On Labor Day weekend, the American independent film industry turns its attention to the Colorado mountain town of Telluride.
With passes costing up to $4,000, the four-day Telluride Film Festival is expensive, and its location in southwest Colorado is physically difficult to reach. The festival cultivates an air of privilege, exclusion, and power that recalls Davos. The public events and postscreening discussions attract the most attention. The most consequential actions occur backstage.
Against that backdrop, in 2013, Filip Jan Rymsza, a 34-year-old novice producer, undertook the boldest leap of his young life.
He used a connection from a Los Angeles talent agent to secure an invitation to a small private dinner party held at the ranch of the prominent producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy.
Rymsza and Marshall had both been on the Sisyphean quest to complete one of the most notoriously unfinished works in the history of American cinema: Orson Welles’s legendary and seemingly cursed production The Other Side of the Wind. Welles started shooting the film in August 1970 and finally completed the start-and-stop production in early 1976.
Their backgrounds could not have been any different. As a regular collaborator with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Marshall has produced some of the most popular commercial works in Hollywood history, including the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park movies. He’s also a serious cinephile with art-house credibility. Throughout his career he has shown admirable adventurousness in backing commercially risky projects by the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill, and Clint Eastwood.
Marshall’s friendship with Bogdanovich led to his first professional job in film, as a production manager on The Other Side of the Wind. He was a proud member of the ragtag band who back in the day called themselves Volunteers in the Service of Orson Welles (VISTOW). Now Marshall had taken up the mantle to push through the myriad obstacles and complete the film.
By contrast, Rymsza is a Polish-born producer and filmmaker who’d made a couple of stylized and experimental student films as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. He then spent seven years developing his first feature film, a Los Angeles-set neo-noir called A Girl and a Gun, with Christopher Walken, Terrence Howard, and Megan Fox, only to have the financing collapse two days before the start of production.
Leading up to his meeting with Marshall, Rymsza had already spent more than three years—much of it in Paris in covert conversation with French attorneys who specialized in intellectual property laws—establishing the film’s complex chain of title ownership. Marshall had the name and clout. Rymsza had the leverage—and the rights.
Rights to the film had previously been owned by Les Films d’Astrophore, a Paris-based Iranian production and financial concern operated by Mehdi Boushehri, the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. In 1982, a French court ruled that as the primary financier, Boushehri and Astrophore owned the film and not Welles.
Boushehri died in 2006. In early 2013, Rymsza had deftly circumvented a plan by the cable network Showtime to acquire the French rights and transfer them to Boushehri’s widow, Jacqueline. (Jacqueline Boushehri had never had rights to the film; Boushehri had transferred the rights to Astrophore in case his assets were seized in the Iranian revolution.)
Now he was ready to make his proposal to Marshall.
“I told him I was his competitor the last few years,” Rymsza says. “I said, ‘This is what I’ve done, and this is what I have, and this is the approach I am taking.’ I said, ‘You should partner with me, not the other way around.’ It was obviously a bold thing to say. At that point, I had a really good foothold, and there was no finishing the film without me.
“I think he felt agitated by it, especially my making this proposal at his house. He came around pretty quickly, within a half-hour or 40-minute conversation. He asked all the right questions. I had answers to all of them, and I knew a lot of stuff he wasn’t aware of. Given his pedigree, he would legitimize the undertaking and me. Somebody would need to lead the charge. We felt like the right partnership. We met for coffee the next day, and that was how it all started. Things started moving really fast from there, and we laid out a plan of what the next steps would be.”
On Saturday, September 1, nearly five years to the day since their first encounter, the Telluride Film Festival screened the American premiere of The Other Side of the Wind. The triumphant moment arrived 33 years after the death of Orson Welles and nearly half a century after the start of principal photography. Marshall, Bogdanovich, and several other veterans of the production were on hand to introduce and talk about the film.
At the time, Rymsza was at the Venice Film Festival for the movie’s international premiere. Amid the excitement and wonder of the nearly unanimous praise for the film, he thought of his first meeting with Marshall.
“The world of Welles is full of very eccentric people,” he says. “Frank said over the years he’d been getting phone calls from people similar to me who were offering to help. He’d receive one of those calls once a month for decades. I figured I needed to show up at his doorstep and lay it out. He’d have to hear me through.”
