Richard Linklater and Christian McKay talk about their new film, ME AND ORSON WELLES opening in 44 cities across America on December 11
Frank Lloyd Wright said architecture was the cathedral of the arts. I think the cinema is.
Richard Linklater's new movie Me and Orson Welles will open in 44 cities across America on December 11 and for anyone interested in the arts, it should be a sheer delight. As Nicholas Ray notes, the film combines poetry (John Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn), theatre (Julius Caesar), photography, music, literature, fine art, and of course the cinema.
Perhaps what is even more important is that it is easily the most important film to have been made about Orson Welles work as an artist since he died in 1985. As such, it can have an enormous effect on future Welles projects, such as finishing The Other Side of the Wind, if it should meet with even a modest commercial success.
Which is why I would urge anyone reading this to try and go and see the movie this weekend if you possibly can. If Me and Orson Welles becomes an art house hit, it can only help to open up the logjam of Welles projects and material that has yet to see the light of day!
A listing of the cities and theatres where Me and Orson Welles will be opening this weekend appears after part one of my interview with Christian McKay and Richard Linklater.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You first played Orson Welles in 1994 in your one-man play, Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, which I understand was written with you in mind.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: It was actually written with me! What happened was we were looking for a one-man show to do and (director) Josh Richards suggested Orson Welles, but I didn’t want to play Welles because I thought they were having a go at my weight. While I was at RADA somebody said I looked like Orson Welles in The Third Man, but I was ignorant of the earlier Orson Welles at the beginning, being someone from my generation who only knew him as this gargantuan 350 lb. man, “that ton of humus” as Falstaff says. I had only remembered him from his Sherry adverts and his appearances on Michael Parkinson. Then, because I thought they were having a go at my weight, I didn’t want to play him. So I was suggesting we do Peter Sellers or Winston Churchill, Churchill being my favorite, my great hero, but I had never played a real life person before, I had always played fiction, so I thought it was an intriguing idea to do a one-man show and felt it would be a good theatrical lesson to learn. But it kept coming back to Orson and so I started reading about him and then of course, you get obsessed, don’t you?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, that can happen quite easily.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I needed to know everything about him and at some point I found Wellesnet which was a great aid to me in the research I was doing and that I continued to do while I was doing the play and of course, when I did the film. There is one thing I won’t read though. I notice on your discussion page there is something about Me and Orson Welles. That is the only thing I won’t look at, although I’m very tempted, but it’s the only thing I can’t read on Wellesnet.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course there’s a real danger of becoming too identified with Orson Welles, although I think it would be wonderful if you could play Welles again one more time in the screenplay Welles wrote about all the incredible events surrounding the staging of The Cradle Will Rock.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Yes, but I don’t want to play him again, although I do have a very lucrative offer to do Rosebud. Rick and I have dreamed about re-visiting Welles again in about 20 years, as a bookend. We’ve talked about that and I really owe Rick so much, because it would have been so much easier for him to have just found a famous Hollywood actor and he could have made the film in America. The producers kept saying to him “get rid of the unknown limey! Who the hell is this guy” Richard just kept saying, “no, this is my Orson Welles.” They were even talking about doing a comedy skit, for publicity purposes and I said, “No, I can’t play Orson, no way.” It’s all right for Orson to do Dean Martin, but I couldn’t play him on Dean Martin, no way. It’s extraordinary because somebody asked me how he thought I would have gotten on with Orson and I said, “We wouldn’t have gotten on.” I really assert that. We wouldn’t have got on. I loved playing him and I feel very close to him, and I feel very protective of him. I’m not an apologist for him, but I will stick up for him.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Richard, you worked with Vincent D’Onofrio on The Newton Boys, and Christian says he suggested several Hollywood actors to play the part when you first met, although he wouldn’t say who they were. Did you ever consider Vincent D’Onofrio to play Orson Welles?
RICHARD LINKLATER: No, because although I know Vince, that scene he did in Ed Wood convinced me all the more to go with an unknown actor. Look at how you see the one scene Vince did in Ed Wood. You are saying, “Vince is looking kind of like Welles, but he’s not quite like him,” so your critical antennae is going up, because you are judging the performance and you are not really experiencing the performance. So I thought the magic of the cinema could only take place if we used an unknown actor to play Welles. I felt it would happen more naturally if we went with somebody who was unknown. I thought you might more readily think you were hanging out with Orson Welles in 1937.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Had you seen Ed Wood when you cast Vincent D’Onofrio in The Newton Boys?
