Me and Orson Welles: Recreating 1937 New York

Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," starring Zac Efron and Christian McKay, surrounds a teenager who is cast by young Orson Welles in a 1937 play. The film is being released November 25 by Freestyle Releasing.

According to producer Marc Samuelson, “one of the issues that you face is that it’s very hard to shoot 1937 New York in New York, so you’re not shooting it in the actual place. New York has changed so completely that everything in the background is wrong, everything in the foreground is wrong, the people all look wrong, every building’s been changed.  It’s enormously difficult.  So you then end up shooting New York in some other North American city which looks vaguely like it did in 1937. By the time you’ve done all of that, you may as well have shot it anywhere.”  

As an independent feature, ME AND ORSON WELLES needed to make creative use of every penny of its limited budget and found a solution in basing the production in London, where a combination of Pinewood Studios and some imaginatively chosen locations brought New York to life. And thanks to some visual trickery, the imposing scale and distinctive architecture of the bustling city has been vibrantly recreated on a comparative shoestring.

“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.”

Dorman’s visit inspired his design of the street set on Pinewood’s Orchard Lot: “It was worth every second actually, because we were able to visit the site of the theatre and I was able to get the geography of 41st Street into my mind, with Bryant Park and all the things that are mentioned in the script.  And even though 41st Street was completely different to how it would have been in those days, I was able to just wander around the neighbourhood and take pictures all over midtown and all the way down to 22nd Street. I was picking out all of the old stuff, the architecture that I imagined would have been there at the time and turning it into our little composite street.  I’ve taken a selection of buildings based on my photographs and put them together to suit my purposes.

“For the exterior of the Mercury Theatre we found a single photograph taken in the early 1900s when the building, then the Comedy Theatre, was putting on its first production.  We took a little bit of licence here and there, but it’s great to see that original picture and then to be able to look at our street – it’s quite thrilling to do something like that.”

Crucial to the success of the enterprise was finding a theatre that could play the interior of the Mercury itself.  By a stroke of good fortune, CinemaNX, the production company, is based in the Isle of Man and there, in the capital, Douglas, is the magnificently restored Gaiety Theatre, an almost exact contemporary of the Mercury.  “I don’t think we would have been able to make the film if we hadn’t been able to shoot it there,” says Marc Samuelson.  “It was just the most fantastic set for us.  It worked really well, looked great in the film, was just the right size – in every way it fitted the bill.”

The theatre opened originally as a large pavilion in 1893 and, following a redesign by Frank Matcham, it re-opened as an opera house and theatre in 1900.  After early success, years of neglect began to take their toll and the building was acquired by the Isle of Man Government in 1971.  A comprehensive programme of restoration was launched in 1990 and completed in 2000.  One of the last elements to be restored was the famous Corsican Trap, the only known original version of this classic stage effect. 

 “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.”

Robert Kaplow, on whose novel the film is based, is eager to see Welles’s production of “Caesar” for the first time, on screen. The original inspiration for his book was an image captured by the great photographer Cecil Beaton, showing young Arthur Anderson as Lucius with his lute, seated on stage next to Orson Welles’s Brutus – a scene which has been faithfully recreated in the film. “Part of the pleasure for me in writing the book was to imagine what it would really look like. And how would it move? Richard Linklater got the original blueprints, they still exist, for the stage, for the columns and the trap doors and the ramps and they are to perfect scale on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre.  No one has seen it since 1937.  It’s been gone and now they are rebuilding it again.  It should be exciting.”

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.

Establishing the look of the Mercury Theatre involved costume designer Nic Ede in researching the Fascist imagery of the original Caesar production.  “Thank goodness, there is a lot of visual reference, a lot of photographs and a lot of people wrote about it.  When we were on the Isle of Man, filming in the Gaiety Theatre, I looked at the way Dick Pope had lit it and the way Laurence had done the set – identical to the original – and it sent a shiver down my spine.” 

In addition to reproducing the uniforms on stage, there was the small matter of costuming the audience for Nic Ede and his team.  This required clothing some 570 extras, who also needed to be fully made up and coiffed by Fae Hammond and her assistants, for the scenes involving a full theatre.  “I love huge crowd scenes,” says Ede.  “I don’t know what it is – something rather perverse. It’s playing at make-believe and that’s always a great, great thing to do.  The joy of filming, from my point of view, is to create something that the audience will look at that they absolutely believe.  Every extra that comes into the fitting room is a bit of a challenge.  You want to make them into a character, it’s not just a body to put clothes on, it’s somebody to represent… a fishwife… or a sweetcorn seller….

“The thing that was exciting for me in this film was the fact that in the thirties, leisurewear was much more accepted in America than elsewhere. I don’t think it existed in Europe in the same way and certainly didn’t unless you were rich and were wearing beach pyjamas!  It made a change from the usual 1930s stuff I have done which is pretty upper class and extravagant, whereas this was a chance to do real people leading real lives.  It’s interesting, trying to achieve totally believable people through their clothes and their make up and hair.”

The ‘30s music for the film was selected by Linklater himself, a big fan of the music of the period and of the arrangements of maestro Jools Holland, described by the director as ‘an English national treasure’.  Another key element in recreating the sound of the era was the speaking voices of the Mercury Theatre players, which benefited from the specialist attention of distinguished Shakespearean Dramaturge Giles Block and veteran dialect coach Judith Windsor.  Block, Master of Verse and Play at London’s celebrated Globe Theatre, worked with the actors on the Shakespeare scenes during the rehearsal period, coaching and advising them on the authenticity of their verse speaking.  Judith Windsor worked on the actors’ delivery throughout the production, paying close attention to the fine details of their accents.

As an American, married to an Englishman and resident in England, Ms Windsor was particularly attuned to the challenges inherent in the script.  “You have to remember that, at that time, American standard stage English was very English. Although, were we to hear Shakespeare as spoken in Shakespeare’s time, it would sound more American than English!

“Of course, we have worked on the speaking of Shakespearean verse and the mode followed goes back to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London – it’s mentioned in the text by George Coulouris that he learned to speak Shakespeare there with Elsie Fogerty.  This tradition can be traced down to the Royal Shakespeare Company – it’s a sort of energising of the last of the line, so that the imaginative experience for the actor comes, not between the lines or the words, but on the words and as a result of the scansion. It’s a wonderful thing – it frees the actor to experience, through the text and through the pentameter, things he would never have thought of.  They speak with rapidity and clarity – I’m always delighted and constantly re-surprised at how skillful the British actors are.

“Orson Welles himself was, in terms of accent, a kind of hybrid.  He sounded English to Americans and American to English people – we listened to a great many tapes of Welles speaking, some of which were of the original Mercury production and in those you can hear that he is sometimes very English in how he pronounces things.” 






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