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Let the Future Tell the Truth: Tesla Writer/Director Michael Almereyda and Kelly Reichardt in Conversation

Ethan Hawke in Tesla (Photo by Sean Price Williams, courtesy of IFC Films)

In Michael Almereyda’s pre-Katrina New Orleans–shot Happy Here and Now, David Arquette’s termite control specialist is preparing to shoot a film about Nikola Tesla in his off-hours. In a delirious rant, Arquette’s character muses about the Serbian-American scientist’s quest to slow the speed of light—enough so that you could go out for a coffee and return in time to see a beam complete its journey from one end of your apartment to another. In the climax of Happy Here and Now, one of Tesla’s signature inventions, the Tesla coil, is responsible for Arquette’s film-within-a-film experiencing the worst kind of production shutdown: When he switches it on in the background of a softcore scene featuring an older Tesla, his clone and a sex worker, it quickly ignites and destroys the set. 

But Almereyda’s 2002 invocation of Tesla simply marks the midpoint of the director’s obsession with the inventor of alternating current—he began writing the first draft of his new biopic, Tesla, 40 years ago. Reuniting with his Hamlet and Cymbeline star Ethan Hawke, Almereyda in 2020 depicts a Tesla who has little in common with the swaggeringly grounded, confidently charismatic figure rendered by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 The Prestige. Hawke’s heavily accented maverick broods his way through a murky world swimming in interior darkness that’s just beginning to be electrified. Morose and often unable to charismatically convey his ideas to investors, Tesla first works for, then battles, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, also Hawke’s antagonist/evil father-figure in Hamlet). With funding from J. P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), Tesla expands his experiments, and the sequences replicating his Colorado Springs days—when he built the world’s largest Tesla coil, produced artificial lightning and planted light bulbs into the earth—are woozily visceral renderings of the inventor’s chaotic and destabilizing scientific quest. Tesla’s story is told directly to the camera by his great potential love, Morgan’s daughter Anne, played anachronistically by Eve Hewson as an omniscient narrator with Google at her fingertips. A recurring motif in Tesla is the role money plays in science, with Anne sympathizing with the inventor’s lack of “an enlightened huckster to steer him through.” (In a project 40 years in the making, the analogy with film financing difficulties isn’t hard to discern.)

In the conversation below, Almereyda and director Kelly Reichardt, a friend and contemporary, naturally make their way from the past—both Tesla’s and that of the movie’s gradual entry into the world—to the unavoidable present, a co-existence as natural and intuitive as any in Almereyda’s films, and indicative of both filmmakers’ heightened attention to the uneasy currents shaping The American Experiment. Reichardt’s own First Cow, a very different examination of America at a formative moment (about which she was interviewed by Larry Gross in our last issue), was pulled from theatrical release at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown and will be released on digital platforms July 10. Tesla is scheduled for theatrical and on-demand release on August 21st from IFC Films.—Vadim Rizov

Kelly Reichardt: Michael, thanks for sharing your beautiful film Tesla with me. I wish I could have been seeing it in a theater. It’s a bravely dark film and deserves a dark room for viewing. Every frame is lovely, the performances are wonderful and I look forward to seeing it on IFC’s big screen when the world opens up again.

It’s been really hard to focus these days so I haven’t been watching much. It was good to have a viewing assignment for this interview. My mind was actually able to settle down for a couple hours while watching your film. The storytelling unfolds with such a sure hand. The film opens with this wonderful skating scene of Anne Morgan and Nikola Tesla gliding around a kind of parlor—there’s some foreshadowing of how things will go character- and story-wise, but from the first shot things are in motion, like the audience steps onto a merry-go-round after the ride has already started, which I really dug. And those skates are pretty modern looking. Is it here that we get to know that liberties will be taken with certain elements being outside the period?

