Orson Welles’ Screenplay ‘The Dreamers’ Available to Read: It’s the Wispy Capper to a Seismic Career

Credit: Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Orson Welles’ career is the cinematic toybox that keeps on giving. Though he was forced to discard so many of his film projects like neglected playthings, due to a lack of funding, an unshakeable enfant terrible aura, and the Lost & Found vault at Paris’ Ritz Hotel, every now and then a new masterpiece, however unfinished, comes to light. For instance, one of Welles’ last screenplays for an aborted film project, The Dreamers, based on a story by Karen Blixen. It just surfaced in its entirety on the Internet, via Scribd, and you can read it below.

The Dreamers is another of Welles’ rococo inquiries into the overlapping (and, to him, fluid) spheres of reality, dreams, and storytelling. It reads rather like a narrative version of his 1975 documentary about forgers and the nature of authorship, F for Fake. The Dreamers is structured with a shipboard framing device, in which an English traveler named Lincoln recounts for an Arab storyteller a tale from his own life about his experience with a woman he first met in his dreams but then discovered existed for real as flesh and blood. Was she a sorceress? Did she enter his dreams by some supernatural power? Or is it just chance? We don’t really know, but Lincoln pursues this woman, called Olalla, even as signs mount that that’s a really bad idea: Olalla claims she sold her soul to the Devil and that her heart is buried in a cemetary. She’s a spectral femme fatale, like Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai, with a knowledge of the dark arts, and the story, in flashback, explores Lincoln’s longing for her. 

Welles actually shot 10-20 minutes of test footage for The Dreamers in his house around 1980-81, when he wrote the screenplay. It’s been passed around as bootleg footage among Welles aficionados for years, and was going to be used as a hook to sell the idea to movie studios. His friend and fellow filmmaker Henry Jaglom tried and failed to get funding for it, and Hal Ashby was even briefly attached to produce The Dreamers for awhile… until he read the complete screenplay. In Welles’ hands it could have really been something, but it’s hard not to see why Ashby passed. The Dreamers is paean to the ephemeral. Citizen Kane was as well. But Kane was a scandal as much as it was a masterpiece, and Welles never recovered from it. Ashby can be forgiven for thinking that he might be brought low with The Dreamers if he invested in it. 

It could probably never have existed as a film, but that doesn’t mean The Dreamers isn’t beautiful as a piece of literature. It’s full of trascendental moments and snatches of dialogue reminiscent of the ending of Kane or the final funhouse scene in The Lady From Shanghai. At one point Lincoln pretty much lays out Welles’ spiritual-trickster view of the world with the line “To love God truly you must love a joke.” And the final patch of dialogue pretty much sums up Welles’ whole “Living on a Wink, Prayer, Voiceover gigs, and the Charity of Peter Bogdanovich” approach to life at that point: “There are only two things it is ever seemly for an intelligent person to be thinking. One is: ‘What did God mean by creating the world?’ And the other? ‘What do I do next?'” 

The Dreamers (unfinished film) screenplay by Orson Welles by vlado0

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