IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Chuck Workman Talks 'Magician: The Astonishing Life and Art of Orson Welles'

Monday, 22 December 2014 16:36 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Chuck Workman Talks 'Magician: The Astonishing Life and Art of Orson Welles'

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is the documentary Orson Welles deserves.

Welles was and is a titan, a filmmaker and creative dynamo who continues to cast a long, long shadow of cinema and entertainment itself, even almost three decades after his death.  He was directing Shakespearean plays by the time he was a teenager, and his feature directorial debut at the young age of 26 is widely considered one of the finest – if not the single flat-out best – films ever made.

From Citizen Kane, he continued as a writer-director-actor-producer for more than forty years, defying easy categorization and following his wholly unique vision, creating classics including Touch of Evil and The Magnificent Ambersons.

In Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Academy Award-winning documentarian Chuck Workman largely lets his subject speak for himself, extensively and entertainingly utilizing archival footage of Welles and his films.

Since Workman's biography of Welles spends so much time with the legendary figure, IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was happy to spend some time with Chuck Workman.  In their conversation, Workman discussed the contradictions of Welles, shaping his life into a functional narrative, the impact of Citizen Kane, his later years, and his influence on generations of filmmakers.


Here's what Chuck Workman had to say about the astonishing life and work of Orson Welles:

Let me begin by asking you as a documentary filmmaker what fascinated you about his story and why did you want to make this film?

Chuck Workman: I have always been interested in him as a filmmaker. I even once thought about making a narrative fiction film about a character like Welles. I think even years ago I wrote a little treatment of it. I have to look at him because he is very unusual and unique. He wanted to make films that were not necessarily the films he was asked to make. He wanted to make his own work and do his own thing. That was very bold to do that in those days and not worry about studios and not worry too much about reviews. Although we would have liked to get good studios’ support and of course good reviews, but at the same time he was making his own independent work. The same way that he did it on the stage and on radio. That, to me, was especially interesting because I was working in the studio system. I worked on the Oscars a lot. Part of the thing was that I was very much kind of a Hollywood guy. Although I was much more interested in what used to be called art films. I think he tried to do the same thing in a way. He was trying to be a popular artist and still make his own cinema art.

Was being popular and having people like his work important to him or did he not care at a certain point?

Workman: I think that he cared. He always cared. If he identified with anybody, this is not as far of a reach as it sounds, he identified with Shakespeare. Orson Welles knew how good he was. Shakespeare was an actor, part of a theater group and was very popular. I think Welles liked the idea that he could be popular in a way that maybe John Ford or William Wyler or Howard Hawks was. That sort of a director who would just churn out very popular things, but there was something inside of him that worked against that. He wanted also to show his individuality. That was not what the studios necessarily wanted or even the people that backed him in Europe. This gave him constant problems, but he was very interesting. He was basically an independent filmmaker before there were independent filmmakers.

I wanted to ask you about putting together the footage for the film and interviews and watching the narrative. How did you create the narrative of the movie?

Workman: In a documentary there is no story like there is in a narrative film that will keep you in the seats and keep you interested. You are used to that whether you are watching television or watching a Hollywood movie that is a narrative. You are used to a story that is compelling and has certain beats along the way. Certain things happen thirty minutes in and sixty minutes, and you are with certain characters. In a documentary you do not have that. I did have his life, but his life did not necessarily have some heroic moment two-thirds of the way through the way most movies do. So I had to find those beats and drop them in. It was tricky, frankly. I hope I was able to do it. I do not think people are bored watching it, but at the same time, I did not want to rush it too much so that it was too superficial. A friend of mine who is a critic described it as a river. It just kind of flows. I thought it was a compliment. That is basically what I was trying to do. Give it a flow. You just sit back and let it work over you. But at the same time, you have to pay attention. I think that if you just try to be passive about it, you are not going to get it.


Can you talk about Welles the prodigy and the Wunderkind that he was coming out of the theater in his youth?

Workman: Yeah. He was a monster star. When he went to Hollywood, he was already a star. One of the scholars that we talked to said that he was as well known as Hitler in the late 30s. It is hard to underestimate that. He had already made this tremendous mark for himself. He was already being explored by Hollywood. Two years before he even went there they were looking at him. They had him screen-tested and that sort of thing. He was a major figure in entertainment and in information. He wrote and acted sometimes. He had just directed. He was very busy doing all of this stuff. I think that affected everything he did for the rest of his life. He was used to being the center of attention. As a kid at ten years old he had to be the center of attention. It is the magician. His mother would make him show off for her friends when he had to play the violin or recite at ten years old. That became the pattern of his life. He stayed with that. But I do not think in a way of trying to show off too much. I think that was always part of it. I think he just felt that that was what he was expected to do, so he did it.

