Me and Orson Welles (2009) – New Cinema Wallpaper of the Day – Richard Linklater

New Cinema Wallpaper of the Day
Friday, September 5, 2008

This certainly holds a great deal of promise with Richard Linklater behind the camera adapting an early period of Orson Welles life where he is putting on the 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. That the film stars Zac Efron will lend it a considerable instant fan base that is dying to see it.

Zac Efron Fan Site:
::: ZA Angels


The story of a whirlwind week in 1937 NYC when a young aspiring actor (Efron) is thrown into the middle of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company on the eve of the opening of Welles’ historic staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. During this week, Richard will find romance with a worldly older woman (Danes), become immersed in a creative experience few are afforded, and learn the downside of crossing the imperious, brilliant Welles (strikingly portrayed by newcomer Christian McKay). Richard is about to grow up FAST.

Production notes follow after the link bump.


Ben Chaplin, Claire Danes, Zac Efron, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, Christian McKay, Kelly Reilly and James Tupper lead a talented ensemble cast of stage and screen actors in the coming-of-age romantic drama ME AND ORSON WELLES. Oscar®-nominated director Richard Linklater (”The School of Rock“, “Before Sunset“) is at the helm of the CinemaNX and Detour Filmproduction, filmed in the Isle of Man, at Pinewood Studios, on various London locations and in New York City.

The screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo is based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, a thoroughly researched piece of historical fiction, set in the heady world of New York theatre. A teenage student, Richard Samuels, lucks his way into a minor role in the legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar“, directed by youthful genius Orson Welles. In the words of Kaplow’s protagonist: “This is the story of one week in my life. I was seventeen. It was the week I slept in Orson Welles’s pyjamas. It was the week I fell in love. It was the week I fell out of love.

Ben Chaplin (”The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep“) stars as Mercury Theatre regular George Coulouris, Claire Danes (”Stardust“, “Romeo + Juliet“) is production assistant Sonja Jones, the older woman who enchants Richard, played by Zac Efron (”Hairspray“, “High School Musical“), Zoe Kazan (”The Savages“) is aspiring writer Gretta Adler, Eddie Marsan (”The Illusionist“) stars as Mercury co-founder John Houseman, newcomer Christian McKay, an alumnus of RADA and the Royal Shakespeare Company, plays Orson Welles, Kelly Reilly (”The Libertine“) portrays spiky diva Muriel Brassler and James Tupper (”Men In Trees“) is the future movie star Joseph Cotten.

The featured cast includes Leo Bill (”Becoming Jane“) as Norman Lloyd, Al Weaver (”Colour Me Kubrick”) as Sam Leve, Iain McKee (”Housewife, 49“) as Vakhtangov (William Alland), Simon Lee Phillips (”Burlesque Fairytales“) as Walter Ash, Simon Nehan, making his feature film debut as Joe Holland, Imogen Poots (”28 Weeks Later“) as Lorelei Lathrop, Patrick Kennedy (”Atonement“) as Grover Burgess, Olivier Award-winner Janie Dee as Richard’s mother, with versatile British TV actress Marlene Sidaway as his grandmother, Garrick Hagon (”The Walker“) as Dr. Mewling, newcomer Megan Maczko as Evelyn Allen, Aaron Brown as the Longchamps Kid, Travis Oliver (”Footballers Wive$: Extra Time“) as John Hoyt, Nathan Osgood (”Sahara“) as the radio announcer, Robert Wilfort as the radio director, Michael Brandon (”Jerry Springer – The Opera“) as legendary radio host Les Tremayne, Saskia Reeves (”Heart“) as Barbara Luddy, Aidan McArdle (”The Duchess“) as Martin Gabel, Emmy Award-winning composer Mike McEvoy as Epstein, Thomas Arnold (”The Golden Compass“) as George Duthie, Jo McInnes (”Birthday Girl“) as Jeannie Rosenthal and Daniel Tuite (”Lesson 21“) as William Mowry.

The film is produced by Richard Linklater, Marc Samuelson (”Stormbreaker“, “Wilde“) and Ann Carli (”Fast Food Nation“, “Crossroads“), with Steve Christian, John Sloss and Steve Norris as executive producers, Jessica Parker and Sara Greene are associate producers and Richard Hewitt is line producer.

The behind-the-camera talent includes director of photography Richard Pope BSC (Oscar®-nominated for “The Illusionist“, “Vera Drake“), production designer Laurence Dorman (”Flashbacks of a Fool“, “Asylum“), editor Sandra Adair A.C.E. (”Fast Food Nation“, “The School of Rock“), hair and make-up designer Fae Hammond (”The Darjeeling Limited“, “Stardust“), costume designer Nic Ede (”Wilde“, “Nanny McPhee“), music supervisor Marc Marot (”Notting Hill“), visual effects supervisor Rob Duncan (”Mr Bean’s Holiday“, the “Harry Potter” series) and casting director Lucy Bevan (”The Duchess“, “The Golden Compass“). The film also features music re-arranged and performed by Jools Holland, accompanied on stage by chart-topping singer Eddi Reader.

