The first act of “RKO 281” revolves around Welles’ struggle to find a project ambitious enough for him and his growing reputation after success in radio and theater. While he surely made a big impression on the folks of Hollywood with his glorious entrance, Welles, played by Liev Schreiber, soon finds himself running out of time without anything to be greenlit by RKO and its current president George Schaefer (Roy Scheider). But then, serendipitously, he is invited to the big manor of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) in San Simeon, California. While getting the glimpses of the private life of Hearst and his longtime mistress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith), Welles comes to have a brilliant story idea for his first movie, and then persuades Mankiewicz to write a screenplay based on that. As your average jaded Hollywood writer, Mankiewicz, played by John Malkovich, is reluctant at first, but he eventually agrees to work for Welles because it looks like the last opportunity in his dwindling movie career which has been deteriorated by his alcoholism. Having been one of Hearst and Davies’ regular guests for years, Mankiewicz surely knows some interesting personal facts about them, and he doesn’t hesitate to include a reference the pet name for Davies’ certain body part.
While he did his best at completing the screenplay within a short period of time as demanded by Welles, Mankiewicz is also well aware of the big danger of what he and Welles are attempting to do. Hearst may not be as powerful as he once was, but he still can wield considerable power and influence over the presidents and executives of those major Hollywood movie companies including Louis B. Meyer (David Suchet), and it’s only a matter of time before Hearst comes to learn of what Welles’ first movie is about. Nevertheless, Welles decides to take risks mainly because he believes that his movie will draw more publicity due to Hearst; Schaefer and RKO go along with his decision despite having understandable concerns.
What follows is a rather brief but exhilarating passage that offers a closer look into the production of “Citizen Kane.” We see Welles thoroughly studying and analyzing John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939) along with his cinematographer Gregg Toland (Liam Cunningham), and “RKO 281” then serves us a series of amusing moments on the set, including the instance when Welles and Toland dug a hole in the floor to get an extreme low-angle shot exactly envisioned by Welles. Because of that and many other incidents on the set, Schaefer and RKO executives have constant headaches everyday, but they have no choice but to keep tolerating Welles as legally bound to their contract with him.