"What Would David Bowie Do?": How Ethan Hawke and Michael Almereyda Shed Light on Nikola Tesla

TESLA - Publicity still 1 - H 2020
IFC Films
The 'Tesla' filmmaker and star look at the surprising influences of their film, including 'Drunk History' and the late music icon's turn as the inventor in 'The Prestige.'

As longtime collaborators, the Tesla brain trust of Ethan Hawke and filmmaker Michael Almereyda discovered that their own intimacy would only benefit their film about the distant and enigmatic inventor-engineer known as Nikola Tesla. Nearly four decades after Almereyda launched his filmmaking career with an earlier version of his Tesla spec script, Hawke takes on the titular role of the Serbian-American electrical engineer as he competes with rival Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) over inventions and breakthroughs involving alternating current (AC) and wireless electricity.

For Hawke, it was quite the challenge to find his way into a mysterious man who was solely focused on his work and wasn’t motivated by love, money or family. While Hawke was mostly inspired by Tesla’s own writings, he made a notable exception when it came to referencing another artist’s interpretation of Tesla.

“I always find David Bowie so inspiring. And the fact that Bowie had played Tesla, Bowie’s legend, the myth of Bowie, his silhouette, it fits Tesla very well,” Hawke tells The Hollywood Reporter of Bowie's work in 2006's The Prestige. “And so, there was a part of me that loved him as an inspiration. If I was modeling the performance after anybody, I always would think, ‘Well, what would David Bowie do? Because I think he’s a great North Star.’”

Since Tesla lived a rather unusual life, Almereyda knew that a biopic about him must also buck convention. Whether it was the narration device involving Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan and Google, Hawke’s karaoke-like and in-character performance of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or Tesla and Edison having an ice cream cone fight, Almereyda admits that he took inspiration from a surprising source.

“I’ve been citing Drunk History as an inspiration, and I’m not kidding because it feels like a lot of history is, by its very nature, drunk. It’s blurry and muddled and hidden,” Almereyda explains. “And so, in trying to explicate it, to dramatize it, to live with it, to make it alive, it seems necessary to have that sort of engagement.”

Hawke adds: “You couldn’t tell the story of Nikola Tesla without being inventive. The form has to match the subject in some way. You’d want to make a movie that would kind of speak to a brain like his, and to do it in a way that’s formulaic would be, you know, to fall on your ass immediately.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Hawke and Almereyda reflect on their 25-year collaboration, their reunion with Hamlet co-star Kyle MacLachlan and what Tesla himself might think of the future he helped shape.

Michael, it’s my understanding that an early version of your Tesla spec script launched your career in the early ‘80s. You’ve also known Ethan for twenty-plus years. Thus, have the two of you discussed this project off and on over the years?

Michael Almereyda: No, when I thought about the history that we had, it actually precedes Hamlet by quite a bit, which is already 22 years ago because we shot Hamlet in 1998. But the first time I had Ethan in front of a camera was a documentary project done at Sundance in 1995. Along with the producer of a vampire movie I did called Nadja, we passed a camera back and forth interviewing filmmakers at Sundance; the film is called At Sundance. Rick (Richard) Linklater and Ethan were interviewed together, and Ethan was the only actor-director. I counted him very much as a director because he did a short film called Straight to One, which I love. So, this film — which in your spare time I hope you might look up — is a series of directors talking about filmmaking. It’s a time capsule from Sundance at that time, and Ethan was so sincere, smart and candid that he really bowled me over. We had talked a bit before that, but the interview crystalizes something about him that I was very happy to find, discover and then live with in the succeeding years. So, we didn’t talk about Tesla, but we talked about many other things for a long time.

When biopics on modern subjects exercise artistic license, they’re often scrutinized because today’s audience already has some frame of reference for them via audio and video. Modern or not, biopic viewers will also Google the subject after the fact to see what’s true and what isn’t. Michael, did you recognize these trends which would explain the unique narration device that engages with that type of fact-checking viewer?

