Michael Almereyda on Marjorie Prime, the humanity of technology and Nadja

We talk to arthouse favourite Michael Almereyda about his heartbreaking new SF Marjorie Prime

Few filmmakers have been as consistently fascinating and yet hard to define as Michael Almereyda. He’s dabbled in horror with the David Lynch-produced vampire movie Nadja and baffling Irish mummy film The Eternal, he’s updated Shakespeare with Ethan Hawke in Hamlet and Cymbeline and he’s brought the strangeness of real-life figures like Stanley Milgram to life in films like Experimenter.

Now, Almereyda has turned his hand to science fiction with his adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime. The film stars Lois Smith as the titular character, a woman who’s struggling with her memory and is using a hologram of her late husband Walter to help. It’s a much younger version (played by Jon Hamm), and his programmeable nature means that the past can be curated to avoid painful memories or improve disappointing ones. As Marjorie’s daughter (Geena Davis) and son-in-law (Tim Robbins) grapple with this benign manifestation of a dead relative, bigger questions come into focus.

We talked to Almereyda about the film, exploring science fiction themes and his memories of drinking wine at sunrise with Peter Fonda on Nadja.

How did you come to this project?

It came directly out of knowing Lois Smith because she was involved with the play very early on and she was excited about it immediately, from when she was given a copy to when she did the first read-throughs and then rehearsals, the whole process. Because I’m a good friend I was aware of her growing excitement and the least I could do was go to Los Angeles when the play was on stage there. And after I saw the production we talked, had drinks, and I discussed the idea of making a movie and she was open to it and things happened pretty quickly and organically after that. But the starting point was always Lois. It was wanting to make a Lois Smith vehicle, really.

Was there anything in the play that particularly struck you as possibly being cinematic?

It’s a good question, I think it gets tricky when you use words like cinematic because there’s the competing word theatrical, and sometimes I get confused about what they’re supposed to signify. Because if you have a lot of good dialogue, that’s not necessarily anti-cinematic and if a movie is set in one location that doesn’t disqualify it from being a movie.

I liked the story and the dialogue and the characters and they felt compelling, and I could recognise that, given the right cast, it could be transformed into a movie, the essence of it would still be there but it could be cinematic. I introduced elements that weren’t in the play. The house was moved to the beach, weather became an important component, the character Julie, the caretaker, became visible.  So, there were different elements that could be brought in to make it more immediate and more intimate but I tried to respect the play, I wasn’t trying to overhaul it.

There’s a very Ingmar Bergman feel to it, films like Through A Glass Darkly, was he a conscious influence?

Well I think when you put a movie in a house by the water, Bergman comes irresistibly to mind. I haven’t seen Through A Glass Darkly for quite a while, I love that film, but I did watch other Bergman films. Bergman made about a dozen films that have a shared setting or feeling and I watched a few of those. Passion Of Anna and Cries And Whispers were probably the two most dominant. There’s no one better at bringing psychic tensions out into the open but still keeping it confined enough, making you feel claustrophobic. Bergman was an influence but in some ways just an influence I absorbed from watching him over the years. It wasn’t that studied.

Another director who’s equally influential but probably less conspicuous as a reference is Jean Renoir. The cameraman and I watched a bunch of Renoir movies and he’s an expert at moving stories in and outside and making character stories but there’s a great sense of space, of weather, of how this story is shaped around different kinds of space that you move through.

Did you think of the film as a science-fiction story?

I think Jordan Harrison the playwright was very conscious of writing something that was to be called science fiction. He was influenced by a Ray Bradbury story called The Electric Grandmother and he was influenced by a book called The Most Human Human which has to do with the notion of how artificial intelligence is verging on this threshold where they can imitate humans very persuasively. But he did the heavy lifting and heavy thinking there and I just emigrated his conceit, and I have to admit I was more interested in the human aspect rather than the technological aspect. Because the movie skims along and presents a vision of the future that is not very dressed up, it’s all kind of demure in terms of production design.

What I cared about and what I think Jordan cared about is recognising how technology is an extension of human nature and not necessarily competing with it. So, there wasn’t the adversarial or villainous machine element that characterises most movies about artificial intelligence, for better or worse. I like a lot of those movies very much, but this is really a chamber piece and it is about identity and mortality and memory. So, the science fiction aspect became a catalyst for asking questions, which is often how science fiction works, right?

