Writer-director Richard Linklater made a name for himself among cinephiles and the Hollywood elite back in 1991 with his indie hit Slacker. Since then he’s made an array of films including the ’70s flashback Dazed and Confused, an animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, the romance film Before Sunrise (and it’s sequel Before Sunset), and the Jack Black smash School of Rock. His latest venture, Me and Orson Welles, he describes as “a charming coming-of-age story with some dark corners.” The film, based on Robert Kaplow’s novel, is a look into a week of Welles’s 1937 production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theater in New York City. Audiences first got a glimpse of the film when it premiered in September of 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“We weren’t quite finished with it,” he explains as to why it has taken another year, and then some, to hit theatres. “It’s not uncommon when you go into a festival without a distributor. You’ve got to figure out when and where…it’s not the first time I’ve gone a year between finished film and release.”
High School Musical‘s Zac Efron stars as the ‘me’ in the film, young performer Richard Samuels. To Linklater’s chagrin some critics have questioned his decision to cast the Disney star, who has a lot of theatre experience under his belt that most people don’t know about. Linklater says that Efron wanted to do the film because it reminded him of the shows he performed when he was younger.
“He’s such a talented guy. He’s smart and a good actor,” he says of Efron. “I think you’re penalized if you’re successful young, like under 20. Everyone just hates you automatically or assumes you were on the street corner and someone picked you out because you’re a good looking kid.”
Casting Welles was a much different struggle.
“We were thinking of every known actor and wondering, ‘Could they do it? Do they have the right facial structure? Can they do Shakespeare? Could they play Brutus [Welles’s part in Julius Caesar]? Would you believe them?’ and kept coming up with zeros,” he says.
Linklater and his team decided to look for a British actor working in Shakespeare to see if they could find someone that would fit the part. They found Christian McKay, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who also had an uncanny resemblance to Welles.
“It was like a gift from the film gods,” he says. “It was just a wonderful occurrence that he emerges at the right moment when we’re looking for an Orson for this movie. It seemed kind of magical…meant to be.”
Most reviews of Me and Orson Welles mention the mighty Oscar, especially when speaking about McKay’s portrayal of Welles. When asked if the buzz affects Linklater, who was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for Before Sunset in 2004, he says it makes him “anxious,” adding that he strongly believes McKay deserves a nomination.
“This isn’t a thing many actors could pull off. I think [other] actors appreciate that in the big scheme of things,” he says.
With Hollywood cashing in on familiar properties over the last decade Linklater believes his early work, like Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, would never have a chance at getting made or distributed among all the sequels and remakes these days. “I’d say, ‘Good luck,'” he laughs when I ask what he would say to someone wanting to remake one of those titles.
“It’s just a bad time for [a young filmmaker] to break through. I see these wonderful movies out there that a generation ago would have been a hit at Sundance and got a distributor and made between half a million and a million and a half at the box office,” he says.
The studios have a good business plan and the only cure to breaking the cycle Linklater says is for audiences to support the smaller, independent, original films by going to the theatre to check them out.
“I tip my hat to anyone who got a film that isn’t [a remake or sequel] made,” he says of the last year of cinema. “[The studios] don’t really miss the way they used to [at the box office]. The hundred million dollar film could sink a studio, now they welcome it cause they learned how to market it. Until that changes that’s all we’re going to see.”
Linklater himself remade Bad News Bears in 2005 and is currently considering a sequel to School of Rock. “We had a meeting or two on that. Never say never but it’s not on the front burner,” he says of the possibility. He currently has four or five scripts he’s pondering and although he doesn’t plan in terms of genre he thinks it would be fun to do a full blown musical.
As for the allure of Orson Welles he says every filmmaker is a fan in some kind of way but is quick to note he’s never been obsessed with him.
“I’ve read various biographies and knew all the films very well…I stand in awe of his talent and his films.”
Me and Orson Welles opens in theatres on December 11.
Top image: Zac Efron and Christian McKay in a scene from Me and Orson Welles. Courtesy E1 Entertainment.