“If Tesla played the game better he wouldn’t be who he was. That’s the rub,” Ethan Hawke says. “Many of the best directors I’ve worked with have a lot of trouble getting their movies made because they don’t play that game well enough, either. But if they played the game better, they wouldn’t be as interesting. It’s a catch-22, just like with Tesla.”
Almereyda is wary of any comparisons between Tesla and himself, pointing out that Tesla was in fact the first script he ever wrote — long before he was considered to be a “fringe filmmaker.”
The film first nearly materialized in 1982, at the historic Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. Gossip rags take note: For all the hotel’s sordid history, it was also where a young Michael Almereyda pitched Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski on his Tesla script — poolside, no less. A highbrow Hollywood moment if there ever was one.
Almereyda had just landed his first studio job revising Mandrake the Magician, a screenplay by Julien Temple. His producer was late for their meeting and he happened to over- hear a recitation of dialogue between a man and a bikini-clad woman who was fiercely scribbling notes. “It was a ricochet of ‘Tesla– Edison—Tesla–Edison,’” Almereyda recalls.
The man was Skolimowski, then fresh off of Moonlighting, which had just been awarded Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. “I was brazen enough to tell him I had a Tesla screenplay and that he should read it.”
Skolimowski optioned the script, and Almereyda was flown to London to work on revisions, but financing collapsed soon after. Jack Nicholson was supposed to have played the lead.
“I would love to have seen that film, too!” says Hawke. “I’ll say one of the challenges of the time period that we’re in right now is that filmmakers like Michael have to make their films for 75 cents. It’s such a challenge and a real obstacle… it’s very difficult to make eccentric choices and get them into the film marketplace.”
Much has changed both in the world and around Tesla’s legacy since 1982. The name Tesla is now likely to immediately conjure an image of Elon Musk (though, for the record, Musk didn’t name the company). About a dozen or so new biographies have been published — “about six of them are awfully good,” Almereyda says — and on the silver screen Tesla has been embodied by the likes of David Bowie (The Prestige) and Nicholas Hoult (The Current War). The internet and cellphones — descendants of Tesla’s seemingly crazy concept of wireless transmission—are now ubiquitous.
Almereyda updated the script accordingly. “I wanted to acknowledge how Tesla was, in a way, inventing the world we’re living in now,” he says. “A lot of the fruits of his labor and thought are like premonitions that appear in the movie, even if just for a flash, visiting his reality from the future. This is meant to be playful, but also to register something profound about how we retrieve things from the past, or project ideas into the future — how information is clipped, muddled and transported in our daily lives. It’s the way our minds work, aided by easy access to the internet.”
Tesla is still overshadowed by Edison in textbooks, but on some corners of the web he’s been embraced as a countercultural hero, a prophet we should have listened to sooner. Countless memes pit his idealism against Edison’s greed. Take, for example, an image of Edison with the caption: “Hi, I’m Thomas Edison. I’m hailed as a hero but in reality I stole many of Nikola Tesla’s ideas and even electrocuted animals to try and smear his name. Bet your history books forgot to mention that.” Another meme places Tesla — “Guy who said a joke”— beside Edison — “guy who said a joke louder.” Pithier still is a photo of a smug-looking Tesla with the emphatic caption, “Bitch, please.”
“A lot of Tesla lore you find on the internet is full of grandiose and comic-book type mythification, and I wanted to steer clear of that,” Almereyda says. “I’ll be curious to know how many of Tesla’s internet fans are keen on the movie, or scornful of it. I tried to be scrupulous about his accomplishments and his failures, while edging up to the mystery of his inner life.” (Though the film notes Tesla’s flaws, it doesn’t catalogue them all: There is no mention, for example, of his support for eugenics.) Almereyda also avoids portraying
Edison as a one-dimensional tyrant. Thanks largely to MacLachlan’s performance, which embraces the titan with gleeful verve, Edison makes for enjoyable company even in his most condescending moments.
“Edison was incredibly creative, charming, and cunning — a completely unique person in the gallery of great American entrepreneurs,” Almereyda says. “I gave Kyle a copy of Edison’s diary, which Edison kept for about a month and a half when he was courting his second wife.
It wins you over because you see that he did, during this period at least, have a life outside of his work, a far-reaching imagination, and an almost lyrical sense of humor. The idea that he was just about money is warped and distorted.”
But there is an aching chorus of “if only…” that runs throughout the film, most obviously expressed in a scene that imagines Edison apologizing to Tesla for his oversight of A/C technology. “Let’s turn the clock back,” he says, inhaling a slice of all-American apple pie. Anne Morgan’s voice chimes in to tell us this conversation also never happened, and Tesla’s vindicated expression quickly fades to black.
Hawke is particularly adept at tapping into men like Tesla, who seem fundamentally out of sync with the prevailing ethos of their times — whether they’re misunderstood like Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, or driven to madness like Hamlet, who cries: “The time is out of joint — O cursèd spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”
“Time is out of joint!” Hawke says. “I had a line in Born to Be Blue: ‘Today’s ears are a hundred years behind the music we’re making.’ There is tremendous pull from society to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, but that gives fear and greed all the power.”
The real Tesla died penniless and alone. But when Hawke’s Tesla asserts that his dreams are true, we don’t need a narrator to tell us he’s right.
Tesla, directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Ethan Hawke, is available on demand this Friday.