Have we enough evidence to name Michael Almereyda the American cinema’s greatest biographer? It’s a narrow range and hardly the highest bar to clear, yet his oeuvre yields both biopics (delightful whatsit Experimenter) and documentaries (This So-Called Disaster, about Sam Shepard; William Eggleston in the Real World; and Escapes, on the subject of actor and Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher) that show the largely unloved, oft-uncinematic concentration for everything it’s capable.
This week sees the addition of Tesla, Almereyda’s formally playful examination of Nikola Tesla’s life, work, legacy, and (because nothing is as it seems) vocal skills; he’s here reunited, some 20 years after their fantastic Hamlet, with Ethan Hawke in the title role and Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison, while Eve Hewson, playing Anne Morgan, is our guide through this film’s puzzle. Praised since Sundance—where we said it marks “a testament to the independent spirit”—it arrives Friday via IFC.
Almereyda and I spoke over email about his decades-long quest to chronicle Tesla’s life.
The Film Stage: Your dialogue intricately weaves Tesla’s biography, his relationships (primarily with Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Anne Morgan, and J.P. Morgan), the specifics of his patents, and his eccentricities (e.g. the messages from Mars). How much is historical record and your own invention? Is there an ideal “middle point,” so to speak, for achieving what is (to my ears) a consistent rhythm of language?
Michael Almereyda: Just about everything in the movie comes out of research. The weave of dialogue, as you put it, blends with a weave of historical facts, and the language, accordingly, is stitched from material found in 19th-century newspapers, letters, and books, and from Tesla’s serialized autobiography, written in 1916. That said, I also tossed in quotes from Susan Sontag, Max Beckmann, and John Ashbery, and the film’s visual framework involves elements lifted from 19th-century photographs, paintings, and drawings, with various explicit anachronisms coming into play. I didn’t invent much of anything! But it may be more appropriate to consider the movie a collage, patched and stitched together from a great many sources.
Now and again Anne Morgan, narrating the story, openly admits that liberties are being taken; facts are being stretched. I considered this a way to highlight a kind of yearning at the heart of the film, mirroring Tesla’s idealism and his ultimate failure. Anne’s presence on the inside track of Tesla’s life is, for that matter, the single most aggressive stretching of the truth, because in reality her acquaintance with Tesla began a good many years after the point in the film when she first appears. I felt she was important as a witness and a foil, as someone trying to see, and reach, into Tesla’s inner life. And there’s genuine tension in the fact that her father was so monstrously powerful, a significant investor in Edison’s career before he gave money to Tesla.
What was your impression of the original material, which you wrote decades prior, once you began a redraft? Was anything about your younger creative ambitions especially charming or disappointing?
My first script was 139 pages long, a lavishly detailed extravaganza written by a would-be whiz kid who had yet to direct a movie. Circling back to it, I was pleased and embarrassed in equal measures. If someone would intercut scenes from Malick’s Days of Heaven with Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, filling the soundtrack with the crash of lighting and the hiss of rain, that might give you a fair idea of the intended scope and look and feel of the movie my younger self wanted to make. For some reason, even as I found it necessary to demolish and rebuild that version of the script, I took care to retain a few scenes, keeping the dialogue almost verbatim—namely Tesla’s off-balance encounters with Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan. Almost everything else went through a tumultuous sea change.
Is there a direct connection between Tesla‘s script dating to the 1980s and your reference to Tears for Fears, which some might consider the quintessential ’80s pop group? Or did that come much later, and its inclusion is a coincidence with timing?
Tears for Fears evoke the era when my ghost self was first thinking about Tesla, a time that feels fateful and delirious, when the Internet was in its unobtrusive infancy and Nikola Tesla was a shadowy figure who didn’t yet share a name with a manufacturer of luxury electric cars and space rockets. All the same, the song isn’t offered as a personal reference or a nostalgic souvenir, but as another way of getting at Tesla’s emotional life—the way shy people can open up and almost break loose if they find themselves confronted with the right karaoke track. It’s both an upbeat anthem and a confession of loss.
Similarities between Tesla and Experimenter seem rather obvious—biopic of a controversial scientist, similar strategies of abstraction. Do you see the films as connected in any spiritual sense, or are these overlaps more a result of your creative proclivities than a larger project?
Obvious as they may be, the similarities reflect different objectives, and translate into different ideas and feelings. By “abstraction,” I guess you’re referring to the rear-screen projections that show up in both films. The projections are almost always referring to definable reality, even if the images are stridently artificial. In telling the story of a man conducting behavior experiments, the floating unreality of the backgrounds refers to the mind games Stanley Milgram was playing, and to the way his personal life was gradually overtaken by the impact of simulacrums staged in his lab and on the street. The historical canvas of Tesla’s story is more expansive, entwined with those of other iconic figures and bracketed by questions about how much of the past is knowable or even guessable.
There’s also the broader acknowledgement, aligned with this approach, of how this incomplete history spills over into the present as a flat, shallow version of itself, an insubstantial flow flashing by on the Internet. Actually I suspect Tesla has more in common with Hamlet, though they’re separated by twenty years. Both are stories of an alienated individual swimming against the tide, framed by a sense of America as a bright, cruel, self-assured empire, with capitalism and consumer culture snuffing out quaint ideas of love and honor. (And both movies contain stand-out performances by Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan.)
How, if at all, did your creative relationship with Hawke change after two Shakespeare adaptations, as you’re no longer directing him in a faithful rendering of iambic pentameter? Did anything about his performance in a more contemporary language surprise you?
We’ve known each other a good while now, as friends and allies, so there’s a binding agent of mutual respect, I’d like to think, holding things together on set. My dialogue, channeling Tesla, is hardly Shakespeare, but Ethan applied an equal measure of fidelity to the script, and a freshness and agility in delivering big swaths of scientific run-on sentences. For all that, most of Tesla’s dialogue was terse, unyielding, and Ethan was sharp and open enough to volunteer extra lines. When Tesla’s friend comments that Anne Morgan is a woman who can make all Tesla’s dreams come true, Ethan came up with “All my dreams are true.” To my mind, it’s one of the best lines in the movie—showing how confident, indeed over-confident, this particular dreamer could be.
Do you feel some need to explain Tesla‘s peculiarities—projected and painted background images, the integration of contemporary technology, musical sequences—to actors? Do they ask for clarification? Or is it both parties’ wont to just complete the work as it’s required?
I make it a point to meet with every actor at least once before the shoot starts, to field any questions but mostly just to get a sense of where each person is coming from, to ease into a conversation. Once we were on the set, nobody in the cast had cause to question the formal aspects you mention. The actor’s job is to accept all these elements of absurdly orchestrated fantasy and illusion, and to respond to them with truthful behavior and convincingly “real” emotions, for short concentrated bursts of time between moments when somebody behind the camera says Action and Cut. I don’t know how they do it, and I never ask.
Tesla is available via VOD and select theaters starting Friday, August 21.