I feel like Michael Almereyda doesn’t live on this planet. It’s how he’s been able to catalogue some of our most interesting creators with such grace and curiosity. He’s done work on Manny Farber, Hampton Fancher, William Eggleston, Andrei Codrescu, Stanley Milgram and now Nikola Tesla.
His latest film, “Tesla,” based on his first ever screenplay, is among the best movies in a career full of adventurous highs (“Nadja,” “Experimenter,” “Hamlet”). It’s about the famed inventor and maverick (played by a wonderfully soulful Ethan Hawke) and feels like a dream made for us to slip into. That’s what he does and I recently highlighted one such beautiful vision of the impossible meeting the possible in a video essay, which Almereyda confesses to have watched (“A friend of mine sent me your Unloved column about my movie and I was both charmed and horrified by it and suddenly here you are!”) Any man who makes dreams is bound to feel a little inaccessible, especially the soft spoken Almereyda, who tells me beforehand he isn’t very good at interviews. Thankfully he proves himself wrong right away, able to talk at length about heroes, the production of his movie, and the special alchemical processes that made it so endearingly singular.
We’ve actually met once before. I went to the launch event for the book on Manny Farber you compiled last year (Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings).
OK, it’s kind of flashing back to me. At 192 books? It’s all coming back to me.
So even before I had ever watched your work, I was aware of it by reputation. I knew you as someone who had what I assumed were irreverent takes on classical ideas before learning first-hand that they were more seriously considered than that. By playing with ideas like vampire movies and Shakespeare plays, you were to me the next logical step after Orson Welles. You took things of which the public had an iconic understanding and ran with it and a deliberately non-classical, very contemporary direction. How do you decide what you can get away with? “Tesla” has so many purposeful anachronisms, how do you figure out the limits of that sort of thing?
I’ll try answering the question by deflecting it. I’d like to think that limits, in this respect, don’t exist. Why should there be limits? And how do you ever know if something is going to work? You just have to be willing to take risks. I want to believe movies are flexible enough to accommodate a certain wildness—switches in tone, occasional surprises and leaps of faith, jarring and jagged elements that get integrated, eventually, into an emotionally coherent whole. You mentioned the Manny Farber book I helped put together last year, Manny was an essential prompt for me, and continues to be important, as someone who acknowledged how interconnected movies can be with all the loose ends in your life. Why not be open to the widest range of experiences and references? The filmmakers I like most tend to be brave in that way. Welles is a great touchstone, so is Godard, who references Welles once in a while. There’s no way to match what they’ve accomplished—what Godard continues to accomplish—but they’re strong, essential reference points. Their best films cover monumental themes, iconic figures and conflicts, while remaining intimate and alive.
I love the gentle, confessional nature of “Tesla.” People speaking to camera, presenting modern signifiers as a way in to the story. What was the impetus for the approach? How did you decide what information to give your audience today?
As you probably know, the movie came out of the first script I ever wrote, so I was rewriting myself and in a way annotating myself. It felt almost confessional to include the Anne Morgan character—she wasn’t in the first draft—as a surrogate, explaining things that had occurred to me along the way, over the decades between the first and final drafts. Her voice is channeled through my own feelings about how unknowable and confounding Tesla is. The historical record is in many ways obscure, unreliable, incomplete. Acknowledging that became part of the story, an essential part. And I felt it was worthwhile to bring in a character asking questions I continue to ask about him. Trying to get closer to him and not succeeding—that failure became part of the story. Even as Tesla has become more of an icon over the years, he remains a mystery, a mythological beast—but I didn’t want to yield to mythology. A more off-balance, questioning approach allows you to get at contradictions. Tesla was a visionary, a person seeing far out into the future while also caught in a very restricted, almost Victorian mentality.
I think you succeeded, and it shows in the way you calibrate the Ethan Hawke performance. He seems very mercurial at times but you still get why people want to get to know him. You built someone mysterious and intimidating but nevertheless kind of open. It’s clear that you worked this out very carefully with him.
I give most of the credit to Ethan, because it’s sort of an impossible character to play. How do you play “brilliant” and “mysterious” and “unknowable”? The performance you describe—I’m glad you were able to define it so well, but I have to credit Ethan himself more than any magic in my calibration. He has more range than he’s often credited for, I think, and he rose to the occasion.
When you wrote the film you were young and still getting to know the ins and outs of the film industry. What do you imagine the film would have looked like if you’d made it when you first wrote it?
