Film & TV

Chuck Workman on Film’s Master Magician: Orson Welles

Film & TV

Chuck Workman on Film’s Master Magician: Orson Welles


Orson Welles is considered, by many people, a demigod: and that’s precisely how he would have wanted it. Welles was a multi-faceted, master showman who spent years meticulously constructing his public persona while throwing himself full throttle into one of the most significant artistic bodies of work ever conceived by an individual. Like a 20th Century magician, he manipulated his surrounding environments gracefully, with childlike wonder and daringness, and controlled his audience’s psychology with precision, knowing full well just when to release tension and elicit powerful emotional responses.

There’s a quote by a former French showman, Robert-Houdin, that perfectly embodies Orson Welles’s passion: “A magician is nothing more than an actor playing the part of a magician.” These words open director Chuck Workman’s latest documentary on Welles, coincidentally also titled Magician, and set the tone for helping understand the inner-workings of Hollywood’s most iconic genius. Like Welles’s approach to Citizen Kane, Workman focuses on an intense narrative that aims to give us a glimpse at the man behind the curtain, and the odyssey one undergoes for legacy. In a private movie theater in Manhattan, we sat down with Workman to discuss everything related to Orson Welles, sleight-of-hand, and film history.

Magician opens in New York at the Lincoln Plaza & Los Angeles at the Royal on Wednesday, December 10.

What prompted you to make a documentary about Orson Welles?

I’ve done a lot of films about movies over the years, including 100 Years at the Movies for HBO. So while I was looking for a good documentary subject, I wanted to do a film about him. Even when Turner re-released Citizen Kane on its 50th anniversary in ’92, I went down to Paramount, when there was a party, and I shot some stuff. I lost that film, but I shot something; it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind.

Losing the film is very characteristic of Welles as well. 

I knew Robert Wise pretty well. And I knew the people at RKO. There’s still an RKO actually, they’re in this building. I was pitching and there would always be a meeting where we’d be talking about one thing and then they’d ask, “So what else do you got?” That’s what happens in a lot of movie meetings. And I said, “I want to do a film about Welles.” And they said, “Great let’s do it.” That was a couple years ago and then I started pulling in all of this material and talking to people.

Regarding that material, you’re dealing with hours and hours of interviews, movie footage, and archives. How do you go about sorting through it to construct the film’s narrative?

You have to have an idea going in. In the same way where if you were writing a song, you just need the chord progressions. That’s it; you don’t need to know the melody. You’re playing around on your guitar and you say, “That’s cool. I’m going to do that.” Or if you’re playing Blues, you already have the chords. I try and find what the character wants in life. I’m looking for the motivation in the same way an actor is looking for a particular action. That becomes the subtext of the film. If I have that, I kind of know what I’m looking for. And then I write a 10 or 12 page treatment, normally for the people who are funding the movie, but this also helps me think it through. And I do. I said, “I’m telling this guy’s story. I know I’m going to tell his whole life, while showing these movies and his forays into theatre and radio.” So then I needed to look at all the interviews, and there were many of them, 47 years worth, and I took them one at a time and made little categories: money, career, Hollywoods.

So you compartmentalized his life into topics?

Yes. So when I’m ready to talk about one certain aspect, I know I have this bank of comments he made. It’s basically an editing processes. You go through and are very organized; it’s important to know what you’re doing. If you’re disorganized, it won’t happen. I’m not that organized, but I learned in film you have to be. We used to put the film on little pins, I’m not sure if you’ve seen pictures of those old trim bins, but you have to know which hook you’re going to put it on. That basically became how I went through the material. Then I just started in chronological order, although I violated that all the time.

Regarding your narrative, and I apologize if I’m off base here, I didn’t notice a lot of in-depth exploration into Welles’ personal relationships. Was that intentional, in the sense that those relationships weren’t even significant to him?

Absolutely. And they weren’t relevant to me. I was interested in his work and his interest in his own work and how he wanted to show off all the time to show you how good he was. I didn’t care that much about the gossip, although I certainly showed it. I wasn’t looking for that at all. And he wasn’t the type of guy who would revel in that. He would try to be charming and friendly, and even in all those 47 years of interviews, he rarely lost his guard. You’d see him get mad every once and a while. He was very good at answering questions. I’ve been doing interviews for thirty something years, but this guy was amazing at it. You’d ask him a question and he’d think about it for a second, before just going for it. And it wasn’t like he’d said it a million times. It was new things.

