“I Don’t Know How to Fake It, To Do Something I Don’t Believe In”: Michael Almereyda on Vampires, Mummies, Writing Hollywood Screenplays and Directing Independent Films
After more than a quarter century of publication, Filmmaker has a huge archive, and most of our print articles have never appeared online. Over the next several months we’ll be correcting that by curating some of our best articles and interviews, particularly from directors who continue to make strong and vital work today. We’ll start with this Winter, 1999 interview of Michael Almereyda by Ray Pride, published on the release of his film Trance, that is also an excellent overview of his early directing career and Hollywood screenwriting work. — Editor
Filmmakers working outside the major studios often find themselves living by the buzz and dying by the buzz—Weren’t you last month’s flavor? Yet in a field where you can be considered a washout after your second movie and be forgotten before you put together the financing for a third, the versatile Michael Almereyda has spent the last decade quietly assembling some of the most original work that few have seen. Through the vagaries of distribution, he’s perhaps been best known for 1994’s Nadja, a shimmering black-and-white sleepwalker-reverie of New York’s Lower East Side that poses—or at least, was advertised by its distributor—as an erotic vampire tale. His latest, Trance, a modern-day variation on The Mummy, starring Alison Elliot, Jared Harris and Christopher Walken, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and will be distributed—either in the theaters or perhaps direct-to-video—sometime in the next few months by Trimark. Trance, despite its bursts of droll comedy borne out of culture clashes and strained relationships, proceeds by hush and murmur, its single night of damp, nocturnal Irish gloom moving inexorably toward an ageless conclusion. The marvelous mood is aided immeasurably by an acute Simon Fisher Turner score.
While Almereyda made his directorial debut in 1988 with Twister, an exquisitely odd story of a strained Kansan clan led by Harry Dean Stanton and featuring a cameo by William S. Burroughs, he began as a screenwriter. He’s written for a number of other filmmakers, including an early draft of Total Recall with Bruce Beresford and contributions to Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Work like that has given him the latitude to self-produce several shorter films using Pixelvision, a now-defunct black-and-white video camera originally marketed by Fisher-Price as a child’s toy. The image it produces is dim yet often strikingly pointillist in its visual effect, like a photo booth strip blown up to wall size. Almereyda’s Pixelvision work has been seen of the festival circuit but has not been widely distributed because of music clearance issues. Among them are 1992’s Another Girl Another Planet, 1995’s At Sundance and 1997’s The Rocking Horse Winter, a superb, haunting adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence short story, staring a wry Eric Stoltz as the easygoing uncle who’s willing to take his hot-as-fire little nephew to the track for some quality gambling time. The diminished image results in work that seems offhanded but is actually richly textured.
Among other strengths, Almereyda has an ear naturally attuned to the effect of music, and he’s also adept at fresh funny, conversational dialogue, filled with cross-purposes and hilariously cadenced. He captures the cant of filmmakers young and old in At Sundance and amuses the ear with the taut yet witty exchanges in Rocking Horse Winner. Still, when I spoke to him at the time of Nadja’s release, Almereyda was hesitant to separate the spoken word from the flow of a film. “My films are usually about miscommunication on some more-or-less obvious level. People are usually talking at cross-purposes, either contradicting themselves or each other. So when I think about dialogue, it’s really in relation to what’s happening in the movie and in terms of what actions are underway,” he told me then. “I think of movies more in terms of directing; dialogue is not free-floating or autonomous. Movies have to do with simultaneous actions or events. Dialogue is a way of connecting the dots, but the real meaning, to me, is seldom in the dialogue. When people are saying something, they’re usually doing something else.”
And Almereyda himself is usually onto something else, casting his Hamlet (which Miramax recently bought just after production wrapped) between our conversations below. Ethan Hawke is the diffident Dane, and the cast includes Sam Shepard, Diane Venora, Bill Murray, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Steve Zahn, Liev Schrieber, Dechen Thurman, Jeffrey Wright and Almereyda stalwart Karl Geary. Talking to the soft-spoken director about the swerves that his career has taken, he’s reflective about the importance of simply doing one’s work instead of looking back, offering philosophical DIY instead of production kiss-and-tell.
Filmmaker: So what can you tell us about Trance, the new feature you premiered at the Toronto Film Festival?
Almereyda: Well, it was supposed to be fast and cheap, but it became expensive and slow. It’s my first color film in nearly ten years. It’s entirely in color, and it’s almost entirely in focus, not counting some flashbacks shot in Super-8. Jim Denault, the d.p., shot my films Another Girl Another Planet and Nadja, and I think this is some of his best work. Alison Elliott, Jared Harris, Christopher Walken and Lois Smith are in it, as well as some friends of mine from Dublin and New York. It’s set in Ireland but shot mostly in Yonkers. I seem to recall that there’s a mummy. A female Irish druid mummy.
