Classic cinema fans, take note: Chuck Workman’s latest documentary, MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES, is an in-depth look into the life and career of legendary American filmmaker Orson Welles, the brilliant mind behind such classics as CITIZEN KANE, TOUCH OF EVIL and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. The film, which screens at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi, features extensive filmmaker interviews and rare archival footage, as well as clips from unfinished projects from late in Welles’ dazzling, tumultuous career.
We spoke to Workman about his film and the legendary Welles.
AFI: The idea of Welles as a “magician” and an enigmatic figure, particularly in the way he was perceived during his day versus his legacy now, permeates this film, especially in the direction and editing. What was your thought process in crafting it in this manner?
CW: Welles was separate from the crowd around him, including other artists, from his boyhood. It’s obvious in his accomplishment, and also in his inability to adjust his work to find a larger audience, although he says in MAGICIAN he’d love to have a larger audience. I felt I would have to show this in the film – why was he great, how he handled it, how did others perceive him, how should we think about him now. For me this required a multi-planed technique, a lot of things happening at the same time, a lot to give the audience to think about. But Welles was also incredibly entertaining, and I wanted to get that across as well. I also wanted to get the audience to notice just how “astonishing” this man was in the way he lived his life and faced his challenges. So I hope Orson lent me some of his magic as I had a big story to tell.
AFI: Welles worked in both America and Europe throughout his career and was quoted as saying that he liked working in Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t reciprocate the feeling. Why do you think he kept returning to America to work if he was better received in Europe?
CW: Hollywood in those days misunderstood Welles and didn’t care for directors, however talented, to be too independent. Luckily he moved on and got away from that. But he did like Hollywood and the money was there so he would return. One of the reasons I made the film and why many people in it participated was because of the odd misconception that Welles was a failure after he left Hollywood the first time. Some of Welles’ greatest movies – CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, TOUCH OF EVIL, THE TRIAL, F FOR FAKE – came later, some in Europe, some in the U.S. He worked differently in the two places. He felt the crews weren’t as polished in Europe and shot shorter, simpler takes. But that made his editing of those shots so interesting.
AFI: How do you think Welles’ work on stage and in radio prepared him for the film business, especially since the first film he worked on (CITIZEN KANE) would go on to become such an iconic piece of cinema?
CW: Welles learned to organize his work and to creatively interpret texts through the theater and radio. He obviously learned how to work with actors, but also learned about lighting and sound and story, and in his stage work, makeup and costumes and sets. The cinematic elements he would learn about and work with were additional things to master, and additional colors for his palette. Welles also learned to collaborate with talented people and ignore the untalented ones, and used that skill in CITIZEN KANE and the films which followed. But he was also mastering the medium himself. He was a quick study as we have seen.
AFI: Late in the documentary, several interviewees speak about Welles’ unfinished movies, of which there are several. Aside from financial issues, do you think there was any other reason for him to start so many projects without finishing them?
CW: As Welles states, every novelist starts and stops many projects. In some films, because he was funding them himself, he saw no reason to finish them early. When he sometimes ran out of money, he had to stop. In a few cases he was dissatisfied with the way things were going, maybe the cast or the locations, and would simply start again – a common thing in most art forms but totally uncommon in commercial cinema. But Welles wasn’t a commercial filmmaker. I think he also became impatient with studio suggestions or demands for changes when he was perfectly delighted with what he had already done. He did what was asked on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, but later, rather than face all that, he didn’t cooperate and was often fired or walked away.
AFI: What was the most shocking and/or intriguing fact you learned about Welles from making this movie?
CW: When I began thinking about the film I assumed that Welles was one of the important American filmmakers, but I didn’t know his later films well. Now having worked with all of his films, what I learned was that he’s probably the best American filmmaker we have had. His work actually got better and better, employed new techniques or covered new ground, went deeper into our myths and preoccupations. I think he aspired to be like Shakespeare, and came pretty close.