A Trip to Don Quixoteland: Conversations with Orson Welles

I think about each of my films when I am preparing for them. I do an enormous sketch when starting. What is marvelous about the cinema, what makes it superior to the theatre, is that it has many elements that may conquer us but may also enrich us, oiler us a life impossible anywhere else.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on reddit
Share on tumblr
Share on linkedin

by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J. A. Pruneda

Q: What is astonishing in your work is this continual effort to bring solutions to the problems posed by directing. . . .

Welles: The cinema is still very young and it would be completely ridiculous to not succeed in finding new things for it. If only I could make more films! Do you know what happened with The Trial? Two weeks before our departure from Paris for Yugoslavia, we were told that there would be no possibility of having a single set built there because the producer had already made another film in Yugoslavia and hadn’t paid his debts. That’s why it was necessary to utilize that abandoned station. I had planned a completely different film.

Everything was invented at the last minute because physically my film had an entirely different conception. It was based on an absence of sets. And this gigantism I have been reproached for is, in part, due to the fact that the only set I possessed was that old abandoned station. An empty railroad station is immense! The production, as I had sketched it, comprised sets that gradually disappeared. The number of realistic elements were to become fewer and fewer and the public would become aware of it, to the point where the scene would be reduced to free space as if everything had dissolved.

Q: The movement of the actors and the camera in relation to each other in your films is very beautiful.

Welles: That is a visual obsession. I believe, thinking about my films, that they are based not so much on pursuit as on a search. If we are looking for something, the labyrinth is the most favorable location for the search. I do not know why, but my films are all for the most part a physical search.

Q: You reflect about your work a great deal. . . .

Welles: Never a posteriori. I think about each of my films when I am preparing for them. I do an enormous sketch when starting. What is marvelous about the cinema, what makes it superior to the theatre, is that it has many elements that may conquer us but may also enrich us, oiler us a life impossible anywhere else. The cinema should al­ways be the discovery of something. I believe that the cinema should be essentially poetic; that is why, during the shooting and not during the preparation, I try to plunge myself into a poetic development, which differs from narrative development and dramatic development. But, in reality, I am a man of ideas; yes, above all else—I am even more a man of ideas than a moralist, I suppose.

Q: Do you believe it is possible to have a form of tragedy without melodrama?

Welles: Yes, but that is very difficult. For any auteur who comes out of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is very difficult. Shakespeare never arrived at it. It is possible, but up to the present no one has succeeded. In my cultural tradition, tragedy cannot escape from melodrama. We may always draw from tragic elements and perhaps even the grandeur of tragedy but melodrama is always inherent to the Anglo-Saxon cul­tural universe. There’s no doubt about it.

Q: Is it correct that your films never correspond to what you were thinking of doing before starting them? Because of producers, etc?

Welles: No, in reality, in what concerns me, creation, I must say that I am constantly changing. At the beginning, I have a basic notion of what the final aspect of the film will be, more or less. But each day, at every moment, one deviates or modifies because of the expression in an actress’s eyes or the position of the sun. I am not in the habit of preparing a film and then setting myself to make it. I prepare a film but I have no intention of making this film. The preparation serves to liberate me, so that I may work in my fashion; thinking of bits of film and of the result they will give; and there are parts that deceive me because I haven’t conceived them in a complete enough way. I do not know what word to use, because I am afraid of pompous words when I talk about making a film. The degree of concentration I utilize in a world that I create, whether this be for thirty seconds or for two hours, is very high; that is why, when I am shooting, I have a lot of trouble sleeping. This is not because I am preoccupied but because, for me, this world has so much reality that closing my eyes is not sufficient to make it disappear. It represents a terrible intensity of feeling. If I shoot in a royal location I sense and I see this site in so violent a way that, now, when I see these places again, they are similar to tombs, completely dead. There are spots in the world that are, to my eyes, cadavers; that is because I have already shot there—for me, they are completely finished. Jean Renoir said something that seems to be related to that: “We should remind people that a field of wheat painted by Van Gogh can arouse a stronger emotion than a field of wheat in nature.” It is important to recall that art surpasses reality. Film be­comes another reality. Apropos, I admire Renoir’s work very much even though mine doesn’t please him at all. We are good friends and, truthfully, one of the things I regret is that he doesn’t like his films for the same reason I do. His films appear marvelous to me because what I admire most in an auteur is authentic sensitivity. I attach no impor­tance to whether or not a film is a technical SUCCESS: moreover, films that lack this kind of sensitivity may not be judged on the same level with technical or aesthetic knowingness. But the cinema, the true cinema, is a poetic expression and Renoir is one of the rare poets. Like Ford, it is in his style. Ford is a poet. A comedian. Not for women, of course, but for men.

