BOOTLEG FILES 519: “Filming ‘The Trial’” (1981 unfinished documentary from Orson Welles).
LAST SEEN: The film is online at YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No copyright was ever filed, but no one wants to step forward and be the first to put it on DVD.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Rather slim, at this point in time.
In the years following Orson Welles’ death in 1985, many of his unfinished and previously lost films slowly began to find their way into public view. In some ways, these fascinating works offer a greater insight to the creative process that drove Welles’ career.
One of the more unusual unfinished projects left behind by Welles was a documentary on the making of his 1962 classic “The Trial.” Welles and cinematographer Gary Graver shot footage of Welles’ appearance at a 1981 University of Southern California screening of “The Trial,” but nothing more was accomplished on the project. Welles bequeathed this footage to his late-life collaborator and lover, Oja Kodar, who later donated it to the Munich Film Museum. The museum edited the footage together under the title “Filming ‘The Trial.’”
On the surface, it would seem that Welles planned to make this production along the lines of his 1978 “Filming ‘Othello,’” a documentary on the tumultuous creation of his 1952 Shakespearean epic. Whether Welles sought to bring in the surviving members of his cast and crew from “The Trial” for this new production has never been determined; his focus shifted away from this project after the initial footage was shot, and he left behind no notes regarding how it should proceed.
The surviving footage is somewhat less than pristine – Graver shot in 16mm in a poorly illuminated auditorium, and a very patient Welles doubled as the clapper board by slapping his hands together at the start of each reel change. But despite its technical shortcomings, what remains of “Filming ‘The Trial’” is a fascinating and entertaining conversation between Welles and a brightly appreciative audience that asked a flurry of intriguing questions about “The Trial” and the filmmaker’s creative process.
Welles starts the conversation by acknowledging his entrance into the auditorium after the screening of “The Trial” is over. “I never like to see my movies because I like to remember them as being so much better than they really were,” he tells the audience, which responds with a big laugh and applause.
As for the making of the trial, he recalls his initial encounters with producer Alexander Salkind, whom Welles refers to as “Old Man Salkind.” Welles says the producer was an “adorable” character who had not “paid a bill in 32 years,” but somehow convinced the Yugoslavian government to finance a Welles-directed film based on the Franz Kafka novel “The Trial.” Welles admits not having previously considered the Kafka novel as screen material, adding that he decided upon that particular project from a long list of potential literary classics Salkind was eager to film.
Welles adds that the Yugoslavian government nearly derailed the production by demanding more money right before the core of the principal photography was to begin. He resumed production in Paris, he recalls, when a spell of insomnia led him to view the then-abandoned Gare d’Orsay railroad station, which he later transformed as the main set of the film.
Several questions posed to Welles challenged his adaptation of the Kafka text. Welles defends his changes to the material, claiming that a film “should never be an illustration of a book or a play.” The most significant change – the manner in which Joseph K is executed – was necessary, according to Welles, because of the passage of time. “The book was written before the Holocaust and I couldn’t bear the defeat of K after the Holocaust,” says Welles.
But as for the mushroom cloud that arose from the film’s climactic dynamite explosion, Welles glumly admits that it was “embarrassing” because some people mistook it as a symbol of the potential atomic apocalypse being created in the arms race. Furthermore, Welles notes that he did not plan to be an actor in the film – the role of The Advocate was originally planned for Jackie Gleason, who was unavailable, and Welles claims that “there was no other actor of my caliber that I could afford.”
Elsewhere during the Q&A, Welles happily jokes about his lack of box office magic as a filmmaker. “I would love to have a mass audience,” he proclaims. “You’re looking at a man who’s been searching for a mass audience.” He also defends popcorn cinema, exclaiming, “I love escapist movies!”
Although Welles appears tired during the exchange, he never fails to be courteous. When a young man with heavily accented English apologizes for his phrasing, Welles compliments the man by stating, “You’re English is very good.” He jokes about the then-current president by insisting, “I’m not in conflict with society – I am in conflict with the Reagan administration.” But when he is asked about the passing of director Abel Gance, Welles solemnly declares the inquiry is “a very painful question for me.” While noting Gance’s work on “Napoleon” and his own involvement in the director’s late-career output, Welles sadly states, “He is not in my top list of directors, and the fact that he died does not change that. I am sorry.”
And, ultimately, Welles offers a loving putdown at his profession: “Anybody who gets into film has to be a little bit crazy.”
“Filming ‘The Trial’” is in something of a curious state at the moment. The Munich Film Museum stitched together the footage (complete with reel change pauses) and made it available for film festivals. But since no copyright has ever been filed on the footage, it is a public domain work. Yet despite the total lack of a copyright, no one has ever put the full film on DVD. Whether there is a fear that someone (perhaps Welles’ daughter Beatrice) might put in a claim for ownership or whether there is a lack of perceived commercial interest, “Filming ‘The Trial’” is not available for home entertainment release.
Nonetheless, you can find the full film (where else?) on YouTube. For Welles’ enthusiasts, this long-unseen endeavor provides a fascinating post-script to his illustrious cinematic odyssey.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!