Filming began in the historic (and beautifully restored) Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man, which hosted the stage performances and backstage scenes at the Mercury Theatre, to which it bears an extraordinary resemblance. From there, the production moved to a New York street set, constructed on the backlot of Pinewood Studios, with interiors being filmed on Pinewood’s sound stages. Other key scenes were shot in a variety of period locations around London, including the British Museum, which represented the interior of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bloomsbury Square and Crystal Palace Park.

CinemaNX and Isle of Man Film, in association with Framestore Features, present a CinemaNX and Detour Filmproduction, a Richard Linklater Film, ME AND ORSON WELLES. Cinetic Media are handling domestic sales and Cinetic Media and Odyssey Entertainment jointly represent foreign sales.

The Mercury Theatre

Time magazine once described the Mercury company’s origin as “at first just an idea bounded North and South by hope, East and West by nerve.” The co-founders were 35-year-old European emigre actor and producer John Houseman and 22-year-old Wisconsin-born actor and director Orson Welles. Houseman had spotted Welles in a production of “Romeo and Juliet” and was impressed with the young actor’s creativity and drive. In 1935 Houseman was about to join the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal initiative supporting live performance in the United States during the Great Depression and invited Welles to join him.

In 1936 Houseman assigned Welles to take charge of a project for Harlem’s American Negro Theater and the resulting “Voodoo Macbeth” established the young director as an extraordinarily precocious talent. In the summer of 1937, he and Houseman embarked on an ambitious plan to start a classical repertory theatre in New York City, based on the youthful nucleus of the company they had assembled for their staging of Marc Blitzstein’s controversial opera, “The Cradle Will Rock“, their final project at the Federal. The new enterprise was incorporated a few days later as the Mercury Theatre and they eventually found themselves a home in what had been the Comedy Theatre, on 41st Street and Broadway.

Built in 1909, the building had fallen into disrepair, but the company spent a month restoring and preparing the stage area for the first production, Welles’s version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar“, billed as “Caesar: Death of a Dictator“, which would open a mere ten weeks after the Mercury Theatre was conceived. The stage was to appear bare, covered with platforms and steps and ramps of varying heights and rakes. These had been acquired from a warehouse which stored lumber from the sets of other productions, hence the lack of uniformity, which Welles and his production team utilised with a particular creative flair. The rear wall of the theatre was left visible, also painted a rusty red, together with its steam pipes and heating ducts.

Another feature of the production design, which was based on Welles’s original drawings and executed by Sam Leve, was the use of a series of open traps, from which steps led to the under-stage areas. These hazards were beloved of the director, despite the cast’s apprehensions, although, following a blackout at the first dress rehearsal, the lights came up on the conspirators waiting to assassinate Caesar and one of their number was seen to be missing. Brutus, played by Welles himself, was found unconscious beneath the stage, fortunately with no lasting damage.

Welles’s production was stunningly contemporary. The Roman senators and citizenry wore Fascist military uniforms or sharp suits with turned-up collars and black hats and the action was accompanied by Marc Blitzstein’s martial music, the thump of the mob’s feet on wooden boards and the forest of dramatic, vertical shafts of brilliance – the so-called ‘Nuremberg lights’ – reproduced by technical director Jeannie Rosenthal. Pared to an economical hour-and-a-half, without an interval, this “Julius Caesar” lived up to the Mercury manifesto, which had been published in the New York Times on August 29th, 1937. Written by Welles and Houseman, it declared: “By the use of apron, lighting, sound devices, music, etc., we hope to give this production much of the speed and violence that it must have had on the Elizabethan stage.”

John Mason Brown described the show as “by all odds the most exciting, most imaginative, the most topical, the most awesome and the most absorbing of the season’s new productions. The touch of genius is upon it.” The first outpouring of an avalanche of critical praise, this presaged the extraordinary success of what is still acknowledged to be a landmark in the history of American theatre and the anointing of the “boy wonder” who would go on to create cinematic legend.

When it came to reproducing the visual impact of this groundbreaking production, the filmmakers were determined to be as faithful to the original as the budget would allow. Basing the look of the theatrical performance on contemporary photographs taken by Cecil Beaton, as well as copies of the original stage plans, Richard Linklater and his team have recreated the dramatic lighting and stage effects, the Fascist imagery of sets and costumes, all to the accompaniment of Marc Blitzstein’s original score.