Q: Apart from Ford and Renoir, who are the cinéastes you admire?

Welles: Always the same ones; I believe that on this point I am not very original. The one who pleases me most of all is Griffith. I think he is the best director in the history of the cinema. The best, much better than Eisenstein. And, for all that, I admire Eisenstein very much. . . .

Q: In your films, one has the sensation that real space is never re­spected: it seems not to interest you. . . .

Welles: The fact that I make no use of it doesn’t in the least signify that it doesn’t please me. In other terms, there are many elements of the cinematographic language that I do not utilize, but that is not be­cause I have something against them. It seems to me that the field of action in which I have my experiences is one that is least known, and my duty is to explore it. But that does not mean to say that it is, for me, the best and only—or that I deviate from a normal conception of space, in relation to the camera. I believe that the artist should explore his means of expression.

In reality, the cinema, with the exception of a few little tricks that don’t go very far, has not advanced for more than thirty years. The only changes are with respect to the subject of films. I see that there are directors, full of future, sensitive, who explore new themes, but I see no one who attacks form, the manner of saying things. That seems to interest no one. They resemble each other very much in terms of style.

Q: You must work very quickly. In twenty-five years of cinema, you have made ten films, you have acted in thirty, you have made a series of very long programs for television, you have acted and directed in the theatre, you have done narrations for other films and, in addition, you have written thirty scenarios. Each of them must have taken you more than six months.

Welles: Several of them even longer. There are those that took me two years but that is because I set them aside from time to time in order to do something else and picked them up again afterwards. But it is also true that I write very rapidly.

Q: You write them completely, with dialogue?

Welles: I always begin with the dialogue. And I do not understand how one dares to write action before dialogue. It’s a very strange con­ception. I know that in theory the word is secondary in cinema but the secret of my work is that everything is based on the word. I do not make silent films. I must begin with what the characters say. I must know what they say before seeing them do what they do.

Q: However, in your films the visual part is essential.

Welles: Yes, but I couldn’t arrive at it without the solidity of the word taken as a basis for constructing the images. What happens is that when the visual components are shot the words are obscured. The most classical example is Lady from Shanghai. The scene in the aquar­ium was so gripping visually that no one heard what was being said. And what was said was, for all that, the marrow of the film. The subject was so tedious that I said to myself, “This calls for something beautiful to look at.” Assuredly, the scene was very beautiful. The first ten min­utes of the film did not please me at all. When I think of them I have the impression it wasn’t me that made them. They resemble any Hollywood film. . . .

Q: How do you work with actors?

Weli.es: I give them a great deal of freedom and, at the same time, the feeling of precision. It’s a strange combination. In other words, physically, and in the way they develop, I demand the precision of ballet. But their way of acting comes directly from their own ideas as much as from mine. When the camera begins to roll, I do not impro­vise visually. In this realm, everything is prepared. But I work very freely with the actors. I try to make their life pleasant.

Q: Your cinema is essentially dynamic. . . .

Welles: I believe that the cinema should be dynamic although I suppose any artist will defend his own style. For me, the cinema is a slice of life in movement that is projected on a screen; it is not a frame. I do not believe in the cinema unless there is movement on the screen. This is why I am not in agreement with certain directors, whom, how­ever, I admire, who content themselves with a static cinema. For me, these are dead images. I hear the noise of the projector behind me, and when I see these long, long walks along streets, I am always waiting to hear the director’s voice saying, “Cut!”

The only director who does not move either his camera or his actors very much, and in whom I believe, is John Ford. He succeeds in making me believe in his films even though there is little movement in them. But with the others I always have the impression that they are desper­ately trying to make Art. However, they should be making drama and drama should be full of life. The cinema, for me, is essentially a dra­matic medium, not a literary one.

Q: That is why your mise-en-scène is lively: it is the meeting of two movements, that of the actors and that of the camera. Out of this flows an anguish that reflects modern life very well. . . .

Welles: I believe that that corresponds to my vision of the world; it reflects that sort of vertigo, uncertainty, lack of stability, that melange of movement and tension that is our universe. And the cinema should express that. Since cinema has the pretension of being an art, it should be, above all, film, and not the sequel to another, more literary, medium of expression.

Q: Herman G. Weinberg said, while speaking of Mr. Arkadin, “In Orson Welles’s films, the spectator may not sit back in his seat and relax, on the contrary he must meet the film at least halfway in order to decipher what is happening, practically every second; if not, every­thing is lost.”

Welles: All my films are like that. There are certain cinéastes, excellent ones, who present everything so explicitly, so clearly, that in spite of the great visual power contained in their films one follows them effortlessly—I refer only to the narrative thread. I am fully aware that, in my films, I demand a very specific interest on the part of the public. Without that attention, it is lost.

