Modeling the Inside the Mind of Orson Welles: Orson Rehearsed

Composer, author, and filmmaker Daron Hagen made his debut as a composer with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 18. The first (of 12) major operas brought him international attention in 1993 and launched a career in which he has written (along with symphonies, chamber music and film scores) his own libretti, scripts, and a memoir (Duet With the Past, published last year by McFarland), conducted the cast recordings of his operas, served as stage director and as a mentor at Princeton University, the Curtis Institute, and Bard College. He lives in Upstate New York with his wife, composer/vocalist Gilda Lyons. He spoke to us about Orson Rehearsed, his filmmaking debut.

Thank you for speaking with us, Daron Hagen, about your film Orson Rehearsed. Let us go back to the beginning. What made you fall in love with cinema? How did you start making films and where did you learn how to make films?

DH: I fell in love with cinema because of my father, with whom I used to watch old black and white movies—the Late Show, and then the Late, Late Show—on broadcast television in Wisconsin when I was a child during the early 70s. I still remember—having fallen asleep during the second feature—waking up to the hiss of white noise and the eerie bullseye of the wavering test pattern in the dark and being led to bed. This was before videotape recorders were commercially available. Father mounted a jack on the back of the television and recorded the soundtracks on to cassette tapes, which I’d listen to over and over again, like radio dramas.

At 16, “learner’s permit” in hand, I began driving into Milwaukee from the suburbs with my friends to the magnificent old Oriental Theater. It was operated back then by the Pritchett brothers, who ran it as a calendar house. (This was before Parallax, and then the Landmark Chain took it over.) The programming was astonishingly eclectic. I practically lived there after classes in high school between 1977 and 1980, viewing (and, afterwards, over coffee or drinks at Von Trier’s across the street, reviewing critically with friends) hundreds of films. That was when my crush on cinema turned serious.

When I landed in Philadelphia and conservatory (where I dared steal little time for anything but composing and practicing the piano) at the Curtis Institute of Music, I began reading serious film criticism, devouring Truffaut, Bazin and the rest. Landing a few years later in Manhattan to complete my musical training at Juilliard, I was fortunate enough to have access to the Regency Theater, a fabulous calendar house at 67th and Broadway that showed old films, during its last few seasons. I even met Truffaut there at the end of a festival of his movies! Sometimes I think that leaving my composition lessons (which could be intensely stressful) and heading straight to the cool darkness of the Regency preserved my sanity. I was among the protesters out front when they closed it in ’87; the Thalia uptown closed the same year.

That opera world opened to me with the 1993 premiere of my first major opera, Shining Brow (on a libretto by Paul Muldoon about the tragic murders at Taliesin and the early career of Frank Lloyd Wright). I spent a little time in Los Angeles during the early 90s, met with some people, and made some connections in the film world. Had I not been fortunate to enjoy such relative success as a young composer in New York at the time—a commission from the New York Philharmonic, prizes, other opera commissions, a teaching job at a liberal arts college called Bard—I would have probably pursued film work then.

Instead, over the next twenty years I composed a dozen operas, a slew of symphonies, reams of chamber music, and hundreds of art songs. I became immersed in the east coast concert music world and fully embraced my life as a Manhattanite. A few years ago, my wife and I moved to the country to raise our children. Gradually, I began accepting invitations to serve as stage director for my operas. During production by Kentucky Opera of A Woman in Morocco at the Actors Theater of Louisville, it was pointed out to me that my theatrical staging was clearly filmic and that it was too bad that we weren’t making a Playhouse 90 out of it. Frankly, it had never occurred to me not to stage it cinematically. In hindsight, moving into film directing—making films—was my logical next move.

Orson Welles once said, 'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations". In Orson Rehearsed, you limited yourself to the stage and music. What kind of freedom or creativity did it bring?

DH: Welles’ comment echoes a paradoxical observation that Stravinsky makes in Poetics of Music: “My freedom consists in my … moving ahead within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.” Generating a rhetoric is my way of making a “sandbox” or “narrow frame” in which to frame narrative. Orson Rehearsed takes place in Orson Welles’ mind as he crosses through the bardo between life and what comes after. My challenge was to come up with a rhetoric with which to coherently explore the inner workings of one genius’ mind.