Few modern directors have displayed the sheer range and adoration of filmmaking as that of arthouse luminary Richard Linklater. After spending the last decade offering fare as diverse as rotoscoped sci-fi dirge A Scanner Darkly, yellow-journalism parable Fast Food Nation, a remake of nostalgic kids’ romp Bad News Bears and Jack Black comedy School of Rock, Linklater’s latest, Orson Welles And Me, is just as captivating and surprising as should be expected. In the period piece, Zac Efron plays an aspiring actor thrust into the world of egomaniacal showman Orson Welles, who, at 22, was directing and starring in “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theatre. Ever amicable and direct, Linklater spoke with Paste about the legacy of Welles, a possible School of Rock sequel and why he admires Efron more than any teenage girl ever will.
Paste: How did you first discover the Me and Orson Welles project?
Richard Linklater: My colleagues Vince Palmo and Holly Gent Palmo, who ended up doing the adaptation, gave it to me. I read it, thought it was wonderful. It never occurred to me to do anything Welles related. It just seems daunting. This novel just gets its hooks in you. It’s very charming. The historical elements are so factual. I vaguely knew about this period in Welle’s life and some of the more famous productions. But the historical recreation was really cool, but the fictional elements—Richard, the Sonja love triangle and all that—was pretty charming in the telling. We got the script in shape and started going through it. It was a hard film to get made in the environment today, so I optioned it with my own money and just started chugging away at it.
Paste: It’s hard not to read into the metaphysical aspect of you being a great director directing another movie about another great director.
Linklater: [laughs] Well, I don’t look at it like that. You know, Welles is sort of on his own pedestal forever. No one really qualifies to say we’re going toe to toe on anything. It was more fun for me. I don’t know if I have a film in me about making a film. Those are always autobiographical. This was fun. My sets are usually pretty nondramatic; it’s pretty workmanlike. I have a no-drama approach to filmmaking. But the whirlwind, I could relate, though. It’s the same thing: you’re creating art in collaboration. It’s one of the things that appealed to me so much about the story, because it’s a backstage look at that, whether you’re in theater or film, it’s kind of a fascinating concept, isn’t it? It’s creating art in collaboration with a lot of people, but all the same hierarchies and egos and points of view issues that you get in a corporation. There’s always a boss, and in this case it’s the director. And I can relate to this: somebody on the outside having petty complaints about something they really shouldn’t. But you have to deal with it. It always feels like you’re spinning a lot of plates and each personality is it’s own spinning plate. And you have to keep them all going as a director. Not to mention your own vision for the piece, which you don’t necessarily share with people. We don’t know what Welles is really doing until we see it. We hear about it: “Oh yeah, it’s anti-facist.” But all you’re worried about are the details. You’re into it, but not everyone shares the same picture.
Paste: Did you have your own analogue of an Orson Welles figure growing up in the film industry? Any situations similar to Richard’s?
Linklater: I certainly encountered a lot of huge personalities. I’m always fascinated with where you fit in their world. If you can accept a slightly subservient position, that can work for you. But you have to sublimate your own leading-person status. In this instance, you see Joseph Cotten and a lot of actors fit in with Welle’s world, and they had long careers and friends for life. But Richard is 17 and doesn’t really know how the adult world works. We’re raised to think in level playing fields and democracy and he kind of oversteps that just a little bit, despite hearing warnings from everybody. They all told him, “Don’t criticize [Welles], he can’t be wrong.” Then he does all those things.
Paste: There are modern equivalents. I’ve heard James Cameron described in similar terms.
Linklater: Yeah, I think Welles was more fun to be around. Welles was blessed. This is why I think he had a lot of friends and collaborators: I think it was very important for everyone around him to be entertained. Even when he’s arguing with (Mercury Theatre co-founder John) Houseman, he’s doing it with a certain aplomb. At least that’s the way I took it. Because his thing was that he was a showman. It was kind of his curse, too. What I hear about Cameron, it’s really eye-on-the-prize. It’s like we’re doing this for me and the boat, whereas Welles was really charming. He told great stories, he had that voice, doing little magic tricks. Keeping people amazed constantly. And I think that was almost the thing that didn’t help him to get more movies or stuff accomplished, just because of the 4-hour dinners. It was very important that (his people) be entertained. He’s the kind of a guy who would go to a Hollywood party with a rabbit down his pant leg. Just two hours in he could produce a rabbit and amaze everybody.
Paste: Literally? A rabbit?
Linklater: Yeah! He tells a story and the rabbit starts dropping pellets into his shoe halfway through. That kind of thing. The night he died, he’d just performed this amazing card trick on The Merv Griffin Show. That’s just who he was to the end. I think if you could accept his personality and the largeness of the man, I think there were a lot of benefits to being around him. Some people are just assholes and self-obsessed. That doesn’t mean they’re not not talented or what they’re going to achieve isn’t going to be impressive, but you just have to take your money and find your place in it.
Paste: This is a much lighter-hearted affair than some of your other recent movies.
Linklater: The last two were bummers. The bummer year of ‘07. [laughs]
Paste: It seems like a trend that you make a few lighter movies and then a few more adult or dramatic movies. Is that a distinct choice or are you just following your own muse?
Linklater: There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s just whatever movie you can get made. For every movie that I do get made, there are a couple that I don’t, usually. I just can’t get financing for them or they don’t come together. It just so happens that this one came off. It was fun to work in an almost screwball comedy-type tone set in the 30s. There was nothing conscious. I’m no different than I was a few years ago.
Paste: In another interview you had said that, “There are so many great artists, I think, who kind of suffer from being icons, legends, acknowledged masters. It’s still just a film, you know?” Ironically, I’ve read other sources that claim you’re slipping into that pool as well. You’ve yet to encounter any real critical scorn.
Linklater: Well, it’s a good thing that they don’t really have statistics for this. The only statistic that has ever emerged in film has been the box office. So that insulates me really well from being considered anything more [laughs]. But I think if they actually did have one for critical response, I’d probably be way up. I’ve hardly had a film that’s been super-duper panned. So I probably have a high batting average in that way. But it’s nothing that you carry with you. It doesn’t exist. But that’s good for me. It makes for a less up and down career to just be under the radar. But that’s a choice. I live in Austin. I play in a small market team. I play for the Mariners, not The Mets or The Yankees or The Dodgers. It seems to work for me. There is no big expectation for my next film in the bigger media landscape, which is OK. I feel like each film I put out I’m sort of sneaking up on people.