Q: Lady from Shanghai is a story that, filmed by another director, would more likely have been based on sexual questions. . . .

Welles: You mean that another director would have made it more obvious. I do not like to show sex on the screen crudely. Not because of morality or puritanism; my objection is of a purely aesthetic order. In my opinion, there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God. I never believe an actor or actress who pretends to be completely involved in the sexual act if it is too literal, just as I can never believe an actor who wants to make me believe he is praying. These are two things that, for me, immediately evoke the presence of a projector and a white screen, the existence of a series of technicians and a director who is saying, “Good. Cut.” And I imagine them in the process of preparing for the next shot. As for those who adopt a mystical stance and look fervently at the spotlights. . . .

For all that, my illusion almost never ends when I see a film. While filming, I think of someone like myself: I utilize all of my knowledge in order to force this person to want to see the film with the greatest interest, I want him to believe what is there on the screen; this means that one should create a real world there. I place my dramatic vision of a character in the world … if not, the film is something dead. What there is on the screen is nothing but shadows. Something even more dead than words.

Q: Do you like comedy?

Welles: I have written at least five scenarios for comedy and in the theatre I have done more comedies than dramas. Comedy fills me with enthusiasm but I have never succeeded in getting a film producer to let me make one. One of the best things I did for television was a program in the genre of comedy. For example, I like Hawks’s comedies very much. I even wrote about twenty-five minutes of one of them. It was called, I Was a Male War Bride. The scenarist fell ill and I wrote almost a third of the film. . . .

Q: There is a kinship between your work and the works of certain authors of the modern theatre, like Beckett, Ionesco, and others . . . what is called the theatre of the absurd.

Welles: Perhaps, but I would eliminate Ionesco because I do not admire him. When I directed Rhinoceros in London, with Laurence Olivier in the principal role, as we repeated the work from day to day it pleased me less. I believe that there is nothing inside it. Nothing at all. This kind of theatre comes out of all types of expression, all types of art of a certain epoch, is thus forged by the same world as my films. The things this theatre is composed of are the same composed in my films, without this theatre’s being in my cinema or without my cinema’s being in this theatre. It is a trait of our times. There is where the coincidence comes from.

Q: There are two types of artists: for example, Velasquez and Goya; one disappears from the picture, the other is present in it; on the other hand you have Van Gogh and Cézanne. . . .

Welles: I see what you mean. It’s very clear.

Q: It seems to me that you are on the Goya side.

Welles: Doubtless. But I very much prefer Velasquez. There’s no comparison between one and the other, as far as being artists is con­cerned. As I prefer Cézanne to Van Gogh.

Q: And between Tolstoy and Dostoievsky?

Welles: I prefer Tolstoy.

Q: But as an artist. . . .

Welles: Yes, as an artist. But I deny that, for I do not correspond to my tastes. I know what I’m doing and when I recognize it in other works my interest is diminished. The tilings that resemble me the least are the things that interest me the most. For me Velasquez is the Shakespeare of painters and, for all that, he has nothing in common with my way of working.

Q: What do you think of what is called modern cinema?

Welles: I like certain young French cinéastes, much more than the Italians.

Q: Did you like L’année dernière à Marienbad?

Welles: No. I know that this film pleased you; not me. I held on up to the fourth reel and after that I left at a run. It reminded me too much of Vogue magazine.

Q: How do you see the development of the cinema?

Welles: I don’t see it. I rarely go to the movies. There are two kinds of writers, the writer who reads everything of interest that is published, exchanges letters with other writers, and others who absolutely do not read their contemporaries. I am among the latter. I go to the movies very rarely and this is not because I don’t like them, it is because they give me no enjoyment at all. I do not think I am very intelligent about films. There are works that I know to be good but which I cannot stand.

Q: It was said that you were going to make Crime and Punishment; what became of this project?

Welles: Someone wanted me to do it. I thought about it, but I like the book too much. In the end, I decided that I could do nothing and the idea of being content to illustrate it did not please me at all. I don’t mean to say by that that the subject was beneath me, what I mean is that I could bring nothing to it. I could only give it actors and images and, when I can only do that, the cinema does not interest me. I believe you must say something new about a book, otherwise it is better not to touch it.

Aside from that, I consider it to be a very difficult work, because, in my opinion, it is not completely comprehensible outside of its own time and country. The psychology of this man and this constable are so Russian, so nineteenth-century Russian, that one could never find them elsewhere; I believe diat die public would not be able to follow it all the way.

Q: There is, in Dostoievsky, an analysis of justice, of the world, that is very close to yours.

