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Entries in orson welles (7)


In Which Orson Welles Regards The Magnificent Ambersons

The Golden World 

The ideal American type is perfectly expressed by the Protestant, individualist, anti-conformist, and this is the type that is in the process of disappearing. In reality there are few left.

Films destroyed by Hollywood executives form a rich genre on their own terms. Of all Orson Welles' films, none suffered more at the hands of his "betters" than 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons. Merely viewing a scene from the version that eventually made it to theaters was enough to reduce Welles to tears all his life. Welles' true vision of The Magnificent Ambersons, his adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel, is lost to history, but even in the chopped-up version created while he filmed another legendary debacle in Rio would dazzle audiences. Peter Bogdanovich works his way to asking Orson what happened to Ambersons.

PB: What happened with War and Peace?

OW:: That was my first nonpicture for Alex. We were going to shoot in in the Soviet Union. They were ready to give us just about everything the whole Red Army for the retreat from Moscow. The same kind of sky's-the-limit backing they gave Bondarchuk later. As for Alex, he was going to deliver Viven Leigh, Larry Olivier, Robert Donat, Ralph Richardson, old Uncle Tom Cobbley, and me.

PB: You were going to play Pierre.

OW: It's my part.

PB: You wrote a script?

OW: Yes, which is no mean job for somebody like myself who can't figure out the diminutives on Russian names.

PB: Why did it collapse?

OW: The Cold War killed us off. And MGM and Alex came to a parting of the ways.

PB: Where are all these scripts?

OW: I only keep 'em as long as I think there's some kind of chance for them. Most of 'em, of course, burned up in Spain.

PB: You were also going to do Crime and Punishment at one point...

OW: Not for Alex, but yes, I got a kind of offer, and nothing happened. I don't think I would have done it well. There are lots better Doestoevsky men than me. My Russian writers are Tolstoy and Turgenev, Gogol and Chekhov.

PB: Francois Truffaut once said that if Flaubert reread Quixote every year, why can't we see The Magnificent Ambersons whenever possible. Did you ever hear that quote?

OW: No. Thank you for passing it along.

PB: Tim Holt's character, who represents the dying plutocracy, is quite unpleasant; and Eugene (Joseph Cotten) , the representative of the mercantile age, it's very attractive.

OW: Well, just because he's bringing with him the whole stinking hell of the automobile age doesn't mean he isn't a nice human being. He admits himself that what's he's doing may be a bad thing. My father felt that way about it. He was a motorcar pioneer, but he abandoned it early on.

PB: For what reason?

OW: Got tired of it, I guess. Then he invented a bicycle lamp which, as it turned out, was on practically every automobile in the world! He was a friend of Tarkington's, and really there's a lot of my father in that character. An early automobile fellow with a deep suspicion of what they automobile would do fascinated by it, and very much afraid of what it was going to do to the world. Cotten played the role quite marvelously, I think.

PB: For his big speech in the dinner scene, did you give him that piece of business playing with the spoon as he talks?

OW: I wonder. I rather think it was probably his. Those kind of things usually come from actors.

PB: You know, it wasn't until about the fourth or fifth time I saw the picture that I saw any social points.

OW: One shouldn't ever be conscious of the author as lecturer. When social or moral points are too heavily stressed, I always get uncomfortable.

PB: Well, in Ambersons, the social observation is so integral to the story of the people that it never intrudes.

OW: Had to be careful about that. The only points I don't mind really stressing are ones that deal with character.

PB: The influence of radio is very apparent in Ambersons.

OW: The narration, you mean? I'd like to do more of it in movies.

PB: Using a narrator who is not a participant?

OW: Yes, who just comes out and tells the story. I like that very much.

PB: Aren't you doing that with Don Quixote?

OW: Sort of, yes.

PB: It's supposedly uncinematic.

OW: I think words are terribly important in talking pictures.

PB: The script for Ambersons is one of the tightest ever written. For instance, the prologue establishes all the characters in three or four situations, sets up the period and the customs of the era, all within the first few minutes.

OW: I don't like to dwell on things. It's one of the reasons I'm so bored with Antonioni that belief that, because a shot is good, it's going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, "Well, he's not going to carry that woman all the way up that road." But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she's gone.

PB: You wrote the script for Ambersons alone?

OW: Yes. Quite a lot of it on King Vidor's yacht off Catalina. And the rest of it in Mexico. With Molly Kent, the script girl from Kane, doing the secretarial work on it best script girl that ever existed. Then we rehearsed it longer than I've ever rehearsed anything in movies. It was a relatively small cast, and everybody worked very hard. I think we were five weeks not on the set or anything, no movements, just rehearsing. And then we recorded every scene, for reference, so we could listen to the way we'd decided that it ought to sound like even if we were going to change our minds, you know, later.

PB: Does it save time?

OW: It should have, but our cameraman was so slow that we took longer to shoot than any picture I've ever done.

PB: The opening prologue has a slightly mocking tone mixed with nostalgia.

OW: I think we tend to look back on the immediate past the past that isn't history but still a dim memory as being faintly comic. It's an American attitude. I remember my own parents looking at old pictures of themselves and laughing.

Anne Baxter & Tim Holt as George and Lucy

PB: Why did you make fun of men's clothes and not women's?

OW: Because the men's clothes were funny and the women's weren't. The women's clothes were beautiful.

PB: Did you have to study that period, or was it second nature to you?

OW: It was a real one for my father and mother and I was only that step away from it. It was much easier to do that period, because you could find the props and costumes for it in storage. It's very much harder to make an eighteenth-century movie, because the clothes and furniture and the wigs aren't ever really right.

PB: The staircase seems to dominate one's memory of Ambersons.

OW: Well, the heart of a pompous house was its pompous staircase. It's all that imitation-palace business. These people haven't got any royal processions to make, but they wouldn't admit it. I had great aunts were lived in houses exactly like that one. There was one house that had a ballroom on the top floor, just like the Ambersons'.

PB: The top floor?

OW: The third floor, not the attic. And at some stage somebody changed it into an indoor golf course some second husband, I guess. I remember those terrible green felt hills built all over the old ballroom.

PB: I read a newspaper interview with Jo Cotten recently in which he said you'd been planning to shoot a new ending to Ambersons, since the old one was destroyed.

OW: Yes, I had an outside chance to finish it again just a couple of years ago, but I couldn't swing it. The fellow who was going to buy the film for me disappeared from view. The idea was to take the actors who are still alive now Cotten, Baxter, Moorehead, Holt and do quite a new end to the movie, twenty years after. Maybe that way we could have got a new release and a large audience to see it for the first time.

OW: You see, the basic intention was to portray a golden world almost one of memory and then show what it turns into. Having set up this dream town of the "good old days," the whole point was to show the automobile wrecking it not only the family but the town. All this is out. What's left is only the first six reels. Then there's a kind of arbitrary bringing back down the curtain by a series of clumsy, quick devices. The bad, black world was supposed to be too much for people. My whole third act is lost because of all the hysterical tinkering that went on. And it was hysterical. Everybody they could find was cutting it....

PB: When did you record the narration?

OW: The night before I left for South America to begin It's All True. I went to the projection room at about four in the morning, did the whole thing, and then got on a plane and off to Rio and the end of civilization as we know it....

When the first preview was held in Pomono, California, it followed a broad musical and the audience returned 72 negative comment cars out of 125. The cards posed questions such as, "Did you like this picture?" Here were some of the answers:

Yes. This picture is magnificent. The direction, acting, photography, and special effects are the best the cinema has yet offered. It is unfortunate that the American public, as represented at this theatre, are unable to appreciate fine art. It might be, perhaps, criticized for being a bit too long....

No, the worst picture I ever saw.

...Too dramatic and strained but very artistic in spots...

I did not. People like to laff, not be bored to death.

