4 Lessons From the Life of Orson Welles

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Orson Welles has a varied reputation depending on who you ask. He lived many lives. Some cite his egotism and success as a Broadway theater director during the Depression. Others mention his War of the Worlds broadcast which, according to legend, scared the living daylights out of the American people and convinced many of them they were being attacked by aliens. Some cite his genius directorship of the ‘greatest movie ever made,’ Citizen Kane. Finally, others mention his uneven and difficult later years; his battles with studios, his ads for California wine and weight gain, and his lack of finished projects.

All these Welles existed.  They are all a part of the story, although somewhat skewed by outside perspectives. Nonetheless, we can learn a lot about the creative process from all of the different versions of Welles throughout his career.

Here are 4 things we can learn from Orson Welles’ life and work:

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1.  Learn by doing

Welles always believed that if you could express yourself in one art form you could likely do so in several. With this ethos he became an actor, a theater director, a radio performer, and finally a director.

Welles started his career in a Dublin theater by lying about his age and experience, telling those in charge that he had worked on Broadway. It is up for debate whether they believed him or not but his sheer confidence and potential talent led them to hire him for the job either way. He tumbled into the acting profession and learned how to act by doing it.

When Welles got an unprecedented contract to write, direct, produce, and star in Citizen Kane, he had never directed a film and knew nothing about how to make a movie. He hired Gregg Toland, a veteran director of photography in the film industry who was told Welles that he was tired of working with people who knew (or thought they knew) the limits of the medium and didn’t want to push it in new directions. The idea of working with someone as fresh and inventive as Welles attracted him.

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The first day of shooting, Welles went around fixing all the lights because he thought it was the job of the director. Little did he know that this was actually Tolland’s job. However, Tolland quietly balanced the lights and told everybody on set not to tell Welles and to let him continue. Welles set the lights for several days before someone informed him. When Tolland found out, he became quite angry because he wanted Welles to do things his own way.

Welles went on to wildly experiment in order to create a whole new kind of cinematic experience. He used lighting in inventive ways, shot certain scenes from wholly different angles and points of view, brought in montage techniques which had been used rarely in Hollywood before, and also used radio techniques of overlapping dialogue in new ways.

In the end, he had created what many think of as the greatest movie ever made. He always claimed that he was interested in jumping straight into things because this was the best way to learn.

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2.  Take Risks

Welles was most definitely a risk-taker. One need only look through his catalog to realize that he was constantly pushing the limits of whatever he was working on. Early on in the theater, he put on an all-black production of Macbeth. This was during the depression, in a time of racial segregation and institutionalized racism. Not only was Welles reacting against these elements (he was a dyed in the wool liberal) but also against the traditions of Shakespeare performances. But this risk ended up paying off and is remembered as a landmark in the history of Shakespearean productions.

Other times his attempts to push boundaries backfired, at least at first. The infamous War of the Worlds broadcast was reported at the time and later to have caused a national panic because Welles had produced a radio drama about aliens attacking her with convincing news bulletins that reportedly tricked people into believing in their veracity.

The reality of this oft-repeated claim has been recently challenged as a-historical but nonetheless Welles did get in trouble for the daringness of the broadcast and its effect. Since, as he has often mentioned himself, it was a revolutionary moment in the history of media, it would not have happened if Welles had not taken a leap of faith to create something truly daring.

Citizen Kane drew a lot of attention, not only from those who were quick to praise the film but from those who became the enemies of Welles. He long refused to admit that the figure of Kane was based on the controversial newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. But many of Hearst’s associates saw the connection all too clearly and tried to find all manners of methods to stop release of the film and blacken Welles’ reputation, going so far as to try to have the negative destroyed and frame Welles by trapping him in a hotel room with an underage girl. In the end their plots failed but Welles’ reputation with the studios was badly damaged nonetheless. He would never again have such ease in making a film as he did on Citizen Kane.

3.  Have a vision and don’t compromise it

One fact that is often cited about Welles was just how difficult and hard-headed he could be. He had a reputation for yelling at actors and throwing tantrums on set and causing major headaches for the studio heads.  It is almost not possible to imagine Welles any other way. The difficulty of his personality, which he later regretted using with such ferocity, was as central to his personality as his genius because in many instances it facilitated his ability to create the kinds of work he was eventually most famous and known for.

Not only that but it allowed him to get his projects done in the ways he envisioned them. When one thinks of films such as Citizen Kane, The Trial, The Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil, The Trial, or F for Fake, it is impossible to think of those films being directed by any other person other than Welles. Even though these films are disparate in many ways, they all share his undeniable touch.

Welles had very strong specific visions which he want to share with his audience in a precise and specific way. In order to make sure that happened he needed to go to the mattresses with the studios, his actors and crew, and the film itself. Many times this too backfired and studio heads cut versions of two of his films (The Lady from Shanghai and The Magnificent Ambersons) without his permission and behind his back. He never would forgive them for this and was never able to get the kind of control he had on Kane again. Nonetheless, he was still able to make some visionary films and it was only because he fought against those who would compromise his vision so consistently and so fiercely.

4.  Never Give Up

There was of course a downside to Welles’s incredible ambition and difficulty as a person. He made a lot of enemies which contributed to problems especially later in his career.  The third act of Welles life has often been talked about in terms of failure, at least partial failure. Although he made some of his most classic films during this time, many look at Welles’ final twenty or so years with pity or even derision. This seems to me to be entirely the wrong impression.

Although it is true that Welles had much less success in the later part of his life spending much of his time in bit parts, doing narration, and even performing in commercials, he never gave up trying make new film projects. He spent much of his time hustling in order to get the next film made. That kind of tenacity was what helped him to create some of his greatest projects. In the end, we should praise Orson Welles for the great work he did and see his strength of character in the face of adversity as an example to follow.

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