“I will never grow tired of hearing stories told” – Quotes from Orson Welles

6 May

The great actor-writer-director Orson Welles would have turned 106 today, May 6, 2021. I did a centennial piece on him six years ago. Thanks to the release of MANK last year, which offered a questionable treatment of Welles’s role in the writing of CITIZEN KANE, I’ve been eager to read Welles’s own account and wound up re-reading three different books of interviews with him and soon forgot all about MANK. Welles is never boring and never predictable and shares extraordinary insights into life, the arts, society, history, and culture. He loved the act of creation, no matter which medium he worked in: film, theater, television, radio, painting, essays, etc. and he loved watching other human beings invested in creating. I’ve been reading portions of lots of other books about celebrated film personalities lately, mostly directors and movie stars, and I’m constantly finding instances of behavior that absolutely appall me. Some directors thought nothing of putting their cast and crew members in situations of great danger and discomfort or simply treating them horribly. These include some of my favorite directors, so I don’t want to name names. Some movie stars made life miserable for other cast members and their directors. But I’ve never heard anything like that about Welles. He seems to have loved working with people and put himself fully into every one of his creative endeavors. Here’s a quote from a 1964 interview done in Madrid that ends with a sentiment I wish more directors had endorsed:

Q: How do you work with actors?

Welles: I give them a great deal of freedom and, at the same time, the feeling of precision. It’s a strange combination. In other words, physically, and in the way they develop, I demand the precision of ballet. But their way of acting comes directly from their own ideas as much as from mine. When the camera begins to roll, I do not impro­vise visually. In this realm, everything is prepared. But I work very freely with the actors. I try to make their life pleasant.

Welles does, however, make catty remarks about other actors and directors in My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles and spreads a lot of gossip, but I’m not sure he knew these conversations were being recorded and I doubt he would have approved their publication had he been alive to see the transcripts, which were published 28 years after his death. In fact, Welles reportedly asked for critical remarks he made about other directors’ work to be excised from the transcripts of the interviews Peter Bogdanovich did with him over a period of years which were eventually published as This Is Orson Welles. In both books, he nonetheless has lots of great stories to tell about the writers, actors, actresses, directors, politicians and others he came into contact with thanks to his numerous social, cultural, and creative activities over the years.

But I’m most interested here in what he says about art, acting, creativity, cinema, experimentation and Shakespeare. Most of these interview excerpts come from Orson Welles Interviews, edited by Mark W. Estrin, part of the Conversations with Filmmakers series published in 2002 by University Press of Mississippi, a collection of interviews and profiles of Welles from throughout his career, and several of these come from Kenneth Tynan’s 1967 interview with Welles from Playboy Magazine. Some excerpts come from This Is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, and published in 1998 by Da Capo Press.

First, we’ll start with Shakespeare, from “Interview with Orson Welles,” by Andre Bazin, Charles Bitsch, and Jean Domarchi, published in Cahiers du Cinema, September 1958, translated for the Interviews book by Alisa Hartz. (NOTE: This was translated from English into French and then translated back into English again, so we’re not getting Welles’ original phrasing.)

“Shakespeare was terribly pessimistic. But like a great many pessimists, he was also an idealist. It is only optimists who are incapable of understanding what it means to love an impossible ideal. Shakespeare was very close to the origin of the culture he was in. The language he wrote had just been formed, the old England of the Middle Ages was still alive in the memories of all the people of Stratford. He was very close indeed to another age if you understand me. He was standing in the door which opened onto the modern age and his grandparents, the old people in the village, the countryside itself, still belonged to the middle ages, to the old Europe; and actually Shakespeare still has something of it: his lyricism, his comic verve, his humanity came from his links with the Middle Ages, which were still so close to him, and his pessimism, his bitterness—and it’s when he allows them free rein that he touches the sublime—belong to the modern world, the world which has just been created, not the world as it existed for eternities, but his world.”

Now why couldn’t any of my English teachers over the years have taught Shakespeare that way?

On the dangers of specialization and the importance of synthesis:

PLAYBOY: In an era of increasing specialization, you’ve expressed yourself in almost every artistic medium. Have you never wanted to specialize?
ORSON WELLES: No, I can’t imagine limiting myself. It’s a great shame that we live in an age of specialists, and I think we give them too much respect. I’ve known four or five great doctors in my life, and they have always told me that medicine is still in a primitive state and that they know hardly anything about it. I’ve known only one great cameraman—Gregg Toland, who photographed Citizen Kane. He said he could teach me everything about the camera in four hours—and he did. I don’t believe the specialist is all that our epoch cracks him up to be.