RICHARD LINKLATER: Yes, and I talked to Vince about it at the time, because Ed Wood had come out a few years before. I told him I liked it and I thought it was a charming scene, but it’s only one scene in the movie.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I loved the scene, but technically, what is wrong with it is that it shows us an Orson Welles when he’s in his twenties and in Ed Wood Welles should be in his forties, like he looked while he was directing and acting in Touch of Evil.
RICHARD LINKLATER: Yeah, it was done more as Vincent’s age at the time, which I guess was in his early thirties or something. So he really should have been a little bit older.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: And didn’t somebody else do the voice?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, it was dubbed in by Maurice LeMarche.
RICHARD LINKLATER: But Vince never copped to that. He was sort of proud about that one scene in the movie, and you maybe wondered if it was Welles or is it not Orson Welles?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Did you know his voice was being dubbed?
RICHARD LINKLATER: No, because he never talked about it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Later on, Vincent D’Onofrio appeared and directed the short film Five Minutes Mr. Welles, which was about Welles on the set of The Third Man.
RICHARD LINKLATER: Which I haven’t seen, but Vince was older by that time, because it was pretty recent.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, and Vincent D’Onofrio used his own voice. I thought it was a marvelous short piece on Welles. Did you see it, Christian?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Yes, I did.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The theatre critic for The Toronto Star, Richard Ouzounian, talked to Simon Callow and to you, Christian about Orson Welles, and he began his article with a typical bit of mis-information about Welles career.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Oh my God, what have I said!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Nothing bad, but this theatre critic had no idea what he was talking about! His article begins this way:
Although he lived for 70 years, the greatest work of his career, "Citizen Kane," was released when he was 26 and most of his final decades were spent scrambling for the capital to make heartbreakingly flawed movies like "Chimes at Midnight."
How come an artist who died in poverty and near-obscurity 24 years ago – who ended his days narrating commercials for frozen peas, or portraying the planet-devouring robot Unicron in 1986's original Transformers movie – can be named "Greatest Film Director of All Time" by the British Institute and have such a powerful draw on the creative imaginations of so many people?
Unfortunately, he then goes on to quote Simon Callow and yourself, suggesting by implication, that you agree with his rather ludicrous opinions about Orson Welles, although that is clearly not the case.
RICHARD LINKLATER: Well, everyone likes to chip away at Welles and they try to bring him down off his pedestal. They try to reduce him to less than what people think, but it’s kind of impossible, because look at what he accomplished and look at what he left us.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Yes, and how do you define failure? If you look at the back of This is Orson Welles at the chronology of work he did that was put together by Jonathan Rosenbaum, it’s staggering. Then the night before Welles died of a heart attack he was typing out his next day’s shooting schedule. That is not a failure! That is a man of obstinate integrity.
RICHARD LINKLATER: People can say that because Welles is like this reflective mirror. You can project whatever you want on to him. It really says a lot about yourself and how you view the world.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I love that fact about his character. But one of the great things when Richard gave me this opportunity, was we found out that we both agreed about Welles. I agreed with how Richard wanted to portray Welles, which was a marvelous first step.
RICHARD LINKLATER: There was already the book and the screenplay, but it was always a work in progress. We spent months sitting in hotel rooms going through the script and talking about it.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I remember saying and then being quite shocked at my precocity. I said, “He wouldn’t say that.” Then I thought, “You don’t say that to a director.” Then Richard said, “all right, well how would he put it?”
