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Me & Orson Welles - Richard Linklater interview

Me & Orson Welles, Richard Linklater

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RICHARD Linklater talks about finding the perfect actor to play Orson Welles in Christian McKay, persuading Zac Efron to come to the Isle of Man and the truth surrounding those School of Rock sequel rumours…

Q. Christian McKay, your Orson Welles, is a real find…
Richard Linklater: Well, I spent more time on this movie with Christian than I have with any other actor… probably double. It was answering his questions and making him feel comfortable. Christian’s so bright. He had to see the big picture. It would be very tempting to say: “Just stand there and do this…” But that’s not good enough for him. He thinks big. He’s got that big vision. So, there were months and months of going over the script, every line, every scene, talking about stuff. I kind of included him in the entire picture because that’s what his psyche demands. But he’s a great guy to hang out with. It was one of the joys of this film.

Q. Christian McKay [who plays Orson Welles] is your ace in the pack. Everyone else is great but it stands or falls with him. Was he easy to find?
Richard Linklater: I introduced him the other night at a screening as the guy I couldn’t and wouldn’t have made the film without. It was magical – one of those things that was meant to be. There are no other actors alive who could look at that and go: “I could have done that…” Or: “That’s not so impressive…” That’s off the table here.

Q. It’s also perfect that he’s not a known actor…
Richard Linklater: Right, there’s no baggage. When you’re playing a historical figure… I talked about that a lot in the process. Think of the magic of cinema… when it’s someone you know, that part of your brain that’s always critical would always be active if it was ‘fill in the blank’ actor. The magic of cinema means that in this case you can potentially be pulled into the movie thinking this guy is Orson Welles. It’s 1937 and I’m hanging out with Orson Welles. That’s what we were going for. So, it’s the best of all worlds.

Q. How exhaustive was the search for him though?
Richard Linklater: It was more of an intellectual exercise. My colleagues were going through the list of who could do it. I had another producer involved very early but I soon realised we had very different takes on who could play Orson. He didn’t like Christian. I was like: “Really? The film gods have just offered us… and you’re not grateful?” He wanted a bigger name but he wasn’t in the spirit of this film and I was glad I owned the rights [laughs].

Q. When you first read the memoir, what appealed to you about the prospect of directing it?
Richard Linklater: It’s such a charming historical re-enactment. I always say it’s the best of both worlds. In the historical fiction, the history is very exact. It’s a fascinating moment in Welles’ life, it’s very historically researched and it wonderfully evokes that moment. The fictional part, the love triangle and what Zac’s character goes through is charming and telling. It’s a good narrative story. It’s not complex. What goes on is very real.

Q. How easy was it to recreate 1930s New York?
Richard Linklater: It’s always a bit of a trick because 1930s New York is so long gone in New York, so we knew we’d be recreating it somewhere else. It just so happened that the theatre we used in the Isle of Man, The Gaiety Theatre, worked out great. We only had one picutre from the interior of The Mercury Theatre. I think it was from the opening night during Orson’s production of Julius Caesar. But I could tell from the seats, the stalls and the boxes that it was very much like the theatre we had. If you looked at it from the stage, it looked a lot like the Mercury. So, I felt really blessed. We had the stage drawings… the exact drawings, we had the score, the text that Welles had written, these photos that kind of gave us a lot of clues towards the costumes and lighting. It was fun imagining this historical recreation.

Zac Efron and Claire Danes in Me & Orson Welles

Q. Were you surprised that Zac Efron’s fans were able to track him down on the Isle of Man?
Richard Linklater: [Laughs] We sort of promised Zac that there would be no paparazzi and that everyone would leave him alone. I’d heard that… Johnny Depp had been on the island doing The Libertine, I believe, and apparently he didn’t suffer any problems, so we told Zac that. But sure enough, they sniffed him out and we’d wrap at the end of the day, walk out of the theatre and there’d be this little scream or something. But how magical is that for those young girls? I remember I lived in this little town in east Texas and Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw came through town and shot a movie for two weeks… it was The Getaway, the Sam Peckinpah movie. Friends of mine were extras… it was just so exciting. It was like: “Steve McQueen’s in town!”

