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Interview: Robert Orlando on His Film “Citizen Trump”

“Once the stage is the thing, ideas don’t matter as much as performance.”

Robert Orlando’s film Citizen Trump will premier on September 7th. The documentary tells the life story of President Donald Trump, in the cinematographic style of Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Throughout the film, Mr. Orlando examines President Trump’s life as it compares to that of Charles Foster Kane. Debuting just weeks before the November presidential election, Citizen Trump is receiving increased attention and was also the subject of a review by Gabriel Andrade at Merion West. As a follow-up to that review, Mr. Orlando joins Merion West and Dr. Andrade to further discuss the film, his thought process while making it, as well as his own thoughts on President Trump and the upcoming election.

Mr. Orlando, Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. I suppose you may agree with that assessment. How has that film—if at all—inspired your career as a filmmaker?

You can argue The Godfather or Citizen Kane, but, as a filmmaker, Citizen Kane is first. It is a seamless visual masterpiece and a technical inspiration: His breaking form and storytelling in new independent ways was incomparable at the time. But there is a clear explanation. Before Welles directed Citizen Kane, he had mastered theater and radio, which was amazing. He’s the four faces of Mount Rushmore! He had an ear for radio and its audial transitions—and also the stage blocking from the theater. Notice how in Citizen Kane the camera moves as an objective bystander, and the actors come to you in the frame. Notice how the ending of one scene transitions to the next scene with a cross over V.O. [voice over] or dialogue.

In terms of my inspiration, I have mixed thoughts about Welles and Citizen Kane because, on one hand, he was the boy wonder with the “largest train set” ever in Hollywood. But also, his early fame, pokes at Hearst, and lack of discipline probably limited and almost ended his creative and personal life. I think he was the Hollywood prince, whom they loved when he was on top but loathed when he exerted his independence. At one point, he was eating three boiled chickens a day, excessively drinking, and admittedly could not hold a stable relationship. As I say in my film (and without judgment), there is a lot of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and probably some of Trump in me. As you said in your review, like Trump, Welles was sui generis as a filmmaker.

More often than President Trump, critics have claimed that Rupert Murdoch is the contemporary Citizen Kane. How similar are Trump and Murdoch in this regard?

You might find this shocking, but I have no interest in the media per se. Coming up in independent films, I never thought of media or television celebrity as the brass ring. I was more inspired by Capra’s notion of 500 people in a dark room sharing your—dare I say spiritual—journey. My transition from early religion to film was a way to work out the complex parts of life: elements that could not be so easily wrapped up in an ideology. I was looking for an independent expression: What makes us common, how we all suffer and die, and how we all share a compassionate journey, à la Woody Allen, Bergman, and Fellini.

Other than general information, I don’t know enough about Murdoch to compare. However, on the Citizen Trump film, working with my long-time creative partner in Rome, David Orlandelli, I realized after telling him the story of Trump (the details of which he knew little about), he started matching Trump with Silvio Berlusconi. And, alas, there are many parallels there. Maybe there is a Citizen Berlusconi next?

Kane built his empire with print media. We live in a different world now, where electronics play a much larger role, and fewer people read newspapers. Does this make any difference today? Was President Trump especially skilled in adapting to new media technologies?

The man is the medium. Marshall McLuhan had predicted our world—no surprise after TV wiped out film and merged with advertising. Art truly became commerce. The form was the show. The technology is merely the idol and distraction (Heidegger)—no longer the gravitas of the rise and fall of the Kane/Greek archetype in the theatrical sense. Technology is only speed. The human psyche is the unchanging neuro-technology, and nothing changes. Aristotle’s Poetics taught us the science of how this all works. Jung would say our masks are the same; our roles change.

Trump is the Shadow. There are ancient Greek authors who can unpack modern phenomena like Trump, power, and the media. I’m fascinated how audiences still think the show is about bad guys and good guys or political parties. Of course, Trump mastered his medium and on instinct alone. He created his persona, as did Obama. Hillary was not good at creating a persona, which is why she failed. Once the stage is the thing, ideas don’t matter as much as performance.

In the film, you compare Kane and President Trump’s approach to women. Kane’s political career ended when voters found out he had a mistress. President Trump has allegedly had extramarital affairs (e.g. Stormy Daniels). Yet, unlike Kane, this has not brought him down politically. How has President Trump managed to do that?

The obvious response is that culture has changed. Marital infidelity for public political figures does not make that much of a difference, as it did with public sensibilities in 1941, especially from those who censored films. Donald Trump paid a porn star $250,000; he did not deny it; and I think it had no impact on his reputation. In a nihilistic universe of hyper-reality TV, nothing matters because nothing is real. The symbol of truth is the truth—merely by getting on TV, or becoming the idol.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the point of Citizen Kane was merely the revealing of Kane’s tryst. It was his defiance to that exposure. The theme of Citizen Kane is a man detached from human relationships from a young age (the sled scene), so it is not that he had an affair—which seemed inevitable given the antecedents of the film—but more that he would defy his political opponent Gettys, a father figure, and continue to push Susan into a humiliating opera career to prove he must win in the end. But, instead, he loses everything.

One important part of the plot in Citizen Kane is the way Kane pushes his much younger second wife to be an opera singer, with no real success. She becomes an important character in the story. In contrast, Citizen Trump barely mentions Melania Trump, even though she seems to have many parallels with Kane’s second wife. Any reason for that?