PLAYBOY: Is it possible nowadays to be a Renaissance man—someone who’s equally at home in the arts and the sciences?
ORSON WELLES: It’s possible and it’s also necessary, because the big problem ahead of us today is synthesis. We have to get all these scattered things together and make sense of them. The wildest kind of lunacy is to go wandering up some single street. It’s better not only for the individual but for society that our personal horizons should be as wide as possible. What a normally intelligent person can’t learn—if he’s genuinely alive and honestly curious—isn’t really worth learning. For instance, besides knowing something about Elizabethan drama, I think I could also make a stab at explaining the basic principles of nuclear fission—a fair enough stab to be living in the world today. I don’t just say: “That’s a mystery that ought to be left to the scientists.” Of course, I don’t mean that I’m ready to accept a key post in national defense.

On the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and ’40s:

PLAYBOY: When you first went to Hollywood in 1940, the big studios were still omnipotent. Do you think you’d have fared better if you’d arrived 20 years later, in the era of independent productions?
ORSON WELLES: The very opposite. Hollywood died on me as soon as I got there. I wish to God I’d gone there sooner. It was the rise of the independents that was my ruin as a director. The old studio bosses—Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn—were all friends, or friendly enemies I knew how to deal with. They all offered me work. Louis B. Mayer even wanted me to be the production chief of his studio—the job Dore Schary took. I was in great shape with those boys. The minute the independents got in, I never directed another American picture except by accident. If I’d gone to Hollywood in the last five years, virgin and unknown, I could have written my own ticket. But I’m not a virgin; I drag my myth around with me, and I’ve had much more trouble with the independents than I ever had with the big studios. I was a maverick, but the studios understood what that meant, and if there was a fight, we both enjoyed it. With an annual output of 40 pictures per studio, there would probably be room for one Orson Welles picture. But an independent is a fellow whose work is centered around his own particular gifts. In that setup, there’s no place for me.

On the need for a “revolution” in cinema:

PLAYBOY: What do you see as the next development in the cinema?
ORSON WELLES: I hope it does develop, that’s all. There hasn’t been any major revolution in films in more than 20 years, and without a revolution, stagnation sets in and decay is just around the corner. I hope some brand-new kind of moviemaking will arise. But before that happens, some form of making films more cheaply and showing them more cheaply will have to be evolved. Otherwise, the big revolution won’t take place and the film artist will never be free.

Welles discusses his own approach to directing in this excerpt from “A Trip to Don Quixoteland: Conversations with Orson Welles,” by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J.A. Pruneda, from Cahiers du Cinema in English #5, 1966, from a conversation conducted in Madrid over a three-month period, May-July 1964. (The earlier quote about actors came from this interview.)  There’s a great quote about Van Gogh in the first answer.

Q: Is it correct that your films never correspond to what you were thinking of doing before starting them? Because of producers, etc?

Welles: No, in reality, in what concerns me, creation, I must say that I am constantly changing. At the beginning, I have a basic notion of what the final aspect of the film will be, more or less. But each day, at every moment, one deviates or modifies because of the expression in an actress’s eyes or the position of the sun. I am not in the habit of preparing a film and then setting myself to make it. I prepare a film but I have no intention of making this film. The preparation serves to liberate me, so that I may work in my fashion; thinking of bits of film and of the result they will give; and there are parts that deceive me because I haven’t conceived them in a complete enough way. I do not know what word to use, because I am afraid of pompous words when I talk about making a film. The degree of concentration I utilize in a world that I create, whether this be for thirty seconds or for two hours, is very high; that is why, when I am shooting, I have a lot of trouble sleeping. This is not because I am preoccupied but because, for me, this world has so much reality that closing my eyes is not sufficient to make it disappear. It represents a terrible intensity of feeling. If I shoot in a royal location I sense and I see this site in so violent a way that, now, when I see these places again, they are similar to tombs, completely dead. There are spots in the world that are, to my eyes, cadavers; that is because I have already shot there—for me, they are completely finished. Jean Renoir said something that seems to be related to that: “We should remind people that a field of wheat painted by Van Gogh can arouse a stronger emotion than a field of wheat in nature.” It is important to recall that art surpasses reality. Film be­comes another reality. Apropos, I admire Renoir’s work very much even though mine doesn’t please him at all. We are good friends and, truthfully, one of the things I regret is that he doesn’t like his films for the same reason I do. His films appear marvelous to me because what I admire most in an auteur is authentic sensitivity. I attach no impor­tance to whether or not a film is a technical SUCCESS: moreover, films that lack this kind of sensitivity may not be judged on the same level with technical or aesthetic knowingness. But the cinema, the true cinema, is a poetic expression and Renoir is one of the rare poets. Like [John] Ford, it is in his style. Ford is a poet. A comedian. Not for women, of course, but for men.

