Michael Almereyda on Capturing the Unknowable Nikola Tesla

The Filmmaker in Conversation with Rivka Galchen

Here’s a beautifully impossible engineering problem: capture the spirit of Nikola Tesla in a one-hundred-and-two minute film. It’s a near-mad assignment, and so well suited to the brilliant and un-categorizable filmmaker Michael Almereyda. Michael is one of the most gentle people I know. He also almost never speaks of himself. That made it all the more magical for me to get to chat with Michael about his new film, Tesla, and in that way to catch a glimpse of his creative process.

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Rivka Galchen: Nikola Tesla fits better than many other scientists into the romantic notion of genius: troubled, suffering, at times nearly or completely mad. Did you find yourself resisting that idea? How did having Edison as a foil of sorts in the film change your thinking on Tesla?

Michael Almereyda: I was originally working off an adolescent idea of tormented genius, yes, fed by the lives of romantic poets and a few anarchic painters, musicians and filmmakers that kept me company when I was a teenager. That’s when I first learned about Tesla, and first wrote a screenplay about him, a protracted project finished in the distant year 1981. But even in that first version, Edison was a foil, as you say, rather than a nemesis.

I was always dazzled by Edison, always liked him, and felt you can appreciate Tesla’s gifts and achievements without considering Edison his polar opposite, a lesser man or mind. They were both anomalous. Over the years, the heroic image of a thrashing, half-mad Promethean genius began to lose its spell for me. And I learned about other extraordinary people at the center and edges of Tesla’s story, so other perspectives opened up and entered the picture, which became less reverent, more playful, at once more balanced and off-kilter. But I suppose there’s still an essential zero-gravity element of adolescent loneliness at the heart of the story, left over from my first take. I became increasingly intrigued, over the years, by what we can speculate about Tesla’s inner life, the feelings he might have nurtured or stifled while extracting secrets from the fabric of the universe.

RG: In having Anne Morgan narrate the film—Anne is the daughter of JP Morgan, and an intense admirer of Tesla’s—you charge the story with bewilderment and love, emotions that are arguably alien to Tesla. What did this framing offer? You also chose to set Anne outside of time—she does Google searches!—and in this way she feels to the audience like a specter. What led to that decision?

MA: Bewilderment and love—you’re mapping the exact territory where I wanted the movie to land. Even if these emotions seem alien to Tesla, they’re at the core of the story I chose to tell. Tesla, for me, is like a Henry James character who can’t identify or admit his own feelings, who is blindly deflecting, or entirely missing, the beat of his own heart. He was a declared celibate and had no known romantic relationships, but there’s evidence he was wistful about men, was attracted to men. There’s ambiguity in this, which permeated his life, and I felt it was poignant to trace the unfolding, narrowing path of a man who talked about liberating the human race, bringing about revolutionary progress and change, when he had sublimated or frozen the part of himself that allows intimate contact with other people.

So Anne Morgan was introduced—she wasn’t in my first draft—as a character perambulating through the late 19th century as well as a slightly impertinent narrator dropped in from the future, to throw Tesla’s aloneness and estrangement into relief and to draw on facts and opinions that wouldn’t be available otherwise. Also to heighten the tension, the sense of fatal entanglement, arising from Tesla’s financial ties with her father. Anne Morgan was, in fact, one of a half dozen women who circulated at dinners at the high-end salon hosted by magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine. Anne gets a line if not a paragraph in every Tesla biography—but that’s it; Tesla delicately or curtly turned away all the eligible bachelorettes. Nonetheless, measuring Anne against the other contenders, she seemed to me particularly remarkable, evolving as she did, in the early 20th Century (beyond the movie’s scope), into a notably independent-minded, even heroic person, advocating for women’s rights, standing on picket lines and, when World War I broke out, throwing herself and her money into international philanthropy. Also, in France, she entered into a serious lesbian relationship, acting on feelings Tesla (I presumptuously speculate) would have considered inadmissible.

