Double Feature: Michael Almereyda unveils elegant sci-fi of 'Marjorie Prime' and intriguing 'Escapes' doc

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You never know what Michael Almereyda, who has made everything from the vampire film Nadja to Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, is going to come up with, and this summer he’s more eclectic than ever. He has two films out: a feature, Marjorie Prime, based on a Pulitzer-nominated play by Jordan Harrison, and a documentary, Escapes, in which he introduces us to the little-known but colorful actor-writer Hampton Fancher III. Although they couldn’t seem more different from each other, what seriously links both movies is their obsession with memory, the memory of certain lives, and how they were lived.

I saw Marjorie Prime during its off-Broadway New York run and was deeply impressed by its taut writing and disarming humanity, and blown away by the greatness of veteran Lois Smith’s magnificently full performance. As the 86-year-old titular character in the near future, she is able to hang out with a hologram representing a younger version of her deceased husband (Jon Hamm). Human memory being the sometimes fragile thing that it is, she also relies on her daughter (Geena Davis) and son-in-law (Tim Robbins) to refresh her recollection of her dead spouse, with the result that past, hushed-up dark secrets and tragedies come to light, as well as long-festering familial tensions.

“Lois is a friend,” the low-key but vibrantly intense Almereyda told me when we met at his favorite East Village café-cum-office. “We had worked together on a film [The Eternal, 1998] and I wanted to do something with her that would be more substantial. She told me about the play, so I followed her to Los Angeles and caught it just before it closed. Then we had a drink and talked about what it would be like to make a movie of it. I found a way into the play to make a good movie out of it without overhauling it. Jordan Harrison couldn’t write the screenplay because he was busy writing ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ but he approved of me doing it and I wrote it for Lois.

“I really thought it was very respectful: I retained the structure and the characters and a lot of the dialogue. Sometimes I thought I was emulating Jordan Harrison with an imitation of him. The biggest change was the move to the beach house. When I saw the play, the set was almost abstract, very neutral. Jordan thought the house made the adaptation more intimate and there was more at stake if they were in their own home. It was our producer’s house in Amagansett, but we had to pay for a neighboring house that looked similar, with an ocean view.

“We had a 13-day shoot, very fast. My producer came through, on the strength of reading the script, with a family friend who recognized it would be a good project to make. It wasn’t much money but just what we needed.

“As for the music, I made one of the biggest flips from the play. Jordan had based Marjorie on his grandmother, who was a violinist, so, as she and her memory were fading, I wanted to have a lot of music she might have played, this family of modern, classical music. But you know what, I tried to get the rights for some of those pieces—everybody has his price—and I soon discovered that it would have been easier to get the Stones! They don’t need the money so badly!”

Almereyda then asked Mica Levi if she could recommend anyone to compose the score. “She said, ‘Oh, just let me do it! She did the music for Under the Skin, a very powerful, breakthrough score when she was 27, as well as Jackie. It was extraordinary for her to come to the rescue like that.”

Visually, Marjorie Prime is surely one of the most sleekly elegant sci-fi films ever made. “Sean Price Williams has done a multitude of low-budget, high-energy movies. I met him at Kim’s Video, right around the corner from here, and he’s seen more movies than anyone. He’s a very gifted, resourceful cameraman.”

Coincidentally, the night before our interview, I found myself sitting next to Lois Smith at an off-Broadway performance of the Horton Foote play The Traveling Lady. Seeing this most down-to-earth, unaffected of great actresses on or off the stage is always a treat, and when she passed me to take her seat, I murmured, “Like Geraldine Page in Horton’s Trip to Bountiful, you’re getting the Best Actress Oscar this year.” Smith, in whom I always still somehow see the dewy-fresh ingenue she was back in 1955, when she did East of Eden, just smiled and waved my remark away.

“Well, the year is young,” Almereyda said. “I’ll just be happy if people see this movie and her performance. But we really are friends, we hang out together. I knew she knew the character and her lines, so there was an urgency to make the film. The financing came together and we had to hit the ground running. It wasn’t necessary to give her a lot of direction, she’s very capable, and she also has such uncanny, natural instincts. She and Horton were good friends, and when she did A Trip to Bountiful, for which she won every award, he would be there at every performance, because he loved her and also loved his play.

“The casting began with Lois, the nucleus of the film. A friend of mine plays softball with Jon Hamm, so I was able to contact him, then Geena came aboard. I had worked with Tim on my very first film, before he was well-known, and I didn’t think he’d want to do it at first. I hadn’t been in touch with him. Tim’s character probably got the most developed from the play. I brought him together with Geena to see if they would have enough chemistry. I thought they would, as they seemed to have a lot in common and knew the same people, although they had never acted together.

