Toronto: Richard Linklater premieres 'Me and Orson Welles'
Like many of us who were too young to ever see him in his glory days, Richard Linklater's first memories of Orson Welles were of an immensely bloated man, jovially telling tall tales on the talk show circuit and dutifully touting Paul Masson wine. But when a friend passed along a Robert Kaplow novel, "Me and Orson Welles," which focused on the whirlwind events leading up to the 1937 Mercury Theatre Company production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Linklater--by then a devotee of Welles' film career--jumped at the idea to bring the book to the screen.
The resulting film, "Me and Orson Welles," has its first screening tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival. And having been given a sneak peek last night, I'm here to say that it's a blast. Full of wonderful historical detail, it captures Welles at the height of his youthful incandescence, both as a brilliant theater director and as a hilariously imperious and mercurial showman. A year before his "War of the Worlds" radio play shocked the nation, four years before "Citizen Kane" transformed modern-day cinema, Welles is already an epic presence, riding around New York City in a rented ambulance, siren blaring, so he can make a speedier commute between his radio work and stage rehearsals. When he heads up to the radio booth, he tells a young admirer: "Come on up with me. You can learn everything you need to know about radio in an hour."
Played by the young British actor Christian McKay, Welles is both arrogant and completely magnetic, knowing when to flatter, when to cajole and when to humiliate. The story takes the form of a cautionary tale, involving an aspiring young actor (played by Zac Efron of "High School Musical") who lands a bit part in the Mercury production, giving him an up-close view of all the madcap energy and tribulations of a Welles production. He also gets the opportunity to fall for Welles' production assistant, played by Claire Danes, who turns out be nearly as ambitious as Welles in her own way. Danes informs the young actor that he may have a part, but money will not be changing hands. "You're not getting paid," she says. "You're getting the opportunity of being sprayed by Orson Welles' spit."
The picture is looking for distribution up in Toronto. Even in today's conservative buying environment, I can't imagine someone wouldn't want a film that has such winning performances and offers you a front-row seat at one of the great moments in American theater. I just got off the phone with Linklater, who gave us his first real interview about the film. He talks about the unusual entity that financed the film, his favorite Welles movies and the nature of ambition in show business. (He also gave us a great little exclusive clip from the picture.) Here are a few highlights:
On how he found Christian McKay: "He was the key. I optioned the book and self-financed things until I could find my Orson. We started with a list of the usual bankable American actors who could do it--because how else are you going to get financing--but I always figured that our Orson would be a British actor, somewhere on stage in London. It turned out the movie gods were with us. Robert Kaplow, who wrote the book, e-mailed me about a guy performing in a little 250-seat theater in New York who was doing a play called 'Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles.' And there was Christian, who'd been recruited to do the play because he did bear a resemblance to Welles, even though if you asked him, being British, he'd probably rather do a play about Richard Burton or Winston Churchill. He was great. To make sure, I flew him to Austin and we did a little screen test, just to get the vibe, but I knew right away he was our guy."
On how he got the money to make the film: "Even after I'd gotten Zac, who was hot from 'High School Musical' and 'Hairspray,' no one wanted to fund the picture. That's just the way the business is today. It's a period piece and people don't want to spend their money backing something like that. But I went to visit the Isle of Man off in the north Irish sea and it turned out they had a film fund and had backed some other films ['Miss Potter' and 'On a Clear Day'']. Even better, they had a great old theater that we could shoot in, which would've been impossibly expensive to do in New York. So we did a 50-day shoot, there and in London, for a budget in the low $20-million range."
Knowing what he now knows about Welles, would he have wanted to work with him? "I don't know. Someone with such a willful kind of genius and a bigger-than-life personality is probably best seen at a little bit of a distance. I know we have people who are big personalities today, but no one like Welles. He's a once-a-century kind of a guy. Imagine one man conquering theater, radio and film, all by the time he was 25. That's pretty breathtaking."
On artistic ambition in Hollywood: "It's a necessity. To suffer all the rejection and slings and arrows, you have to want something really badly, because there are plenty of other people who all want the same thing. The only difference is that some people are just better at hiding their ambition than others. But you owe it to your talent to be ambitious, which is just as true in sports as in entertainment. If you think about it, the idea of ambition is a big theme in Welles' work. He saw it in himself and he saw it in his characters. It's surely what Orson is asking in 'Citizen Kane.' What's driving Charlie Kane? Is it selfishness? Ambition? Hubris? Or a desire for greatness? That's the great enigma of the movie--what's behind his enormous drive? I hope we captured a little bit of that in this movie too."
Here's a clip from "Me and Orson Welles" to watch:
Photo of Christian McKay in "Me and Orson Welles."