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Richard Linklater & Christian McKay—Me and Orson Welles—12/2/09

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In 1991, Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater created a sensation on the indie circuit with his experimental narrative feature Slacker. Since then, he has been one of America's most reliable directors, one who's always up for a challenge. His films include Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, SubUrbia, The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Tape, The School of Rock, Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, and A Scanner Darkly. Christian McKay wowed stage audiences with his performance as Orson Welles in the one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles, by Mark Jenkins. On seeing the performance, Linklater immediately signed McKay up to headline Me and Orson Welles, which the pair hit the road to promote together. We chatted at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel.

Groucho: I loved the film. Another way of putting it would be you really got the rabbit out of the pants on this one.

Christian McKay: Oh, the Hillcrest Country Club. Yeah, you know that story.

Groucho: I do.

Christian McKay: Danny Kaye and, you know, Louis Armstrong and, you name it, nobody asked Orson to take the rabbit out of his pants. He went home with it. It peed all over him.

Richard Linklater: I always use that. The story really illustrates Welles’ need to amaze people around him—you know, the fact that he always had these magic tricks. He would go to a party with a rabbit down his pants just so a few hours later he could produce a rabbit. You know, it says something about your personality that you want to please those around you. He was just a consummate showman. And a couple hours before he died, there he is on, I think, The Merv Griffin Show performing a very elaborate, detailed card trick—just wowing ’em, to the end.

G: Yeah.

RL: It’s very touching.

G: In developing your Welles, what did you most often return to or listen to, or was there a particular that captured your imagination...that you would stare at to remind you of his essence?

/content/interviews/303/2.jpgCM: No. I—you really can only use yourself. I thought, "I don’t want false noses, and I don’t want, you know, putting jowls and makeup and all that." You know, it’s me. I’m just trying to transform. People say that I have a resemblance to him. It’s not really true. It’s if you say, "Well, I’m going to play Winston Churchill." And they suddenly start looking at you, and they’re using their own, you know, imagination about Churchill and foisting it onto you. So I just looked at his physicality—looked, obviously at a lot of the films, his interviews, you know, the documentaries made on him. I think the single most important thing for me to get was an inflect—a flavor of his voice. Avoid imitation and impression at all costs—but just to give a flavor. I mean, I’m a baritone and he’s a basso profundo. And so I had to learn physically how to be able to do that. [In Welles voice:] Open everything and it’s down there and that would help, physically. And I listened to literally hundreds of hours of radio shows and broadcasts from the beginning of his career right up to him reading poetry and books towards the end of his career—because that voice was already fully formed even at this stage.

G: I think it’s important, as you say, you weren’t looking to do an impersonation. And I think that the reason it works is that it is such a full-bodied—

CM: If you do an impression or impersonate, you will never ever get—

G: The essence.

CM: To embody or, yes, to find the essence. So you’ll be always at one removed from the person you’re playing. Even if you decide to—this is the first real life character I’ve ever played. But if you decide to use a certain voice for a character—I played a sixty year old merchant once in a restoration comedy. And I decided on a real London voice to make it quite older, and then I realized I was basing it on a friend of mine. And so I changed it slightly so that it wouldn’t be me playing my friend.

G: Right.

CM: And then I got closer to the character. Sterling in The Clandestine Marriage. Lovely character, that.

G: You said in one interview there’s a lot of apologists for Orson, but you also talked about how Americans can be very judgmental about his self-destruction in his career.

CM: Yes, well, it’s a generalization in both terms but you know, the difference between the European appraisal of Welles and the American one is simply that in America there’s a question of "What if?" and also, after Kane the general thought is that he got fat and failed.

G: Right.

CM: Whereas, you know, some of his greatest work was before him. I mean, he thought Chimes of Midnight was his greatest film, and I thoroughly agree with him. But here it’s enjoyed very, very poor distribution. And you can’t get it on DVD—typical Orson, there’s all kinds of legal wrangling. The keepers of the flame: "It’s my film," "No, its my film." Actually, can we just watch the thing, please? You know, sort it out. Let’s see this incredible masterpiece.

G: It’s funny, when you mention the legal wranglings, it reminds me—I hadn’t thought about this till now in all of the time I’ve spent watching and thinking about the film, but [Welles' daughter] Beatrice Welles—was she ever involved in this?