Welles: Perhaps too close. My contribution would most likely be limited. The only thing I could do is to direct. I like to make films in which I can express myself as auteur rather than as interpreter. I do not share Kafka’s point of view in The Trial. I believe that he is a good writer, but Kafka is not the extraordinary genius that people today see him as. That is why I was not concerned about excessive fidelity and could make a film by Welles. If I could make four films a year, I would surely do Crime and Punishment. But as it costs me a great deal to convince producers I try to choose what I film very carefully.

Q: With you, one seems to find, at the same time, the Brechtian tendency and the Stanislavski tendency.

Welles: All I can say is that I did my apprenticeship in Stanislav­ski’s orbit; I worked with his actors and found them very easy to direct. I do not allude to “Method” actors; that’s something else alto­gether. But Stanislavski was marvelous. As for Brecht, he was a great friend to me. We worked together on Galileo Galilei. In reality he wrote it for me. Not for me to act in, but in order for me to direct it.

Q: How was Brecht?

Welles: Terribly nice. He had an extraordinary brain. One could see very well that he had been educated by the Jesuits. He had the type of disciplined brain characterized by Jesuit education. Instinctively, he was more of an anarchist than a Marxist, but he believed himself a perfect Marxist. When I said to him one day, while we were talking about Galileo, that he had written a perfectly anticommunist work, he became nearly violent. I answered him, “But this Church you describe has to be Stalin and not the Pope, at this time. You have made something resolutely anti-Soviet!”

Q: What relationship do you see between your work as a film direc­tor and as a theatre director?

Welles: My relationships with these two milieux are very different. I believe that they are not in intimate rapport, one with the other. Perhaps in me, as a man, that relationship exists, but technical solu­tions are so different for each of them that, in my spirit, I establish absolutely no relationship between these two mediums.

In the theatre, I do not belong to what has succeeded in becoming the Brechtian idea of theatre; that particularly withdrawn form has never been appropriate to my character. But I have always made a terrible effort to recall to the public, at each instant, that it is in a theatre. I have never tried to bring it into the scene, I have rather tried to bring the scene to it. And that is the opposite of the cinema.

Q: Perhaps there is a relationship in the way the actors are handled.

Welles: In the theatre there are 1,500 cameras rolling at the same time—in the cinema there is only one. That changes the whole aes­thetic for the director.

Q: Did Huston’s Moby Dick, on which you worked, please you?

Welles: The novel pleases me very much, but it doesn’t please me as a novel so much as a drama. There are two very different things in the novel: that sort of pseudo-biblical element that is not very good, and also that curious nineteenth-century American element, of the apocalyptical genre, that can be rendered very well in the cinema.

Q: In the scene you acted in the film—did you make any suggestions as to the way of handling it?

Welles: All we did was discuss the way in which it would be shot. You know that my discourse is very long. It goes on throughout a full reel, and we never repeated it. I arrived on the set already made-up and dressed. I got up on the platform and we shot it in one take. We did it using only one camera angle. And that is one of Huston’s merits, be­cause another director would have said, “Let’s do it from another angle and see what we get.” He said, “Good,” and my role in the film ended right there! . . .

Q: There is talk from time to time of your first sojourn in Spain, before the Civil War.

Welles: When I arrived in Spain, for the first time, I was seventeen years old and had already worked in Ireland as an actor. I only stayed in the south, in Andalusia. In Seville, I lived in the Triana section. I was writing detective stories: I spent only two days a week on this and it brought in three hundred dollars. With this money I was a grand seigneur in Seville. There were so many people thrilled by the corrida and I caught the virus myself. I paid the novice fee at several corridas and thus was able to debut—on the posters I was called “The American.” My greatest thrill was being able to practice the metier of torero three or four times without having to pay. I came to the realiza­tion that I was not good as a torero and decided to apply myself to writing. At that time I hardly thought of the theatre and still less of the cinema.

Q: You said one day that you have had a great deal of difficulty finding the money to make your films, that you have spent more time struggling to get this money than working as an artist. How is this battle at this time?

Welles: More bitter than ever. Worse than ever. Very difficult. I have already said that I do not work enough. I am frustrated, do you understand? And I believe that my work shows that I do not do enough filming. My cinema is perhaps too explosive, because I wait too long before I speak. It’s terrible. I have bought little cameras in order to make a film if I can find the money. I will shoot it in 16 mm. The cinema is a metier . . . nothing can compare to the cinema. The cinema belongs to our times. It is “the thing” to do. During the shoot­ing of The Trial, I spent marvelous days. It was an amusement, happiness. You cannot imagine what I felt.

