I too, am a big fan of Filming Othello; here's the script, which I believe Lawrence Fench transcribed and to which he writes an intro, and a little interview which French conducts with Gary Graver. Actually, I think FO is one of the most beautiful things Welles ever did; hope you agree!
A Complete transcription of Welles' last finished film: Filming Othello
and an interview with cinematographer Gary Graver by Lawrence French.
All material courtesy of Lawrence French.
A film by
Written and Directed by Orson Welles
Produced by Klaus Hellwig and Juergen Hellwig
Photographed (in 16mm color) by Gary Graver
Edited by Marty Roth
Music by Angelo Lavagnino and Alberto Barbaris
Premiered June, 1978 at the Berlin Film Festival
With F FOR FAKE, I thought I had discovered a new kind of movie, and it was the kind of movie I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. The failure of F FOR FAKE, in America and also in England, was one of the big shocks of my life. I really thought I was onto something. As a form, (F FOR FAKE) is a personal essay film, as opposed to a documentary. It's quite different-- it's not a documentary at all.
--Orson Welles to Leslie Megahey, 1980
By Lawrence French
FILMING OTHELLO was Orson Welles last completed film, and regrettably it never received any formal distribution in America. It was a project proposed to Welles by a West German Television station, although four years elapsed from the time Welles began work on the project in 1974, and the film's premiere in 1978. It seems probable that after Welles received the initial inspiration (from the German producers) to make the film, he decided to make it as a personal essay film. Since Welles would continually come up with new ideas while he was shooting, that meant he would do it at his own pace, and (like most of his later projects), with his own money.
In this regard, FILMING OTHELLO strangely mirrors the working methods that Welles was forced to employ on OTHELLO itself, although it was obviously not quite as chaotic as OTHELLO. Indeed, FILMING OTHELLO was a much more leisurely undertaking. Welles would simply shoot whenever he felt like it, usually in the evenings at his home in Hollywood, and he allowed long lapses to occur while he was busy with more important projects, such as THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.
Although FILMING OTHELLO is a valuable document on the making of OTHELLO, it is also a very minor Welles film, since it consists almost entirely of a long monologue by Welles, as he explains all the mishaps that occurred while he was shooting OTHELLO. Unfortunately, this talking head format becomes tedious rather quickly, despite Welles usual brilliance as a raconteur. However, it should be noted that Welles originally intended to make a much more elaborate film, by including cutaway scenes that would have broken up the monotony of the lecture format. Welles not only planned to illustrate his discourse by re-visiting many of the key locations of OTHELLO, he actually shot several of these sequences, including footage of himself on a motorboat, gliding down the grand canal in Venice as he points out the different sites where OTHELLO was originally shot. A brief glimpse of this beautiful footage can be seen in Gary Graver's documentary, WORKING WITH ORSON WELLES (available on Laserdisc). These planned sequences would clearly have made a world of difference to the static nature of the film as it now stands, but all that footage was somehow lost, after it was placed in the custody of a Spanish producer.
Because of the very specialized nature of FILMING OTHELLO, any hopes of a theatrical release (outside of film festivals), was virtually nonexistent. This was especially true in the pre-video era of 1978. Also, at the time, the rights to the original OTHELLO had reverted back to Welles, so it was not readily available for theatrical showings. As a result, after FILMING OTHELLO premiered at the Berlin Film Festival (in June of 1978), it didn't receive a theatrical run in New York until a year later. On June 26, 1979 it was presented at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, for a limited three week run on a special double bill with the original OTHELLO. Apparently Welles either elected not to sell the two films together, or else he failed to get any viable distribution offers, despite the fact that Andrew Sarris of THE VILLAGE VOICE wrote that the two films "make an illuminating double bill, that no serious student of film or theater can afford to miss." At the time, the highly influential NEW YORK TIMES totally ignored FILMING OTHELLO, although, eight years later, when FILMING OTHELLO was revived at the Film Forum (on February 4, 1987), NEW YORK TIMES film critic Vincent Canby reviewed it quite favorably. Canby wrote that, "FILMING OTHELLO is full of priceless anecdotes... an entertaining and revealing film memoir. FILMING OTHELLO is so good it makes one long for more... At the end of this rich recollection, one walks out of the theater eager to see OTHELLO again."
In 1992, seven years after Welles death, the original OTHELLO finally got a proper re-release (courtesy of Castle Hill films), and received the belated praise it so richly deserved. Unfortunately, although the re-release provided the perfect opportunity to revive FILMING OTHELLO, that only occurred in a few rare instances, (such as at the 1992 San Francisco Film Festival). Of course, FILMING OTHELLO would also have made a perfect supplement to the subsequent laserdisc/video release of OTHELLO, but only short excepts from FILMING OTHELLO were included on the Criterion edition laserdisc.
Despite his many protests to the contrary, Welles usually welcomed the chance to talk seriously about his films, and in 1981, he began work on a follow-up to FILMING OTHELLO, this time about the making of one of his own favorite films, THE TRIAL. After a screening of THE TRIAL at the University of Southern California, Gary Graver shot a question and answer session between Welles and the students there. Unfortunately, that was as far as work on FILMING THE TRIAL ever progressed.
Toward the end of his life Welles planned many other essay films, including one on Spain and the Spanish virtues, and the making of DON QUIXOTE. No doubt Welles would have also liked to do an essay film on IT'S ALL TRUE, his aborted South American documentary. In fact, shortly before Welles death in 1985, the surviving footage of IT'S ALL TRUE was discovered in a vault at Paramount. Although this footage was finally assembled and released in 1993, it's fascinating to imagine what Welles might have done with his original IT'S ALL TRUE material, forty years after he shot it.
The following is a transcript of Welles remarks taken from the soundtrack of FILMING OTHELLO. Since the film essentially takes the form of a lecture, having the text to read and refer to, is a much easier way to digest Welles comments. It can now be perused at one's leisure, without the strain of trying to absorb this rather dense material in a single 90 minute screening.
If you have any comments, I can be reached at:
lrfrench at yahoo.com
A long clip of the opening funeral scene from OTHELLO (1952) is shown, and then we see Orson Welles sitting at a movieola, having just run that scene.
ORSON WELLES: This is a movieola. A machine for editing film, but you know, when we say we're editing or cutting a film, we're not saying enough. Movies aren't just made on the set. A lot of the actual making happens right here; a movieola, like this is very nearly as important as the camera. Here films are salvaged, saved sometimes from disaster, or savaged out of existence. This is the last stop on the long road between the dream in a filmmaker's head and the public when that dream is addressed. (Thomas) Carlyle said that almost everything examined deeply enough will turn out to be musical. Of course this is profoundly true of motion pictures. The pictures have movement; the movies move. Then there's the movement from one picture to another. There's a rhythmic structuring to that; there's counterpoint, harmony and dissonance. A film is never right, until it's right musically. This movieola, this filmmaker's tool, is a kind of a musical instrument. It's here that other film instruments are tuned or finely orchestrated, so as we're finally ending up our conversation here, you'll understand that as a filmmaker I'm speaking to you from my home.
This is to be a conversation, certainly not anything so formal as a lecture, and what we're going to talk about is OTHELLO. Shakespeare's play and the film I made of it. That sounds rather arrogant doesn't it, just naming the two in the same sentence. The truth is, of course that by any real standard of worth, comparison is not merely impossible, it's absurd. The play is something more than a masterpiece. It stands through the centuries as a great monument to western civilization. Take an arbitrary figure: Twelve. Name twelve plays which could be called great. OTHELLO must be one of those twelve. Of that twelve, at least nine (which is another arbitrary figure) are by Shakespeare. That leaves three on our list for all the other writers who ever lived. Is that putting it too strongly? Or is it too high? You can't go higher than that, and Shakespeare remains immortally number one. Among all dramatists the first. The greatest poet, in terms of sheer accomplishment, very possibly our greatest man. So where does that leave a mere moviemaker? Nowhere. Nowhere at all, unless we leave out all comparisons and consider that my OTHELLO, based upon, adapted from and inspired by William Shakespeare's tragedy has some little right to be considered on whatever merit it may presume to have as a movie. And yet, if merits there be, this is not at all a conversation, nor am I the conversationalist to treat it. Don't imagine for a moment that I'm pretending to be modest, it's just my fixed conviction that critical opinions about one's own work should be left to others. Is my movie, OTHELLO good or bad, flawless or flawed, a masterpiece or a mess? It's been vigorously and viciously attacked, denigrated and dismissed and also praised, sometimes quite extravagantly. I don't know your opinion. I won't tell you mine. I can't help the movie by telling you it's good, or if I think it's bad, if I really do, I better not say so. Why? Because this movie is still being shown in theaters. (laughter) People are still going to see it, and I'll admit to feeling quite happy about that. Good or bad there's still some kind of life in it, which is the reason I'd be sorry and I guess pretty foolish to do anything to kill it. But I've been asked to talk to you about it after all this time, and this imposes upon me, I guess a certain guarded respect for the subject. So what I'll do is tell you what I can. How the picture came to be made, for instance. I can tell you about that, and how it was made. To put it mildly, that was quite an adventure. It led us, before we were done to many strange and rather wonderful places in the world. Into and out of more than one disaster. There were moments of sheer desperation and there was much delight. Escaping then from auto-criticsm by means of autobiography, I will to quote the Moor himself, "A round unvarnished tale deliver." Now, how to begin the tale. Where shall we begin? You might say it all began in Rome, in a Roman film studio, with a Roman film producer named Scalera, who owned the studio. He wasn't going to own it for very much longer, but if anybody else knew about it, nobody bothered to tell me. After about four years in the Italian motion picture industry Montatori Scalera was still very much Mr. Big. He came on the set (of BLACK MAGIC), he looked at me and said, "Dobbiamo fare OTELLO". (We've got to make OTHELLO). I saw no reason to argue. As an actor, since my very earliest days when I first charted an optimistic course that I hoped would take me to some of the great roles in dramatic literature, OTHELLO has always been among the highest of those aspirations. But why did Scalera suggest that I should do OTHELLO? Well, he loved opera, he was a opera buff and he made a lot of opera movies and made a lot of money making those movies. When he saw me made-up as I was for the role of Count Caliostro, with a gypsy make-up, curly hair and a big gold earring, he was thinking Verdi, and not Shakespeare, and he naturally said, "OTELLO. Let's make OTELLO."
Why did it happen in Rome? I didn't even want to be in Rome, I wanted to be in Paris. It was the wrong place and the wrong movie. I was trying to do CYRANO De BERGERAC. Now there's a romantic part for you. He describes himself as a man with a funny nose. I was going to make CYRANO, I had been working with (Art director) Alexander Trauner for months in Paris, but suddenly Alexander Korda, who was our producer came to me and said, "my dear fellow I need dollars. I want to sell it to America." He did, Jose Ferrer played it and got the Academy Award, and that's the end of that story. It was supposed to be commercial, and it wasn't, it was supposed to make me rich, and it didn't. It was the result of a letdown. Here's an irony. I've been talking quite a bit, too much perhaps, about myself as an actor. It's because as you've seen, it was primarily as an actor rather than as a filmmaker that I came to do OTHELLO in the first place. But, if the movie is still being seen, if indeed it is still worth talking about at all, it's not, I must admit primarily because of what I contributed to it as an actor. I was reading a book on the subject of my OTHELLO, in preparing for this conversation and it quoted Eric Bentley, who said, "I don't act, I'm just photographed." Those are the kinds of things you never forget. So maybe I was just being photographed in OTHELLO. Which means it's high time for a word or two about OTHELLO as a film. I won't venture into the territory of the critics, I promised I wasn't going too, but staying safely on my own side of the fence, what I can offer is a hint or two of what I was thinking of in terms of cinematic style and substance, or less pompously, what kind of film it was that I set out to make. What was thematic, what was planned and what was accidental.