Michael Almereyda: According to my remarkably resourceful production designer, Carl Sprague, the skates are “totally spot-on” period accurate. We saved the Drunk History time-traveling aspect for other props, other scenes. The roller-skating was borrowed from an infinitely more spectacular scene in Heaven’s Gate, which is also set in the early 1890s, though I only arrived at the idea after realizing that what was in the script—outdoor ice skating—wouldn’t be possible in May, when we shot the film. At any rate, you’re right to see that the aim was to start with something unexpected: to show Tesla in motion yet off balance, unsteady on his feet.

Reichardt: Eve Hewson’s Anne is really integral to the storytelling since her voice works as the narrator, but the way she appears in the present and the past is unexpected and, I think, breathes some new life into the biopic. Did you always know that Tesla’s story would be told through the eyes of Anne?

Almereyda: Tesla is the first screenplay I ever wrote, completed in 1981. I thought of my first draft as an epic science fiction story set in the 19th century, and that script was a fusion of two of my favorite movies, Days of Heaven and The Man Who Fell to Earth—movies that made me want to become a filmmaker. When it came time to circle back and think about telling the story decades later, I felt compelled to make drastic changes, making use of what I’d learned from books written in succeeding years and, just possibly, what I’d learned about myself and the wider world. Tesla’s story didn’t really change, but the entry point is now different because Anne Morgan wasn’t in the first draft, and her perspective became crucial. Electricity is, in a way, the MacGuffin. It’s really a story about love and money, and Anne brings an emotional investment to it while also narrating events, as you noted, from the future, sharpening an awareness of Tesla’s achievement and his failure. I wanted to balance my sense of America’s Gilded Age and our current condition, the dizzy, less-than-utopian place where technology, money and imperial power have carried us.

I don’t know if my younger self would approve of the alien creature that eventually evolved from that first screenplay, but he might be sympathetic if I told him our budget couldn’t accommodate more than a 20-day shoot, that there was no way to go to Colorado to get actual breathtaking landscapes, let alone horses or crowds of extras in 19th-century clothes.

Reichardt: You had to make a lot of decisions—as one always does—about lighting. But in this case, the audience is super aware of every lamp, wall sconce or anything electric because our minds are on electricity. In one scene, someone is vacuuming in the background. Where is the world at that point with regard to electricity? Maybe a better question is: Where was your head when it came to getting across Tesla the man and his relationships versus getting across the historical elements of where science was at? It’s a lot to take on, and you are making a really minimalist film in a lot of ways.

Almereyda: I’m glad you like the movie’s darkness and recognize that light is practically a character in it, coming from multiple sources, tempering the images and the action in various ways. When I did the usual preparatory binge-watching with Sean [Price] Williams, the DP who has seen just about every movie under the sun (you may remember him from early days and nights at Kim’s Video), Derek Jarman emerged as a guide and a kind of talisman. (I’d met Jarman in 1993, a few months before he died, and his work keeps lighting fires in my head.) Caravaggio and Wittgenstein are two of the only low-budget biopics I know that feel unmistakably fresh and vital, not crippled by lack of money. Jarman respected the past; he quotes from paintings, and not just obvious ones by Caravaggio, while inserting anachronisms—a pocket calculator and a typewriter during the high Renaissance—to highlight connections with the present. He defies naturalism, but the films aren’t glib or detached. He gives you a distillation of history simultaneous with, or by way of, a character’s inner life. And his actors display fierce commitment within the fluid way the films move, how they sway or swing from anger to lyricism, didacticism to ecstasy. It’s hard to hold a candle to Jarman’s example, but he gave us something to shoot for.

In any case: Yes, the vacuum cleaner was a conscious anachronism. It marks a point in the story when Tesla has made a mistake about his future royalties, which are about to be sucked up by George Westinghouse. I didn’t intend it to be literal-minded, but the image should convey an unsettling, out-of-sync feeling, and reflect the emptiness I, for one, have experienced when the party’s over and the lonely roar of a vacuum cleaner is chasing you out of the room.

Reichardt: Another unexpected element is how Ethan Hawke now and again enters into these frames with still backgrounds instead of moving images—like he’s on a stage, though his performance remains grounded all along. It’s really effective in terms of keeping the story intimate and inventive. I wonder how it all looked on paper. Can you say something about that choice?

