With a body of work that encompasses narrative features, documentaries, essay films, and shorts, writer-director Michael Almereyda has spent the past three decades mining the endless possibilities of cinematic form to explore an eclectic range of themes, from psychology and photography to the enduring relevance of Shakespeare in the contemporary world. This summer, his talents as both a documentary and a narrative director are on display in his two latest films, which made their New York premieres at BAMcinemaFest in June. Escapes is a candid portrait of Hampton Fancher, whose extraordinary career has taken him from flamenco dancing and acting to writing Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Almereyda’s adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize–nominated play Marjorie Prime is a quietly moving chamber drama about the power of memory, starring Lois Smith as an elderly woman who finds comfort in a hologram of her deceased husband (Jon Hamm). With Escapes now playing at the IFC Center and Marjorie Prime opening at the Quad Cinema later this month, I sat down with the director to talk about the passions that continue to fuel his creative life.
You’re someone who loves not only cinema but also literature, fine art, and photography. Why did you choose film as your main art form?
I think I became obsessed with movies when my family moved from Kansas to California. It was a natural broadening awareness of how powerful movies are, and there were just more of them available. We moved to Orange County, so there were more television stations, and movies were being made there. People like Howard Hawks, John Huston, and Alfred Hitchcock were alive and giving talks, and I saw them. So I was susceptible.
What are some of the first films that were significant for you?
In some ways it’s really conventional: the master filmmakers who were immediately intoxicating to me were Orson Welles and Hitchcock. I wonder to this day if anyone has made a study of how they interconnect. Welles was in some ways so embattled and constantly running out of luck, and Hitchcock was one of the most successful signature directors on record. But they were both, in a way, actor-directors. I was also under the spell of James Agee, and it was easier to emulate Agee when I was a teenager.
Do you mean that you wrote criticism for a time, or just that you were influenced by his writing style in general?
I was influenced by his prose, and there was the teenage fantasy of trying to become James Agee. Then I met Manny Farber, who had been a friend of Agee’s, and since Agee wasn’t available I struck up a friendship with Farber. I was very lucky that he put up with me for a while. I would visit him and his wife in La Jolla and stay over at their house—and that was a great, unintended mentorship. At that time Manny was withdrawing from film criticism and focusing on painting. He wasn’t just a movie person: he had a wide outlook, he had lots of deep interests—and it wasn’t just visual art. It was literature, it was music, it was everything, and the way it all connects. He and his wife were triangulated with the ghost of Agee throughout my adolescence, and that solidified my desire to be a filmmaker.
You’ve worked with so many great artists over your career. Is collaboration something you place a high value on?
One of the things about movies that’s so enticing is that you’re not stuck on your own island; or if you are, you invite other people onto the island and you make a party out of it. So that seems just basic to the process, that it’s not a solitary undertaking and that you share and grow with the people who are in the room with you.
I imagine that’s especially true when you make a documentary about someone living, like you’ve done with Sam Shepard, William Eggleston, or, most recently, Hampton Fancher. It becomes a dialogue between you and the subject.
I think in some ways that’s a limit of my documentaries. I tend to make them about people I admire, which becomes a way to be friends with them. That said, I’d like to think these films are a bit more intimate and honest than most documentary portraits. The first one I made was with Sam Shepard, who actually asked me to make the documentary and then kind of forgot that he asked me. He had been writing and directing plays that left no trace and wanted a record of this new production [of The Late Henry Moss]. We’d had a good time making Hamlet and he called and asked me to make a film tracking the process of putting together this new play—which happened to involve a fair number of movie stars. That was the first feature-length documentary I made, and it was a learning experience. The actors were slow to warm to the idea that a camera would be present, and Sam actually had to raise his voice—but that’s another story.
When I had the idea to document Eggleston at work, it was more of a private adventure. It was mostly just him and me spending time together, and we’re still friends—I just visited him in Memphis a few months ago. In the case of Hampton Fancher, it was the friendship that triggered the documentary. I didn’t know there was a film there until we started taping conversations, and it grew because I recognized that using footage of films he was in would introduce this layer that lifted it into another realm.
Do you feel like a different filmmaker when you’re doing documentaries as opposed to narrative films?
No. There’s something transformative about a camera, and I’ve become comfortable with it. And that’s one thing that drew me to Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. It’s not often acknowledged how porous the camera is, how your identity as a person becomes charged with and changed by this machine that, in my mind, is not cold and voyeuristic. It actually animates and opens you to reality. I don’t think it shuts reality out.
You’ve done many adaptations. What is it about transposing someone else’s world onto the screen that excites you?
I was just reading that book of interviews with Bresson that came out last year, and he says, modestly but accurately, that it’s faster to adapt something. There are writers better than you are, and you’re able to stand on their shoulders and get somewhere, reach higher ground faster. And at the same time, by necessity, you make it your own—you have to.