“The wild creativity of a scientific mind interests me more than any other variety of creativity.”

RG: You forefront the Tesla quote about seeing static in the pet cat’s fur, seeing sparks fly, and then asking, in nature, by analogy: “Who strokes the cat’s back?” Electricity is a spooky power of sorts, so intimately tied to life and death, so alternately visible and invisible. For me, these eerie energies felt central. Was that in any way an organizing emotional element of the film?

MA: Yes, this was a primary ambition, and challenge, in telling the story—the story of a man searching for, discovering or revealing forces that are largely invisible—until they become manifest in machines, systems, surges of energy and light. The hope was that there would be an emotional correspondence, a circuit of feelings radiating from light and shadow in practically every scene, every shot, though the only explicit mention of this spookiness comes from a patch of dialogue from Anne Morgan, speculating about how a departed spirit can seem to linger in the glow of electric light. The idea was to embody the encircling sense of mystery that Tesla lived and breathed and, as he expressed it, wrestled with at his peril. “I am taming a wild cat—and I am a mass of bloody scratches.” This is from a letter he wrote from Colorado Springs, after nearly being electrocuted in his lab. I don’t usually go for literal symbols—who does?—but this one was readymade, irresistible. I supplied Anne with a pet cat, aligning her with these primal, eerie energies. (The cat she carries in her arms by her father’s shuddering fireplace, midway through the movie, is the same creature stroked by young Tesla at the start. The cat demurely resurfaces in the last scene, pawing at a pocket watch.)

When I first mentioned Tesla to you, you told me you had just finished reading a biography about him. What drew you to that book or, rather, what drew you to Tesla?

RG: The wild creativity of a scientific mind interests me more than any other variety of creativity. I’m not sure why. Probably for personal reasons. But also the way that the imagination is bounded by all the indifferent weirdness of the natural world.

MA: Your work contains a playful engagement with the uncanny. In Atmospheric Disturbances, your psychiatrist protagonist suspects his wife is a simulation of herself and tries to reconcile this with his own unstable psyche. In your terrific time travel story, “The Region of Unlikeness,” your narrator, lovelorn and adrift, runs from the possibility that her inescapable fate is to marry an unreliable quasi-genius. Do you find an affinity between characters who obsessively ponder mysteries of space and time, the way they bait and confound themselves, without arriving at a traditional character arc or climactic epiphany?

RG: I’m moved by characters (and people!) who martial tremendous rational power in the service of what is an irrational impulse, or insight— Others see the irrationality, maybe even celebrate it, but for this kind of person under the sway of the irrational, there’s a sense that the ego would collapse if it admitted any emotional or other component was influencing their thinking. Tesla was someone like that, in my mind, but there are also much more minor examples, “ordinary” people with some blind drive or irrational order that they feel compelled to obey, even as the rest of their energy is committed to rational and logical thinking. Basically wherever I overhear heated conversations about free will, or thinking machines, I feel I have found one of these citizens of another world. It’s a world I feel close to, as if I once served as an ambassador there.

I hadn’t known Tesla was your very first script. Are there other changes that you’d be up for sharing? It seems so valuable for this project to have this ghost of your younger self contributing…

MA: My first draft was 139 pages long, full of carefully polished prose and extravagant set pieces. It changed from top to bottom, while remaining a collaboration with my own ghost. Edison had appeared briefly, as an old man, in a detachable dream sequence, which was cut. Sarah Bernhardt didn’t appear at all. Oddly, nearly the only episodes that survive complete from the original script involve Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan. I’m not sure what that says, at this point, about my relationships with authority figures and money men, but there it is…

RG: Probably my favorite scene in the film is the one when Tesla is standing outside of the tennis courts where the Morgans are playing a game. Tesla is asking for help for some of his more wild projects, later in his life, like for his superweapon to end all wars. That scene, slightly surreal, really captured for me the requisite busking of a creative wonder like Tesla. Again you found an emotionally precise visual correlate, in a scene that feels parallel to rather than in the stream of the real… Where did you get the idea for that scene?

