Itâs a surreal experience watching Netflixâs logo flash on-screen before an Orson Welles film. Itâs even more surreal watching a brand new Welles film in 2018.
Forty-eight years after the director began production on âThe Other Side of the Windâ â following decades of reshoots, financial hurdles, legal battles with the Shah of Iran, lockdowns in a Parisian vault and the death of the filmmaker himself â the long-lost movie is finally complete.Â And anyone with a Netflix account can watch it.
The resurrection saga of âThe Other Side of the Windâ is both an Old Hollywood story and a New Entertainment tale. Welles is a relic of the way things used to work, when ornery directors would fight studios to scrap together three-quarters of an hourâs worth of mysterious footage only to watch it go down in history as the most famous film never made. Netflix is an emblem of the industry today, a tech company teeming with resources other studios lack, eager to reinvent the distribution model and nail a streaming hit however it can get it.
The former might never have guessed that the latter would sweep in and save his little movie that never could.Â But here we are.
The story of âWindâ officially begins in 1969. At the time, Welles was in Guaymas, Mexico, acting in Mike Nicholsâ âCatch-22,â a black comedy based on the famous Joseph Heller book. The project was one of the many acting roles Welles took during a decade spent living in Europe â a self-imposed period of exile that followed an infamous tug of war between the director and Universal over creative control of his 1958 noir âTouch of Evil.â Heâd struggled to get projects financed ever since. One day, Peter Bogdanovich, then working as a critic, arrived in Mexico to interview Welles for the American Film Institute. In conversation, Bogdanovich casually mentioned that John Ford, one of their mutual favorite directors, was struggling to get work.
It upset Welles so much he felt compelled to make a movie about it.
âI didnât sleep last night thinking about what you told me about Ford,ââ Welles told Bogdanovich. The âLast Picture Showâ director mimed as much to me in an interview last month, demonstrating a growly impression of Welles. âIâve got this movie about an aging macho film director and a young filmmaker. Iâve been thinking about it for a long time. Iâm gonna do it next.â
A year later, Welles started filming what he hoped would be his grand return to Hollywood. âI think I have to make a very successful box office picture,â Welles confessed in an old interview from the time period, excerpted in âTheyâll Love Me When Iâm dead,â Morgan Nevilleâs new documentary about Welles.Â âI think Iâm getting too old to not have made one.âÂ
Styled as an unorthodox mockumentary, âWindâ follows Jake Hannaford, an acclaimed directorÂ inspired by Ernest Hemingway. Played by John Huston, Hannaford is scrambling to finance his next picture. Meanwhile, a younger director, played by Bogdanovich, is inching onto his scene. The movie hops between Jakeâs 70th birthday party â shown in a collage of footage shot by a crew of fake news reporters â and Jakeâs movie-within-the-movie, Wellesâ satire of â70s art house cinema.
Jakeâs movie is a knock at Michelangelo Antonioni, whose films Welles once slighted as âperfect backgrounds for fashion models.â It imitates the romance plot of the Italian filmmakerâs âZabriskie Pointâ â Welles even shot the party scenes at a house next door to the one blown up at the end of Antonioniâs movie. The resulting story is a largely plotless series of languid and psychedelic sequences where a young man (Bob Random) and a female hippie (Oja Kodar, Wellesâ romantic partner and collaborator who co-wrote the story) wordlessly gaze at each other across desert landscapes and vacant passageways. With a trippy orgy bathroom sequence and a five-minute sex scene in a car passenger seat, the erotic sequence is unlike anything Welles had ever made.
âWindâ at large is an autobiographical reflection of Wellesâ decadeslong frustration with the Hollywood studio system. In an old interview dug up for Nevilleâs documentary, Welles references the time RKO Pictures drastically re-edited his 1942 movie âThe Magnificent Ambersons,â chopping 43 minutes from the cut against Wellesâ wishes. It was a betrayal from which he never recovered. âThey destroyed âAmbersons,â and destroyed me,â Welles said.