Filmmaker: How did you start making films? You don’t seem like a film school kind of guy.
Almereyda: I dropped out of Harvard. I was studying art history and spending a lot of time in dark lecture halls looking at color slides. I knew I wanted to make movies, and I didn’t see the point in getting a diploma. I moved to New York, wrote screenplays, and got an agent fairly early on. I ended up moving to L.A., to try to make a go of things in Hollywood.
Filmmaker: What made you bold enough to say, “I’m a screenwriter, and I’m going to New York and Hollywood to write”?
Almereyda: I never considered myself a screenwriter — it’s accidental that I became an employable writer. As a kid I was more interested in drawing and painting. When my family moved from Kansas to Orange County, I was a teenager, and my proximity to L.A. opened up a sudden, expansive view of moviemaking. Before I could drive I was carpooling to see Howard Hawks or John Huston talk at community colleges. There were more TV channels in L.A. than in Kansas, pre-cable. Movies were everywhere. So of course I wanted to make them. A simple, common disease.
Filmmaker: But how did those particular symptoms pop up? You’d need to know a little bit about movies to seek out Howard Hawks.
Almereyda: It’s wasn’t that tough. You went to a bookstore. You watched TV. And there were revival houses then. It didn’t take much to figure out the difference between a Hitchcock or Welles film and something with less visual energy. All the towering maverick directors were pretty conspicuous then, and they showed up in public. Also, I was lucky to have met up with [critic] Manny Farber when he came to Orange Coast College with a Fassbinder film under his arm. I was sixteen, and I happened to have just read his book [Negative Space]. Manny was my first flesh-and-blood guide to movie culture, and to culture itself as a present tense activity. His influence, as a painter and a film critic, was crucial. He was always pushing the edges of things, searching and reaching. He was tough-minded, unpretentious and funny.To have run into him when I was a kid was really lucky.
Filmmaker: How’d you get an agent so quickly?
Almereyda: Also luck. I met a writer named Tom Pope, who had written a version of Hammett for Wim Wenders. He kind of blindly said, “Well, give my agent a call.” It’s very rare for someone to be that generous. He hadn’t even read anything of mine. It turned out that his agency was kind of a boutique with a lot of powerhouse writers — Nick Kazan, Ron Shelton, Michael Tolkin, and Ron Nyswaner – all at this one place. I was lucky to have been accepted into the fold. It gave me a kind of instant career. Within two weeks of signing with them, I was hired to rewrite Mandrake the Magician for Embassy Pictures. I flew back to New York, checked into the Chelsea Hotel, and rewrote the script from top to bottom in three weeks. The project was dumped just as quickly when a new man took over the studio.
Filmmaker: Talk a little bit about working on scripts for other directors. You seem to have had the fluke of working with filmmakers who minimize studio interference. Even with work-for-hire, is it all “personal” work?
Almereyda: It is. I don’t know how to fake it, to do something I don’t believe in. But no one’s pursuing me these days. When you don’t live in L.A. and you haven’t scored a big hit, you fall out of the loop. The last writing job I had was for Tim Burton with Warner Brothers footing the bill. An adaptation of a Hawthorne story. Tim probably generates a lot of things that don’t get made, but this seemed to matter to him. He wanted to scale it down, make a low-budget film, his own “Ed Wood special,” and he even considered shooting it in his own house. Maybe he’ll get around to it eventually. It was fun and it was as personal as I could make it. And it was nicely unconstrained by studio involvement, because it was Tim Burton.
Filmmaker: You’ve done a couple of films that toy with the horror genre. Is there another genre or style you’re champing to explore?
Almereyda: Probably biopics, oddly enough. I have three scripts that I’d love to film some day. Each one derives from the conventional biopic idea that you examine a life, a jumble of events, and you try to focus and distill it, give it a shape. I’ve got a script about Amelia Earhart, one about Nikola Tesla, and one about James Dean taken from a Rick Moody story called The James Dean Garage Band. I’ve also got an Edgar Allan Poe screenplay combining elements from Poe’s life and his writing. I wouldn’t mind walking out the door tomorrow and shooting any one of those scripts.
Filmmaker: Talking about setting stories in other eras reminds me of what a few directors have told me, such as James Cameron, who’s thrilled by the idea of what you might call invisible CGI, the use of computer technology to less expensively render the past rather than using it just for fantastical, futuristic things.
Almereyda: I find myself so divorced from that way of thinking I can’t even attempt to answer the question. I’m more and more interested in Godard’s conviction that you’ve got to deal with the complications of the present moment — even when you look at history, there should be a conscious effort to refract it through your awareness of the present, even if you’re spinning a complete fantasy. I mean, I’m interested in history. I was impressed by the new Spielberg movie, and here I am talking about biopics, but I don’t want to run from the present. And the idea of time-travel through CGI feels like a magic trick that might be an evasion of other issues. Besides, I like working with real actors in real spaces. Can’t help it.
