Cinematic Experiments: Michael Almereyda Is Back With Heady Psych Drama Experimenter

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The main character in Michael Almereyda’s new film, Experimenter, is a social psychologist, moral thinker, innovator, and filmmaker. While it would be too convenient and reductive to draw too solid a line between Stanley Milgram, author of the still enlightening, still controversial “obedience experiments” and the director, it’s not hard to see why an artist of Almereyda’s intellect and formal dexterity would be attracted to his story. Among many other things, Milgram was interested in what people are capable of doing to one another and why, how they respond to authority, how they form communities, how they manage to morally justify their actions and their lives—matters of supreme interest to a dramatist and director of actors by trade.

Almereyda's long and nimble career has included trips to Sundance for Nadja (1994) and Skinningrove (2013), which won the Short Film Jury Award, and celebrated, formally fascinating features such as his kinetic, contemporary riff on Hamlet (2000), and the impassioned, intellectually alive documentary William Eggleston in the Real World (2005). With Experimenter, he introduces a seductive and apt sense of play to Milgram’s story. As played by Peter Sarsgaard, the academic steps away from the proceedings to address the camera (and the audience) directly, while Almereyda employs various artificial cinematic elements (stage sets, rear projection, and surrealistic walk-ons) that, while rhyming with the artificial environment of the science lab, never sacrifice a sense of the real stakes, desires and sacrifices made by Milgram and his associates (played by Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, and Kellan Lutz, among others). 

In the following interview, conducted in advance of Experimenter’s world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Almereyda talks about the film’s long but fruitful journey to completion, the degree to which the film itself is an experiment, and how his work evolves from idea to film. Experimenter opens in theaters Friday, October 16. 

How did you come to Stanley Milgram? Is his story something that’s been bouncing around in your head for a while? And how deeply did you get into his story before it became a script and film?

It was a long time gestating. Roughly eight years ago I was spending a good deal of time with a young woman taking a class at Bard that was strictly Milgram, the whole class was on the obedience experiments. I was literally carrying her books—and then I started looking into and reading the books. I didn't know much about Milgram ahead of that. I had a vague notion of the experiments—more from Ghostbusters than anything else, because the experiments are featured and mocked in Ghostbusters. But in the course of reading Milgram's book, the transcripts from the experiments were so dramatic and compelling that they seemed like a natural movie subject. After some online research I contacted Alan Elms, Milgram's assistant for the first three months of the experiment, who had a hand in writing the word pairs that made up a kind of surreal poetry as they were recited and repeated and played out by people who came to the lab. Elms had a professorship at U.C. Davis, I flew out to see him, and his memories made me more sympathetic to Milgram, gave me a better sense of what he was up to. Because Milgram was more than the obedience experiments—you see the depth of his curiosity and invention in his other work. And as I learned more I felt it was important to balance the obedience experiments with the later experiments, which didn't have as much impact but still constitute a worldview that feels significant, resonant. I was lucky to get grants provided by the Sloan Foundation, in league with the Sundance Institute, and the Tribeca Institute, and I carved out space at the MacDowell Colony to write the first draft in 2009. The most difficult thing about the project has been the usual one—getting money. Try convincing people it might be worthwhile to invest in a movie about an experimental psychologist.

So between 2009 and now, how did the project progress?

I continued to do research. And I'm still doing research, there's still a lot to learn. But the crucial connection was with Sasha Milgram, Stanley's widow, who has become a friend. We struck a deal granting me rights to Milgram's writings and films. And her memories, her stories, her basic blessing—this all became the foundation of the film.  I mean, I read everything I could but Sasha's inside access was invaluable. Over the years, the script got better, tighter, but not significantly different. Along the way, Ted Hope and Anne Carey helped me enlist Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and Jim Gaffigan, but they couldn't raise the money. Isen Robbins and Aimee Schoof took over, linking up with private equity, in particular two inspired Brazilians, Uri Singer and Fabio Golembeck. The three main actors stuck it out, standing by for two years.

