Monday Prescriptions – How To Be Orson Welles

Hi Film Folk!!

Today marks the 98th birthday of film legend Orson Welles. In celebration of the actor, writer and director (and after our epic multi-hyphenate articles last week – part 1 here and part 2 here) we are paying tribute to the greatest multi-hyphenate of them all.

Ladies and gentleman – ‘How to be Orson Welles’.


Orson Welles Film Doctor

A Word to the Wise

Now, before we begin, we must of course iterate that the ‘How to be’ series is designed to be an insightful and informative collection. And that only.

You, of course, can not possibly be any of the people in these articles. You have been raised differently, you have had a better or worse upbringing, have different creative/business sensibilities and, indeed, a different heart.

Instead, aim to be yourself. Perhaps you have already ‘found yourself’. Perhaps there is still work to do. But aim to be the best you you can possibly be and charge forth!

Now for Mr. Welles…


Orson’s Youth

Due to his mother’s passions in culture and the arts, George Orson Welles was exposed to (and practiced) acting, writing, magic, directing, design from a very early age. He was also given the impression he could achieve anything:

‘I was spoiled in a very strange way as a child. Everybody told me from the moment I was able to hear that I was absolutely marvelous. I painted and they said nobody’s ever seen such a painting. I played, nobody’s ever played like that. And there just seemed to me no limit to what I could do.’

By his 9th birthday Orson’s mother passed away, he attended a ‘highly progressive’ boys school, Todd, and his father had took him travelling around Europe and Asia. By his 15th birthday his father had passed too and he was placed in the custody of Dr. Maurice Bernstein (a friend of Orson’s mother). In the final years of graduation, young Welles attempted to find acting work in Dublin, London, New York, while also trying his hand at writing detective potboilers while travelling in Morocco and Spain. After a production of Twelth Night for Todd School he signed to a New York repertory production, had his ‘Everyman’ essays on Shakespeare published, got a radio gig at CBS and made his first short film The Hearts of Age.


“It’s not a film at all. It was a little joke one Sunday afternoon. We’d all seen either Buñuel or Cocteau or somebody’s surrealist movie. We said ‘Let’s make one’. And from two o’clock in the afternoon until five we shot some dumb stuff and put it together just to amuse ourselves. And it’s terrible and it’s suddenly found its way into the oeuvre, you know…”

At 22, after a string of hit performances on stage and the radio, he formed the Mercury Theatre.


Mercury Theatre

The next 4 years saw Welles rise and rise in fame. This was a time when theatre was still considered a powerhouse. There was no Television to compete with it. Just radio and cinema. Welles sky-rocketed to fame with a broadcast of The War of the Worlds which was aired as if it were a real news transmission (something that could not be done today due to legal constraints put into place since). The US nation was in panic. Welles was soon on the cover of Time magazine and was offered everything under the sun by almost everybody.

For film enthusiasts unaware of Welles pre-Kane, it may seem like he ‘did a bit of theatre’, a radio play and then made one of the best films of all time but it’s clear from the records that he had performed scores of stage productions and radio plays during a decade of solid work.

He was already a huge star in his own right.


Citizen Kane

Enjoying his radio work and theatre productions, Welles didn’t even really want to make a film but due to his fame he was hassled and offered a rare deal – to make whatever film of his choosing and to have complete creative control over it:

‘I got that good contract because I didn’t really want to make a film. In the golden days of Hollywood, when you honestly didn’t want to go, then the deals got better and better. In my case I didn’t want money, I wanted authority, so I asked the impossible, hoping to be left alone, and at the end of the year’s negotiations I got it, simply because there was no real vocation there – my love for films began only when we started work.’ 

‘According to the terms of my contract the rushes couldn’t be seen by anyone, and indeed the film couldn’t be seen until it was ready for release.’

He spent 10 days before the official shoot with his actors and cinematographer Greg Toland, testing and trying out shots because he had never made a film before. These days were clearly well spent and they even started official production in that time, although Welles had to be told that directors did not need to do the film’s lighting (he had spent the first few days changing the lights by hand himself).

Welles cited, on various occasions, the reasons for the films critical success (it was a commercial flop as it contained no movie stars and audiences were wary of its revolutionary/arty nature):

  • Greg Toland  (cinematographer) – ‘the best cinematographer who ever existed. He taught me everything about the camera in 4 hours’.
  • John Ford – ‘I learned how to make movies by running Stagecoach every night for a month. Prior to making Citizen Kane I saw Stagecoach forty-five times’.
  • Having complete creative control.
  • Having a cast on unknowns, used to working as a team, new to film – ‘The whole cast were from the theatre and that gave the film a kind of style, automatic style’.
  • His own ignorance. When asked how he had made such revolutionary advances on Citizen Kane, he answered – ‘Ignorance, ignorance, sheer ignorance – you know there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you’re timid or careful. I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do and the imagination could do. If you come up from the bottom in the film business, you’re taught all the things that the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt for fear he will be criticised for having failed. And in this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticised if he failed, and I didn’t know there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams I attempted to photograph’.