When I make a film or at the time of my theatrical premieres, the critics habitually say, “This work is not as good as the one of three years ago.” And if I look for the criticism of that one, three years back,

I find an unfavorable review that says that that isn’t as good as what I did three years earlier. And so it goes. I admit that experiences can be false but I believe that it is also false to want to be fashionable. If one is fashionable for the greatest part of one’s career, one will produce second-class work. Perhaps by chance one will arrive at being a success but this means that one is a follower and not an innovator. An artist should lead, blaze trails.

What is serious is that in countries where English is spoken, the role played by criticism concerning serious works of cinema is very impor­tant. Given the fact that one cannot make films in competition with Doris Day, what is said by reviews such as Sight and Sound is the only reference.

Things are going particularly badly in my own country. Touch of Evil never had a first-run, never had the usual presentation to the press, and was not the object of any critical writing in either the weeklies, the reviews, or the daily papers. It was considered to be too bad. When the representative from Universal wanted to exhibit it at the Brussels Fair in 1958, he was told that it wasn’t a good enough film for a festival. He answered that, in any case, it must be put on the program. It went unnoticed and was sent back. The film took the grand prix, but it was no less sent back.

Q: Do you consider yourself a moralist?

Welles: Yes, but against morality. Most of the time that may appear paradoxical, but the things I love in painting, in music, in literature, represent only my penchant for what is my opposite. And moralists bore me very much. However, I’m afraid I am one of theml

Q: In what concerns you, it is not so much a question of a moralist’s attitude but rather an ethic that you adopt in the face of the world.

Welles: My two Shakespearean films are made from an ethical point of view. I believe I have never made a film without having a solid ethical point of view about its story. Morally speaking, there is no ambiguity in what I do.

Q: But an ambiguous point of view is necessary. These days, the world is made that way.

Welles: But that is the way the world appears to us. It is not a true ambiguity: it’s like a larger screen. A kind of a moral cinemascope. I believe it is necessary to give all the characters their best arguments, in order that they may defend themselves, including those I disagree with. To them as well, I give the best defensive arguments I can im­agine. I offer them the same possibility for expression as I would a sympathetic character.

That’s what gives this impression of ambiguity: my being chivalrous to people whose behavior I do not approve of. The characters are ambiguous but the significance of the work is not. I do not want to resemble the majority of Americans, who are demagogs and rhetori­cians. This is one of America’s great weaknesses, and rhetoric is one of the greatest weaknesses of American artists; above all, those of my generation. Miller, for example, is terribly rhetorical.

Q: What is the problem in America?

Welles: If I speak to you of the things that are wrong it won’t be the obvious ones; those are similar to what is wrong in France, in Italy, or in Spain; we know them all. In American art the problem, or better, one of the problems, is the betrayal of the Left by the Left, self-betrayal. In one sense, by stupidity, by orthodoxy, and because of slogans; in another, by simple betrayal. We are very few in our genera­tion who have not betrayed our position, who have not given other people’s names. . . .

That is terrible. It can never be undone. I don’t know how one starts over after a similar betrayal that, however, differs enormously from this, for example: a Frenchman who collaborated with the gestapo in order to save his wife’s life—that is another genre of collabora­tion. What is so bad about the American Left is that it betrayed in order to save its swimming pools. There was no American Right in my generation. Intellectually it didn’t exist. There were only Leftists and they mutually betrayed each other. The Left was not destroyed by McCarthy: it demolished itself, ceding to a new generation of Nihilists. That’s what happened.

You can’t call it “Fascism.” I believe that the term “Fascism” should only be utilized in order to define a quite precise political attitude. It would be necessary to find a new word in order to define what is hap­pening in America. Fascism must be born out of chaos. And America is not, as I know it, in chaos. The social structure is not in a state of dissolution. No, it doesn’t correspond at all to the true definition of Fascism. I believe it is two simple, obvious things: the technological society is not accustomed to living with its own tools. That’s what counts. We speak of them, we use them but we don’t know how to live with them. The other thing is the prestige of the people responsible for the technological society. In this society the men who direct and the savants who represent technique do not leave room for the artist who favors the human being. In reality, they utilize him only for decoration.

Hemingway says, in The Green Hills of Africa, that America is a country of adventure and, if the adventure disappears there, any American who possesses this primitive spirit must go elsewhere to seek adventure: Africa, Europe, etc. … It is an intensely romantic point of view. There is some truth in it, but if it is so intensely romantic it is because there is still an enormous quantity of adventure in America. In the cinema, you cannot imagine all that one may do in it. All I need is a job in cinema, is for someone to give me a camera. There is nothing dishonorable about working in America. The country is full of possibilities for expressing what is happening all over the world. What really exists is an enormous compromise. The ideal American type is perfectly expressed by the Protestant, individualist, anticon­formist, and this is the type that is in the process of disappearing. In reality, a very few of him remain. . . .