MA: It’s a fusion of old and new, that scene. As a not-quite-rational tribute to my younger self, I was determined to keep the dialogue from the early version pretty much verbatim—though an important bit of Morgan’s advice to Tesla had been lifted from a dream recounted by Max Beckmann, visited in his sleep by William Blake: “Do not let yourself be intimidated by the horror of the world. Everything is ordered and correct and must fulfill its destiny in order to attain perfection.” Not a bad way to deflect an anguished inventor asking for more money.

“Tesla, for me, is like a Henry James character who can’t identify or admit his own feelings.”

The scene was originally set in Morgan’s study, mirroring their first meeting. Once Anne entered the picture, I thought she had to witness the exchange, even if she doesn’t speak, and the tennis court felt like the fitting, optimal, unlikely alternate location. So yes, Anne, the game, and the other women in white heighten Tesla’s humiliation and add an element of absurdity. Tesla’s list of improbable and impossible inventions was imported from a later scene showing Tesla as a broken old man giving a delusional interview in the New Yorker Hotel. Scenes with the older Tesla were all cut, but this dialogue, dropped into the tennis court, gives the occasion a sense of doomed ambition and telescoped time.

RG: Other scenes are shot and told in ways to make them feel explicitly in the realm of feeling and the imagination. Why was that important to you as a maker for this story?

MA: It never seemed adequate to me to make a movie about Tesla that would merely square with his Wikipedia entry. Even or especially when taking on the unnatural genre of historical movies—biopics—framed by known and unknowable “facts,” I thought it was crucial to bear in mind this axiom from Jean Renoir: “The care of anyone who tries to create something in films is the conflict between exterior realism and interior non-realism.” The idea is always, I think, to make something intimate and alive, and in this case that required giving voice to seemingly peripheral characters, acknowledging potential or parallel action in “what-if?” scenarios, collaging rear-screen projections beside real locations—all in an attempt to get inside this closed and mysterious man.

RG: Edison and Tesla are often presented in a pocketbook version of history as rivals. Did this seem true to you, and in what ways?

MA: Well, they were fiercely invested in rival electrical systems, DC vs. AC, and the comic book version of things reduces them to arch rivals altogether. But this tends to minimize their great common ground. They were both willful, work-obsessed, egotistical, idealistic tech pioneers. And they were both reckless with money, which they poured into their work faster than it poured into their pockets. Edison, of course, was better at building a bulwark of interlocking companies and concerns that could keep things afloat, despite a string of commercial disasters. Tesla was hardly as well-organized and expansive, though perhaps twice as impractical. In any case, they had contrary temperaments, came from different worlds. My direction to the actors was simple: Tesla is a cat; Edison is a dog.

RG: And what was Westinghouse? Maybe a beaver?

MA: Maybe a badger or, really, a happy, hungry bear. But Jim Gaffigan didn’t require that kind of instruction. At one point in the script, Westinghouse refers to himself as “an old cat-skinner,” and we talked about how shrewd Westinghouse must have been, how he was extremely resourceful, from a very young age, as an inventor and a captain of industry, and how he may have manipulated Tesla into giving up the royalty clause that ultimately cost Tesla millions of dollars. Tesla regarded him as a benign and supportive presence in his life, but it can be argued Westinghouse should have been more protective of Tesla and that, actually, he fatally undermined him. Edison’s routinely cast as the villain in this story, but in one of the best and most recent books on the subject, The Truth About Tesla, Christopher Cooper writes: “This agreement with Westinghouse was far more responsible for Tesla’s impoverishment than anything Edison ever did.”

RG: Jim Gaffigan was so compelling as Westinghouse. I loved the little wanders in his dialogue, like when he says to Tesla that he once knew a Mr. Orange, but who pronounced it Mr. O-range… This before talking to Tesla about plans to use electrical current for executions. I know you’ve worked with Gaffigan before, but still it struck me as inspired casting, to give this towering historical figure role to an actor most well known as a funny dad.

