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Gary Graver: With Welles in the "Suburbs of the Cinema"
By Sean Axmaker
October 11, 2006 - 4:09 AM PDT

"Oh, my God! What have I gotten myself into?"

Gary Graver came to Seattle in 2003 to present a special showing of F For Fake, part of his "Fraud" series of the multimedia ConWorks program. Film series curator and former film editor of the Stranger Andy Spletzer (who, I should add, took over the programming duties from GreenCine's own Jonathan Marlow) invited me to host and moderate an onstage conversation with Graver for the audience. The questions and conversations sprawled all over the map, often changing direction and subject in the middle of an answer, or digressing for an anecdote that Gary would suddenly remember and stop to share while the remembrance was still fresh.

The following is an edited - and somewhat reorganized - portion of the two-hour event, and I have included my original introduction to the regrettably small but energetic audience.

Let me give you a little background on Mr. Gary Graver. He learned his craft the old-fashioned way. In Vietnam, he learned to lock, load and shoot with the camera. After his tour of duty, he returned to Los Angeles and landed work as an assistant cameraman on a film that started off as "The Fakers." When the cinematographer, László Kovács, left, he took over shooting as director Al Adamson transformed it into a motorcycle picture. He's been working ever since. He's shot over 150 feature films and TV movies, including many of Al Adamson's films, a number of Roger Corman productions, including one of my favorites, Deathsport, and Ron Howard's first two features. He's worked on the second unit of films such as Enter The Dragon and Eating Raoul as well as on Raiders of the Lost Ark and other Spielberg productions, and he shot part of Woman Under the Influence for John Cassavetes. He's also directed a number of features and documentaries in his own right, including the documentary Working With Orson Welles.

That's why he's here today, to talk about his work with Orson Welles. For the last 15 years of Welles's life, Gary Graver served as director of photography on, well, everything that Orson Welles shot in that time. He worked on more completed Orson Welles films than any other cinematographer, as well as TV projects and pilots, commercials and unfinished films such as The Other Side of the Wind and The Dreamers.

Ladies and gentlemen, Gary Graver.

I remember you telling me a great story, so why don't we start with that. How did you begin working with Orson Welles?

You want me to tell that story? I'll be quick about it then. Now, I was doing a lot of junky movies, you know, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Satan's Sadists, motorcycle pictures and everything. But in the beginning, before I started working in movies, I was a real film snob and film buff. I still am. Reading Sight & Sound, and I'd only liked foreign films, not American movies. But I loved Orson and I knew from his movies that if I ever met him that we'd get along and we did. And I read one day - I was at Schwab's drug store in Hollywood - and I read in Variety that he was in town staying at a hotel here. And I thought, "It's got to be the Beverly Hills Hotel." So I went back in the payphone - this was July 4th, 1970 - and I dialed the phone and I said to the operator, "Beverly Hills Hotel." I said, "Orson Welles, please." She said, "One moment." And all of sudden, "HELLO!" I said, "Oh!" I was startled. I didn't think I'd get through to him and he answered the phone. I said, "Orson Welles?" He said, "YES?!" I said, "My name's Gary Graver. I'm an American cameraman and I admire you and I would like to work with you someday if I can in some capacity. I'm a cameraman." And he says, "Well, I can't talk to you right now. I'm getting ready to go to New York. Give me your phone number." So I gave him my number and thought, "Well, that's the end of that."

So I went home and, as I pulled in my driveway, my house in Laurel Canyon, the phone is ringing and I ran upstairs and it was Orson. He says, "Gary, get over here right away, I've got to talk to you!" So I raced over there, nervous, and I went into his bungalow and he opened the door and there he was. And my real passion was that there weren't enough Orson Welles movies and I wanted to help any way I could to make more. I had a few tricks up my sleeves on how to get short ends of film you can find for half price and get lab deals and where to get a crew cheap and all that stuff to keep the overhead down so Orson could make movies. He had a script he wanted to do, "Sacred Beasts"; it ended up being called The Other Side of the Wind. We're sitting at the table talking, he's in a bathrobe, and all of a sudden he grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me down on the floor and jumped on top of me and held me down. I thought, "Oh, my God! What have I gotten myself into? Here I am, alone in a hotel room with Orson Welles, I didn't know if the guy's gay, he's over 300 pounds and he's pressing me down and won't let me get up." I said, "What's the matter?" He says, "Shhh! Quiet! Quiet!" A couple minutes go by and finally he let me go and he says, "Get up." I said, "What was that all about? What was the matter?" He said, "The window was open." And the actress Ruth Gordon, you know, from Harold and Maude, she was walking up and down the front of his window. He said, "If she saw me in here, she'd want to talk to me and I want to talk to you." So that was my first meeting with him. And he also felt some good luck because he said only one other cameraman in his whole career ever called him up and that was Gregg Toland who said, "I'd like to shoot your movie, Citizen Kane." So he said it must be good luck.

So Orson went to New York and he acted in a movie, Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place, and he came back and we started shooting The Other Side of the Wind with myself and Joe McBride and Peter Bogdanovich. This is before Peter had made The Last Picture Show. We worked four months, seven days a week. I wasn't ready for that. Seven days... the only reason I could get a day off was if I said I didn't feel good or something, and then he didn't want you around if you were sick or anything. But I couldn't keep my crew together for seven days, so we interchanged people all the time. And then, after four months of shooting The Other Side of the Wind, we went to Europe. We went to London. We did a television series called The Silent Years, about silent films - only recently someone told me it appears on a Buster Keaton anthology.