Q: As an artist and as a member of a certain generation, do you feel isolated?

Welles: I have always felt isolated. I believe that any good artist feels isolated. And I must think that I am a good artist, for otherwise I would not be able to work and I beg your pardon for taking the liberty of believing this; if someone wants to direct a film, he must think that he is good. A good artist should be isolated. If he isn’t isolated, something is wrong.

Q: These days, it would be impossible to present the Mercury Theatre.

Welles: Completely impossible for financial reasons. The Mercury Theatre was possible only because I was earning three thousand dollars a week on the radio and spending two thousand to sustain the theatre. At that time, it was still cheap to sustain a theatre. Plus I had formid­able actors. And what was most exciting about this Mercury Theatre was that it was a theatre on Broadway, not “off.” Today, one might have a theatre off-Broadway, but that’s another thing.

What characterized the Mercury Theatre was that it was next door to another where they were doing a musical comedy, near a commer­cial theatre, it was in the theatre center. Part of the neighboring bill of fare was the Group Theatre which was the official theatre of the Left: we were in contact without having an official relationship; we were of the same generation, although not on the same path. The whole thing gave the New York of that time an extraordinary vitality. The quality of actors and that of spectators is no longer what it was in those marvelous years. The best theatre should be in the center of everything.

Q: Does that explain your permanent battle to remain in the milieu of the cinema and not outside of the industry?

Welles: I may be rejected, but as for me, I always want to be right in the center. If I am isolated, it is because I am obliged to be, for such is not my intention. I am always aiming for the center. I fail, but that is what I try to attain.

Q: Are you thinking of returning to Hollywood?

Welles: Not at the moment. But who knows what may change at the next instant? … I am dying to work there because of the tech­nicians, who are marvelous. They truly represent a director’s dream.

Q: A certain anti-Fascist attitude can be found in your films. . . .

Welles: There is more than one French intellectual who believes that I am a Fascist . . . it’s idiotic, but that’s what they write. What happens with these French intellectuals is that they take my physical aspect as an actor for my idea as an auteur. As an actor I always play a certain type of role: Kings, great men, etc. This is not because I think them to be the only persons in the world who are worth the trouble. My physical aspect does not permit me to play other roles. No one would believe a defenseless, humble person played by me. But they take this to be a projection of my own personality. I hope that the great majority at least considers it obvious that I am anti-Fascist. . . .

True Fascism is always confused with Futurism’s early fascistic mystique. By this I make allusion to the first generation of Italian Fascism, which was a way of speaking that disappeared as soon as the true Fascism imposed itself, because it was an idiotic romanticism, like that of d’Annunzio and others. That is what disappeared. And that is what the French critics are talking about.

True Fascism is gangsterism of the low-born middle class, lament­ably organized by . . . good, we all know what Fascism is. It is very clear. It is amusing to see how the Russians have been mistaken about the subject of Touch of Evil. They have attacked it pitilessly, as if it were a question of the veritable decadence of Western civilization. They were not content to attack what I showed: they attacked me too.

I believe that the Russians didn’t understand the words, or some other thing. What is disastrous, in Russia, is that they are fully in the middle ages, the middle ages in its most rigid aspect. No one thinks for himself. It is very sad. This orthodoxy has something terrible about it. They live only by slogans they have inherited. No one any longer knows what these slogans signify. . . .

Q: You are often accused of being egocentric. When you appear as an actor in your films, it is said that the camera is, above all, in the service of your personal exhibition. . . . For example, in Touch of Evil the shooting angle moves from a general shot to a close-up in order to catch your first appearance on getting out of the car.

Welles: Yes, but that is the story, the subject. I wouldn’t act a role if it was not felt as dominating the whole story. I do not think it is just [.however,] to say that I utilize the camera to my profit and not to the profit of the other actors. It’s not true. Although they will say it even more about Falstaff: but it is precisely because in the film I am playing Falstaff, not Hotspur.

At this time I think and rethink, above all, of the world in which the story unfolds, of the appearance of the film. The number of sets I will be able to build will be so restrained that the film will have to be resolutely anti-Baroque. It will have to have numerous rather formal general shots, like what one may see at eye level, wall frescoes. It is a big problem creating a world in period costumes. In this genre, it is difficult to get a feeling of real life; few films arrive at it. I believe this is due to the fact that one has not concretized, in all its details, before starting to work, the universe presupposed by such a film.