There was something very precise about the way he addressed people. He said exactly what he needed to; no more, no less. 

He was precise. And he’d been interviewed for so long, that it became a part of his life: his relationship with the public. He was presenting his persona in a way that he was trying to control. He couldn’t control it all the time, but he did his best and he was very interesting that way. Whether he had passion for this person or that person, I wasn’t interested in. He had passion for his work and that’s what drove me.

The film opens with that beautiful quote by Robert Houdin, “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” How do you think that relates to Orson Welles?

He felt that he was an actor, even when he was performing. Most directors, especially stage directors, have to perform a certain way and play a role with each different actor. He was constantly playing a role. He was playing a role with the studios to some extent, but he was very impatient with them. So he was an actor playing a magician in some way. It’s a great quote.

And it’s relevant because Welles was actually a magician. Not a lot of people know that. 

There are other actors that are good at magic. It was something that he did as a showoff kid; he played the violin, he recited poetry, and he did some magic tricks. Houdini came to Chicago and knew his father and gave Orson a trick or something. There was a story Houdini told him where you never do a trick unless you rehearse it a lot. And while he was telling him that story a guy came into his dressing room in front of Welles and said, “Oh, Harry here’s that trick we were talking about.” And Houdini said, “Great! I’ll put it in the act today. So that impressed Orson Welles enough to tell that story over and over again. So he was very interested in Houdini, as was Buster Keaton; Houdini was supposedly in his family act when they traveled together. Welles was always interested in magic and did magic as people do it for friends. But later in life, he was very interested in it and would do television shows. He was working on a big TV show called The Magic Show right before he died. He would hang out with other magicians and buy tricks from them and spend a lot of time doing  that. During World War II, he also would tour and perform his act for the troops.

So magic was a part of being an all around Renaissance Man?

He could do everything, so why not do it? He wanted to entertain people and he wanted to do it a specific way. He also loved that he could get movie stars like Marlene Dietrich to be the assistant in a magic show.

Do you think someone as multi-faceted and groundbreaking as Welles could exist today?

I think so. I think he might have a different kind of career because the possibilities for independent filmmakers today are so much greater than they were when he was starting in the 40s because there was no independent filmmaking. There really wasn’t anything until the 50s with Cassavetes. [Today, Welles] might have been a tremendously interesting art and theater-filmmaker. I also think his acting would have been taken more seriously because he would have had Brando and others behind him. The only person he kind of identified with as an actor was Olivier. And Olivier was basically another handsome guy who did Shakespearean things, but in more of a stagey way than Orson Welles. Orson Welles was interested more in the craft of cinema much more than Olivier was. But given Actor’s Studio and Brando and all the great acting you’ve seen in Europe and here, I think he would have been taken more seriously and made films that were more influenced by Fellini or Godard.

Who do you think could be considered the closest to a modern Orson Welles?

Godard is probably the most influential director of the past twenty to thirty years. After I saw Goodbye to Language, all I wanted to do was see it again. It’s still playing at IFC Center. Much different than a Godard film even ten years ago. Maybe people are starting to come around and see how important he is.

What are some lessons in filmmaking you’ve taken away from Welles?

I think that he would really understand this. There’s this French word called Decoupage that is basically the way shots are put together in a certain way. I think Welles was a master at that. I also learned a lot about cheating. Every filmmaker, when you do it for a while, gets good at cutting corners. Sometimes you cut too many and it doesn’t quite work, but he knew how to do it; just how much he needed to shoot to get something done. I think for me, personally, the most I got out of it, and I’m glad you brought this up because I’ve been thinking about it, is that he would just keep going. There’s so many people out there to discourage you, and bad things just happen, but he would just go back and go back and go back to prepare something else. It’s tremendously encouraging to see someone else do that because you think, “If Orson Welles could take all those arrows, then I guess I can take a few arrows and do what I have to do.” Yes, you can say Orson Welles didn’t do everything he wanted to or should have done, but still he was always back up at the bat. He never quit.

What is your favorite Orson Welles movie?

It changes. It really does. I always thought it was Citizen Kane, but now that I’ve looked at so much material I’m watching what he was able to do later on. I love F For Fake. I love Chimes at MidnightTouch of Evil, and a film [Peter] Bogdanovich says he didn’t like in the movie, The Trial. I think The Trial is really interesting. I think they all have something.