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Worldwide Wireless Energy

An interview with Michael Almereyda about Tesla

Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s new film, Tesla, comes out this week and stars Ethan Hawke, in the title role, as the troubled Serbian inventor who came up with alternating current in late nineteenth century New York. Almereyda has been making features, documentaries, and shorts since the late 1980s, and began as a screenwriter on films including Wim Wenders’s monumental Until the End of the World (1991). His recent feature films, Experimenter (2015) and Marjorie Prime (2017), reveal a director pushing his work in bold new directions, as does his recent documentary, Escapes (2017), on the life of Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher. Almereyda’s book William Eggleston: For Now, which came out the same year as his documentary on the photographer, William Eggleston in the Real World (2005), is about to go into a fourth printing. This edition features color photos of Eggleston’s that haven’t been published before.

I wanted to review Tesla but the film’s distributor only allows web links for press screenings, and I don’t think it’s fair to filmmakers to write about their movies if I can only see them on my computer. Averse to Vimeo, they offered to send me a DVD screener, but it never arrived. So instead I decided to try to talk with Almereyda, who I’d never met, even though I hadn’t seen Tesla. These days it’s easier to speak with directors than to see their films, so good for the film industry for figuring that one out.

A. S. Hamrah: Congratulations on Tesla, a film I understand you’ve been trying to make for some time. How were you able to finally make it now?

Michael Almereyda: Two producers behind my last two features offered the project to people connected to Millennium Media, after having been rejected by every other company they’d approached. Millennium’s willingness to finance the film centered on Ethan Hawke’s attachment. Which doesn’t lessen my gratitude, but it was really that simple. They liked the idea of making an Ethan Hawke movie, at a price, and that movie happened to be about Nikola Tesla, written and directed by me.

ASH: Do you think Nikola Tesla speaks to the present in a way he didn’t at the time you first conceived the project? Tesla seems to me, without having seen the film, a symbol of thwarted hope for a better world.

MA: It’s true that an awareness of Tesla has expanded in the last forty years, given the existence of various books, a postage stamp, and a particular tech company that manufactures electric cars and space rockets. But Tesla was always a loner, an aggrieved outsider, a voice in the wilderness. He embodies a kind of yearning that was always at the core of the story for me.

To really answer your question, we’re now living in a world informed and transformed by the internet, which Tesla was anticipating and forecasting in the 1890s, even if he fell short of achieving the specific breakthroughs that made the internet possible. So it’s vaguely possible a larger audience, in 2020, might be receptive to a story about this difficult, disappointed visionary.

What’s your perception of Tesla, untainted by this movie? Have you read any books by or about him?

ASH: I’ve never read a book about him. In addition to learning somewhere along the way that he was interested in developing wireless communication, I knew he invented alternating current, that he developed a death ray of some sort, that he was friends with Mark Twain and that he and Edison were bitter rivals. I knew he died poor and alone in a hotel in New York after a long life. And I know David Bowie played him in a movie I haven’t seen, and that there’s a song from the 1980s called “Tesla Girls.” Didn’t Tesla want to provide the world with free electricity?

MA: He strove to develop a system of worldwide wireless energy and spent a good deal of effort promoting it without coming up with practical results. Years after his death, scientists and engineers intent on following his tracks, fulfilling this dream, have concluded that Tesla was misguided or even delusional. As my research stretched over many years, I came to realize the phrase free energy was attached to Tesla’s project by other people, though he never presented it as such. That said, his theories and projections set him on a collision course with embedded technology and the people who profit by it, so that conflict is part of the story.

ASH: The cast of the film replicates the cast of your excellent modern-day Hamlet, from 2000, in which Ethan Hawke played the title role and Kyle MacLachlan played Claudius, the king, his antagonist. Here MacLachlan plays Thomas Edison. Did you cast Tesla with that in mind? Are the films related? Is the idea of Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse at all similar to having Bill Murray play Polonius?

MA: Similar relationships and ideas are ricocheting around in both movies, ideas about power and money, idealism and loneliness. For better or worse, I made Hamlet a very American story, and it shares with Tesla a similar notion of defeated promise. As for the cast, sure, I was happy, and lucky, to reunite Ethan and Kyle. I had to court Kyle. He was riding high after his stunning triple role in Twin Peaks: The Return. I invited him for coffee at IHOP on East 14th Street and I guess that really convinced him.

ASH: That’s kind of like David Lynch at the Big Boy restaurant in Burbank.

MA: Close enough. At any rate, Kyle was excited to explore a more human side of Edison, and he was keen to work with Ethan again. “Getting the band back together,” as he put it. And to the extent that I’ve managed to assemble a band, over the years, I was glad to invite friends who can always deliver the goods. Karl Geary, who played Horatio in Hamlet, grew a beard and flew in from Glasgow. Gaffigan did a tremendous job in Experimenter and I was glad to glue some whiskers on him and set him loose as George Westinghouse, who was a lot more wily than Polonius.