Falstaff should be very plain on the visual level because above all it is a very real human story, very comprehensible and very adaptable to modern tragedy. And nothing should come between the story and the dialogue. The visual part of this story should exist as a background, as something secondary. Everything of importance in the film should be found on the faces; on these faces that whole universe I was speaking of should be found. I imagine that it will be “the” film of my life in terms of close-ups. Theoretically, I am against close-ups of all types, although I consider few theories as given and am for remaining very free. I am resolutely against close-ups, but I am convinced that this story requires them.

Q: Why this objection to close-ups?

Welles: I find it marvelous that the public may choose, with its eyes, what it wants to see of a shot. I don’t like to force it, and the use of the close-up amounts to forcing it: you can see nothing else. In Kane, for example, you must have seen that there were very few close-ups, hardly any. There are perhaps six in the whole film. But a story like Falstaff demands them, because the moment we step back and separate ourselves from the faces, we see the people in period costumes and many actors in the foreground. The closer we are to the face the more universal it becomes; Falstaff is a somber comedy, the story of the betrayal of friendship. . . .

Q: There is a line spoken by [Charles] Foster [Kane] to his banker which we would like very much to hear you explain: “I could have been a great man, if I hadn’t been so rich.”

Welles: Good, the whole story is in that. Anything at all may de­stroy greatness: a woman, illness, riches. My hatred of richness in itself is not an obsession. I do not believe that richness is the only enemy of greatness. If he had been poor, Kane would not have been a great man but one thing is sure and that is that he would have been a success­ful man. He thinks that success brings greatness. As for that, it is the character that says it, not I. Kane arrives at having a certain class but never greatness.

It isn’t because everything seems easy to him. That is an excuse he gives himself. But the film doesn’t say that. Obviously, since he is the head of one of the biggest fortunes in the world, things become easier, but his greatest error was that of the American plutocrats of those years, who believed that money automatically conferred a certain stature to a man. Kane is a man who truly belongs to his time. This type of man hardly exists any more. These were the plutocrats who believed they could be President of the United States, if they wanted to. They also believed they could buy anything. It wasn’t even neces­sary to be intelligent to see that it isn’t always like that.

Q: Are they more realistic [now]?

Wf.lles: It’s not a question of realism. This type of plutocrat no longer exists. Things have changed a great deal, above all economic structures. Very few rich men today succeed in retaining absolute control of their own money: their money is controlled by others. It is, like many other things, a question of organization. They are prisoners of their money. And I don’t say this from a sentimental point of view; there is no longer anything but boards of directors and the participa­tion of diverse opinions . . . they are no longer free to commit the sort of follies that used to be possible. The moment has passed for this type of egocentric plutocrat, in the same way that this type of newspaper owner has disappeared.

What is very unique about Kane’s personality is that he never earned money; he passed his life doing nothing but spending it. He did not belong to that category of rich men who made fortunes: he only spent it. Kane didn’t even have the responsibility of tire true capitalist.

Q: Did Citizen Kane bring in a lot of money?

Welles: No, it’s not a question of that. The film went well. But my problems with Hollywood started before I got there. The real problem was that contract, which gave me, free and clear, carte blanche and which had been signed before I went out there. I had too much power. At that time I was faced with a machination from which I have never recovered, because I have never had an enormous box office success. If you have such success, from that instant on you are given everything!

I had luck as no one had; afterwards, I had the worst bad luck in the history of the cinema, but that is in the order of things: I had to pay for having had the best luck in the history of the cinema. Never has a man been given so much power in the Hollywood system. An absolute power. And artistic control.

Q: There are cinéastes, in Europe, who possess this power.

Welles: But they don’t possess the American technical arsenal, which is a grandiose thing. The man who pushes the camera, those who change the lights, the one who handles the crane—they have children at the university. You are side by side with men who don’t fee them­selves to be workers but who think of themselves as very capable and very well paid artisans. That makes an enormous difference; enormous.

I could never have done all that I did in Touch of Evil elsewhere. And it is not only a question of technique; it essentially concerns the human competence of the men with whom I worked. All this stems from the economic security they enjoy, from the fact that they are well paid, from the fact that they do not think of themselves as belonging to another class.

Throughout the entire European cinema industry, to a greater or lesser degree, one feels that there is a great barrier posed by educational differences. In all European countries one is called “Doctor,” “Profes­sor,” etc., if one has gone to a university; the great advantage in America is that there, at times, you find directors who are less learned than the man who pushes the camera. There is no “professor.” Classes do not exist in the American cinema world. The pleasure one expe­riences working with an American crew is something that has no equivalent on earth. But you pay a price for that. There are the pro­ducers, and that group is as bad as the technicians are good. . . .

Q: What do you think of the American cinema, as seen from Europe?