/content/interviews/303/6.jpgRL: No, I mean, Welles is a public figure. You can—we did have—I think our only touch with the estate—I was hoping to use some of the photos from the actual production. There were these Cecil Beaton photos—maybe about ten of them, and I thought over the closing credits maybe we’d see some photos from the real production. And we made one inquiry and, yeah, the lawyers for her—I think we got shot down really fast. It was all about money. And so we’re like, "Okay, we’re not going to—that door isn’t even cracked open." So we hit immediate difficulty there. We’ve met Christopher Welles, his daughter, who’s actually in the movie—she’s the one, Virginia Nicholson, his wife, was pregnant with at the time. She’s written a book recently. And she came to a screening in New York, and we dedicated a plaque on West 41st Street to The Mercury Theatre, and she came to the unveiling. She and Christian spoke very eloquently about her father. It was wonderful.

G: One of the things that I also love about the film is that, to me, it seems very fair to Orson Welles.

CM: Thank you! That’s what we tried to do but not to apologize, you know?

G: Right.

CM: It’s very well documented, his towering rages.

G: Yes.

CM: In fact, Norman Lloyd, who’s become a wonderful friend. Ninety-five years young. Still ringing his manager saying, "Why aren’t I working?" He told me a horrific story about Welles coming off the preview, which we depict in the movie. But we don’t depict this: he, coming off stage and someone said to him, "We’ll never—it’s a disaster," and he spat in the face of this actor who then promptly pulled back his fist ready to flatten him. And Orson, quick thinking as ever said, "No, spit at me."

(All laugh.)

CM: Otherwise he’d be playing Brutus with a black eye that evening, I think.

G: Yeah.

/content/interviews/303/3.jpgRL: But it is a precarious balance, I think, between portraying, you know, what some people think: "Oh, he’s an egomaniac. He’s a bit of a monster." He’s this and that. I said, “Well, it’s his theatre.” I found myself defending him pretty easily. It’s his theatre. He’s created it for his—to do his work. It’s just he’s working in a very collaborative medium. He’s not in a studio painting alone. He’s working with a cast and a crew, and it’s a real plate-spinning juggling act to pull off theatre or film. And that’s what was so fascinating about this story to all of us who worked on it: this backstage story how you see art being created in an ensemble. And you know, it’s the same hierarchies, the same differing points of view and strong egos and wills that you see in any corporate environment and any undertaking—business, anything—government—but it’s more telling, or I think people are more fascinated when it’s art because you have this democratic notion of "Oh yes, it’s all beautiful because it’s art." No, it’s like making sausage. It’s a little—you might not want to see how it’s made, but we’re fascinated with it. And certainly all of us who worked on it, we have these experiences. It was very personal to all of us. To me he’s just—every now and then, the leader has to stand up and say you care—that this means more to you than anything, and you will do anything, and others have to kind of rally around you.

G: Right. None of it would happen without that lightning-rod figure.

RL: Yeah, every project needs one of those, and you can lead by different ways—by intimidation, love—so this was just Welles’ larger-than-life personality but you have to think what a—if you could find your place in his orbit, what a fascinating guy to be around. He’s doing magic tricks, he’s very funny, he’s so lively, and he’s a genius. What he’s creating, we’re still talking about 72 years later. So I think there were a lot of benefits to being around Welles. You get stories about it the rest of your life, if you can just stomach some of the lesser qualities you might not admire as much. But, you know, so what? He’s Orson Welles.

G: Mmm. Because Cradle Will Rock, for example, I don’t think was very fair to Welles.

CM: Well, he was portrayed as a drunk and a buffoon, which he clearly wasn’t. I mean, he liked to tipple, don’t get me wrong. But that—later in his life. But how could he have possibly achieved all that work? You know, he was making the adaptation of Les Miserables at the time. But you know, an extraordinary achievement for a twenty-one-year-old. And running a theatre—you know running a production with John Houseman. It would have been impossible for him to be rolling down the aisles.

G: Yeah, I agree.

CM: But fascinating story, the production The Cradle Will Rock. I believe they didn’t—you might be able to tell me—they didn’t use Orson’s script, his own script for that.

