“If you can get Orson Welles, you’ve got the money”

To Build a Fire_Orson Wells_David CobhamA long time ago I made a film for the BBC based on a short story by Jack London called “To Build Fire.” It was set during the days of the Gold Rush to the Klondyke at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a very simple story about an inexperienced newcomer and his companion, a Husky dog, who are making a short journey along a frozen up river from one camp to another. The man doesn’t understand how cold it’s going to get and carries on regardless. The dog does know though.We see them stop for lunch and the man goes through the ritual of building and lighting a fire. They press on and shortly afterwards the man breaks through the ice where a hot spring has weakened it. He panics as he gathers twigs and dry mosses to build a life saving fire. Despite frozen fingers he manages to light it. The flames take hold, he relaxes. What he hasn’t noticed is that he’s built his fire under a bough laden with snow.It melts, cascades down and puts out the fire.Feverishly he tries to re-build the fire but fails, He tries running to keep warm, the dog beside him, but eventually stumbles and slumps down by a tree. His last thoughts were: “A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to death. It was like taking an anaesthetic. There were lots worse ways to die.” The dog crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food providers and fire providers.

When I put this idea to the BBC they told me if you can find half the money we’ll find the rest. OK. I went to my co-production partner, Richard Price, and explained the BBC’s position. He suggested I go to New York, meet up with Group W, part of the Westinghouse Group, and make a pitch to them. I sent them the script, flew to New York and met them. They liked the story and asked who was going to play the man’s part.

I explained that I’d already cast Ian Hogg.

“Never heard of him,” they said.“Who’s going to do the narration?”

“What about Orson Welles?”

“If you can get him, you’ve got the money.”

Luckily Orson Welles was interested.

At the beginning of 1971 we flew to the Yukon and shot the film. It was edited and I showed it to the BBC who suggested one or two minor alterations. That afternoon, Orson Welles came into my office and said he was ready to record the narration.

“I see you’ve got a recording studio. Can we do it now?”

I explained that the BBC had only just seen it, wanted to make some changes and could we make a date in a week’s time?

“Get in touch with my secretary, Mrs Rogers, and let her know when you’re ready.” Off he went.

Ten days later I contacted his secretary and said we were ready to record the narration. She explained that Orson was in Munich. “Could I go there, record in a studio that he’d fix?” I said I could and booked my flight. The day before I was due to leave she rang again.“I’m sorry, David. He’s in Rome now. Can you go there?” I changed my flight and was about to leave when she rang again. “Orson’s gone to New York. He’s very sorry. But he is free the day after tomorrow. Can you fix a studio? And please ring his lawyer, Arnold Weissberger, when you arrive.”

I rang as soon as I arrived in New York. “Sorry, David! Orson’s now in Los Angeles at the Beverley Hills Hotel. Can you fix a studio and please ring him. He’s expecting your call” I booked my flight. The only recording studio available belonged to The Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. I rang Orson. A recording told me that Orson Welles wasn’t receiving any calls. I rang back saying I was Arnold Weissberger and needed to speak to him urgently. I was put through: “Where are you, old boy? I’ve been expecting your call.” I gave him the details of the recording studio and that a limo would pick him up at 1.30.”

Next afternoon, I was there waiting, as an enormous black limo pulled up. He was all smiles as we shook hands. He was sporting a black Homburg hat and wearing, what seemed to me, to be a black North Vietnamese trouser suit. He had an enormous box of cigars tucked under his arm. I lead him through into the reception area where he was asked to sign in. He turned on the receptionist: “If I have to sign in, no recording!” He didn’t want the Inland Revenue to know about our venture. After that brief hiccup we went through into the studio. I was very much in awe of him. I knew how when he was recording a frozen pea commercial he’d chewed up a Bird’s Eye account executive with the words: “you people are absolute pests!” Luckily the recording went off very smoothly. He asked if I wanted any re-takes and I said was very happy. He worked very close to the microphone, his booming voice, powered by that powerful chest, added another, magic dimension to one of the best short stories ever written.