6 Filmmaking Tips from Orson Welles

By  · Published on May 6th, 2015


Even though Orson Welles’ career is one of the most consequential and legendary within film history, referring to him as a “director” or even a “filmmaker” only tells part of the story. While Welles’ cinematic output was notoriously cut short in numerous occasions by forces of will outside his own, his career hardly resided exclusively behind the camera. Not only was Welles one of the most famous voices in American radio throughout the 1930s, while he also led some of the most progressive and controversial works on the American stage in New York’s Mercury Theater, he was also a prolific television personality, a consummate actor, a public intellectual, a fierce defender of the arts, and even a bizarro-world variety show host.

Few have mastered and made their name across numerous tiers of 20th century mass media quite like Welles. After all, his first feature film, completed at age 25, was inspired by the life of the most powerful newspaper magnate in the world. “Filmmaker” in the traditional sense is hardly a moniker that encapsulates Welles’ accomplishments from his 1937 production of “Julius Caesar” set in fascist Italy to his 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast to arguably making one of the first “essay films” with his 1972 documentary F for Fake to achieving a kind of ubiquity in 1960s and 1970s television as an endlessly fascinating interview personality whose force of nature in front of television cameras easily eclipsed many other actors and directors.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of this storied and complex career is that it continually bears riches long after Welles’ death. Last year, Too Much Johnson, a film Welles made for a Mercury Theater production between his experimental short, 1934’s Hearts of Age and 1941’s Kane, was discovered and restored, and his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, will hopefully be seen for the first time soon. While Welles’ career was certainly compromised, it’s hard to endorse the myth of a career forever cut short when taking into account how prolifically Welles’ wide-ranging talents made themselves available.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the incomparable Orson Welles upon his 100th birthday.

“A Film is Never Right Until It’s Right Musically”

Welles sometimes spent years in post-production on his films. He saw filmmaking in some respects as a never-ending process, always putting new finishing touches on his existing works as he did for segments of his adaptation of Othello for this documentary essay, Filming Othello. Within editing, Welles sought to push the language of narrative filmmaking into entirely new rhythms and cadences, as the ahead-of-their time pacing of F for fake and existing excerpts of The Other Side of the Wind testify. Where production for Welles was often a place of uncertainty and frustration, editing could be a site of peace and control where the musical artistry of filmmaking comes fully into view.

The Director is the Audience

The director is simply the audience. So the terrible burden of the director is to take the place of that yawning vacuum, to be the audience and to select from what happens during the day which movement shall be a disaster and which a gala night. His job is to preside over accidents.”

The longer portion of this 1981 quote from Welles (which I was unfortunately unable to find in full) stresses that the director is a sort of actor who must perform for their cast and crew and embody all their positions, but at the same time must also possess a detachment from the proceedings that allows them to reside in the position of a patron in a movie theater. It is the task of the director to possess a vision of coherence and completion amidst the unpredictable turbulence of a long shoot.

Directors Should Love Acting and Invite Collaboration

Here is Welles talking about working under other directors, which he did often for a range of filmmakers including John Huston, Mike Nichols, Henry Jaglom, and Harry Kumel. One of his best-known performances under another director was, of course, as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (the zither-composed “Third Man theme” introduced many of Welles’ television appearances throughout his career), and here Welles challenges the Classic Hollywood-era myth of inherent conflict between actors and directors.

Such correspondences no doubt took place, but Reed was an exception and an example for Welles as a filmmaker who loved acting and looked at filmmaking as a form of collaboration. Directors like Welles regularly make the switch in front of and behind the screen, and crafting performances can only come from a love of and familiarity with being on both sides of the camera.

Sympathy is Complex, and Films are a Powerful Vessel for It

From his numerous politically-charged stage works at the Mercury Theater to choosing William Randolph Hearst as the subject of his first film and following that with The Magnificent Ambersons, a critique of industrialization made at the height of the war effort, Welles was one of the most openly progressive and controversial public figures of the early twentieth century. He often underplayed his role as social provocateur (see his aww-shucks post-“War of the Worlds” press conference), but he was no less headstrong in using mass media as a platform for public statements.

Yet these statements were always exercised within the particular utilities of the art form at hand. When Welles asks the above interviewer is Citizen Kane is a work of libel, the answer is obviously no for a film that seeks to empathize and understand a character who is presented as neither hero nor villain, but rather an all-too-familiar American archetype examined in this cautionary tale about one man’s concentration of power. Sympathy for characters and subjects is a complex reaction that doesn’t necessarily place things in a simplistic good/bad binary, and art – as a potent vehicle for sympathy – is ripe with the power to consider topics and themes with all the complexity inherent within sympathy in tow, in ways that no polemic can.

Neither Poverty Nor Endless Resources are Platforms for Creativity

It’s Difficult to Find – and Deal with – a Real Audience

Who else but Orson Welles could criticize the complicity of an audience like this, yet charm them into applause at the same time?

When asked how much “obligation” Welles felt to a “mass audience” during a 1981 Q&A at the University of Southern California, Welles answered, “I would love a mass audience.” For his famous aristocratic tastes and envelope-pushing approach to form and content across theater, radio, and film, Welles aspiration was to become a populist artists and entertainer, a “Dickens for America” according to Joseph McBride.

But Welles also sought an idealized vision of an active audience fearless to express anything that didn’t conform with a programmed, anticipated reaction. Art that gets audiences out of their seats (whether to boo, applaud, or participate) conflicts with the passivity instructed by consumer capitalism and advertising, and these are the truly worthy works of art that challenge perceived norms and then become challenged in return.

What We’ve Learned: “Go On Singing”

The impetus to make art is often thought of as a means of securing a legacy, a future beyond one’s mortal self. Few people understood the tragic myth of this way of thinking better than Welles, who made numerous films that were taken away from him, never completed, or even destroyed. Art can be as fragile and fleeting as our own mortality. Then why make it? As Welles postulates in F for Fake, it’s the singing itself that’s important, not whether the hymns echo into eternity.