Yes. Picture will not be received by the general audience because they as a whole are too darn ingorant....

I did not like it. I could not understand it. Too many plots.

No. A horrible distorted dream...

Yes, I liked it but I feel that it was above the audience. I think it was very depressing and nerve-racking, but still when I think about it in retrospect, I can see its good points.

It stinks.

The picture was a masterpiece with perfect photography, settings and acting. It seemed too deep for the average stupid person. I was disgusted with the way some people received this picture which truly brings art to the picture industry. Each artist is deserving of a great deal of praise.


Exceedingly good picture. Photography rivaled that of superb Citizen Kane.... Too bad audience was so unappreciative.

Too many wierd camera shots. It should be shelved as it is a crime to take people's hard-earned money for such artistic trash as Mr. Welles would have us think... Mr. Welles had better go back to radio, I hope.

Too many shadows and the scenery was too dark.

No, it's as bad if not worse than Citizen Kane.

I think it was the best picture I have ever seen.

We do not need trouble pictures, especially now. Make pictures to make us forget, not remember.

Why do you like any good piece of art? A little hard to say in five lines, isn't it?

The film was cut to pieces by moronic executives after that, with Welles cabling from Rio to try to fix things. Even the star Joseph Cotten wrote him the following clueless letter:

March 28, 1942

Dear Orson:

In cases such as this great difference of opinion in the editing and cutting of Ambersons, people usually say "nothing personal, of course" as an excuse to say whatever they think. In my case, I have no business interest in Ambersons, Mercury or you; but a great personal feeling about all three, especially you, and whatever I say I know you will take in a personal way, and I want you to.

I have often been wrong in discussing scripts and plots with you, and I agree that I'm wanting in intellectual concept and understanding of art. I do, however, have a reliable instinct, and as often as I have been wrong about actual ideas, I have been right about audience reactions. I also know by now just about what your reaction to audiences is, and I am writing this to you because I know you would have been far from happy with the feeling in the theater during the showing last week. The moment the temporary title was flashed on the screen The Magnificent Ambersons, a Mercury production by Orson Welles, there was a wonderful murmur of happy anticipation, which was warming and delightful to hear and feel. And the first sound of your voice was greeted with applause. Certainly I was fair in assuming at this point that the audience was with us. Then something happened… it happened gradually and awfully and the feeling in that theater became disinterested, almost hostile and as cold as that ice-house they had just seen and my heart as heavy as the heart of Major Amberson who was playing wonderful scenes that nobody cared about.

You have written doubtless the most faithful adaptation any book has ever had, and when I had finished reading it I had the same feeling I had when I read the book. When you read it, I had that same reaction only stronger. The picture on the screen seems to mean something else. It is filled with some deep though vague psychological significance that I think you never meant it to have. Dramatically, it is like a play full of wonderful, strong second acts all coming down on the same curtain line, all proving the same tragic point. Then suddenly someone appears on the apron and says the play is over without there having been enacted a concluding third act. The emotional impact in the script seems to have lost itself somewhere in the cold visual beauty before us and at the end there is definitely a feeling of dissatisfaction… chiefly, I believe, because we have seen something that should have been no less that great. And it can be great, I'm sure of that. It's all there, in my opinion, with some transpositions, revisions and some points made clearer… points relating to human relations, I mean.

Our cables that fly back and forth I know present everything in a very unsatisfactory manner. They often must be misinterpreted at both ends. Jack, I know, is doing all he can. He is trying his best to get Bob Wise to you. His opinions about the cuts, right or wrong, I know are the results of sincere, thoughtful, harassed days, nights, Sundays, holidays. Nobody in the Mercury is trying in any way to take advantage of your absence. Nobody anywhere thinks you haven't made a wonderful, beautiful, inspiring picture. Everybody in the Mercury is on your side always. I miss you horribly and will be a happier soul when you return.

We all love you… and until then remain forever, as all of us do,

Obediently yours,


PB: Your ballroom sequence must have been rehearsed for a long time.

OW: It was a big job technically. But not as hard as you might think, because the sets were built for it. We didn't go into a set and them say, "Let's do these elaborate shots." We knew that this was going here and that wall was there it was all planned before we started.

PB: Probably the silliest cut I know of comes in the middle of a long, sustained shot during the ball when two characters make some comment about olives, which were evidently new to America at the turn of the century.

OW: Yes. You didn't get to see the little joke about the olives because some lamebrain said, "What's olives got to do with it?" One of those things. They cut twenty seconds' playing time and cut into two pieces our crane shot that would have played for a whole reel without a cut. Too bad. I like digressions, don't you? Look at Gogol. Read the first dew pages of Dead Souls again and you'll see how one mad little digression can give reverberation and density to ordinary narrative.

PB: Perhaps the best things in your pictures are the digressions.

OW: Maybe that's why I've suffered so much from the cutters.

PB: Anyway, the olives cut killed your shot.

OW: Not stone dead, maybe, but it was kind of a shame to have worked that hard: four rooms with everything rolling back an absolute triumph of technical engineering on everybody's part.

PB: Where did you shoot that snow sequence?

OW: All inside. The "ice house" a refrigerated soundstage in downtown Los Angeles. Our snow scene in Kane was all shot on Stage 4 at RKO with cornflakes, and it worried me because you didn't see people's breath.

PB: Was the scene in which George and Lucy go through town on the horse and buggy originally intended to be done with rear projection?

OW: Never.

PB: Where on earth did you do it? It must be the longest dolly shot in the world.

OW: Just the old RKO back lot. We didn't build anything just everything that was standing, redressed.

PB: It must have been half a reel, at least.

OW: Well, they just ride along.

PB: And the other side of the street is reflected in the windows.

OW: Yes, we used the reflections instead of trying to avoid them.

You can experience the history of Orson Welles on This Recording by clicking here.

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The Orson Welles Journey

Orson shoots Othello in Mogador...

Enjoying Citizen Kane on its own terms...

Orson, Macbeth, and the Bard...

The Third Man and the War of the Worlds...

Orson's Hollywood exile.


In Which It's The Greatest Curse That's Ever Been Inflicted On The Human Race

Citizen Kane On Its Own Terms

PETER BOGDANOVICH: What was your initial reaction to the Hearst blacklist on Citizen Kane?

ORSON WELLES: We expected it before it happened. What we didn't expect was that the film might be destroyed. And that was nip and tuck; it was very close.

PB: To the negative being burned?

OW: Yes. It was only not burned because I dropped a rosary.

PB: What?

OW: There was a screening for Joe Breen, who was the head of censorship then, to decide whether it would be burned or not. Because there was tremendous payola on from all the other studios to get it burned.

PB: All because of Hearst's people?

OW: Yes. Everybody said, "Don't make trouble, burn it up, who cares? Let them take their losses." And I got a rosary, put it in my pocket, and when the running was over, in front of Joe Breen, a good Irish Catholic, I stood up and dropped my rosary on the floor and said, "Oh, excuse me," and picked it up and put it back in my pocket. If I hadn't done that, there would be no Citizen Kane.

PB: You act as though it's painful for you to remember any of these things.

OW: Oh, everything. Just awful.

PB: Are you up to trying Kane?

OW: Oh Christ! All right — let's get it over with. I can't be awfully good on the subject, because I haven't seen the picture since I ran the last finished print in a empty theatre in downtown Los Angeles, about six months before it was released.

PB: Wait a minute — you went to the premiere.

OW: I went to the premiere and went right out the side door when it started, the way I always do. Because it makes me nervous not to be able to change anything. It comes from being in the theatre — you used to go to the opening, then go backstage and change things. When I've got a play running, I go on changing it until the last day of the show. And it's awful to have it all locked up in a can forever. That's why I don't go to see them.