Winona Ryder in "Experimenter"

Had you always conceived of this as something that would break the fourth wall, that Milgram would directly address the audience and to some degree educate us alongside the story proper?

The other bit of self-education I did was join the NYU Library to get access to Milgram's films—documentaries used mostly for teaching.  You can only buy these online for a lot of money, or you can go to a decent college library.  The films were important to understanding what Milgram was about, a key to embracing his personal style. Because he narrates them like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock—he becomes a character talking to the camera. It seemed natural and in fact essential to include that in the movie. Obviously there's a time-honored tradition of this, whether it's Ferris Bueller or Hamlet. At any rate, Milgram was always asking questions and insisting that we try to see beyond the surface of things, so being guided through the film by a candid narrator is altogether to the point.

It's not an entirely unfamiliar position to be put in, but in relation to this story and to these experiments, it does seem crucial to have the audience in a reflective mode.

Sure, some movies with narrators are more transparent, more immersive. I was aiming for a level of engagement—engagement rather than a distancing. It's meant to bring people in. And really, why make a conventional or flatfooted biopic about this guy? Why make something unimaginative? I was trying to match Milgram's creativity within the style and form of the movie.

As far as I recall, it's largely chronological. 

Yes, but there are little portals—flashbacks and a couple flashes forward. So it does play with time, it's a little acrobatic, but in many ways it's a pretty straightforward movie for all that.

It seems like you have this overlap with Milgram in that he's controlling action to some degree, that he’s addressing us when there are moments he wants to address us, whether or not we’re ready for him or expect him to do so. And that rhymes to some degree with what you’re doing as a filmmaker—making these choices and directing us. All filmmakers do that, all storytellers do that, but there’s normally an attempt to persuade us not to notice it, that it’s a natural or inevitable thing. Yet you’re showing us that these are choices, and furthermore that we’re being directed. Was it important, perhaps philosophically or ethically, for you to approach it this way?

I think it's important to engage an audience in a movie that is inherently, really even explicitly, philosophical. You want the questions to be clear, defined, exposed. I hope there are layers, but also ways in which feeling and thinking are synonymous. I mean, it shouldn't seem that you're distracting your audience by exposing the directorial gears. Ideas can be organic, visceral, muscular. For all that, I can admit that it's sort of odd to make a movie about an intellectual—it doesn't happen a lot, and I've never done it.  And I've never been moved to do it. You could say Hamlet is an intellectual, but he's also a man of action—an estranged man of action. Thought and action are continually colliding in him. Whereas Milgram is very much a guy whose life was spent reading, writing, and thinking, so his experiments become the movie's essential action—a primary way Milgram interacts with other people, even as he observes them from a distance. In any case, I'd like to think this is a visual and dramatic movie. Ideas can be exciting and even emotional, and within the language of the film there are many attempts to acknowledge this. Also, it's easy to get too solemn talking about these issues, and that was another thing that excited me about Milgram.  Despite the depth and, sometimes, the darkness of his work, he retained a sense of play throughout his life. 

Did you think of this project as your own form of an experiment? 

It would be easy to say that, but I guess I think of every film that way. Every project has its own dimension of risk and play. In the structure and feel of it, you're hoping you're opening a door and going into a new place. So I don't want to pretend it's more experimental than other films I've made.

Your work does often have that aspect. I wouldn't call it a departure so much as perhaps exemplifying that approach.

It may be more explicit because the character is actually a filmmaker. Milgram wanted to make more movies. He was dependent on funding, as we all are. I don't know if you've seen his Obedience film, but it's brilliant, an amazing film, shot through a mirror during the last two days of the experiments. Roger Ebert listed it among the ten most important documentaries ever made. I hope, if nothing else, that Experimenter draws attention back to the primary sources, including Milgram's films.

Do you start with notions, with ideas, with cinematic problems, or with a story? And how do you decided upon a cinematic form?