“I never heard that quote you mentioned about Susan Sarandon saying that Robbins was particularly good at playing assholes, but I think there’s a lot of compassion in his performance as well. Working with Geena is sort of exactly what you’d expect—she’s so bouncy and energetic, and very sweet.”

The film has been shown at Sundance, where it won an award, and was also screened in London and at a sold-out Museum of Modern Art screening. “The Q&As are always interesting because you never know who’s going to show up with what questions. I wish Jon Hamm were here right now, he’s so good at talking like this.”

Originally from Kansas, Almereyda’s family moved to Orange County, “where I fell in love with movies. There were more TV channels at the time that played old movies. I dropped out of film school, and was pretty clumsy at schmoozing as a screenwriter, but the door swung open.

“I was hanging out on the fringe of screenwriters when I first met Hampton, and I realized that all of these wonderful stories he told would never be preserved. Escapes took about four-and-a-half years to make, while I was doing other things, all the while finding footage of him to illustrate the film… I like the fact that it’s very loose.

“They sent me your review, which I read, and it seemed you had a certain kind of pre-knowledge about him and his world. Everyone working in Hollywood is always an inch away from success. His triumph is that he got anything done at all. And I tried to focus on how Blade Runner, a recognized masterpiece [which Fancher first adapted into a screenplay from Philip Dick’s book], emerged from the murk and confusion of all these forgettable TV shows he acted in. He’s got deep pockets of stories to tell. It’s not an official biography of Hampton, but selected scenes in seven episodes, which I link together, about how he carries his own life experience. That bio is another movie than the one we made, and I hope someone does that. I believe in the auteur theory, but it’s not only Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a collaborative experience, and his contribution needs to be recognized.”

Almereyda’s own career has had its swerves as well. “I had some luck with screenwriting which was recognized early on. I was writing for people I admired—Tim Burton, Wim Wenders, Bruce Beresford. I had four solid years in Hollywood—the biggest thing I did was a draft of Total Recall [which retained Philip Dick’s dialogue]. But people can get screwed up, doing work that isn’t truly rewarding while the work that is rewarding to them never gets produced.

Cherry 2000 with Melanie Griffith was my first studio job. I was disenchanted with what was going on on the set and had every reason to believe that, at 26, I could do a better job of directing. That movie now has a cult status and there are rumblings about a remake, which I wouldn’t mind doing.

“I moved to New York after directing my first film, thinking that the indie scene would be more rewarding and sympathetic. That film was with Dennis Hopper, whom I was lucky to get, and called A Hero of Our Time, paid for by my screenwriter’s salary.It was adapted from a Lermontov story, a psychological adventure story. Dennis liked my script, and recommended me to Wenders, for whom I wrote Until the End of the World, which changed considerably.

“When Dennis died, they showed our film at Lincoln Center, which reminds me I have to make a video of it, because the only copy of it is in a vault in Los Angeles. He was like a saint to work with, during a break from shooting Blue Velvet, because he was sober and in the process of reinventing himself.”

Almereyda has a slew of other projects happening, all of them fascinating. Actually, as he described them to me, my jaw kept unhinging, for each one had a theme that was coincidentally close to my heart. “I have a collaboration with the poet John Ashbery, whose birthday is today. He turns 90 and is in wonderful shape. It’s a short interview film for which Criterion has foot the bill. It’s a little exploration of a pocket of his childhood, a reminiscence of movies he saw as a child. Movies were always very important to him and this is about when he was eight years old and saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream [1935, Warner Bros.], after which he went home and on his mother’s typewriter typed out his first poem. I love the film, too, and it’s odd because the first ten minutes or so is just Mendelssohn’s music. Did you know that Hal Mohr, the cinematographer, wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar that year? He was a write-in.

“I’m also adapting a book called White Noise by Don DeLillo. In fact, I just had lunch with him, and he’s been very supportive and generous. David Cronenberg did a film of a recent novel of his, Cosmopolis, but I believe there’s room for improvement.

“I have a lot of projects, and am also working on a project involving the photographer Garry Winogrand [1928-84], who was big in the 1960s to ’70s. He did a lot of street scenes. He loved life and captured it in a way no one ever has, very vibrant and funny, with a demonic energy to it.”

Personally speaking, Almereyda is anything but a family man, juggling career and kids. “If I had that, I probably wouldn’t get anything done. It’s impossible to do it all. I’m also working on a movie about Nicola Tesla, with Winona Ryder playing Sarah Bernhardt. Another movie, about Edison, is coming out, so I have to wait that one out. He and Tesla were adversaries, but also had an affinity. I don’t want to deride a film that hasn’t come out yet, but I think mine will be better. There have been a lot of Tesla projects, and that was a movie I wrote when I dropped out of college. There’s more information about him emerging all the time; it just seems that he had an electric effect on anyone who ever had any contact with him.”