Richard Linklater captures a young genius before his movie stardom in Me and Orson Welles.
Orson Welles’s revolutionary 1937 stage adaptation of Julius Caesar famously relocated Shakespeare’s play to a fascist context. Of course, while it was in rehearsals, no one would have known how influential the production would become.
Enter director Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles. Adapted from a novel by Robert Kaplow, the film views the playmaking process through the eyes of a fictitious bit player, Richard (Zac Efron), who has brushes with love (with Claire Danes) and genius (in the form of Welles, played by uncanny newcomer Christian McKay) as the show comes together. The way Linklater sees it, the movie shouldn’t be seen as just Richard’s coming-of-age story. “I also consider it a Welles coming-of-age movie, because he’s only 22,” the director explains. “This is his first Mercury Theatre production. Although he’s had plenty of success already at his young age, he really is still discovering who he is, who he’s going to be, who he wants to be.”
The Welles brand may be as much a hindrance as a help. When the film premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, a colleague speculated that distributors wouldn’t touch it because of the “curse of Orson Welles.” (The filmmaking polymath had more than his share of butchered Hollywood projects.)
It will have been almost 15 months between the Toronto world premiere and the day Me and Orson Welles finally sees theaters, but Linklater says the delay had less to do with skittishness surrounding the Welles mystique than the fact that the film wasn’t quite completed when it first played. At Toronto, it was projected digitally without a final sound mix, so between finishing the movie and getting it picked up for distribution, “it might have taken that year anyway,” Linklater says. Plus, he adds, “[Any Welles] curse probably just existed during his lifetime—I think Orson only grows with each generation.”
Let’s hope that’s true, because Me and Orson Welles is a grand backstage crowd-pleaser that, as Linklater suggested when he introduced the first Toronto screening, celebrates the joy of theater. It’s also, more subtly, a movie about hindsight and regret.
“A lot of those guys who worked with Welles then—I think as even Norman Lloyd [who played Cinna the poet in Welles’s production] said—didn’t totally appreciate that at the time,” Linklater says. “[He assumed] there [would] always be a guy like Orson Welles [to work for]…. At 23, he didn’t really appreciate what was happening right in front of him.”
A major part of the challenge, of course, was casting a convincing Welles, and Linklater found one in McKay, a British actor who’d starred in his own one-man Welles show. “The magic of Christian was that he’s an unknown,” Linklater says. “You’re not going, ‘Leonardo DiCaprio’s doing a pretty good Welles.’?”
The Welles of 1937 was Welles before Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight—and even before his landmark radio-play version of War of the Worlds. “There might be [a possibility for] another movie about Welles’s [previous] time at the Gate Theatre in Dublin or something, but this seems to be the earliest depiction of him,” Linklater says. “We all know what comes soon after and much later, and everyone has their own theories, opinions and all that, but it was just kind of fun to deal with young Mr. Welles.”
The focus on the collaborative process of Welles’s early years returns Linklater to the theme of one of his most popular films. “In School of Rock, I wanted to show how fun it might look to be in a band,” Linklater says. “What I liked in both these movies is that it was really about the process—being part of an artistic troupe…. That’s what films are. They’re constantly in the state of becoming until the very end.”
Me and Orson Welles is scheduled to open in December.