Q: Your cinema is essentially dynamic. . . .

Welles: I believe that the cinema should be dynamic although I suppose any artist will defend his own style. For me, the cinema is a slice of life in movement that is projected on a screen; it is not a frame. I do not believe in the cinema unless there is movement on the screen. This is why I am not in agreement with certain directors, whom, how­ever, I admire, who content themselves with a static cinema. For me, these are dead images. I hear the noise of the projector behind me, and when I see these long, long walks along streets, I am always waiting to hear the director’s voice saying, “Cut!”

The only director who does not move either his camera or his actors very much, and in whom I believe, is John Ford. He succeeds in making me believe in his films even though there is little movement in them. But with the others I always have the impression that they are desper­ately trying to make Art. However, they should be making drama and drama should be full of life. The cinema, for me, is essentially a dra­matic medium, not a literary one.

Q: That is why your mise-en-scène is lively: it is the meeting of two movements, that of the actors and that of the camera. Out of this flows an anguish that reflects modern life very well. . . .

Welles: I believe that that corresponds to my vision of the world; it reflects that sort of vertigo, uncertainty, lack of stability, that melange of movement and tension that is our universe. And the cinema should express that. Since cinema has the pretension of being an art, it should be, above all, film, and not the sequel to another, more literary, medium of expression.

John Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940):

On working in television, from “Interview with Orson Welles,” by Andre Bazin and Charles Bitsch, originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 84, June 1958, translated and annotated by Sally Shafto. (NOTE: This was translated from English into French and then translated back into English again, so we’re not getting Welles’ original phrasing. This is taken from a Cahiers du Cinema website and not from the Orson Welles Interviews book which offers the same piece but in a slightly different translation.)

What is your position vis-à-vis large screen or colour? Do you think that it is better to orient oneself towards the small screen and the poverty of television?

I am convinced that when the screen is big enough, as in the case of Cinemiracle or Cinerama, it is also a poverty, and I love it: I would love to do a film with one of these two processes. But between the Cinemiracle and the normal screen, there is nothing that interests me. The poverty of television is a marvelous thing. The big classical film is of course bad on the small screen, because television is the enemy of classic cinematographic values, but not of cinema. It is a marvelous form, where the spectator is only a meter and half away from the screen, but it is not a dramatic form, it is a narrative form, so much so that television is the ideal means of expression for the storyteller. And the gigantic screen is also a marvelous form because like television it is a limitation, and one cannot hope to reach poetry only in composing with limitations, it’s clear. I also like television a lot because it gives me my only chance to work; I don’t know what I would say about it if I also had the opportunity to make films. But when you work for something, you must be enthusiastic!

Working in television, does that imply a particular point of view in communication?

And also a certain richness, not a plastic richness but a richness of ideas. In television, you can say ten times more in ten times less time, because you are not addressing only two or three persons. And, above all, you are speaking to the ear. For the first time, in television, the cinema takes on a real value, finds its real function, because it talks, because the most important is what is said and not what is shown. Words are thus no longer the enemies of the film: the film only helps the words, because television is in fact only illustrated radio.

Television would be a kind of way of bringing the cinema back to your beginnings in the radio?

Above all a means of satisfying my fondness for telling stories, like the Arab storytellers on the marketplace. For my part, I love that: I will never grow tired of hearing stories told; you know I make the mistake of thinking that everyone has the same enthusiasm! I prefer stories to tragedies, to theatrical plays, to novels: it is an important characteristic of my taste. I read with a great effort the “great” novels: I love stories.

Isn’t the public less attentive to television than to cinema?

More attentive, because it listens rather than looks. Television viewers listen or don’t listen, but no matter how little they listen they are more attentive than in the cinema, because the brain is more engaged by hearing than by seeing. To listen, you need to think; looking is a sensory experience, more beautiful and more poetic, but where attention plays a smaller part.

For you, television is thus a synthesis between the cinema and the radio?

I am always looking for synthesis: it is a work that fascinates me, because I must be sincere towards what I am, and I am only an experimenter; experimenting is the only thing that fills me with enthusiasm. I am not interested in works of art, in posterity, in fame, only in the pleasure of experimentation itself: it is the only sphere where I feel really honest and sincere. I have no devotion for what I’ve done: it is really without value in my opinion. I am profoundly cynical towards my work and towards the majority of works I see in the world: but I am not cynical towards the act of working on a material. It is difficult to make this understood. We who declare ourselves experimenters have inherited an old tradition: some among us have been the greatest artists, but we have never made muses our mistresses. For example, Leonardo liked to think of himself as a scholar who painted and not as a painter who could have been a scholar. It’s not that I want to compare myself to Leonardo but that I want to explain that there is a long lineage of people who appreciate their works according to a different hierarchy of values, almost moral values. I am not thus in ecstasy in front of art: I am in ecstasy before the human necessity, which implies all that we do with our hands, our senses, etc. Our work once finished has not so much importance in my opinion as that of the most æsthetes: it is the act that interests me, not the result, and I am taken with the result only when there is the smell of human sweat, or a thought.

On acting for the camera, from the Bogdanovich interviews, with remarks about James Cagney, Toshiro Mifune, Gary Cooper and Laurence Olivier:

PB: OK, but are you saying it’s impossible for acting to be too broad in front of the camera? That there’s no such thing as hamming?

OW: Hamming is faking. It’s opening a bag of tricks instead of turning on the juice. The right actor—the true movie actor—can never be too strong. What he must not be is too broad. What you’re after isn’t spread. You don’t want to smear it all over the screen like pancake batter. Big acting isn’t wide. It’s sharp, pointed, vertical. Power, real explosive power, but never the explosion. The real stuff doesn’t diffuse, it stays right on target. Hamming has no target, its only aim is to please. You can tell an actor from a whore only if he’s totally in the service of his material. The public’s pleasure and approval are incidental rewards.

“Playing down to the camera?” Never play down. Up is your direction. You shouldn’t play to the camera at all. A camera isn’t a girl. It isn’t a mirror to pose in front of. Ham actors are not all of them strutters and fretters, theatrical vocalizers—a lot of them are understaters, flashing winsome little smiles over the teacups, or scratching their T-shirts. Cagney was one of the biggest actors in the whole history of the screen. Force, style, truth, and control—he had everything. He pulled no punches; God, how he projected! And yet nobody could call Cagney a ham. He didn’t bother about reducing himself to fit the scale of the camera; he was much too busy doing his job. Toshiro Mifune: his movie performances would register in the back row of the Kabuki.

PB: But, Orson, don’t you think there’s still something called movie acting?

OW: There are movie actors. Cooper was a movie actor—the classic case. You’d see him working on the set and you’d think, “My God, they’re going to have to retake that one!” He almost didn’t seem to be there. And then you’d see the rushes, and he’d fill the screen.

PB: How do you explain that?

OW: Personality. I wouldn’t presume to explain that mystery. It always matters more than technique. Who, for instance, knows more about technique than Olivier? Certainly, if screen acting depends significantly on camera technique, Larry would have made himself the master of it. And yet, fine as he’s been in films, he’s never been more than a shadow of that electric presence which commands the stage. Why does the camera seem to diminish him? And enlarge Gary Cooper—who knew nothing of technique at all?

PB: The camera’s supposed to be a great lie-detector. Do you think it shows when the emotion is false?

OW: Sure, a kind of litmus-paper effect. What registers is the presence or absence of feeling. Quality counts, but the precise nature of the emotion isn’t always automatically clear—and can be all too easily altered, as you know, or totally revised in the cutting room. I’ve said there can’t be too much force, too much energy. Emotional force can charge up a living theatre, but on the screen there’s often trouble keeping it in focus. Strong feelings can get very messy. What the camera does, and does uniquely, is to photograph thought. Don’t you agree?

PB: Maybe. I’d like to have a little time on that one.

OW: That’s my profoundest conviction in this whole business of moviemaking: the camera is not so much a lie-detector as a Geiger counter of mental energy. It registers something that’s only vaguely, suppositionally detectable to the naked eye, registers it clear and strong: thought. Every time an actor thinks, it goes right on the screen.

PB: How about the microphone?

OW: Emotions—that’s more the business of the sound track. You can hear a phony feeling before you can see it.

PB: I think that’s very true. So where does that put radio?

OW: I was happy in it, Peter, the happiest I’ve been as an actor. It’s so…what do I want to say, impersonal? No, private. It’s as close as you can get, and still get paid for it, to the great, private joy of singing in the bathtub. The microphone’s a friend, you know. The camera’s a critic. I guess I’d say that radio’s a lot closer to film than the theatre—and not just because it’s another attentive machine substituting for the audience. No, with the microphone, as with the camera, you’ve got a choice of placement. You don’t just sit out there snuffling in the darkness. You move around—you change angles.

James Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s WHITE HEAT (1949):

Welles has a great quote about why black-and-white film was much better at capturing actors’ performances than color film in the Bogdanovich book, stemming from an exchange about CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966). There’s another, longer, more detailed quote about it, but I couldn’t locate it and  only found a good paraphrase of it by Bogdanovich elsewhere that I’m including here.

PB: I understand that you had offers of backing for Chimes in color, but you only wanted to do it in black-and-white. Why, specifically?

OW: Well, it was primarily an actors’ film, and color, as you know, is a great friend in need to the cameraman but it’s an enemy of the actor. Faces in color tend to look like meat—veal, beef, baloney—

PB: And makeup doesn’t help.

OW: Makes it worse. Only hope is no makeup.

PB: You’ve done your color films so far without makeup.

OW: Oh, I wore one of those noses of mine in Immortal Story.

PB: I liked that performance a lot.

OW: It sure in hell wasn’t great. I think every really great performance that’s ever happened in movies—up to now, anyway—has been in black-and-white. But, then, you know my feeling about the importance of actors. They’re the ones who finally count, Much more than people think.

PB: I’ll give you that, but perhaps the great performances have been done in black-and-white because most of the great actors flourished in the black-and-white era.

OW: That’s one you can have. Good point.

Orson Welles as Falstaff in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966):

From Facebook: Director Peter Bogdanovich on why he shot “The Last Picture Show” in black and white: “Orson Welles says every performance looks better in black and white. It’s the fact that you don’t see blue eyes and blond hair. You focus on the performance, not the look of the people. And it enables you to capture the period better.”

I’ve opted not to include any quotes from the Henry Jaglom book because, again, I’m not sure Welles wanted his various stories, claims of authorship and irritable remarks about others to be published. But it’s one hell of an enjoyable book, filled with gossip about tons of celebrities from the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as numerous politicians of the era. I recommend it to Welles fans more for entertainment value than historical purposes.

These are only a fraction of the quotes I found that intrigued me in these books. If these whetted your appetite, you ought to get hold of these books. I believe every film student, at least, should be reading these. They’d get quite an education in cinema and the cultural life of the 20th century.

Not all of the interviews I quoted are available on the web. I had to transcribe some of the quotes from the books themselves. Here are links to the interviews I found on the web and quoted from:





4 Responses to ““I will never grow tired of hearing stories told” – Quotes from Orson Welles”

  1. Robert Regan May 6, 2021 at 10:51 AM #

    Thanks, Brian!

  2. Dennis Camp May 6, 2021 at 12:02 PM #

    I saw Orson Welles and Tuesday Weld in person June 1969 filming a scene for “A Safe Place” in the Central Park Zoo at the sea lions pool. The zookeeper had to tempt the sea lion with fish to keep it in one place. I worked in the zoo cafeteria for a week. Then they wanted me to cut my hair so I quit. Wikipedia tells me “A Safe Place” was not released until October 15, 1971 and that the film was “culled from 50 hours of footage.” Generally poor reviews. Directed by Henry Jaglom.

  3. Dennis Camp May 6, 2021 at 12:03 PM #

    Orson Welles appeared on The ABC Comedy Hour with the Kopykats in 1972. If I recall correctly he was a weatherman describing a storm forecast as though he were doing Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hilarious.

  4. Judith Trojan June 10, 2021 at 5:16 PM #

    Prodigy…Maverick…Visionary…Welles was indeed a Renaissance man. Thanks for this reminder of his wit and wisdom, Brian!

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