It was a mixed blessing that Michael Almereyda was doing a location scout at the time of this phone interview, which came as not so welcome news to me as an interviewer – reception wasn’t great and the filmmaker had other things on his mind. But as a longtime admirer, this was a small price to pay to learn that the Almereyda’s current creative tear is going to continue. Though the filmmaker always seems to working on new projects, often shorts or documentaries, it’s his bold reformulations of narrative that have been particularly exciting, whether it’s deconstructions of genre films like his breakthrough vampire tale “Nadja” in 1994 or his modern updates of Shakespeare like his arguably definitive screen version of “Hamlet” in 2000, and after what felt like an interminable absence from that space, making just two dramatic features since the turn of the century with “Happy Here and Now” and “New Orleans, Mon Amour,” he has equalled that number this year alone with a biker gang remix of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” and “Experimenter,” a rumination on the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram.
It might be a surprise that Almereyda has long wanted to make a biopic, generally regarded as one of the most rote film genres there is, but in spite penning treatments about the lives of Nikola Tesla, Edgar Allan Poe and Amelia Earhart, one couldn’t think of a better one to reach the screen first for the filmmaker than one about the Yale-based researcher who pioneered studies into groupthink and obedience. Insightful in ways only cinema can be, “Experimenter” is as deceptively simple as the experiments Milgram conducted, whether it was gauging man’s capacity to torture another with electrical shocks or seeing how helpful a person was willing to be without reward through a test which placed fully-addressed letters in public places to see if they would be mailed or not. Featuring a cool and collected Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram and Winona Ryder as his wife Sasha, the film starts out in a recognizable reality in 1961 as Milgram watches in on his most famous Peer Shock Administration experiments in a lab, but soon spirals out to reflect the psychologist’s investigative thought processes through surreal imagery of elephants, rear projection to create Milgram’s world outside of work and spliced in bits of real films he shot, not to mention the eventual cameos of real people in his life.
In many ways, “Experimenter” feels like the film that Almereyda has been working up to his entire career, able to synthesize the many different areas of the medium he’s worked in while retaining the ineffable qualities he can imbue as a storyteller to ultimately transcend it. In an all-too-brief chat, he shared how he became interested in Milgram as a subject, the way music was used to illuminate him as a character and going into other people’s lives intrigues him.
I had a girlfriend who was taking a class on Stanley Milgram and I didn’t know much about him but I looked at her textbook on Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority” and I became fascinated with the book. When I did more research, I became more fascinated and it seemed like a great topic for a movie.
I was actually surprised to learn you’ve written a number of biographies, but they haven’t been produced. Is there an attraction?
I like the way that official history intersects with personal history. You can get a story that’s very layered with details and things people know about but they don’t know the full story. That convergence of the known and the unknown is exciting to me. I’m hoping I can shoot more of them, because it’s an exciting territory.
Was there something in particular in what you read about Milgram that unlocked how you could tell his story as a film?
Sure, he made six films, and in many of them, he was talking to the camera. He had an element of playfulness and self awareness that was I felt powerful. It was a good index for how I could structure the story — using his own personality, his reflexes as a teacher, his playfulness, his creativity, the way he was always asking questions. That helped influence the style and the shape of the film.
It was a set based meticulously on Milgram’s own lab and I like the way you describe it as “boxes within boxes.” There are echoes of that throughout the movie, whether it’s the glass box [during later experiements] or during his trial. The real space that Milgram constructed, which was like a set at Yale, doesn’t exist anymore but we recreated it.
You get such distinct actors to play the obedience subjects such as John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin. Were there were specific viewpoints you wanted to represent?
Almost everything in the movie comes directly from the research — it’s like a collage, but I didn’t make up much of anything — so most of the dialogue that you hear during the experiments comes from the movies Milgram made or transcripts sitting in boxes at the Yale archives. That was one of the starting points for making the film because it was so dramatic. It covered so many aspects of human nature that I just channeled it more than wrote it.
Music was challenging. I got lucky on this — I met a young composer named Bryan Senti, who was based in Brooklyn until recently, and he really came through, giving us a kind of full orchestral sweep even though there wasn’t a big budget. The music is mainly classical and I think there’s an emotional quality to the score that’s spare, but full-bodied and I’m grateful to have it coming through. We also wove in some songs — one [specifically] “Some Enchanted Evening,” appears four times in the course of the movie because I thought the lyrics had a relevance to Milgram’s life and to his experiments – the idea of how people can be strangers even when they know each other well. That’s a motif throughout Milgram’s work, but it’s also present in human nature that people aren’t very knowable no matter how close you get to them.
Was this a situation where the closer you adhered to the past, the more relevant it became?
That’s always the hope though it’s always the inevitability that no one can see past their own time. Whenever we look at the past, it’s through the lens of the present no matter how curious and far reaching we may be. So I think this movie really is a movie of the moment for people to think about contemporary life and both on an intimate level about your own life as well as a more global situation.
“Experimenter” opens on October 16th in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater and the South Coast Village 3 and in New York at the Sunshine Cinema. A full schedule of cities and future dates can be found here. It will also be available on demand and on iTunes.