Channeling Orson Welles
Filmmaker takes script and runs with it

Apresidential candidate with dark secrets battles personal demons while attempting to keep his skeletons from public scrutiny. Ripped from today's headlines? Actually, Orson Welles wrote The Big Brass Ring, about a presidential hopeful with a dark past, in 1984 and was to play the candidate's mentor. Unfortunately, Welles died before the film could be made.

See also...
... by Larry Getlen
... in the Dirt section
... from December 28, 1999

Now George Hickenlooper, director of the short film Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade and Hearts of Darkness, the documentary of the filming of Apocalypse Now, has adapted Welles' screenplay. His version of The Big Brass Ring stars William Hurt, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Hawthorne in the role Welles wrote for himself. The film premiered on Showtime earlier this year and will be released on home video in January.

Hickenlooper spoke to GettingIt after a theatrical showing of the film at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

GETTINGIT: How did this project evolve?

GEORGE HICKENLOOPER: I found the screenplay published in book form. It was fascinating, and worked for me on a personal level. My great-uncle had been a Senator from Iowa, so I had seen the polarity between private and public life in my family. In politics, one has to create an image that is acceptable to the general public, and that image often conflicts with who the person really is.

GI: How did you get the rights?

GH: I acquired them from Oja Kodar, Welles' companion for the last 20 years of his life.

GI: What was her initial response?

GH: She was reluctant. She's very careful about how Welles' material is handled.

GI: How did you convince her this would work out?

GH: I told her I would adapt it like any piece of great literature, and not try to step into Orson's shoes or make an Orson Welles film. I'd adapt it like I'd adapt Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I looked at Welles as a writer -- an attribute he was hardly known for. I think Pauline Kael at The New Yorker tried to destroy Welles' reputation as a writer, particularly with respect to Citizen Kane. She tried to credit [Citizen Kane co-screenwriter Herman J.] Mankiewicz with the entire script, which was ridiculous. I don't think Mankiewicz is really known for anything other than Citizen Kane, whereas Welles has an incredibly rich body of work.

GI: What do you think Welles brought to the art of screenwriting?

GH: He was a poet, the Shakespeare of the American cinema. His characters were so multi-layered and rich, but so truthful, that they have a kind of timeless quality. Welles was a character-oriented film director. He painted a canvas. I was trying to do the same thing.

GI: As you prepared to adapt the material, what struck you as needing revamping?

GH: In the original script the candidate is haunted by the ghost of a former mistress. Since politics, especially Clinton, has pushed the envelope on what is deemed scandalous, [co-screenwriter] F.X. [Feeney] and I decided to draw from Welles' life. Welles had a brother, Richard, who was estranged from him and spent most of his life as a vagabond. Welles would take care of him financially from time to time. So rather than create or expand on the idea of a mistress, we made it about family and wanting to reconcile a lost relationship with a brother.

It was beautiful as written, but I think it was something only Welles himself could have directed, because it was very gothic and baroque. The paternal, almost homoerotic dynamic between Kim Mennaker [Hawthorne] and Blake Pellarin [Hurt] completely floored me, so we kept that. We changed it to a gubernatorial election because we felt that Pellarin could get away with more, because if you're running for president you're really under a microscope. We also set it before the election instead of after, to add a layer of tension.

GI: Once you started the adaptation, did you try to forget that it was a Welles film and say "OK, here's what I'm adapting, now it's my turn."

GH: I stopped thinking about Welles a long time ago. On the set we didn't talk about him at all. Some of the shots might be Wellesian, the use of low angle or long takes, but that's something that's not unique to Welles. If anything it was more Kubrickian then Wellesian. I probably shot the film with much more restraint than he would have used, which I ultimately got lambasted for by a few critics because they thought it wasn't baroque enough.

GI: Since Mennaker was written by Welles to play himself, did that provide you with extra challenges when rewriting?

GH: It was such a dynamic, rich character that any older actor would have been able to slip into that part very easily. I talked about it with Nigel, and he was very adamant, and I agreed with him, that he not try to guess how Welles would have played the part. He was going to make the character his own. At the same time, William was going to play Blake very internalized, morose and dour, so to balance that, Nigel and I decided to have him play Mennaker mischievous and childlike.

GI: When you did the rewrites, did you have Nigel in mind, or was Orson hovering like a shadow, or were you just blank on who would play the part?

GH: Nigel got involved very early on. There were three people I wanted to play that part -- Ian McKellan, Nigel Hawthorne, and Marlon Brando. So as I adapted it I kept their personas in mind. I met with Ian a few times in London about four years ago. I can't remember what happened with him, I think he got involved in another project. I only had one conversation with Brando's people. He liked the script, but he was having some sort of personal crisis, and couldn't really pursue it.

GI: Why did the film go straight to Showtime and not to theaters?

GH: The producer sold the rights to Showtime before we went into production. So when we finished the picture, for anybody to pick it up, they would have had to pay more than Showtime did, which was about $2 million. That was just a foolish decision by the producer. I think he thought the material was complicated and he was hedging his bets. We got screwed.

Larry Getlen has written for Raygun, Salon, and MovieMaker, among many others. He writes a weekly satire column called "Larry's Look at Life," which goes out via email.