It’s easy to see Richard Linklater – director of Slacker and School of Rock – as a film-making descendent of Orson Welles, the original indie director. Linklater tells Donald Clarke about Orson’s enduring appeal, why he has just made a film about him, an
WHY DO we keep coming back to Orson Welles? Versions of the late polymath have appeared so often in films that he has developed an independent life as a demi-fictional character. Danny Huston played him recently in Fade to Black. Vincent D’Onofrio had a crack at Welles in Ed Wood. Angus Macfadyen did an Orson in The Cradle Will Rock. Now, Richard Linklater, director of Before Sunrise, Slacker and a half-dozen other funky cult hits, offers us Christian McKay as the great man in a smart new film entitled Me and Orson Welles. He just won’t go away.
“Orson invented it as he went along,” Linklater ventures. “In that sense he is the patron saint of indie film. He invented independent cinema. The perseverance and guts that he had remains an inspiration.”
This makes a lot of sense. After releasing his transcendent debut Citizen Kane in 1941 – a critical triumph, but a financial failure – Welles was propelled into decades of juddering, erratic movie production. His films were often financed via a rag-bag of unconventional sources and shot in several countries over many months (occasionally years).
Richard Linklater, a native of Austin, Texas, has worked both within and without the studio system, but, since beginning his career with a series of no-budget comedies, he has always remained true to Welles’s independent aesthetic.
“The problem was that Welles didn’t have access to independent distribution then,” he muses. “I think he might have thrived in, say, the 1970s. Like Robert Altman, he might have produced a series of classics that didn’t make very much money, but remained as landmarks.”
Me and Orson Welles returns to the 1930s and Welles’s experiences working with the Mercury Theatre in New York City. Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, the picture details the experiences of a young man hired to essay amodest role in the director’s famous production of Julius Caesar. As events progress, the hero, played by hyper-heartthrob Zac Efron, falls in love with a pretty production assistant and gets to glimpse the many ruthless streaks in Welles’s personality.
“The story is pretty fictionalised,” Linklater explains. “All the big stuff is true-to-life, but a lot of the inter-personal stuff is made-up. The surprise is, maybe, that there is no footage of the production. Welles was on the brink of cinema and he was working in the most ephemeral of art forms. You would have thought he’d bring in the cameras even briefly.”
“I like everyone in the movie industry. Because they like movies. They really do. When I have a film that fits then we all feel very lucky”
Though largely filmed in, of all places, the Isle of Man, Me and Orson Welles does a very good job of summoning up Broadway during the later years of the Depression. Yet the picture is most notable for the spirited interplay between Efron and McKay. Young Zac, hitherto best known for the High School Musical films, confirms that he has talent as well as charisma.
McKay, a jobbing actor and classical pianist, offers an astoundingly convincing – both physical and vocal – impersonation of Welles. How on earth do you set about finding such a convincing Orson? “I optioned the book and I had a script, but I still thought: let’s not proceed until we have the right Orson,” Linklater says. “I had too much respect for Welles. Then I saw Christian in a theatre. I believe the film gods just handed him to us. There is, obviously, a physical resemblance. But he is Wellesian in other ways. He was in the Royal Shakespeare Company. He, too, was told from a young age that he’s a genius – he’s a world-class classical pianist – so I think he understood Welles.”
For all McKay’s gifts, the film’s main selling point remains the presence of young Mr Efron. A few short years ago, Efron was entirely unheard of. Even now, most people over the age of 30 might have trouble putting a face to the unusual name. But, since High School Musical went ballistic, Efron has, by some reckonings, become one of the four biggest stars in the world. Entire cities shake with undulating teenage libidos whenever he jets in for a press junket.
“Well, I never saw High School Musical,” Linklater confesses. “I mean it is just not my demographic. I didn’t care what he’d been in. I just knew in 18 seconds that this guy was perfect: really funny, really smart, really knowing. He’s a natural song-and-dance man. It
Christian McKay and Zac Ephron in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles