Richard Linklater's new film, "Me and Orson Welles," starring Zac Efron and Christian McKay, centers on a teenager who is cast by young Orson Welles in his 1937 production of Julius Caesar. The film will be released Freestyle November 25.
Recreating 1937 New York
“This movie doesn’t really exist any longer in New York,” says Richard Linklater. “If you go to where the Mercury Theatre was, you would never know. It’s an office building – there’s not even a plaque. That street looks so different, it didn’t really matter to me where we shot the film. As a filmmaker, wherever I could make this film, I would, (and I did)”.
“It’s been wonderful working with production designer Laurence Dorman”, continues Linklater. “We went over to New York together – he wasn’t that familiar with the city, so we went to a lot of the actual addresses in the movie and I showed him around.”
The Mercury Theatre
“I really fell in love with the place,” admits Linklater. “It was almost too nice, too ornate, but I thought if we brought it down a little bit and didn’t look up at the beautiful domed cathedral-like ceiling, it had similar proportions to the Mercury Theatre in seats and size. The stage was about the same size and the below stage area and its trap door arrangement with locks and pulleys was far more complex and interesting than you would ever be able to realize if you were building your own stage. So all of that felt great, and to shoot on the Isle of Man for those weeks was just kind of perfect. Some films are just meant to be. It just feels like it lines up and it’s meant to happen.”
A key element in the recreation of the period was the skill and experience of the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Richard Pope. “I had a great meeting with Dick,” remembers Linklater, “and I just saw him as a kindred spirit. He had that wild attitude – he seemed like a kind of mad scientist. And what you want in that position is enthusiasm – and skill, obviously, that goes without saying. Other than that, it’s a personality match. He seems in the spirit of the film and he said he fell in love with it when he read the passage in the script where one of the actresses, Muriel Brassler, played by Kelly Reilly, is talking about lighting and gels and about getting a little butterfly shadow under her nose. He just thought that was so amusing.
“I think people maybe know him for his Mike Leigh films, but it’s some of his other films that are, I think, just as impressive. It’s been really fun within this film for both of us. You rarely get the opportunity to recreate theatrical lighting. With most films, even a stylised period piece, you bend a little towards naturalism. But when you are recreating the exact lighting of this highly dramatic, very theatrical stage show, it’s just fun. It was like shooting an old studio film with high contrast lighting and it’s probably the only time I will ever get to do that. The story goes that the great cinematographer Gregg Toland saw this production of Julius Caesar and when he heard that Welles was going to Hollywood to make ‘Citizen Kane’ he told him he wanted to work with him, because of the lighting he had done for the play.
Adapting the Book for the Screen
“It was just wonderful. The author was actually inserting himself as the young character, seeing Welles through his eyes and at that moment in time. It’s history, theatrical history – Welles’ career and a young man’s coming of age. So I found it utterly charming and really interesting. If you know Welles, you know he mastered theatre and radio before he went on to his more famous film career. It’s such a fascinating portrait of a moment in time in his life. I was just about to start another movie, but I could see that Vince and Holly Palmo were really passionate about it – their passion kept fuelling me, which was needed, because it seemed like such an ambitious movie.”
Casting Orson Welles
“So we had a script and were really excited about it,” says Linklater, “but I said, before we start doing budgets and schedules and trying to go further, let’s get an Orson, because we are not going to do this thing at all unless we can get the right guy to play him. To me, that was the biggest piece of the puzzle that had to fit, before it even had the possibility of moving forward. We thought of all the usual Americans, but we weren’t really getting anywhere. And I remember theorising, ‘you know who our Orson Welles is? He’s in London right now, probably doing Shakespeare. I bet that’s where he is – or there’ll be some great unknown British actor who kind of looks like him’.
“A few months later, Robert Kaplow sends me an e-mail saying that there’s a guy performing in New York at this 50-seat theatre I had never heard of, performing a play called ‘Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles’ for just a couple of weeks. And so I flew to New York and went straight to the play. I’d just had shoulder surgery and I had this brace on, I could barely move, it was really uncomfortable. My only test was, do I believe this guy is Orson Welles? Christian McKay just had that kind of Wellesian manner and he had clearly studied him closely. So I talked to him after the show and I got back to Austin just thinking about him and felt ‘let’s take this to another level’. So I flew Christian to Austin and we did a sort of old fashioned screen test.
“We did three scenes from the movie: I cast some people, did period wardrobe, we had an old car and we did a scene in the back; Christian came in and we worked together and hung out for a couple of days. After that, I didn’t even need to look at the footage. I just knew the kind of guy he was and thought the film Gods were making a very special offering, as they sometimes do. And I remember telling him we don’t have money, we don’t have anything – it may never happen, but we’d try. We started sending the script out and the good news was many seemed intrigued by it, but one of the stumbling blocks we had was a Welles who was unknown. Can you get a bigger name to play Welles? Ours was always the same argument: no, this is Welles!"