In (Laurence) Olivier's OTHELLO, which was a cinematic record of his stage production, "the core is the shocking spectacle of a man who reverts to savagery, (and is) eaten up by jealousy, until he murders the woman he loves. My film, by contrast, tries to depict a whole world in collapse. A world that is a metaphor not just for Othello's mind, but for an epic, pre-modern age." Here, I'm quoting, or mis-quoting, to not very good effect, the critic, Jack J. Jorgens who wrote a book on Shakespeare and the Film. I'm very grateful to him, for what he said. I'm going to leave out the good things, and the bad ones. There's also some other quotes I'll refer too, because it does sum up the intention behind the film. "The visual style of the film mirrors the marriage at the center of the play--not of Othello and Desdemona, but the perverse marriage of Othello and Iago. Part of the cinematic language is born of Othello's romantic, (and here we come to that word) heroic nature, which we embody, (I attempted too, and here it says I did) by vast spaces, monumental buildings, the sky, sea and rocks. The brute fortress. `These walls, these vaults and corridors echo, reflect and multiply, like so many mirrors, the eloquence of Shakespeare's tragedy'* (at least that's the intention). * Quoted from Andre Bazin's review of OTHELLO.
"The grandeur and simplicity are the Moor's. The dizzying camera movements, the tortured compositions, the grotesque shadows and insane distortions, they're of Iago, for he is the agent of chaos. In Shakespeare's verbal terms, Iago's masterpiece is to reduce Othello's lyricism to bursts of confused logic, shattered syntax, obsessive repetitions, and unconscious puns."
"Lie with her?--We say lie on her when they belie her.-- Lie with her! Zounds, that's fulsome." I can't quote it exactly right, but it's a total disintegration and the attempt of our camera was, "to create a sense of vertigo, a feeling of tottering instability culminating in Othello's epileptic seizure, the murder of Roderigo, and Othello's dizzying final fall.
["Shakespeare uses setting to express theme as well as character, and his symbolic geography is skillfully realized by Welles.] ...In Venice, Iago's attempt to sow discord are frustrated. He is but a shadow on the canal or a lurking whisperer in the cathedral--a threat, a possibility. The civilized order in Venice is embodied in rich harmonious architecture, placid canals, and in the symmetrical altar at which Othello and Desdemona are married. In Cyprus, at the frontier of the civilized world, the restraints of Venice are lifted. Art, luxury, and institutions are taken away. The longer we are in Cyprus, the more the involuted Iago style triumphs over the heroic and lyrical Othello style in the film. Venetian Christianity is overpowered by paganism. Christian images appear but are put to perverse use. Othello's killing of desdemona is a dark ritual recalling the wedding in Venice, but now he puts out the candles at the altar. The sounds in Cyprus--wind, shouts, echoing footsteps, slamming doors--they become surreally loud. Moving shadows distort the human figure...characters are separated by tremendous distances, and yet there is an increasing feeling of confinement. Ceilings bear down, walls become overpowering, the world seems to be closing in."
"In the play, one of Iago's favorite images is that of the net, the snare, the web, making him a fisherman, a hunter, a spider. `With as little a web as this, will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio, ' he says. Our camera holds that image before your eyes and plays variations on it. We see it through the grate which Desdemona passes to escape her father, the net that holds her hair in Cyprus, the ships ' rigging, the rack of spears in the fortress, and the windows and doors of Othello's bedroom. In the end Iago is caught in his own mesh; always hovering above him is the iron cage where the sun will scorch him and the gulls will peck at his flesh."
Again, my thanks to Jack J. Jorgens and to Andre Bazin whom I quoted in the midst of all that, or mis-quoted again. Now having laid all that heavy stuff, here I think I'd better explain how circumstance itself had a lot to do with the determination of our style. As originally projected, we were going to shoot most of the movie in the south of France. We were going to work out of the old Victorine studios in Nice. This was the choice of the art director, my dear friend Alexander Trauner. I know only a few true artists who work in that profession. Men like Cameron Menzies, Vincent Korda, Georges Wakhevitch, and Trauner is at the very least their peer. Well we had just finished working together for several long months preparing that CYRANO De BERGERAC for Alexander Korda, which you remember was never made. We were working at various museums in Paris, and Paris was Trauner's city. Once you've turned your back on Budapest in the good old days, I guess there wasn't any choice. Anyway like many another Hungarian, Trauner was in love with France. I really do think that's why we were there. Why not? That's why I found myself rehearsing a cast of English actors in the Bois de Boulogne. That's why we were going to build the island of Cyprus on the Cote d'Azur. Why shouldn't we, after all Cyprus as Trauner painted it was a grimly handsome fortress of a place, starkly posed between Veneto and Byzantine, and for our movie much more right than anything real which might still be standing in this century. I say he painted it, because that's what he did. None of the usual architectural renderings. No mere color sketches. Trauner painted, he made pictures. Picasso, who is not frequently an enthusiast for the work of lesser mortals, spoke very highly of those paintings. I heard him. I was very happy and pleased about shooting in the south of France and this was not to have been only for the Cypriot part of the story, but for Venice too, and you'll see why. If for three-fourths of our film we were to inhabit an invented world rather than a series of real locations, than our version of reality would have been merely mocked by those famous and familiar old stones of Venice. There could be no stylistic integrity unless Venice too, would be a Venice by Trauner. A city totally undeveloped by the tourist industry. So what happened to all that? The answer is Montatori Scalera is what happened, or rather what didn't. Remember him, saying "Biama fare OTELLO" Well the arrangements for financing OTHELLO were a co-production between Italy and France, but even before the first nail was driven in the construction of Trauner's Venice, word was rushed to us that the French part of Scalera's production had somehow collapsed. There was no more co to the produciona. We were now Italian, 100%. We would be several other things too, before all this was over. Time and chance and many, many other verisimilitudes would take us over half of Italy, to England for the mixing of the sound, to Africa, especially to Africa, and specifically to Morocco. Now Othello's story has nothing to do with his own native land, but our story was very much involved in it. We were all over Morocco, and in a minute I'll tell you why.
Just here I'd like to mention how it came to pass that we entered the lists of the Cannes film festival under a Moorish flag, appropriately enough I'd say for a movie on the Moor of Venice. But this, like so much else was not a clever plan of mine, but a mere whim of fortune. We started off by losing the French part of our official nationality, and at the end we had no nationality at all. OTHELLO was a movie without a country. Which meant that there was no legal way to export or import this movie either way. That pile of film cans I had come lugging into town had no status, thus no chance to join the festival, much less of winning it. Morocco then was a flag of convenience, like Liberia for a ship owner. OTHELLO was the first and last film entered into the Cannes film festival that had no national delegation. There was just me and those film cans. Now, here is how I found out we had won the grand prize, a little sooner than one is supposed to find out. Officially that news is broken the way it is with Oscars, only when the winner is publicly named. But several hours before the big event, when I was up in my room besides myself sweating it out, waiting alone, there came to me somewhat breathlessly the big boss of the festival himself. He looked distracted. He wasn't there to give out any information, but to get it. "My God," he said. "I don't know who else to turn to. Can you tell me what is the Moorish national anthem?" That's how I learned that OTHELLO was the winner. I didn't know the Moroccan national anthem more than anyone else, so the band played something vaguely oriental from one of the French operettas.