PB: I guess it's like some painters. My father's like that. And Cezanne, who kept going into people's house after he sold the painting —

OW: Yes! They'd smell wet paint and know Cezanne had been in! That's just the way I feel. I'd like to go to the projection booth and start snipping away.

PB: Griffith did — all during the run of The Birth of a Nation, he'd be up in the booth making changes.

OW: Well, it was easier then. Silent picture — no damn sound to worry about.

PB: So when Hearst intervened...

OW: Hearst didn't really intervene — they intervened on his behalf. It began badly, because Louella Parsons had been on the set and had written a wonderful article about this lovely picture I was making. And it was Hedda Hopper, her old enemy, who blew the whistle. Think of the weapon that gave to the competition! after that it was the Hearst hatchet men who were after me, more than the old man himself.

PB: But wasn't Hedda Hopper supposedly your friend?

OW: Sure — but what a break for her as a newspaperwoman. Couldn't blame her. Imagine what that did to Louella!

PB: After Kane, you once said, "Someday, if Mr. Hearst isn't frightfully careful, I'm going to make a film that's really based on his life."

OW: Well, you know, the real story of Hearst is quite different from Kane's. And Hearst himself — as a man, I mean — was very different. There's all the stuff about Robert McCormick and the opera. I drew a lot from that, from my Chicago days. And Samuel Insull. As for Marion Davies, she was an extraordinary woman — nothing like the character Dorothy Comingore played in the movie. I always felt that he had a right to be upset about that.

PB: Davies was actually quite a good actress —

OW: And a fine woman. She pawned all her jewels for the old man when he was broke. Or broke enough to need a lot of cash. She gave him everything, stayed by him — just the opposite of Susan. That was the libel. In other words, Kane was better than Hearst, and Marion was much better than Susan — whom people wrongly equated with her.

PB: You once said that Kane would have enjoyed seeing a film based on his life, but not Hearst.

OW: Well, that's what I said to Hearst.

PB: When!?

OW: I found myself alone with him in an elevator in the Fairmont Hotel on the night Kane was opening in San Francisco. He and my father had been chums, so I introduced myself and asked him if he'd like to come to the opening of the picture. He didn't answer. And as he was getting off at his floor, I said, "Charles Foster Kane would have accepted." No reply... And Kane would have, you know. That was his style — just as he finished Jed Leland's bad review of Susan as an opera singer.

PB: Where did Kane's trait of acquiring possessions come from?

OW: That comes directly from Hearst. And it's very curious — a man who spends his entire life paying cash for objects he never looked at. I know of no other man in history exactly like that. This jackdaw kind of mind. Because he never made any money, you know; his great chain of newspapers basically lost money. He was in every sense a failure. He just acquired things, most of which were never opened, remained in boxes. It's really a quite accurate picture of Hearst to that extent.

PB: There's only one moment in Kane where I thought your acting was self-conscious —

OW: Tell me. I'll tell you the bad moment for me — in my first scene with Susan, the closeup when I had the mud on my face. That's a real phony movie moment. Look at it again — it really is. I haven't seen it since I made it, but —

PB: It's not so bad as —

OW: Not so bad, but it's real movie actor with mud on his face. What's yours?

PB: The closeup smile in the newspaper office when Cotten asks to keep the Declaration of Principles you wrote —

OW: Oh, but that's supposed to be a forced smile. It's because I don't think the document should be kept — I don't believe in it.

PB: Really?

OW: Of course.

PB: You mean Kane didn't mean what he'd written even as he wrote it?

OW: No.

PB: I didn't realize that.

OW: No. You weren't supposed to believe that smile. He's horrified that somebody wants to keep that as a document. It's going too far.

PB: All right, then I take it back — it's a great moment!

OW: Anyway, it's not supposed to be a real smile but the smile of somebody deeply embarrassed, being caught out. There's a point to that moment. Nobody signals it, but that's what I meant. Because I always believed that Kane doesn't mean all that. He only wants to convince the two fellows. He wants them to believe in it because he wants them to be his slaves. But he doesn't believe in anything. He's a damned man, you know. He's one of those damned people that I like to play and make movies about.

PB: There's a film written by Preston Sturges called The Power and Glory which has been said to have influenced you in the flashback style of Kane. Is that true?

OW: No. I never saw it. I've heard that it has strong similarities; it's one of those coincidences. I'm a great fan of Sturges and I'm grateful I didn't see it. He never accused me of it — we were great chums — but I just never saw it. I saw only his comedies. But I would be honored to lift anything from Sturges, because I have very high admiration for him.

PB: You were friends.

OW: Right up until the end of his life. And I knew him before I went to Hollywood; in fact, I first met him when I was about thirteen and going to school at Todd. Wonderful fellow, and I think a great filmmaker, as it turned out.

PB: Yes, and he wrote marvelous dialogue.

OW: Started in a hospital. He was a businessman until he was about forty. He got very sick and lay in the hospital and decided to write a play. Strictly Dishonorable, which ran eight years of something on Broadway. And that made him a writer. Then later he became a director. He had never thought of it before.

PB: What happened to him in Europe in the 1950s? He only made one film.

OW: He was just trying to raise money for a picture. Nobody would give him a job. Simple as that.

PB: The idea for the famous breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife —

OW: — was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder! It's a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like sixty years of a family's life —

PB: All at dinner —

OW: Yes, they're all sitting at dinner, and they get old - people wheel baby carriages by, and coffins and everything. That they never leave the table and life goes on was the idea of this play. I did the breakfast scene thinking I'd invented it. It wasn't in the script originally. And when I was almost finished with it, I suddenly realized that I'd unconsciously stolen it from Thornton and I called him up and admitted to it.

PB: What was his reaction?

OW: He was pleased.

PB: Is he still a good friend?

OW: Yes. Wonderful writer. I haven't seen him in a long time, but his newest novel, The Eighth Day, is marvelous.

PB: Did the idea literally come to you on the set?

OW: Well, there were going to be several breakfast scenes - you can see how it would have been written in the script — many scenes with transitions. And my idea was simply to photograph it as a continuous breakfast scene without dissolves, just whipping back and forth. Some of the conversation was written before; a lot of it was invented on the set and two or three days before, during rehearsal.

liev schreiber and john malkovich playing welles and mank in RKO 281

PB: Just how important was Herman Mankiewicz in relation to the script?

OW: Mankiewicz's contribution? It was enormous.

PB: You want to talk about him?

OW: I'd love to. I loved him. People did. He was much admired, you know.

PB: Except for his part in the writing of Kane... Well, I've read the list of his other credits...

OW: Oh, the hell with lists — a lot of bad writers have wonderful credits.

PB: Can you explain that?

OW: Luck. The lucky bad writers got good directors who could write. Some of these, like Hawks and McCarey, wrote very well indeed. Screenwriters didn't like that at all. Think of those old pros in the film factories. They had to punch in every morning, and sit all day in front of their typewriters in those terrible "writers' buildings." The way they saw it, the director was even worse than the producer, because in the end what really mattered in moving pictures, of course, was the man actually making the pictures. The big-studio system often made writers feel like second class citizens, no matter how good the money was. They laughed it off, of course, and provided a good deal of the best fun — when Hollywood, you understand, was a still funny place. But basically, you know, a lot of them were pretty bitter and miserable. And nobody was more miserable, more bitter, and funnier than Mank... a perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness was focused straight onto you, he was the best company in the world.

PB: How did the story of Kane begin?

OW: I'd been nursing an old notion — the idea of telling the same thing several times — and showing exactly the same scene from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure — couldn't be a politician, because you'd have to pinpoint him. Howard Hughes was the first idea. But we got pretty quickly to the press lords.

PB: The first drafts were in separate versions, so when was the whole construction of the script — the intricate flashback pattern — worked out between you?

OW: The actually writing came only after lots of talk, naturally... just the two of us, yelling at each other — not too angrily.

PB: What about the Rashomon idea? It's still there to a degree.