So, if you’re a young person to hear that Zac Efron’s in your neighbourhood that must be so exciting. He’s just a guy… but he’s special. I get it. He’s not just a cute kid. He’s a really good actor, a talented song and dance man. It’s a triple thread. He really brings it. I think this movie is a nice step for him – for those fans that like him for that, if they’ve grown up a little bit this is good to grow into. He’s still a high school kid but he’s stepping up to the big leagues. He’s working with Orson Welles! But he still sings and dances a little bit. And that’s all historically accurate. The character he’s based on did sing a little lullaby in the play with Orson… the photo was one of the inspirations for Robert Kaplow. He imagined what that must have been like for the kid in the picture, sitting on that stage next to Orson Welles.

Q. Did you go and meet Steve McQueen?
Richard Linklater: No, I didn’t. I wasn’t that big a fanboy. I mean I liked him as an actor… Ali MacGraw might have interested me a little more. I did meet her more recently… and what a woman.

Q. Did Zac take much persuading to do this role?
Richard Linklater: Not really. We sort of met in the middle. He’d read the script and liked it. It was close to him. He has his own history in theatre, being in touring shows… every performer has that back stage story – what it’s like to pull a production together, the pace, the intrigue, the crushes you form. It’s all form. It’s a huge, spinning plate kind of thing… so chaotic. It’s kind of poignant the way that art can be created in an environment like that. And that was part of the fun of the whole movie for me. Zac saw it as a big challenge and a big step for him, and it is pretty brave for him. I mean, here’s a guy that’s getting offered everything – if you need a younger actor Zac’s top of the list. So, I’m sure he turned down a lot of money to do some of those other films, so he should get some credit. In the big scheme of things, it’s a pretty bold move on his part to come aboard this kind of hybrid American/European indie movie.

Q. It makes him more interesting, though, doesn’t it, as does his decision to pull out of Footloose in favour of The Death And Life of Charlie St Cloud?
Richard Linklater: You can look at it that way, but that’s how you define yourself… by your choices. Zac looked at Footloose and went: “Really?” He’s still young. People think there’s some big plan or some conscious effort. But I think he’s just a guy, like anybody, trying to do something that means something to him. He doesn’t really see himself as a commodity; he’s kind of an artist.

Q. How involved was Robert Kaplow [author of the novel upon which the film is based]?
Richard Linklater: Wonderfully involved. As much as we wanted him to be. He’s such a real generous soul. He writes often for young adults and so is really tapped into a youth mindset. He teaches high school English. I think he’s one of those great high school teachers who changes kids’ lives – he’s one of those. It’s a nice school in New Jersey. But he was great. He wasn’t precious about anything. I’d call him and say: “In the book, Zac’s character realises he’s not an actor and wants to write a novel…” That was very personal to Robert. But I remember calling him and saying that I thought people would be upset that Zac’s character decided against performing because he’s such a natural at it. I thought it would be a bummer for audiences to see that. So I said I intended to keep it a little vague but keep hope that he might want to still perform. I thought that was the proper sentiment.

Me & Orson Welles

Q. Have members of Orson Welles’ family seen the film? And how have they reacted?
Richard Linklater: I think Chris Welles who, coincidentally has a book out, might be coming to one of our New York screenings. I’d love to meet her if she did because she sounds like a great lady.

Q. Will you be nervous?
Richard Linklater: A little bit. I’ll be really nervous if the two surviving actors we portray – Norman Lloyd and Arthur Anderson, who Zac’s character is loosely based on – saw it. Can you imagine? Something from your own life 72 years ago being depicted on film? It would be like a weird dream that’s not necessarily your own. They might say: “That’s not how I remember it…” And inevitably it won’t be.

