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Me And Orson Welles

Dazed catch up with Richard Linklater to talk Orson Welles, Zac Efron and long afternoons with Jools Holland.

Since creating the landmark Generation X movie Slacker, Richard Linklater has become the voice of a generation via cult films such as Dazed & ConfusedBefore SunriseWaking Life and Fast Food Nation. His latest feature is then somewhat out of character, delving into the magical world of 1930s New York Theatre.

Me & Orson Welles stars Claire Danes, Zac Efron, Christian McKay and Eddie Marsan in the story of a cheeky teen who blags a part in the legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, directed by a then unknown Orson Welles (McKay). In just one week Richard (Efron) grows up fast, making his Broadway debut and seducing a wicked older woman (Danes) in a narrative that explores the chaos, ego and creativity behind theatrical art.

Dazed caught up with Linklater to discuss Orson Welles, Zac Efron and what Jools Holland gets up to in his living room…

Dazed Digital: What inspired you to tell this story?
Richard Linklater: It all started with Robert Kaplow’s novel, which was both very charming, and historically very accurate. I just thought it was a great chance to go back and visit a young Orson Welles, because this period in his life is not so well known in his life’s work. There’s not a lot of documentation of his theatre life. There’s still a lot of radio work available, and all the films of course, but the theatre just exists in memory, so it was wonderful to be able to recreate that.

DD: This is completely different to anything you’ve done before...
Richard Linklater: Yeah, I guess… It’s not a backstage musical exactly, but putting on a show always makes a good story, and then there’s coming-of-age stories within that. Everybody’s young and they’re all figuring out who they’re going to be, and there’s so much youthful ambition in the air. For me it’s just another film about young people! 

DD: So for your loyal fan base out there, where would we find your thumbprint in Me And Orson Welles?
Richard Linklater: It was just another story that I got obsessed with, and I’m just trying to tell stories in the only way I know how, or in the way I think will work. To me this is very much about actors, and about a big ensemble of actors. I’ve certainly done ensemble films before, but it was fun to do an ensemble film about acting itself. This is very self-referential in a way, very inside, in my world. Even though on the surface a 1937 play feels pretty far away, to me, making a film about putting on a play, and creating art in collaboration with others, that’s very close to me. It’s very telling how hierarchies emerge in this medium, and all the egos and all the different points of view. It’s fun, and it’s how anything gets made… When you’re making any product there are egos and points of view. It’s just when it’s the arts that’s being created, people develop this fascination with it.

DD: So as a character piece about actors, could you talk a little bit about how you cast this movie? Christian McKay was an unknown actor, but his performance as Welles really stole the show
Richard Linklater: It was incredible to have a front row seat at that transformation! I don’t take any credit for it! Christian is kind of an amazing person, and the key to that performance was Christian putting all of himself into it. Because Christian himself is this Wellesian character, in real life he’s this world-class concert pianist who’s travelled the world and been told he was a brilliant musical genius from a young age. So, he had that air about him, but he’s also a great storyteller and he wants you to be entertained. The reason it was fascinating to watch him inhabit Welles is because he is Welles – it was just incredible!

DD: Was it a big risk for you to take on an unknown actor in the title role?
Richard Linklater: Selfishly, I just want to get the right person in there, because the prize my eyes are on is just making the best movie possible. Christian was clearly the best Orson Welles, and I think it is actually quite magical that people don’t know him, because then it is possible that people will be pulled into the movie and really feel like they’re hanging out with Orson Welles.

DD: And you could counterbalance that with the rest of the cast, notably Zac Efron…
Richard Linklater: Right, then the next biggest part was of the young man, because we see everything through his eyes. On the one hand you’ve got Christian, and then on the other hand you need a teenager to go toe-to-toe with him and beat him at his own game for a second, because that character could have disappeared – he could have been wallpaper next to Welles, who was one of the biggest personalities of the 20th century. Zac had this leading man charisma, and he’s a real force. He’s a different body type, and a different persona altogether. In the story Orson underestimates him, then he realises that this kid is a step ahead. Well, that’s like Zac. If you ever underestimate him, you’ll realise he’s actually two steps ahead of you too.

DD: Zac’s presence certainly raised a few eyebrows…
Richard Linklater: I’m really excited to see people who really think they know him but have underestimated him. It’s so funny how people judge young actors. Because Zac had that early success, in what he had early success in, it has become a penalty and he’s had to start from way back in his own territory, and that’s just your good and your bad luck in this world.

DD: The subject here is presented as entertainment rather than an intellectually challenge… it’s a lot lighter than the likes of A Scanner Darkly or Fast Food Nation...
Richard Linklater: Well, when you’re making a film it reflects what your brain is full of at that time, and each time it’s just a different part of your brain and a different part of your interests. Look at the variety of books you read, and just look at the variety of things you’re interested in! 

DD: Congratulations on the soundtrack! I heard it was hand-picked entirely by you?
Richard Linklater: Thank, a lot of it is from my own library, but we worked with some really great people. I mean, working with Jools Holland (musical re-arranger)… what a joy! We were building up to the scene where we were going to do a live performance, and I was just sitting in Jools’s living room while he played piano, going through songs. Listening to him was just was amazing. If you asked me where I had the most fun I had on this whole movie I think that would be it right there! 

Me and Orson Welles is released nationwide Friday December 4