G: No, no.

CM: I believe it was different—because, Orson, at the end of his life, he wrote a play—wrote a film script called The Cradle Will Rock.

G: Right, right.

CM: But this one’s called The Cradle Will Rock—to make the difference I suppose.

G: Right. The other thing I wanted to ask you about is what in your own background, Christian, you were able to [tap into]—how you identified with Welles. I mean, I think there’s a lot in your background, obviously as an actor and as a musician...you worked with the RSC, you did BBC radio, you know? What sort of points of comparison were you able to draw on?

CM: Well, I’m afraid none in terms of any kind of ability. I mean, he was just a firebrand and just one of –a uniquely talented man. He wanted to bedazzle and make us bow down to him, I think. I don’t look at his work, you know, with love. I look at it with awe. And you know, there are certain film directors that—whose films you love. But I think Welles, in his extraordinary talent was making the world bow down to him in awe. But that was very important—take him off the pedestal. If I was thinking about the genius and the legend constantly, I would have never got out of the hotel room. So I had to find certain points of reference with him as just a man, you know? And I discovered things about him that I didn’t particularly like. You know, he was a flawed genius like all genius. And so, yeah, I wanted to kind of—I wanted to humanize him. He had a massive, massive front. But, even in later life, he had a kind of persecution complex. I always like to think that his, you know, massive 350-pound frame was his little barrier to the world. He’d been hurt and that kind of kept the world at bay in a sense. But he was childlike to the end. I’d rather be humble and found than what he was: arrogant and lost, I think.

G: Richard, why this film at this time in your career? What did the story mean to you? Why did it resonate with you now—other than the fact obviously that Welles is such a fascinating figure?

/content/interviews/303/10.jpgRL: Yeah, I never thought I’d be depicting Welles on film. It was just this particular story really got its hooks in me—you know, this one week in the life of young Mr. Welles...fairly obscure in the Welles biography we feel like we all know—it’s a pretty obscure moment. But really, when he looked back, this was his heyday. This is where he’s kind of firing on all cylinders. He’s at the height of his youthful energy and genius. And, I don’t know, it was fun to depict someone who’s still finding—I mean, I talk about this movie as a coming-of-age story, but that’s for Zac Efron’s character. But it’s also for Orson Welles. He’s only 22. You can feel the boundaries—him pushing the boundaries or finding maybe there aren’t any boundaries to his own genius and to his behavior and his appetites. You can almost feel them expanding as you watch him. And it’s just a moment in his life that it was very—he was just touched. It was all—everything was working. A few years later, Hollywood would ,give him his first little slap-down in different ways. But it was fun to just contemplate this part of his life. I don’t think I could have made this film ten years ago, personally. You know, it took me—this is my fifteenth film, and having done this a lot now, I could look back on it and just find some—you know, kind of the beauty, I think of the ensemble and could comment on it now. I would have been not experienced enough to make this a long time ago—even though it’s a very youthful film—but it’s me looking way back in a way.

G: Yeah, the film captures not only his artistic genius, but also his genius as a bluffer.

CM: (Laughs.)

G: And not only the radio scene but...with his actors, and, by the end, you see him backstage and there’s almost that private moment where he says, “It worked.” Like "It’s happening."

CM: "How the hell am I ever going to top this?"

G: Yeah.

RL: Sometimes you do that in any undertaking. There is an element of bluff. Because you maybe don’t have it all figured out, but you’re confident enough to know you will. So you have to put up a confident front. And that’s what creating art is, especially in an ensemble environment. You have to be the leader who has all the answers or at least acts like you do.

/content/interviews/303/4.jpgCM: That’s—you see, that’s what Richard did with me. Yeah, my first film. Never told me about all the problems and the juggling he was dealing with—how if he got a famous Hollywood star it would be much easier. He just went through and then suddenly, miraculously, a few months later we appeared—you know, we walked in, and there he is getting everything ready, directing the actors, and there’s Dick Pope getting the lights sorted out. And, really, I’d been handed the biggest electric train set a boy ever had. And I fell in love with making films. But Richard never ever gave me any intimation of just how difficult it was to “align the planets,” as he said. And my God he did.

