It belongs in a museum!

By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 29, 2021 at 06:44 PM EDT
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A director's cut is not a new concept.

From the #ReleasetheSnyderCut maelstrom that resulted in the film finally debuting on HBO Max to Francis Ford Coppola's recent retooling of The Godfather: Part III, auteurs offering up their work the way they intended it is very of the moment.

But there's one director's cut that remains something of a cinematic holy grail — Orson Welles' cut of 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons. For the precious few that saw the complete film, there was a sense that it was even greater than Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane.

But what happened next is the stuff of Hollywood tragedy. Following disastrous test screenings with audiences, movie studio RKO cut 43 minutes from the film and shot additional scenes, including a new ending, against Welles' wishes. Then, to make matters worse, the original cut was melted down during World War II for its nitrate.

For decades, cinephiles have yearned for a miracle. In the 1940s, while Ambersons was in post-production, Welles traveled to Brazil on a World War II goodwill tour while concurrently making his next film, It's All True. A copy of Welles' cut was sent to him in Brazil before the implosion of his career at RKO. The print has long been assumed lost.

Now, Turner Classic Movies, documentarian Joshua Grossberg, and producers Joseph Schroeder and Gary Greenblatt are hoping to finally uncover it. With The Search for the Lost Print: The Making of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, Grossberg will continue his 25-year search with a trip to Brazil that he hopes will culminate in finding, if not the print itself, at least an answer to its fate.

The documentary, set to premiere in July 2022, will not only follow Grossberg as he pursues leads years in the making, but delve into the legend of the lost print, the film's troubled production history, and Welles' ultimate exile from Hollywood. If they find the print, the aim is to premiere a restored version of it alongside the doc.

"We know it's a long shot, but if these guys are able to find Orson Welles' version of the film, it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of cinema," said Charlie Tabesh, ‎senior vice-president, programming and content strategy for TCM in a statement. "It's too important not to try."

Grossberg won't journey to Brazil until this fall, but we called him and producers Joseph Schroeder and Gary Greenblatt to learn more about the origins of the documentary, how TCM got involved, and the influence of the Snyder Cut on their search.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've been searching for this for 25 years — why was now the time to do a documentary about it?

JOSHUA GROSSBERG: I was talking to Joe about projects, and I told him the story and Joe said to me, "You've got a movie; we need to do this."

JOSEPH SCHROEDER: He was like, "I don't know, this thing got written up in a French magazine," and I was like, "Wait, what are you talking about? You're looking for what? This is the movie. This is the one. We should make a movie out of finding this print."

GROSSBERG: I had really done a lot of the work in the '90s while I was a student at Northwestern and several years after that. [I applied] for grant after grant, and [kept] being turned down. It wasn't until The Other Side of the Wind, and its success on Netflix, and Morgan Neville's accompanying documentary, that it really started. That's when Joe and I talked about it, and then I was talking with Gary at a Producers Guild function and discovered that Gary was a massive Orson Welles fan, and Gary remembered reading my story in Vanity Fair.

GARY GREENBLATT: My wife is Brazilian. So, all the years I would go to Brazil, I was making inquiries to various places, and I had met Josh through the Producers Guild, but I never connected that he was the guy looking for the missing print, and once I did, I was like, "Oh my God, we have to do this."

What is different now about your leads and your search in Brazil than when you were there in the '90s?

GROSSBERG: In terms of the leads I have, not much has changed because I haven't had the opportunity to really ferret out and follow what [was] given me. But the big change is that in the '90s, the internet was not what it is today. There was no Kickstarter for me to just go and raise a budget. Although in the '90s, I had the good fortune to interview some key players before they had passed away, one of which was editor Robert Wise and Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer. I had elements of the story in place but lacked the funding. It's a dream that I've had for 25 years.

SCHROEDER: The documentary landscape has also changed tremendously. I came up out of the 2000s when you couldn't really make a doc if it wasn't historical and educational in nature. In the last five to seven years, we've seen the industry blow-up where you can do something fun like this, and people will get behind you.

GROSSBERG: The power of the documentary is just as popular as a fictional film, and because of that, we have the opportunity to really make something that's fun, and also informative for cinephiles and potentially may change film history.

How did you end up forming this partnership with TCM?

GREENBLATT: We reached out to them, and they were instantly excited. WarnerMedia owns the IP, so not only are they cinema fans, and they want this to happen, but they're motivated too because they know if we do find it, it's good for WarnerMedia too.

GROSSBERG: As a legacy title, you don't have too many opportunities where you can draw attention to one of your classic films. And to do it in a way that galvanizes social media is exciting. One of the things, too, is it's not just about the lost print; it really is about this pivotal moment in Welles' career, and it's the age-old clash between art and commerce. You have the greatest filmmaker of all time essentially cast out of Hollywood and the challenges of making a personal film within the studio system.

If you had to give yourself odds, what would they be?

