Producer Frank Marshall On What He Learned From Orson Welles And Why He Had to Finish ‘The Other Side of the Wind’
As a founder of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, Frank Marshall produced all of the Indiana Jones movies, including The Last Crusade, where Indy and his cohorts track down the Holy Grail. In real life, Marshall has spent decades hunting one of cinema’s Holy Grails: The Other Side of the Wind, a never-finished film directed by Orson Welles that Marshall worked on when he was just getting his start in Hollywood in the early 1970s. Finally, the film is done, thanks in large part to money from Netflix, which premiered the movie on its streaming service today. Yes, you can watch one of the most famous lost films in history, right now, right this second, pretty much wherever you’re reading this.
When I spoke with Marshall last month in New York City, he explained how he came to be involved with The Other Side of the Wind — which tells the story of a Wellesian filmmaker (John Huston as “Jake Hannaford”) trying to revive his moribund career — and why he’s worked for years to try to complete it. (Welles died before completing The Other Side of the Wind, leaving behind mountains of footage stuck in even larger mountains of legal entanglements.) We also talked about what Marshall, who’s gone on to have a hugely successful career producing films like Back to the Future, The Sixth Sense, and The Bourne Identity, learned from Welles, and what he thinks the Netflix audience will make of Welles’ fascinatingly dense film about art, celebrity, and death.
How, as a young, mostly aspiring filmmaker, did you wind up working on the movie way back in the day?
I’d just done The Last Picture Show with Peter [Bogdanovich, who also stars in The Other Side of the Wind] and Polly Platt. As you know, Peter and Polly knew Orson. It was in-between movies for me, and I was, I guess, an aspiring filmmaker. I just loved working on movies in those days, and had done two, and really didn't know what the next movie was. But I knew Peter had now established himself.
Orson called Polly and said, “I'm going to make this movie and I'm down in Arizona, why don‘t you come help me?” And she said to me, “You want to go down there?” And I said, “To work with Orson Welles? Yeah!” She said, “I have no idea what it is.” I was 25. Okay, cool. I had bought a Volkswagen van in Archer City, Texas. So ,I had my van and I just put my stuff in it. I didn't know how long I was going to be there, but what an adventure.
I drove and I pulled up to this house in the rocks. And we all lived in that house for ... I guess it was a month or so. For three days, he didn't mention my name. I was just running around doing whatever. And finally on the third day, he said “Frank?” And I went “Oh! I've been accepted!” It was just a great feeling. It was a little band of Gypsies and it was the greatest filmmaking school you could have. It was fascinating to see how his mind worked. And it was fun to be there! He was great. He was fun and he was challenging and inspiring. It was really exhilarating to be around.
I then connect with [The Other Side of the Wind cinematographer] Gary Graver, and then we came back and we went and made What's Up, Doc? During that time, Orson came to L.A. and he started shooting, and he kept calling me. Eventually, after What's Up, Doc? was when we had what I call “the real shoot” — a legitimate moviemaking project like I had done on The Last Picture Show and What’s Up Doc? I did a schedule, we had SAG contracts, we had a caterer, we had a crew. I was ready to do that so it worked out great for me.
If you say it was like the best film school you could ever have, tell me what you learned from Orson Welles.
I really learned that there was no limit to your creativity. And also that you didn't need the studio process. We were run-and-gun and it was so exciting to be there. Orson talks about little accidents that happen along the way and it doesn't have to be perfect and he was a complete believer in that. You could see it in what we were doing. He would just come up with an idea in his head and he would then find it, or say “Go find me this.” That was filmmaking without any limits, for me — and never give up.
This was the time when we had a gas crisis. One of the things I had to do was go park in line in Carefree, Arizona and wait for gas for the cars. We had to figure that out; we had all these obstacles. But that's what I loved about it — solving problems as a production person for the vision of what the director wanted. That's kind of how I learned to do what I do. I work with a director rather than against the director.
You look at the movie and it has all these different film stocks and techniques. And I also watched the short film, “A Final Cut For Orson,” about the final making of The Other Side of the Wind. And you know, someone talks in there about how ahead of its time that movie was. It literally almost could not be made until very recently. And the question I had is how recently are we talking? If the money had all come together five years ago, could you have done it?
Not even five years ago?
No, I think the money had to come together in the ’80s because we were still on film.
And we still have people who could match the negative and all that. Now once we went off film, we barely found people — like [negative cutter] Mo Henry. Fantastic, but third generation. People say to me “What’s that thing she’s cranking?” I go, “Well, that's how we used to do it.” The technique of matching the negative with the workprint.
And then the sound. Again, it could have worked in the ’80s, but we couldn't find some of the sound. We were off like fourth and fifth-generation mag prints. When we first screened the movie, nobody could understand any of the dialogue. You couldn't hear it, you couldn't understand it. It was scratchy. And these geniuses really put it together. And that's within the last five years. So I think it is what it is. And it was meant to be that once Orson passed away and then film started going away, we couldn't have done it until now. And, of course, until we had Netflix.
Speaking of Netflix. Watching the movie and having it start “Netflix Presents An Orson Welles Picture” is such a mind-boggling thing.
It is. Yeah.
What do you think Orson Welles would have thought of even just the idea of Netflix as a thing, and it being so instrumental in finishing and releasing this movie?