After playing the fall festival circuit (including the Chicago International Film Festival), the movie is set to launch globally on Netflix on November 2. In a delicious irony, the movie that appeared forever doomed by the vicissitudes of the market, the peculiarities of French copyright law, and the contentious personalities involved is about to receive the biggest opening of any film Welles ever made, available for streaming to 190 million people in 137 countries. (William Randolph Hearst actively sabotaged the original theatrical release of Citizen Kane by refusing to advertise it in any of his papers. The movie’s reputation as the greatest film ever developed after World War II.)
The streaming platform is also playing the film theatrically in top markets. In Chicago, the Music Box is presenting the film in 35mm on November 3 and 4 (Rosenbaum will moderate a postscreening discussion on Sunday). Netflix is also showing two complementary documentaries that Rymsza helped produce, the feature-length They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and the 38-minute A Final Cut for Orson.
The deep resources of Netflix brought closure to the wild and improbable tale. Rymsza, Marshall, and Bogdanovich achieved the seemingly impossible in rescuing and completing a Holy Grail and foundational text for Welles aficionados and film buffs. Many of those who have traced the convoluted and surreal history never imagined this day coming.
“It’s like a miracle,” Josh Karp says. The Chicago writer spent more than three years researching and writing his 2015 book Orson Welles’s Last Movie. Karp’s book documents the tangled production history and doomed previous efforts to have the film completed.
“All the ways it fell apart over the years, you’d never imagine this was going to happen,” Karp says. “A lot of people before [Filip] worked on it and then just decided it could not be done. It was considered unfinishable from a dealmaking perspective.
“Filip is a very smart guy. He is a very charming guy. He did a great job of practicing the kind of diplomacy that was required. The determination to stick with it is just remarkable. That is the centerpiece for how this got done.”
Former Reader film critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum interviewed Welles during the middle of the film’s extended production in June 1972, when both men were living in Paris. At the time of their lunch meeting Welles was in production on The Other Side of the Wind and editing his essay film F for Fake (1973).
“Welles said of all the unfinished films he had, that was the one he wanted to finish and release first,” Rosenbaum says.
Rosenbaum is the editor of the Welles and Bogdanovich interview book This Is Orson Welles, and the author of Discovering Orson Welles. He also worked as a consultant on the reedit of Touch of Evil. He worked on the new film as a consultant as well.
“Filip has always had a grasp on what he was doing,” says Rosenbaum.
Shared Chicago roots bind Rymsza and Welles. Welles died in 1985, the year Rymsza arrived here from Olecko, Poland, as a seven-year-old. Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on May 6, 1915. His mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, was a remarkable woman: suffragist, concert pianist, early education advocate, and the first woman ever elected to the school board of Kenosha. His father, Richard Welles, was a brilliant though erratic inventor from a wealthy family in Virginia.
The family moved to Chicago in September 1918, the year Welles made his local stage debut as a walk-on in the Chicago Civic Opera production of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Delilah. Richard Welles’s alcoholism led to the collapse of the marriage, and Beatrice Welles died unexpectedly in 1924, when Welles was just nine years old. Welles’s crucial early experiences played out in Chicago, Highland Park, and most significantly, in the northwest-suburban town of Woodstock at the Todd School for Boys, a progressive boarding school.
Welles entered the school in the fall of 1926 and graduated in 1930. Under the direction of teacher and later headmaster Roger Hill, Welles showed off his early precocity as a writer, performer, scenic designer, and director of student adaptations of Shakespeare, Molière, and Christopher Marlowe.
Like Welles, Rymsza was separated from his parents as a child. In December 1981, after the Soviet-sponsored Polish government imposed martial law, Filip’s father, Wladyslaw Rymsza, was facing jail time for his involvement with the pro-democratic Solidarity trade union. Wladyslaw and his wife, Alina, fled to Chicago; Filip was left behind in the care of relatives.
“As a boy, still in Poland, not having his parents around, he was smarter than everyone else around him,” Alina Rymsza says. “He developed his own language, his own way of communicating.”
Filip Rymsza reunited with his parents in Skokie in 1985. He got hooked on sports and the openness of his new country. He wrote poetry and short stories and painted still lifes and landscapes.