OW: It withered away from what was originally intended. I wanted the man to seem a very different person depending on who was talking about him. "Rosebud" was Mank's, and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I'm still not too keen about it, and I don't think that he was, either. The whole schtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

PB: Toward the close, you have the reporter say that it doesn't matter what it means —

OW: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.

PB: The reporter says at the end, "Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost, but it wouldn't have explained anything..."

OW: I guess you might call that a disclaimer — a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it's mine, I'm afraid.

PB: I read the script that went into production.... There were so many things you changed on the set, or, anyway, after you'd started shooting. From the point of view of Kane's character, one of the most interesting is the scene where you're remaking the front page for about the twentieth time. In the script, Kane is rather arrogant and rather nasty to the typesetter. In the movie, he's very nice, even rather sweet. How did that evolve?

OW: Well, all he had was charm — besides the money. He was one of those amiable, rather likable monsters who are able to command people's allegiance for a time without giving too much in return. Certainly not love; he was raised by a bank, remember. He uses charm the way people often do. So when he changes the first page, of course it's done on the basis of a sort of charm rather than real conviction.... Charlie Kane was a man-eater.

PB: Well, why was it in the script the other way?

OW: I found out more about the character as I went along.

PB: And what were the reactions of Mankiewicz to these changes?

OW: Well, he only came once to the set for a visit. Or just maybe, it was twice...

PB: Before the shooting began, how were the differences about the script worked out between you?

OW: That's why I left him on this own finally, because we'd started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on story line and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine. At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all — who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank's and rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.

PB: As you know, Houseman has repeatedly claimed that the script, including the conception and structure, was essentially Mankiewicz's.

OW: It's very funny that he does that, because he deserves some credit himself. It's very perverse, because he was actually a junior writer on it, and made some very important contributions. But for some curious reason he's never wanted to take that bow. It gives him more pleasure just to say I didn't write it.

PB: I have the impression, somehow — Well, let's put it this way: do you believe John Houseman is an enemy?

OW: To rewrite an old Hungarian joke: if you've got him for a friend, you don't need an enemy... The truth is, you know, that I cling to the pathetic delusion that I don't have such things as enemies. But Jack is the one who makes this sort of Christian Science a bit difficult.

PB: How did your partnership work in the Mercury?

OW: For the radio shows, he acted as super editor over all the writers; he produced all the first drafts. And that, in a way, was his function with Mank for that six or eight weeks of their separate preparation for Kane. In the theatre, he was the business, and also, you might say, the political, boss. That last was important, particularly in the WPA. Without his gifts as a bureaucratic finagler, the shows just wouldn't have got on. I owe him much. Leave it at that... It's a story I don't think I want to tell.

PB [after a pause]: There's a scene in which Susan is singing for you the first time in her apartment, and that dissolves to her singing for you in an entirely different, much better-decorated apartment -

OW: — which Kane set up for her, yes.

PB: And you applaud in that scene, which goes to a group of people applauding Cotten, who is making a speech saying that Kane "entered campaign" — cut to you finishing the sentence, "with one purpose only," in another campaign speech. Was a thing like that done in the preparatory stages?

OW: Yes, but the last preparatory stages — we were already rehearsing.

PB: It has the beautiful economy of segue-ing on a radio show.

OW: Yes, in a way, except faster than you could on radio.

PB: What about something like the woman screaming offscreen during your fight with Susan in the picnic tent?

OW: That was invented after we shot it. I thought, looking at the rushes, that's what we needed.

PB: As a counterpoint?

OW: Yes, and the song that went with it. ["This Can't Be Love"] I'd heard Nat "King" Cole and his trio do in a little bar. I kind of based the whole scene around that song.

PB: There's a shot of a black singer at one point -

OW: It isn't him, but the music is by Nat Cole - it's his trio. He doesn't sing it — he's too legitimate, we got some kind of low-down New Orleans voice — but it was his number and his trio.

PB: How did you work with Bernard Herrmann on the score?

OW: Very intimately, as I always did for many years on the radio. Almost note for note. Benny Herrmann was an intimate member of the family. I think his score was marvelous for the opera in the film, Salammbo. It was a delighful pastiche.

PB: You've told me that everyone felt free to contribute — that was part of the atmosphere on the set.

OW: That's true — it was wonderful. We had a couple of spies on the set, as I told you, but everyone else hated them, so they were completely in quarantine. Of course, the first two weeks of the film were done without the studio knowing we were shooting a picture. We said that we were making tests, because I had never directed a picture. That began part of the big legend: "imagine, he's been fourteen days on camera tests with extras and actors in costume!" But we were shooting the picture. Because we wanted to get started and be already into it before anybody knew about it.

PB: So there wouldn't be any pressure on you.

OW: Yes, that's right. It was Perry Ferguson's idea, the art director.

PB: Do you agree with Andre Bazin that deep-focus camera set ups increase the ambiguity of a movie, because the director doesn't make choices for the audience — they can decide who or what they want to look at in a frame?

OW: That's right. In fact, I did a lot of talking about that in the early days of my life as a filmmaker — when I was more shameless and used to sound off on theory. I talked a lot about that "giving the audience a choice" business. It strikes me as pretty obvious now; I don't know why I came on so strong about it.

PB: I don't think it's so obvious; and it certainly wasn't twenty-five years ago. What about a shot like the one after Susan has tried to commit suicide? There's a bottle in the foreground, and we see you break through the door in the background. Did you have to use an outsized bottle in order to hold focus?

OW: Not, it was just ordinary, standard size.

PB: It must have been very difficult to get a dark scene that still had enough light to hold focus.

OW: You bet. It was a very dark scene until the door opens and I come in — and then you see this ID bracelet I had on by accident because I had a girlfriend who made me wear it. Every time I think of that scene, I think of my reaching down and you see this awful love charm — nothing at all to do with Kane. That's all I really remember about the scene.

PB: I never noticed it. You must have cursed yourself watching the rushes.

OW: Yes, when I saw it I said, "Shall we go back, do it again?" "No." "Maybe he could have such—" "He never would have it." "They won't see it." And whenever I think of seeing this picture, the reason I don't want to is because I don't want to see that goddamn bracelet come down.

PB: I guess one always remembers the little things that nobody in the world would notice.

OW: Well, you'll notice it the next time you see it.

PB: That's true.

OW: It glitters on the screen!

PB: Some people have said that the look of Kane is the result of Gregg Toland's photography, but all your pictures have the same visual signature, and you only worked with Toland once.

OW: It's impossible to say how much I owe to Gregg. He was superb. You know how I happened to get to work with Gregg? He was, just then, the number one cameraman in the world, and I found him sitting out in the waiting room of my office. "My name's Toland," he said, "and I want you to use me on your picture." I asked him why and he said he'd seen some of our plays in New York. He asked me who did the lighting. I told him in the theatre most directors have a lot to do with it (and they used to, back then) and he said, "Well, fine. I want to work with somebody who never made a movie." Now, partly because of that, I somehow assumed that movie lighting was supervised by movie directors. And, like a damned fool, for the first few days of Kane I "supervised" like crazy. Behind me, of course, Gregg was balancing the lights and telling everybody to shut their faces. He was angry when somebody finally came to me and said, "You know, that's really supposed to be Mr. Toland's job."

PB: You mean he was protecting you?

OW: Yes! He was quietly fixing it so as many of my notions as possible would work. Later he told me, "That's the only way to learn anything - from somebody who doesn't know anything. And, by the way, Gregg was also the fastest cameraman who ever lived, and used fewer lights. And he had this extraordinary crew — his own men. You never heard a sound on a Toland set, except what came from the actors or director. There was never a voice raised, only signs given. Almost Germanic, it was so hushed. Everybody wore neckties. Sounds depressing, but we had a jazz combo to keep our spirits up.