ASH: Since I haven’t seen the film, could you tell me what it looks like?

MA: I just attended the film’s premiere screening in Queens, a drive-in screening where I was allowed to get out of the car and watch from a grassy knoll—is there any other kind?—with a hand-held radio playing the movie’s soundtrack against the thrashing of highway traffic. I can report that the film looks notably dark.

ASH: You mean the print, or the DCP, is too dark? Or the photography is darker than you expected? Or that the film creates a sense of overall darkness, a dark mood?

MA: The darkness was intended, atmospheric, aimed to make colors smolder, but watching from afar can require serious squinting. The screen, though thirty-six feet tall, was like an aquarium set within a vaster, open-air aquarium with about 180 cars arranged before it like a fleet of paralyzed fish. Occasionally, someone’s red brake light would flash on and off, and it was hard for my eyes not to stray to the competing purple glow of the newly renovated Science Center, lit up for the occasion. No telling what people were doing or feeling inside those various vehicles, but afterwards a few drivers honked with approval. They made a nice din.

ASH: Before you shot the film, how did you arrive at this darkness you mention?

MA: Sean Williams, the film’s cinematographer, and I were considering obvious questions about light sources, natural light and candlelight compared to gas and electric light. When I visited Sean in London a month before the shoot commenced, there was a breathtaking show of Bonnard paintings at the Tate Modern. I went twice. Sean went at least three times. I’d like to think some of the feeling of Bonnard, if not explicit frames and colors, invaded our thinking about Tesla.

ASH: You and Sean Williams strolling through the Tate Modern, looking at Bonnards. What other things did you and he take into consideration?

MA: Photographs by Lartigue, color and black-and-white, and paintings by Sargent, Manet, and Degas. We rewatched Derek Jarman’s biopics, Caravaggio and Wittgenstein, and we were enthralled by an early, hallucinatory Sokurov film, The Stone.

ASH: Those Jarman films certainly approach the biopic in unique ways, and in their lighting, too. I’ve never seen or even heard of The Stone. How did you come to work with Sean Williams?

MA: The Stone is an oblique, or opaque, biopic, in black-and-white, shot with anamorphic lenses and projected without the usual corrections those lenses require, so the image is uniquely compressed and warped. One of the actors is meant to be playing Anton Chekhov, though he looks too old and sour to be Chekhov, who died at forty-four.

I saw a lot of the young, beardless Sean Williams in the ‘90s, when he was behind the counter at Kim’s Video in the East Village, but we hardly ever spoke outside of rental transactions. Upon seeing Sean’s work in Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, I realized he had, very abruptly it seemed, become a hugely talented DP. And when I was looking for someone fast and resourceful to shoot Marjorie Prime, I caught Sean participating in a Q&A following a BAM screening of Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. Sean and I also worked together on two shorts before jumping into Tesla.

Can you name your favorite films set within Tesla’s timeframe, basically the last two decades of the nineteenth century? Particularly films whose look appeals to you?

ASH: I’ve recently rewatched Esther Kahn, Arnaud Desplechin’s 2000 film with Summer Phoenix, about a struggling actress in London at the end of the nineteenth century. Eric Gautier’s cinematography was rich and deep and brought to life a gaslit night world. Or maybe it was early electric lighting, I’m not sure now.

MA: I’ve been meaning, for twenty years, to watch that film.

ASH: I recommend it. To see it you’ll have to buy a used DVD or torrent it. Too bad Kim’s is gone. You’ve released Tesla into a world where it can’t be shown in theaters. At least not in the United States. How do you think seeing it via streaming services affects viewers’ reception of the film? And where can people see it when it’s released next week?

MA: I was sent a list of nearly ninety theaters that will screen the movie starting August 21, most of them in Utah, Ohio, Texas, and Florida. Five in Kansas, where I happen to hail from. The number is expanding by the day, astonishingly enough. Under normal conditions, I suspect far fewer venues would have embraced it. And IFC will also stream it far and wide.

ASH: That’s an interesting development about all those theaters in those states. What do you think the future of theatrical exhibition will be after the pandemic?

MA: Daily reality feels so precarious, I can’t see beyond next week, and I can’t pretend to guess where we’ll land in the near or far future. For now, I sympathize with anyone who loves movies, exiled from theaters.

ASH: You’re the only person in the film industry to go on record with no predictions. Admirable.

MA: I also can’t help noting that the laments of cinephiles can seem paltry compared to other life-and-death dangers and conflicts we’re currently tumbling through. I’ve read your thoughts about the dismal non-alternatives to theatrical distribution, and I don’t disagree with you, but what, really, is to be done?