Almereyda: I’ve been using rear-screen projections for a while, probably most prominently in my movie [Experimenter] about Stanley Milgram, who conducted behavioral experiments that recognize we’re often living in parallel realities whereby unseen and unexamined motives exist under the surface of commonplace social exchanges. The projections have a different meaning in Tesla. After researching him across a few decades, I was trying to say something about how unknowable Tesla remains and how flimsy history tends to be. There are half a dozen terrific books about Tesla, but they testify to big gaps in what we know, framed by a few recycled photographs, anecdotes, myths, rumors. You can skim the story off the internet and come up against a dozen unanswerable questions. Did Tesla really have not a single romantic relationship in his life? Why and how did he give up the royalty clause in his contract with Westinghouse, forfeiting millions of dollars of future income? How could he be so reckless, burning through so much of J. P. Morgan’s money while promising a technological revolution he never delivered? The bright flat backdrops highlight the way Tesla was living in his head, and the way we can only have a limited, artificial view of key events tracked in the movie.

Rear-screen is distinctly different from green screen, you know, because you see exactly what’s in your frame; the actors see it too. The process is about as old-fashioned as you can get, but not common or uncomplicated. You choose your images in advance and you need a suitably high-powered projector, a big screen and a technician to coordinate things, and you’ve got to get clever with lighting, to avoid throwing actors’ shadows onto the screen. And I’m not describing it right when I say these backgrounds are flat—the screen is as big as a wall. So, actors can move within the frame and you can set up tracking shots that press in or pull back. Our rear-screen material was crowded into two days at the end of the shoot. Ethan had never been called upon to work with rear-screen images—after acting in about eighty movies!—and he really got into it; he excelled at it. Those two days account for some of my favorite moments in the movie. Ethan’s too, I think.

Reichardt: You made a biographical film that straightaway says, “Look, we don’t know much about this person. Now sit back and relax.”

Almereyda: Relaxing into a state of uncertainty, to my mind, also speaks to the way you set up your stories and characters. There’s a built-in ambiguity and unease, while clear conflicts and oppositions gradually get played out. And I admire the way you integrate class consciousness in all your films in a way that’s always human-scaled and organic. How do you [and Jon Raymond, your co-screenwriter] think about political issues or ideas as you’re developing the stories you want to tell? 

Reichardt: Jon is the one who can get those ideas to work as a backbone in the scripts. We spend a lot of time walking around talking about the small-scale politics of various communities and groups. For example, last summer Jon’s family was involved with a big shakeup amongst a group of families that go camping together each year. There was a lot of inside shit going down, which threatened to jeopardize this whole neo-hippie universe. Due to COVID, the Raymond family camping trip was cancelled this year anyway, but there was some excitement recently during a two-hour Homeowners Association Zoom meeting at my loft. I had to go right over to Jon’s and give him all the dope on who in the building wants to put up a fence to protect the property, and who in the building wants to use resources for outreach to help our homeless neighbors. Most things with us begin from this kind of ongoing gossip. When you break any of these scenes down, you find that all the same issues—racism, classism, sexism—exist in all this stuff. It’s always this figuring out of where the power lies. It’s just on a different scale and with less at stake, but it’s all in there.

Almereyda: You’re lucky to have such a reliable collaborator. And again, in the process you describe, you find a way to enter a microcosm reflecting all kinds of bigger tensions and pressure points. Earlier in the year—it seems very long ago—I was happy to see you awarded a Spirit Award, and it was both funny and awkward when you reminded Alfre Woodard, who presented the award, that you had met her before, back in the ’90s, when you were determined to make a movie with her, tried for a decade, but couldn’t find the money. Would you be tempted to go back to that project now?

Reichardt: No, I don’t want to go back to Dade County, Florida. That film was set there in the neighborhood where I grew up. I don’t want to go back to Florida or the ’90s. I’d work with Alfre though. She’s amazing.

