Made with his own money and with tremendous difficulties, Orson Welles’ Othello took two years to actually complete, due to money running out, and cast having to take other jobs, and all kinds of problems involving costumes, locations, and logistics. It is a tremendous feat, any way you look at it, especially when you realize that certain two-way scenes were filmed sometimes years apart, and on different continents. Welles is standing in Africa and his cast-mate is standing in Italy, and then the scenes were cut together. The story he tells here, of what Winston Churchill “did for him” is in regards to the financing of Othello.
Arthur Penn always talked about “happy accidents”, and how it is the “accidents” that often make something brilliant, unexpected, unforgettable. That is why they are “happy”. You have a plan in your head as a director, but then it rains the day you are going to shoot the scene, or someone drops a glass by mistake, or someone fluffs a line … If you have created an environment of creativity and “saying Yes” on your film-set, from the actors to the crew, then those accidents don’t have to be mistakes on the cutting-room floor, or “lost days” of shooting. They can become THE scene in the movie, the one everyone remembers. But you have to create the right environment for that. Perhaps “create” is not the right word, which assumes the director has total control. You have to be able to nurture that level of creativity in everyone, that level of freedom, and be the kind of person who is open to all possibilities. This has a spill-over effect on your team. I have seen it time and time again. Acting is a human endeavor, which means it is full of flaws inherently, even in film, where things can be crafted to perfection. Penn’s advice to young directors was always to be on the lookout for ‘happy accidents’, because what may seem like a big goof-up could end up being gold in the end result.
So much of Othello was filmed under great strain. There was no budget. Welles used his own money, and then pieced together donations from “semi-Armenian Russian” types. When you are working under those circumstances, you have limits on what you can do. You can’t wave a magic wand and have a castle built for you, or a raging battle scene played out in real-time with hundreds of fully-costumed extras. You have to be creative. You have to do what you can do with what you have. Amazing feats of brilliance are possible with grave limitations. I love Welles’ Othello. I love his adaptation, too, which shows how free he was with Shakespeare (from the beginning – he never saw Shakespeare as an engraved-in-stone text. Welles’ first big splash as a director was the so-called “Voodoo Macbeth”, done in Harlem with an all-black cast, and he had no compunction with moving things around in the text, he never did). In Welles’ version of Othello, the film begins with a narration (done by Welles, of course), which sets up who Othello is and that he has just secretly married Desdemona. We see Desdemona running down an outdoor stairway to meet up with the shadowed Othello in a gondola, as Welles describes what we are seeing. In a balcony across the waterway, huddle Iago (played by Micheál MacLiammóir) and Roderigo (Robert Coote). The narration comes to an end, and then Iago states (the famous line): “I hate the Moor.”
Clearly, the original Shakespeare play does not start with the bald statement from Iago. We get the whole set-up first, we meet all the characters, we work our way up to it. But a film is different. Welles always understood that (although he felt the same way about stage productions of Shakespeare as well), and so the exposition is handled theatrically, with the artifice of a narration, and then, with no preparation, we are thrust into Iago’s fever-dream of hatred. We don’t need to know any more.
It’s a purely cinematic adaptation, and a fantastic one. Welles worked on it for years, but I can hardly think of a way it could be improved.
In This is Orson Welles, the book-long conversation between Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, the two men talk about Othello. You can see here how Welles used everything to his advantage, even huge setbacks. His answers to the questions are quite practical, with no mystique about them. If you are a filmmaker, then you need to make films, end-stop. Whether or not someone finances them is irrelevant. Everything that happens, even the disasters, gives the director the possibility for a “happy accident”.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: You cut Othello to ninety-one minutes.
ORSON WELLES: Yeah, it’s my thing again about shows being too long.
PB: And you took out some of what is, I guess, dated comedy.
OW: It’s very good comedy, but the movie I wanted to make didn’t have room for it, that’s all.
PB: And you feel quite free to change whatever you like for that reason.
OW: I don’t see why there’s any argument about it: A movie is a movie, and if we’re going to take movies as a serious art form, then they’re no less so than opera. And Verdi had no hesitation in doing what he did with his Othello, which is an enormous departure from the play; nobody criticizes him. Why is a movie supposed to be more respectful to a play than an opera?
PB: Or to a novel or anything else?
PB: You are basically doing your own variations on Shakespeare’s theme.
OW: Yes. Of course, there’s nothing can be done without Shakespeare – but you can’t put a play on the screen. I don’t believe in that – I don’t think Shakespeare would have believed in it. He would have made a great movie writer.
PB: It’s one of your best performances.
OW: I was much better in the theatre, which I did after the movie. Just the reverse. I should have done it first.
PB: You improved.
