Orson Welles nearly died making “Citizen Kane.” How could risk management have increased production safety? Epitome's Risk Management Professionals take a look at the greatest movie ever made.
Orson Welles nearly died making “Citizen Kane.” His injuries and the risks they presented to the production could have been mitigated with proper risk management. Let’s look at what went wrong and how it could have been safer.
Widely regarded as the greatest film ever made and the most influential movie in history, “Citizen Kane” was a flop when it was released and not well-loved within the industry. It may have been nominated for nine Academy Awards, but it was booed every time each of its nominations was announced.
A story not-so-loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst; “Citizen Kane” chronicles the life of a poor child who becomes one of the richest men in the world. This is a movie about a sweet young boy who grew into a young man with ideals and then grew further into an old, angry, lonely man living in isolation surrounded by the empty rooms of his mansion and the cold hard facts of his fortune.
“Citizen Kane” starts at the end, with the death of Charles Kane and his enigmatic dying word: “Rosebud.” The film follows a journalist, Jerry Thompson, as he attempts to piece together Kane’s life and learn the meaning of “Rosebud.” Told entirely in flashback, the movie consists of a series of often-contradictory interviews with former friends and associates.
It paints a picture of a complex life and asks us just how much we can know about someone, even someone as famous as the richest man in the world.
“Citizen Kane” still sits atop many movie ranking lists and its influences are still apparent today. AFI chose it as the single best movie ever made and “Rosebud” as the 17th greatest line of dialog in film history.
For all its accolades and its legacy, “Citizen Kane” also nearly killed its wunderkind director and star. Let’s take a look at this classic film and see how professional risk management could have kept Orson Welles safe from injury.
Seeing is Believing
Orson Welles worked 16-18-hour days while making “Citizen Kane.” His days began at 4 a.m. with make-up and went practically non-stop until late into the night. These long days were doubly difficult for Welles because he was wearing so many hats: actor, director, producer, and co-writer.
Further complicating this already dangerous situation, Welles insisted on special contact lenses to age his eyes for the older-Kane scenes. The contacts were so painful that he had to have a doctor put them in, but their real danger came from one simple fact: Orson Welles couldn’t see when he wore them.
These contacts are the source of two moments that nearly cost Orson Welles his life.
Wrecking the Room
In the later half of the movie, Charles Foster Kane demolishes his wife’s bedroom. During the scene, Welles literally trashes the place, breaking sets, and props, flinging items left and right, toppling bookcases, flipping tables, and ripping curtains. It is a truly monumental moment.
Blind from the contacts, however, Welles sliced open his wrist during the scene and nearly ruined the take. Given the uncontrolled nature of the scene and his blindness, Orson Well is fortunate that all he did was cut his wrist.
A Ten Foot Fall
Orson Welles fell ten feet while filming a take of this scene.
In an earlier moment in the film, Charles Foster Kane scrambles down some stairs to yell at James W. Gettys. Blinded yet again by the contacts, Welles tripped and fell ten feet; breaking his ankle in two places. For two weeks, Welles was forced to direct from a wheelchair.
These two incidents jeopardized the production, put people’s livelihoods at risk, and nearly killed the main man behind this classic film. Let’s look at how risk management could have avoided these issues.
Identifying the Risks
After our last two articles – where one film gave the cast and crew cancer and the other drown three people – a cut and a fall might seem like small potatoes. And, in that context, they are. But risk management is not just about preventing films from shooting in nuclear fallout zones and refraining from flooding their sets without warning.
Risk management is about all of the dangers associated with a film. The risks present in “Citizen Kane” are still common in film sets to this day. We want to spend some time looking at them because these smaller-seeming risks actually cause far more issues than atomic explosions and great floods.
A reminder: we are not here to finger-wag at a classic film. Orson Welles was a genius and “Citizen Kane” is unimpeachably great cinema. We simply hope that by looking at safety issues in movies past, we can help current filmmakers to avoid mistakes.
Let’s look at the three main safety issues that led to the injuries on set:
- Long hours
- Dangerous makeup
- Too many hats
Union guidelines mandate the length of a shooting day. For instance, SAG-AFTRA requires productions to follow an eight-hour workday and a turnaround time of 10-12 hours, depending on the location of the shoot. This means that a production shouldn’t shoot for longer than eight hours (excluding meal periods) in a day and that the cast must have twelve hours between the end of filming one day and the beginning of shooting the next.
When productions break these rules, they have to pay for it. But far too often, productions view these additional payments as the equivalent of a speeding ticket; just the cost of doing business.
This mindset leads to injury and death. In the case of “Citizen Kane,” long hours exhausted the star, the producer, and the director. This laid the foundation for injury, but it was just the beginning.
The phrase “safety first” is so overused it is practically meaningless. Many people say it but don’t mean it at all. When risk managers say it, however, not only do we mean it, but we can show you what it truly means and why.
Anyone moving across a set needs to be able to see where they are going. Period. No artistic decision should ever blind anyone on set. Not the crew, not the cast, and certainly not the director and the star.
By choosing to use contact lenses that blinded him, Orson Welles put everything at risk. He unknowingly gambled with the financier’s money, the cast’s and crew’s jobs, the production itself, and his own life.
A fall of just six feet is enough to kill a human. Orson Welles fell ten feet, down a flight of stairs. Quite frankly, he was lucky that all he did was break his ankle.
Had he injured something more serious, like his neck, or perished in the fall, “Citizen Kane” would not exist. It would be a footnote in a footnote of cinema history. A long-lost headline reading, “The great radio talent Orson Welles tripped over his own hubris and died trying to make his first feature film.”