PB: How did you get along with him after you found out that lighting was his job?

OW: Wonderfully. I started asking for lots of strange, new things - depth-of-focus and so on...

PB: An elementary question: why did you want so much depth-of-focus?

OW: Well, in life you see everything in focus at the same time, so why not in the movies? We used split-screen sometimes, but mostly just a wide-angle lens, lots of juice, and stopped way the hell down. We called it "pan focus" in some idiot interview — just for the fun of it —

PB: Didn't mean anything?

OW: Of course not, but for quite a while that word kept turning up in books and highbrow articles — as thought there really was something you could do called "pan focusing"! Christ, he was the greatest gift any director — young or old — could ever, ever have. And he never tried to impress us that he was doing any miracles. He just went ahead and performed them. Fast. I was calling for things only a beginner would have been ignorant enough to think anybody could ever do, and there he was, doing them. His whole point was, "There's no mystery to it." He said, "You can be a cameraman, too — in a couple of days I can teach you everything that matters." So we spent the next weekend together and he showed me the inside of that bag of tricks, and like all good magic, the secrets are ridiculously simple. Well, that was Gregg for you - that was how big he was. Can you imagine somebody they now call a "director of photography" coming right out and admitting you can bone up on the basic technical side of it all in a weekend? Like magic again: the secret of the trick is nothing; what counts is not the mechanics, but how you can make them work.

PB: You gave Toland credit on the same card as yourself, which Ford had done, too, on The Long Voyage Home.

OW: Up until then, cameramen were listed with about eight other names. Nobody those days — only the stars, the director, and the producer — got separate cards. Gregg deserved it, didn't he?

PB: What made you put on so many ceilings?

OW: The simple thing is that movies still go on telling lies. First of all, they pretend there isn't a fourth wall — as in the theatre — that has to be because the camera is there. But then they pretend there's no ceiling — a big lie in order to get all those terrible lights up there. You can hardly go into a room without seeing a ceiling, and I believe a camera ought to show what the eyes see normally looking at something. That's all it was. Not because I thought the ceiling itself had anything beautiful to say. It just seemed to me that it was clearly a bad theatrical convention to pretend it wasn't there.

PB: Well, you also used a lot of low-angle shots that couldn't avoid seeing the ceiling. In fact, you're still fond of shots like that.

OW: I don't know why. I suppose it's because I think the picture looks better down there. Just that. I suppose I had more low angles in Kane just because I became fascinated with the way it looked - and I do it less now because it's become less surprising. But there are an awful lot of dull interiors — Kane is full of them — which are by their nature not very interesting and look better when the camera is low. I think I overdid it.

PB: In the big scene between Kane and Leland after Kane loses the election, the whole thing is from an extreme low angle.

OW: Well, there's a purpose in that one — that was delicate and wasn't just because the set looked better.

PB: What was the purpose?

OW: Oh, I don't know — I think if it doesn't explain itself, I can't explain it. There's this fallen giant... I think that really called for the camera being there. And, of course, it was very low. We had to dig a hole, and they had to drill into the concrete floor for us to get down that low. And I'd sprained my ankle, so if you look carefully in that scene, you can see the steel brace I was wearing on my heel. I had fallen down the stairs in the scene where I threw Gettys out, and I was limping around in a steel brace. It took nerve to shoot it from down there, with that steel brace right in front of the camera, but I thought rightly that at that point they'd be looking at Leland and not at me. Anyway, I wanted it like a big, kind of mythical encounter between the two. And also I wanted it to look outsized, because what they're saying is so prosaic, yet has reverberations — I had some highfalutin idea. It still seems justified to me as I look back on it. But I don't have a general theory about low angles.

PB: How do you decide where you're going to put the camera?

OW: I don't make a conscious decision — I know instantly where it goes. There's never a moment of doubt. And I never use a viewfinder anymore.

PB: You look through the camera when it's set up?

OW: No. I place my hand where the camera goes and that's it. It never moves. I know exactly where it's going to be.

PB: But don't you then look at the setup?

OW: Then. And that's where it should be and I'm right. For my money. I don't fish for it — or very seldom, only when I'm in real trouble. And then the fishing leads me nowhere and it's better if I go home or go to another scene. Because if I'm fishing it means I don't know, something's wrong.

PB: It's really instinctive rather than —

OW: Oh, it always is. I think I share with Hitchcock the ability to say what lens goes in the camera and where it stands without consulting a finder or looking through the camera. He does that, too, I believe.

PB: He sometimes draws a little sketch for the cameraman.

OW: Oh, I don't do that. I just walk over and say, "There it is." I may be dead wrong, but I'm so certain that nothing can shake it. It's the only thing I'm certain of. I'm never certain of a performance — my own or the other actors' — or the script or anything. I'm ready to change, move anything. But to me it seems there's only one place in the world the camera can be, and the decision usually comes immediately. If it doesn't come immediately, it's because I have no idea about the scene, or I'm wrong about the scene, or I'm wrong about the scene to begin with. It's a good sign, a kind of litmus paper for me. If I start to fish, something is wrong.

PB: Then it must be inconceivable to you, the idea of covering a scene from many different angles, as many directors do.

OW: That's right. Inconceivable. I don't know what they're fishing around for — they don't know what they're doing in the scene. Though I think the absolutely solid camera sense is not a sign of a great director. It's just something you have or you don't have. I think you can be a very great director and have only a very vague notion of what the camera does at all. I happen to think I have total mastery of the camera. That may just be megalomania, but I'm absolutely certain of that area. And everything else is doubtful to me. I never consult the operator or anything. There it is.

PB: Was it that way on Kane, too?

OW: Yes.

PB: Right away?

OW: Right away.

PB: It's instinctive.

OW: Yes, kind of instinctive, if you will — an arrogance that I have about where it's going to be seen from.

PB: I know it's difficult to dissect the creative process —

OW: Well, it's not even creative because it is an instinctive thing, like a question of pitch for a singer. Where the camera goes. If you're absolutely sure, you may be wrong but at least it's one thing you can hang on to. Because I'm filled with doubts all the time about a movie: that the whole tone is wrong, that the level of it is wrong, that all the text, the performances, the emphasis, what they say, what it should be about — I'm constantly reaching and fishing and hoping and trying and improvising and changing. But the one thing I'm rocklike about is where it's seen from, by what lens and so on. That to me doesn't seem to be open to discussion. And it's something I must be grateful for: even if I'm wrong, I don't have that worry. But I always find scenes in a movie — I did in Kane and I have ever since — that I don't know how to photograph, and it's always because I haven't really conceived of it fully enough.

PB: Do you let those go until you're ready?

OW: Well, on Kane, I walked away once early in the morning - just quit for the day — and went home. made a big scandal. I just had no idea what to do. Came back the next day.

PB: What was the scene?

OW: In Susan's apartment, the big confrontation, when Gettys [Ray Collins] comes in. He was named, by the way, after the father of the wife of Roger Hill, my teacher at Todd. That's another in-joke. But that was just a scene in a room, and it seemed to me so boring, I didn't know what to do. And I just went away.

PB: When you came back, it worked?

OW: Yeah. And I didn't figure it out on paper. But I think that scene is a little overstated, visually. It's a little overemphasized. It shows some kind of insecurity, I think, visually. I can see it now. It came from that moment of doubt. And I think it's like lion taming or being the conductor of an orchestra — you have to come in and know where the camera is, or there are all sorts of evil demons who will attack you, and the doubts will show on the screen and in everything. You have to be absolutely on top of it. Or pay not attention to it. One of the two.

PB: By the way, in shooting that drunk scene with Cotten, I understand he was so tired that he accidentally said the line "dramatic crimitism" instead of "criticism" and you left it in.

OW: It happened that way in rehearsal and then it was performed. He was that tired because he had to go to New York to join the road tour of The Philadelphia Story, which he originated on the stage. And we all worked something like twenty-four hours, around the clock, with nobody going to bed, to get him finished.