RICHARD LINKLATER: I take that very seriously, anytime an actor says that, because what does an actor have to do to have a successful performance? They have to feel they are the character. So just because he’s playing Orson Welles makes no difference. Let's remove that. If an actor, no matter who they are playing thinks, “I wouldn’t say it like that,” I say “really? Why not?” I think that’s an interesting topic, so lets talk about it, why wouldn’t you say that? For this performance to work, it was the same thing. Christian had to bring himself to the role, so if he had a strong feeling we would examine it. Fortunately, Christian knew as much about Welles as was humanly possible, so whenever he had a strong opinion about something I trusted his instinct incredibly. We spent so much time just talking about the role, and that’s what our work process was like. Going over every line and every idea.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: And Richard talked with me about things I was very uncomfortable with. There is a slight overtone in the book about (lighting designer) Sam Leve wanting credit, which over the years has become more and more pronounced and I said, “absolutely not!” because Welles was the boss. You wouldn’t go up to a CEO of a company and turn around and say, “I want my credit” in front of his entire boardroom! You’d get thrown out of the window. So of course Orson was entirely justified in doing that.
I am Orson Welles! And every single one of you stands here as an adjunct to my vision. You want a career in the Mercury Theatre and in everything else I plan to do, then remember one simple rule: I own the store. You don’t like the way I work here? There’s the door. Find somebody else to star you on Broadway.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Then, a little 12-year old girl came up to me and said, “You were very nasty to my hero,” meaning Zac. I said, “but I tell him on the park bench, just give me tonight and after tonight you can do whatever you want. But she wasn’t convinced!
RICHARD LINKLATER: No, you had still hurt her hero.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I said, “I'm sorry, but I do tell him.” (laughter.)
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The park bench scene is rather important because you go into the whole concept of an actor losing himself in the depths of a role, and it becomes rather like a Wellesian labyrinth, because you are an actor playing Orson Welles, who in turn is playing Brutus, so you can’t play him as Christian McKay would play Brutus, you have to play him as Orson Welles would play Brutus.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Yes, it’s a little faster than the way I would play Brutus. Of course we have the marvelous recordings Welles did of Julius Caesar, which are very voice beautiful and very much of their time, but Welles performance was absolutely groundbreaking. He was rather contemptuous of Maurice Evans and John Gielgud and the drawing room Shakespearian actors, but John Gielgud was really the greatest verse speaker in the English speaking world at that time.
ME AND ORSON WELLES
Opening December 11 at these theatres:
Camelview 5 Theater (Scottsdale)
Embarcadero Center Cinema 5 (San Francisco)
Sundance Kabuki 8 (San Francisco)
Claremont 5 (Oakland/Berkeley)
Manhattan Village 6 (Manhattan Beach)
Marketplace 6 - Long Beach (Long Beach)
Burback Town Center 6 (Burbank)
Westlake Village Twin (Westlake Village)
Rancho Niguel 8 Cinemas (Laguna Niguel)
Cinemas Palme D'Or (Palm Desert)
Flower Hill Cinema 4 (Del Mar)
Fashion Valley 18 (San Diego)
La Jolla Village Cinemas (La Jolla)
Fiesta 5 (Santa Barbara)
Esquire Theater (Denver)
Tamarac Square Theater (Denver)
Criterion Cinema at Greenwich Plaza 3 (Greenwich)
South Beach 18 (Miami Beach)
Shadowood 16 (Boca Raton)
Midtown Art Cinema 8 (Atlanta)
Webster Place 11 (Chicago)
Renaissance Place (Highland Park)
Baxter Avenue 8 (Louisville)
Bethesda Movies 10 (Bethesda)
Boston Commons 19 (Boston)
Kendall Square Cinema (Cambridge)
Main Art Theater (Royal Oak)
Lagoon Cinema (Minneapolis)
Tenafly Cinema (Tenafly)
Clairidge Cinemas 6 (Montclair)
Beacon Hill 5 (Summit)
Showcase at the Ritz Center 16 (Voorhees)
Kew Gardens Cinemas 6 (Kew Gardens)
Manhasset Cinemas 3 (Manhasset)
Malverne Cinemas 5 (Malverne)
Jacob Burns Film Center (Pleasantville)
Fox Tower 10 (Portland)
Ritz at the Bourse (Philadelphia)
Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (Austin)
Arbor Cinemas at Great Hills (Austin)
Angelika Film Center and Cafe (Plano)
Inwood Theater (Dallas)
Angelika FIlm Center (Houston)
Virginia Shirlington 7 (Arlington)
Seven Gables Theatre (Seattle)
Lincoln Square Stadium 16 (Bellevue)
E Street Cinema (DC)