At first glance, you'd expect Richard Linklater to be a not-so-entertaining interviewee as it's the day after the London premiere of his latest film >Me & Orson Welles and he is understandably knackered. Tired or not, he immediately springs into action when introduced and happily waxes lyrical about the ridiculously large range of cookies and cakes on offer.
Linklater made a name for himself as part of Gen X and the independent cinema movement of the ’90s with cult classics such as Slacker, Dazed & Confused and Waking Life and quickly made a successful and popular move to the mainstream with favourites like School of Rock.
Me & Orson Welles is a coming of age drama which documents a week in the life of young Richard (Zac Efron) and how he fell into the Broadway production of Julius Caesar. After stumbling into the part he has to deal with the formidable presence of a young Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and an unexpected love interest with his assistant Sonja (Claire Danes). He sat down with LWLies to chat about the film, the Zac contingent and shooting in the glamorous location of the Isle of Man.
LWLies: How are you? How was the premiere?
Linklater: Pretty crazy, there were all these girls who turned up.
LWLies: The Zac Attack.
Linklater: Yeah, the Zac contingent. It’s always amusing for those of us in and around the production to encounter that; it's part of Zac’s life but for the rest of us... If you’re too young to have missed The Beatles it’s kind of fun to hear that squeal, you just don’t get that in life. I worry for him though. Personally it must really be a drag but he’s so nice about it, he’s really a good guy, he does everything and signs autographs. I saw him do that constantly.
LWLies: Was there a lot of that on set as well?
Linklater: Yeah, at the end of the day, he would go and give some time to all these young girls.
LWLies: He seems to handle it a bit better than Robert Pattinson who just looks like he wants to run away.
Linklater: Yeah, he seems a little more tortured but you know, it’s a personality thing. But Zac, I don’t know, I don’t know Rob but how many human psyches could incorporate that into your life?
LWLies: So, how did you come across the book?
Linklater: It’s a wonderful historical fiction. What I mean by that is, the history is very historical and is very accurate, that’s in the book. It was very well researched, everything about it really happened, the dates, the play, Tallulah Banquet did have Cleopatra that opened two days before and was a big bomb. All the people, everything about it and there was a teenager in it who played Zac’s part. He was a little younger, this is where the fictional part comes in, he was 15 instead of 17 and he didn’t really get fired at the end. There’s no documentation of the love triangle at the end with Orson, that’s kind of the imaginative element, I loved all that, I mean what is history anyway? But everything to do with the play is pretty exact, we re-created that to the absolute best of our abilities, the whole thing, that was a lot of fun, I liked the notion that the film doesn’t say based on a true story, we knew we weren’t gonna play that card but for those who know Broadway history or Orson’s history, they’ll think it’s really dead on, it is.
LWLies: Usually when someone wants to adapt a book it takes some years to get it to the screen. How did you find that process?
Linklater: Relatively speaking it was pretty quick. Vince and Holly Palmo gave me the book and they ended up doing the adaptation, I optioned the book with my own money. I’ve kind of learned over the years that if something’s a little off you might as well try and do it yourself as far as you can. I didn’t take it to the industry for a while, at least until I already had a cast and everything. It was still a difficult film to get off the ground but that was still three and half or four years ago maybe, so it wasn’t like a decade or something.
LWLies: So was it just the overall story or Orson in particular that you wanted to make?
Linklater: Oh, all of it. I love that it depicts this period in Orson’s life, a more obscure moment. He’s 22 and people don’t know that much about these years, his theatre history, I guess, and it’s really phenomenal what he was accomplishing in these years. But I think on a personal level I wanted to make a backstage story about a group of people putting on a show. That resonates with me; that’s what films do, that’s what plays do and that’s what I’ve spent my adult life doing, working with actors and doing this so that really resonated. And I love the spirit and the humour of it, I thought it showed the bravery and the daring actors and what that’s like. I always call it my valentine to actors and to putting on a show.
LWLies: As well as Zac a lot of people are talking about Christian…
Linklater: It’s an ensemble movie, I’m so proud of everyone, there’s so many wonderful performances I feel throughout the movie. But, yeah, you would want... Orson, he wouldn’t want it any other way that you come out talking about it. Here’s a guy who would show up in one or two scenes of a movie and that’s who you talk about, you know in The Third Man, in Moby Dick even he’s in one scene and you go 'Woah!' He’s a big actor and he was a big human presence when he was alive, everything he did was big.
LWLies: What do you think it was about him where he could be in one scene and still be noticed?
Linklater: I think it’s a quality that makes people run into me all over the world and tell me that they saw him in a restaurant, in a hotel lobby, in an elevator. His every movement was documented, is remembered, his comings and goings all over the world. I think he was one of those guys who just felt like he was everywhere but again a big personality, that voice and he was aware of his own power as an actor first and foremost. There’s a lot of personalities in the world, it’s obviously rare that someone so talented and genius, you think of genius it usually comes down to a writer alone or a painter in there studio or a musician writing their music alone but for someone in such an extroverted medium, the showman, Welles was like that. He had to wow you, he was put on earth to amaze and he did it, in your ears, your eyes, in whatever way, radio, film, theatre, I mean all these lighting techniques and stuff that we duplicate, those big lights during the assassination that wake the audience up, he had a real knack, just a natural showman. A magician, whatever he wanted to entertain you. In fact, he would feel hurt if he spent three hours in his presence and you weren’t amazed with him, if he felt you didn’t leave thinking “What an amazing guy!”, he probably would’ve felt that he didn’t do his job.
