All's Welles that ends Welles: Richard Linklater revives the directing legend and his Mercury Theatre

At 26, Orson Welles became the youngest person ever to win an Academy Award—a distinction that has been subsequently topped many times—but it would be the only competitive Oscar that Welles (and his masterful Citizen Kane) won, and it was the bane of his existence that he was compelled to share the prize with another person.

As screenwriter Nunnally Johnson remembers it: “Orson looked over the credits for the picture. ‘Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Produced by Orson Welles. Directed by Orson Welles. Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.’ And there was something in that list that seemed wrong to Orson. He actually offered Herman $10,000 if he’d take his name off the picture.” But the twin authorship remained.

Given that monumental ego and its tendency to take credit for anything that wasn’t nailed down by guild bylaws—as part of The Grand Overall Orson Welles Vision, you see—The Great Man must be whirling like a dervish in his grave over the new Richard Linklater movie (opening Nov. 25 from Freestyle Releasing) that has the temerity to bill itself as Me and Orson Welles.

What’s more (or less), the Me in question—as adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr. from Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name—is a fictional creation plopped down in the middle of one of Welles’ authentic history-making endeavors: the founding of the Mercury Theatre in 1937 via his legendary modern-dress version of Julius Caesar. He was throwing his lightning bolts at theatre in the mid-’30s, and this production fell between Voodoo Macbeth, set in 19th-century Haiti and staged in Harlem with an all-black cast, and The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein’s operatic, masses-unite musical. All three of them set Theatre on its ear.

Considering his work done in Theatre, Welles moved on to other mediums in giant steps, making seismic impacts on radio with his harrowing Halloween broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” and in movies with the ultimate film classic, Citizen Kane.

Unfortunately for a man of his genius, Welles ran out of mediums early. After the studio smack-down on his second film (reducing The Magnificent Ambersons to 88 minutes), he spent the rest of his life acting and scrounging for money to direct.

But the Boy Wonder who first stormed flamboyantly into the limelight was a sight to behold—and ever so much fun to see recreated. Liev Schreiber in RKO 281 (the HBO movie about the making of Citizen Kane) and Angus Macfadyen in Tim Robbins’ feature film, Cradle Will Rock, even managed passable physical approximations of Welles. But the absolute master of that, vocally and visually, is Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles. Not only does he thunder and bluster about with a rich, assured resonance, he’s just as adept at flashing Harry Lime’s crooked “killer smile.”

Author Kaplow came across McKay in a 50-seat Off-Broadway theatre performing a play called Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles and alerted Linklater, who checked him out, screen-tested him and stood firm against the inevitable studio objections to using a total unknown to play a titan. It was a war Welles would have appreciated.

“I think that was also one of the reasons we didn’t get Hollywood money for the project,” Linklater now believes in retrospect. “I remember pitching it to people and their saying, ‘Well, we’ll have to cast that part up.’ I’d say, ‘But I’ve already got Welles, don’t you see?’ They just thought they could do better—i.e., a bigger name than what we have—and I said, ‘No, no, you’re missing the whole point. When they did Gandhi—that was my reference—no one knew who Ben Kingsley was, so you felt you were hanging out with Gandhi. I felt that was the magic that an unknown has.

“It’s kind of a suicide mission to play Welles. People have such uniquely proprietary relations with Welles. Everybody kinda thinks they know him or they possess him in some strange way. That’s why I thought it was kind of a no-winner to have a known actor play him, and that’s why Christian was so perfect. He had the resemblance, obviously, and he also had that Wellesian spirit. He had world-class training with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The fact he was new to movies, I thought, was the final missing piece of the puzzle to make the magic work. He goes beyond imitation. He’s not just doing an impersonation. He really internalized him as much as one can.

“Welles went through his whole career flying by the seat of his pants. When it worked, it worked wonderfully. I wanted to get that spirit of a guy walking on a balance beam of true genius and bullshit. The movie could be debunking and fact-finding, but I thought, ‘No, I want to capture how Welles saw his life at that moment.’ Whether it’s true or not, it’s such a good idea—a ‘Print the legend’ kind of thing.”

Me and Orson Welles gives off the friendly, affectionate vibes of My Favorite Year, with ’30s theatre replacing ’50s television. “I remember liking that movie a lot and trying to recapture that feeling,” Linklater admits. “That’s also the best way to tell a story about a bigger-than-life personality—through the eyes of someone smaller.”

The fictional “Me” of the story is a hapless 19-year-old (Zac Efron) who happily stumbles into Welles’ Julius Caesar and, for one chaotic week, plays Lucillus to Welles’ Brutus. It’s a quixotic relationship, and it quickly unravels when the two butt heads over a pert production assistant (Claire Danes). And, while this traditional triangle twirls in the center ring, theatre history is being made in the background.

