It’s easy to see Richard Linklater – director of Slackerand School of Rock– as a film-making descendent of Orson Welles, the original indie director. Linklater tells DONALD CLARKEabout Orson’s enduring appeal, why he has just made a film about him, and Zac Efron’s serious side
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, Slackerand 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 Kanein 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 Wellesreturns 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 a modest 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.”
Though largely filmed in, of all places, the Isle of Man, Me and Orson Wellesdoes 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 Musicalfilms, 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 Musicalwent 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 occurred to me I needed somebody with real presence or he might disappear when set beside Christian’s Orson.”
Christian McKay later tells me that, while shooting in the Isle of Man, he and Efron were chased into a tea shop by screeching Efronites. In what sounds like a scene from Shaun of the Dead, Christian and Zac huddled behind the cream horns while a hundred teenage girls bellowed outside. Such conspicuous adulation must have caused problems on set.
“I don’t think it was ever a problem on the actual set,” Linklater says. “I felt sorry for him. He would leave the set and walk out into this hysterical squealing. It really was like The Beatles. It is to Zac’s credit that he has reacted well. He doesn’t like it too much and he doesn’t dislike it too much. Some actors overdo the negative reaction. Others soak it up more than they should. I think, like DiCaprio, he’ll move on to do good work.”
Whereas Me and Orson Wellesseems like a slightly off-beam choice for Efron, the picture – though financed independently and with some difficulty – seems like one of Linklater’s more conventional projects. When the director emerged in 1991 with the staggeringly inexpensive, hugely influential Slacker, pundits wondered which way he would lunge next. Would he remain an independent voice or would he allow himself to be inveigled into mainstream projects? As it happens, despite a few mishaps, Linklater has found a way to intersperse eccentric, loose-limbed productions such as the Before Sunsetand Before Sunrisewith more commercial films such as the raucous, much loved School of Rock.
“I like everyone in the movie industry,” he smiles. “Because they like movies. They really do. When I have a film that fits then we all feel very lucky. School of Rockwas fun and felt every bit as much my movie as the others. But you are aware of the crass pressures those guys are under. Look, they can’t say no to Transformers 3.”
Nonetheless, the independent spirit of Austin – Texas’s alternative heartland – continues to surge through Linklater’s synapses. He still lives in the city and celebrates a town where “you can meet really cool people stacking groceries”. I guess that guy could have been Richard. After working on oil rigs, forming the Austin film society and knocking together a largely unseen Super-8 project called (deep breath) It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, he made it to 28 before breaking through – and naming a generation – with the influential Slacker. Another year or two in the wilderness and he might have given up.
“I guess I always felt that the early stuff might fail. You don’t know,” he says. “I’m still a bit that way with every film. I still feel I might fail. There’s a parallel universe somewhere where the film didn’t work and I am doing something else entirely.”
Hmm? Self-doubt? Awareness that we all have feet of clay? Now, there’s something Rick doesn’t have in common with Orson Welles.
Me and Orson Wellesopens on Friday, December 4th