‘Magician’ Documentary Captures Orson Welles’ Visionary Spirit

Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles explores the turbulent, frustrating, yet ultimately innovating and inspiring career of one of cinema’s more talented auteurs.

Filmmaker Chuck Workman, who also directed the 2013 release What Is Cinema?is a lifelong fan of Welles’ work, and during our interview he talked about how his own perceptions of Welles changed while making the documentary.

During the interview, Workman elaborate about the underrated and overlooked facets of Welles’ talents (hence the doc’s “Magician” moniker). He was a filmmaker who was way ahead of his time, as Magician: The Astonising Life and Work of Orson Welles suggests in compelling fashion.

For Welles fanatics, the movie also features rarely seen footage from such unfinished work as The Deep, Don Quixote, and The Other Side of the Wind, so if you think you’ve had your fill of the man who played Charles Foster Kane and Harry Lime – think again.

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The film’s moniker may apply to you as well, since you had to edit and cull so much footage from his prolific career.

It didn’t take a lot of magic to pull it together in terms of his work because his work had a particular progression where you can see it getting better and better as he went on.

Even though Citizen Kane was so amazing,  with the films that followed he used different kinds of filmmaking skills to convey deeper and deeper things. With Citizen Kane, he relied on his own company of actors and himself. But eventually he learns how to work with Tony Perkins (The Trial and John Gielgud (Chimes at Midnight) and all sorts of other actors. That changed the way he did things.

He learned how to edit because he didn’t have the facilities of Hollywood to do these big shots – so he had to do smaller shots and prep them in a certain way. He learned how to use sets in a really big way. This was something I could see immediately.

Did your vast editing experience help you prepare for crafting your documentary?

I knew I was going chronologically so I could take (the films) one at a time. And then I just went through each movie and picked the things I thought would work basically that would either demonstrate things I wanted to show or that I thought were the best parts of those movies.

And with doing trailers in my early life and also doing a lot of the montage stuff when I worked for the Oscars, I sort of knew what I was looking for. But I was always surprised. I really didn’t know the movies as well as I thought I did because I just assumed I knew every Welles film.

I had probably seen them all, but I hadn’t really looked at them in a way that you look at when you want to include them into another film.

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When he passed away, the narrative was that Orson Welles was a tragic figure. But his work is so deep and so rich, that maybe it takes a little more analysis as far as changing that narrative.

That (narrative) hasn’t changed. You’re saying that. But I just hung up from another interview where (the interviewer said) “Isn’t it bad that his career went downhill after (Citizen Kane).” People still think that.

People still think that the fat guy from Touch of Evil or the one who’s making the wine commercial was Orson Welles. And he was a tragic figure. I worked with two or three scholars and critics that knew a lot about Welles frankly. One of them said when he saw the film – “I’m so glad that you didn’t make him a tragic figure. You made him a figure who had all this accomplishment.”

We’re all tragic figures (laughs). We never get what we want, you know? You can I tell each other things we didn’t get that we wanted. But (Orson Welles) kept going and going and he kept getting better.

When he was out (in Los Angeles), he would go to Ma Maison (restaurant). There were all these stories about his weight (and) how he couldn’t get into his car. He would go around to the back of Ma Maison and get dessert. That he smoked too many cigars and he didn’t finish movies.

It’s a shame that he got this bad rap and yet it’s something we have here in Hollywood. That’s the game – you kind of look for gossip in other people.

Another problem is you can’t find the movies. You can’t see Chimes at Midnight, which he thinks is his best film, because it’s tied up in rights problems. You can’t see his last film (The Other Side of the Wind) because it wasn’t finished. Hopefully it will be finished soon.

Cohen Media
Cohen Media

Are you encouraged that Frank Marshall and Peter Bogdanovich are working to get The Other Side of the Wind finished?

Oh I don’t know – it may be just a curiosity. Most people have seen most of it but a lot of it wasn’t done even though they say they have most of it. So who knows how they’ll spin it?

Both Frank Marshall and Peter Bogdanovich certainly have a lot of integrity and they both worked with Orson Welles on The Other Side of the Wind. So they know what they’re doing. Of course it’s encouraging – it’s one more Orson Welles film.

What is your personal favorite Orson Welles film and why? 

Well I thought Citizen Kane was my favorite and then he made all these other interesting films but they don’t (match up to) Citizen Kane. As I’m working on this film, I learned how much I love the later films. Like The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight – and The Trial!

And F for Fake – when I teach, I’d always show F for Fake in class. These 19-year-old (students) – they really related to it. It’s a modern looking film.

So there’s many films – I can’t pick out a favorite. Five years ago, I could pick out Citizen Kane. Now, I’m not so sure. Each film added to his tool kit, so by the time he got to Chimes at Midnighthe really had it all together. He knew how to do battles, (work) with actors, work with sets, and editing. Everything came together with that film very deeply.

What do you think filmmakers can take from Orson Welles’ work?

If you’re looking at a career – people who are very interested in a strong career in Hollywood – forget it! He did what he wanted.

But people who are looking at an artist in this amazing art form of cinema, they may look at him and say, “that’s how you do it.” You hold on to what you want to do and try to get through each film as much as you can in terms of what you want to do and then move on to the next one.

In his case, because he was so much ahead of his time, he was dealing with an already set establishment. But there was no establishment to be Orson Welles. If you wanted be something special – be John Ford. Be William Wyler. They’re very special, but they’re not Orson Welles.

Orson Welles had his own vision how to use the technique of cinema. And also underneath that, he also had what he wanted to say in the world through his characters. So The Lady from Shanghai is not just a film noir with Rita Hayworth. It’s an extraordinary film where style and content come together in such a cool way. You get – you don’t have to say, ‘Well what are all those mirrors being shot about?’ They just seem right.

Chuck Workman - Director, Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
Chuck Workman – Director, Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

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