“My definition of a film director,” Orson Welles says early on in the new Netflix documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” “is ‘the man who presides over accidents.’”
For more than half a century, filmgoers have been conditioned to view a director as a movie’s ultimate author and final say — as the person responsible for its distinctive rhythms and strange quirks. Hundreds of technicians, artists, performers and crew members come together to make a film, but in the end, we’re supposed to see that movie as the vision of one individual, one soul, one perspective.
Odd, then, that this past weekend featured three notable releases that flew in the face of that romantic notion of filmmaking. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” and “The Other Side of the Wind” — Welles’ long-unfinished film whose troubled history is the subject of “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” — have little in common. And yet, they share one crucial similarity: It’s not entirely clear who made them.
In all three cases, there are credited directors, but a simple title card doesn’t tell the whole story. As a result, each movie forces us to reassess how we view a film. Who, exactly, presided over the accidents?
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” a biopic about Queen and lead singer Freddie Mercury, had a tortuous, years-long journey to the screen, with actors, writers and directors signing on and then checking out. But the problems didn’t end there: After the film finally went into production, Fox shocked the industry by taking the rare step of firing its director, Bryan Singer, during the shoot and hiring “Eddie the Eagle” helmer Dexter Fletcher to complete the picture.
Plenty of bad press ensued about the seemingly snake-bit project. After the smoke cleared, Singer alone was credited as the film’s director, although Fletcher filmed for more than two weeks — and longtime Singer cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel reportedly stepped in on occasion before Fletcher’s arrival.
The behind-the-scenes drama wasn’t quite as loud on “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” Disney’s pumped-up retelling of the yuletide favorite, but it also resulted in a messy authorship. The studio hired Oscar-nominated veteran Lasse Hallström (“My Life as a Dog”), with shooting concluding in early 2017. But in December — around the same time Singer was fired — Disney revealed that Joe Johnston (who directed “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “The Rocketeer” for the company) would be supervising a month of reshoots because of Hallström’s supposed unavailability.
Unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though, both men are credited as the film’s directors, perhaps an attempt to project the appearance of a united, harmonious creative front.
“I watched an early cut of ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,’ and I saw something unique and fresh,” Johnston said when the co-directing credit was announced. “When I was asked to direct the remaining elements, I saw an opportunity to complete Lasse’s wonderful and wildly inventive vision.”
Bringing an in-progress film to fruition was also the central struggle behind “The Other Side of the Wind.” But the circumstances were far trickier: This ambitious movie, which was shot across much of the early to mid-1970s is very clearly Welles’ work, but it lingered unfinished for decades because of legal and financial obstacles, seemingly destined to be another of the master’s great what-might-have-been projects. (Welles died in 1985 at age 70.)
But in recent years, a team including filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (a longtime Welles friend and one of the stars of “The Other Side of the Wind”) cleared those hurdles and constructed a finished work out of what New Yorker music critic and Welles obsessive Alex Ross calls “more than a thousand reels of film, comprising nearly a hundred hours of footage.” But although we at last have “The Other Side of the Wind,” its overseers remain deferential about their achievement, noting in an opening crawl, “This film is an attempt to honor and complete his vision.”
It’s telling that Johnston and the team behind “The Other Side of the Wind” both use that terminology of trying “to complete a vision.” (Fletcher once described his job on “Bohemian Rhapsody” as “I was looking at two complete [acts] in a good film, and [I had to] not let it down.”) The idea, in all three cases, is to simulate the experience of a movie created by one individual, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it’s impossible to watch these films and not wonder, “Who decided on this shot? Who chose that edit? Whose idea was this?” Especially with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” which were greeted with mixed-to-negative reviews, there’s an undeniable urge to dissect the corpse, surmising which scenes were helmed by which filmmaker.
Were the ballet sequences in “The Nutcracker” done by Hallström or Johnston? Can I figure out which moments in “Bohemian Rhapsody” are Bryan Singer scenes?
In recent years, this cinematic parlor game has become more popular as event pictures incorporate a revolving door of directors. Pixar removed Brenda Chapman, who would have been the studio’s first female director, from “Brave” and replaced her with Mark Andrews, giving them co-credit. Lucasfilm’s two “Star Wars” spinoffs, “Rogue One” and “Solo,” had well-publicized reshoots — in the case of “Solo,” directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired, and Ron Howard (who got final credit) took over. And Warner Bros. asked Joss Whedon to supervise “Justice League” reshoots after Zack Snyder had to step away in the wake of his daughter’s suicide.
This shuffling of directors is nothing new, of course. (“Gone With the Wind” wasn’t shot solely by credited filmmaker Victor Fleming. And Harvey Weinstein made a career of taking movies away from their directors.) In fact, Welles’ towering, complicated legacy is, in some ways, the leading example of how muddled Hollywood authorship can be. For every “Citizen Kane” — a work of art infused with Welles’ obsessions and genius — there were exceptional but diluted efforts like “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “Touch of Evil,” in which others reshot or reedited his material.
Even with the knowledge that the “Other Side of the Wind” completers drew from Welles’ notes and, as they mention in the opening crawl, “a workprint consisting of assemblies and a few edited scenes,” the final film remains merely an educated guess — other people’s interpretation of what Welles had intended. Orson Welles shot the footage, but did he really make what we now call “The Other Side of the Wind”? Did Dexter Fletcher make “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Is Disney ultimately the auteur behind “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” since the studio’s family-friendly sheen overpowers either credited directors’ personal stamp? Who’s responsible for what we’re watching?
In 1997, Bodganovich published a book of interviews with influential directors, “Who the Devil Made It,” the title derived from a conversation he had with Howard Hawks. “I liked almost anybody that made you realize who in the devil was making the picture,” Hawks said, later adding, “The ones I didn’t like were the ones who had pictures prepared for them and made them and there wasn’t any individuality about them at all. Because the director’s the storyteller and should have his own method of telling it.”
Ever since the middle of last century, when French critics helped propagate the theory that a director was a film’s author, we’ve become accustomed to assigning blame or praise to the storyteller behind the camera for everything that’s captured in front of it. And ultimately, the director is the last word on how a movie is shaped — or, at least, that’s a convenient shorthand for the audience.
These three movies, in their own ways, call into question that assumption. And consequently, they leave us feeling like we’re in unsteady hands. Is it one person’s vision or a replication of someone else’s?