Joe McBride rides Orson Welles’ ‘Wind’

Film nearly 50 years in the making released
Joe McBride rides Orson Welles’ ‘Wind’
Photo courtesy of Joe McBride
Left to right: Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich and Joe McBride on the first day of shooting "The Other Side of the Wind" in Los Angeles, Aug. 23, 1970.

Joe McBride is a Milwaukee native, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, a former Wisconsin State Journal reporter, and now, 48 years after he stepped in front of the camera, an actor, in a new movie by one of the most celebrated film artists of all time.

This is a story of how a Wisconsin kid went to Los Angeles in 1970, met Orson Welles, director of “Citizen Kane,” and wound up playing a role in what would be Welles’s last feature film, titled “The Other Side of the Wind,” which will be shown at the New York Film Festival Sept. 29 and premiere on Netflix Nov. 2.

Some quick math will reveal that the movie is premiering almost half a century after filming began. Its tortured route to the screen — money woes, rights battles, ego skirmishes — inspired a 2015 book. Most thought it would never be released.

“It’s rather miraculous that the film is finished in such a beautiful way,” McBride told me last week. “That it looks so good after sitting in a laboratory in Paris for 40-plus years.”

Joe McBride today is a professor in the school of cinema at San Francisco State University and the author of numerous acclaimed books on film, including a passionate defense of Welles’s late career, titled “Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?

In the late 1960s, McBride was an ambitious film student at UW-Madison. After seeing and being dazzled by “Citizen Kane,” he began researching and writing a book on Welles, a critical study. (In his research, McBride learned that Welles, a Kenosha native, spent a year in Madison as a young boy, attending fourth grade at Washington Grade School. So precocious was Welles that The Capital Times profiled him in February 1926 in a story headlined, “Cartoonist, Actor, Poet and Only 10.”)

McBride was working as a State Journal reporter in 1970 when he finished the manuscript of his Welles book. He had tried to reach the director without success. McBride decided to go to California, hoping to meet Welles and get material for a new book he was considering on the director John Ford.

McBride had connected with Peter Bogdanovich, a young film writer and aspiring director who revered Welles. Once McBride got to Los Angeles, he called Bogdanovich. “I’m on the other line with Orson,” Bogdanovich said.

That led to an introduction for McBride.

Welles in 1970 was a long way from the wunderkind who made “Kane.” No one doubted his talent, but he had acquired a reputation as someone who had trouble finishing a project.

“The Other Side of the Wind” was to be Welles’s comeback, a complex movie-within-a-movie starring another charismatic rogue, John Huston, as an aging film director trying to mount one last great movie.

When McBride met Welles in Los Angeles, the director stunned the young writer by asking him to play a role in the new film. As you can imagine, McBride did not say no. (Bogdanovich also has a role in the film.)

McBride once described his own part to me like this: “I play the film critic and historian Mister Pister, who is following around John Huston’s director character, Jake Hannaford, writing a book about him and asking him intrusive film-buff questions.”

Welles shot a massive amount of film — around 100 hours — but never did anything resembling a final cut prior to his death in 1985. The film spent years in storage in France amid ownership squabbles. Its legend grew even as hope of anyone seeing it faded.

Recently, Frank Marshall, a powerful Hollywood producer, got involved. Netflix expressed interest and offered funding. An esteemed editor, Bob Murawski, got on board. McBride signed on as a consultant. Bogdanovich, who had been there from the beginning, was involved, too, along with several others.

To the amazement of many, their combined efforts produced a finished film that had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

Its North American premiere was at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. McBride was in attendance, and with Marshall and Bogdanovich, introduced the film to an audience of 650 in the Palm Theater.

Speaking by phone last week from San Francisco, McBride still sounded amazed that “The Other Side of the Wind” had finally emerged.

“Over the years I began to wonder if it would ever happen,” he said. “It was a stunning thing to see it on a huge screen with an audience. It was kind of surreal.”

The early reviews have been positive, especially regarding its place in film history, the last work of a master. McBride is unabashed in his enthusiasm, telling me, “I think this film deserves a bunch of Oscars.”

Given Welles’s Wisconsin roots and McBride’s own, I wondered if it might not be a great addition to next spring’s Wisconsin Film Festival, with McBride on hand to answers questions.

“It would be great if we could do that,” he said.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.