Other Films

Welles never really made a film that impacted cinema in quite the same way after Citizen Kane and frequently lamented not being able to gain final cut for his projects. The poor performance of Kane at the box office had made things difficult. Being a star before Kane, he was not short of offers. He continued to act, write and direct in a variety of his own work and other ventures, using his acting earnings to fund his own films. Perhaps his best known work, post-Kane, was his many Shakespeare adaptations, A Touch of Evil and his turn in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.




On Film

Welles’s roots in theatre remained. He had ultimate love for character and story, so when it came to film his visuals were always used to facilitate something important, not just for the sake of it: 

“The camera is nothing but a machine, it’s the poetry that counts.”


Orson was an artist in the truest sense. He might have done a lot of commercial acting but whenever he had to write/direct he always wanted to be an artist in the way he delivered a project. He lamented writing/directing being hijacked as promotional tools:

“Advertisers are having a disastrous effect on every art they touch. they are not only seducing the artist, they are drafting him. They are not only drawing on him, they are sucking the soul out of him. Among the advertisers, you find artists who have betrayed their kind and are busy getting their brethren hooked on the same drug. The advertising profession is largely made up of unfrocked poets, disappointed novelists, frustrated actors and unsuccessful producers with split-level homes.”


Like Stanley Kubrick, and many other directors, Welles believed the full force of cinema could be felt in the edit:

“As far as I’m concerned, the ribbon of film is played like a musical score, and this performance is determined by the way it is edited. Just as one conductor interprets a musical phrase rubato, another will play it very dryly and academically, a third romantically etc. The images alone are insufficient. They are very important, but they are only images. The essential thing is how long each image lasts, what follows each image. All of the eloquence of film is created in the editing room.”


Welles did not believe you could learn to be a director:

“Oh, the various technical jobs can be taught, just as you can teach the principles of grammar and rhetoric. But you can’t teach writing, and directing a picture is very much like writing, except that it involves 300 people and a great many more skills. A director has to function like a commander in the field in time of battle. You need the same ability to inspire, terrify, encourage, reinforce and generally dominate. So it’s partly a question of personality, which isn’t so easy to acquire as a skill.”


He thought Film School could work:

“If they made movies instead of talking about making movies, and if all classes on theory were rigorously forbidden, I could imagine a film school being very valuable, indeed.”


On Acting, Writing and Directing

As a true multi-hyphenate he was often asked the question ‘which do you prefer?’ Well here’s the answer:

“I prefer acting to directing and I prefer writing to anything. Cinema as a medium of expression fascinates me, of course, but every so often – when directing – I ask myself, whether we really know what we are doing and whether there is any reasonable proportion between the thousands of man-hours spent on the director’s job and the final result. And then, I hate the worries connected with the financial and administrative side of film-making.”


Welles embraced his natural ‘type’ rather than trying to play everything:

“I’m  natural for “big” characters. In the old French classical theatre, there were actors who played the Kings, and those who did not; I’m one of the ones who plays the Kings. I have to, because of my personality. And so it results that I always do play the parts of leaders, of people who have got great breadth. I always have to be bigger than life. It’s a fault in my nature. It’s my personality which produces these effects.”


He noted the main difficulty with acting and directing was the confusion it caused between what he was saying as an artist and what people think he is saying because of the parts he played:

“It’s a very serious matter for a creative artist to be an actor as well; he runs a strong risk of being misunderstood; since in between what I’m saying, and what I’m understood to be saying, there is my personality.”


Too much or too little?

One of the main criticisms of Welles was that in later years he was inconsistent with his projects, picking them up and putting them down whenever he felt like it. Films such as The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers and Don Quixote were all left half-shot and incomplete.  In fact, from extensive interviews it seemed that Welles simply did not care. It was his money, earned from acting work, he used for his projects and he argued that he could choose to do with it as he wished. It seems, on the whole, that Welles was quite consistent inasmuch as he pursued writing, directing, acting and radio throughout his lifetime, never committing to one thing, something that many critics and artists continually suggested he do.

When, in his mid-40s, Welles was asked if he felt he had attempted too much, he replied ‘I don’t think I’ve attempted enough. I don’t think anybody does. I think it’s an age of terrible specialisation – I think everybody has many more capacities than they have the gall to try out. I regret how little adventuring I’ve done, not how much’.


‘Monday Prescription’ No.62 – Orson Welles was a man in a million, in a bygone era, there’s no doubt about that. But despite his uniqueness, he always put his success down to luck and hard work and always encouraged people to push to their limits. He’d want you to do the same.


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The Film Doctor Team
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