PB: An article could be devoted just to the "News on the March" digest that comes at the start of Kane. Apart from its perfection as an imitation news short, it is at the same time one of the most devilish parodies of vintage Time-style ever made: the inverted sentences, the taut fact-filled portentous reportage, the standard cliche.

OW: I showed it to Luce. He was one of the first people to see the movie — in New York. He and Clare Luce loved it and roared with laughter at the digest.

PB: They saw the parody?

OW: They saw it as parody and enjoyed it very much as such — I have to hand it to them. He saw it as a joke — or she saw it as a joke and he had to because she did.

PB: There's a March of Time sequence indicated in Smiler with a Knife.

OW: Yes, that's where the idea for it in Kane came from. Of course, I'd been years on The March of Time radio program. Every day. It was a marvelous show to do. Great fun, because, half an hour after something happened, we'd be acting it out with music and sound effects and actors. It was a super show — terribly entertaining.

PB: Did you write some of them?

OW: Never. I only acted. I began as an occasional performer, because they had a regular stock company, and then I was finally let in — one of the inner circle. And then I had the greatest thrill of my life — I don't know why it thrilled me (it still does, to think of it now), I guess because I thought March of Time was such a great thing to be on. One day they did as a news item on March of Time the opening of my production of the black Macbeth, and I played myself on it. And that to me was the apotheosis of my career — that I was on March of Time acting and as a news item. I've never felt since that I'd had it made as much as I did that one afternoon.

PB: There's a wonderfully real sound cut during Thatcher's news conference in the "News" digest. A long shot of Thatcher sitting at the table with all these people around, but when you cut to a closeup of him as he starts to read his statement, the sound cuts a moment late, the way it often does in newsreels. I've always loved that touch.

OW: Yes, a slight mistake in the sound cutting. I'm glad you noticed it. You know how it was in those days, there was no tape, all the sound was on film. You can't imagine what mixing the sound was in those days - and what a cost in effort it was to get that little effect.

PB: Is it true that the news conference was reminiscent of a real J.P. Morgan news conference?

OW: No, but there was a famous J.P. Morgan news conference where a midget was put on his lap. I just know vaguely about it. ... Did I tell you the reaction that sequence had in Italy when the film opened?

PB: No.

OW: They all stood up and hissed and booed because the quality of the film was so bad.

PB: They missed the point entirely.

OW: Yes! You know the total run in Rome in the entire life of Citizen Kane is three days — since it was made!

PB: That's about rock bottom, isn't it? Did you notice an influence on Hollywood films from Kane?

OW: You couldn't mistake it. Everybody started having big foreground objects and ceilings and all those kind of compositions. Very few people had ever even used a wide-angle lens except for crowd scenes.

PB: But the effect wasn't in terms of story construction?

OW: No, the thing I valued didn't seem to have much effect on anybody. But the most obvious kind of visual things, everybody did right away.

PB: Would you agree, in general, that Kane is more self-conscious directorially than any of your other films?

OW: Yes. There are more conscious shots — for the sake of shots — in Kane than in anything I've done since. It has things like that shot where they're all posed around that trophy which is just "let's see if we can make that shot" kind of shot. I'm not that pleased with it, looking back.

PB: No, it's studied.

OW: Yeah. I've tried to avoid that kind of thing since then.

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"Middle of the Night" - Eastern Conference Champions (mp3)

"The Box" - Eastern Conference Champions (mp3)

"A Million Miles An Hour" - Eastern Conference Champions (mp3)

The Orson Welles Journey

Orson shoots Othello in Mogador...

Orson, Macbeth, and the Bard...

The Third Man and the War of the Worlds...

Orson's Hollywood exile.


In Which Orson Welles Shoots Othello In Mogador

The Actor As Writer

It's a little too early to predict the Oscar-winning player for best supporting actor next year, but Henry King has picked him Orson Welles as Borgia in Prince of Foxes. Henry said everybody told him he would have trouble with Welles; that he'd never be on time; and some days wouldn't even show. "I've never worked with anyone as cooperative," says King. "He came on location two days ahead of schedule, and after the first morning always beat me on the set at 8 a.m."

New York Daily News, March 31, 1949

ORSON WELLES: [referring to the above] I used to hide and wait until he'd start to scream, "Where is he? I know the son-of-a-bitch is away in Venice shooting that goddamn Shakespeare!" And then I'd step out of the bushes fully dressed and say, "Do you want me, Henry?"

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Would you say Othello was the most arduous to make of all your pictures, since it took so long to finish?

OW: It was almost two years between starting and finishing it because of lack of money, but "arduous" is maybe not the word — just maddening, because I had all the money and contract early on. I went to Rome after the collapse of Cyrano to do Black Magic, which I made at Scalera Film Studios, then the biggest studio in Italy. And Mr. Scalera, the head of this great outfit, decided that he wanted to finance my making Othello, and we wrote a contract together.

I gathered together my actors and Trauner and my Italian crew, and away we went to Mogador to shoot it. We arrived in this condemned area — a little-known, out-of-the-way port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco — and everybody checked into hotels. Two days later, we got a telegram says the costumes wouldn't come because they hadn't been completed. A day later a telegram came saying that hadn't been started. And then a telegram came saying that Scalera had gone bankrupt. So I had a company of fifty people in North Africa and no money — though we had film and we had our cameras — but how can you shoot Othello without costumes?

with Peter Bogdanovich

That was how I got the idea to shoot two reels in a Turkish bath, because if people were n a Turkish bath they won't be wearing clothes. And we worked in a Turkish bath for about three weeks while a lot of little tailors in the village — with Carpaccio reproductions pinned on their walls — made the clothes; the costumes were all based on his paintings. My plan was to show much more of the corruption of the Christian Venetian world — this world of what Othello called "goats and monkeys." But everything I'd thought up for that had to go when I was obliged to film without costumes.

PB: How would you have done that?

OW: I don't know how to describe it: the same scenes, but it was just the way they would appear. You can't show people being goatlike and monkeylike just sitting, sweating it out in Turkish baths! Anyway, I shot until the money in the bank ran out —

PB: Your own money.

OW: Sure. And then everybody had to go home until I could earn some more or find some more. In fact, we stayed a little longer by virtue of a fellow who arrived and arranged for sales of the film for some strange countries like the Dutch East Indies and Turkey — places like that; we got together about $6,000 or $7,000 and stayed on a week or two more, thanks to him. And I gave him a role in the film. He wasn't an actor and he's very poor in it, but he was a big help in getting us the money. And then that ran out and everybody had to go home. Mac Liammoir, who was playing Iago, and his partner, Hilton Edwards, went back to Dublin to open their theatre season and they couldn't be brought back just when I wanted, because of their theatre schedule. So, even when I got the money, I had to wait until my actors were free, which made a long wait — even longer than it took to get the money. And when they were free, we went back again to Africa and then to Italy, where we shot all over the place and finished it. But that began the story of how long it takes me to make a movie. You know: "Look at him — even on his own pictures, it takes him over three years to finish it."

PB: That's how that myth got started —

OW: Yes, it's still very prevalent, and it all began with Othello. But the movie wasn't arduous — we had tremendous fun doing it, and everybody got along awfully well. Our headaches were all riotous and amusing; it wasn't anguish like Mr. Arkadin was. Arkadin was just anguish from beginning to end. No, it was a very happy experience for me in spite of these terrible troubles.

PB: Trauner told me he loved making the film, and remembers it as sort of an insane experience.