Let's talk about The Other Side of the Wind, his legendary unfinished film. How long did you work on it?

Over a period of four years, but off and on. Not constantly, because I did a lot of other pictures within that time, and so did Orson. We both worked on other things, but in those main years of the early 70s, we did The Other Side of the Wind.

The cast was mostly friends and acquaintances of Welles. Did they basically volunteer for it?

Anyone would act in a picture with Orson right away. He wanted John Huston for the lead. He saw people a lot on television that he liked. He liked Rich Little, an impressionist, and he cast him, who'd never made a movie, as one of the leads, but then he took off, so he was replaced by Peter Bogdanovich. Most of the cast were Orson's cronies and friends: Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart, Norman Foster. And then we cast from some people I knew, actors I'd worked with in some of the younger parts. Then Orson elicited the cameo bits of Dennis Hopper and Curtis Harrington and Paul Mazursky and Henry Jaglom and various other people to play the new directors. Do you know the book Raging Bulls and Easy Riders? That's what this scene is, that's what this movie is about. The changing of the guard, the old director Huston finishing up his Hollywood tenure and the new directors coming up and a kind of a wild and crazy time of the hippie era and the changing scene in film. It was a Screen Actors Guild picture. Everyone got paid. I believe everyone probably worked for scale like they do for Woody Allen, and that's how it was put together. And then we had tons of extras. We had to have hundreds of extras, and they all came and volunteered and brought their cameras with them.

It was during this time that F For Fake came his way.

Yes, we were going to do something on The Other Side of the Wind, and all of a sudden, this F For Fake thing came up. He was offered to take this footage, documentary footage, and add to it, put himself in it. And we started doing it about Clifford Irving writing about the fake painter, the fraud Elmyr de Hory. And it seemed to be all right and then all of a sudden, Clifford Irving was a fraud. He'd written a fake book about Howard Hughes. So everyday, there was something in the paper. Howard Hughes was going to sue him. Anyway, that's how F For Fake was being made. It was being made as we read the paper every day, what was going on. And then we tagged on the ending. Orson tagged on the ending, which was another fake.

F For Fake was started in '72 and you're looking at the crew right here. Me. There was no crew. Orson found out that I could set the lights, run the camera. I had this Nagra sound machine there - I've got a picture of it, it's in the documentary. I've got head phones on, I'm looking through the camera, I got cue cards up here, I built the sets, everything. And when I was in F For Fake, Orson would run the camera. I played a newscaster. High-pitched voice like a Hollywood Jimmy Fiddler-type guy. And then F For Fake within one year was finished, completed, and in theaters. It was at the San Sebastian Film Festival and then in theaters. So it was not like an unfinished work that dwindled on. It was done rather quickly.

The documentary footage of Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving was shot by François Reichenbach. How did that end up coming to Orson Welles? It's not usual for him to be taking someone else's material.

No, it's not. I think that because Orson is in some party footage there, he knew Reichenbach and Orson liked the material, liked the subject, and he was going to add more to it and Reichenbach said, "I've got all the stuff, it's practically made. I just need a little more money." But of course, the budget went up as everything happened, you know, and Reichenbach ended up selling his personal paintings off his wall to pay for it. If someone wanted Orson to do an interview, like German television, he'd say, "I'll do it. Meet me at a restaurant. And when your done with my interview, leave the lights up, because I'm going to shoot F For Fake." And I was standing around the corner with the camera on my shoulder and the microphones, just loaded down with all this equipment. And then he'd tap on the window and call me in and I'd run in and we'd shoot. So there's a lot scenes in restaurants and we shot that because the lights were set up and everything.

All this time, you were essentially on call for Orson?

The situation I had was... luckily, I had a good income. I owned part of a movie, so I had an income. I didn't charge Orson any money, so I worked the first year really for free, except if he got a job. The situation was, if he got a job doing some narration or talking head, I had to be the cameraman and I got paid for that. The other thing that we had an agreement between us was, if I got a job, I'd come to him and say, "Orson, I've got a job doing this or that or some Corman movie." And then says, "Well, yeah, I don't need you right now, go ahead and do it." I went from Al Adamson to Orson Welles, quickly. Al would ask me to shoot something and I'd say, "Orson, I've got a chance to work with Al Adamsom," and he'd say, "Who?" But sometimes I had a chance to do a picture and he'd say, "No, we've got to work, Gary. You can't do it."

I counted them: we did about fifteen projects together. We did a magic show. We did the features. Filming Othello, which was finished for German television to accompany Othello, and Filming The Trial, which no one's ever seen, but they put it together in Germany recently [it has since played at the Munich Film Museum]. Everything that Orson made in that period, he left to his girlfriend/companion, Oja Kodar, and co-writer, co-director, and everything else, the love of his life. So she got all the stuff that we did and I saved everything that I could that she didn't have. So my wife, Jillian, and I have the Orson Welles Film Archives in Los Angeles and there's also a film archive in Munich, which is Oja's stuff, on loan to the Munich Film Museum.

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"Oh, my God! What have I gotten myself into?"
"He was always trying to be on TV."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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