Orson Welles and company

Orson Welles was very much the leader of the Mercury Theatre Company, despite his relative youth. Born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to an inventor and manufacturer father and a concert pianist mother, both of whom had died before he reached fifteen, Orson was blessed with a commanding physique and a deep and resounding voice. During a visit to Europe at the age of 16, he managed to persuade Dublin’s Gate Theatre that he was a Broadway star and made his stage debut there in “Jew Süss”. He became, in fact, a Broadway legend and a ubiquitous and groundbreaking radio star, following the stage success of “Caesar” with more than a year as the voice of The Shadow in the popular radio serial. All this by the age of 24, when he began work on his enduring cinema classic “Citizen Kane”. Although many felt that his controversial 50-year career was one of unfulfilled promise, his legacy included such classic films as “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “Othello”, “Chimes at Midnight” and “Touch of Evil”, his iconic performance as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” and the memory of his notorious 1938 broadcast version of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds”.

John Houseman, whose collaboration with Welles was to prove so fruitful, was born Jacques Haussmann in Bucharest, to a British mother and Jewish father from Alsace. Educated in England, he emigrated to the United States in 1925, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1943. President of the Mercury Theatre (Welles was vice-president), he went on to become a successful film producer and an accomplished character actor, winning an Academy Award® as Best Supporting Actor in the 1973 academic drama “The Paper Chase”. He died in 1988.

George Coulouris was born in Salford, England, in 1903 and educated at Manchester Grammar School and at Elsie Fogerty’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where he was a contemporary of Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft. He made his stage debut at the Old Vic in 1926 and his Broadway debut three years later. He met Welles in 1936, who cast him as Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” and as financier Walter Parks Thatcher in “Citizen Kane”. A regular on stage, on radio, on television and in more than 80 films, on both sides of the Atlantic, he received an Oscar® nomination for “Watch on the Rhine” in 1943 and died in London in 1989.

Joseph Cotten, although cast by Welles in a minor role in “Julius Caesar”, became a star of the big screen, despite his comment that: “I didn’t care about the movies, really. I was tall. I could talk. It was easy to do.” Born in Virginia, he began his theatre career as a critic, a profession echoed by his later role in “Citizen Kane”. Making his Broadway debut in 1930, he met Welles and joined the Mercury company. Their successful collaborations also included “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “Journey Into Fear” (which he co-wrote with producer Welles) and, most memorably Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”. An enduring star, Cotten died at the age of 88 in California.

Norman Lloyd’s career in entertainment has spanned more than seven decades. The scene of his murder (as Cinna the Poet) in “Julius Caesar” was the production’s coup de theatre, producing the play’s most chilling moment. He became a favourite of Alfred Hitchcock’s, appearing in “Saboteur” and “Spellbound” and being closely involved in the production of the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. As a TV performer, he is probably best remembered as Dr Auschlander in 132 episodes of the hospital drama “St Elsewhere”. His films include “Dead Poets Society” and, most recently, “In Her Shoes”.

Arthur Anderson appeared in the Mercury Theatre’s “Julius Caesar” as Lucius, memorably photographed by Cecil Beaton as a 15-year-old, singing “Orpheus with his lute” for Brutus (Welles), an image which inspired novelist Robert Kaplow. The largely fictionalized template for Richard Samuels in ME AND ORSON WELLES, Anderson remained with Orson as a member of the Mercury Theatre On The Air and became one of the leading voice artists on radio, as well as making regular appearances on stage, in films and on television.

Of the other key members of the Mercury family portrayed in ME AND ORSON WELLES, Martin Gabel (Cassius, although he lacked the requisite ‘lean and hungry look’) made numerous appearances on “What’s My Line” with his wife, series regular Arlene Francis, and won a Tony Award in 1961 for “Big Fish, Little Fish”. He appeared in twenty films and is perhaps best remembered in America as the narrator/host of CBS’s 1945 broadcast of Norman Corwin’s epic dramatic poem “On A Note of Triumph”, commemorating the fall of the Nazi regime. Joe Holland (Caesar), was born in Virginia and trained at RADA in London. He had a long career in the theatre and appeared in a number of Shakespearean plays including the Basil Rathbone productions of “Julius Caesar,” “Coriolanus” and “Hamlet”.

Leading ladies Muriel Brassler (Portia) and Evelyn Allen (Calpurnia), though accomplished stage actresses, were described by Houseman as ‘decorative, adequate and hardly memorable’. Grover Burgess (Ligarius) appeared in Jules Dassin’s classic 1948 film “The Naked City”, after more than 20 years as a Broadway regular, including a leading role in William Saroyan’s comedy “The Time of Your Life”. John Hoyt, who also performed under his real name as John Hoysradt, topped the bill in 1938 at New York’s Rainbow Room as ‘The Master of Satire’ and made hundreds of appearances on television and in films such as “Spartacus” and “Desperately Seeking Susan”. George Duthie and William Mowry were also regular Mercury Theatre members, both on stage and radio. William Alland, whom Welles playfully dubbed Vakhtangov, after the great Russian actor/producer, was the director’s general factotum at the Mercury, but went on to his own success as an actor-producer, including playing the young reporter, Thompson, in “Citizen Kane”.