Filmmaker: I got interested in your work because of the fresh tone of Twister and Another Girl Another Planet, which are filled with idiosyncratic, contemporary comic dialogue. But you’re still pretty much under the critical radar. If you’re on anyone’s list, it’s more for Nadja, or the expectations now for Trance. Did you have any special interest in horror?
Almereyda: I did. I had some hopeful feelings about it but I think it’s a wrong swerve for me. Nadja isn’t really a horror movie. It’s about as scary as one of those rubber Halloween bats on a piece of elastic. There’s a kind of jokiness to it, a comic aspect that I embraced. The movie ends with a marriage, so in classical terms it’s a comedy. I hope there is a sense of mystery and a depth to it, but I never thought of it as a straightforward horror movie. I don’t even know how it could be mistaken for one. The new movie might be more conventional. Genre is a way of traveling through familiar terrain, but I always hope to get someplace new. I may have only one life, but I’m hoping to make many movies, and many kinds of movies. If they’re true to themselves, there’s a way that they don’t have to exclude each other. And I think my Pixelvision stuff is as substantial as any of the larger productions. I aspire to bigger opportunities, a bigger canvas, but I’m happy making movies on any scale. A line from Hamlet has been ringing in my head: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…”
Filmmaker: I was going over what’s been written over the past few years about your movies, mostly in festival catalogs – “charming… quirky… poetic… lyrical…” Are these good adjectives? Do you recognize these qualities that others ascribe to what you do?
Almereyda: No. It’s sort of horrifying. I try not to be too self-conscious about what I’m doing but, if I have a tendency towards poetic flourishes, I’d rather not lean on them, not indulge them. I hope to make movies that are a little tougher. “Quirky” or “offbeat” — I don’t really find those flattering adjectives. Who does? Part of my job, so far as I can figure, is to include as much texture and contradiction as I can, to give a story multiple edges and angles. If the result gets called quirky, there’s not much I can do about it. But I don’t want the movies to be limited by that kind of perception. Every image in a film is an opportunity to describe the world in a new way, to reassess your grip on reality, or even question your idea of reality. Ideally, you manage to do this and tell a story at the same time. It makes sense that every opportunity I get, I’ll try playing with the medium as much as I can.
Filmmaker: What about Kansas? Did growing up there influence your sense of space and mood?
Almereyda: I think your primary influence is what you grow up in, and for me that’s suburban Kansas. I seem to be an implausible Kansan — people never expect that I’m from there — but my basic sense of myself is as a kid in Kansas with a big sky hovering overhead, and I don’t think I’ll ever quite outgrow that. Of course, it’s connected to a sense of space, of behavior, of light and even time. The fact that I talk slowly and my films tend to move slowly has everything to do with growing up in that place, which to me will always be magical, and not merely because it’s cross-referenced with The Wizard of Oz! I have a very physical memory of Kansas, and I’d like to shoot another movie there and get it right.
Filmmaker: Did you have a vision of how your career might grow and expand after making Twister for Vestron? Was there a trajectory that you envisioned or hoped for then?
Almereyda: Yeah. I don’t know how to talk about it, but it’s kind of a puzzle. I’m still puzzled about the prospect of having a career. I still feel like I’m a beginner. And it took a while for everyone to admit that maybe I wasn’t responsible for the collapse of Vestron. But it remains very hard to get money to make movies.
Filmmaker: Is it different when you’re wrestling with the blank page?
Almereyda: One freakish thing about me — I don’t have much trouble wrestling with “the blank page.” I have too many unblank, crowded pages. It’s absorbing to be in the process of doing this work, whether it’s walking around with a digital video camera, a pixel camera, or making drawings and notes for a film. I can always keep myself busy — I can entertain myself. But financing the movies is an altogether different trick. Lately, I’ve been lucky to have some good producers. I think it’s very hard to find good producers, a common complaint among filmmakers.
Filmmaker: How do labels work for or against a filmmaker? There’s the tired-through-repetition “independent,” and there’s “maverick.” And then there’s what David Lynch said of you at the time of Nadja, “I believe in his talent and his ideas. I’m very glad I can support him because I have the feeling he is one of the best American New Wave directors.”
Almereyda: Gee, that was nice of him. Actually, his new movie is based on a newspaper clipping I sent him and Mary Sweeney, his editor-producer, so it’s safe to say he really does believe in my ideas. As for labels — we’re all a bit baffled by them. David is a great example of a sensibility and a career that can’t be boxed in. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer independent films seem to originate from independent thinking. All the same, there’s a great deal of fantastic work being done, and the challenge is to meet it on its own terms, one film at a time.