OW: He's a wonderful art director and an extraordinary fellow; I'm devoted to him. Marvelous at his job — of course, there wasn't much he could do with no money, but he still kept a very large staff. Imagine: the picture was being shot in a real location where there's no money except what I happened to have left in the bank, and Trauner had three assistants. So, when he remembers it as a crazy experience, there was nothing as crazy as Trauner, who insisted on keeping three assistants in Mogador drafting pictures of where we would put the matting that we bought — which is all they had to do, since there was nothing we could build.

PB: Well, then, what did he do?

OW: It was all going to be built originally in the south of France. All sets. And he designed everything. Then, when we decided on real places, he found Mogador — he found all the locations.

PB: The castle?

OW: Well, that's partly Safi and partly Agadir — all different places made to look like the same.

PB: Really?

OW: It's shot in four different towns in Morocco and about five places in Italy. And there is even a set that he did design, the doge's palace, which he built in a studio in Rome. Poor Trauner was reduced to a mere wisp of what his original conception was.


PB: Is it true that Trauner sued you on Othello?

OW: No. The part of the work that Trauner did was financed by a French coproducer who failed to give him his last payment, as he did a lot of people. And Trauner, I think, sued with my cooperation. There was no quarrel between us.

PB: You must have spent a lot of your time trying to raise money.

OW: Yes. One time I am in Venice trying to promote some money from a crazy Russian; we're at the Excelsior Hotel on the Lido. Churchill had been voted out of office is there with Clemmie, and there's together just sitting at a table in the restaurant. And as I came in, for some reason there was all this Italian gafuffle: "Hello — " "Here he comes—" And as I passed Churchill's table, I bowed to him. And Churchill — I don't know why, for reasons of irony, to send me up, I can't imagine why — half stood up, bowed, and sat down. I suppose it was some kind of joke. Well, the Russian afterward said, "You're close to Churchill," and the deal was closed right there.

So the next day I'm swimming, and on the beach I find myself next to Mr. Churchill. and I said, "Mr. Churchill, you don't know what you did for me. By acknowledging my greeting that way, I've got the money for my picture — settled the whole thing."

All right. Finished swimming. That night, at dinner, we came in again. Churchill stood up! And for the rest of the time we were in Venice, every time I came into the restaurant, he stood when I passed! Thinking, you know, "Got some money for him." And no matter who I was with — somebody I couldn't get any money from — he stood. And people said, "What is this? Every time Churchill sees this actor, this great man — the greatest living fellow — is standing up!" And he thought, "Well every time I stand up, he gets some more dough — so why not?" Oh God, what a wonderful man he was.

And then in the same season, there was the great Bestigui Ball in Venice, where everybody's invited. And I happened to be invited, and of course Churchill was, too, but he was hoping to get back into office and everybody was attacking the ball as conspicuous luxury and all that, so he couldn't go. And here we are all going off in our speedboats to the ball, and there was Churchill down at the end of the dock watching us leave, ready — and miserable. He would have come dressed as anything, you know, but he just couldn't go. Miserable!

PB: Not to be at the ball.

OW: Yes! He came to Othello and —

PB: You mean the play?

OW: Yes. Came backstage afterward and sat in the dressing room. There was a long pause, and I was waiting — I didn't know what he would say — he just sat there. And finally he said, "Most potent grave and reverent seignors — my most approved masters..." Began reciting from the play — long speeches.

PB: To show that he knew them?

OW: Yes! Yes!

PB: I heard Richard Burton say that Churchill came to Hamlet and sat out front, reciting it right along with him.

OW: He was nice enough not to do that with me. What an adorable man he was. I ran some documentary footage for him once during the war which was all silent. And as we were watching it, we suddenly began to hear these strange sounds, and finally realized it was Churchill supplying the sound effects for the battle action on the screen!

PB: You cut Othello to 91 minutes.

OW: It's my thing again about shows being too long.

PB: And you cut out some of what is, I guess, dated comedy.

OW: It's very good comedy, but the movie I wanted to make didn't have room for it, that's all.

PB: And you feel quite free to change whatever you like for that reason.

OW: I don't see why there's an argument about it: A movie is a movie, and if we're going to take movies as a serious art form, then they're no less so than opera. And Verdi had no hesitation in doing what he did with his Othello, which is an enormous departure from the play; nobody criticizes him. Why is a movie supposed to be more respectful to a play than an opera?

PB: Or to a novel or anything else?

OW: Yes.

PB: You are basically doing your own variations on Shakespeare's theme.

OW: Yes. Of course, there's nothing that can be done without Shakespeare — but you can't put a play on the screen. I don't believe in that — I don't think Shakespeare would have believed in it. He would have made a great movie writer.

PB: It's one of your best performances.

OW: I was much better in the theatre, which I did after the movie. Just the reverse. I should have done it first.

PB: You improved.

OW: I knew much more about it, had more time to think about it. Though I've always had a great feeling for Othello. The two plays I've most wanted to do in movies have always been Othello and King Lear.

PB: I have noticed that all the music you've put in your films — with the exception of Touch of Evil, where it wouldn't fit — has a classical quality to it.

OW: I attach an awful lot of importance to it.

PB: But it must go back to your early love of music.

OW: Yes, all of those things. I was very lucky in having Benny Herrmann for a while, and since then I've used some good composers, but I tend more and more to get music that isn't composed for the picture — so that I can control it, so that I'm not at the mercy of what the composer turns up with after he's already under contract.

PB: Well, the music in Othello is most memorable.

OW: Yes. That's an extraordinarily talented man. Lavagnino — he did the music for Chimes at Midnight, too. Extraordinary music for the battle. But I took it out and recorded it three times over each other, did all those kinds of Beatles tricks with it. But still awfully good. Othello was superb. We used forty mandolins at one time. And that opening theme of the funeral, the main one, is just hair-raising. He makes too many movies now — does forty a year. He's an ex-professor of music at Vienna with a big classical background. And he wrote an entirely different score for Othello when I did it in the theatre.

PB: The first line in the movie — "I hate the Moor" — sets everything up. You do that sort of thing quite often — begin by telling what it's going to be about. You did it in The Trial.

OW: I like it in Elizabethan plays. In the primitive theatre, too, you find somebody coming out front and telling what it's all about. I just got through writing an opening exactly like that for The Other Side of the Wind. We tell what it is — and then, really, you could go home if you want to.

PB: Why did you decide to begin Othello with the funeral?

OW: Why not? I don't know. Have another drink.

PB: Well, it couldn't be coincidental that Kane, Othello, and Mr. Arkadin all begin with the death of the leading character....

OW: Just shows a certain weakness of invention on the part of the filmmaker.

PB: You can give me a better answer than that.

OW: Peter, I'm no good at this sort of stuff. I either go cryptic or philistine. All I can say is, I thought it was a good idea; whether you get me in the morning or the evening. I'm always going to say that.

PB: I loved the classic unity of that film. Beginning with Othello's head and then into the funeral — ending with his head and then the funeral. And it's not precious.

OW: Well, the shooting script, as such, was quite painstakingly developed.

PB: I think you're saying that as a reaction to some critics, who probably said it was thrown together. Where did you get the idea for the cage they put Iago in? Was that, in fact, the kind of punishment they might have used?

OW: You do see cages in museums sometimes, of one kind or another. Wasn't it Abd el-Krim, the great North African insurrectionist leader, who was driven in a cage tied to a donkey all over North Africa to show to the tribes? That's where I got the idea.

PB: Why did you shoot the long scene on the beach between Othello and Iago in one continuous traveling shot?

OW: Because the picture was made in pieces. Three different times I had to close it and go away and earn money and come back, which meant you'd see me looking off-camera left, and when you'd cut over my shoulder, it would be another continent — a year later. And so the picture had many more cuts than I would have liked; it wasn't written that way, but had them because I never had a full cast together. Now for that shot we had the entire cast — Iago and Othello — and a great long place where we could do it all in one. So for once in the picture, we could do a single sustained scene. Just as simple as that.

PB: Beautiful scene.

OW: It's a marvelous set. Trauner found it for me.