It's a good question but I think I can only fumble around with an answer. The truth is I’m more intuitive than analytic. I get drawn to people and places. It’s more emotional. My movies usually start off because I’m intrigued by a character, a situation, a place—and I imagine ways for them to interact. Most of the time I'm just following my instincts.

But then what develops, at least to my mind, can be quite analytical. It arrives there even if you’re not starting out that way.

From what I can tell, it’s about having reflexes. As a storyteller, and as a maker of images, and as a person who works with actors, you develop instincts and hope you’re able to both trust and test them. My background is in drawing and painting.  You put the brush in the paint and when the brush comes into contact with paper or canvas something happens that's most compelling when it's not exactly predicted, calculated or mapped out.  At least, that's the kind of painting I felt best about.

Well it helps to have the brain that you have. And it’s probably much better than starting from a theoretical place and staying there, because that mix of brain, heart and soul seems essential to the unique thing you do. So how do you know what forms your work is going to take?

My formal decisions are pretty routinely grounded by the fact that there's not much money. I’m almost reconciled to that.  Many of the filmmakers I like most are expert at making miracles happen on a low budget. I'm thinking of Sam Fuller, Godard, Jean Vigo, Raul Ruiz, and the scrappier films of Orson Welles. I think I'd know very well what to do if I was given more money, but I’m not necessarily going to wait for it to show up. I tend to think of actors as major resources, special effects. They’re much more interesting than what can be cooked up through digital conjuring. Of course I’m interested in silent films, and in documentaries, movies that deploy a kind of magic derived from raw visual facts. I try simply to be alert to what’s available to the camera. With the little teaching I’ve done, I go out of my way to tell students that the most important decisions they'll make have to do with who they cast in their movies, and the only book I’ve ever assigned is John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye, because I think photography is the essence of the magic of movies. If you can digest that book—taking in what the frame does, the relationship between photography and time, the basic concise framework Szarkowski describes in each chapter—then you'll have a pretty sharp understanding of the possibilities for creating a reality with a camera. Read this book—it's mostly a picture book, actually—and you'll have a full tank of gas when it comes time to shoot and shape a film.

But how do you know that, say, the William Eggleston project needs to be a documentary, and this one should become a narrative film?

I don’t have any preference towards forms of films. The obvious distinction is that Eggleston is and was alive when I was making a film about him. I loved his work, I met him and liked him, and thought it would be fun to spend time with him. So the film was almost a byproduct of a primary goal to get to know him. But of course Stanley Milgram wasn't alive when I became fascinated with him—he died in 1984. But I felt that the record he left—in his writing, in the lab transcripts, and in his films—added up to something very exciting, worth organizing, interpreting and presenting as a story.  So I wasn't bearing witness, as with Eggleston, but telling a story.

"Nadja"

It’s been 20 years since Nadja, which some something of a breakthrough for you out of Sundance. What has your relationship been like with Sundance during the intervening years?

I’ve been really lucky to be a part of the writing and directing labs run by the Sundance Institute, which stands off to the side of the Festival even as it can feed into it, and which I think is a really remarkable support system for filmmakers. I’ve been an advisor for the directing lab for quite a while now. It’s an unpaid position—they fly you out for about a week, and you join in with a rotating team of people advising fledging filmmakers in a way that feels generous and practical, humbling and inspiring for everyone. It’s not a perfect system, but every time I go to an institution of higher learning, as they’re called, to teach filmmaking, I find myself yearning for the example of Sundance. There’s something more immersive, hands-on, and profoundly generous about it, as it’s really about nurturing, learning by doing, and making mistakes. It's framed by an attitude towards failure that's usually not accepted or encouraged in film schools, where students think they’re going to make their Academy Award winning short and conquer the world. At Sundance they workshop specific scenes and say, “This is just for us, this is just for learning, this doesn’t go beyond this place.”  And that’s liberating, and truly instructive.

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