Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is more than a making-of promotional celebration of Orson Welles’s final film, The Other Side of the Wind. Interviewing a cast of legends and acolytes, many of whom are veteran participants in other Welles-related productions, Neville confronts the bleaker implications of Welles’s life and reveals its influence on The Other Side of the Wind. The two films make for a fascinating double feature. Given the self-reflexivity of Welles’s film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead suggests something like a sequel or a companion piece, offering yet another angle on the endlessly expanding prism of Welles’s legend.
The Other Side of the Wind is one of many films that Welles never finished, due to sketchy producers, scarce resources, and the filmmaker’s own need to fine-tune his material on set and in the editing room, and other extenuating circumstances. In theory, the film was designed to suit this lifestyle, as it concerns a filmmaker, Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston), who searches for financing for a production that he isn’t entirely sure he wants to finish, especially as he gets lost in the wreckage wrought by his personal demons. In They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Neville shows footage of Welles speaking about his project, and at one point the latter suggests that the film should be composed of actors discussing a film that never materializes. Welles seemed fascinated by the idea of intentionally courting and dramatizing failure, which he saw as an opportunity to explode and expand cinema itself, perhaps in an attempt to take further command of the narrative of his life.
Or was Welles dreaming up The Other Side of the Wind as something to do as a way to wrangle influential up-and-comers into his orbit, while airing his own grievances over the obscurity of his work? That possibility haunts Neville’s film, which features damning anecdotes of Welles’s workaholic tendencies and propensity for taking advantage of the goodwill his reputation afforded him. A particular victim of this exploitation was Gary Graver, who shot The Other Side of the Wind and F for Fake for years for virtually no compensation—a lifestyle he supplemented with assignments shooting porn and grade-Z horror. In the film, it’s both amusingly and despairingly speculated that Graver is the only person to work for both Welles and Ed Wood—a possibility that, given Wood’s own obsession with Welles, nearly feels like kismet.
These testimonies are punctuated with stock footage that’s edited to approximate the free-associative aesthetic of Welles’s late work. In They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Welles is often evocatively represented by his appearance in F for Fake, in which he’s clad in a cloak that likens him to a specter, as well as a Mabuse-like ringleader. Late in the film, Neville dramatizes Welles’s increasing desperation and irrelevancy with the leering mouth of the shark in Jaws and the climactic explosion of Zabriskie Point, symbolizing how Hollywood left Welles, and other auteurs, behind in an increasing hunger for blockbuster profits. Most painful, though, is Welles’s appearance at the AFI’s Life Achievement Award dinner in his honor, during which he nearly begs for funding to complete The Other Side of the Wind.
Neville is a shrewd archivist with a propulsive sense of human drama. He transcends the pitfall of the Orson Welles tell-all, a genre unto itself, which is: Why another one? They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, however, boasts a few missed opportunities. One may wish that Peter Bogdanovich had been pressed harder about his performance in The Other Side of the Wind, as he’s startlingly smug and reptilian, plunging boldly into his hero’s resentments of him. Bogdanovich doesn’t say much about that subject, but he’s unusually vulnerable when discussing his rift with Welles and the quasi-reconciliation that followed when Bogdanovich suffered his own fall from Hollywood’s graces. Bogdanovich’s pain humanizes him, while viscerally underscoring Welles’s petty tyrannies, which, in turn, humanize the tyrant as well. A lonely man preoccupied with betrayal, Welles ironically morphed into a betrayer himself—like nearly every Orson Welles protagonist. Neville understands Welles’s art to pivot on an ongoing quest to bring about self-destruction so as to contrive to transcend it. Such a process isn’t without casualties.