Behind the scenes, the company included top Broadway stage manager Walter Thompson Ash and Sam Leve, whose realisation of Welles’s original concepts had a lasting impact on stage design. Perhaps the Mercury’s greatest asset was technical director Jean Rosenthal, who went on to design the original stage lighting for such Broadway hits as “West Side Story”, “The Sound of Music”, “Hello Dolly!”, “The Odd Couple” and “Cabaret”.

Recreating 1937 New York

According to producer Marc Samuelson, “one of the issues that you face is that it’s very hard to shoot 1937 New York in New York, so you’re not shooting it in the actual place. New York has changed so completely that everything in the background is wrong, everything in the foreground is wrong, the people all look wrong, every building’s been changed. It’s enormously difficult. So you then end up shooting New York in some other North American city which looks vaguely like it did in 1937. By the time you’ve done all of that, you may as well have shot it anywhere.”

As an independent feature, ME AND ORSON WELLES needed to make creative use of every penny of its limited budget and found a solution in basing the production in London, where a combination of Pinewood Studios and some imaginatively chosen locations brought New York to life. And thanks to some visual trickery, the imposing scale and distinctive architecture of the bustling city has been vibrantly recreated on a comparative shoestring.

“This movie doesn’t really exist any longer in New York,” says Richard Linklater. “If you go to where the Mercury Theatre was, you would never know. It’s an office building – there’s not even a plaque. That street looks so different, it didn’t really matter to me where we shot the film. As a filmmaker, wherever I could make this film, I would, (and I did)”.

“It’s been wonderful working with production designer Laurence Dorman”, continues Linklater. “We went over to New York together – he wasn’t that familiar with the city, so we went to a lot of the actual addresses in the movie and I showed him around.”

Dorman’s visit inspired his design of the street set on Pinewood’s Orchard Lot: “It was worth every second actually, because we were able to visit the site of the theatre and I was able to get the geography of 41st Street into my mind, with Bryant Park and all the things that are mentioned in the script. And even though 41st Street was completely different to how it would have been in those days, I was able to just wander around the neighbourhood and take pictures all over midtown and all the way down to 22nd Street. I was picking out all of the old stuff, the architecture that I imagined would have been there at the time and turning it into our little composite street. I’ve taken a selection of buildings based on my photographs and put them together to suit my purposes.

“For the exterior of the Mercury Theatre we found a single photograph taken in the early 1900s when the building, then the Comedy Theatre, was putting on its first production. We took a little bit of licence here and there, but it’s great to see that original picture and then to be able to look at our street – it’s quite thrilling to do something like that.”

Crucial to the success of the enterprise was finding a theatre that could play the interior of the Mercury itself. By a stroke of good fortune, CinemaNX, the production company, is based in the Isle of Man and there, in the capital, Douglas, is the magnificently restored Gaiety Theatre, an almost exact contemporary of the Mercury. “I don’t think we would have been able to make the film if we hadn’t been able to shoot it there,” says Marc Samuelson. “It was just the most fantastic set for us. It worked really well, looked great in the film, was just the right size – in every way it fitted the bill.”

The theatre opened originally as a large pavilion in 1893 and, following a redesign by Frank Matcham, it re-opened as an opera house and theatre in 1900. After early success, years of neglect began to take their toll and the building was acquired by the Isle of Man Government in 1971. A comprehensive programme of restoration was launched in 1990 and completed in 2000. One of the last elements to be restored was the famous Corsican Trap, the only known original version of this classic stage effect.

“I really fell in love with the place,” admits Linklater. “It was almost too nice, too ornate, but I thought if we brought it down a little bit and didn’t look up at the beautiful domed cathedral-like ceiling, it had similar proportions to the Mercury Theatre in seats and size. The stage was about the same size and the below stage area and its trap door arrangement with locks and pulleys was far more complex and interesting than you would ever be able to realize if you were building your own stage. So all of that felt great, and to shoot on the Isle of Man for those weeks was just kind of perfect. Some films are just meant to be. It just feels like it lines up and it’s meant to happen.”

Robert Kaplow, on whose novel the film is based, is eager to see Welles’s production of “Caesar” for the first time, on screen. The original inspiration for his book was an image captured by the great photographer Cecil Beaton, showing young Arthur Anderson as Lucius with his lute, seated on stage next to Orson Welles’s Brutus – a scene which has been faithfully recreated in the film. “Part of the pleasure for me in writing the book was to imagine what it would really look like. And how would it move? Richard Linklater got the original blueprints, they still exist, for the stage, for the columns and the trap doors and the ramps and they are to perfect scale on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre. No one has seen it since 1937. It’s been gone and now they are rebuilding it again. It should be exciting.”