LWLies: Watching the film you’re kind of in two minds, I don’t know if you know of this quote that Rita Hayworth gave when they got divorced, she said she couldn’t live with his genius anymore. In the film he’s not a particularly nice person but is still very witty and funny.
Linklater: Oh yeah it’s draining. We all know people who I put into this category to varying degrees, there’s a generous genius and a kind of wilful genius, and I think Welles was in that category. There’s only so much genius to go around a room, and when he’s the genius I think if you were to co-exist with him and to get whatever benefit from him, you have to find your little place in that and accept your role. But some people did it great: Joseph Cotten was his friend for life and was in a lot of his films. You had to find your place, and what’s kind of interesting to me with Zac’s character’s coming of age is, he doesn’t quite know that yet – that’s his lesson from the adult world. Everyone isn’t equal, like he say,s it’s his story and everyone is giving young Richard advice, just tell him any kind of crap he wants to hear, don’t criticise him, he lets his own passions and sense of integrity get the best of him and it’s kind of a slap down from the adult world. If you’re ever gonna fit in someone’s system, a company or anywhere where there’s gonna be a hierarchy, you can’t really go tow to toe with the boss. It’s hard to win that one no matter what, whether it’s over a girl or artistic differences. Everything about youth is about enforced democratisation, schools and families have a way of doing that, it’s a very forced, level playing field. But once you’re out of these strictures and you’re in the real world it’s more of a jungle, it’s just more interesting when it’s art and creative.
LWLies: With Orson being such a huge person and character that everyone knows, how did you find Christian? I know he played him on the stage.
Linklater: This is like his first film. I got lucky that right at the moment I started to cast and wonder if there is anyone who can play Welles I got a little email from Robert Kaplow saying to check out this guy in New York who’s doing this one man show of 13 performances in this little 50 seat theatre, so I thought I had to check it out. Even though that play is later Orson, you know fat suits and old Orson and it didn’t represent early Orson, but I was very intrigued. It was just a process of getting to know him, I flew him to Austin where I live and we did an old fashioned screen test, we worked together for a day, rehearsed, did three scenes from the movie just to get a feel for the guy he was and what we were doing. I was convinced, we had our Orson and I thought it could be magical. I like that he’s an unknown, it’s that big a part where it would benefit greatly from it being an unknown. Welles is so iconic if you had any actor, a known actor, you would never turn off the critic in your head. Some biopics can do that, but even as you’re watching Ray you’re think Jamie Foxx is really good, not matter how good the performance you are aware of the performance. I like the magic where you don’t know who it is like Ghandi or something, when that came out no-one knew who Ben Kingsley was they just thought he was Ghandi and I’m sure Peter O’Toole felt that way about Laurence of Arabia. When you’re seeing an unknown actor for the for the first time it’s great in a historical context because now, even though he didn’t look anything like him, Pewter O’Toole is Laurence and Christian really gives it hell. He has the psychical resemblance but it’s still a huge transformation because he has to turn that on. He’s big and he’s got a big presence it’s very Welles-ian and he can dial in on Welles, he can do the look and the eyebrow but that’s just the surface and what makes it work is that he brought himself to it. He is the kid who was told he was a genius his whole life because he was; this world-class concert pianist who toured, a very gifted, very brilliant guy and big, great storyteller and similar quality to Welles in a lot of ways, a very Welles-ian guy. So, it’s been fun to have a front row seat to his performance and he’s worked extremely hard, it was a lot of work.
LWLies: You seem to like working with unknown actors as a lot of your films have had star-making performances in it.
Linklater: It can work sometimes it depends on the role and what you want. There is the good ole fashioned star vehicle and there’s just a part that’s so well done that it should be a big star and it helps if it’s Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt but something like this where you’re really asking the audience to suspend disbelief and go back in time in history I think it just benefits in that way. It doesn’t make the film easier to get financed but you know.
LWLies: It’s probably the opposite problem for Zac because everyone knows him from the Disney films and although I’ve never met him he seems really intent on having a proper career and becoming a good actor as opposed to riding the coattails of HSM.
Linklater: Yeah, well Zac’s different because he wasn’t just a cute kid who got cast he really has a career in theatre. This film really resonated with him because of all the shows he did as a young person, he was in some tours and he’s a real song and dance man, a kind of throwback he’s almost from another era. But he has this real leading man quality which is what I liked, someone who could stand up to Welles and within the film be a rival. It couldn’t be a dorky young guy. Zac has that in a different way to Christian obviously but he’s a real leading man with all that charisma and the camera loves him. He’s smart and he’s gonna have a big career and the way Orson underestimates him in the movie and doesn’t expect him to be that crafty and it’s the same with Zac, if you underestimate Zac you’ll realise he’s actually a couple steps ahead of you. He’s a poker player, he’ll take your money.
LWLies: Have you actually played him?
Linklater: No, I knew better because I heard he was taking the crew’s money, a couple of them fancied themselves as good poker players and Zac was in there.
LWLies: How did you go about re-creating the time? It takes some creativity to make the Isle of Man look like New York.
Linklater: Yeah, we did all the interiors in the Isle of Man, they had this beautiful theatre that’s about the same age as The Mercury, was built around the same time, so that was the stage which was half the movie. For everything else, re-creating West 41st Street and the New York of the time we did at Pinewood Studios on a little stretch of dirt on the backlot. The whole thing is kind of a visual trick and it was very clear we couldn’t use the New York of now as 1937 is so far gone, if you were to go to that street, there’s no way. So it was always gonna be re-created and it just worked out nicely that it was here. But that’s the magic of cinema.