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Austin couple pour passion into 'Welles' project

Vince and Holly Gent Palmo wrote and co-produced the film 'Me & Orson Welles.'

Charles Ealy

Austin director Richard Linklater's new movie, "Me & Orson Welles," deals with a genius whose light burns bright early. But as most people know, this particular light dimmed dramatically with age.

It's been quite the opposite for the people behind the screenplay, Austinites Vince and Holly Gent Palmo, who started near the bottom in the film industry and made several attempts at writing screenplays before finally seeing one turned into a major motion picture. The bittersweet "Me & Orson Welles," which stars Christian McKay as the famed director and teen heartthrob Zac Efron as a young man being mentored by him, opened to favorable reviews Friday.

The project was one of several the Palmos had pitched to Linklater over the years, including original screenplays.

"We've had a few that Rick had read and liked to varying degrees," Vince Palmo said.

But they got his attention with the story about the mercurial Welles, who was a mere 22 when he staged "Julius Caesar" in 1937 in New York as a contemporary commentary on fascism. The Palmos adapted the screenplay from the 2003 book of the same title by New Jersey high school English teacher Robert Kaplow.

"We gave the book to Rick, and he read it, and the idea sort of dawned that it could be a good movie," said Holly Gent Palmo.

Vince Palmo said he and Holly wanted to do the screenplay in part because of their attraction to Welles and his brilliant early career in theater, which is not as well-known as his later incarnation as a great director and, eventually, the not-so-well-regarded role as verbose late-night TV talk-show guest and advertising pitchman for Paul Masson wine.

The Palmos' contribution to the film "goes far beyond being the screenwriters," Linklater said. "They were co-producers of the movie and were on it the whole way. We started all of this research on Welles, and it became sort of our joint thesis project."

Both of the Palmos took a circuitous path to get to this point.

Holly Gent studied at the University of Texas and then worked in advertising sales at the American-Statesman in the 1980s.

After learning that Austin's Bill Wittliff was adapting the Larry McMurtry novel "Lonesome Dove" for what would become a hit 1989 TV miniseries, she wrote Wittliff asking if there was any way she could work on the project.

To her surprise, Wittliff said yes. She quit her job and ended up as an art department coordinator for the series, "which means you order everything, answer phones, deal with props."

Vince, meanwhile, studied journalism at California State University in Northridge in the 1980s. After he graduated and then was laid off from an office job, a family connection helped him find work as a stand-in for Charlie Sheen in the 1987 crime drama "No Man's Land."

Vince came to Austin in 1992 to work as an assistant director on Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" after another crew member backed out at the last minute.

"I got here about a week before it started shooting," Vince said. "It was kind of a fluke."

That fluke introduced him to his future wife, who had signed on as the film's production coordinator. The two went on to work together on the Coen brothers' "The Hudsucker Proxy" and then married in 1993.

Since then, Vince has worked on numerous television and movie productions, including the "Spy Kids" franchise from Austin director Robert Rodriguez and Linklater's "Bad News Bears," "Fast Food Nation" and "A Scanner Darkly."

In between helping raise three children who are now 9, 10 and 13 years old, Holly has also kept working in the movies in various roles.

"Once we were married, we realized that both of us liked to write," Vince said. "And in between movies, we've been doing these adaptations if it is a book that interests us."

"There's so much down time in the movies," Holly said. "You work 14-hour days, and then you're done and have all this time on your hands between projects. So this is how we spend our spare time."

In the summer of 2005, the Palmos were looking for a new writing project when they saw a copy of "Me & Orson Welles" at BookPeople.

"It was about a period in Welles' life that I knew nothing about," Holly said. "I had never read much about the Mercury Theater years.

"And I really loved the story. It's a nice coming-of-age tale."

Linklater loved it, too. So the Palmos began researching the period, using lots of historical materials collected by the author, Kaplow. And Linklater bought the rights from Kaplow.

"He had old 'Life' magazines about the period," Holly said of the author, "as well as the original playbill of the Welles production of 'Julius Caesar.' "

The biggest challenge was finding an actor who could pull off the larger-than-life Welles role. Kaplow told Linklater about McKay, who was doing a play in New York based on Welles' life. After Linklater saw McKay onstage, a screen test for him was arranged in Austin.

"We thought, 'Oh, my gosh, he really is Orson,' " Holly said.

By early 2008, the Palmos, Linklater and the rest of the cast and crew were on the Isle of Man, shooting the movie, with the British island's Gaiety Theatre substituting for the long-lost theater in which Welles staged his original production.

And nearly two years later, the Palmos are ready for the rest of the world to see the movie they helped bring to life.

"It's about a sliver of time," Holly said. "And that was what interested us, just trying to get into Welles' head. How fresh his life would have been. \u2026 He clearly had a vision and must have been exciting to be around. We're just very lucky that this movie happened."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931