A key element in the recreation of the period was the skill and experience of the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Richard Pope. “I had a great meeting with Dick,” remembers Linklater, “and I just saw him as a kindred spirit. He had that wild attitude – he seemed like a kind of mad scientist. And what you want in that position is enthusiasm – and skill, obviously, that goes without saying. Other than that, it’s a personality match. He seems in the spirit of the film and he said he fell in love with it when he read the passage in the script where one of the actresses, Muriel Brassler, played by Kelly Reilly, is talking about lighting and gels and about getting a little butterfly shadow under her nose. He just thought that was so amusing.

“I think people maybe know him for his Mike Leigh films, but it’s some of his other films that are, I think, even more impressive. It’s been really fun within this film for both of us. You rarely get the opportunity to recreate theatrical lighting. With most films, even a stylised period piece, you bend a little towards naturalism. But when you are recreating the exact lighting of this highly dramatic, very theatrical stage show, it’s just fun. It was like shooting an old studio film with high contrast lighting and it’s probably the only time I will ever get to do that. The story goes that the great cinematographer Gregg Toland saw this production of Julius Caesar and when he heard that Welles was going to Hollywood to make ‘Citizen Kane’ he told him he wanted to work with him, because of the lighting he had done for the play.

Establishing the look of the Mercury Theatre involved costume designer Nic Ede in researching the Fascist imagery of the original Caesar production. “Thank goodness, there is a lot of visual reference, a lot of photographs and a lot of people wrote about it. When we were on the Isle of Man, filming in the Gaiety Theatre, I looked at the way Dick Pope had lit it and the way Laurence had done the set – identical to the original – and it sent a shiver down my spine.”

In addition to reproducing the uniforms on stage, there was the small matter of costuming the audience for Nic Ede and his team. This required clothing some 570 extras, who also needed to be fully made up and coiffed by Fae Hammond and her assistants, for the scenes involving a full theatre. “I love huge crowd scenes,” says Ede. “I don’t know what it is – something rather perverse. It’s playing at make-believe and that’s always a great, great thing to do. The joy of filming, from my point of view, is to create something that the audience will look at that they absolutely believe. Every extra that comes into the fitting room is a bit of a challenge. You want to make them into a character, it’s not just a body to put clothes on, it’s somebody to represent… a fishwife… or a sweetcorn seller….

“The thing that was exciting for me in this film was the fact that in the thirties, leisurewear was much more accepted in America than elsewhere. I don’t think it existed in Europe in the same way and certainly didn’t unless you were rich and were wearing beach pyjamas! It made a change from the usual 1930s stuff I have done which is pretty upper class and extravagant, whereas this was a chance to do real people leading real lives. It’s interesting, trying to achieve totally believable people through their clothes and their make up and hair.”

The sound of the ’30s was also a key element in recreating the era. Alongside the music selected by Linklater himself, a big fan of the music of the period and the musical arrangements of maestro Jools Holland, described by the director as ‘an English national treasure’, the speaking voices of the Mercury Theatre players benefited from the specialist attention of distinguished Shakespearean Dramaturge Giles Block and veteran dialect coach Judith Windsor. Block, Master of Verse and Play at London’s celebrated Globe Theatre, worked with the actors on the Shakespeare scenes during the rehearsal period, coaching and advising them on the authenticity of their verse speaking. Judith Windsor worked on the actors’ delivery throughout the production, paying close attention to the fine details of their accents.

As an American, married to an Englishman and resident in England, Ms Windsor was particularly attuned to the challenges inherent in the script. “You have to remember that, at that time, American standard stage English was very English. Although, were we to hear Shakespeare as spoken in Shakespeare’s time, it would sound more American than English!

“Of course, we have worked on the speaking of Shakespearean verse and the mode followed goes back to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London – it’s mentioned in the text by George Coulouris that he learned to speak Shakespeare there with Elsie Fogerty. This tradition can be traced down to the Royal Shakespeare Company – it’s a sort of energising of the last of the line, so that the imaginative experience for the actor comes, not between the lines or the words, but on the words and as a result of the scansion. It’s a wonderful thing – it frees the actor to experience, through the text and through the pentameter, things he would never have thought of. They speak with rapidity and clarity – I’m always delighted and constantly re-surprised at how skilful the British actors are.

“Orson Welles himself was, in terms of accent, a kind of hybrid. He sounded English to Americans and American to English people – we listened to a great many tapes of Welles speaking, some of which were of the original Mercury production and in those you can hear that he is sometimes very English in how he pronounces things.”

And the Mercury rises

Richard Linklater is a director with an eclectic back catalogue of popular and critically-praised movies and when his long-time associate and first assistant director Vince Palmo recommended Robert Kaplow’s book, he thought it sounded an interesting title and took it with him on vacation. He admits to liking the genre of historical fiction, because, as he says, all histories are fiction, anyway, and in this case the author had based it on every memoir and fact he could get hold of.