“My artistic curiosity was already there before I left Poland, but being an emigre undoubtedly shaped my individuality,” he says. “I also listened to lots of music. Film was the culmination of those interests. There was no singular moment or event. It was a slow, steady transfixion.”
Rymsza spent his teenage years in Arlington Heights. He then studied philosophy and economics at the University of Chicago, but “every elective class I took was in art history, film, or literature,” he says. He frequented the school’s Documentary Film Group, or as it’s better known, Doc Films.
“I wanted to make things rather than critique or disassemble them and figure out how they were made, because I found in my experience the making of them was very different,” Rymsza says. His two student films, Sandcastles (2004) and Dustclouds (2005), are visually dense experimental collage films steeped in references to literature and painting.
“They were experimental because I was trying to figure out the language and develop my style,” Rymsza says. “Those were really valuable experiences and taught me a lot. I really think there is no other way to learn than simply by doing.”
The Other Side of the Wind developed out of an earlier script Welles had written about bullfighting called The Sacred Beasts. The action is framed around the 70th birthday party of an aging and flamboyantly macho filmmaker named Jake Hannaford (played by the director John Huston). The director has returned from a self-imposed European exile to make a violent, sexually explicit art film, meant to prove his commercial viability in the new youth-driven Hollywood of Easy Rider.
Welles’s critical collaborator was Oja Kodar, the Croatian sculptor, actress, and writer who was his companion for the last two decades of his life. She cowrote the script and plays the Native American lead character of the film within the film, also called The Other Side of the Wind. Crucially, Kodar also directed three scenes of the film within the film.
Welles shot in locations ranging from in and around Paris to studio sets in Belgium and the Netherlands, the MGM back lot in Culver City, California, and the desert town of Carefree, Arizona. He and his cinematographer, Gary Graver, shot in a variety of film formats, 8mm and 16mm, black and white and deeply saturated color on reversible 35mm stock. Welles’s ability to stitch the guerrilla production together was astounding. Huston, for instance, didn’t join the cast until early 1974.
Bogdanovich plays the crucial role of a Hannaford protege and young director on the make named Brooks Otterlake. He replaced comedian Rich Little halfway through the shoot. All the scenes with the great actress Lilli Palmer, who plays a mysterious high-society party host, were shot in a studio in Spain and deftly woven into the larger kaleidoscopic fabric.
Once Welles showed a couple of excerpts at the American Film Institute celebration of his life in Los Angeles in February 1975, The Other Side of the Wind attained a tantalizing aura as a radical formal work that fused together documentary and fiction techniques with breathtaking elan.
“Of the finished films, The Other Side of the Wind seems to me the most experimental and the most radical,” Rosenbaum says. “I think there are some parallels with [the unrealized Welles script] The Big Brass Ring. They are both critical self-portraits that are also investigations. They are open-ended but also very dark and pessimistic. I think you could say there’s a fair amount of bitterness in The Other Side of the Wind.
“I do think it’s a very daring film in terms of what it attempts.”
From the moment of his first self-financed independent production, Othello (1952), Welles sought out financial deals with nontraditional film funding sources. Most of those arrangements ended acrimoniously if not disastrously. Like all of Welles’s independent projects, The Other Side of the Wind was clouded by intractable financial, legal, and technical complications.
The most unusual of Welles’s financial deals involved Les Films d’Astrophore (the company also produced and helped finance F for Fake to the apparent satisfaction of both sides. The Iranians were seeking deals with high-profile filmmakers like Welles to bring visibility to their nascent film industry.
The Welles scholar Joseph McBride, who plays a young interviewer in the film and was present from the start of production until the end, called the arrangement a Faustian pact. Welles revised the Iranians’ original 50 percent stake on The Other Side of the Wind in order to cover the escalating production costs. The company eventually invested more than $1 million in the production. Relations between Welles and his financial partners soured and led to bitter disagreements over artistic control and final cut.
After the 1982 French court order ruled Films d’Astrophore was the legal owner of the film, the negatives of the nearly 100 hours of footage were stored in a Paris laboratory. Welles and Graver smuggled a work print-a copy of the original negative-out of Paris. That became the template for their rough assembly.
