My Journey with Orson Welles (and the Betacam)

The co-author of the new play "Maverick" remembers the year he worked with a genius.

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Orson
Man. Myth. Maverick.

Sometimes the journeys we take through this life begin and end in the most unexpected ways. One of my life’s great journeys began because of one man’s fascination with Sony’s Betacam, the first video camcorder.

It was early in 1985 when, out of the blue, word came that “Orson Welles wants to have lunch with you.” At the time, I was running a small TV production facility in the Sunset-Gower studios in Hollywood. It had one of the first inter-format ENG edit bays in the country (Betacam-to-1″), and the main client — Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — was the first major magazine show to be produced on the Betacam format.

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A freelance editor for the show, Paul Hunt, also did some sound work for legendary actor-director-producer-genius Orson Welles. He told Welles about our Betacam facility and, from that moment on, the great man’s insatiable curiosity about every new sound and imaging technology took over. Welles wanted to meet me, and thus came a lunch invitation many film buffs would have died for.

The lunch at Welles’s favorite haunt, Ma Maison, was a roaring success. For reasons I don’t fully understand to this day, we hit if off. Welles was curious about all things video, especially the Betacam, a device he envisioned to be an Arriflex that didn’t need film.

As our first meeting continued, Welles’s tiny dog, seated at the table next to me, kept nipping at my leg. It was annoying, but I didn’t dare take a swat. That lunch led to many others throughout 1985.

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In the earliest days of our relationship, he tested me in strange ways. One night, around midnight, Orson (he insisted everyone call him Orson) called to ask for help in solving a sound problem. He was recording and editing some narration on his Nagra in his bedroom in the hills above Hollywood Boulevard.

“Frank, after I do a splice with a razor blade I get a bump in the sound when I play back the tape. What should I do?” he asked. “Orson, your razor blade is magnetized. Get another one,” I answered, half asleep. “Oh, OK,” he responded and then said goodbye.

At first I was perplexed by this strange conversation. Here was one of the pioneers of recorded sound — the man who created The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane — asking me such a basic question about audio editing. It’s only a test, I quickly surmised, and went back to sleep.

As he learned more about video camcorders and nonlinear editing, Orson grew determined to do a video project. We visited New England Digital for a demo of nonlinear sound editing on the Synclavier. As for video, Orson wasn’t content with just editing on a Montage. He wanted his own, and he wanted it to sit next to his flatbed film editor at home.

As the talk turned to money (it always did in Orson’s case), I offered to contribute video facilities and help him raise money for a one-man show to be called Orson Welles Solo. The production would be a retrospective of Orson’s favorite theatrical material along with a big dose of magic — both new tricks and archival footage from Orson’s days as a magician.

Finally, after a seemingly unlimited series of pitches, I raised the money at the last minute. Now we’d focus on how we’d use the Betacams secured for the show. Just as he’d accepted no conventional technical limitations when he made Citizen Kane in 1940, Orson approached video in the same unrelenting way.

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In 1985, Betacams had tubes, not CCD sensors, and their ability to sync to one another via time code was, to put it mildly, a bit crude. Orson didn’t care. He wanted the handheld Betacams to float around the set wirelessly and to always be in perfect sync. He also wanted to shoot directly into bright lights and he didn’t want to hear about any problems with lag.

“Call Sony and tell them to make it work,” Orson demanded. “Don’t ever tell me ‘no.’” I did call Sony, and Sony responded by assigning two engineers to help Orson push the video envelope on the project.

The day before the shoot was to begin, in November 1985, the Betacams were tweaked to the max. The jury-rigs — and there were a lot of them — were tested and re-tested. Every engineer that was to be in Orson’s field of view was told that the words “you can’t do that” were to be stricken from their consciousness. With this project, I demanded, we will find a way to do any and everything Orson wants to do. All the old excuses will be left at the front door.

As technical preparations for the shoot continued, Orson taped an appearance in the late afternoon on Merv Griffin’s syndicated talk show. Normally, Orson disdained conversations about his past. He’d always say he wanted to talk about the future, not “go down memory lane.” But, uncharacteristically, Orson went down memory lane that afternoon, charming the audience with stories and magic tricks.

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After the show, Orson had dinner at Ma Maison and then headed home to finish writing the script for our first taping, now only hours away. The next morning, in my office, the phone rang. “Did you hear the news?” a friend asked gently. What news? “Orson Welles is dead.”

Orson had died of a heart attack during the night. He was found slumped over his typewriter, working on our script. Minutes later, one of Orson’s assistants called and said, bluntly, “Frank, the project has been canceled.”

John Houseman once said that it’s rare in this life to be touched by real genius. Orson, said Houseman, was the real thing, perhaps the only real genius he’d ever known. Now, nearly 35 years later, I’m beginning to understand what he meant.

Maverick, a new play by Frank Beacham and George Demas about the final days of Orson Welles, co-directed by Demas and David Elliot and produced by Pam Carter and Cliplight Theatre, runs Feb. 13 to March 2 at the Connelly Theatre (220 E. 4th St.). For tickets, click here.