Mary Ward and Barry Sherman in Another Girl Another Planet
Filmmakers working outside the major studios often find themselves living by the buzz and dying by the buzz Werent you last months flavor? Yet in a field where you can be considered a washout after your second movie and be forgotten before you put together the financing for a third, the versatile Michael Almereyda has spent the last decade quietly assembling some of the most original work that few have seen. Through the vagaries of distribution, hes perhaps best-known for 1994s Nadja, a shimmering black-and-white sleepwalker-reverie of New Yorks Lower East Side that poses or at least, was advertised by its distributor as an erotic vampire tale. His latest, Trance, a modern-day variation on The Mummy, starring Alison Elliot, Jared Harris and Christopher Walken, debuted at the Toronto film festival and will be distributed either in the theaters or perhaps direct-to-video sometime in the next few months by Trimark. Trance, despite its bursts of droll comedy borne out of culture clashes and strained relationships, proceeds by hush and murmur, its single night of damp, nocturnal Irish gloom moving inexorably toward an ageless conclusion. The marvelous mood is aided immeasurably by an acute Simon Fisher Turner score.
While Almereyda made his directorial debut in 1988 with Twister, an exquisitely odd story of a strained Kansan clan led by Harry Dean Stanton and featuring a cameo by William S. Burroughs, he began as a screenwriter. Hes written for a number of other filmmakers, including an early draft of Total Recall with Bruce Beresford and contributions to Wim Wenders Until the End of the World. Work like that has given him the latitude to self-produce several shorter films using Pixelvision, a now-defunct black-and-white video camera originally marketed by Fisher-Price as a childs toy. The image it produces is dim yet often strikingly pointillist in its visual effect, like a photo-booth strip blown up to wall size. Almereydas Pixelvision work has been seen on the festival circuit but has not been widely distributed because of music clearance issues. Among them are 1992s Another Girl Another Planet, 1995s At Sundance and 1997s The Rocking Horse Winner, a superb, haunting adaptation of the D. H. Lawrence short story, starring a wry Eric Stoltz as the easygoing uncle who's willing to take his hot-as-fire little nephew to the track for some quality gambling time. The diminished image results in work that seems offhanded but is actually richly textured.
Among other strengths, Almereyda has an ear naturally attuned to the effect of music, and hes also adept at fresh funny, conversational dialogue, filled with cross-purposes and hilariously cadenced. He captures the cant of filmmakers young and old in At Sundance and amuses the ear with the taut yet witty exchanges in Rocking Horse Winner. Still, when I spoke to him at the time of Nadjas release, Almereyda was hesitant to separate the spoken word from the flow of a film. "My films are usually about miscommunication on some more-or-less obvious level. People are usually talking at cross-purposes, either contradicting themselves or each other. So when I think about dialogue, its really in relation to whats happening in the movie and in terms of what actions are underway," he told me then. "I think of movies more in terms of directing; dialogue is not free-floating or autonomous. Movies have to do with simultaneous actions or events. Dialogue is a way of connecting the dots, but the real meaning, to me, is seldom in the dialogue. When people are saying something, theyre usually doing something else."
And Almereyda himself is usually onto something else, casting his Hamlet (which Miramax recently bought just after production wrapped) between our conversations below. Ethan Hawke is the diffident Dane, and the cast includes Sam Shepard, Diane Venora, Bill Murray, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Steve Zahn, Liev Schrieber, Dechen Thurman, Jeffrey Wright and Almereyda stalwart Karl Geary. Talking to the soft-spoken director about the swerves that his career has taken, hes reflective about the importance of simply doing ones work instead of looking back, offering philosophical DIY instead of production kiss-and-tell.
Filmmaker: So what can you tell us about Trance, the new feature you premiered at the Toronto Film Festival?
Almereyda: Well, it was supposed to be fast and cheap, but it became expensive and slow. Its my first color film in nearly ten years. Its entirely in color, and its almost entirely in focus, not counting some flashbacks shot in Super-8. Jim Denault, the d.p., shot my films Another Girl Another Planet and Nadja, and I think this is some of his best work. Alison Elliott, Jared Harris, Christopher Walken and Lois Smith are in it, as well as some friends of mine from Dublin and New York. Its set in Ireland but shot mostly in Yonkers. I seem to recall that theres a mummy. A female Irish druid mummy.