PB: In the scene before the mirror that follows — where Iago continues to poison his mind — did you mean his removing of Othello's armor as a symbol of what he's doing to him emotionally at the time?

OW: Well, it's not exactly a symbol. When the visual thing is so direct and so basic that you don't have to cerebrate, then it's OK. In other words, when it doesn't present the director in front of the curtain for his comments, then it's all right. It's so clear what's happening — you don't have to think about it — it's kind of a physical fact.

PB: It becomes a metaphor.

OW: Yes, a metaphor — you've found a good definition. I rather like metaphor.

PB: It's integral to the scene.

OW: There was a moment at the end of that scene that has remained a standing joke between Micheal and myself for years. He had to pick up Othello's cleak and go. And he picked it up and looked very meaningful and all that sort of stuff, and I finally said to him, "Micheal, pick up the cloak and go!" And that's because since then a sort of basic thing I use when an actor wants to enrich his performance — I say "Pick up the cloak and go!"

PB: Why do you think Othello is destroyed so easily? Do you think he's a weak man?

OW: He's destroyed easily because of his simplicity, not his weakness. He really is the archetype of the simple man, and has never understood the complexity of the world or of human beings. He's a soldier; he's never known women. It's a favorite theme of Shakespeare's. A curious thing about Lear, too: Lear clearly knows nothing about women and has never lived with them at all. His wife is dead — she couldn't exist. Obviously, the play couldn't happen if there were a Mrs. Lear. He hasn't any idea of what makes women work — he's a man who lives with his knights.

He's that all-male man whom Shakespeare — who was clearly very feminine in many ways — regarded as a natural-born loser in a tragic situation. Othello was another fellow like that. Total incomprehension of what a woman is. His whole treatment of her when he kills her is the treatment of a man who's out of touch with reality as far as the other sex is concerned. All he knew how to do is fight wars and deal with the anthropophagi and "men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders."

set design for the council chamber

PB: That's his tragedy, then.

OW: Yes.

PB: He could not imagine a person like Iago.

OW: No, and neither could a lot of Shakespeare's critics. As a result of which we have eight libraries full of idiot explanations of Iago — when everybody has known an Iago in his life if he's been anywhere.

PB: There are several moments in the movie which give the impression that Iago does what he does because it's in his character, rather than that he's plotting for some particular reason.

OW: Oh, he has no reason. The great criticism through the years has been that he's an unmotivated villain, but I think there are a lot of people who perpetuate villainy without any motive other than the exercise of mischief and the enjoyment of the power to destroy. I've known a lot of Iagos in my life. I think it's a great mistake to try to motivate it beyond what is inherent in the action.

PB: Iago is certainly the most interesting part in the play.

OW: Shakespeare is like no other artist when his characters start to live their own lives and to lead the author against his wishes. In Richard II, Shakespeare is absolutely for Richard, but nevertheless he has to do justice to Bolingbroke. And, more than that, he has to make him seem real, human — so that suddenly this man Bolingbroke takes life and pulls off a large part of the play. You see Shakespeare trying to hold him back: nothing doing, Bolingbroke is launched!

A very interesting theory has been put forward by some scholars; according to them, Shakespeare not only played small roles, but large ones. They think now that he played Iago and Mercutio — two second-level roles which steal the play from the stars.

All the great writers are actors. They have the actor's faculty of entering the skin of their characters, and transforming them — murderers or whatever — with what they give of themselves. This leads often to the fact that the protagonist of the story seems to speak for the author, even when he stands for the things the author hates...

PB: You said somewhere that there was an implication of impotence in your Iago.

OW: Yes. I don't think that it is necessary to the truth of the play, but it was the key to Mac Liammoir's performance, that Iago was impotent. It isn't central, but it was an element that we used for the actor, as a means of performing the part. In the play, it's pretty clear that isn't so, and when I did the play in the theatre later, there was no suggestion of it. But I think it's a perfectly valid way of doing it, though I wasn't anxious for the audience to understand it, not trying to inform them of it — if the audience can find it, more power to them. To use the Stanislavsky argot, it was basically something for the actor "to use." I do a lot of that with actors. I'm always making fun of the Method, but I use a lot of things that are taken from it.

PB: Does Othello feel guilt at the end — after Iago's proven guilty?

OW: Depends on how you play it.

PB: In your picture.

OW: I've forgotten, because I remember my performance in the theatre much more clearly than in the movie, and I revised a lot of my ideas about playing it.

PB: Well, then, in the stage production.

OW: I don't think "guilt" is the right word. You know Othello is so close to being a French farce. Analyze it! All he's got to do is say, "Show me the handkerchief," and you ring down the curtain. Being that close to nonsense, it can only come to life on a level very close to real tragedy — closer than Shakespeare usually gets. And Othello is so blasted at the end that guilt is really too small an emotion. Anyway, he's not a Christian. That's central to the character. And Shakespeare was very, very aware of who was a Christian and who wasn't, just as he was very aware of who was a Southern European and who was a Northern, who was the decadent and who was the palace man, and the outdoor man. These things run all the way through Shakespeare.

PB: There's an implication at the end that Othello understands, even almost forgives Iago for what he had done.

OW: He didn't forgive him.

PB: Well, understood.

OW: Yes, it was this terrible understanding of how awful he was which drains him of hate. Because when something is that awful you can't react to it that way. He becomes appalled by him...

PB: The look between them is filled with ambiguity.

OW: That's a very interesting moment in the play.

PB: Do you think Othello is detestable in his jealousy?

OW: Jealousy is detestable, not Othello. He's so obsessed with jealousy, he becomes the very personification of that tragic vice. In that sense, he's morally diseased. All Shakespeare's great characters are sometimes detestable — compelled by their own nature.

PB: So are your characters.

OW: Well, you could say it, I think, about all drama, large or small, that attempts tragedy within the design of melodrama. As long as there is melodrama, the tragic hero is something of a villain.

PB: Why did you give Roderigo a white poodle?

OW: Because Carpaccio's full of them. And it's not a poodle, it's a tenerife — very special kind. We had a terrible time getting it. All the dandies in Carpaccio fondle exactly that dog — it's almost a trademark with them, like Whistler's butterfly; they're always clinging to those terrible little dogs.

PB: Where did you find that wonderful set with a thin layer of water all around?

OW: It's a beautiful Portuguese cistern in a town in Morocco called Safi.

PB: Is it the same place where Othello dies?

OW: No, it looks similar — I wanted it to. That's why I found a place in Viterbo, Italy, where that happens — so that it seems to be part of the same castle; that's why you believe it.

PB: In your style for the film, did you consciously proceed from bright light into shadows?

OW: Yes. I don't know what it was consciously. But I don't know that anything visual that you see in a picture of mine is unconscious. Certainly deliberate — sure. It's not a kind of Germanic master plan that's made in the study before the picture is made, but it evolves and becomes a plan. Though I do make a master plan and then throw it away —

PB: I didn't know that.

OW: Yes. Not the shots, but I project the whole movie and then it never bears any relationship to that afterwards — none.

PB: None at all?

OW: Someday one of 'em will. There's always some reason why it can't — there aren't any sets, so I have to shoot in a railway station or in a Turkish bath.

PB: You have to be very flexible?

OW: Yes, and I am. I like to be. Nothing depresses me more than rigidity in movies. It's terrible when they just sit down and wait for the cloud to go away or the noise to stop. I always go.

PB: Work through it.

OW: Find something else to shoot, eight reels later. There's always some to do; I never wait.

You can find the other parts of the Orson Welles journey below.

"Be A Bee"- Air (mp3)

"Missing the Light of Day" - Air (mp3)

"Sing Sang Sung"-  Air (mp3)

War of the Worlds and The Third Man

Welles as Macbeth

Orson, Pasolini, and Dreams of Hollywood