It was just wonderful. The author was actually inserting himself as the young character, seeing Welles through his eyes and at that moment in time. It’s history, theatrical history – Welles’ career and a young man’s coming of age. So I found it utterly charming and really interesting. If you know Welles, you know he mastered theatre and radio before he went on to his more famous film career. It’s such a fascinating portrait of a moment in time in his life. I was just about to start another movie, but I could see that Vince and Holly Palmo were really passionate about it – their passion kept fuelling me, which was needed, because it seemed like such an ambitious movie.”

Rick asked if we’d mind if he optioned it and we said no,” confirms Vince. “Holly and I had written a couple of scripts which he’d liked to varying degrees and we said we’d really like to take a shot at the screenplay. Having read the book and done our own research, it became an even richer milieu and time and place. We were interested in everything about that era and the fact that it was about young people – Welles was only 22 – was a big lure.”

So we had a script and were really excited about it,” says Linklater, “but I said, before we start doing budgets and schedules and trying to go further, let’s get an Orson, because we are not going to do this thing at all unless we can get the right guy to play him. To me, that was the biggest piece of the puzzle that had to fit, before it even had the possibility of moving forward. We thought of all the usual Americans, but we weren’t really getting anywhere. And I remember theorising, ‘you know who our Orson Welles is? He’s in London right now, probably doing Shakespeare. I bet that’s where he is, or there’ll be some great unknown British actor who kind of looks like him’.”

A few months later, Robert Kaplow sends me an e-mail saying that there’s a guy performing in New York at this little theatre I had never heard of, performing (for, I think it was, 10 or 15 shows only) this thing called ‘Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles‘. And so I flew to New York and went straight to the play. I’d just had shoulder surgery and I had this brace on, I could barely move, it was really uncomfortable. My only test was, do I believe this guy is Orson Welles? Christian McKay just had that kind of Wellesian manner and he had clearly studied him and everything. So I talked to him after the show and I got back to Austin just thinking about him and I thought ‘let’s take this to another level’. So I flew Christian to Austin and we did a sort of old fashioned screen test.

We did three scenes from the movie: I cast some people, I did period wardrobe, we had an old car and we did a scene in the back; Christian came in and we worked together and hung out for a couple of days. I didn’t even need to look at it back. I just knew the kind of guy he was and thought the film Gods were making a very special offering, as they sometimes do. And I remember telling him we don’t have money, we don’t have anything – it may never happen, but we’d try. We started sending the script out and the good news was everybody seemed intrigued by it, but one of the stumbling blocks we had was a Welles who was unknown. Can you get a bigger name to play Welles? Ours was always the same argument: no, this is Welles!

Christian McKay, graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and accomplished concert pianist, is an established theatrical all-rounder, but has been aware of his resemblance to Welles since his student days. “People said that I resembled him a little bit. I only remember Orson as this big, gargantuan iceberg of a man and at drama school, whenever they said ‘you look a bit like Harry Lime’, I really though they were having a go at my weight! So I’d be very anti-Orson – I used to think ‘I’m not that big…’ Mind you, I must be the only actor who had to lose weight to play Orson Welles!

Christian’s performance is a revelation,” enthuses Marc Samuelson. “He’s a sensational actor, enormously talented in many different ways and it’s a fantastic, delicious secret that nobody knows about this, but they’re all going to. He’s not only a fantastically good, properly trained, really serious actor, who could do anything, but he is an absolutely extraordinary musician and he’s also an unbelievably intelligent person. He’s a great writer – it’s nauseating – but he’s a terrible dancer, which is good to know. Seriously, I think he’s going to be one of the great discoveries.”

Fellow producer Ann Carli agrees: “We did a reading in London, just so we could hear the script with actors. And it was also a way to have Christian interact with some of the other actors who have a lot of film experience. So we’re all sitting around the table and here’s this guy, an unknown British actor – how did he get this plum role? You can just feel the other actors thinking that. And then he does his thing and the room is mesmerised. It’s like… ‘holy cow, that’s Orson Welles‘!

Dialect coach Judith Windsor is full of praise for the newcomer: “Christian is an extraordinary man and an extraordinary actor and it’s been a great, great pleasure to meet him and to work with him and to envisage what his future may be. He may develop into, or may very well now be, what Welles said of himself – that he was a ‘king’ actor. A great deal of Christian’s performance comes from his musicianship. The fact that he is such a glorious pianist is a great help to him vocally in shaping the line and in getting the way Welles uses phrases and, of course, in terms of Welles’ very specific accent.