But reality began mirroring âWindâ all too closely. Just as his fictional character Jake encountered countless hitches in the process of making his movie, Welles faced an almost laughable series of complications. He repeatedly lost funding; an unexpected tax bill from the U.S. government and an alleged embezzlement scam on set derailed finances further. A spotty money arrangement with the brother-in-law of the Shah only complicated things anew. As the âWindâ shoot stretched on, Welles couldnât afford to pay the crew, so his cinematographer, Gary Graver, was forced to work on adult films to pay the bills; Welles even helped Graver (working under the pseudonym Robert McCallum) by editing a lesbian sex scene in the 1975 porn film â3 A.M.âÂ
Casting was another issue. Weeks into filming, Welles allegedly fired Rich Little, the supporting actor who originally played Brooks. Production shut down so many times it took the crew six years to complete principal photography. Â
Even after the last scene of the movie was shot in 1976, more bad luck ensued. Throughout the mid-â70s and early â80s, Welles wrestled over the rights to the original negative in one of the most ridiculously complicated ownership disputes in Hollywood history. A substantial chunk of the filmâs budget came from Astrophore, a French production company owned by Mehdi Bushehri, who also happened to be the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. After the Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the âWindâ negative â an asset of the previous regime â was impounded in a vault in Paris by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Welles continued to edit his own workprint of the movie until 1983. When he died in 1985, messy legal disputes raged on. The filmâs three beneficiaries â Kodar, Wellesâ daughter Beatrice Welles and Bushehriâs heirsâ failed to reach an agreement over the copyright, and for the next three decades Bogdanovich, original âWindâ producer Frank Marshall and Polish producer Filip Jan Rymsza fought to get their hands on the negative. Finally, in March 2017, Marshall and Rymsza acquired the original print from the Parisian vault, totaling over 1,000 reels of film and 100 hours of footage. Thatâs when the daunting task of reconstructing a 40-year-old movie without its director began.
âIt was like dredging up the Titanic,â post supervisor Ruth Hasty explains in the behind-the-scenes featurette Netflix created, âA Final Cut for Orson.â
Welles had edited roughly 45 minutes of the footage before he died, so editor Bob Murawski, who helped restore the film, had a template for pace and style. âThere was enough material Orson cut to give us a pretty good indication of what [he] had in mind for the whole picture,â Bogdanovich told me. On top of Wellesâ workprint, they had his script, script notes and Bogdanovich and Marshallâs memories from being on set.
One of the biggest post-production challenges, Marshall told me, was restoring the sound. âThe first time I heard any of the film I couldnât understand 85 percent of what was being said,â sound recording mixer Scott Millan explains in the featurette. The sound editing team used software to clean up the inaudible dialogue and blend original audio with ADR (Automatic Dialog Replacement) to repair everything from a single word to half a line. Thereâs just one problem with recording ADR for a 48-year-old movie: most of the cast is no longer alive. The film hired sound-alikes, including John Hustonâs son, actor Danny Huston, who thankfully does a pretty excellent impersonation of his father.
âItâs quite magical connecting with his voice,â Huston said in the featurette as he watched his father on-screen, echoing his own voice back to him. âIt brought him back to life.âÂ
Beyond the few bits of ADR, some added visual effects, and a change to the opening voiceover, the final result is essentially all Wellesâ.
Today, after nearly half a century of delays, Marshall somehow categorizes his excruciating wait as a âblessing.âÂ
âTaking this amount of time has actually helped us to finish it the best possible way, because technology caught up with us,â he told me. Years ago, he said, he might not have been able to digitize the various film stocks Welles and Graver used â 35mm, 16mm, black-and-white and color. He might never have been able to restore a yearâs worth of almost-unusable audiotape.Â
Potential disaster still lingered over the movie as recently as this summer. The film was pulled from Cannes Film Festival this year after French theater owners demanded a 36-month window between streaming and theatrical releases. Given that Netflix prefers to stream their movies the same day they hit theaters, and refused to change its rules for Cannes â though recently, Netflix slightly expanded the release windowÂ â the festival booted Netflixâs films from the competition slate, eliminating festival awards potential. So Netflix yanked âWind,â among other titles, entirely. Â
But Marshall claims the controversy worked to the producersâ advantage, giving them more time to make last-minute tweaks. âMaybe it was meant to be that it took this long,â he said.Â
âWindâ is getting a limited theatrical run, but most audiences will experience Wellesâ final film in the same place they binge shows like âHouse of Cardsâ and âAmerican Vandal.â Netflix, the company accused of murdering cinema as we know it, will be the primary purveyor of Wellesâ extended legacy. It will preserve the 48-year-old movie in streaming glory, making it accessible to more people than Welles could have ever imagined, some of who could care less what âRosebudâ means.
âPeople who donât know pictures are going to say, âWhat else did this guy make? Heâs prettyÂ good!ââ Bogdanovich said with a laugh.
Welles might not have guessed that a DVD-subscription-service-turned-media-conglomerate would serve as his late-stage hero, but I doubt heâd have a problem with how things turned out.
After all, when press asked Welles, before production on âWindâ even began, what kind of audience he hoped would watch his movie, Welles responded: âI hope everybody.â
âThe Other Side of the Windâ is available on Netflix on Nov. 2.
Oliver Whitney is a film critic and culture writer living in Brooklyn.