MA: When he was in the makeup chair having his mustache and whiskers glued on, Jim said to me “I’ll be your DeNiro.” So there’s no telling where we’ll go next. I especially valued his approach in the scene at the World’s Fair, where Westinghouse takes Tesla into a side room to play out their awkward business transaction. Jim surmised it was part of Westinghouse’s cunning to seem oblivious to Tesla’s physical discomfort, to be overbearing while declaring his own vulnerability. Then to give Tesla a big hug when that’s exactly the last thing Tesla wants at that moment.

“I began to feel that Tesla’s silences, his reserve, his basic, irritable unreachableness might coalesce into a portrait that felt inaccessible, opaque. We needed something extra.”

RG: Why did you choose to have Edison share a traumatic memory, almost offhandedly, with Tesla, as a near opening scene of the film?

MA: It’s a death-haunted movie, frontloaded with two semi-symmetrical recollections of childhood deaths, with Edison’s memory of the drowned boy seeming to trigger Tesla’s memory of his brilliant brother, thrown by a horse. Maybe I was overreaching, but I had to assume that encountering sudden death when you’re young can really shake and shape you, even if the impact is only translated in the ways you run into or away from basic questions like: Why? or Why not me?

In any case, both Edison and Tesla lived into their eighties, and in the home stretch both were subsisting on a liquid diet, drinking mainly milk. Edison remained remarkably active and productive, was considered a national treasure, attended by a loving wife; and clearheaded up to the end. None of this can be said for Tesla, whose final days were altogether grim, even if you care to celebrate the tender feelings possible between a man and a pigeon—which I chose to leave out of the movie.

RG: I don’t think we see Ethan Hawke as Tesla smile even once in the film. And there are a few references to his not understanding American humor, or having a sense of humor. This seemed “true” to the Tesla of biographies, and yet it had never crossed my mind to think of Tesla that way. It made his story so much more alien and sad to me. That sadness came together in the strange emotional accuracy of the scene where you have him singing the Tears for Fears song near the end of the film. Where did the idea for that scene come from?

MA: I may have been overemphatic, when talking with Ethan, in describing Tesla as a self-conscious immigrant, an embattled outsider, a man living in his head—which doesn’t translate into easy smiles and laughs. We were approaching our final week of the shoot when I began to feel that Tesla’s silences, his reserve, his basic, irritable unreachableness might coalesce into a portrait that felt inaccessible, opaque. We needed something extra. And just as shy people can sometimes release a hidden or muffled side of themselves in a karaoke song, I imagined it might be exciting to have Tesla step out of the past and break loose behind a microphone. I figured this could be intense even or especially if he couldn’t really break loose, if his shyness remains intact. I wanted the song to be something everyone knows, familiar yet unexpected. The lyrics had to have some kind of resonance without being reducible to a flat illustration of the movie’s “themes.” And I wanted the song to be upbeat, even if the buoyancy is almost unsupportable.

It would be another way of showing this man out of time having a dialogue with the future, and it would give us a glimpse of his inner life. And, like any great pop song, it would simply shake things up—a final blast of energy before Tesla shuffles off this mortal coil. I gave Ethan a few choices, we talked it through. (There was terrible suspense, for months after the scene was shot, to see if we could afford the song, while our magisterial music supervisor, Randy Poster, pleaded with the band’s manager.) I think Ethan struck just the right tone, this uneasy display of shyness and bravado. It was altogether appropriate that he’s wearing leather gloves. And there may be another meaning tucked inside the fact that the song is from the early 80s, when the internet was embryonic, global tech giants were starting to stride the earth, synth pop was everywhere, and I dropped out of college to write a screenplay about Nikola Tesla.

Rivka Galchen
Rivka Galchen
Rivka Galchen is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances. In 2010, The New Yorker selected her as one of its notable “20 Under 40” writers. She lives in New York City. Most recently, she wrote the children's book Rat Rule 79.





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