Welles: I am surprised by the tendency of the serious critics to find elements of value only among the American directors of action films, while they find none in the American directors of historical films. Lubitsch, for example, is a giant. But he doesn’t correspond to the taste of cinema aesthetes. Why? I know nothing about it. Besides, it doesn’t interest me. But Lubitsch’s talent and originality are stupefying.

Q: And Von Sternberg?

Welles: Admirable! He is the greatest exotic director of all time and one of the great lights.

Q: Let’s talk about other directors. What do you think of Arthur Penn? Have you seen The Left-Handed Gun?

Welles: I saw it first on television and then as cinema. It was better on television, more brutal, and beyond that I believe that at that time Penn had more experience directing for television and so handled it better, but for cinema this experience went against him. I believe him to be a good theatre director, an admirable director of actresses—a very rare thing: very few cineastesss possess that quality.

I have seen nothing by the most recent generation, except for a sampling of the avante-garde. Among those whom I would call “younger generation” Kubrick appears to me to be a giant.

Q: But, for example, The Killing was more or less a copy of The Asphalt Jungle?

Welles: Yes, but The Killing was better. The problem of imitation leaves me indifferent, above all if the imitator succeeds in surpassing the model. For me, Kubrick is a better director than Huston. I haven’t seen Lolita but I believe that Kubrick can do everything. He is a great director who has not yet made his great film. What I see in him is a talent not possessed by the great directors of the generation immediately preceding his, I mean Ray, Aldrich, etc. Perhaps this is because his temperament comes closer to mine.

Q: And those of the older generation? Wyler, for example? and Hitchcock?

Welles: Hitchcock is an extraordinary director; William Wyler a brilliant producer.

Q: How do you make this distinction between two men who are both called directors?

Welles: A producer doesn’t make anything. He chooses the story, works on it with the scenarist, has a say in the distribution, and, in the old sense of the term American producer, even decides on the camera angles, what sequences will be used. What is more, he defines the final form of the film. In reality, he is a sort of director’s boss.

Wyler is this man. Only he’s his own boss. His work, however, is better as boss than as director, given the fact that in that role he spends his clearest moments waiting, with the camera, for something to hap­pen. He says nothing. He waits, as the producer waits in his office. He looks at twenty impeccable shots, seeking the one that has something, and usually he knows how to choose the best one. As a director he is good but as a producer he is extraordinary.

Q: According to you, the role of director consists in making some­thing happen?

Welles: I do not like to set up very strict rules, but in the Holly­wood system, the director has one job. In other systems he has another job. I am against absolute rules because even in the case of America we find marvelous films achieved under the absolute tyranny of the production system. There are even films much respected by film so­cieties that weren’t made by directors but by producers and scenarists. . . . Under the American system, no one is capable of saying whether a film was or was not directed by a director.

Q: In an interview, John Houseman said that you got all of the credit for Citizen Kane and that this was unfair because it should have gone to Herman J. Mankiewicz, who wrote the scenario.

Welles: He wrote several important scenes. (Houseman is an old enemy of mine.) I was very lucky to work with Mankiewicz: everything concerning Rosebud belongs to him. As for me, sincerely, he doesn’t please me very much; he functions, it is true, but I have never had complete confidence in him. He serves as a hyphen between all the elements. I had, in return, the good fortune to have Gregg Toland, who is the best director of photography that ever existed, and I also had the luck to hit upon actors who had never worked in films before; not a single one of them had ever found himself in front of a camera until then. They all came from my theatre. I could never have made Citizen Kane with actors who were old hands at cinema, because they would have said right off, “Just what do you think we’re doing?” My being a newcomer would have put them on guard and, with the same blow, would have made a mess of the film. It was possible because I had my own family, so to speak.

Q: How did you arrive at Citizen Kane’s cinematic innovations?

Welles: I owe it to my ignorance. If this word seems inadequate to you, replace it with innocence. I said to myself: this is what the camera should be really capable of doing, in a normal fashion. When we were on the point of shooting the first sequence, I said, “Let’s do that!” Gregg Toland answered that it was impossible. I came back with, “We can always try; we’ll soon see. Why not?” We had to have special lenses made because at that time there weren’t any like those that exist today.

Q: During the shooting, did you have the sensation of making such an important film?

Welles: I never doubted it for a single instant.

“A Trip to Don Quixoteland: Conversations with Orson Welles’’ by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J. A. Pruneda, trans. Rose Kaplin, Cahiers du Cinéma (English), No. 5 (1966): 34-47.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on reddit
Share on tumblr
Share on linkedin

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Orson Welles

Orson Welles: Of Time and Loss

Judged by first—even second or third—impressions, Welles’s films are a triumph of show over substance. His most memorable images seem like elephantine labors to bring forth mouse-size ideas.