Filmmaker: How did you start making films? You dont seem like a film school kind of guy.
|Ethan Hawke in Hamlet. Photo: Larry Riley|
Filmmaker: What made you bold enough to say, "Im a screenwriter, and Im going to New York and Hollywood to write"?
Almereyda: I never considered myself a screenwriter its accidental that I became an employable writer. As a kid I was more interested in drawing and painting. When my family moved from Kansas to Orange County, I was a teenager, and my proximity to L.A. opened up a sudden, expansive view of moviemaking. Before I could drive I was carpooling to see Howard Hawks or John Huston talk at community colleges. There were more TV channels in L.A. than in Kansas, pre-cable. Movies were everywhere. So of course I wanted to make them. A simple, common disease.
Filmmaker: But how did those particular symptoms pop up? Youd need to know a little bit about movies to seek out Howard Hawks.
Almereyda: Its wasnt that tough. You went to a bookstore. You watched TV. And there were revival houses then. It didnt take much to figure out the difference between a Hitchcock or Welles film and something with less visual energy. All the towering maverick directors were pretty conspicuous then, and they showed up in public. Also, I was lucky to have met up with [critic] Manny Farber when he came to Orange Coast College with a Fassbinder film under his arm. I was sixteen, and I happened to have just read his book [Negative Space]. Manny was my first flesh-and-blood guide to movie culture, and to culture itself as a present tense activity. His influence, as a painter and a film critic, was crucial. He was always pushing the edges of things, searching and reaching. He was tough-minded, unpretentious and funny.To have run into him when I was a kid was really lucky.
Filmmaker: Howd you get an agent so quickly?
Almereyda: Also luck. I met a writer named Tom Pope, who had written a version of Hammett for Wim Wenders. He kind of blindly said, "Well, give my agent a call." Its very rare for someone to be that generous. He hadnt even read anything of mine. It turned out that his agency was kind of a boutique with a lot of powerhouse writers Nick Kazan, Ron Shelton, Michael Tolkin, and Ron Nyswaner all at this one place. I was lucky to have been accepted into the fold. It gave me a kind of instant career. Within two weeks of signing with them, I was hired to rewrite Mandrake the Magician for Embassy Pictures. I flew back to New York, checked into the Chelsea Hotel, and rewrote the script from top to bottom in three weeks. The project was dumped just as quickly when a new man took over the studio.
Filmmaker: Talk a little bit about working on scripts for other directors. You seem to have had the fluke of working with filmmakers who minimize studio interference. Even with work-for-hire, is it all "personal" work?
Almereyda: It is. I dont know how to fake it, to do something I dont believe in. But no ones pursuing me these days. When you dont live in L.A. and you havent scored a big hit, you fall out of the loop. The last writing job I had was for Tim Burton with Warner Brothers footing the bill. An adaptation of a Hawthorne story. Tim probably generates a lot of things that dont get made, but this seemed to matter to him. He wanted to scale it down, make a low-budget film, his own "Ed Wood special," and he even considered shooting it in his own house. Maybe hell get around to it eventually. It was fun and it was as personal as I could make it. And it was nicely unconstrained by studio involvement, because it was Tim Burton.
Filmmaker: Youve done a couple of films that toy with the horror genre. Is there another genre or style youre champing to explore?
Almereyda: Probably biopics, oddly enough. I have three scripts that Id love to film some day. Each one derives from the conventional biopic idea that you examine a life, a jumble of events, and you try to focus and distill it, give it a shape. Ive got a script about Amelia Earhart, one about Nikola Tesla, and one about James Dean taken from a Rick Moody story called The James Dean Garage Band. Ive also got an Edgar Allan Poe screenplay combining elements from Poes life and his writing. I wouldnt mind walking out the door tomorrow and shooting any one of those scripts.
Filmmaker: Talking about setting stories in other eras reminds me of what a few directors have told me, such as James Cameron, whos thrilled by the idea of what you might call invisible CGI, the use of computer technology to less expensively render the past rather than using it just for fantastical, futuristic things.
Almereyda: I find myself so divorced from that way of thinking I cant even attempt to answer the question. Im more and more interested in Godards conviction that youve got to deal with the complications of the pre-sent moment even when you look at history, there should be a conscious effort to refract it through your awareness of the present, even if youre spinning a complete fantasy. I mean, Im interested in history. I was impressed by the new Spielberg movie, and here I am talking about biopics, but I dont want to run from the present. And the idea of time-travel through CGI feels like a magic trick that might be an evasion of other issues. Besides, I like working with real actors in real spaces. Cant help it.
