You may have heard a while back that, after four decades, Orson Welles’ infamously unfinished “masterpiece,” The Other Side of the Wind, had at long last been completed after the kind of troubled production that leaves those of us who enjoy hearing about the often-secretive stories behind the filmmaking process salivating at the bit for some kind of accompanying tell-all. Well, since Netflix picked up the worldwide distribution rights to this momentous piece of film history – Welles was often struck by the kind of bad luck that makes Terry Gilliam look like Domino from the Deadpool universe, so it’s really not every day that one of his litany of unfinished or unreleased films gets done and sent out into the world – there’s also now an accompanying documentary to go along with it, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead directed by Morgan Neville whose Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is also playing the Festival this year. (The Other Side of the Wind itself, however, is not.)
And, oh boy, does Other Side have an improbable, likely-cursed, and juicy-as-hell story to tell. The seeds being planted in 1970 when Orson got a cold-call from fresh-faced cinematographer Gary Graver, then spanning out across 15 more years until Welles’ death in 1985. There are huge chunks filmed without a lead actor, the entire film being reshot out of spite once one of the key actors (impressionist Rich Little) was forced to bail due to production overrunning into contractual stand-up dates, mysterious financiers leaving midway through (potentially embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process), and all of the film’s footage being seized by the Iranian government of all people. The film, meanwhile and despite Welles’ vehement insistences to the contrary, is totally supposed to be autobiographical dealing as it does with a once-beloved director in exile from Hollywood trying to make his masterpiece, a younger protégé who betrays him – the parallels in the dynamic between Welles stand-in and Peter Bogdanovich (who takes over from Rich Little in the film) eventually turn bitterly cruel – and a prominent part for Welles’ mistress and muse Oja Kodar who plays the bewitching ingenue in the Ingmar Bergman-parodying film-within-a-film.
If it sounds to you like Welles was perhaps making the vast bulk of Other Side up as he went along, then that’s a sentiment shared by many of the various members of the cast, crew, and relations of deceased members who populate the documentary’s interviews – filmed in black-and-white at various off-kilter angles and unconventional camera placements intended to invoke Welles’ work on films like Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai. Neville’s documentary forgoes examining any facet of Welles’ life and career that doesn’t add necessary context to the creation of Other Side, instead focussing on the toll the film took on everybody involved. Contrasting the initial thrill of a skeleton crew of six coming together without pay because it’s Orson Welles and the man’s a genius, with their eventual bafflement at what Other Side is even supposed to be as Welles proceeded to take full advantage of those held under his sway. The story of his relationship with Graver, which ends with Graver having to spend his career lensing cruddy B-movies and porno features to make ends meet, is an especially troubling look at the damaging kinds of co-dependency men like Welles inflict upon their collaborators, whilst the gradual breakdown of his friendship with Bogdanovich is just plain cruel.
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For as difficult as the production of Other Side gets, Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead remains a playful and frequently fun watch throughout. He’ll have his editors (usual collaborators Aaron Wickenden and Jason Zeldes) cut clips of Welles to play in concerto with the interviews or Alan Cummings’ narration, interjecting befitting asides from unintended sources. The interviewees sometimes hold conflicting views on the topic at hand which provides a frequent reminder that Welles was a distant and often-contradictory figure whose equal desire to be recognised for his genius and hide behind various masks – in fact, he even describes his directorial work on Other Side as him playing characters that Orson Welles would otherwise never play – mean that even those who knew him could never truly know him. And the film also parallels the development of Other Side with the rise and fall of the early-70s counterculture inside the studio system, brought on by a whole new crop of talent that adored the films of Orson Welles.
They’ll Love Me’s main fault, the one that holds it back from greatness, is that it too adores Welles a bit too much for my liking. Although it does show us many dark nights of the soul pertaining to Welles, it never quite manages to denounce his worst behaviour or the sacrifices that he asked of friends and strangers alike for a vision that by his own admission was forever evolving. But it’s a really entertaining documentary, all the same, and it’s actually made me less interested in watching the real movie it’s intended to promote. After all, as Welles states at the close in a group interview to a gaggle of journalists, “the film might even just be a whole bunch of us talking about the film. It could be anything!”
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead will be released on Netflix on 2nd November 2018.