There are as many ways to trap a life in celluloid as there are to skin a cat. Biopics range from the all-encompassing to brief snippets of a person in crisis or on the verge of revolution. They are often built from a place of self-importance featuring a classroom’s reverence. As dutiful exercises made by filmmakers caught in awe, the magic rests in presenting a protagonist as compelling and unique as the real-life individual they wear.
Tesla could have been, and a version of which probably will be in the future, a by-the-numbers biographical adaptation. We open on the tiny village of Smiljan in 1856, Croatia. Nikola Tesla born the son of an Eastern Orthodox priest. The fourth of five children, who was emotionally rocked by the death of his older brother killed during a horse-riding accident. Struck by cholera when he was seventeen years old, Tesla gained entry into one of the finest engineering schools after his father promised to pay his way if he survived his illness. There, Tesla discovered his wonder for electricity. End act one.
Director Michael Almereyda had zero interest in pursuing such a slavish narrative for his subject. He respects Tesla too much to deliver the rote or the expected. His film, with Ethan Hawke at its center, demanded to be as playful and inventive as the character himself. As such, Tesla offers the details of his current war with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) but manages to connect his past with our present. Through technological background cameos of the iPhone, a Dyson vacuum cleaner, and various other gadgets, we witness how Tesla’s genius touches our modern reality. This man is not some dusty figure imprisoned to history; he’s essential to our way of life.
“Why would you make a flat-footed, literal-minded movie about this extraordinary man?” asks Almereyda. “Why would you want to? What would be the value of that?”
The answer for the director is obvious, and the question is even a little absurd. Also, don’t think because Almereyda is having a little fun with his hero, that the Tesla we meet in the film is a fanciful fallacy. Most of his dialogue comes straight from his personal record. The man was a writer, and in his words, he revealed a great deal regarding his inner life.
“I felt that Tesla was anticipating, or shaping the world we’re living in now,” adds the director. “There was a fluid and direct connection between his ideas and his activities and his dreams that would be reflected and enhanced if we played with the time, and had anachronistic elements in the movie, whether its actual objects or the sound design or the music. So, that seemed, in a weird way, something straight forward to me.”
For Jim Gaffigan, tasked with playing Tesla’s friend and economic rival George Westinghouse, the decision to flirt with illusion was incontrovertible. Tesla was a being held together by dreams and aspirations. He was not just a thinker but a doer. He made what he envisioned.
“It’s amazing that he was in Croatia or wherever, having these ideas, and then he went all the way with them!” exclaims Gaffigan. “Why wouldn’t he believe his dreams would come true? They did come true. He was its ditch digger.”
Almereyda originally wrote the screenplay for Tesla nearly thirty-five years ago, and in that time, the concept evolved a tremendous amount. The film finally clicked together for the creator when he plucked Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) from her era and positioned her as a fourth-wall penetrating narrator, relaying information to the audience from behind a laptop. As she so succinctly explains, once can see how Edison currently reigns supreme over Tesla by a simple Google image search. Edison’s face is featured in a nearly endless stream of portraits. Meanwhile, a measly three pictures of Tesla find themselves repeated over and over and over again online.
“I think having Ann at the laptop helped make the film more poignant and more meaningful,” says Almereyda. “She’s reaching out of time. I began to think about her experimental lab as the holding area in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the astronaut is transitioning into the Star Child. It was like this view from above that became a stage for her to come and reflect on this figure called Tesla.”
Almereyda is amused by those that find such choices applied to historical figures as odd. We allow flights of fancy in film all the time. There is no reason why he can’t use such tricks or exaggeration to our celebrated legends.
“All narrators in movies are disembodied,” he explains. “You can’t literally justify why they’re telling you what they’re telling you. William Holden is face down in a swimming pool at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard. Where was he talking from? There are different ways to approach it, but I felt that I wanted to be channeled through Anne’s sensitivity, her sense of yearning, and curiosity about this man. That was crucial in shaping the story.”
Categorizing Tesla as a biopic came across as disingenuous to the director. Containing the life of a “real person” to the screen is no different than doing so for a fictional character. It’s as easy to betray the authenticity of Tesla as it is the life of Batman or Superman. A character is a character is a character.
“We’re telling stories,” says Almereyda, “and the trick is to shape the story to the subject and to tell it with precision. The great ones are great because they’re great. Raging Bull is a perfect biopic. Think about how much territory is included, but also how focused and very specific it is.”
Specificity crafts authenticity. Almereyda found Nikola Tesla within his words. Once there, he rooted inside his dreams and discovered that those dreams were our dreams, and his film required an imaginative replication of them, which seemingly confronted our ordinary notions of “Based on a True Story” presentation. The result is a film unlike few other biopics, but clearly in the spirit of its subject, which, as Almereyda points out, is the whole point of it all.