Chuck Workman (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Chuck Workman offers his thoughts about his new documentary on Orson Welles, the greatest American directors, and the first film he ever saw.
Academy Award winning director Chuck Workman was in Chicago the other day to premiere his latest documentary. Titled Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, the film is a marvelous study of this complicated, extraordinary man, who revolutionized cinema in America and around the world.
Due to an agreement with the film's distributor, I'm not allowed to review the film until its release date of December 12, but I can tell you know that it is a first-rate work, one that will please devoted fans of Welles as well as film lovers who only know of his reputation. I think it's a cinch to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, but even if it doesn't (one never knows about these things), it's a highly entertaining film, one in which Workman succeeded brilliantly in his pursuit to tell the remarkable story of Orson Welles.
Workman is best known as a director of short films, the most famous of which is Precious Images from 1986, which was honored with an Oscar as Best Short Film (Live Action). The director produced a short film for the Academy Awards for twenty or so years; these films were gems and displayed the love of cinema that in my opinion has been missing in recent years' ceremonies. He has also directed several feature documentaries including Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990) and What is Cinema? (2014).
Workman agreed to a brief interview with me shortly before the premiere of Magician.
Tom Hyland: I know you from all the short films you made for Academy Awards, which I loved. One of those that really stands out for me was the film about famous actors and directors recalling the first film they ever saw. I remember Michael Douglas stating that for him it was Lili and that he saw it eighteen or nineteen times…
Chuck Workman: Oh, that’s one of my favorites. I love that film. That’s the one with Katherine Hepburn at the end?
TH: Yes, and Gerard Depardieu mentioning Burt Lancaster and “the little bird” (Birdman of Alcatraz). So with that in mind, what was the first film you ever saw?
CW: Meet Me in St. Louis. I remember that my parents told me that when they sang “The Trolley Song” - they must have had a record that they played, because I got up on a seat at a very young age and sang it with them.
TH: How old were you at the time?
CW: I don’t know. Maybe four- I guess I was four. I was born in the mid 1940s, but MGM used to rerelease these films, so I can’t remember exactly. Sometimes I see the year of a movie that I remember seeing and I say, “Wait a minute, I wasn’t even born then!”
But apparently they rereleased more than they were making. They would just start all over again. Funny thing was, I did trailers many years later for rereleases for MGM of a lot of movies, so it’s kind of ironic.
TH: Do you have any ideas how many movies you’ve seen? I imagine it must be in the thousands.
CW: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think as many as Martin Scorsese! Lately, I don’t go to that many movies.
TH: Is that because of work or because the movies today aren’t what they used to be?
CW: I think that I get bored pretty quickly. I don’t stay. I’m in the Academy, so they send me a DVD of every movie, but I don’t generally watch them. There are major movies that I don’t get around to seeing. They’re basically entertainment films; I’m more interested in the art of cinema these days. I don’t try and catch up on every pop movie.
I did it for so long. Growing up, I knew all these movies. I’m much more interested – and still am – in foreign films, in art films, not in Hollywood films.
TH: When did the idea for a Welles documentary first germinate for you?
CW: Over twenty years ago when I made “Precious Images.” I opened (that film) with Citizen Kane and used it over and over. When Turner had owned the film at its 50th anniversary in the early ‘90s…
TH: They threatened to colorize it.
CW: They threatened to colorize it. I was there when he talked about it at Paramount and I even filmed the little reception at Paramount for the 50th anniversary with the idea, “maybe I’ll make a documentary about Orson Welles someday”, and then I never did anything, I lost that film – I don’t know where it is. I was given the opportunity when somebody asked me, “well, what are you interested in doing?” I said this (an Orson Welles film).
Over the years, I worked with present RKO on some of their films and I was always pitching it, but just never got a chance to do it. I’m glad that it took this long because I think I know more about film and important things in cinema that Welles was doing.
TH: In this documentary, you’re not treating Welles like a star, you’re treating him as the genius he was.
CW: I believe so. I often say that there are three great American filmmakers; it’s Kubrick, Robert Altman and Orson Welles. I have great respect for John Ford, etc., but I think they’re making genre films. These other guys were looking at film as a certain kind of art form.
TH: What’s the biggest thing that surprised you about Orson Welles while you were doing the research for this film?
CW: What happened on this film was I showed every single film. I tried to anyway, but there were a few that got away that were not finished, but every finished film. How good they were, the depth of artfulness in all the films. The filmmaking, the greatness of filmmaking in the most minor of films.
Another thing that occurred to me was chronologically how Welles would respond to one form or another of filmmaking and kind of learn that on a film and incorporate that into what he was doing. He never did much editing until his third or fourth film and then he suddenly became a really phenomenal editor. I think things like that. It’s like he would say, “Oh, I can do that,” and then he would do it. So I did get an education there.
Also, I didn’t know myself about all his unfinished films. I knew there were a bunch of them, but I didn’t know there were that many.
TH: If we could ever imagine that someone as talented and as innovative as Welles existed today, could that person even succeed in Hollywood today?
CW: Well, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that Welles was an independent filmmaker, like Wes Anderson, like Richard Linklater. So he would have probably done that, but one of the things I think he would have done today, because of the influence of Brando and other actors, he might have taken his acting much more seriously. Even though he kind of rose to the challenge on various occasions.
TH: I think his role in Compulsion, especially in the courtroom scene, is tremendous. I wish you could have played a few more seconds of that in your film.
CW: Yes, that’s a particularly good one. He took his acting seriously. He would be a first class actor/director now, actually more than that. He would have taken the acting more seriously today than he did.
TH: I love Charlton Heston’s quote in the film about how Welles was a great filmmaker, but seemed to always want to alienate the people who had the money. You can’t do that in Hollywood.
CW: You can’t. You have to suffer fools and there are a lot of them, they all want to help you with your movies. So everybody has the same problem and some people are just better at it. I used to always ask well known directors, “what do you do?” Mel Brooks used to say, “Oh, I tell then anything, because they don’t remember anyway.”
Fred Zinneman once told me he’s European so he’s always very polite and they remember that. So now you get notes and written pages and pages of notes and you have some junior executive that’s following all those things for you. But often the hired executive doesn’t worry about it- they understand what you’re doing, so it’s not that bad.
TH: Finally, in this documentary, I thought your storytelling differed over the film. The first half was excellent, but very straightforward, while the latter part of the film was more Wellesian, if you will, as you told his story in a more innovative way.
CW: Well it's a documentary and you have to find a way to keep people in their seats. After all, there's no plot!