Readings — From the June 2013 issue
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From a recording of a 1983 meeting between Orson Welles, the film director Henry Jaglom, and an HBO executive. Beginning in 1978, Jaglom met Welles regularly for lunch, and at Welles’s request he began recording their conversations in 1983. Welles died in 1985. My Lunches with Orson, a collection of transcripts of the recordings, edited by Peter Biskind, will be published next month by Metropolitan Books. Susan Smith is a pseudonym for the HBO executive; Robert Vesco was an American financier who fled the United States in 1973 to avoid an embezzlement investigation.
orson welles: I’ve been working on a book, and I’ve only got it in an outline form, with some scenes blocked in. And as I was getting excited about it, my friend Henry here told me about you and your interest in miniseries. I have two ways I can go with what I have. One is to do it as a novel, and then sell it and let the network-development system do its thing —
susan smith: You mean, do an injustice to the mat —
welles: Without me having anything to do with it. Because I could not stand to work under that committee system. I’d just take the money and run. But I thought even though it might be economically suicidal for me, maybe I should do it directly for HBO.
smith: Tell me what you have in mind.
welles: In one sentence, it’s a miniseries set in Majorca or Saint-Tropez, where the richest people in the world go. Or better, a dictatorship in a Central American country. A dictatorship is overthrown by a coup d’état, and there is a revolution. Much of it offstage, but some of it is in the story as a background for all the things that happen to people in a kind of Acapulco-type place. There are two cities on the island. One is the port and the other is the resort. The resort is on the Atlantic side, and the story is basically the life of a resort. The kind of people who are there range from Vesco to a presidential candidate. Everybody who is anybody.
smith: I’m very interested in doing something about the Dominican Republic. Because I think that it’s kind of an interesting —
welles: I wouldn’t be remotely interested.
welles: Because I have my own story, in my own Dominican Republic. I’ve invented my Dominican Republic. I’m not interested in real history, because I know Latin American politics to an unbelievable degree. I’m an expert on it. And you cannot tell that story using any individual country. You must combine them to do it properly, and it must be fictional.
smith: Oh, I only said Dominican Republic more than Acapulco, ’cause —
welles: I don’t understand why you don’t understand it, frankly.
henry jaglom: There’s a resort like Acapulco in the Dominican Republic.
welles: We’re not getting anywhere.
jaglom: No, no. Wait, wait, wait — wait! We’re just trying to understand —
welles: I’m not gonna go on. ’Cause if a resort doesn’t immediately interest her, it won’t, even if I go on for an hour.
jaglom: Wait a minute, I don’t agree.
welles: She doesn’t like rich people! Doesn’t want a story about rich people. That’s what doesn’t get anywhere with her, is that it?
smith: I want to hear it.
welles: I can’t sell it. I’m a bad seller.
jaglom: No, it’s not a question of selling.
welles: I quit.
jaglom: Tell it, rather than selling it.
welles: No, I can’t.
jaglom: Okay. Well, then maybe if she could read something . . .
welles: I haven’t got anything. It’ll take me six months. It just didn’t ring a bell with her, so no use talking about it.
smith: Well, it does interest me very much. I think you’re wrong.
welles: You’re wrong. You’re really wrong. Boy, are you wrong.
jaglom: You’re not being fair.
welles: Her eyes went dead when she heard “resort.”
jaglom: Her eyes didn’t go dead.
welles: Sure they did.
jaglom: You’re being too sensitive about that.
welles: I am, yes. I can’t sell a thing. Forget it. We’ll think of something else. You don’t see what a resort — you didn’t like Grand Hotel?
smith: I loved Grand Hotel.
welles: Well, then, that’s it.
jaglom: Instead of a hotel, it’s in a resort.
smith: I understand that. I just want to hear the story.
welles: There isn’t a story.
jaglom: Wait a minute. Orson, there is a story. I mean, there is a story about a presidential candidate; there’s a story about the revolution going on outside. The opening on the airplane.
welles: There are a lot of stories. But when I get that dead look, I’m dead! I can’t do it. I begin to wonder what I’m talking about. I have to get a little spark from somebody. If I don’t get it, that’s it. I’m lost. Because I have nowhere else to go with it. You’re my only market. You’re the only game in town.
smith: There are a number of different alternatives. As I told you earlier, there are basically like six or seven half-hour —
welles: I couldn’t work in a half hour. You didn’t tell me that.
smith: Maybe I didn’t. That’s why I’m telling you now.
welles: I thought you said that you told me.
smith: You’re not listening, because you’re so angry.
welles: Yes, I am. Oh, yes.
jaglom: That’s not fair, Orson!
welles: I don’t need to be iced off like that.