Filmmaker: I got interested in your work because of the fresh tone of Twister and Another Girl Another Planet, which are filled with idiosyncratic, contemporary comic dialogue. But youre still pretty much under the critical radar. If youre on anyones list, its more for Nadja, or the expectations now for Trance. Did you have any special interest in horror?
Almereyda: I did. I had some hopeful feelings about it but I think its a wrong swerve for me. Nadja isnt really a horror movie. Its about as scary as one of those rubber Halloween bats on a piece of elastic. Theres a kind of jokiness to it, a comic aspect that I embraced. The movie ends with a marriage, so in classical terms its a comedy. I hope there is a sense of mystery and a depth to it, but I never thought of it as a straightforward horror movie. I dont even know how it could be mistaken for one. The new movie might be more conventional. Genre is a way of traveling through familiar terrain, but I always hope to get someplace new. I may have only one life, but Im hoping to make many movies, and many kinds of movies. If theyre true to themselves, theres a way that they dont have to exclude each other. And I think my Pixelvision stuff is as substantial as any of the larger productions. I aspire to bigger opportunities, a bigger canvas, but Im happy making movies on any scale. A line from Hamlet has been ringing in my head: "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space..."
Filmmaker: I was going over whats been written over the past few years about your movies, mostly in festival catalogs "charming... quirky... poetic... lyrical..." Are these good adjectives? Do you recognize these qualities that others ascribe to what you do?
Almereyda: No. Its sort of horrifying. I try not to be too self-conscious about what Im doing but, if I have a tendency towards poetic flourishes, Id rather not lean on them, not indulge them. I hope to make movies that are a little tougher. "Quirky" or "offbeat" I dont really find those flattering adjectives. Who does? Part of my job, so far as I can figure, is to include as much texture and contradiction as I can, to give a story multiple edges and angles. If the result gets called quirky, theres not much I can do about it. But I dont want the movies to be limited by that kind of perception. Every image in a film is an opportunity to describe the world in a new way, to reassess your grip on reality, or even question your idea of reality. Ideally, you manage to do this and tell a story at the same time. It makes sense that every opportunity I get, Ill try playing with the medium as much as I can.
Filmmaker: What about Kansas? Did growing up there influence your sense of space and mood?
Almereyda: I think your primary influence is what you grow up in, and for me thats suburban Kansas. I seem to be an implausible Kansan people never expect that Im from there but my basic sense of myself is as a kid in Kansas with a big sky hovering overhead, and I dont think Ill ever quite outgrow that. Of course, its connected to a sense of space, of behavior, of light and even time. The fact that I talk slowly and my films tend to move slowly has everything to do with growing up in that place, which to me will always be magical, and not merely because its cross-referenced with The Wizard of Oz! I have a very physical memory of Kansas, and Id like to shoot another movie there and get it right.
Filmmaker: Did you have a vision of how your career might grow and expand after making Twister for Vestron? Was there a trajectory that you envisioned or hoped for then?
Almereyda: Yeah. I dont know how to talk about it, but its kind of a puzzle. Im still puzzled about the prospect of having a career. I still feel like Im a beginner. And it took a while for everyone to admit that maybe I wasnt responsible for the collapse of Vestron. But it remains very hard to get money to make movies.
Filmmaker: Is it different when youre wrestling with the blank page?
Almereyda: One freakish thing about me I dont have much trouble wrestling with "the blank page." I have too many unblank, crowded pages. Its absorbing to be in the process of doing this work, whether its walking around with a digital video camera, a pixel camera, or making drawings and notes for a film. I can always keep myself busy I can entertain myself. But financing the movies is an altogether different trick. Lately, Ive been lucky to have some good producers. I think its very hard to find good producers, a common complaint among filmmakers.
Filmmaker: How do labels work for or against a filmmaker? Theres the tired-through-repetition "independent," and theres "maverick." And then theres what David Lynch said of you at the time of Nadja, "I believe in his talent and his ideas. Im very glad I can support him because I have the feeling he is one of the best American New Wave directors."
Almereyda: Gee, that was nice of him. Actually, his new movie is based on a newspaper clipping I sent him and Mary Sweeney, his editor-producer, so its safe to say he really does believe in my ideas. As for labels were all a bit baffled by them. David is a great example of a sensibility and a career that cant be boxed in. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer independent films seem to originate from independent thinking. All the same, theres a great deal of fantastic work being done, and the challenge is to meet it on its own terms, one film at a time.