Film Review: They'll Love Me When I'm Dead

Documentary look at the restoration of a long-lost feature by Orson Welles.
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The story behind The Other Side of the Wind, a feature film Orson Welles started in 1970 and never completed, is more interesting than the movie itself. And this is a more conventional documentary than expected from director Morgan Neville, whose Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was released earlier this year. Still, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead gives a rich, flavorful account of a self-destructive genius on one of his last creative benders.

Welles, the former boy wonder with titles like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to his credit, had worked primarily in Europe after the commercial failure of Touch of Evil in 1958. Celebrated by a new generation of Hollywood artists, he decided to go all in on a project that would embrace the strategies and techniques of guerrilla filmmaking.

The Other Side of the Wind is the story of a genius director (played by John Huston) suffering a creative block on his latest project, also called The Other Side of the Wind. Surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, he throws a 70th birthday party that exposes a "new" Hollywood just as corrupt and misguided as the old one.

Using film clips, archival footage and present-day interviews with those who either worked on the project or knew Welles, Neville and his team show how the filmmaker pulled together enough money for a ten-day shoot in the deserts of Arizona. Casting wasn't complete, the script changed daily, and the tiny budget meant niceties like paid extras and costumes were almost nonexistent.

After three weeks, Rich Little left, to be replaced in his key part by Peter Bogdanovich, who had been instructed to play his earlier role in the movie doing his Jerry Lewis imitation. As the shooting dragged on, Welles picked up money appearing in commercials or helping edit porn his cameraman Gary Graver shot on off days.

Welles could be cruel, turning on friends like Bogdanovich, whom he taunted mercilessly while staying at his house for three years. Like many filmmakers his age, he could be woefully out of touch with his market. The film-within-a-film in The Other Side of the Wind is an excruciating hodgepodge of European art-house clichés, tied together only by the bad acting of male ingénue Bob Random and Oja Kodar's often naked body. (Kodar, who co-wrote the screenplay, was romantically involved with Welles.) Quotes like "We're going to put the midgets in later in Spain" reveal how Byzantine, and bankrupt, Welles's showmanship could be.

Welles could still take daring leaps to solve problems. He might edit together shots that were filmed five years apart. He spent six months on one scene set in a bathroom, using 500 edits to put it together. But he could not find a way to turn hours of footage into a viable film.

When the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979, the remaining money for The Other Side of the Wind dried up. The original negative became the subject of an extended lawsuit. Welles never completely gave up on the film, but it joined The Deep, Don Quixote and The Dreamers in his library of unfinished projects. Netflix, which is distributing this documentary, financed the release of a version of The Other Side of the Wind. But as actor Danny Huston points out, "What is its true form?”

Neville has unearthed fascinating footage, including outtakes from a documentary on Welles by David and Albert Maysles. Briskly edited, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead doesn't shy away from criticizing Welles, and is clear-eyed about his enormous, exhausting creativity. Anyone interested in the work of one of cinema's great directors will learn a lot from this documentary.