Almereyda: I don’t think that was a controlling concern, but I recognized that we’re making a movie in a specific time frame. And it’s an era that Tesla, in many ways, influenced and predicted. So, to have a narrator who’s self-conscious and self-referential seemed important, but you implied that it might be defensive and I didn’t mean it that way. It’s meant to be playful.

Overall, the majority of today’s biopics are paint-by-numbers; they play it safe. Was the unconventional approach to this biopic a major draw for you, Ethan?

Ethan Hawke: Of course. Your question is really good because in the age of Wikipedia, as you say, people have this idea that they can understand a subject intimately by Googling it, you know. And what I loved about Michael’s screenplay is that he understands it more in a, for the lack of a better word, spiritual sense. It’s the way that Tesla affects Michael, and that makes it cinema and not docudrama.

Michael, were formulaic biopics — such as a childhood trauma in act one and a rehab stint in act two — a large part of why you took such a left turn in this case?

Almereyda: (Laughs.) I’m reluctant to say it’s a left-turn. We have precedent throughout pop culture of ways to talk about history that are more flexible and open to tonal shifts and inventiveness. And Hamilton is an obvious example. The Big Short is another. The recent TV series about Emily Dickinson [Dickinson]. It’s not as if this is anomalous. It’s a language. It’s a style. And it feels both valid and necessary to engage with history in a way that recognizes how scattershot, speculative and confusing it can be. So, as you probably know, I’ve been citing Drunk History as an inspiration, and I’m not kidding because it feels like a lot of history is, by its very nature, drunk. It’s blurry and muddled and hidden. And so, in trying to explicate it, to dramatize it, to live with it, to make it alive, it seems necessary to have that sort of engagement.

Ethan, compared to your Born to Be Blue role as Chet Baker, who’s well-documented on tape, did you feel slightly less pressure to be precise since Tesla is mostly known through a couple pictures, text and other actors’ performances? In other words, is there greater flexibility in depicting historical figures of the relatively distant past than more modern figures?

Hawke: Oh absolutely. I mean, if you’re playing Johnny Cash or Martin Luther King Jr. or Chet Baker or anybody that we have on film, it’s very hard not to get pressured into doing an impersonation. And what’s wonderful about playing somebody that people have a couple of pictures to go on and his writings, it makes it much more flexible. And I love what Michael just said as you couldn’t tell the story of Nikola Tesla without being inventive. The form has to match the subject in some way. You’d want to make a movie that would kind of speak to a brain like his, and to do it in a way that’s formulaic would be, you know, to fall on your ass immediately.

During development and prep, did the two of you research previous films, graphic novels or shows about Tesla in order to recognize any opportunities that your story could explore? Conversely, did you also identify any pitfalls of past Tesla works that you wanted to avoid?

Almereyda: There aren’t very many, but there’s a great many books, including fiction books. But in movies, The Current War hadn’t come out when we were shooting, and Tesla is sidelined in that film. I don’t want to speak ill of it, but he’s barely in that film. And then, there’s a biopic that was made in the former Yugoslavia [The Secret of Nikola Tesla]. I have tender feelings for it because it’s so quaint and Orson Welles plays J.P. Morgan, but that film is really very flat-footed. And then, there’s David Bowie in The Prestige, which is an amazing film, but it’s purely fiction. It uses Tesla as a myth, as a mythological icon, as a plot device, and David Bowie is a person called Tesla. None of the coordinates of Tesla’s biography match up with that film, so it’s playful in another way. So, we didn’t really have much to go on in terms of precedent. It’s pretty thin.

Hawke: But on the other side of the coin, I always find David Bowie so inspiring. And the fact that Bowie had played Tesla, Bowie’s legend, the myth of Bowie, his silhouette, it fits Tesla very well. And so, there was a part of me that loved him as an inspiration. If I was modeling the performance after anybody, I always would think, “Well, what would David Bowie do?”

Almereyda: (Laughs.)

Hawke: Because I think he’s a great North Star.

Ethan, aside from Bowie, did you have tunnel vision for the most part? Or did you research Tesla’s other appearances throughout pop culture just to get the lay of the land?

