As many know, stage actor Orson Welles had never directed or starred in film before his 1941 film “Citizen Kane”. In fact, even though the film is hailed as the greatest film of all time, Welles was quite the novice in filmmaking when he made it…but that was something quickly rectified.
Production advisor Miriam Geiger quickly compiled a handmade film textbook for Welles which served as a practical reference book of film techniques that he studied carefully. Welles then taught himself filmmaking by matching its visual vocabulary to the 1920 silent horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, which he ordered from the Museum of Modern Art. He also ordered films by directors Frank Capra, René Clair, Fritz Lang, King Vidor, and Jean Renoir. The one film he genuinely studied was director John Ford’s 1939 film “Stagecoach”, which he watched 40 times. Welles novice abilities, but coupled with his desire to learn, was shown in this quote:
“As it turned out, the first day I ever walked onto a set was my first day as a director,” Welles said. “I’d learned whatever I knew in the projection room — from Ford. After dinner every night for about a month, I’d run Stagecoach, often with some different technician or department head from the studio, and ask questions. ‘How was this done?’ ‘Why was this done?’ It was like going to school.”
Perhaps it was with this wide-eyed wonder of film that Welles conquered with his film. Perhaps he was just gifted. Either way, none can deny “Citizen Kane” and it’s profound effect on the world that would inspire directors of all kinds from Steven Spielberg to Paul Thomas Anderson.