What to Stream: A Blazing Interview with Orson Welles By Richard BrodyBreaking News
tags: film history, Orson Welles
In February of 1982, Orson Welles was sixty-six years old and hadn’t completed a dramatic feature since the docu-fiction “F for Fake,” from 1973. He was in France, to be decorated as a commander of the Légion d’Honneur, and while there he paid a visit to the Cinémathèque Française, for a Q. & A. with film students. The event was filmed by Pierre-André Boutang and Guy Seligmann; the film is streaming, for free, on the Cinémathèque’s treasure trove of a Web site, and it’s both a moving portrait of the caged cinematic lion (who died in 1985, without making another feature) and an enduringly insightful set of lessons on the art and the practice of making movies.
Welles declares his desire for the session to be a dialogue; the students (who form a standing-room crowd) prove reticent, however, and he makes strenuously good-humored efforts to get them to engage—and then delivers generous, copious, blazingly uninhibited answers to their brief questions. The discussion is moderated by Henri Béhar, who also serves as the onstage translator. The time that it takes Béhar to repeat Welles’s remarks in French (and, at times, to put the students’ questions into English) lends the discussion a natural rhythm, within which Welles composes his thoughts with rhetorical flair and invests them with dramatic weight and comedic timing. Welles, who was one of the greatest and grandest of actors and also of directors, turns the event into a performance—without sacrificing a whit of candor. He brings a mighty, Shakespearean pathos and comedy to the casually structured occasion.
Polling the students about their intended careers in film, he’s dismayed to learn that almost all of them want to be directors. He fears for them, he says, adding, “You are people who have fallen under the spell of the most wicked of all the muses . . . because it’s too expensive.” He mentions trouble getting distribution; he mentions having had his movies recut against his will; he mentions being cheated out of money by “creative bookkeeping”; but, above all, he simply laments the difficulty of getting funding to make films. When asked about the greatest moment he experienced as a filmmaker, he says, “The greatest moment is always when you know the money is in the bank. . . . It’s exactly the way you would feel if you were a painter and you had to wait for some fairy to come in the night and give you some paint. Every morning, you wake up and the box is empty. Now, naturally, when you see all those colors in front of you, it’s going to be a big moment in your life.” (He speaks enviously of painters and their relatively inexpensive supplies, and he also describes his other life, as a celebrity entertainer on U.S. television—if the French had known about this, he jokes, he wouldn’t have been decorated.)
Yet his dismay at the near-universal desire of these students to direct also arises from his declared view that the role of the director is overvalued. He thinks that screenwriters are even more overvalued, for two reasons—first, because movies have no need for scripts (“You can make a wonderful film about nothing—look at Fellini”), and, second, because the screenwriter works alone, like a novelist, whereas “everything about the work of the director consists of working with many people and extracting from all of them the maximum human richesse.” The people from whom a director must extract richness above all are actors, whom Welles considers the most important element of a movie. “They are the people who have made the cinema unforgettable,” Welles says, and a director’s job is “to discover in the actor something more than he knew he had.” At the same time, Welles is careful to distinguish actors from stars: “The real star is an animal absolutely separate from actors. He may be, or she may be, the greatest actor in the world, but he is not like actors. The vocation of being a star is separate from the vocation of being an actor. It is very close to wanting to be President of the United States.”