Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Richard Linklater

Calling Orson

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Richard Linklater cast himself as the first person who appears onscreen in his feature debut, Slacker (1991), and shot a scene in Before Sunrise (1995) near Harry Lime's door. But aside from a singular, personal artistic touch in all his films, that's about all he has in common with Orson Welles. Linklater's smooth, almost observant style and preference for ensemble casts contrasts with Welles' centerpiece role and showy cinematic angles. Welles completed and released only thirteen feature films in his career, and here is Linklater with his thirteenth feature film, Me and Orson Welles. Though, happily, Linklater shows no sign of slowing down. And then there's one other major difference: Zac Efron.

It may seem like a cruel irony to make a film about the greatest director in the world, and then cast the bland, pretty star of the inane, highly marketed "High School Musical" in the pivotal role (the "Me" role, not the "Orson Welles" role). Efron plays Richard, the "passive observer" character who enters Orson Welles' world, witnessing the 1937 Mercury production of Julius Caesar, and learning some important life lessons. He meets two women, Gretta (Zoe Kazan), who exists outside the theater world and wishes to be a writer, and Sonia (Claire Danes), who exists in the theater world and wishes to use her connections to move up, no matter what that may entail. It might even be logical to assume that Linklater accepted Efron as a concession in order to raise the money for the film. But Linklater, who recently visited San Francisco and sat down with GreenCine to discuss his new film, defends Efron vigorously.

"He was the first guy I met for that part," Linklater says in his slight, laid-back Texas drawl. "I sat down with him and about ten seconds in, I was like, 'This guy's Richard.' I just knew it. He had that innocence and he's really smart. He's the sweetest kid. He's a thoroughly decent guy. Zac's a poker player. He's always a step ahead. I would say that it's the same in life. If you underestimate Zac or think he's anything less than... in a poker match, he will have taken your money."

Linklater was also aware of the trappings of the "passive observer" character and made sure to write something with a little more heft: "You've got to give that guy a lot to do. You've got to make him aggressive. He makes all his own fate. He wasn't just plucked off the street; he's working. He's a smooth operator. He goes over to Gretta and starts talking. He's not just some innocent, neutral doe-eyed guy. Orson likes him: 'kid's got balls.' A hustler can appreciate another hustler. And so Zac had all that. He's really charismatic. He's a leading man. If you cast somebody who's a little more dorky or a little more neutral, he disappears from the movie. All you would remember was Orson Welles. I needed someone formidable."

Whether or not Efron works in the role is up for debate, but the verdict is in on British actor Christian McKay, 36, who portrays Orson Welles at age 22. Most reviewers are proclaiming him the best Welles since Welles. McKay accompanied Linklater for the conversation, and the resemblance (especially the commanding voice) is remarkable. McKay tells the story of how he first made the connection between himself and Welles. "I was unemployed after eight months of lovely employment at the Royal Shakespeare company at Stratford-Upon-Avon in the West End," he says. "A friend of mine suggested: it would be very interesting to do a real-life performance. That might be a very interesting acting exercise. It's a cheap form of theater: the one-man show. You can take it everywhere. And he said, 'Now what about Orson Welles?' And that was the first time it really registered. And I was immediately on the defensive: 'I'm not that fat.' I was totally and utterly insulted."

Now, however, McKay has accepted his connection with Welles. "I was in Morocco last year, and this ancient Arabic woman started shouting at me, and I thought, 'what have I done?' And a friend said, 'This lady here says you look like Orson Welles.' And she said, 'Orson came here.' And she just took me in. It was the shot set in the Turkish bath in Othello. And I walked in and I couldn't believe it. It's exactly as it was. When he walked in there, he must have thought, 'this I can use.' The natural sunlight is just absolutely beautiful. The way he used it, though with the reflection, all that water is in there. It was incredible."

Sad but true; an entire generation grew up knowing Orson Welles only as a kind of oversize icon on television, doing wine commercials and other nonsense. "Who knew what he did? He was just Orson Welles," Linklater says. "He was a voice and a big guy. I remember seeing him on Merv Griffin, or Mike Douglas, one of those talk shows. And the guy was going, 'Oh and you narrated that Nostradamus. He predicted all this great stuff." And Welles, was: 'It's all a bunch of rubbish.'"

So both McKay and Linklater threw themselves into Welles lore. "The best way to play a part is to be it," McKay says. "When you start reading about him and watching the films and listening to those incredible radio plays that still stand up now, it's like an education in itself. It just leads you onto other things. I love Spanish culture; it's one of the things I had in common with the old man. I've always thought: you've got to sit down and read Don Quixote. And I've never done it. And then suddenly you read it, and the themes seemed so relevant. It was like I went to the university of Orson Welles."

Thankfully, Linklater decided not to emulate Welles' style in the making of the film, mainly because the idea didn't really fit the material; in 1937, Welles hadn't yet become a filmmaker. "He was certainly cinematic. He was thinking of films, and he had made a short film," Linklater says. "But I thought it would be a huge non-starter, a huge mistake to do Welles. In fact, I saw this in a completely different genre: there's a little whiff of screwball comedy. I mean, you can't really remake a screwball comedy, and we weren't trying. It's not that. But there's just an air, vaguely like that. I thought it was fun to put Welles into that setting, because he never would have put himself in there. He never would have directed or appeared in a film like this. But his own life must have been the stuff of great comedy."

It's easy to be inspired by Welles, and enthusiastic about him, but very hard to emulate him. How, then, to guide McKay's performance? This Welles is boisterous, monstrous, brilliant and commanding. But where is his humanity, and the all-important flaws? To solve the problem, Linklater and McKay decided to let Welles drop his armor in a few crucial scenes. "I love the parts where he could take down the mask, and he always did it with Richard. Because Richard is no threat at all to him, until he realizes late in the film," McKay says.

Linklater continues: "We kind of graphed out how much he's acting and performing. There were the two parts: reading Ambersons in the ambulance, and then on the park bench. Maybe we see the soul of the man. Or do you? How do you know he's not acting to some degree? I think Welles was always performing. He was a showman. Everyone around him had to be enthralled and entertained at all times. He was very aware of his myth as the greatest filmmaker. What a burden to operate under! I think people just wanted more. Why didn't he have John Huston's career? Or Billy Wilder? He was of that era. He could have had a great 1940s, '50s, early-to-mid '60s. That was the heyday. But he was never, ever going to fit into that system."

The real Welles is gone, of course, but McKay has all but resurrected him for a brief time in Me and Orson Welles. There have been a few re-creations of Welles over the past few decades, in films like Heavenly Creatures (1994), Ed Wood (1994), Cradle Will Rock (1999), RKO 281 (1999), Fade to Black (2006) and Man in the Chair (2007). It's a performance that deserves to re-kindle an interest in the great artist's career, as well as earn some accolades for McKay. "I think Christian has kind of scorched this territory for a generation," Linklater says. "It would be like someone playing Ray Charles right now. Who's going to be able to pull this off again anytime soon?"

December 1, 2009

Partial Richard Linklater Filmography:
Slacker (1991)
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Before Sunrise (1995)
SubUrbia (1996)
The Newton Boys (1998)
Waking Life (2001)
Tape (2001)
School of Rock (2003)
Before Sunset (2004)
Bad News Bears (2005)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Fast Food Nation (2006)
Me and Orson Welles (2009)

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