GROSSBERG: There is a chance. I don't want to put a percentage on it, but, and I use this analogy a bit, with Metropolis, no one thought the original version would ever surface. And yet, an Argentine museum had the original version, which was discovered in 2008. You have to remember that Brazil is a film culture. They're passionate about movies; they were passionate about Orson Welles at the time that he visited.

GREENBLATT: They love Orson Welles; they love cinema. But no one knows his story, which is really surprising. So that's another reason why it could possibly be there because no one knew to look. There's never been any serious search for this print in Brazil. We're going to be the first.

GROSSBERG: The film also can be an opportunity to show sequences of what could have been — potentially reconstructing things like the ballroom sequence, to give people a taste of what that was like. One thing that's worth mentioning is this huge mythology that's been built up around the prints. I've had some people reach out to me with some of the craziest stories, one person even claiming he had seen the original version in the early '60s in Cannes. There's been talk of a possible print of the original version floating around France, so the trail could lead in numerous directions. But I have some very solid leads that start in South America, and if it takes us to the U.K. or France, by all means, we'll follow those.

Orson Welles

What would be more disappointing: not finding it, finding it and having it be in horrible condition, or finding it and it not living up to the hype?

GROSSBERG: I'm confident that option three is not going to happen. It would be really difficult for me if we found it and it was in such terrible shape that the restoration would be impossible. Being so close and not being able to see it would be really tough.

There are so many lost films from that era. Why do you think this one holds the most sway in people's imaginations?

GROSSBERG: Welles' career has always been filled with controversy. A lot of people have this idea of him as being an artist that had difficulties finishing his films. He was actually a very sensitive soul. We don't get to really see Orson Welles, the human being, and how devastating it was for him to lose control of Ambersons and to see that work diminished. The aura that's been built up around his original vision for the film has taken on a life of its own, and that's where I think it really stands out among the lost classics.

SCHROEDER: Welles is the Icarus myth to so many people. He started out this boy genius and flew too close to the sun and lost everything. That's why for filmmakers, it holds this little piece of something in our head because he never even got the opportunity to sell out. It was all taken away from him before he even got the chance to really show his vision.

GREENBLATT: Hollywood is art versus commerce. If any story synthesizes that, it's this story.

Cinephiles have talked about this for years, but do you think HBO Max releasing the Snyder Cut has renewed interest in the hunt, whether it's from audiences or executives? TCM and HBO Max have the same parent company in WarnerMedia.

GROSSBERG: I definitely think it's been a net positive for us. Release the Snyder Cut, that was trending like crazy, and now, people want to say find the print or Welles cut, and we're running with that hashtag. The importance of directorial vision certainly holds a lot more sway and respect than it did 80 years ago. Back then, the director as author didn't necessarily have as much prominence and studios didn't think to hold on to director's cuts. If anything, it just stokes interest in wanting to see the director's original vision.

GREENBLATT: Release the Welles cut!

You've likened finding the print to finding the Ark of the Covenant, so at what point do you admit this documentary is actually Indiana Jones 5?

GROSSBERG: You found us out. [Laughs]

GREENBLATT: We're not going to confirm or deny that Phoebe Waller-Bridge might be somewhere in the doc.

GROSSBERG: On a serious note, I don't want to make a staid documentary that's just a bunch of talking heads. What's really fun about this is the mystery aspect, and it is very much like an Indiana Jones adventure. When I first came up with the idea for the documentary literally after I got off the plane from Brazil [years ago], I thought this is finding the holy grail of cinema; it is the lost ark of cinema. For us to be able to have some fun with it will be entertaining for the audience. It's not just educating them about this great director; it's taking them on this adventure.

Lastly, if you do find it, what do you think it will mean for Welles' legacy?

GROSSBERG: It will add some more sheen to it because we are taking a film that was taken out of his control. To be able to restore it means that's one more work by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time that we're able to see in its original form, the way he wanted it. I think that will give film scholars years of scholarship for them to work on. I also think it will add some more perspective on who Welles was as an artist because this was really what is perhaps his most personal film. Because the story is set in the Midwest, he's from the Midwest, and it really came out of the culture in which he grew up in.

On a more general level, finding a print will do so much for film preservation in an era when theatrical exhibition is on the wane. What better way to celebrate cinema than to show a lost classic, hopefully on the big screen in wide release? If the hunt can lead to that, that would be a dream come true. But if not, we'll find out the answer to the fate of the print, and we'll have a wonderful documentary that will remind people of the importance of cinema as the greatest art form of not just the 20th century but also the 21st.

GREENBLATT: If we find this film, it will launch the great argument of which is Orson Welles' greatest movie, Citizen Kane or Magnificent Ambersons?

GROSSBERG: Because scholars will tell you that those that had seen the film considered it superior to Kane.

GREENBLATT: There will definitely be a bunch of bar fights at least.

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