Morgan Neville on making a doc about Orson Welles' final film, the 'most meta of stories'
The Other Side of the Wind
Orson Welles is one of the most inscrutable figures in Hollywood history. His precocious early days as a filmmaker produced some of the most frequently cited moments of genius in American cinema, but his later years, which found him struggling to complete numerous films, obscured his former greatness.
For many, Welles is synonymous with Citizen Kane and what he accomplished in his stunning debut, but there’s so much more to the man — and that’s what documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) set out to tell with They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.
The documentary, which hits Netflix today, uses footage from Welles’ unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind, to explore the last 15 years of the multi-hyphenate’s life. Featuring interviews with Welles and his associates, footage from his 50-year career as a filmmaker and actor, and more, the documentary digs into Welles’ psyche and just how much filmmaking meant to him as an art form. In a stroke of cinematic kismet, They’ll Love Me debuts alongside The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix four decades after Welles first began the project, having finally been completed by a host of producers including Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza.
EW caught up with Neville to discuss the films and his lifelong fascination with Welles.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have investigated a lot of famous figures and people adjacent to fame. What made you want to investigate Orson Welles?
MORGAN NEVILLE: Characters don’t get a lot richer than Orson Welles. He’s infinitely fascinating. I grew up a complete movie nerd. I watched most of Welles’ films in high school. He died on my 18th birthday, and I remember it vividly. He was somebody I loved, but I never thought I would make a film about it because I didn’t know what there was to say. I read Josh Karp’s book about The Other Side of the Wind, and I loved it. I thought if I could ever get the rights to that footage, I could make the best documentary. I contacted Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, the two producers, and they said, “We’ve, been working on it for years. We’re going to have it in three months or less. Let’s do it.” Three to four years later, we actually got the footage. This is something that’s been percolating for a long time. The saga of The Other Side of the Wind has been a long one, and I just took the last few rounds on the roller coaster.
What makes Welles such an intriguing figure to you?
He’s the ultimate protean character. Everything about him is a mirror and reflects something about the world. I can’t think of a more dimensional character than Orson. We were like kids making this film. We were so excited.… One of Orson’s gifts was being able to get people to rally around his vision of something. I felt like I fell under that spell. I drank the Kool-Aid, and Orson seduced me too. Willingly. It was a really the best time I’ve ever had making a film.
Was it always the plan with the producers that you would finish this and release the films jointly?
They weren’t always exactly married at the hip. They were trying to get the footage because they wanted to finish the film. I knew there was way more footage than was ever going to be useful in the feature. One was going to unlock the other. It wasn’t until Netflix came in that we really became lockstep. It took an extraordinary effort by somebody to make everybody agree, and Netflix was the only person in 40 years who was going to step up and do that. I’m completely in their debt for that because otherwise none of this would ever have been out there in the world. Even if they never finished the feature, I could have never made the documentary. I don’t think they were ever separable, just from a business point of view.
You use footage from this film and other Welles projects in an autobiographical way. Did you ever feel at sea about that because of Welles’ adamancy that the film wasn’t autobiographical?
Orson said none of his films were autobiographical, and I think you can argue that every film of his was autobiographical. None more so than The Other Side of the Wind. That’s why, at the beginning of the documentary, I had to underline that everybody clearly understood that this was autobiographical. In real time, he was writing his story into the movie. Not only that, he was projecting his future into the movie: where he was going to end up, where his relationship with Peter [Bogdanovich] was going to end up. It was the most meta of stories. If Orson was making a movie within a movie, I’m making a movie about a movie about a movie about a filmmaker. I kept describing the documentary like a matryoshka doll. It keeps getting deeper and deeper. I keep revealing the story within the story within the story.
Was it always your intention to tell the story through footage of his work?
One hundred percent. You needed the footage to tell it. It’s the only way to make the story come alive. What’s curious is for all the documentation of Orson’s life and career, there’s been very little done on the last 15 years of his life. I think that’s as fascinating as his wunderkind years because it says so much, not just about Orson, but about Hollywood and about how we value our geniuses in America. There’s an element of tragedy to it, but there’s also at the same time a kind of heroism. It’s no accident that the other great unfinished film of Orson’s life was Don Quixote, because Orson is quixotic in so many ways. I understand why he identified with that. Part of what it takes to be a great artist like that is the willingness to believe in dreams as though they were real and make other people see what you see. There’s something so deeply romantic about Orson as an artist in an industry that wants to quantify everything.
You use Alan Cumming as narrator throughout. Where did that idea come from?
Orson loved narrators. Orson not only narrated every nonfiction thing he did, he narrated a lot of his feature films. He loved the narratorial voice, and a voice that isn’t impartial but is actually a storyteller. Orson was fundamentally a storyteller. He loved that strong voice that guided the audience. He did it again and again. Even though narrators aren’t the coolest things in documentaries, I loved the chance to bring a narrator in and play with that convention because it was Orson. Having somebody that has a sense of theater, a mid-Atlantic personality, and who both can be serious but also satirical at the same time, like Orson — there aren’t a lot of people who check all those boxes, and that’s why I thought Alan was just perfect.
What surprised you the most that you learned about Welles or his process?
It was Orson’s ability to be different people in different moments. Everybody’s idea of who Orson was is different because Orson was different to every person he met. He was somebody who not only was full of contradictions, he embraced contradictions. He was somebody who fully embraced his multitudes. He made no apologies about it. It’s one thing I wanted to do with the film. He was like a human Rashomon. Part of it was that Orson was an actor at heart. He could act any role in any situation to get whatever effect he wanted, and did. If he wanted to be charming, he could be the most charming person in the world.… He is somebody who was operating on so many more levels than anybody else. I think that’s why so many people were willing to put up with the difficulty of working with Orson, because it also had tremendous rewards, even if the movie didn’t get finished.
The Other Side of the Wind