“What I really wanted to do is to not let the kid narrating the story become neutral or disappear,” says Linklater. “I really beefed up Zac‘s character. Even though he’s three years younger than Welles, he’s a worthy foil for Welles and his shenanigans with the girl. Christian is in his early 30s, but that was never an issue because Welles was never young. You could not cast a 22-year-old to play the 22-year-old Welles.”

Kaplow’s novel, the director says, is “a kind of historical fiction, but if you know this era in Welles’ life, you know just how accurate all this stuff is. The love triangle is more fiction, but the character of the boy, Richard, is based on an actual person who did things like set off sprinklers in the theatre. I even talked to him. He’s still with us.

“There’s a famous Cecil Beaton photograph of this little teenager on stage sitting next to the young Welles, and Robert thought, ‘Wow! What that must have been like from that teenager’s point of view in ’37—working with Welles at this stage in his career—so he sort of imagined the whole thing. But he did his research. He actually tracked down that young man in the photo—and any other living cast members. Sam Leve was alive at that point. He told some of his stories—like his supposed little credit battle with Welles over the set design—so a lot of it is people’s memories.

“Norman Lloyd talked a lot in his book about his scene as Cinna the poet. It was dropped out of the play, added at the last minute after a disastrous preview. I tried to honor his memory of that because it was a pivotal scene—built up, I’m sure, over time in his mind. I always went with the story that seemed to be their biggest memory. I would play that up, just to honor the memory, whether or not it’s true.”

Linklater pleads guilty to researching the hell out of the story—“absolutely everything you can get your hands on, then you have to make the calls. A lot of this you condense for the story, but it’s pretty much the way it happened. After that awful preview, [critic] John Mason Brown came in and suggested Welles end the play much earlier. It only ran 94 minutes without an intermission—that was the radicalness of it. No intermission, straight through, bare stage, modern dress, no curtain—although Norman Lloyd remembers a curtain. Memories are often unreliable. I had all these conflicting reports—and, of course, Welles is never any help because he encouraged confusion. He’s the most unreliable source of all. So, between all that, you sort of have to hone in on what works best for your story.”

Another way of looking at the film’s title is with Linklater as the “me.” It’s hard to imagine directors more polar opposites than Welles in full formal flourish and the off-the-cuff Austin filmmaker who gave us Dazed and Confused and Waking Life.

“Someone, I think in the U.K., talked about all my kind of crazy, radical films, and they said that this one had a ‘breezy conventionality.’ Well, if you’re going to do conventionality, you might as well be breezy about it. All Hollywood films should be breezy. Ironically, this is so not Hollywood—we got no financing from Hollywood, and it was made completely outside the United States—but that’s the spirit of it.”

Did making a slick, spit-and-polish period comedy require different directorial skills than he used charging actors with handheld cameras? “Believe it or not, no,” he replies. “I would say I worked with the cast the same. I spent the same amount of time rehearsing and writing and collaborating. It’s really remarkably similar, from my point of view. Even if the final thing is light years apart, for me, there’s a sameness to all of this. You’re going for something different, but it feels like another movie to me. You’re just trying to serve the story of what you’re trying to do.”

Of all unlikely places, the film was shot largely where its production company is based, in the Isle of Man in the North Irish Sea and in London. You’d never know it from looking at it. “Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?” the director beams proudly.

“There’s the magic of a period piece between architectural reconstruction and the CGI effects of skylines and things like that. Half the shoot—about three weeks—was done in this beautiful old theatre we found in Douglas [the elegantly restored Gaiety Theatre, an almost exact replica of the Mercury Theatre]. We couldn’t have shot it in New York. If you go on West 41st Street now, those buildings are long gone. The Mercury was pretty ephemeral, anyway. I think it got torn down in the early ’50s. It was right by Bryant Park, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. I’m hoping to get a plaque put up at 110 West 41st, saying that this is where the Mercury Theatre was.”

The cast—which also includes Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris, James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, the chameleonic Eddie Marsan as John Houseman, Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd, Zoe Kazan as Gretta Adler and Kelly Reilly as Muriel Brassler—made the most of being an enforced ensemble on the Isle of Man. “The fun of the artistic troupe coming together to put on a show—we all bonded that way. We all lived in close proximity, we worked all day together—the typical movie-set thing. People sit around and hit the pubs. You really get to know one another. We fed off that.”

Depicting what Welles was able to pull off at age 22 couldn’t help but make the 49-year-old Linklater feel vaguely over the hill. “That’s the curse of Welles on everybody, I think,” he contends. “Didn’t Bogdanovich say, ‘Many a filmmaker has cried on his 25th birthday, knowing they weren’t in production on Citizen Kane’?”