The world is arguably overdue for a biographical film about the eccentric Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, and Director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story) has obliged with his new film, Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke. But this is not your traditional biopic. We know we’re in for a very different, more dream-like, interior kind of movie in the very first scene. A woman’s voice informs us that Tesla became fascinated by electricity as a young boy upon learning that the sparks he created while stroking his pet cat were the same phenomenon as the lightning in the sky. “Is nature a gigantic cat?” he wondered. “And if so, who strokes its back?”
Almereyda became intrigued by Tesla as a teenager when he became friends with comic book artist Alex Toth, who was a Tesla enthusiast. It became a lifelong obsession. The Serbian inventor was the subject of Almereyda’s very first screenplay, which the writer/director would ultimately rework, decades later, into the script for Tesla. The director has probably read just about everything about Tesla ever written.
Along with Margaret Cheney’s seminal 1981 biography, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Almereyda was particularly influenced by Christopher Cooper’s 2015 book, The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius (which dispels many of the most popular myths and Internet rumors surrounding the inventor), as well as Derek Jarman films and episodes of Drunk History. Although Almereyda’s film is serious in tone, the influence of the latter is felt in its deliberate nonlinearity and clever use of intentional anachronisms.
For those unfamiliar with the late 19th-century “war of the currents,” George Westinghouse espoused alternative current (AC) for power generation and distribution; Thomas Edison favored direct current (DC). The latter had the famous Edison name and associated influence behind it, but AC current was cheaper. It could travel farther, supplying electricity to homes across a wider area than DC, so Westinghouse’s approach required less copper wire and fewer generating stations. Tesla initially worked for Edison when he arrived in America but left in frustration when Edison refused to consider his novel designs for AC motors and transformer. Westinghouse brought the young man on board, and Tesla’s AC design eventually won out.
After that success, Tesla threw his energy into the wireless transmission of energy, setting up a laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His main rival in this area was Guglielmo Marconi, who was giving radio demonstrations and developing wireless telegraphy. Marconi successfully sent the first wireless telegraphic signals across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901.
Tesla’s own vision of wireless communication centered on building a global wireless communication system located in Wardenclyffe, New York, consisting of a power plant and giant electrical tower. The project foundered after financier J.P. Morgan pulled the funding, skeptical that Tesla’s system was even plausible. But Tesla’s vision of a wireless future did eventually come to fruition. That makes him the forefather of many of today’s most revolutionary technologies, which is why Tesla fans often consider him the “forgotten father of technology.” Tesla himself once said of his contemporary detractors, “The present is theirs. The future, for which I really worked, is mine.”
Man out of time
Tesla is a well-known figure in my profession, so it’s sometimes easy to forget that the vast majority of the public doesn’t really know who he was—they assume one is talking about the electric car. (Elon Musk named his company as a tribute to the inventor.) That said, he has appeared as a fictionalized character in multiple novels, comics, films, and TV shows.
Most notably, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige (based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest), featured a fictionalized Tesla (played by David Bowie) inventing an electro-replicating machine for a late-19th-century magician to recreate a rival’s illusion, called “The Transported Man.” And last year, Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon released the director’s cut of his film, The Current War, a fictionalized account of the historical rivalry between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to bring electricity to the masses, in which Nicholas Hoult played Tesla.
“Nolan was clever in getting an icon [Bowie] to play an icon, but he also fabricated a Tesla that has no relation to reality,” Almereyda told Ars. “The real Tesla didn’t retire comfortably in Europe, he didn’t dabble in teleportation. He wasn’t, as Bowie seems to be in that movie, a successful businessman. He was a desperate, struggling inventor who kept chasing money that didn’t show up. So I think of The Prestige more as a very good comic book movie.” As for The Current War, Almereyda correctly notes that Tesla is largely sidelined in that film to focus on the business rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse.
So Almereyda felt there really hadn’t been a film yet made about Tesla that truly did the inventor justice. “He’s important partly because he did originate systems of transmitting and distributing power and light that are still with us, and that’s an astonishing achievement,” he said. “But I think he’s also important because he embodies a sort of idealism about technology that’s still very valuable and inspiring.”