I think Orson would have loved it. He was an innovator. He was a pioneer. He was always pushing the envelope. He didn't make another Citizen Kane. He kept exploring “What is the next way to tell a story?” He was an artist and he hated the sort of technical restrictions that they had. One day he wrestled the camera off the tripod because he couldn't wait to release the lock. I think that now that we have this other platform that millions of people can see his movie, I think he would have loved that.
There were a lot of things about the movie that surprised me, but one of the things that surprised me how graphic and explicit it was. And as someone who uses Netflix, I don't know if I've ever seen a movie on Netflix that has quite so much explicit content. Was that at all an issue for Netflix? Did they put any restrictions on anything in terms of content?
They said, “We don't care, we just want it, whatever it is.”
They said “We just want it.” They asked me for a budget. We did a budget and I said “Look, I gotta tell you, we haven't gotten into the vault yet, so I don't know what we're up against, but here's what I think it'll be.” And of course we are way over budget. [laughs] But they never complained! As long as we could justify, like, “We couldn't find a box of sound, so we now have to go do all this stuff and it's going to take these new techniques and more dubbing and more soundalikes,” They said “Great. Just as long as it's what you need to finish the movie we’re behind you.” It was wonderful.
I'm personally so curious to find out what the Netflix audience is going to think of The Other Side of the Wind.
I am fascinated, because I'm not sure I know what their audiences is. But I do know there are a lot of people who love movies out there. And what's great is hopefully we'll introduce a whole new set of people to Orson’s work.
When I went down there — of course it's 40 years ago — he was it. This is the God of Cinema. He made Citizen Kane and we're all aspiring to try and do that. So yes, I'm happy for the history of cinema that we're here and that Netflix was able to help us get it done. Because, to answer your question, they put no limits on this. We had no conditions; it just couldn’t be four hours long.
Watching the movie and then that short documentary about how you ended up putting it all together, it did make me think — you mentioned Citizen Kane. I was starting to think about how Citizen Kane is this movie about a dead man who leaves behind this mystery, and a guy who goes about solving it. And then watching the documentary, you have done almost the same thing. Because the movie was left incomplete — you have to figure out what Orson was trying to say, and what he wanted to make. Did that ever cross your mind, that Orson had almost left behind his own Citizen Kane?
It’s incredible, and you can draw those parallels to the movie and to Jake Hannaford, who didn't get to finish his movie. There's all of these themes of his work. Yeah, it's mind-blowing for me to see the parallels and all the things you mentioned.
But I don't know. I know that he did try and finish it. He was trying to finish it. So I don't think it's like he thought he’d never finished it. But I do think it became kind of a running joke for him. A lot of people say he caused his own dramas, and there were a couple of those. But it's fascinating and so complex to look at the movie and look at what we went through and then look at the little clues he would leave. I think you're right about all of it.
At the end of Citizen Kane, you find out what Rosebud was and what it potentially could have meant. From your perspective, when people see The Other Side of the Wind, what do you hope people take from it?
[pause] Wow. [laughs] That life is complicated. That everything from friendship to love to work is complicated. And there's no straight path — particularly on friendship. Peter and Orson: Complicated friendship. [Bodanovich’s character] Otterlake and Hannaford: Complicated friendship.
What I'm really happy about is I didn't know until really we got to a certain point in post that we had everything. I didn't know whether Orson had really shot the end of the movie, for example. We could have got there and not had the driving stuff; crucial stuff like when Tonio Selwart says “What you need is men like Billy.” Those are what people like Hannaford and Peter and Orson needed. Those are the real heroes. What a statement about life and your career, and all of those things in one little moment. And there's Billy still trying to get the movie and defend the movie and, and defend his mentor, the guy who he loves. And that's what I think people need to take out of this, is how complicated life is.
You raised something like $400,000 on Indiegogo before Netflix. I know a lot of people who donated and they are wondering, when do I get my Blu-ray?
You have to ask [producer] Filip [Jan Rymsza]. That was Philip’s project.
Okay. We talked a little about some of the things that surprised me. One of them was after it was over and I was looking at the credits and I saw Cameron Crowe's name listed as one of the party guests? How did that happen?
Well, that was when we were shooting in LA and we all would just ask our film friends, or people who were at film school, or making little movies “Hey, you want to come be in a scene that Orson Welles is directing?” And it worked. There's a lot of names in there that are kind of surprising. We all had connections to all the filmmakers. Peter was friends with everybody from Coppola to Friedkin to Scorsese to even Steven [Spielberg]. We would just say “You're working for free, but you get to be in a scene that Orson’s directing.”
Hard to say no to that.
Hard to say no.
I remember reading about The Other Side of the Wind when I was in film school. It was always like this Holy Grail thing; will it ever be finished? Will we ever get to watch it? I'm sure for you it was kind of the same way. I don't know how many years you have been sort of working on it ...
Since 1985, when Orson passed away.
Is there anything else out there that, for you, now that this is done, is there another sort of Holy Grail project?
No, this is it. And I don't think anything could top it because I started on it in 1971. So the fact that I was there and now we're done. There's only a couple of other people around that can say that. In particular, for me, it's a culmination of my career because it's Peter. He gave me my first job and now we finished this movie together. So it's been quite amazing.
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