With the Orsonian hurdle out of the way, the rest of the casting could proceed. The other key element, without which the project would be unworkable, is the leading role in this coming-of-age story, 17-year-old Richard Samuels. As Linklater points out, “He is very active. Even though he is the observer of the movie, he’s really the motor, so I needed to find someone who could pull that off. It could come off totally wrong, if he wasn’t likeable and sympathetic.

Someone mentioned the name of Zac Efron, whose image adorns the walls of teenage bedrooms across the world, following the success of ‘High School Musical‘. “Frankly,” admits Linklater, “at that point, I had just seen ‘Hairspray’ and my first impression was that he’s almost too good looking. But in my experience, you can’t judge the full range of an actor based on what you’ve seen them in – so we set up a meeting. A minute or two into the conversation, I knew he would be a perfect Richard Samuels.”

He really responded to the script and got it. Zac’s got so much going on, he’s a natural song and dance man – he really does kind of have a song in his heart and a little dance in his step and he’s really intelligent. But he’s young and there’s still a wide-eyed, it’s-all-ahead-of-him kind of vibe that’s perfect for Richard. He’s got a rare quality that you don’t see very often. Just photographing him, you go ‘wow, that’s a once in a generation kind of thing’. I just think, with his level of talent, he can go in a lot of interesting directions. He’s been great to work with, I can’t imagine anybody else playing it.”

Producer Marc Samuelson was equally impressed: “We know he can sing and dance and that he’s a decent actor. The revelation is going to be that he is a really first class dramatic actor and this film will reveal that to the world. Zac’s the real thing. He’s going to have a magnificent career – he’s got it all and he’s very serious about it.”

Zac found he had a lot in common with Richard Samuels: “He’s just your average kid. He’s very into the arts and theatre and music, he plays certain instruments and, yeah…it’s kind of funny, we are parallel in that way. I think Richard is pretty typical for a Jersey kid in New York at his age in 1937. He’s not the coolest kid in school: he has a tough time with the ladies. He’s got a mischievous side – at one point he almost ruined the theatre! It’s just a wild adventure. He’s taken from being just a kid at school in Jersey. He’s given a week with Orson Welles and it’s the most magical week of his life. He falls in love, he stars on Broadway, he gets in a fight with Welles. How many people can say that they have done that?

It’s fun being an actor playing an actor playing an actor. Being in a play is an experience that I got to have quite a bit when I was a kid and there’s no feeling like it. Portraying that in a film is pretty surreal. I can totally relate with Richard on so many levels. Being in a play, thinking you know your lines – but maybe you’re a word off and the director comes down on you really hard. And finding romance during a play, that happens!

Zac’s presence in the Isle of Man during the theatre scenes caused something of a local stir, as Christian McKay recalls: “These young girls were outside, screaming like banshees and he stood up and said ‘I’ll go out there.’ I said ‘you’re going out there? It’s terrifying!’ But later, when I went outside, there was this ten-year-old, who had met her hero and the great thing was, her hero had turned out to be everything that she wanted him to be and she’ll remember that for the rest of her life. He’s like that with everybody.

When casting his female lead, Sonja Jones, Richard Linklater remembered auditioning a teenaged Claire Danes for a role in “Dazed And Confused” in 1992. “She was too young for that part, a couple of years too young, but I think she was one of the best actresses I met, she was so good. Even as a kid she was just so natural and real, so I always followed her career and was really lucky that our paths crossed. And she remembered that audition too. It’s just great when you hook back up with someone you admire. She’s such a good actress, a really good person and it’s been really fun to work with her, she’s a real trouper.”

“Sonja is an equivocal character,” says Marc Samuelson. “There’s no question that you’re not just supposed to go along with Zac and fall madly in love with her. You should have a slight sense, and maybe not quite realise why, that you’re not quite sure about this woman, her ambition is so completely focused and so enormous and she’s tough as old boots, so you perhaps hold back a slight level of sympathy. Claire’s such a clever actress because she manages to get across all the charm and the fun, and yet there’s just something…”

Claire agrees: “Sonja’s very young and ambitious and capable and thinks that she’s savvier and more mature than she really is. So she’s very charming, but she’s very critical of others and she doesn’t see her own weaknesses, ever. I loved the script. It’s incredibly charming and witty and has a really surprising tone. It’s very light, but very intelligent.

This production of Julius Cesar was really radical because it was a comment on the fascism that was starting to eat away at the world. Welles made it really relevant and really urgent and fresh. Shakespeare, up until that point, had been performed in a much more studied, careful way. He just blew all of these conventions out of the water. This film does have a historical dimension that is fascinating and worth considering and exploring. Orson Welles is a hero of mine and a hero to so many people. It’s great to take a moment to admire everything that he achieved.

Starring as the prickly and pessimistic English actor George Coulouris is Ben Chaplin. “In the States we think of him as a romantic comedy guy, but working with him on the film we got to see that he’s got tremendous range as an actor” says producer Ann Carli. “He’s amazing. I just said thank you for every arched eyebrow, thank you for every hurt and indignant pause – thank you for all of that.