Welles worked on the film until his death in October 1985. He edited about 30 percent of the finished work. He also left behind voluminous annotations and notes from the shooting script. Despite some widely held misconceptions, all of the party scenes were tightly scripted, though the film within the film was not.
Rymsza became involved in the saga after he was introduced to Oja Kodar at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2009 where he planned to launch his new production company, Royal Road Entertainment. At the time he was not a Welles completist. His tastes ran more toward Asian and eastern-European directors. He was seeking properties he could develop as a writer, producer, and director.
Rymsza had read an earlier article in Vanity Fair about the search in Brazil for the missing final reel of Welles’s second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), that had been destroyed by the RKO studio while he was working on the abandoned documentary It’s All True.
“At the very end of the article, there was a mention of The Other Side of the Wind,” Rymsza says. “I had some awareness, but obviously I did not know the challenges.” He was instantly intrigued by the chance to play an active role in the completion of the movie.
“Part of the Welles [negotiations] was a chess game, more akin to game theory, which was trying to figure out how to align everybody,” Rymsza says. “It was a lot of strategy play, but that kind of puzzle solving was very appealing to me.”
Rymsza immersed himself in the life and work of Orson Welles. He pored over documents at the University of Michigan and the Lilly Library at Indiana University. He read the original script. “It was 300 pages long,” he said. “I met Oja’s nephew, Sasha Welles, and I saw a little bit of the work print. It seemed like a few generations poorly digitized, but it gave a little bit of a window [into] what Orson was doing.”
Rymsza also had the advantage of talking to some of the producers previously involved in trying to bring the parties together.
“I talked to a lot of parties, a few people had undertaken this quest before me to figure out where they left off,” Rymsza says. “A few were very bitter about the whole thing. They told me not to waste my time. A few others were supportive, and they actually gave me some guidance and where they made mistakes or miscalculations.”
The Other Side of the Wind had three ownership claims: Les Films d’Astrophore, Oja Kodar (to whom Welles willed the film), and Beatrice Welles, the filmmaker’s youngest daughter by his third wife, Paolo Mori. (Despite his long personal involvement with Kodar, Orson Welles never divorced Mori.)
Beatrice Welles inherited ownership of the Welles estate following the death of her mother in 1986. She was notoriously litigious—it was a legal threat from her that forced the last-minute cancellation of the world premiere of the reedit of Touch of Evil at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998.
“Everybody wanted something different,” Rymsza said. “They were not on speaking terms. There was this misconception that certain people needed to be handled a certain way. I really wanted to do away with that.”
A central tenet of negotiation is mastering the art of mitigating failure. By his estimate, Rymsza held more than 100 meetings, most of them dead ends. He pressed on and endured. His early success with Francoise Widhoff, who took over as managing director of Films d’Astrophore and granted him the rights, convinced him his instincts were correct.
Early on in his partnership with Marshall, Rymsza convinced him the two should approach Beatrice Welles at her home in Sedona, Arizona, and present an update on their work and a plan of attack moving forward. When the two showed up, according to Rymsza, the first thing Beatrice Welles said was that nobody had ever done that before.
“Beatrice wanted the [completion of the film] done right, and she wanted to be acknowledged and respected,” Rymsza says. “Previously everybody who has tried to go around her or not engage her has not been successful. It was this incredible meeting.”
The negotiations with Kodar were long, arduous, and combative. She had a deep emotional connection to the material. “She wanted everything,” Rymsza says.
Eventually Rymsza convinced her that the technicians, artists, composer, and editors they were hiring to complete the film would honor Welles’s conception and vision.
His accomplishment did not go unnoticed.
“Should Rymsza tire of filmmaking, he clearly has the patience and chops for international diplomacy,” wrote Ray Kelly at the resource site Wellesnet.com.
The agreements with the three central parties led to the French court formally releasing the negatives. On March 13, 2017, the day the negatives were shipped from a laboratory in Paris to Los Angeles, Netflix agreed to cover the cost of postproduction and finishing.
The brash young outsider had succeeded against long and stacked odds. “I made a lot of bold moves,” Rymsza said. “The appeal was to succeed where everyone else had failed. There was a healthy amount of doubt with any such undertaking. Ultimately, it was in everybody’s best interests for this film to be finished.
“I just kept at it because I had key pieces of the rights. I knew it was a matter of when and how.” v