Hawke: What’s the line... “Comparisons are odious.” I find that generally inhibits creativity. You have to have the arrogance, at least while you’re doing it, to pretend you’re the only one that ever really thought about this. You have to manifest confidence somehow, and I often find that seeing what other people did… If they succeeded, then you kind of lose hope, and if they failed, then you lose hope. So, it’s a lose-lose situation. I enjoyed looking at some of his letters and some of his articles. I enjoyed his own writing as inspiration. Finding things he said that intersect with things I believe in and things that are meaningful to me, gave me more fuel than other performances.

Tesla was so focused on his work that he didn’t date or marry. He also wasn’t driven by money or family. Was it difficult to develop someone who doesn’t have the typical building blocks of most characters?

Hawke: Well, it makes him incredibly hard to find. He’s a person who kind of deserves 27 movies, but his life had such a singularity of focus and he didn’t really have a whole life. He didn’t have a complicated root system that most of us have from the stuff that you use for drama. What’s his relationship with his father? What’s his relationship with his mother? What are his love affairs? His energy, to use an obvious word, seems so laser-focused — again, another pun — into his work that it makes him very hard to find. And I think that ended up kind of being our story.

Almereyda: And that’s why other characters provided a framework that he could ricochet off of. That the prominence, the sense of an ensemble became an important element in shaping the story.

I did a great deal of research into Marie Curie recently, and it’s often asked whether she’d still pursue her discoveries of two radioactive elements if she knew the devastation they’d cause throughout the rest of the century. Based on what you learned about Tesla, and strictly in your estimation, how do you think he’d feel regarding the ways in which his work has been expanded on or exploited since his death?

Hawke: It’s kind of mind-blowing what he imagined was possible, and to imagine things that don’t exist yet is so beautiful. It’s where science and art intersect, and I could imagine a great sense of pride he would have over the way the internet is working. Hell, I was born in 1970, and I could’ve never imagined conceiving of the Internet. He was very aware that this was our future and that the ways of communicating were beyond our wildest imaginations. But they weren’t beyond his. He really saw this as a future, and he provided a map for a lot of the way we live now. I imagine he would be very proud of that, and the connection with the car, I imagine there’d be a sense of pride there, too, because using electricity to its full capability would debatably save the planet.

Almereyda: That’s a great answer. I think he was a true visionary, and I think he would feel vindicated. And he’d also still feel impatient for more that can be accomplished because that was also a central aspect of his personality and of his vision. This sense of searching…

Hawke: It’s interesting, our culture is always so suspect of people that don’t prioritize making money. I think, in a lot of ways, Edison is a more dramatic figure because you kind of understand the mogul nature of him. There’s something that you can understand about his motivations. But what makes Tesla more of an artist is he seemed so much more interested in what he was doing than what he was going to do was going to do for him. And that gives him a kind purity of spirit that makes me admire him. It, again, puts him into an unknowable landscape. His motivations are very hard to understand.

Making any film is a tremendous undertaking, so the least I can do is try to ask thoughtful questions and not give you the same interview you’ve already had. That being said, there are certain instances where it’s necessary to inquire about the low-hanging fruit. In this case, it’s Tears for Fears.

Both: (Laugh.)

How does a big swing like Tesla performing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” come to be?

Hawke: As a performer, there’s certain things that operate on a gut-level and those are the most exciting. I remember, there was a kind of buzz the whole crew got when we were filming the scene with Kyle (MacLachlan) and I, which imagined these two great minds having a fight with ice cream cones. And I remember the cinematographer (Sean Price Williams) and I and Michael really having a laugh and saying that somehow, this strange breaking of tone and mood of what you would expect from a serious film about a serious man, there was something about it in our guts that just felt right. And I remember, Michael was always kind of hunting for the perfect zen koan to end a film on Nikola Tesla. And I can’t explain it, but I remember when he told me, “What about this idea of Tesla performing karaoke — Tears for Fears?” And my whole body just went, “Yes!” (Laughs.) It seemed sphinx-esque to me, which is the way that Tesla feels.

Was there a contingency plan if you couldn’t clear the song with the band?

