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Almost 50 years after Orson Welles began shooting, Netflix will release one of the unfinished holy grails of film

Orson Welles
Wikimedia Commons/RKO Radio Pictures/Alexander Kahle, in public domain
What will Netflix make of Orson Welles’s final film?
By Ashley Rodriguez
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Netflix’s newest film acquisition could woo even the most cynical of cinephiles.

The US-based streaming-video service snagged the rights to the late actor and director Orson Welles’s unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind—and will brand it as a Netflix original, the company announced yesterday. The movie is one of two holy grails of film left behind by the iconic filmmaker. The other is believed to be lost.

Netflix said it will fund the completion and restoration of the project, which will be overseen producer Frank Marshall, of the Back to the Future and Indiana Jones franchises. He worked on the original production and has been trying to get the film completed for more than forty years, said Netflix, which also has the global rights to distribute the film.

Started in 1970, The Other Side of the Wind was about a legendary Hollywood director—Jake Hannaford, played by legendary Hollywood director John Huston—who tried to make one last great comeback movie to close his career. As Vanity Fair reported in 2015, it turned into case of art imitating life, and then life imitating art, as the movie had the potential to top Welles’s defining masterpiece Citizen Kane.

But it was never completed. It was reportedly meant to be shot in eight weeks but took six years to film. The whole process was rather chaotic. Welles began filming before the main character was cast (Huston wasn’t hired until 1973) and would reportedly shoot part of a scene and then finish years it later in a different location. He would revise the script nightly. And, in 1971, he started taking on other movies, TV shows, and advertising projects (the latter earned him more than $10,000 a day) in between filming, and would return to The Other Side of the Wind when he had enough money to continue production.

In the end, Welles never received the money he needed to finish the project.

Netflix, which isn’t built on box-office revenues like other movie studios, has the freedom to acquire a project like this, even if it only appeals to a niche audience. And it has the deep pockets to fund it.

The streaming service is also trying to build up its film credibility now that it’s established itself firmly in the TV genre. It’s aggressively pursuing big features. At least two are slated for this year that, at any other studio, would get a big blockbuster movie rollout—David Ayer’s sci-fi action-thriller Bright, starring Will Smith, and War Machine, starring Brad Pitt. It recently nabbed the rights to release Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese’s next gangster movie, The Irishman.

And it hired Scott Stuber, a former executive at Universal who produced projects like Ted and Role Models, to lead the development, production, and acquisition of big feature film properties at the service.

It has also received five Oscar nominations in the documentary category, including one this year for Ava DuVernay’s spotlight on race and the US prison system, 13th. And it won an Oscar for the documentary short The White Helmets. 

It’s unclear what Welles, who died in 1985, long before streaming video became the phenomenon it is now, would think of his last great comeback film being completed and released by Netflix. But it’s unlikely the movie will ever be as Welles intended. As he said, the true art of cinema happens in the editing room, where Welles will now have no control.

“For my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is the aspect,” Welles told the French film publication Cahiers du Cinéma in 1958, according to an English translation by Sally Shafto for Senses of Cinema. “The only moment where one can exercise any control over a film is in the editing.”

It will be up to Marshall, one of the producers overseeing the project, to complete that vision.

Image by RKO Radio Pictures/Alexander Kahle via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the public domain.

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