Your reimagining of Hamlet has always been one of my favorite screen adaptations, and your interpretations of Shakespeare’s works are always fascinating. What is it that initially drew you to the Bard?
I think it may be the intersection of Welles and Agee. Growing up—discovering that it’s fun to read—nothing matches the excitement of Shakespeare, the lushness of the language, the depth of the characters. Shakespeare’s the absolute summit—that’s something Welles and Agee agreed on. So of course I hope I’ll be able to do more Shakespeare adaptations. It’s like wanting to swim in the ocean. As a stupid American, I’m aware that my take is very specific, but there’s nothing more exciting. King Lear, even though it may be the darkest and most difficult play, has had the greatest adaptations, between Peter Brook’s, Kurosawa’s, and Kozintsev’s. Those are three towering movies. Kurosawa’s Ran is rather liberally adapted, but still to me it’s the blood and guts of King Lear. So I don’t want to go near that one, but I do hope to do others. I’ve been talking about doing The Tempest with Ethan Hawke and his daughter Maya.
How did you first come across the play Marjorie Prime?
Lois Smith was excited about it. She’d been asked to participate from the earliest readings, and from the way she described it, I could tell how compelling it could be. So I followed her to Los Angeles when the production was there and caught it before it closed. We had a drink afterward, talking about the possibility of making a movie, and then with incredible simplicity Jordan Harrison agreed that it would be OK for me to adapt it. He was busy writing for Orange Is the New Black and things fell into place really quickly.
What spoke to you about the story?
Part of it was just a greedy wish to work with Lois Smith. So it was a Lois Smith vehicle from the beginning. Also, I like ghost stories—I did a DVD supplement for The Uninvited, so I’d been thinking about ghosts. In a clever way, Jordan’s story is a ghost story. The holograms are ghosts—technological ghosts—and ghost stories are about loss and grief, mortality and consciousness and memory. So it all seemed to be familiar territory for questions I wanted to ask.
You’ve previously referenced looking to the writing of William James and Oliver Sacks when thinking about the power music has on memory, which is an overarching theme of the film. Was there anything else you looked to for inspiration on that?
I threw in that William James reference because I always considered it a powerful reminder of how frail human memory is—the idea that you don’t remember a memory: you remember the memory of the memory; you don’t remember the actual event or the first thought. And I thought one way of keying into the subject was to take care in selecting the music featured throughout the movie. Since Marjorie was a violinist, I figured music would be as solid a memory as anything else in her life, so my initial idea for the soundtrack was to use only music that already existed, music she might have played when she was younger.
We cobbled together a score of temp music, threaded throughout the picture. But then it turned out we couldn’t afford a lot of that music. The music supervisor, Lucy Bright, guided me to an orchestral piece written by Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner that was influenced by the ocean, called “Wave Movements.” It was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we were able to use that recording—a kind of raw recording. It had the texture and spirit I wanted. And then, to plug in some gaps, I asked Mica Levi if she could recommend any music, and she watched the movie and said she would write it—that was a lucky fluke. In terms of music and memory, I’d read Olivier Sacks’s book Musicophilia and photocopied a couple chapters for the actors. Extracurricular reading. And I added a Dylan song that wasn’t in the play, which represented a different kind of relationship with music.
Do you often watch other films while you’re working?
I think I do it too much. It’s always dangerous to get clouded up in someone’s exhaust fumes, so to speak. But [cinematographer] Sean [Price Williams] is encyclopedic, and one way we had of communicating was watching movies together. One of his favorite cinematographers is William A. Fraker, so I rewatched Bullitt, which is an unlikely influence on this movie, and also The Day of the Dolphin, a movie set by the water, and it washed over Marjorie in a way. The more obvious influences were Bergman films, because no one does people in a house by the water better than Bergman. Some of his films are imprinted in my memory, but specifically Persona and Cries and Whispers and The Passion of Anna. A lot of them I haven’t watched recently, but they’re ghosts that I’m living with. You know you can’t match those movies, but they have an influence.
You’ve mentioned working on a new project with John Ashbery. How is that taking shape?
Sean and I went to his house upstate and did a little interview with him, shooting in 16 mm. Basically, because he’s old—he’s about to turn ninety—it’s not as big a project as it might have been if we’d leapt in ten years ago. But I discovered a poem—it’s not like it’s hard to find, but there are so many Ashbery poems—called “The Lonedale Operator,” which refers to a remarkable D. W. Griffith movie. It’s a prose poem, and John matter-of-factly runs through the first movies he ever saw when he was a kid and goes on for about a page, and then veers into a discussion of loneliness, chance, and change. The poem suddenly has a whole different weather to it, and it’s a very moving summation of why we fall in love with movies, and how movies and life interact, how they support each other, even or especially when life happens to be out of control.