It’s a good question, and a bit overwhelming. I was a teenager, I hadn’t directed a frame of film. I schooled myself in the art of screenwriting by reading the collected scripts of James Agee. Which is to say my script, at 139 pages, was “beautifully” written, and fairly un-filmable. [laughs]
It fused the imagery and atmosphere of two of my favorite movies at the time: “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and “Days of Heaven.” It would have been incredibly expensive to produce, but it was optioned by Jerzy Skolimowski (director of “Deep End” and “The Shout“) and I flew to London to work with him on revisions and, soon enough, the money fell apart. The story remained in the back of my head, an impossible dream, for decades. But before that, actually, Manny Farber had gotten the script to Tom Luddy (film producer and co-founder of the Telluride film festival) and Tom was generous enough to get it to Dušan Makavejev, who was installed in San Francisco working on various projects with Coppola and American Zoetrope. Makavejev was a notably great, irreverent Serbian filmmaker—he had this national connection to Tesla, and he would have made an amazing film about him, given the chance. And what I ended up making, 40 years later, was closer to Makavejev than to, say, Malick.
At any rate, I met [Makavejev]—this is a tangent, but I haven’t told it to anyone else, and he was inspirational to me. He’d been teaching at Harvard before I was there [Almereyda studied art history for three years], and he visited Cambridge when I had one foot out the door and we arranged to meet. But he was so busy the only time he could spare was if I shared a cab going to the airport with him. It was a momentous encounter for me. He was a gruff bear of a man, sardonic, but abruptly sweet when he smiled. I remember almost nothing from our conversation, there wasn’t much of anything practical to carry away from it, except this encouraging, sardonic spirit. I dropped him off at the airport, and I had to pay my way back—I remember that—which may constitute a sort of metaphor for my early attempts at getting into the film business: you need to be willing to go out of your way. He died last year. There was a retrospective at Anthology Film Archive, and it was amazing to get reacquainted with his movies on a big screen, to experience how great they are. He had a rough time, nurturing a career—he was sort of a gypsy, not unlike Skolimowski, who’s still making movies, wonderfully enough. Anyhow, I wish I could say Makavejev was more directly inspirational, but I only really rediscovered him last year, after “Tesla” was shot. Have you seen his movies?
I actually wrote the eulogy for him here.
Wow. Did you have to get reacquainted with the films, or did you know them pretty well?
“Sweet Movie” was a very important film to me, I revisit that once a year. I did a video essay on “Sweet Movie” in the same series where I talked about “The Eternal.” “Sweet Movie” is both exquisitely manicured and seemed so wild and open to tangent. I know he wasn’t directly influencing you but there seems to be an element of his fiction/non-fiction hybrids in something like “Tesla” or “Experimenter.”
Yeah, he was a master at collaging documentary elements with fiction. Also, more and more, I appreciate, and am haunted by, the extent to which films can be openly or furtively political, though the best of them aren’t schematically or stridently political. Makavejev had a playfulness and an anger that feel absolutely valuable. It’s funny that you feel close to him. I’d been thinking about him, after meeting someone who knew him, and I was going to reach out. Time flew by and suddenly the obituaries are running. I list his name in a big block of Thank You’s at the end of “Tesla.” I don’t know how close he got to making his Tesla film, I knew of about a half dozen Tesla projects never happened, and I feel very lucky that this one worked out.
I think this was the best possible approach because I think it’s only too possible for a more literal historical drama would kind of miss what makes him so interesting.
I wouldn’t say that—I’d like to see more Tesla films. I suggest a Tesla subgenre! Did you know David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and Julie Taymor all wanted to make movies about Tesla? Anyhow, I’d be keen to watch a more studious, sweeping epic, with more money and spectacle and realistic sets. My version just happened to be the best I could come up with under the circumstances.
Speaking of the sets, the film has this very dreamy feel. The visuals have to go between these paper sets and more concrete ones and keep a coherent visual palate. Can you talk about the process of keeping it consistent?
Well it’s not particularly consistent, but it was an attempt to get inside Tesla’s head, and to acknowledge how, in a historical movie, we’re always inheriting images and ideas from the past, collaging history out of random sources. That felt like part of the necessary texture and meaning of the movie. But I should add that those aren’t paper sets; they’re rear-screen projections. A basic, primal, old-school technology that I’ve used in other movies, though it’s decidedly prominent in this one. Rear-screen shooting requires pretty thorough preparation; you have to acquire all the images, digitize them and clear the rights, well in advance. We went through Rooftop Films—might as well give them a shout-out—they provide you with a big screen, a projector and a projectionist. And you work with the actors and the DP and gaffer to make sure no one’s shadow ends up on the screen. It’s both simple and complicated.
What was exciting for Ethan, and I can’t credit him enough for both making the film happen and making it work to the degree that it does, was that he’d been in about 80 movies without ever working with rear-screen projections in this way. He lit up when he recognized the freshness and fun of it. The approach makes actors a little off-balance because, obviously, the backgrounds aren’t real, but unlike green screen, where you’re surrounded by blank nothingness, the actors are aware of the projected backgrounds and can confidently interact with them. As a technical challenge, it energizes people. And I think rear-screen images happens to look beautiful.
Available this week in select theaters and on digital platforms.