The Rick-trospective: Me and Orson Welles

Movies Features Orson Welles
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In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.

I generally like Richard Linklater’s films, but I am an Orson Welles junkie. I devour biographies of Welles, watch his drunk outtakes from ’70s wine commercials on YouTube and snatch up memorabilia when I can afford it. I was given an advance copy, a publisher’s proof of National Public Radio contributor Robert Kaplow’s novel Me and Orson Welles that was found on the dollar table of a local used book store. At that time, I had not been reading much fiction despite having been a fairly big reader at other periods in my life. I inhaled the book—read it in a day or two—pat myself on the back, thinking, ‘I still got it. I can still read a book now and then.’ In my late 30s at the time, I soon discovered that this book that I’d just sunk my teeth so deeply into was a Young Adult novel. Nevermind, it was about Welles and it took me away. Soon I heard that Linklater was adapting it into a film.

Welles’ film Touch Of Evil (1958) also takes me away. The film makes me cry but not because of the way I feel about Welles’ tragic, grotesque bad guy at the end. Welles was 42 when then rising star Charlton Heston insisted that the the studio hire him as his director of choice, plucking him out of obscurity. Yes, obscurity. At 21, radio star, Broadway star and gossip column regular, Welles was on the cover of TIME magazine. Twenty-one years and one film that would eventually be declared by some “the greatest film ever made” later, Welles had fallen so far off the cultural map that some people actually thought he was dead.

Heston hired Welles to direct a simple B-movie thriller called Badge of Evil. Welles had been living in Europe, exiled essentially, after a media-contrived backlash over “Citizen Kane” (1941) and his own self-indulgent excesses quickly brought down most hopes of ever having a stable career in Hollywood. Now, his days were spent scrounging for financing to produce his own films in his own way—often shooting in bits and pieces over several years, shutting down production when the money ran out and then going back to scrounging.

All Welles had to do was show up and do the job, bang out the picture and make everyone happy. He had proven that he could do it in the past with The Stranger (1946) a solid thriller about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal. It was Welles’ only genuine box office hit, and he was wildly dismissive of it, basically saying that he essentially made it in his sleep, put nothing of his talent into it and took the job merely to show that he could be a good boy, play by Hollywood’s rules, pump out product and fill theaters.

But, years later on Touch of Evil, he simply couldn’t do that. He needed to re-write the screenplay, add pesky little things like depth, dimension and meaning and then, once in production, just had to orchestrate, then execute what many people consider to be one of the single greatest shots in the history of the movies. In other words, he had to make art. He had been given an unexpected second chance in Hollywood with nothing to lose and everything to gain at this point if he just played ball. Sometimes the muse steps in and takes over, sometimes very loudly because it is apparent that Welles, this broken, sad and desperate 42-year-old former boy wonder, was on fire. Touch Of Evil succeeds on so many very high levels creatively that, from the point of view of this not especially religious writer, he was clearly touched by God, or something like that, when he made the film.

Besides being a Welles junkie, I am also a reformed theater geek, enamored as much with production design and stage craft as I am in love with acting. Welles productions were legendary and, of them, none was more so than his groundbreaking 1937 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a show that is still discussed in the theater world. Very few images and no recordings of the production exist so, for me, Linklater’s impeccable reproduction of the show for Me and Orson Welles was worth the price of admission. To be able to imagine, if only for a little while, that I was able to have seen that show was one of the best experiences I have ever had at the movies.

Much as the diehard cynic in me hates to admit it, I have come to recognize a sizable romantic streak growing inside of me. The film, more so than many others, accurately captures my own experiences of what it is like to be in love with the theater, in love with acting, in love with being part of that world of actors and illusion, not to mention being in love with love. Zac Efron does quite well in his role of wide-eyed New Jersey teenager Richard, who comes to New York City with stars in his eyes and wins a part in the new show by Welles (Christian Mckay) after stumbling into an impromptu audition. Richard finds a new home in the theater but is quickly swept up into a swirling vortex of larger-than-life personalities consumed by passion for their art but also suffering at the whims and temperament of their volatile visionary director.

While Linklater had tackled period pieces before—notably with Dazed and Confused set in the ’70s and his first big budget film, 1998’s largely ignored The Newton Boys, set in the ’20s—Me and Orson Welles seemed more ambitious. He was now tackling a period film, adapting a story that mixed fiction with reality and, of all things, he was recreating 1930s NYC in England, primarily shooting on the Isle of Man.

Ultimately, Linklater proved the right choice for this film, and he clearly threw himself into the production. Linklater, 29 when he shot Slacker in 1991, was five years older than the 24-year-old Welles was when shot Citizen Kane, but both of them had a bit of “boy wonder” buzz about them. That Linklater, now in his mid-50s, has aged gracefully and retains that same boyish quality physically that eluded Welles, makes for an intriguing comparison of their careers. Linklater has bounced back and forth between small, personally meaningful films like the Before trilogy and Boyhood, and more crowd-pleasing fare like School of Rock and The Bad News Bears, a balance that the notoriously difficult Welles never managed to achieve.

Interestingly enough, it was Me and Orson Welles that presented Linklater with one of his most arduous post-production challenges. Following a number of festival appearances after completion, Me and Orson Welles struggled to find an American distributor and Linklater, much like Welles before him, had to seek an alternative model, essentially releasing and distributing the film himself—something that is becoming more and more commonplace today but, in 2008, was still pretty unconventional. In interviews, Linklater has said that he felt a kind of kinship with Welles because both of them have had to step out of the box to pursue independent financing and distribution. As with so many of his film and theater projects, Welles was way ahead of his time in regard to production and distribution, effectively using the same methods that many of today’s indie filmmakers use—but without avenues like VOD, Netflix and Amazon.

Much as Linklater’s approach to production on Before Sunrise, Tape and subUrbia influenced me in my own work, Welles clearly inspired Linklater. The result is beyond mere entertainment for me; instead, Me and Orson Welles is almost like a manifesto, forged by Linklater, inspired by and honoring Welles.

21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.

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