Losing as we did, more than one nationality and forced as we were to adapt ourselves to a whole series of sudden alterations and violent retreats, all sober planning had to be scuttled and the making of the film-- whenever there was money enough to continue-- was pure improvisation. Trauner's beautiful paintings had to be abandoned right at the beginning, and by the end he made me a couple of walls and three pieces of furniture. We were never able to afford to build anything, so nothing was designed, everything had to be found, hence all that globe-trotting.
Iago steps from the portico of a church in Torcello, an island in the Venetian lagoon, into a Portuguese cistern off the coast of Africa. He's across the world and moved between two continents in the middle of a single spoken phrase. That happened all the time. A Tuscan stairway and a Moorish battlement are both parts of, what in the film, is a single room. Roderigo kicks Cassio in Massaga and gets punched back in Orgete, a thousand miles away. Pieces were separated not just by plane trips, but by breaks in time. Nothing was in continuity. I had no script girl. There was no way for the jigsaw picture to be put together, except in my mind. Over a span of sometimes months, I had to keep all the details in my memory. Not just from sequence to sequence, but from cut to cut. And I had no cutter! I had a whole series of cameramen, because of delays while I went searching for money, or took on jobs to earn it. (Meanwhile) the cameramen themselves found work, so I'd be picking up in the middle of a scene, even a sentence, with a new cameraman, who seen nothing of what had been done before. Well, of course all that was bound to have affected the shape and form and stylistic substance of the film. So, half a year of careful planning had to be throw away and a whole new conception built up, virtually over night. Also we had been in rehearsal with the actors when the news reached us. You see, we had been working hard over all those months, and had designed a physical production in such a way that the entire picture would have been photographed in a relatively small number of camera set-ups. A whole scene, sometimes several scenes would have been played without a single cut. That method of shooting, absolutely requires the full resources of the movie studio. You need sets that break invisibly apart, to allow for camera movements. You need... well why go into it all? Enough to say that everything that sort of filming calls for belongs to the discipline and technology of the sound studio. But don't think I'm speaking against real locations. No, stone is better than cardboard. Our new real locations were just fine, as far as they went.
Let me tell you about the Turkish bath. I don't need to be told that there's no Turkish bath in Shakespeare. But there is in Micheal MacLiammoir's fascinating book on the subject of our making the movie, which is called, Put Money in Thy Purse. It's a quotation from the play and very apt indeed, it is, and very funny the book is. It tells a lot of our troubles, and it tells how it happens that we found ourselves at the beginning (of shooting) in the fascinating city of Mogador on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Why were we there? We were there because we had to have real locations and the best one we could find for Cyprus was, naturally not Cyprus, movies being what they were, it was Mogador, way down there, with the marvelous long battlements, on which a lot of important material was photographed. But when we got to Mogador with our large Italian crew-- it was an enormous one-- under the distinguished Anchisi Brizzi, one of the greatest of Italian cameramen, and heaven knows how many people. Up to 35 of them. There we were in Mogador, when our full compliment of actors arrived by plane, checked into our modest lodgings, and they were indeed very modest, because that's all there was in those days, in that town, and we started to wait. We waited for our costumes, and they didn't come. Why didn't they come? They didn't come because as it turned out, Montatori Scalera was broke! Mr. Big of the Italian movie industry had gone bankrupt while we were in a plane on our way from Paris to Mogador. We found that after awhile, and we had no costumes. We had a lot of actors, we had an enormous crew, and obviously the thing to do was somehow to make the movie. Well, I had a little money, I could keep us going for a week or two, and in the meantime some people scuttled around Europe looking for ways to sell portions of the movie to Cyprus or Venice, or more likely Japan or Turkey or something, and get a few thousand dollars advanced. While that kind of frantic operation was going on, hoping to get more money, hoping to be able to put money in our purse, and to be able to continue the movie.
While we were sitting there in Mogador, the idea came to us, that maybe we could make our costumes, which had never been made in Rome, or if they had, were being held by the Sheriff. We could make our costumes by using the local Jewish taylors, of which there were several. There was a big Jewish quarter in Mogador, and they lived very happily with the Arabs in those happy by-gone days. So the Jewish taylors were hired and pictures of Carpaccio gentlemen and ladies were shown to them, and pretty soon the costumes slowly began to be made, but they wouldn't be ready for ten days. So what could we shoot? Well, there was the big scene of the murder of Roderigo. And what can you shoot in a costume movie without costumes? There's only one place you could possibly be-- that is, if you have a lot of people. If there's just two people, there's an obvious solution. But when there's a crowd of people, there's only one possible place where people could be nude, and that's a Turkish bath. So we invented the Turkish bath. There's no reason why not. There were Turkish baths then, rather more then there are now. All we had to do was put towels around the heads of our characters and photograph them from the waist up. We borrowed a lot of incense from the local cathedral, filled up the Turkish bath with steam, and the Turkish bath itself wasn't a Turkish bath, it was a fish market. So to the sound of puffing incense and to the smell of decaying fish, we made that very involved and adventurous sequence of the murder of Roderigo (it's more than a reel and a half). After that the costumes began to get ready and we had a big Army of people gathered all in armor. You can't see because of the way it's photographed, but all the armor is made out of sardine cans. The banners were homemade, too. Everything was homemade.
Anyway, we got going, but after a little while the money we had saved and were able to raise ran out, and we had to stop, and then run to another part of the world and make some more (money). So it went. The history of it all is very divertingly to be found in Micheal MacLiammoir's book, he's Iago in the movie. His book has been reprinted, and I commend it to you.