Chaplin, who, surprisingly, despite his extensive stage experience, had never performed Shakespeare before, enjoyed the opportunity to recreate Welles’ legendary production. “I listened to a recording of Coulouris doing the funeral oration – ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen‘. There comes a point where you’re representing him, but you’re not discovering the speech for yourself, you’re not feeling it as an actor. In the end I thought I just had to go for it, as I would if I were doing it. And then I just slipped in bits of George, because nobody will know how he did it – most of the people who saw it are now dead. It’s really strange, because you’re playing a good actor acting – it would be a lot easier to play a bad one.

Zoe Kazan was delighted to be cast by Richard Linklater. “I had known a lot of people who had worked with him and all of them had had nothing but the kindest things to say and they all turned out to be true. He’s very easy-going and he’s really hands-on as a director. He doesn’t hold your hand or baby you, he let’s you do the interpretation on your own and tells you what he needs and he’s a lot of fun to work with.”

Gretta seemed very clear to me. Often when I’m reading a script I can tell right away whether or not it will be a character that I can play and I just sort of understood where she was coming from, being young and precocious and excited about the world. She loves to read and she’s just very intelligent and interesting. I also liked her because she doesn’t seem like a person of substance the first time you meet her, she’s the way that very young people can be. She’s a little in awe of everyone around her and in awe of her own ambitions and then she actually turns out to be an artist.

As an accomplished stage actress and a self-confessed history buff, she would have loved to have seen Welles’ ‘Caesar’ – “that kind of ambition and charisma and balls – quite a package. My hope is that the film will educate a younger audience about Orson Welles and about what the 1930s in New York were like. It’s a very accessible and entertaining story.”

Eddie Marsan appears as what Marc Samuelson calls “the solid centre of what’s going on in the madness.” John Houseman’s late career as an actor makes him more familiar to many cinemagoers than some of the other characters in the film, but his particular appeal to Marsan was as “a Romanian Jew” who reinvented himself as the quintessential Englishman in the New York theatre circuit and who continued to reinvent himself for the rest of his life. Houseman described his relationship with Welles as that of a father, a friend, somebody who had to be very firm with him and someone who was also at times in awe of Orson. We’re filming a story about the theatre company, so all of those dynamics are on the film set, as well as being in the company.

I’d like people to get a growing awareness of theatre in this period, because it was fascinating and it actually informed acting. The people of this period became the acting teachers for people like Brando, and Paul Newman and Benicio del Toro. All the great acting schools in New York and Los Angeles came from these theatre projects, which were publicly funded at this time. So I want people to realise the genius of Orson Welles, which is under-appreciated, and also I want people to realise what it was like to be around someone so creative. Sometimes they can be so compassionate, you can fall in love with them, but also they can be so brutal.

Rising stage and screen star Kelly Reilly enjoys playing Orson’s temperamental leading lady, Muriel Brassler: “It’s fun, because you like to think that you are playing somebody so different from you. I hope I am, because Muriel is from New York and she can be quite difficult, but only in the way that she is very concerned with how she looks, so everything is all about her. But if you think about this time in the ’30s, women really were still second to the guys, they just had to look good. And she knows that, so she uses it. But I think she was also a very, very competent actress, so it’s nice to be able to delve in. There’s also the funny side – behind the scenes. We see this façade of actors but we never really get to see what their process is. And it’s quite nice to see the silliness of it all – ‘how do I look?’ – looking in the mirror backstage before she goes on. You see her nerves and insecurities and then she goes on to create this world, to create this illusion.

Canadian actor James Tupper was the last member of the principal cast to join the production, as Orson’s friend and regular collaborator Joseph Cotten. He auditioned on a Sunday, was hired on the Tuesday and on the Wednesday he found himself on a plane to Europe. Familiar to television audiences from his role in the popular “Men In Trees“, he has extensive stage experience and found the milieu of the story fascinating. “The script was wonderful when I first read it, because I think it had so much of the spirit of doing theatre. It’s joyful, you know, people come together and take a risk, pretending to be somebody else in a play, speaking other people’s words and you end up forming a kind of family when you do it.

When I read the script, to me that was a lot of what it was about. It was about a moment that took place a long time ago and it was also about the joy of creating theatre, which is weird in a film. Rick Linklater did a really wise thing, because he put us all in one rehearsal room for a period of time and we did the scenes over and over and over again. And I think, in a weird way, we formed our own company.

All of the cast felt the same way. As Zac Efron puts it: “We were in the Isle of Man for a while and so the whole cast pretty much just had each other to talk to and hang out with and we had a lot of fun. We became a pretty tight troupe, a squad…a family.

Image Source:
Official still that was used in the original international release of the film.

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