G: Now, I’m curious—you guys had a rehearsal period, and I gather when you shoot a film on a limited budget, let’s say, time is of the essence. And I think there must have been some also feeling of the actors that was similar to what the characters in the film are going through, right? The arduous shoot, the arduous rehearsals?

RL: Well, in theatre—the movie, there’s this pace based on the opening night is coming quicker than you can imagine. So there’s this clock ticking toward the opening night, and film, it’s sort of like that on a day-by-day, scene-by-scene basis. But I truly—film’s so different. I don’t want there to be this panicky atmosphere and plate-spinning—I mean, even though you’re kind of doing that, film is more exacting. You get those additional takes. And I don’t want the actors to feel like "Oh my God, we gotta get this." Even though kind of I’m thinking that, I don’t want them to feel that way. So, even though we did have a very tight schedule, and we worked really hard, Christian didn’t necessarily know that, being his first big film. He’s like "Oh, of course you work six-day weeks and you work these hours."

CM: You wanted me twenty-four hours a day—I was there. I had nothing to compare it to. I thought "confidence of ignorance" that Orson talked about. It’s good for you. It really is. I thought, "Is this the norm? This is great."

RL: And Orson also echoed in our minds with his "limitations is good for art," so when things got really tough and we realized we were just pushed to the boundaries of what we could achieve, it was like "Okay, well, this is good. We just didn’t need a thirty to fifty or seventy-million-dollar budget. No, we’re doing this for very little and we just have to pull the rabbit out of the hat." It makes you be a magician, you know, visually and otherwise.

G: I just wanted to ask real quick about I read that you were—

CM: This always terrifies me, you know, when somebody says, "Now I read that—” Because I think, "I don’t read it at all," and I go, "Oh, my word, what have I said?" you know?

G: (Laughs.) Well, it’s nothing you said, but I heard that you were pranked by fellow actors with one of the magic tricks. Is that true?

CM: No, no. Richard and I—he said, "Now don’t show them if you don’t get this in the take"—he wanted their absolute honest reactions.

G: Ahhh.

CM: And the first time we did it, the lights didn’t work. And Richard said, "Sshhh. Don’t tell"—because I went "Oh no, I’ve ruined it!"

RL: We were playing this for real.

CM: And then suddenly the second time it worked, and everybody said, "What’s he doing? The wallet’s on fire.’ It was wonderful. And that was the absolutely genuine reaction. That was a very good thing to do.

RL: Yeah, I never do that—have a camera rolling and the actors not knowing what we’re trying to do. But I thought that was maybe the one time it would be worth it. And you get in a slightly—you know, they’re [giving] kind of a bemused look. There’s laughter when his wallet catches on fire, but I thought that was Welles. He was always keeping ’em--

CM: Entirely genuine, wasn’t it?

RL: Guessing—keeping everyone a little off balance. He was a magician that way, so yeah, that was kind of an authentic reaction there. Some were laughing. Some were like "Oh my God."

CM: The other one—talking about the state of tyranny we were working under, I said well, this is film, surely, you know—because this very hard trick of turning the match into the rose, yes?

G: Right.

/content/interviews/303/7.jpgCM: And you light the match and then blow it out, and it becomes the rose. A lovely effect. And Richard said, Oh, no. If you can’t do the trick, we’ll cut it." And I thought, "Well, it’s a great trick," so when I did it, it worked, but suddenly I had this searing pain on my hand. It was because the match was still alight. So I walk into the radio studio going [making repeated sound of blowing out a match] trying to blow it out.

RL: It’s one take. We couldn’t get there and then screw up the trick.

CM: It was a long take, wasn’t it?

RL: Yes, it was a very long take. All that has to work. It’s even more of a high-wire balancing act. But that’s fun.

CM: I took one for the team.

(All laugh.)

G: And you had a bandage to prove it. Well, I have to stop, but it’s been wonderful talking to both of you.

CM: A pleasure.

RL: Thanks for having us.

G: And I wish you a forty-year sequel—that you’ll come back and do it again.

CM: Oh yes. It’s "the chocolate years," yes. I’m looking forward to that. I want it.

(All laugh.)

RL: Who knows in this world? That might be a lot of fun. Who knows?

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