ASH: I don’t agree that these are small problems we face in terms of moviegoing. The fight for justice and really for the future happens on screens as well as in the streets. After all, if NBC had not given Donald Trump a TV show in 2004, we wouldn’t be in a situation half as terrible as the one we’re in now. A too-easy acceptance of entertainment is part of what got us here. I think the cinema is important in countering the “everything is awesome” world of streaming entertainment that is only gaining traction since Covid. Your work, it seems to me, has always been a counter to that, in its originality and complexity and in the subject matter you choose. And it’s best seen on a large screen without interruption. And now Tesla is finished and about to come out. But I have to be able to see films in order to write about them and get paid. If that’s paltry I guess it means that part of the chain doesn’t matter.

MA: The chain you mention is both a supply chain and a circuit of power affecting the production and distribution of images, stories, and ideas, all blended together. Each link in the chain, each human component of it, is vital, all the more so at a time when what’s flowing across the world’s screens can seem homogenized, trivial, and toxic. Independent filmmakers are also beholden to this system, which resembles a factory more than a garden. How does any unique voice ring out amidst all the commercialized noise? And how do our voices carry the same conviction when we’re exiled from the experience of seeing movies as they’re meant to be seen? So, okay, I concede these matters are hardly insignificant.

ASH: Speaking with you, I can’t help but notice you exude a great sense of calm. How have you managed to stay so composed during the last six months of constant crisis in American life? I can imagine releasing a new film under current circumstances is a difficult undertaking.

MA: I’ve never made a film that’s been widely distributed, marketed full force with TV ads, subway posters, thousands of prints hitting thousands of screens. Yet I’ve always had it in mind to project even the smallest of my films and videos on a big screen, available to groups of friends and strangers in a darkened room. That’s always felt basic, inviolable. So I’ll circle back to your earlier question and register a wish rather than a prediction, that the current crisis will pass, or change shape to the degree that people will continue to rendezvous in the dark, experiencing films in theaters throughout the world.

This is a roundabout way of saying I don’t feel remotely calm. I recently came across a clip of an interview with Pasolini, a true rebel who was also, not incidentally, committed to spiritual ideas. He responds sharply when asked about the consolation of the Gospels. “I’m not looking for consolation,” he says. “Like any human being, I look for some small delight or satisfaction, but consolation is always rhetorical, insincere, unreal. Consolation is a word like hope.” The clip cuts out there, regrettably. I would’ve liked to hear Pasolini describe a decent alternative for consolation and hope. For me, uninterrupted, full-screen film viewing is one of the consolations of life.

As for Tesla, IFC came up with a strong trailer and poster and they seem to think the movie is worthwhile. I have nothing to complain about in that sense. How are you navigating this storm?

ASH: I’m navigating it in near isolation and inadequate air-conditioning, in close proximity to the BQE. My consciousness is eroding and my economic precarity is increasing.

MA: I don’t know anyone who’s stayed in the city without feeling drained and frayed. I want to imagine there can be a sense of solidarity in the uncertainty, but I don’t see much evidence of it in the streets right now, even after the protests, or even in my apartment building.

ASH: The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is having a retrospective of your work this month, that I believe starts right after Tesla comes out. I saw they’re going to include some rarely screened short films you’ve made. What films are those, and how will the Museum be showing this and other work of yours? Through a virtual cinema? Will you be appearing?

MA: A while ago, I resolved to make at least one short a year, after registering the oppressive fact that filmmakers spend more time and nearly as much energy raising money to make films than to shoot them. So, the shorts gathered for MoMI are self-financed, for the most part, made with friends, the products of willful spontaneity.

ASH: Great you’re able to do that. Are they fiction or documentaries?

MA: There’s one straight documentary, a portrait of the photographer Chris Killip, focusing on a haunting set of his images of life in an English fishing village. To the Unknown is basically a cat video wedded to a reading of a casually metaphysical Kenneth Koch poem. Two other shorts are derived from medieval folk tales adapted by Italo Calvino and transposed to contemporary reality. Sean Williams shot the most recent of those, The North Wind’s Gift, in 16mm black and white. And The Great Gatsby in Five Minutes is a quick version of Fitzgerald’s novel set in Silver Lake, with a cameo appearance by James Benning. This was the first and only episode of an intended series, inspired equally by Werner Schroeter and Classic Comics.

ASH: What were the others going to be?

MA: I was hoping to follow up with other impossibly condensed adaptations. Chiwetel Ejiofor volunteered to play Prince Mishkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and Sam Shepard agreed to play Ahab in Moby Dick. These things don’t always work out, especially when there’s no money. I keep rolling the dice, hoping to beat the odds.

ASH: I’m reading The Idiot right now, as it happens. So people who want to see these can stream them through MoMI?

MA: Yes, and a few recent features, at a good price. A few days after Tesla’s release, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting a virtual conversation between me and Richard Linklater, overlapping the retrospective. I imagine we’ll be talking about all sorts of things other than my movies, in the wake of the Republican National Convention, with new emergencies, threats, and fears overwhelming our minds and screens.