Dave Sikula on the perils of tech.
Over the past few days, I’ve been listening to a podcast focusing on Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
For those of you who don’t know the history and background of “Ambersons,” it was Welles’s follow-up to “Citizen Kane.” Nowadays, it’s a movie most noted for being one of the most frustrating film productions in history.
When Welles came to Hollywood in 1940, such was his reputation on Broadway and in radio that he was given a contract that granted him the unheard-of right of final cut; that is to say, no one at the studio could supersede what he wanted the film to look and sound like. (The contract was so iron-clad that, in the 80s, when Ted Turner thought of colorizing it, the terms of Welles’s contract prevented him from doing so.)
“Kane” was taken by many to be a barely-disguised expose of the life of powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Welles always denied the claims – and an examination of the film and screenplay show him to be correct – but Hearst did all he could to suppress the film before and after it opened (there were even rumors that MGM head Louis B. Mayer offered RKO – the rival studio that produced “Kane” – a substantial amount of money to destroy both the film and the negative before it opened). Fortunately for posterity, RKO refused – but the Hearst organization refused advertising for the film and did what it could to prevent its distribution. In a perfect world, “Kane” would have made a ton of money, swept the Oscars, and led to Welles being given continued creative freedom. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and “Kane” was considered a box-office flop. It did win Welles and Herman Mankiewicz an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and has come to be considered the greatest film ever made (“Vertigo?” Seriously? It’s not even Hitchcock’s best movie.)
In the wake of “Kane’s” “failure,” Welles’s contract was renegotiated, and his right of final cut was removed. Under normal circumstances, this might not have been a problem. Even if Welles didn’t have final approval, he and the studio could have compromised on the final version of “Ambersons,” his second film. “Ambersons” was based on a novel by Booth Tarkington, and traced the way in which the genteel traditions of 19th-century were overrun by industrialization, as reflected in the downfall of a once-influential family. Welles had completed the film and an initial first cut of 148 minutes when World War II broke out. The Roosevelt Administration convinced Welles that he could help the war effort by traveling to Brazil and making a movie to help relations between the US and South America. Even though he wasn’t completely finished with his “Ambersons” edit, after RKO agreed to let him edit it while working on the other film, Welles agreed to the proposal – a decision which proved to be all but fatal to Welles’s career in Hollywood.
Before he left for Brazil, Welles cut “Ambersons” down to 131, the length at which it was previewed in Pomona, to an audience that mostly hated it. (To be fair, a good portion of the preview cards indicated a belief that it was better than even “Kane.”) Because of the change in contract and Welles’s absence, the studio butchered the film, moving scenes around, shooting new footage, and cutting it down to 88 minutes, eventually releasing at the bottom half of a double bill with (and I am not making this up) “Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.”
The podcast (remember that? I mentioned it way back in the first sentence) – which, at four hours, is about three times the length of the movie itself – goes into great detail about how the movie was compromised, what Welles’s original intentions were, and how – had it been left alone – it might not only have been a greater film than “Kane,” it might have ultimately allowed Welles and other directors to express their creativity without compromise or interference from those higher up.
So, where is all this going? Well, to this, I guess. I sat through a long, long tech rehearsal tonight. I mean, ultimately, it wasn’t that long: I mean, the “long” part was only 3 ½ hours, and I’ve been through techs that were far longer and less productive. (In the late 70s, I was in a production of “Follies” that featured an all-night tech – for reasons I can no longer fathom. At one point, I fell asleep in the house for about an hour and, when I woke up, we were actually at a point earlier in the show than when I’d fallen asleep.) But tonight’s tech was so long because the director was determined to get the cues he wanted, without compromise.
That made me think of all the times where I’ve had to sacrifice the way I saw or imagined a moment, or a set piece, or an effect. Now, in many cases, the sacrifice led to something good, if not better than my original idea, but it was no longer my idea. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know if I know. I know that if the production of a play is an opportunity to present the conceptions of one single person, it usually “fails.” (By that, I mean, there are too many other factors – designers, actors, stage managers – for a single individual’s vision to overwhelm [though there are exceptions – but even then …]) Film is a far better medium for one person’s vision to be paramount.
I also know that stubbornness can be a virtue and that sometimes it’s worth sticking to your guns in order to maintain the “perfection” that one imagined. If I have an idea that a production is based on or is an important part of what I intend for a production, I’ll fight for it. A choreographer friend of mine recently had a prolonged legal battle with the director of a show they had worked on. The two of them had worked on a very successful show that the director had also written and produced. The issue was over who had originated the business involved with the choreography. Was it the choreographer, who conceived and staged the numbers? Was it the actors, whose movements and characterizations inspired what could be done? Was it the director, who had the overall vision? My friend, who had traveled across the country – and even internationally – to restage the show, was forced to cede her rights to future royalties because the issue was so muddy. There was no real way for her to prove what was hers and what was the work of others.
But, on the other hand, I also know that there are things to be gained when artists collaborate. Some of the best things that I’ve had happen in shows are the result of my being open to the ideas of others.
In spite of my (to be frank) boredom and frustration at the long, long rehearsal, I was willing to wait because I knew that, were our positions reversed, I’d appreciate people waiting while I got the exact effect that was important to me. Ultimately, it’s the production that ultimately benefits, and that’s the most important thing.