Almereyda: We were reckless. It was kamikaze. It was a late-blooming idea, and we filmed it near the last minute. We hoped that we could reconcile the price tag, and I was lucky to recruit a great music supervisor named Randall Poster, who deserves deep credit for negotiating with their management. But it was a risk. It was a gamble on many levels, and I’d like to think it paid off.

Once a project is finished, that’s when patterns and through-lines tend to emerge. Ethan, have you identified any connections to your other work that might explain your interest and desire to tell this story?

Hawke: You know, you can find those looking back, but in the present moment, it’s kind of what Michael’s saying about the Drunk History nature of all our lives. Looking back, we can kind of make sense, but in truth, we’re all just trying to stay alive and be interesting and contribute in some way. I feel drawn to situations where I feel there’s a chance of success, but that it feels really challenging. And I knew the target on this was very small. It’d be very hard to do this right, but it seemed, if it’s worthwhile for us to try to do, if it feels exciting, then you imagine, “Oh, there might be like-minded people that would find this film exciting.”

Michael, since you wrote the screenplay many years ago, has your interest in Tesla shown up in your other works that preceded this film’s production?

Almereyda: Sure, in a number of ways. Part of it’s a spirit, and part of it’s a shadow. There’s a film of mine that I think might be pretty good, but it was pretty neglected, called Happy Here And Now, set in New Orleans, where a great musician named David Arquette plays a would-be filmmaker telling a story about Nikola Tesla. So, there’s an explicit Tesla patch in it. The recent history of movies is haunted by ghost Tesla films. Jim Jarmusch, Julie Taymor, David Lynch and Dušan Makavejev have had Tesla projects that never got off the ground, and I’d like to think that there will be more because, as Ethan said, he’s an inspiring figure. There are many dimensions to Nikola Tesla, and I hope there are more films. So, I felt haunted by him and will continue to, I’m sure. This film isn’t the end of my interest in Nikola Tesla.

As Michael touched on at the start of this conversation, the two of you have collaborated on a handful of films since 1995. What does your longtime collaboration provide that your other collaborations may not? What keeps you coming back to each other?

Hawke: I can only liken it to what I imagine it would be like to play in a band, where the more you play together, the more you intuit what the other person is doing and the more you can fill in empty spaces effortlessly. And a lot of times, one of the problems with independent film is you just don’t have the resources and the time. I always say to young actors, “It’s never the best you can do; it’s the best you can do on this one Wednesday when the sun’s going down, and you don’t have the costume that you wanted and the set’s wrong."

Almereyda: (Laughs.)

Hawke: You can never give yourself permission to fail. You have to keep trying, and one of the things that repeated collaboration does is it buys you free rehearsal time. There’s a knowledge and a trust that is very difficult to find. Say you’re making some indie and you haven’t worked together and you have six weeks to make a movie; that’s six weeks to be intimate, and it’s very hard to be creative in a serious way with people without intimacy. And Michael’s been so supportive of me over the years. We’ve gotten to watch each other’s work, see how each other thinks and there’s a trust that comes over time where you understand the other person in a way that can be fuel. Where money and other more obvious resources aren’t available, where you have this intimacy to build on — that’s what’s really important, anyway.

Almereyda: Well, Ethan gave a beautiful answer. I don’t know how to make it more resonant. There’s an element of telepathy that I think has been getting better. There’s still always room for surprise, too, and you want both. But that level of intimacy, I think, is a key for whatever is valuable in the movies I’ve been able to make. It’s a sense of trust and a sense of getting close to the characters through the actors. There’s nothing more important to me than finding the right actor for each movie, and so, I can only echo what Ethan just said.

Hawke: And one of the things that might be worth noting, too, is it was really exciting for Michael and I to work with Kyle again. Kyle is an actor that the nation really thinks they know and understand because people are familiar with his work, but he’s so much better than people know. He’s such an interesting performer, and Michael has always believed in Kyle. Kyle was so wonderful in Hamlet, and the three of us had a lot of fun on Hamlet. It felt as if four days had gone by since we’d been on a set together again, and he brings a lot more to the set than I think he’s given credit for. And I know he gets a lot of credit, but he deserves even more.

Tesla is available Aug. 21 in select theaters and on demand.