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.
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?
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.
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)