Now, I have some footage here, not from OTHELLO, but about it. A few excerpts from a luncheon party, a reunion really, between three old friends. Micheal MacLiammoir on the left, and Hilton Edwards next to him. Edwards played Brabantio, Desdemona's Father. MacLiammoir, of course was our Iago. Some time has passed since then. A quarter of a century. We've been friends a lot longer than that. We have heard the chimes at midnight. I should explain that Edwards and MacLiammoir are together the founders and directors of the famous Gate Theater in Dublin. If you know the theater, you know all about the Gate. If not, there isn't much I can say about it, so I'll just begin, because there's too much to say, and I wouldn't know where to stop. Let me just say, that these two men together, have written, (and as I speak these words, are still writing) theater history. Then, having dismissed their immense achievement with a single phrase, I'm going to take a bit longer on the subject of myself.
The subject of this program, being as it is, my own film of OTHELLO, there's no way I can think of to avoid these lapses into autobiography. I'm obliged to tell you that the Gate Theater is where I started my professional life. I was just a boy, and Hilton Edwards was still a very young man, but he was already a master. Since then, as an actor in theater, radio and films, I've worked for what must be hundreds of directors. Some were good, some middling good, many of course were mediocre, if not downright bad. There were a few, two or three perhaps, who could be called great. Of these, Hilton Edwards was easily the first, and certainly the best of teachers. God only knows, that asking him to play Brabantio in the picture was a feeble enough indication of my gratitude. Hilton was also a distinguished actor, and Brabantio is a undistinguished part. The truth is that he came along with Micheal to keep us all company, and help out with the crowd scenes. He kept a sharp directors eye on just about everything, and after the days work was over, we'd hash it all out together, burning the night away with talk. Here 25 years later, it's more of the same. Some 46 years ago, when I first joined his theater, Micheal MacLiammoir was playing his first HAMLET. By general consensus one of the finest in living memory, surely the best I've ever seen. He's played it often since, I once produced him in America, and he's played Iago since he did it in my film, and he played it very differently. He's also played Othello, and that often, and that differently, with Hilton Edwards as his Iago and as director. I mention these things, so you will appreciate how well our two luncheon guests are equipped for this discussion.
HILTON EDWARDS: I have a feeling that in OTHELLO, it was the question of the black man, and the white woman. Although we know that the Moors were really Arabs...
ORSON WELLES: Yes, but they were blackamoors.
HILTON EDWARDS: To my mind, it was a black man in Shakespeare's mind, and the white woman...
ORSON WELLES: Does Shakespeare give us the ordinary jealous husband? No, he gives us an extraordinary outsider. In other words, he gives us a foreigner, a glamorous and strange savage, however he's played.
MICHEAL MacLIAMMOIR: You were too young, and I was too old.
ORSON WELLES: Oh no. You weren't old at all. You weren't 28 years old, which is what Shakespeare says Iago is. It doesn't matter at all. The age of Othello, I'll admit that's a fault of the film. It's a fault of my performance. I should have been older when I made the film. I would have known more about the part, and I should have seemed older, I should have played it older. I think it's true that Othello's in general, should play Othello as older than they usually do, because age is indicated in the text, and it distances Othello and Desdemona, and anything that does that-- age, race, culture-- any of those things are very important to the film. But Iago, if I let the fact that you weren't precisely Shakespeare's age for the role be a consideration, I would have denied myself an extraordinary performance. That isn't flattery, it's the truth.
We come to Iago's character, and the whole question of what Coledridge called `the motiveless malignancy of Iago'. We played him, (I had that idea) as impotent. It was really not so much a key for the audience as a clue for our performance. A way to justify a certain reading of the role.
HILTON EDWARDS: There's nothing in the script to contradict your theory...
ORSON WELLES: Therefore we're free to do it. That's the great thing about Shakespeare.
HILTON EDWARDS: I have a theory, that Iago was evil for it's own sake. The way we see a cat catching a mouse, or a cat playing with a rabbit.
ORSON WELLES: What looks evil to us, but it's nothing to them.
HILTON EDWARDS: It comes quite naturally. That's what's so terrifying.
ORSON WELLES: What you are saying is, it is possible to have an unmotivated villain. We don't need Dr. Freud at all. There is such a thing as a natural born villain.
HILTON EDWARDS: He has a natural love of evil, a pleasure in it. We have Othello being made jealous of Cassio. Now who is he made jealous by? He's being made jealous, by a jealous man. Iago who is jealous of Othello, being in a superior position to him, and being a black man, where he's a white Venetian. He's also jealous of Cassio. There's no question about that. Cassio is given the superior position, and in Cyprus he sees to it that Cassio is stripped of his Lieutenancy. To me the great thing is jealousy, jealousy, jealousy.
ORSON WELLES: How does that apply to Brabantio, the part you played.
HILTON EDWARDS: I think Brabantio is jealous of anybody who should be loved by his daughter more than he. I get the impression of a whole community which is poisoned by a bee sting of jealousy, in varying degrees, to everyone of them. This is why I would say, the main theme of OTHELLO is jealousy, which motivates all the action, throughout the play.
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: Iago is the mystery of that play, but you know many people say, `Iago, I haven't met him'. Three times in my life I've met him.
ORSON WELLES: Your lucky if you've only met him twice. One real life Iago is enough in any one life. We've all met several of them. I guess we are all agreed that this noble play, this noble tragedy is essentially concerned with the most ignoble of all passions. Isn't that what jealousy is?
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: The most humiliating, the most agonizing and the most piteous (of passions). I think it's self-pity, it's a disease.
ORSON WELLES: Do you really think that in this permissive age we're going to do away with jealousy? I don't think so. Why do we laugh at jealousy?
HILTON EDWARDS: You do, I don't.
ORSON WELLES: I don't either, but people do.
HILTON EDWARDS: Ah, but who are people? (laughter).
ORSON WELLES: Those are harsh words, sir. Thank God for fun.
HILTON EDWARDS: (Actors) don't think as (people) do, or we wouldn't be up on the stage, painting our faces pretending we were somebody else. It's the longing to be somebody else, that drives us up on the stage. You don't laugh at jealousy?
ORSON WELLES: I don't even laugh at seasickness.
HILTON EDWARDS: Jealousy in my mind, is not a comic reaction, it's a tragic one.
ORSON WELLES: And it's never been treated as a tragic subject in dramatic literature. I would say the reason for that, is because all the literature we know about, has been written under patriarchal male dominated society, for males, in which the final decision in all matters belongs to the male. What can it matter, the problems of a woman, if she is jealous or not...
