TELLURIDE, Colo. — Orson Welles was on the line. “What are you doing Thursday?” he asked.
It was 1970, and the “Citizen Kane” director had called Peter Bogdanovich to ask him to appear in his latest film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” Yes, he knew that Bogdanovich was stretched thin. Just drop by the set on Thursday, Welles insisted. The whole movie was only going to take a few weeks to shoot — tops.
Forty-eight years later, “The Other Side of the Wind” has finally arrived. It was shown for the first time in North America on Saturday at the Telluride Film Festival, where two new documentaries about the herculean efforts to finish the film were also screened. “It’s sad because Orson’s not here to see it,” Bogdanovich, 79, said from the stage of the Palm Theater here. “Or maybe he is.”
Cinema buffs had almost given up on “The Other Side of the Wind,” which Welles left unfinished upon his death in 1985. It is known as one of the most famous movies never released, held up by warring rights holders and never-ending financial troubles, including a failed funding effort by a relative of the shah of Iran.
No lesser a force than Frank Marshall, one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, had been leading the salvage effort. Marshall, 71, made his name by making the impossible possible — shutting down the Las Vegas Strip to shoot “Jason Bourne,” staying calm the time Steven Spielberg asked him to find 10,000 additional snakes for a scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” figuring out how Clint Eastwood could crash a jetliner for “Sully.” If he couldn’t pull the film over the finish line, who could?
Once the film’s producers finally secured firm funding — Netflix stepped up last year — they had to sort through more than 100 hours of footage (long stored in a Paris warehouse) to craft a film that Welles conceptualized as a type of collage, with some parts in color and others in black and white, and scenes shot in various formats (35 mm, 16 mm, Super 8.)
“No one really knew if we had enough material to put together a movie that actually made any sense,” Marshall said Saturday.
The masses will soon get to decide for themselves. “The Other Side of the Wind” will arrive on Netflix and in a handful of theaters on Nov. 2. So far, critics at Telluride and the Venice Film Festival, where the film had its premiere on Friday, have responded with unanimously positive reviews. The early reaction from festivalgoers has been mixed, with some befuddled and bored and others enraptured — about typical for Welles, who specialized in polarizing cinema.
“The Other Side of the Wind” reconstructs a debauched party (using footage supposedly shot by guests) held at the home of Jake Hannaford, a nonconformist film director, just before he dies. Scenes from the aging Hannaford’s unfinished comeback film — screened at the party — are interspersed. John Huston, who died in 1987, plays Hannaford as a misogynistic, safari-suit-wearing alcoholic. Bogdanovich stars as Brooks Otterlake, a young director coming into wealth and prominence. Oja Kodar, who co-wrote the screenplay with Welles, acts in the bizarre film-within-the-film.
The result is a politically incorrect fever dream that involves dwarf sidekicks, Kodar in “redface” as a Native American woman, at least one orgy, a drive-in theater, ‘70s-era views of women (disposable) and inclusion (nonexistent), the mutilation of a doll, a car crash, mannequins, an ice cube, lanterns, rifles and a giant phallus built with chicken wire and perched on a sand dune, among other imagery.
“It will be interesting to see how ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ is received,” Ray Kelly, who runs the site Wellesnet.com, said in an email as he monitored online reaction following the Telluride screening from his home in Massachusetts. “Many of Welles’ finest works, including ‘Touch of Evil’ and ‘Chimes at Midnight,’ had their detractors when they were released. It took years before they were fully appreciated.”
The Telluride premiere was attended by a wide range of people — a 21-year-old college student, Jack Dorfman, who described himself as a Bogdanovich nut; John Bailey, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Brad Bird, the animation whiz behind “Incredibles 2.” Before the lights went down, the mood was upbeat, with people praising Netflix for coming to the financial rescue and Marshall, balancing himself with a cane, greeting friends in the aisles.
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film since I was 12 years old,” said Randy Haberkamp, 61, the academy’s managing director of preservation and foundation programs. Haberkamp said that, as a boy in Ohio, he had seen a CBS special on Welles that mentioned “The Other Side of the Wind.” “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait until it comes out,’” he said.
Afterward, however, the atmosphere was notably somber. Marshall, who was the film’s original production manager, and Bogdanovich returned to the stage, along with the film scholar Joseph McBride, who appears in “The Other Side of the Wind” as a gauche young critic. For a minute, it seemed as if emptiness had suddenly hit them: Now what? Their 48-year battle to get the film finished and seen was over.
“It’s sort of bittersweet,” Marshall said.
“It’s a sad movie, I think,” Bogdanovich said haltingly. “Not only Orson’s last movie. But it’s sort of like the end of everything. It comes across to me like the end of the world.”
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McBride took issue with some of the early reviews, which he felt gave Huston and other leading cast members short shrift. “If there was any justice in the world, there would be a lot of Oscars for this film,” McBride said. (Variety’s chief awards prognosticator gamed the possibilities in a column published Saturday, writing that voters could honor the film as an editing feat. Bob Murawski, who won an Oscar in 2010 for editing “The Hurt Locker,” stitched together Welles’ footage, relying in part on notes he left behind.)
Not present at the Telluride screening: Filip Jan Rymsza, a European producer who gave “The Other Side of the Wind” a hard push in 2014 by helping to win over two mercurial rights holders: Beatrice Welles, the filmmaker’s daughter and sole heir; and Kodar, Welles’ longtime companion. Rymsza was anchoring the Venice premiere, where he read statements from Beatrice Welles and Kodar, both of whom cited poor health for not attending the Venice or Telluride screenings.
Kodar thanked Rymsza, Marshall and Bogdanovich, saying that they had done “a great job” and that she hoped to attend a screening of the film this fall at the New York Film Festival, where at least one of the documentaries about making “The Other Side of the Wind” will also play. The two nonfiction films are “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” directed by the Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville; and “A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making,” directed by Ryan Suffern.
Beatrice Welles also heaped praise on the salvage squad, adding, “Is this Orson Welles’ goodbye? Impossible! He left behind far too much. I hope with all my heart that this picture will be able to reopen people’s eyes and souls to his massive talent.”