Michael Almereyda on Experimenter: The Sloan Interview

Michael Almereyda has long been one of American independent cinema’s most iconoclastic talents. He may be best known for his Ethan Hawke-starring Miramax-released Hamlet (2000), but he cut his teeth directing impressionistic genre fare like Nadja (1993) and The Eternal (1998). And since Hamlet, he’s seemed little interested in trying to capitalize on that film’s renown, choosing instead to follow his muse across a series of unconventional features (2002’s delightfully strange Happy Here and Now) outsider documentaries (2005’s William Eggleston in the Real World) and evocatively-titled short works (The Great Gatsby in Five Minutes, The Ogre’s Feathers, Skinningrove).

His long-gestating Experimenter, which premiered at Sundance 2015, drew raves at the recent New York Film Festival and opens Friday, October 16th, is his highest profile work in quite some time, but that doesn’t mean Almereyda has mellowed. Instead, his “biopic” of the life of pioneering social psychology researcher Stanley Milgram, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, is an oddball puzzler. Experimenter was first recognized by the Sloan Foundation with a 2008 Sundance Lab Fellowship and was recently awarded the inaugural Sloan Film Independent Distribution Grant. Sloan Science and Film caught up with Almereyda while on location scouting his next film.

Sloan Science and Film: Could you talk a little about the beginning of the film? There’s no exposition at all and you drop viewers right into the infamous obedience experiments. It’s quite intriguing, but also a little disorienting.

Michael Almereyda: The movie is structured around three different stages in Milgram’s life as defined by the three different universities where he was employed. He made his mark and is most remembered for that first experiment at Yale, so it seemed essential to introduce that from the get-go. I wanted to focus on it but not limit the movie to that and show how that work and its implications and the controversy cast a shadow that he was always trying to escape but never could. It was always in my mind to begin that way because it’s so compelling and cinematic in itself. But you’re not mentioning that there’s a narrative device that’s there from the beginning that involves Milgram turning to talk to the camera. Initially, I didn’t think that would happen until after we went through the laboratory at Yale but the more I worked on it, the more it became apparent it was good to be brazen and introduce that right upfront.

SSF: You’re doing a lot formally in the film. There’s the direct address, but also sections that look as if green screens are used to insert backdrops...

MA: Those were all rear screen projections. But those, and the direct address…they’re unconventional, but they have been done. Anyone who’s seen Ferris Bueller’s Day off or Fight Club or Hamlet knows this is not my invention. One starting point for me was watching Milgram’s own movies. And in many of them, he adopts a persona where he’s talking to the camera in a playful way like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchock. This seemed like an organic way for him to be explaining things to the audience.

SSF: You’re working in a genre—the biopic—where most films seems in thrall to what we might, after Milgram, dub “aesthetic obedience.” They do the things they’re expected to do. Your film feels aesthetically disobedient, in a good way.

MA: That’s a generous way to put it! I didn’t want to make a paint by numbers movie about a man who was always trying to think beyond convention. I wanted to make a film that attempted to be as adventurous as its subject. So, I’ll take the compliment, thank you.

SSF: I wonder if perhaps you identify at all with Milgram. He seems a bit of a restless tinkerer who was constantly trying out new and different kinds of experiments. Your films seem to come in all shapes and sizes and genres and don’t seem beholden to any of the orthodoxy around independent filmmaking.

MA: Sure, though I don’t think he was a tinkerer and I don’t feel like a tinkerer myself. If you’re working, whatever work you do, there’s an open arena to explore life and to be open-minded about how you approach different subjects. That’s part of the excitement of taking on a craft or a subject and finding where they meet. I’ve had luck in that my curiosity has been answered in different ways with different opportunities. Milgram was very inventive and truly was an experimenter. There’s always a generalized version of a person’s life and work and I wanted to go a bit deeper and acknowledge the scope and range of what he did. And the fun of it.

SSF: I hope the word “tinkerer” didn’t put you off as I meant it in the best sense—of someone who’s continually turning things over to see what shakes out. This becomes especially apparent in the film later in Milgram’s life as he keeps experimenting and coming up with new projects like “Small World” and “Familiar Stranger.”

MA: The deepest learnings for me came from talking to people who knew Milgram and especially his wife who was a great benefactor to the whole project. These along with seeing his movies, which aren’t that easy to get access to. That was an immediate and lasting influence. He was a filmmaker—a gifted one. He wanted to make more movies. His first movie, shot at Yale during the obedience experiments, was considered by Roger Ebert one of the ten most important documentaries ever made. I worked on Experimenter for a long time. It’s the nature of a biopic; the good ones are not superficial and are not generic. They take its subject and look at it afresh. Having access to drawings, jottings and letters, many of which came from a huge Milgram archive at Yale was a very rewarding way to shape a film.

SSF: Peter Sarsgaard seems to be having a lot of fun with everything you threw at him.

MS: I think he enjoyed it. And I think he recognized it as a challenge. It’s certainly something that he hadn’t done before, so there was a sense of exploration. He’s a naturally gifted actor so there was a kind of facility; even though we waded into it, he was swimming almost immediately. There wasn’t much confusion. He responded to everything about Milgram and he was intrigued by this level of connection. Milgram was not often acknowledged as being very human and is often caricatured as being cruel and manipulative, but he had a wife and child. Peter is a family man, so he got that.

SSF: How did working with Sloan help get Experimenter made?

MA: I felt very fortunate to have two grants from Sloan to help research and write the screenplay. And they came at a time when I really needed the support. I needed to be able to have security to be able to work and to focus on the script and that came at the right time. It was a gift.

SSF: This is a big question, but many of your films feature science and technology and I was wondering if you had any general theories or ides about how you structure these elements into a film.

MA: I’m on a scout for a film I’m working on called Marjorie Prime that’s about technology in the future. It just seems like a fact that technology is interwoven with not just the texture of our lives, but the substance of our lives in so many ways that we are only waking up to it every day with fresh surprises. I’m not really able to talk about it much beyond that except to say that it fascinates me and there are equal reasons to find hope and fear in technology.