Q. As a filmmaker yourself, what was your first initiation with Orson Welles?
Richard Linklater: Interesting… Let’s see I first saw Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons as a double feature when I was about 21. So, late… I grew up with Welles. He was a name, he was on shows… that voice. It wasn’t until later, though, that I realised: “Oh, this is Orson Welles and this is what he accomplished.” I remember hearing War of the Worlds as a teenager. We had a record of it and that was kind of fun to listen to. It was so imaginative and so well done. But I was a little slower getting to the cinematic Welles. But I’ve seen Citizen Kane probably somewhere between 25 and 30 times now. If it’s on TV I just find myself watching it.

If you’re going to ask which is my favourite… everyone loves Citizen Kane because it’s been seen a lot. My sympathy at the moment goes to things like Othello and Chimes At Midnight. I wish that could get the full blown, re-release treatment because that one’s really great. Some people say it’s his last masterpiece. It’s really special. I read a review of Chris Welles’ book and she says that’s the one that brings tears to her eyes. I’d love to see that today knowing what I know now about Orson, having been so dedicated to Orson-land.

Q. Do you think he was given a hard time towards the end of his life?
Richard Linklater: It’s probably the only way it could have been. It’s such a complex issue, isn’t it? I think he was such a big personality. He probably had a lot of pride. He lived in LA and he knew all those heads of studios, and they all knew him. But I don’t think he could ever ask them for money. Welles had that kind of self-starting, independent streak in him that he would raise money via his acting roles. He’d never been in the system. I think his personality was too big and Hollywood doesn’t deal well with a genius like that. They’re not interested. And ultimately, he doesn’t really have popular taste. His themes are too deep and he was too much of an old timer. To be really popular, you have to have your pulse on the moment. Billy Wilder was really good at that. He very much had the culture.

But I don’t think Welles really fit in that. It might have been different had Kane done better. It was a suppressed film. It had the potential to be a big hit, and he might have had a different Hollywood career. But I think it became so big, so successful and so indepedent that I think the natural impulse around that, whether you’re an individual, a writer, a producer, or a gossip columnist, is to bring that back to earth. It was like: “How can we reduce him back to a normal human level?” And they’re still trying. They’ve been chipping away at him forever… but you really can’t. People take their best shot at discrediting or questioning his own contributions but at the end of the day it just stares back at you… the achievement. There will never be another like him.

Christian McKay in Me & Orson Welles

Q. Do you feel that you’ve learned anything from Orson, either as a young filmmaker or post making this?
Richard Linklater: Constantly, yeah. I feel differently of him at different times. I kind of like the way he used Charles Foster Kane. You see Citizen Kane as a young person and it means something very different. Potentially every time you see it that applies. Sometimes Kane is a great man and sometimes you see that he’s using people. That was the ultimate Welles’ theme, I think, the unknowableness of the individual, the ambiguity… they’re in all his films – A Touch of Evil. Welles said that himself of Charles Foster Kane: “He was a great man, a mediocre individual.” You couldn’t be both.

I read another quote where he said: “He was one of those monsters where he was able to take in everything but give very little back personally.” And I think Welles was probably talking about himself. People who knew him talk about him as a good friend but a mercurial friend. You had to find your place within his huge universe of himself. But that’s how it is when you’re around a genius. You either successfully find your little niche, or you exit the world altogether and go and do your own thing.

Q. Are you doing School of Rock 2?
Richard Linklater: I’ve been asked that quite a bit. But no… I saw Jack [Black] the other night and we talked about it. It’s a thought, there’s been a few meetings, but it’s never gone into pre-production. It’s not the next film. It would be OK if something came up, but it’s nowhere near yet.

Q. Are you working with Ethan Hawke again on The Untitled 12 Year Richard Linklater Project?
Richard Linklater: Potentially. We’re doing that, as is Patricia Arquette. But I’m going to be working on that for the next five or six years. It’s a long project. Ethan and I are always cooking up something. We have one thing we’re trying to do but I don’t know if it’s next. I don’t know what’s next, to be honest, because it’s a crazy time in the business right now [laughs]!

Read our interview with Christian McKay