Director Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise”) and stars Claire Danes and Zac Efron talked to a small group of reporters here in Washington DC about their new film, “Me and Orson Welles.” It is a fictional story based on the real-life production Mercury Theater production of “Julius Caesar” in 1937. Welles, then a theatrical and radio prodigy and general enfant terrible was a few years from making “Citizen Kane” but already considered both brilliant and impossible. In this movie, based on the book by Robert Kaplow, a high school student (Efron of “Hairspray” and “High School Musical”) almost accidentally gets a bit part in the chaotic production and falls for a young woman (Danes) working on the production. When we saw them, they had just come back from a visit to the White House.
Q: What got you interested in this script?
ZE: Rick talked to me about it and that was probably the most flattering thing in the world, I was kind of floored. Although it appears on the surface to be more serious or dramatic, I think for the kids who did see “High School Musical” and “17 Again,” for a younger audience, its an interesting transition. At a first glance theater in the 30s might appear a more stuffy, boring kind of story, but what the audience will find out is that it is every bit as fun as “High School Musical” and even more real world and practical. It doesn’t just have to be a fantasy land in which theater can be fun. It’s probably more exciting — the stakes are higher and it’s real.
Q: You just came back from the White House! What was that like? Were the Obama girls there?
RL: I secretly suspected that’s why we were invited but Sasha and Malia did not play sick. They were in school — Michelle would not allow it. We were meeting with the policy advisor on behalf of the Americans for the Arts. They’re hosting the screening tonight. It’s about arts education.
CD: We had our meeting in the “war room.” They do real things in that building!
ZE: It’s just a meeting room — no buttons to push! But it was still really cool.
RL: George Washington is on the wall — that war. It’s like Hollywood — all of the people are really smart! So how can they make such bad stuff?
Q: You created the tone of the book beautifully. Can you talk a little bit about doing a period piece because the details are so evocative.
RL: That’s the magic of cinema, you can re-create a moment in time like this. It’s November 1937, this theater, this stage design. But beyond the specifics, you try to create a mood, an atmosphere. That’s not just the history but also the genre. This movie has elements of screwball comedy, if you think of the films of the 1930’s, just in film history terms, to get that tone. This is a genre Orson Welles would never act in or make a film about! We put him in a film he would never put himself in for a fun ride through a week in his life. It’s one thing to make a period piece about something you remember intimately, which I have done. It’s another thing to go back in time.
Is there a politician you admire?
CD: Obama’s the man!
ZE: Abraham Lincoln!
Q: Did you grow up in homes where politics was talked about?
CD: I grew up in New York, we talked about politics. I am curious, but I do not follow it avidly. I am not a news or politics junkie like my husband.
RL: I admire anyone who has devoted their lives to public service. Someone who’s truly a public servant.
CD: We try to make movies that are going to influence people in positive ways. We want to entertain them but we also want them to empathize and understand themselves in a new way. It’s exciting to talk to people who are working on a more practical level.
RL: It is exciting to have a President who has such vast empathy. You can read his books and you can see he really has this bigger vision and really cares about people. You see how tough that job is and you have to be patient. But we felt like these people get it.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
RL: We hope people will like it, we’d like them to see it in a theater preferably. There might be some kid who’s too young for it now but will catch up with it later on DVD. These stories travel.
ZE: Orson Welles was so ahead of his time and took a lot of risks, so unafraid. I think that’s something that is a great way to be remembered. He pushed mediums forward; he reinvented three mediums before he was 26 years old.
CD: I love that line of Bowie’s, “It doesn’t matter who does it first; it matters who does it second.” The innovators are often overlooked because they prepare people to appreciate that idea later on.
Q: You achieved such an authentic backstage feeling in the movie.
ZE: Putting on a play and being part of a show, there’s no way to explain or condense it. You live the highest highs and lowest lows. You feel on top of the world. It was interesting living in that world and re-creating the highlights of those moments, especially being directed by Orson Welles.
RL: But Christian McKay (who plays Welles) was the least experienced actor in the whole cast! He was the top dog but he would ask the most innocent questions.
ZE: He would even ask me questions!
RL: But it never seems out of the realm of possibility that even with so little film experience he would have a lead role in the film. That’s the Welles-ian element. And it’s not an imitation; it is a real performance.
Q: Did you do much research about Welles or the era?
CD: Like so many people, I discovered Welles in college, “Citizen Kane” in class. I definitely had an appreciation for him. And Rick made a care package for us of slang terms, a great compilation of songs from that time. I didn’t have to do a lot of research. My character was very relatable. But I was not the performer, more the Girl Friday, though she is starring in her own epic drama.
ZE: We had a pretty exciting time re-creating 1937 New York City in Pinewood Studios and we kind of felt we were living in that era. And we did talk about how my character would have admired Fred Astaire.
As the critic Nell Minow put it to me, there were any number of reasons for sex not to take place in the ’40s, ’50s and even ’60s, but it’s a near-insuperable challenge to delay the deed today. The threat of sex is forestalled by turning Bella’s suitors into a vampire and a werewolf, and the gimmick has a potent and unusual side effect: Rather than play to their supernatural predatory strengths to get what they want, “both men are completely unmanned by their love for her,” says Minow. “She has all the power.” Yearning is back in a culture soaked in immediate gratification and sleaze, and–forget whether it feels good–it feels new.
Butterworth does not overestimate the literary qualities of Stephanie Meyers’ series, even as he compares her to Jane Austen and James Joyce. His insights about the power and impact of her story are nuanced and thoughtful.