OW: I knew much more about it, had more time to think about it. Though I’ve always had a great feeling for Othello. The two plays I’ve most wanted to do in movies have always been Othello and King Lear.
PB: I have noticed that all the music you’ve put in your films – with the exception of Touch of Evil where it wouldn’t fit – has a classical quality to it.
OW: I attach an awful lot of importance to it.
PB: But it must go back to your early love of music.
OW: Yes, all of those things. I was very lucky in having Benny Herrmann for a while, and since then I’ve used some good composers, but I tend more and more to get music that isn’t composed for the picture – so that I can control it, so that I’m not at the mercy of what the composer turns up with after he’s already under contract.
PB: Well, the music in Othello is most memorable.
OW: Yes. That’s an extraordinarily talented man, [Angelo Francesco] Lavagnino – he did the music for Chimes at Midnight, too. Extraordinary music for the battle. But I took it out and recorded it three times over each other, did all those kinds of Beatles tricks with it. But still awfully good. Othello was superb. We used forty mandolins at one time. And that opening theme of the funeral [clip below], the main one, is just hair-raising. He makes too many movies now – does forty a year. He’s an ex-professor of music at Vienna with a big classical background. And he wrote an entirely different score for Othello when I did it in the theatre.
PB: The first line in the movie – “I hate the Moor” – sets everything up. You do that sort of thing quite often – begin by telling what it’s going to be about. You did it in The Trial.
OW: I like it in Elizabethan plays. In the primitive theatre, too, you find somebody coming out front and telling what it’s all about. I just got through writing an opening exactly like that for The Other Side of the Wind. We tell what it is – and then, really, you could go home if you want to [laughs].
PB: Why did you decide to begin Othello with the funeral?
OW: Why not? [Laughs.] I don’t know. Have another drink.
PB: Well, it couldn’t be coincidental that Kane, Othello and Mr. Arkadin all begin with the death of the leading character.
OW: Just shows a certain weakness of invention on the part of the filmmaker.
PB: You can give me a better answer than that.
OW: Peter, I’m no good at this sort of stuff. I either go cryptic or philistine. All I can say is, I thought it was a good idea; whether you get me in the morning or the evening, I’m always going to say that [laughs].
PB: I loved the classic unity of that film. Beginning with Othello’s head and then into the funeral – ending with his head and then the funeral. And it’s not precious.
OW: Well, the shooting script, as such, was quite painstakingly developed.
PB: I think you’re saying that as a reaction to some critics, who probably said it was thrown together. Where did you get the idea for the cage they put Iago in? Was that, in fact, the kind of punishment they might have used?
OW: You do see cages in museums sometimes, of one kind or another. Wasn’t it Abd el-Krim, the great North African insurrectionist leader, who was driven in a cage tied to a donkey all over North Africa to show to the tribes? That’s where I got the idea.
PB: Why did you shoot the long scene on the beach between Othello and Iago in one continuous traveling shot?
OW: Because the picture was made in pieces. Three different times I had to close it and go away and earn money and come back, which meant you’d see me looking off-camera left, and when you’d cut over my shoulder, it would be another continent – a year later. And so the picture had many more cuts than I would have liked; it wasn’t written that way, but had them because I never had a full cast together. Now, for that shot we had the entire cast – Iago and Othello – and a great long place where we could do it all in one. So, for once in the picture, we could do a single substantial scene. Just as simple as that.
PB: Beautiful scene.
OW: It’s a marvelous set. [Alexandre] Trauner found it for me.
PB: In the scene before the mirror that follows – where Iago continues to poison his mind – did you mean his removing of Othello’s armor as a symbol of what he’s doing to him emotionally at the time?
OW: Well, it’s not exactly a symbol. When the visual thing is so direct and so basic that you don’t have to cerebrate, then it’s OK. In other words, when it doesn’t present the director in front of the curtain for his comments, then it’s all right. It’s so clear what’s happening – you don’t have to think about it – it’s a kind of physical fact.
PB: It becomes a metaphor.
OW: Yes, a metaphor – you’ve found a good definition. I rather like metaphor.
PB: It’s integral to the scene.
OW: There was a moment at the end of that scene that has remained a standing joke between Micheál and myself for years. He had to pick up Othello’s cloak and go. And he picked it up and looked very meaningful and all that sort of stuff, and I finally said to him, “Micheál, pick up the cloak and go!” And that’s become since then a sort of basic thing I use when an actor wants to enrich his performance – I say, “Pick up the cloak and go!”
And here is Welles and Bogdanovich talking about the play itself. I very much like Welles’ take on the villainy of Iago (and its so-called unmotivated nature), and agree with him entirely – although that doesn’t quite solve the problem of how to PLAY such a thing. Many an actor has been sunk by Iago. He’s a tough one.