Almereyda: I’d like to work with her, too, and I’d like to think it might be slightly easier for us to find funding now.  At any rate, we’ve been invited to talk about my movie at a time when the world is consumed with matters that are undeniably more urgent, and in running on I can’t help but feel a sense of shame. Do I really have to promote this film and suggest it might be relevant? But, at the risk of being corny, I want to believe it’s possible to tell stories that bring people together and challenge them in equal measure. Has our current moment led you to rethink, or re-approach, storytelling and filmmaking, in any definable way?

Reichardt: The current moment keeps changing. We’re in the middle of something, so it’s impossible to be reflective or have any distance. First, everything slowed down, and there was a new pace to adjust to. I talk to my 81-year-old dad who lives alone, and he tells me about his day: “I take my walk, work on my puzzle, read my book and before you know it, it’s time to watch TV.” I feel like we are all 81 now. I call my friends, and it’s all the same. “Anything?” “No, I’ve got nothing over here.” No one has had anything to say because we are all just in our spaces. 

In March, after the truncated release of First Cow at the start of the lockdown, I bought a light box and started tracing. I was just tracing all day long. Occasionally, I’d mark down the number of people that died in the United States: 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 and so on. An old student of mine said, “It can be so relaxing to just follow a line on a page, but I promise you will get tired of it!” For a month or two, I thought he was wrong. But it turned out he was right. By May I was tired of tracing and was spending too much time on Petfinder, feeling lousy about the world and looking at the clouds thinking of all the possible ways I might start volunteering. 

Then, everything exploded. We went overnight, it seems to me, from total isolation to a sea of masked people in the street calling out the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Here in Portland, we are kneeling on the Morrison Bridge in silence while people are doing the same thing on a street in Berlin. It feels something like all the marching around AIDS. Then, too, illness, death, inequality and prejudice were all in the mix. ACT UP seemed like a kind of activist/artist movement all at once, maybe because so many artists were affected. (I remember the artist Ryan Landry’s flying nun outfit in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in NYC—I think his nun’s habit spanned three feet in either direction.) I never knew how to make films about that time or all the loss that came with it. I doubt I’ll be one to make films about this moment. But I’m excited to see what other people make of it. I hope people won’t be policing each other. I do think overall that art helps.

Almereyda: Yes, moments do not sit still. During the first months of quarantine, I took refuge in Pennsylvania. My mind was moving in figure eights, thinking about paths not taken—personal and historic. This oscillating feeling was described by Kim Stanley Robinson as “alienation and solidarity at once.” And I thought about Peter Hutton, whom I know you had a close connection with. At his memorial at Bard, young people and old, laughing and in tears, remembered going to Peter to unload anxiety and distress, and his advice was the same in every case: “Slow down,” he said. “Just slow down.” For me, slowing down was the one luxury afforded by the pandemic. The forced suspension of the usual high-speed blur.

In May, as a not-quite-conscious tribute to Peter, I started shooting video on my iPhone, which is a bit like tracing off a lightbox, or keeping a diary or writing the kind of poem that’s essentially a list of things in the room. For years, I’d avoided using the video feature of my phone, but I went for this primary, ultra-simple approach: motionless single shots, 20 seconds to a minute, mostly documenting what was happening out the window: snow or rain, the unknowable neighbors across the street, the stalwart mailman. Unlike Peter’s magnificent images, my shots are quiveringly handheld, and sound leaks in—a Cuomo news conference, Igor Levit’s piano. I might try editing them together, but, the point is, if I do, a dramatic change occurs after George Floyd’s death. The voices on the radio become impassioned; I came back to New York and suddenly the camera is moving, and I’m surrounded by people holding signs and chanting. It can be essential to slow down, and just as essential to speed up. We have to hope real change is on the way, and it’s not an incidental hope to yearn for a film that can capture the anger and idealism of this time. Of all the commentary I’ve taken in, Dave Chappelle[’s] feels like the most salient. One of few people who can personalize current events, channeling private rage while sharpening the focus on the big picture, the sense of history and consequence. But one of his most fundamental points is: It’s time to let the streets talk.

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