Orson Welles got lucky and so do many other filmmakers today. We cannot rely on luck alone. The annals of film history are littered with the stories of the unlucky.
Too Many Hats
As we talked about in our evaluation of “ROAR,” one of the most common risk factors that we see is the phenomenon of “too many hats.” Far too many productions are made by people who are doing the work of three-or-more crew members.
Starring in a movie is hard work. Directing a movie requires every once of your attention. Producing a movie demands clarity of vision and forethought. Writing a movie is exhausting.
Orson Welles was doing all of these and more. When someone is wearing this many hats, risks accumulate at lightspeed. Not only do important items get missed, but one person wearing this many hats also requires more work from the other crew members to pick up the slack.
Multi-hat-wearing also robs productions of several additional sets of eyes that can help catch risks before they occur. And it adds an enormous amount of emotional labor for everyone involved as this multi-hatted person has an outsized role in the production.
If you have an issue with the star, you can’t go to the director and you can’t approach the producer about an unsafe director because they are all the same person.
In the case of “Citizen Kane,” we think the fact that Orson Welles had so many important roles and responsibilities is the ground-zero risk factor. Long hours and dangerous make-up are risk on their own, but they could have been, and might have been, avoided had there been multiple people working in the roles Welles had assigned himself.
Managing the Risks
Risk management could have made all the difference. Getting Orson Welles to relinquish control was nearly impossible. So it is highly unlikely that RKO could have convinced him to allow someone else to produce, direct, or star in “Citizen Kane.” No matter what, Orson Welles was going to be wearing multiple hats.
It is precisely because of this fact that risk management is even more vital. When people wear lots of hats on a film, they need help. They need someone to focus solely on safety. If we couldn’t get Welles to wear fewer hats – and we have already admitted this would be highly unlikely – then as professional risk managers, we would have helped him to eliminate the other two risks: long hours and dangerous make-up.
At Epitome, our risk management process begins with a script analysis that identifies all the potential risks in each scene of the film. After we have helped to mitigate those risks, we then look at the production’s schedule and identify issues that would lead to an overworked and exhausted cast and crew.
On “Citizen Kane,” this would have jumped out at us immediately. Days that last 16-18 hours are simply not sustainable and should be avoided at all costs. It is one thing if, due to unforeseen events, a single shooting day’s schedule goes over. But on “Citizen Kane,” these long days were not the exception, but the norm.
Risk managers can help producers and creative teams find ways to shorten their shooting days while still getting the shots they want.
At Epitome, our team is staffed with award-winning writers, directors, and producers with decades of film and television experience as well as OSHA-certified safety experts. We know film and safety and we have helped many frustrated productions find innovative solutions to creative issues that have shortened shooting days and decreased risk.
Film makeup is dependent on the shot. Good makeup artists use different techniques depending on whether the shot is wide, medium, or close. The closer the camera gets the more detail is often required from the makeup department.
The unfortunate aspect of both of the scenes in questions here – the running down a flight of stairs and the trashing of the room – is that both are done in the wide. The contacts are not a discernible part of either scene.
If we were hired to manage the risk on “Citizen Kane,” we would certainly have taken note of the fact that the contacts blinded Orson Welles. Of course, we would have done everything in our power to encourage him to find contacts that allowed him to see properly.
If we were unable to do so – or if, at the time, there were no better contacts available – we would have suggested to Welles that, if the contacts were that important to him, he should use them only in close-ups. And only when Kane is stationary.
This would have allowed the director, producer, and star to see for most of the film, as there are few true close-ups. It would have allowed him to avoid cutting his wrist and falling ten feet and breaking his ankle.
Whenever you feel like you might be getting too full of yourself, remember this: Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he directed, starred in, co-wrote, and produced “Citizen Kane.” And be sure not to forget this too: “Citizen Kane” was his first feature film.
Geniuses are rare, and it is hard to argue against Orson Welles’s genius. But genius does not mean flawless. “Citizen Kane” may be a masterpiece, but it is a film filled with risks.
By overworking himself, his cast and his crew, wearing too many hats, and insisting on blinding contacts during scenes with lots of movement, Orson Welles is lucky that he only cut his wrist and broke his ankle.
We have seen this exact combination of flaws – overworked personnel, people wearing too many hats, and dangerous aesthetic decisions – lead to incidents far worse than the ones on “Citizen Kane.” Productions fail to truly put safety first when they choose to allow one person to wear many hats, when they choose certain aesthetics despite obvious risks, and when they put the schedule ahead of people’s safety.
The goal of every production should be to return each member of the cast and crew to their lives in the exact same condition (if not better than) they were in when they joined the production. Anything short of that as the primary goal sidelines safety.
Orson Welles famously said on The Dick Cavett Show that the reason he was able to innovate so much on the set of “Citizen Kane” was precisely because he had never made a movie before. Innovations might be made by amateurs, but to truly avoid risks, you need risk management experts.
Epitome Risk is a Woman-Owned, Veteran-Run, U.S.-Based risk management company, specializing in risk management and COVID-19 safety support for tv & film productions. Epitome Risk works together with the film unions, insurers, studios, and production companies to make every project as safe as possible.
- This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles.
- Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thompson.
- Citizen Welles by Frank Brady.
- Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook, Edited by James Naremore.
- Roger Ebert’s Review of the film.
- Ebert’s viewer’s companion guide to the film.
- The Making of Citizen Kane, Revised edition by Robert L. Carringer.