HILTON EDWARDS: Therefore, I feel sympathetic with the public attitude of laughing at the trouble.
ORSON WELLES: Because the public is partly female, and the public sees the essential comedy in the situation of jealousy.
HILTON EDWARDS: Because of other females?
ORSON WELLES: Yes, because women when they are jealous, (and we just asked one now, between takes), say, `yes, I would be jealous, but I would translate it immediately into hate'. Othello is a perfect male type, he kills Desdemona adoring her. Now isn't that male. Isn't that enormously masculine, to murder this girl, adoring her. No woman would do that. She would forgive the man, or forget his crime, or kill him, but she would never kill him loving him. That is the hypocrisy, the poetry, and the absurdity of the male condition.
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: Jean Cocteau said, `whereas a blind man is a tragic figure, on the stage, the deaf man is a comic one.' But you meet a blind man, and meet a deaf man, and the deaf man is much more tragic in real life.
ORSON WELLES: Of course he is.
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: He's cut away entirely, he can see everybody, but he can't communicate.
ORSON WELLES: It proves the point very well. It shows that the point of absurdity, which is the difference between comedy and tragedy, and the question of jealousy, between the woman's and the man's attitude, is in itself, without any logic, whatever. As long as the woman is any form of slave, her role in drama is always going to be very limited. I'm not speaking about whether she should have it or not.
HILTON EDWARDS: She has all the best parts, in plays about lovers. It is the women's part. There is nothing more fascinating to play, or gets more sympathy from the audience, because the man is responsible for the pleasure in physical lovemaking. She is not. That's Othello's own view-- what made him jealous of Desdemona. He was poisoned by Iago, but he had an overwhelming passion for the beauty and purity of this girl. He denies the fact that he's going to be made jealous by these little gossips, the poison that Iago is dropping.
ORSON WELLES: Haven't you put your finger on the whole thing? We're dealing with a puritan. Over and over again, Othello speaks of her virtue. Not that she's fair, but it's her virtue. That's very much a puritan preoccupation. Shakespeare understood that preoccupation, he was anything but one, but he understood them, after all they're the people who eventually closed his theater. The puritan strain runs through the English character from the early days, and that kind of Englishness is in the Moor's character. That preoccupation with purity, as an abstract idea.
HILTON EDWARDS: Another thing he can't give her, is what the 19th century theater always forgot. In her, Desdemona-- who is one of the most interesting characters in the whole wonderful, terrible play-- is that she is not the little pious, obedient girl as she is conceived of in the 19th century. Not at all, she is anything but. She's a Venetian girl, who would walk out with a negro, and marry him.
ORSON WELLES: Certainly Desdemona is no cringing blonde. She's not a born loser, and if she dies a loser, it's no fault of hers. What about another nuance, and perhaps something else entirely, close to jealousy, but different. What about envy? What Iago feels towards Othello is envy of his position. So envy is what? Something you wish you could have, and jealousy is something you fear you are losing.
HILTON EDWARDS: I think I heard you express it once as, `envy was a desire of having, and jealousy is the pain or fear of losing'.
ORSON WELLES: You can be jealous for no reason. Isn't there a kind of self-love involved in jealousy.
HILTON EDWARDS: I think there is self-love involved in every human emotion. We're all ignoble savages, whether we're black or white, or Moorish or Blackamoor, or Spanish or Venetian. Self-love is the beginning and the end of the human tragedy, I think.
ORSON WELLES: I agree entirely.
HILTON EDWARDS: You do agree? Then I must be wrong (laughter). I can think of two people I envy. I envy Michael his languages, and I envy you your capacity for, as you described it to me many years ago about another actor, you said, "he had a wonderful capacity for displacing air." Believe you me, no greater cubic capacity of air has ever been displaced by any human being, as is being displaced by you at this moment (laughter).
ORSON WELLES: You said something of the sort to me, when I auditioned for you 300 years ago at the Gate Theater. That I was a bloody bad actor.
HILTON EDWARDS: I always knew you were a potentially (good actor).
ORSON WELLES: If you're a politician, you're in Congress and you wish you were in the White House, that's envy. If you think the President is making love to your wife, that's jealousy. I was just going back in my mind to that business of Othello's age, and wondering how many mistakes, how many other mis-interpretations I was guilty of, that you were too nice to mention during the shooting.
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: There was never one direction you gave me which I disagreed with personally, never one.
ORSON WELLES: Oh, that's very nice.
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: Never one single one, except, "take the cloak and go!"
ORSON WELLES: Oh yes, I think I better explain. That's a family joke. There was a scene in which you were supposed to take up your cloak and go.
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: And I disagreed passionately. I wanted to make the most of that.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, whenever I wanted to simplify the action or the business, whatever it was, to eliminate superfluous declaration, I'd just repeat that privately famous line.
MICHEAL MACLIAMMOIR: "Will you take the cloak and go." That's all you had to do, you said.
ORSON WELLES: You did it, and very nicely too. Let's drink to that.
Here our luncheon party comes to an end. We didn't run out of food or wine, and we certainly didn't run out of talk. We just ran out of film. Why I wonder, does MacLiammor say that Iago is a mystery? What he means is that, Shakespeareans often call him that. What worries them and all of us, is the mystery of evil itself. There's a tendency today to deny the existence of evil, not to believe in it, to call evil a sickness. You'll say, I suppose, that our notion of playing Iago as sexually impotent is a very modern sort of trick. Well if it is a trick, and I hope it isn't, at least we didn't impose it very heavily on the film itself. Now I do believe quite fervently in the existence of evil. Certainly Shakespeare did, and just as certainly Iago is the embodiment of evil, more so even than Richard III, whose actions were evil, but who was motivated by ambition. Iago has no ambition. He hates Cassio, for having been given a military title, that he might have had, but he would have hated him anyway. His envy, all of his brand of jealousy is an excuse. Of Cassio he says, `there is a daily duty in his life, which makes me ugly.' You see, Iago is a slave. He has the heart of a slave, he has the special cunning and all the artful hypocrisy of the slave who revels in the condition of slavery.