It is beyond the reach of serious criticism, the “aristocratic” way of reading advocated by that indisputably homme sérieux, Roland Barthes and the “difficulty” prized by the aristocratic T.S. Eliot as the hallmark of a genuine literary experience. And yet Twilight is being endlessly, critically dissected and discussed by those who read it and watch its cinematic rendition. It may be aimed at young adults, and it may have found a mass market audience, but that gives it a force high art seems to no longer possess. One can only wonder how the Farsi version will be read in Tehran.
This year, the Washington Jewish Film Festival opening here tomorrow looks especially enticing, with a wide range of films from a wide range of sources all with some relationship to the experience of Jewish culture and history. The festival, now in its 20th year, is presenting its visionary award to Michael Verhoeven, the director whose film, “The Nasty Girl,” led off the first festival two decades ago. Audiences will get a chance to see that film, based on the true story of a German student who uncovered that her community had suppressed the history of its involvement in Nazi atrocities, and hear Verhoeven in a conversation at the Goethe-Institut about the role of film in the ongoing denial and revelation of history. His latest film, “Human Failure,” will have its North American premiere at the festival. It is a documentary about the organized theft of assets from German Jews by Nazi tax officials, and it is presented in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Museum, The Generation After, and Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Friends of Greater Washington, and sponsored by the Embassy of the Republic of Germany and the Goethe-Institute Washington.
Some of the other highlights of the festival include:
“Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist,” a documentary about the brilliantly influential comic artists and writer, creator of The Spirit and The Contract with God Trilogy,
“A Matter of Size,” an Israeli feature film about four overweight men who discover a place where being big is truly appreciated: the world of sumo wrestling,
“The Worst Company in the World,” a documentary about the film-maker’s father and his inept efforts to run an insurance business,
“Mary and Max,” a claymation feature, based on the true story of a 22-year correspondene between an Australian girl and a New York Jewish man with Asperger’s, featuring the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette,
“Hello Goodbye,” a French feature about a Parisian couple (Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant) who struggle to adjust when they decide to move to Israel,
“For Making Me a Woman,” a documentary about the search for equality in Orthodox observance and community, and
“The Imported Bridegroom,” a 1989 American feature film set in turn-of-the-20th century America, about a Jewish immigrant family whose daughter does not want to marry the man her father has selected for her.
I’ll be reporting more about the festival, so stay tuned.
In the middle of all the special effects and silly fun of the “Night at the Museum” movies is one character who lends the real heart to the story: Sacajawea, played by Mizuo Peck with such sweet, quiet dignity that it is no wonder Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams) falls in love with her. I had a chance to talk with her about my home-town museum, the Smithsonian, and what it’s like to film a love scene with Robin Williams. The movie is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
NM: This may sound silly, but who are you playing, Sacajawea or a statue of Sacajawea?
MP: That was an interesting question that we were thinking about the entire time when we were shooting. Was Teddy Roosevelt in pain? No he isn’t because he is made out of wax. So we don’t really have the history of the actual figure. But I personally as an actress did a lot of research about Sacajawea and approached the role as if I were a wax statute who was identifying with her.
NM: She was such an amazing character!
MP: Doing the research on her life was almost the most amazing part about this! I didn’t know much about her before. In the back of everyone’s mind, there’s Pocahontas and Sacajawea but we don’t learn much about them in school. I got to read and watch really cool documentaries and find out what a powerful and important historical figure she was. I was very, very proud to play someone so exciting. There’s all sorts of fun things to learn about her. The Lewis and Clark expedition might not have been successful without her.
She was not an official member of the Corps of Discovery. She was just the wife of one of the translators. But her contribution was essential. She was able to dig up roots when all the men were just about eating their horses. Her being there, a woman with a baby, made their encounters peaceful because it showed that Lewis and Clark weren’t there for war. There were all these swarthy men doing this expedition in the dead of winter and she was a young woman holding a newborn on her back the entire time, so more power to her!
NM: We in Washington were very excited that the second film was set in the Smithsonian. Did you visit the museum when you were here?
MP: Yes, the premiere was there at the Air and Space Museum so I got there a day early and my boyfriend and I got there and did the whole tourist thing, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Going to the museum is most definitely a different experience after making the movie! And it’s such a great aspect of the movie that it makes kids want to go to the museum and check out all these characters.
NM: What’s it like to play the love interest of Robin Williams?
MP: Extremely bizarre, I must say! One of the first scenes we did, he’s looking at me through the glass and I’m still getting over that there’s a huge giant star in front of me and then the fact that he is doting on me? And in the second one, I had a scene on a horse with him. I’m just like “pinch me” because it was incredibly surreal! We had a lot of down tme together so we got to joke around a bunch. One scene started with us in an embrace. We would get into position and be hugging and then there would be a wait before “action” and there were so many funny moments where we would be talking while we were in this hug! It is impossible not to enjoy him.
NM: Did you have a lot of special effects work?
MP: I didn’t have to do as much as the other characters like Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan. In the first one, Robin Williams was wearing green tights in the scene where he was in two pieces and it was funny to see him like that.
NM: What are you doing next?
MP: Nothing like this giant blockbuster! Some independent movies and my own script.
NM: What makes you laugh?
MP: When people do silly things, and when my boyfriend tickles me. The movie “Nacho Libre” — it’s so silly, but Jack Black makes me laugh.
NM: What’s your dream role?
MP: I always like it when a woman starts off vulnerable and gains strength, a really intense arc — I like complex characters. I’ve always been attracted to the role in “La Femme Nikita.” She starts at such a low point and keeps her vulnerability but becomes a real bad ass!
NM: What inspires you?
MP: You find inspiration all over the place. I’m a born New Yorker so just the people on the street give me inspiration, being exposed to so many different kinds of people. We all are so different but we all want the same thing, love, trying to make a living. We’re all so different and diverse but it boils down to a certain sense of love and happiness. That’s kind of inspirational to me.