That’s not quite the right parallel. The better parallel would be to match the character of Susan with Marla Maples, a stage performer and someone who better fits the role for an affair and one to whom Trump would elevate her career. That said, I think family is off limits unless essential to the plot of the film, and, in this case, Melania is not. Again, don’t miss the real point Welles was making about Kane’s affair: It was the emptiness of it all, given where he had started.

The bigger point was, as Leland stated late in the film, Kane wanted “love on his own terms.” He only loved “Charles Foster Kane.” The point was Kane could not experience a relationship of equals based on empathy—but only with those he could pity and control. In the end, Kane even grew tired of Susan because she did not make him proud but only brought him more shame exposing his vulnerability. Citizen Kane might have been poking at Hearst and his relationship with Marion Davies, and we all know Gore Vidal’s true meaning of “Rosebud.”

Citizen Kane focuses a lot on Kane’s childhood (that is at the root of the mystery surrounding “Rosebud”). You also explore the impact that President Trump’s childhood may have had on his character. Today, some mental health practitioners are concerned that pop psychologists are too eager to over-psychoanalyze President Trump to label him with all sorts of mental disorders. Some of these pop psychologists may confirm some of their prejudices after watching the film. What do you say to that?

After Citizen Kane, Welles was accused of ending a very complex life with a simple “Freudian” solution. While you could make the case that we are all impacted by the relationships we have with a mother and father, it would be the most difficult part of the narrative to confirm, given its deeply personal nature. Ten biographers will never know what a wife knows about her husband, or a husband about his wife.

And I must add—as a researcher and someone who knows what to specifically look for to complete a life—this was the most guarded content. It felt as though, mom and Donald were off limits. If I stay with the story, I determined that his older brother was the heir apparent, and Donald was the one wanting to be a Hollywood performer, yet his hard-driving dad and detachment from mom could not help, for his acting out or seeking attention. Wouldn’t that be true for you or me?

Kane is eventually abandoned by his wife and dies in utter loneliness. Some people report that President Trump is also a very lonely person in his private life. You don’t explore this aspect in the film, but what is your take on it? Is President Trump as lonely as Kane?

Going down this road could be highly speculative given the lack of personal testimony, other than Mary Trump’s recent book. That said, there is a preponderance of evidence that paints the young Trump as a certain personality type. If there were a symbol of his own loss of innocence, it might be the train set in his basement, where he spent time with his siblings, designing and playing with it. Back to telling you there is some Trump in me, I could tell you from personal experience that creating and playing with trains or building a city through which the trains can roll is a unique phenomenon. But it is one that gives a sense of peace and control. After all, you are playing God a bit and creating your own world, plus giving the playful boyishness a chance to live. If you asked me, I would say “guilty.” Why blame Trump?

As for your point about loneliness, it would [be] impossible to know unless you know the basic needs. If you side with the pop psychologists who define Trump purely in terms of pathology as an “unfit maniac” and someone who would not know needs at all, well then, no. He would only know power and how to keep himself beyond any risks of intimacy, so loneliness would never enter the picture. Knowing that Welles is in Kane, I must say (and I would be guilty of the same) as a deeply feeling filmmaker—but forget me—just think about how many people you know who experience their parents’ divorce at four-years-old, or experience their mother’s death at nine-years-old, or are offered a scholarship to Harvard and Cornell at 16-years-old, or at 25-years-old would be given the greatest freedom to direct a Hollywood film, Citizen Kane? Today, a 25-year-old would be the equivalent of Welles at eight or nine-years-old.

If President Trump loses the election in November, what lies ahead for him? Will the rest of his life follow the pattern of a disgraced Greek tragedy hero, not unlike Kane’s?

The flaw of the tragic hero is that they are unaware of their flaw. The denial of the flaw is both the gift that makes them wildly successful but also the curse that makes them vulnerable to the fall. They only recognize it when it means their end. Kane, when Susan abandons him—just as his mother did in his childhood—erupts with pure anger. In Hollywood lore, it is known that during this scene, Welles sliced open his hand and also told others, “I really felt that.” For the film, it was the recognition of the loss and the waste and the realization that all the power, wealth, and acquisitions in the world could not replace one day as an accepted boy playing on his sled.

It sounds simple, but it’s profound because it is rooted in innocence lost and the idea of the sacred. I think why most will not see Trump as a fallen hero is because most of the Greek tragic heroes in Jung’s terms would play the role as fallen kings. With Trump, it would be the fallen trickster: a type of the shadow that survives largely by the ability to adapt into different forms (showman, real estate, TV host, etc.), but it is not driven by honor and the sacrifice of others. I tried to show in the film that the most difficult task for a trickster is to be transparent, which is why Trump’s worst moment occurred when he found himself as the moral leader during the COVID-19 crisis.

Welles always refused to have his film colorized. I suppose that, likewise, he would have been unhappy with a remake. Yet, it appears the temptation to make such a film is there for some Hollywood producers. If any such remake is ever made, what piece of advice would you give to the director? What aspects of Citizen Trump could be useful in a remake of Citizen Kane?

I don’t think Hollywood has ever created an independent director and especially a genius like Welles. If anything, the industry has been a major impediment to film creativity, the development of genuine talent, or any real sense of art. The most successful independent filmmakers have emerged, in spite of—or in defiance of—Hollywood. Griffith, Chaplin, Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and so many other director legends clashed with Hollywood and, at times, were nearly destroyed by Hollywood. Yet, their defiance has delivered the masterpieces we know today. Hollywood will take credit for success after the fact, but they have never been anything more than the nickelodeon wheel for the dreams of others.

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