Dostoyevsky says, `the secret consciousness of power is more insupportably delicious, than open domination'. Iago says, `we cannot all be masters, nor all masters cannot be truly followed'. The irony is satanic. The whole key to his character, and another key, comes again from Iago himself. He says, `I am not what I am'. All the other people in the story are people with feelings. Iago is the intellect. He is pure intellect, and as Emerson says, `pure intellect is the pure devil. Pure and cold'. Iago's is the terrible alliance of pure intellect and hate. This is the irony. The worst of all Hell's, says Dante's Inferno, is the Hell of ice. Iago, of course, is incapable of love. He's forever proclaiming his love for Othello, to Othello. Othello believes him, he is after all, honest Iago. Those words, honest Iago are heard often. The word honest is heard even more often. Everybody speaks in the play, describing Iago as honest. Desdemona does, Cassio does, Othello does, and Iago does, interminably. The point is, Othello believing Iago is honest, believes his blameless wife is dishonest. It's the supreme irony. I think it's easy enough to understand, when you think about it. After all, Desdemona comes from the gilded, pleasure loving, luxurious world of Venetian aristocracy, about which Othello knows absolutely nothing, except that it's morals are notoriously loose. He is a professional army man, after all. A stranger to a society of high-born, high-spirited noblewomen. He's married one of them, and they're just married. Now that much is very important. He scarcely knows her at all. He never comes to know her. She dies in his hands a stranger. Othello knows, or thinks he knows Iago, very well and before anything remember, Iago is honest. His slandering of Desdemona is done with great subtlety. There is nothing, apparently to gain by it. So there really isn't any reason, to speak of Othello, as some critics do, as childishly gullible. No, Desdemona, for Othello is the bride in a romance. A dream who he has scarcely had time to discover is flesh and blood, before Iago has poisoned, and begun to work to turn his dream into a nightmare.
Iago is a trusted officer in Othello's army, a companion under arms. Othello the soldier is monumentally male. His story is monumentally a male tragedy. Small wonder that the doubt falls where it usually does in life. Not on the slanderer, but on the innocent object of the slander. There is certainly a simplicity about Othello, but in trusting Iago, he does no more than anyone else in the story. They all trust him, as we have seen. No, the commander of the armed forces of the great Venetian Republic is no stupid child. He is no Venetian sophisticate, either. I think he must feel something close to awe, in his love of Desdemona, the Senator's daughter, who fled from the palace in the dead of night, to marry a black man. Black Othello, the outsider, the mercenary, the foreigner, and the older man, must feel a certain insecurity when he contemplates this curious conquest of his. He had married her, as if by a miracle, but can he keep her? Might she not turn away from him, as suddenly as she ran away with him?
Last winter they invited me to Boston, for a special showing of the film OTHELLO, and the audience stayed on after the screening.
(Welles runs the question and answer session on his movieola)
WELLES: A movie has to have a great opening. It must command attention. The opening of OTHELLO is written for an audience that is just getting quiet. Like all openings in a play, because you don't want to ever open a play at the top of your bent. But a movie should open at the top of it's bent, it must, because this damn thing (points to the screen) is dead. The only living thing are the people sitting out here. It's a projected image, and you cannot bring the thing alive unless you seize the people at the beginning. The riderless horse has to come in. The funeral of Othello and the lynching of Iago, is the riderless horse. It's as simple as that.
Q: Why did you make Roderigo's dog a terrier? The reason I ask is because the terrier is a symbol of marital fidelity.
WELLES: This is the kind of question I love, because if I had known about the question before, I would have been able to pretend that I indeed used a terrier as a graphic symbol of marital infidelity. Oh, fidelity. That's just what I said. But since I didn't have notice of this question, I haven't got time to con you. I'll have to tell you the truth. The terrier was not a terrier. It was a tenerife, which is a very rare kind of dog, it is a lapdog used by the dandies in all the Carpaccio paintings, and Carpaccio was the source of the costumes and the general esthetic of the movie.
Q: In Laurence Olivier's production of OTHELLO, he seemed to stress the vanity of the man, much more than in your production. Would you comment on that?
WELLES: You see, the themes of OTHELLO were set down first by Shakespeare, and of course there's a difference in every OTHELLO, depending on who makes the film, or theatrical production. There are so many ways of doing it, there isn't one right way of doing it. If I could make OTHELLO again-- first of all I have done it in the theater since then, and I did it completely differently, both as an actor and a director. We took an entirely new line on everything, because that's the great opportunity that you have. The minute you have a great piece of material, like a Shakespearean play, or any other thing of that kind, you are free to make almost anything you want with it. You can go in so many directions and still be true to the essential job.
Q: The role of Iago seemed somewhat straightforward, largely motivated by envy, while in some of your other movies, like THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, the motive of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) seems much more obscure.
WELLES: Nobody ever works in a big organization, whether it's military, or business, or theatrical or anything else, without running into a few Iago's. Now, there are all kinds of ways of doing it. When Olivier did Iago with Ralph Richardson, years ago, they did it as a homosexual relationship. When Othello fell into his fit, Iago kissed him passionately on the lips. I don't know how that worked, but I know that they did it. There are many different efforts. In the case of this film, I took the line that Iago was impotent, and that his malice was the malice of impotence.
Q: You took the set design from your Harlem theater production of the voodoo MACBETH, when you made MACBETH into a movie.
WELLES: How do you know that?
Q: Because I taught a course on your films a few years ago. Why didn't you repeat the effort of trying to make a film quickly, tackling, as you said, difficult projects in a short amount of time?
WELLES: The point is that MACBETH was made in a very short time. It was only 19 days in principal photography, with two days more for inserts and things like that. It was a real quickie. The basic set had the same plan which I had used in the black MACBETH, which I had done in Harlem, in the theater, some years before. It wasn't the same set, but it had the same basic plan, because we were in a great rush. The reason I didn't repeat it, was because I was gambling on MACBETH being a great success, but at the time the American critical press was very bad for MACBETH. The European press was very good.
Q: When you've got the film shot, and your putting the film together, what is the question that is going through your mind? What makes you select one scene over another?