PB: Why do you think Othello is destroyed so easily? Do you think he’s a weak man?
OW: He’s destroyed easily because of his simplicity, not his weakness. He really is the archetype of the simple man, and has never understood the complexity of the world or of human beings. He’s a soldier; he’s never known women. It’s a favorite theme of Shakespeare’s. A curious thing about Lear, too: Lear clearly knows nothing about women and has never lived with them at all. His wife is dead – she couldn’t exist. Obviously, the play couldn’t happen if there were a Mrs. Lear. He hasn’t any idea of what makes women work – he’s a man who lives with his knights. He’s that all-male man whom Shakespeare – who was clearly feminine in many ways – regarded as a natural-born loser in a tragic situation. Othello was another fellow like that. Total incomprehension of what a woman is. His whole treatment of her when he kills her is the treatment of a man who’s out of touch with reality as far as the other sex is concerned. All he knows how to do is fight wars and deal with the anthropophagi and “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders”.
PB: That’s his tragedy, then.
PB: He could not imagine a person like Iago.
OW: No, and neither could a lot of Shakespeare’s critics. As a result of which we have eight libraries full of idiot explanations of Iago – when everybody has known an Iago in his life if he’s been anywhere.
PB: There are several moments in the movie which give the impression that Iago does what he does because it’s in his character, rather than that he’s plotting for some particular reason.
OW: Oh, he has no reason. The great criticism through all the years has been that he’s an unmotivated villain, but I think there are a lot of people who perpetuate villainy without any motive other than the exercise of mischief and the enjoyment of the power to destroy. I’ve known a lot of Iagos in my life. I think it’s a great mistake to try to motivate it beyond what is inherent in the action.
PB: You could say he was like the scorpion that followed his own character.
OW: Well, yup [laughs].
PB: Iago is certainly the most interesting part in the play.
OW: Shakespeare is like no other artist when his characters start to live their own lives and to lead the author against his wishes. In Richard II, Shakespeare is absolutely for Richard, but nevertheless he has to do justice to Bolingbroke. And, more than that, he has to make him seem real, human – so that suddenly this man Bolingbroke takes life and pulls off a large part of the play. You see Shakespeare trying to hold him back: nothing doing, Bolingbroke is launched! A very interesting theory has been put forward by some scholars; according to them, Shakespeare not only played small roles, but large ones. They think now that he played Iago and Mercutio – two second-level roles which steal the play from the stars…
PB: You said somewhere that there was an implication of impotence in your Iago.
OW: Yes. I don’t think that is necessary to the truth of the play, but it was the key to MacLiammóir’s performance, that Iago was impotent. It isn’t central, but it was an element that we used for the actor, as a means of performing the part. In the play, it’s pretty clear that isn’t so, and when I did the play in the theatre later, there was no suggestion of it. But I think it’s a perfectly valid way of doing it, though I wasn’t anxious for the audience to understand it, not trying to inform them of it – if the audience can find it, more power to them. To use the Stanislavsky argot, it was basically something for the actor “to use”. I do a lot of that with actors. I’m always making fun of the Method, but I use a lot of things that are taken from it.
PB: Does Othello feel guilt at the end – after Iago’s proven guilty?
OW: Depends on how you play it.
PB: In your picture.
OW: I’ve forgotten, because I remember my performance in the theatre much more clearly than in the movie, and I revised a lot of my ideas of playing it.
PB: Well, then, in the stage production.
OW: I don’t think “guilt” is the right word. You know, Othello is so close to being a French farce. Analyze it! All he’s got to do is say, “Show me the handkerchief,” and you ring down the curtains. Being that close to nonsense, it can only come to life on a level very close to real tragedy – closer than Shakespeare actually gets. And Othello is so blasted at the end that guilt is really too small an emotion. Anyway, he’s not a Christian – that’s central to the character. And Shakespeare was very, very aware of who was a Christian and who wasn’t, just as he was very aware of who was a Southern European and who was a Northern, who was the decadent and who was the palace man, and the outdoor man. These things run all the way through Shakespeare.
PB: There’s an implication at the end that Othello understands, even almost forgives Iago for what he had done.
OW: He didn’t forgive him.
PB: Well, understood.
OW: Yes, it was this terrible understanding of how awful he was which drains him of hate. Because when something is that awful you can’t react to it that way. He becomes appalled by him.
PB: The look between them is filled with ambiguity.
OW: That’s a very interesting moment in the play.
PB: Do you think Othello is detestable in his jealousy?
OW: Jealousy is detestable, not Othello. He’s so obsessed with jealousy, he becomes the very personification of that tragic vice. In that sense, he’s morally diseased. All Shakespeare’s great characters are sometimes detestable – compelled by their own nature.
PB: So are your characters.
