Everybody knows about Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’s film centred on a newspaper magnate’s final word has been considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, cinematic achievement of all time since its release in 1941.
For most people, that’s where their knowledge of Welles’s career ends. Perhaps they know some trivia – that he grew incredibly overweight, maybe, or that one of the last films he worked on was Transformers: The Movie – but beyond that, for all they know, he never created a great film again.
They’ll Love me When I’m Dead is a documentary that proves Welles never gave up on making another commercially successful production, and that, but for a series of unfortunate events, he may have managed just that.
Directed by Morgan Neville (Won’t You be my Neighbor?, 20 Feet from Stardom), the documentary draws from the footage and experiences of those who worked on Welles’s final film, The Other Side of the Wind. Shot over five years, the experimental and innovative movie was, to its director, a chance for vindication. Exiled from Hollywood two decades prior, Welles returned to America with a fascinating, entirely improvised project that parodied both cliched Hollywood and European cinema, an eager cast and crew, and the financial support of Spanish, French, and Iranian producers. It seemed as if everything he needed to create a successful film that would see studios begging him to make movies for them once again.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way.
Besides being an important project, The Other Side of the Wind was also a deeply personal one for Welles. Though he loathed questions about the autobiographical aspects of his work, Wind was undeniably a stylised translation of his struggle for financing and respect in an industry he was fiercely passionate about. As the project fell apart – actors left, money disappeared, the integrity of the production was called into question – more autobiographical elements seep in, and Welles’s creativity, ego, and uncertainty collide. It’s interesting to watch unfold, even if Neville doesn’t explore this turmoil to its full extent.
In comparison to the other Welles documentary released in 2018, The Eyes of Orson Welles, They’ll Love me When I’m Dead acts less like a love letter than a letter of inquiry. There’s still a lot of respect for the iconic director on display, but he’s far from romanticised. Interviews including those with actor/director and former Welles protege Peter Bogdanovich, and the ex-wife of Director of Photography Gary Graver reveal why he was both loved and hated by so many, often at the same time.
These interviews are captured in interesting ways; shot in black and white, subjects are obscured in frame, filmed from the side, or only have parts of their face shown. It’s as if Neville wants to remind the audience that these men and women are not the focus point. No matter how long they’re on screen, this is Welles’s story alone. The only divergence from that are narrative sequences in which actor Alan Cumming sits by a Moviola and guides the story along.
Audiences will no doubt finish the documentary to find themselves with an urge to experience The Other Side of the Wind. The good news is that they now can. Though both Welles and Graver died before it could be finished, Netflix purchased the rights to distribute the film in 2017, with post-production being completed by acclaimed editor Bob Murawski (The Hurt Locker, Spider-Man). The Other Side of the Wind was created as a companion piece to the finished film, and both are now available on the streaming service.