Orson Welles made a film in the 1970s called The Other Side of the Wind. Tomorrow (Nov. 2), Netflix will release the film to the public for the first time. But that doesn’t tell the half of it.
Just how Welles’ long-lost film found its way to the streaming service after all these years is a story as compelling as the film itself. It’s a story that includes Iranian royalty, transcontinental embezzlement, decades of legal wars, and Star Wars creator George Lucas.
Netflix will release a companion documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, alongside The Other Side of the Wind. But to get a sense of this crazy true story before then, here’s a rundown. (Many of the following details were reported in the 2004 book Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Leaming.)
Welles started shooting the film, based roughly on the suicide of writer Ernest Hemingway (Welles had known the famous author for decades), in 1970. He wanted to explore the idea of a washed-up macho man living vicariously through a younger, more successful rival, so he created Jake Hannaford (played by Welles’ friend John Huston, the director), a once-great director of classic Hollywood coming to terms with the fact that he’s not so great anymore. Another real-life director, Peter Bogdanovich (then only 31), played Brooks Otterlake, a younger filmmaker through whom Hannaford relives his glory days.
The production of The Other Side of the Wind was beset by pretty much every issue imaginable. The cast changed multiple times, forcing Welles to reshoot many scenes. He wound up essentially casting his real-life friends, many of whom were directors themselves, working for free or for trivial wages. Welles reportedly could not afford to pay his cinematographer Gary Graver on time, so he gave him one of his Oscar statuettes won for Citizen Kane as a type of collateral.
Much of the movie was improvised on the spot; none of Welles’ four different scripts were closely followed. The film was a hodgepodge of raw material, which included the main footage (in both color and black and white), recordings, photos, interviews, and more. The Other Side of the Wind includes a fictional film-within-a-film, directed by Huston’s character, who’s trying to score financing to complete the project. Sound familiar? Welles’ entire film is deeply meta, an obvious satire of both Hollywood as it was in the 1970s and Welles’ own dwindling career.
As you’ll see momentarily, all that messy footage made editing the film extraordinarily difficult even by today’s standards.
Welles filmed literally anywhere he could—in the Arizona desert, on a set used by The New Dick Van Dyke Show, in Bogdanovich’s actual Beverly Hills home. He filmed in four different European countries. He snuck into a drive-in theater because they weren’t allowed to film there. He reportedly snuck onto the MGM backlot to film a few scenes because he didn’t want people knowing he was there.
The project was put on hold shortly after filming began because a tax audit by the US government pretty much sequestered whatever little money Welles had left. And then things got weird.
Welles discovered that one of his co-producers and financiers, a Spanish film acquaintance, had been embezzling funds meant for the production for months. The Spanish acquaintance was acting as an intermediary between Welles and a group of Iranians in Paris that included the brother-in-law of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Spanish intermediary was supposed to receive the funds from the Iranians and transfer them to Welles—but you see where this is going. He was keeping the money from the Iranians while telling Welles that he hadn’t yet received the payments. Eventually, a French woman working with the Iranian financiers got in contact with Welles, and the scheme ended, but not after months were wasted waiting for money to arrive.
The alleged embezzler was identified as Andrés Vicente Gómez, a prolific film producer in Spain. Gómez acknowledged that he had met Welles and co-produced the film, but denied any wrongdoing.
In 1975, when Welles was accepting a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, he reportedly asked friends and filmmakers to finance the completion of the film. He did get one offer, but it was turned down by his French co-financier, who wanted to wait for a potentially better off. They never got one.
With the unfinished film in limbo, the Iranian group tried to wrestle creative control away from Welles—the start of decades of legal battles that would only get more complex. The Shah was overthrown in 1979, and the subsequent regime sealed the original print of the film in a vault in Paris.
Welles died in 1985. The Other Side of the Wind was still missing several scenes and had no score or narration.
A slew of legal struggles quickly followed between his partner and co-writer, Oja Kodar, his daughter, Beatrice Welles, the Iranians, and various other parties who had become entangled in what can only be called a clusterfuck. In 1998, the US pay-cable network Showtime got involved, expressing interest in completing and broadcasting the movie.
Two other copies of the film existed—one owned by Graver, and one Welles had smuggled out of Paris, which wound up in the possession of Kodar. In the late 1990s, Hollywood producer Frank Marshall spearheaded an effort to finance the end of the movie, but its rights were still ensnared in never-ending legal battles, most of which were initiated by Welles’ daughter.
Hoping to score more money, Kodar screened the existing footage for a group of famous directors, including Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, and George Lucas. None of them were interested in doing the work required to complete the film.
In 2007, Showtime and Kodar eventually paid off Beatrice Welles, whose various legal efforts had continued to stall the film for nearly a decade since the screening. Kodar formed a limited liability company that same year with filmmaker Paul Hunt, who had worked on the original production with Welles as a camera operator and editor, to buy out the Iranian group’s remaining rights. Showtime opened an editing suite in 2008 to finish the film, but more legal complications forced it to close almost immediately.
By 2011, most of the legal issues had cleared up, but the Showtime executive who had championed the film’s completion had since left his post, leaving the network’s commitment to finishing the movie in doubt. A crowdfunding campaign to raise the remaining necessary funds fell well short of its $2 million goal. It seemed as though The Other Side of the Wind was finally, mercifully, dead.
And then came Netflix.
In 2016, the deep-pocketed streaming TV company offered $5 million to the rights holders to not only finish the film but also make a companion documentary about all the stuff you just read. Bob Murawski, a Hollywood editor who worked on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, was hired as editor. Murawski was also known for editing many horror films, which was fitting, considering the horrific state that Welles’ footage was in.
Netflix screened the film in January for a star-studded audience that included the directors Rian Johnson and Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Danny Huston—the son of John Huston. Michael Legrand, who scored Welles’ final completed film, F for Fake, was hired to write the music for The Other Side of the Wind. The film officially premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, and will be available for you to stream on Netflix tomorrow.
It currently has a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.