WELLES: I have done a great deal of that editing, while I am filming. I visualize the editing, while I am filming. When I change that idea, it is a deliberate change. It is a difference that is bigger than I'd like to admit, and I do admit it, because actors teach you so much. The scenery, the smell of a thing, when you come on a set in the morning, whether it's OTHELLO, or a modern story. If you have a master plan for what your going to do, exactly where the camera is going to be, exactly what the scene is supposed to state, if you are locked into that, you are depriving yourself of the divine accidents of moviemaking. Everywhere there are beautiful accidents. The actors say something in a different way than you ever dream it could be said. She looks differently, there's a smell in the air, there's a look that changes the whole resonance of what you expected. Then, there are the true accidents, and my definition of a film director is the man who presides over accidents, but doesn't make them.
I'm going to stop just here, not only because our time is almost up, but because at this point in the discussion, the Boston film buffs veered away from the subject of OTHELLO. If I've evaded any of their questions, or any of yours, it's not by design. Maybe I should have read into the record some of the things the critics have said against OTHELLO. You might have found that informative. I would have found it depressing. I'm very much afraid that under the banner of fair play, and the interest of what's called a balanced judgment, I couldn't have resisted reading you some of the good stuff as well. Anyway it's an argument that still goes on and on. I spared you both sides of it, and I don't know if I was mistaken. Maybe an anthology of critical reviews might have been rewarding, but after all this is supposed to be my voice on the subject, so that's what you've had. I've tried to be as candid as I can. You won't have expected me to be objective.
I started by calling this a conversation, but I'm afraid what you've had is mostly a scrambled, disjointed series of notes. I've been coming at our subject from every conceivable direction of the compass, and I might have put a better shape to this if I had relentlessly pursued a single theme, but that would have neglected all the other themes. I just don't know. In trying to say too much, I may have said too little. Of course, my film did not do justice to the play. It is my film and it is Shakespeare's play. No film, indeed no stage production could ever do true justice to that play. No actor ever did full justice to the part. I ask myself now, if I've done justice here in my own movie. I don't mean in the value I may sometimes rather coyly have placed upon it. I just mean this discussion.
Now, let's try to sum it up. First, how the picture was made. That story you remember. An Italian producer dreaming of Verdi's OTELLO, and neglecting to mention that he was about to go into bankruptcy, stranded our whole company in a small town off the coast of Africa. With a little money of my own, all I had and absolutely no costumes whatsoever, we improvised our way for awhile, then stopped for awhile and I had to go to work as an actor in other films, in order to earn enough to continue with my own. That went on and on, and repeated itself several times, and it meant that OTHELLO was made so to speak, on the installment plan. This and other circumstances did impose a method and style of shooting, which was contrary to what had been carefully planned. For a description of the finished result, I brought you those critical appreciations, that correspond fairly closely to my own ideas. Some thoughts on the interpretation have come from a couple of the leading actors, with some additions of my own.
All judgments having been avoided, I leave you with this confession. This hasn't been as easy as I might have wished. Their are too many regrets, there are too many things I wish I could have done over again. If it wasn't a memory, if it was a project for the future, talking about OTHELLO would have been nothing but delight. After all, promises are more fun than explanations. In all my heart, I wish that I wasn't looking back on OTHELLO, but looking forward to it. That OTHELLO would be one hell of a picture.
GARY GRAVER on FILMING OTHELLO
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did FILMING OTHELLO come about?
GARY GRAVER: It was made for German Television. They wanted to show OTHELLO on German Television, and they wanted a companion piece to go with it. They asked Orson if he would do it, and he said, "sure." That's why FILMING OTHELLO was made. We started in Paris, where we shot the scenes with Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir in a hotel having lunch with Orson, and we finished it in Beverly Hills, shooting in the living room of Orson's house there. Just before we made FILMING OTHELLO, Orson's lawyer called United Artists about sending all the prints of OTHELLO back to him, so we could use material in FILMING OTHELLO. Orson had a great sense of humor, and was a very funny guy, but he basically never liked going down memory lane. He didn't want to discuss the old pictures, like CITIZEN KANE or THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. All he wanted to do was talk about the new projects. But he did enjoy making FILMING OTHELLO, so in 1981 we started to do a follow-up, FILMING THE TRIAL.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Was there a formal script for FILMING OTHELLO?
GARY GRAVER: Yes, it was all scripted. Orson wrote it all. We started in 1974 with Hilton and Micheal in Paris, and then we did some work on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND and came back to FILMING OTHELLO in 1976. It was finished in 1977. We shot every night that Orson felt like it, but Orson was very superstitious of things, like black cats, or walking under ladders. Well, we shot FILMING OTHELLO in a house I had rented for him, right down the street from where Sharon Tate was murdered. Orson liked the house, but he never knew it was right next to where the Charles Manson killings took place. If he had known about it, he would have been very suspicious about staying there.
We also shot in that same house, a 10 minute short to promote F FOR FAKE. It was done in 35mm and was meant to be the trailer for F FOR FAKE, but the distributor didn't want to make any prints of it! It's really a 10 minute Orson Welles film, without using any of the footage from F FOR FAKE. It was all totally new film, but the American distributor wouldn't spend the money to cut the negative and make prints.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: During the lunch with Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir, did you shoot Welles's scenes later on?
GARY GRAVER: Yes, and while we were in Paris shooting the footage of Micheal and Hilton, I said to Orson, "while we're here, let's get the reverse shots on you." He said, "Oh no, we'll get those later." He didn't want to do it then. He would often do that. He would say, "let's get the body of the work done. I'm always around, we'll get me later." Then, in the interim, Kodak came out with some new film stocks and when we shot Orson it didn't quite match the earlier footage, because it was two years later. The color is different and the look is a little different. It's just like the way OTHELLO was shot. A guy's talking in Paris, and two years later Orson is answering him back in Beverly Hills. Orson's theory was that once he edited the initial footage, he might come up with some new ideas he'd want to use.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: FILMING OTHELLO seems rather static for a Welles movie. Were there any scenes you couldn't shoot?
GARY GRAVER: We did a lot of stuff that's not in the film. Orson made up storyboards, and we went to many different places. I went to Dublin, to Michael and Hilton's house and filmed them there, as well as to the Gate Theater, where Orson made his professional acting debut. We went to Venice, and got up at 5 in the morning, when the sun was just coming out, and did about an hours worth of footage of Orson in his black cape and cigar, riding through the canals of Venice, pointing out the different locations where OTHELLO was all shot. The negative of that footage somehow disappeared, so none of it could be used in the final film.