OW: Well, you could say it, I think, about all dramas, large or small, that attempts tragedy within the design of melodrama. As long as there is melodrama, the tragic hero is something of a villain.
PB: Why did you give Roderigo a white poodle?
OW: Because Carpaccio’s full of them. And it’s not a poodle, it’s a tenerife – very special kind. We had a terrible time getting it. All the dandies in Carpaccio fondle exactly that dog – it’s almost a trademark with them, like Whistler’s butterfly; they’re always clinging to those terrible little dogs.
Here they discuss the difficult (a mild term) nature of the shoot, and here, we start to see some of the happy accidents:
PB: Would you say Othello was the most arduous to make of all of your pictures, since it took so long to finish?
OW: It was about two years between starting it and finishing it because of lack of money, but “arduous” is maybe not the word – just maddening, because I had all the money and the contract early on. I went to Rome after the collapse of Cyrano to do Black Magic, which I made at Scalera Film Studios, then the biggest studio in Italy. And Mr. Scalera, the head of this great outfit, decided that he wanted to finance my making Othello, and we wrote a contract together. I gathered together my actors and Trauner [art director) and my Italian crew, and away went to Mogador to shoot it. We arrived in this condemned area - a little-known, out-of-the-way port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco - and everybody checked into hotels. Two days later, we got a telegram saying the costumes wouldn't come because they hadn't been completed. A day later, a telegram came saying they hadn't been started. And then a telegram came saying that Scalera had gone bankrupt. So I had a company of fifty people in North Africa and no money - though we had film and we had our cameras - but how can you shoot Othello without costumes?
That was how I got the idea to shoot two reels in a Turkish bath, because if people are in a Turkish bath they won't be wearing clothes. And we worked in a Turkish bath for about three weeks while a lot of little tailors in the village - with Carpaccio reproductions pinned on their walls - made the clothes; the costumes were all based on his paintings. My plan was to show much more of the corruption of the Christian Venetian world - this world of what Othello called "goats and monkeys". But everything I'd thought up for that had to go when I was obliged to film without costumes.
PB: How would you have done that?
OW: I don't know how to describe it: the same scenes, but it was just the way they would appear. You can't show people being very goatlike and monkeylike sitting, sweating it out in a Turkish bath! Anyway, I shot until the money in the bank ran out -
PB: Your own money.
OW: Sure. And then everybody had to go home until I could earn some more or find some more. In fact, we stayed a little longer by virtue of a fellow who arrived and arranged for sales of the film for some strange countries like the Dutch East Indies and Turkey - places like that; we got together about $6,000 or $7,000 and stayed on a week or two more, thanks to him. And I gave him a role in the film. He wasn't an actor and he's very poor in it, but he was a big help in getting us the money. And then that ran out and everybody had to go home. Micheál MacLiammóir, who was playing Iago, and his partner, Hilton Edwards [who played Desdemona's father], went back to Dublin to open their theatre season, and they couldn’t be brought back just when I wanted, because of their theatre schedule. So, even when I got the money, I had to wait until my actors were free, which made a long wait – even longer than it took me to get the money. And when they were free, we went back again to Africa and then to Italy, where we shot all over the place and finished it. But that began the story of how long it takes me to make a movie. You know: “Look at him – even on his own pictures, it takes him over three years to finish it.”
PB: That’s how that myth got started –
OW: Yes, it’s all very prevalent, and it all began with Othello. But the movie wasn’t arduous – we had tremendous fun doing it, and everybody got along awfully well. Our headaches were all riotous and amusing; it wasn’t anguish like Mr. Arkadin was. Arkadin was just anguish from beginning to end. No, it was a very happy experience for me in spite of these terrible troubles.
PB: Trauner told me he loved making the film, and remembers it as sort of an insane experience.
OW: He’s a wonderful art director and an extraordinary fellow. I’m devoted to him. Marvelous at his job – of course, there wasn’t much he could do with no money, but he still kept a very large staff. Imagine: the picture was being shot in a real location where there’s no money except what I happened to have left in the bank, and Trauner had three assistants. So, when he remembers it as a crazy experience, there was nothing as crazy as Trauner, who insisted on keeping three assistants in Mogador drafting pictures of where we would put the matting that we bought – which is all they had to do, since there was nothing we could build.
PB: Well, then, what did he do?
OW: It was all going to be built originally in the south of France. All sets. And he designed everything. Then, when we decided on real places, he found Mogador – he found all the locations.
PB: The castle?
OW: Well, that’s partly Safi and partly Agadir – all different places made to look the same.
OW: It’s shot in four different towns in Morocco and about five different places in Italy. And there is even a set that he did design, the doge’s palace, which he built in a studio in Rome. Poor Trauner was reduced to a mere wisp of what his original conception was.