Per the official premise:
Brilliant, visionary Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) fights an uphill battle to bring his revolutionary electrical system to fruition, then faces thornier challenges with his new system for worldwide wireless energy. The film tracks Tesla’s uneasy interactions with his fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and his patron George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). Another thread traces Tesla’s sidewinding courtship of financial titan J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), whose daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) takes a more than casual interest in the inventor. Anne analyzes and presents the story as it unfolds, offering a distinctly modern voice to this scientific period drama, which, like its subject, defies convention.
A most unconventional man
Much of this finds its way into Tesla. Apart from a few artistic liberties here and there, Almereyda is largely true to the known facts, given his encyclopedic knowledge of the man. Some of the dialogue is even drawn from actual historical documents like letters and diaries of the central characters. Edison’s dialogue in the montage of William Kemmler’s execution by electric chair is taken from court transcripts. But as I said, this is no standard biopic; it’s more a creative moody remix of the facts.
Among other innovations, Tesla has a narrator—of sorts—in the character of Ann Morgan (Eve Hewson), in that she frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, occasionally even looking up Tesla facts on the Internet on a laptop. (It is she who supplies the opening voiceover.) For instance, there is a scene where Tesla—still working for Edison—tries to collect on a generous sum of money he believes his employer had promised him. “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” Edison drawls. Tesla responds by slinging ice cream from the cone in his hand at him. Ann interrupts to inform the audience that this didn’t actually happen.
In another scene, Hawke’s Tesla also breaks the fourth wall by singing an off-key rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” There are many deliberate anachronisms, mostly tied in some way to modern technologies that Tesla either predicted and/or laid the foundation for with his inventions. It was Almereyda’s way of tying Tesla’s past to our present.
“To pretend to follow a conventional path about this very unconventional man just seemed flat-footed,” said Almereyda. “I wanted it to be more psychological, more personal. So Ann Morgan became a kind of surrogate for me, a way of getting closer to an impenetrable personality. By having her confide things she discovered or intuited, [she] became my way of confiding in the audience. I hope it just made the story a little more vivid and intimate.”
Something that is not an anachronism (although it is a fiction) is the opening scene with Tesla roller skating. The scene was inspired by depictions of ice skating in the paintings of Winslow Homer, but Almereyda didn’t have the budget to create an ice skating rink in May over the 20 days when the film was shooting. He decided roller skating would be a plausible substitute, since it was also a very popular activity during that time.
“Tesla was a cat and Edison was a dog. They just had different temperaments. They were not of the same species.
“It’s not likely that Tesla went roller skating, but it’s not impossible,” said Almereyda. “It felt like a way to introduce the idea of Tesla being a little off-balance, never fully steady on his feet. I think that’s the nature of being a genius, trapped in your head. Your path in the world is not smooth and grounded. So it became both a metaphor and a way of having fun with the premise.”
Almereyda very deliberately diverged from the common recent framing of Edison as a ruthless villain (after decades of mythologizing Edison as an American hero), humanizing the character through the death of his first wife, and his use of Morse code to propose to his second wife. (Edison’s story to his employees of the drowning of a childhood friend is almost verbatim to how the real Edison later recalled it.) “I think he was a complicated man,” Almereyda said. “He was a ruthless capitalist, but he was also incredibly imaginative and creative, and an artist in his own right. I told the actors that Tesla was a cat and Edison was a dog. They just had different temperaments. They were not of the same species.”
In fact, the director cites an anecdote from Edmund Morris’ 2019 biography Edison of Tesla coming back to New York from Colorado Springs to give a lecture. Edison showed up a little bit late, and Tesla stopped speaking, walked over to his former rival, and escorted him to his seat, before resuming his lecture. “If they were really archenemies and rivals, that wouldn’t have happened,” said Almereyda. “It’s just evidence that history isn’t simple. There’s always room to keep building our understanding of these people and how they relate to the present.”
Tesla only follows the inventor through 1901, before his fortunes declined. He died virtually penniless of coronary thrombosis on January 7, 1943, in the Hotel New Yorker, where he lived for the last ten years of his life, growing increasingly eccentric and making wild claims about death rays that could make entire armies vanish in seconds. “I think the next 40 years were pretty miserable for him, and that’s a long, long period of misery,” said Almereyda, who would love to see more movies about Tesla in the future. “I think there’s room for more. He’s that multidimensional, that complicated.”
Tesla is now playing in select theaters and is also available on demand.
Listing image by YouTube/IFC Films