Citizen Kane is widely still considered to be the greatest movie ever made all of these years later. I was just curious about your research. Did you get a sense that he acknowledged that he had made his masterpiece? Did he realize that that film was what it was? Or did he live in the shadow of its success?

Workman: No. I think he knew that he had achieved something significant with Citizen Kane, and he was certainly told enough times. But he had problems with the distribution of Citizen Kane. He also got a few bad reviews. That cannot help either. He might not have been sure. What happened was that after Citizen Kane, he sort of staked out what he was going to do with his career. Although he would go back to theater and even go back to radio, he was very much involved with the movies. His first love, he called it, was the movies. He wanted to constantly top it. What I learned in making this film and looking at older films almost chronologically is that he learns something else in each film just the way anybody would learn something more about what they do each time they do it if they have any care about how they do it. Welles got better and better. He was better as a director of actors. He became a good director of stars. He became a good director of himself. If you look at a movie like Touch of Evil where he plays this fat, old chief of police, he has got that down as an actor where as in Citizen Kane it was more presentational, but I think that he burned his own body out of control; Elvis Mitchell says, 'even when he was the size of a Buick.' He did learn that. He learned how to edit. He learned how to use sets. He learned how to use script in his work. He learned how to make substitutions and not have to necessarily rely on great technicians of Hollywood. I think that that was moving forward all of the time. Did he know that Citizen Kane was going to become the greatest movie anybody ever saw? I do not know. He probably knew that it worked as far as what he was doing, but he wanted to achieve more and more. One of the things that happen in Hollywood, whether it is the actors or the directors, is that you have to do the same thing over and over again. Another Batman. Another Western. Welles did not want to do the same thing over and over again. He wanted to explore, and I think that hurt him in his career.


I want to ask you two last points if you have a couple more minutes. One, in his later years he almost became a caricature of himself. He was talk shows and doing TV things and projects that were maybe lesser than the legend himself. He obviously had unfinished projects. What sort of happened in his later years? Why did he become disassociated with the business with Hollywood and maybe perhaps bitter as well?

Workman: Any actor or star who was getting forgotten likes to be out there whether it is on a talk show or a commercial or doing something small, they do not want to be forgotten. I think that was a normal part of being a working professional. He was not getting the movies that he got before as a director. He was working as an actor, but it was on junky stuff. He did not care because he thought he was just making money on commercial and whatever he was doing in order to put them back into the films that he was doing. I do not think he felt embarrassed about it at all. I think he just went and did it. Of course, a lot of the world was laughing at him all through that period. People thought that he was acting foolish, made fun of his weight and made fun of his wine commercials. People made fun of the beatniks. Jack Kerouac made a film about Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and people made jokes about them. He made another film about Andy Warhol. People made lots of jokes about him, and people are making jokes about Joaquin Phoenix or whoever it may be. Yet these people know what they are doing. They are putting themselves out there, and they do not care too much what the superficial level of how they appear to people. Welles, like anybody, did not want to push the fact that he was heavy. He tried to keep that down and told everybody that he was on a diet. But also at the same time Welles was making a film called The Other Side of the Wind with his own money and experimenting with Moby Dick and other movies when he was older. Still working as a director and still working that out, I do not think that he was a tragic figure. I think he was a triumphant figure, but it just hit that moment when the world did not quite see him for what he is. Now we look at him and we see how great he was. That is one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie. I felt that that was something that was not known. Even when I started the movie, my lawyer said to me, 'You are going to make a movie about that fat guy?' He is a smart guy even though he made that comment. People did not understand just how good the guy was.

That is actually exactly my last question. What was the impact that he had on generations of filmmakers. Obviously he had a big influence on Spielberg and Bogdanovich. He pretty much had an influence on anyone that has made a film since in a sense, correct?

Workman: Yes because what happened is that when Welles was making films when he was younger, he had all of these restrictions from the studios or money, but then movies changed. Movies became much more creative. Just your everyday movie, an action or a comedy, became interesting. I believe the directors owe that to Welles because he was doing that 20 years before. Of course Welles said he wished he was in his own time rather than ahead.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is now playing in select theaters.


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