you make it for yourself.

PB: To please yourself?

OW: Well, it's impossible to conceive of what a movie audience is: a bunch of Sikhs; a band of Bedouins; a tribe of gypsies; four hundred widowed ladies from Ohio on a bus tour... What is that audience? How can you set out to please it? You can't address yourself to it, because it's inconceivable. So you make it for yourself.

The best bet that can be said of Welles' Macbeth is that it proves at least one Hollywood producer is willing to tackle Shakespearan tragedy. If Welles has failed utterly to live up to the standard set by Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, he has at least failed honestly.

Newsweek, October 18, 1948

Orson Welles' Macbeth is made over and above all tradition, with evident changes in the orders of certain scenes, with scenery and costumes which are purely imaginative and in reality far more truthful to the Shakespearean spirit than those in Olivier's Hamlet. While Olivier only tried to adapt a theatre production for the cinema, Welles tried to use every possible dramatic means to express himself in a wholly new manner.

Jacques Bourgeois, La Revue du Cinema, October 1948

orson's harlem performance of 'macbeth'
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a melodramatic tragedy. Mr. Welles has demoted it into a rather shabby Class B adventure story in costume.

Marjory Adams, Boston Globe, October 8, 1948

I love too much natural settings and natural light not to love also the fake light and cardboard settings of Macbeth.

Robert Bresson, quoted in Le Figaro, November 12, 1948

Responding to Dick Wilson's suggestion that he write an answer to the American critics, Orson cabled him from Florence on October 19, 1948:

Dearest Dick...Cannot imagine what you expect me to write for newspapers beyond simple apology for having been born. Please advise. - Orson.

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But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.


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Reader Comments (2)

A lovely article.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOri

Yes. Yes. Really good.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthedues

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