It is very affecting, and although it’s discussed, there’s no condemnation of “Technology”.

Yeah, Jordan rode that line really well, where there’s that sense of both optimism and pessimism about where it can lead, where the emotions take you, what the consequences are and I think the actors did a great job of absorbing that too.

It’s also kind of a ghost story…

For better for or worse most of my movies have ghosts in them, they’re not always literal ghosts, but the movie showed in London at the Sundance offshoot there and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story showed and I saw it there for the first time and I recognised that they’re very similar movies thematically and emotionally. David used almost no dialogue and I had a big flow, a torrent of dialogue, but that theme of loss is pretty ever present. The older you get the more loss you encounter and have to wade through so it’s been on my mind, and again I didn’t originate this play but it’s set in these things I was thinking about.

What was the casting process like?

Well, it’s a small cast so it was not too tricky. Jon Hamm was the second person cast after Lois and I happen to know someone who plays softball with him so we were able to reach him in ways that got around the usual barbed wire. And he was receptive and once we had him, there was a search, because I wanted somebody who could be plausibly related to Lois Smith, and in this way luck came into play. Geena Davis’ agent read it and I hadn’t thought of her or seen her in a movie for quite a while but once she was suggested it seemed like a wonderful possibility. Then Tim Robbins came to mind for all kinds of reasons, but he also seemed unlikely because I knew him slightly when he was not a movie star, I cast him in my first movie and then about ten minutes later he became a movie star and I hadn’t been able to have a conversation with him in all that time. But we got him the script and he responded very quickly and just jumped in and it was very exciting. He and Geena have a lot of history together but they’d never been in a movie together and I think they brought that connectedness and that’s another lucky element.

Was there much rehearsal period to get the family dynamic right?

I’ve learned that if you cast the right people and they agree to the schedule that everyone’s going to be equal to the occasion, and it’s the nature of movie acting and movie making that the immediacy of it is almost hindered by rehearsal. For certain projects, I don’t think rehearsal helps or is necessary. Other directors work differently but I’ve had good luck with just trusting everyone’s instincts and the pressure of the situation relates to the emotions. It’s a tightrope walk but if people are skilled, they don’t fall. So, I think we had 13 days and it was not easy but it was worthwhile.

How have you found the response to the film so far?

Well it’s mainly gratifying that so many people are moved by it. I’ve made a lot of movies but they’re not always movies people cry at! So, I felt that it’s a powerful response and the critical response, on the whole it’s my best reviewed movie. But I’m also amazed sometimes by how many things aren’t commented on, they don’t have to be but there are layers to the script and to the story and I’m grateful that Jordan trusted me with it. I don’t need to go into too much detail but another thing that’s different to the play is the use of music and some flashbacks. Those I think enhance what Jordan was talking about in profound ways. Those two things don’t often get talked about because it’s like a secondary discussion. Once you’ve described the plot in a review there’s not a lot of room left to talk about other things.

But the way music works and the way music is related to memory and emotion is very important to me. And Jordan based the play on his grandmother who was a violinist, not as great a violinist as Marjorie is supposed to be, but still the idea that you would live a lot of your life in music. The music is disembodied, music is like a ghost, music lives beyond the people who generate it and can be shared and can be very alive, very powerful. And so, I tried to conjure up a soundtrack that would embody some of those feelings and ideas. And then the flashbacks also question the memories of people describing different events throughout the course of the story and that felt important with each of the three primary characters has one flashback, one chance to really see the reality shimmer and diverge from what you thought it might have been. They’re not in the play.

You obviously write a lot of your own material but a lot of your films are adaptations. Do you enjoy that process?

It seems to come naturally to me because I read a lot and it’s like a kind of collaboration and it’s a way to collaborate using people who are better writers than I am! Usually they’re dead writers and they don’t argue with me but they’re definitely superior writers! So, the first movie I made I just kind of dusted off because it’s being transferred to digital and it’s not as lamentable as I thought it was, but it’s an adaption of Mikhail Lermontov’s novel Hero Of Our Time which was written in 1839 and he died in a duel when he was 26, and I made the movie when I was 26.

I’ve often felt identifications with people who aren’t alive and who are brave spirits and it’s a way of connecting to those voices and those stories. I think there’s a worthwhile tradition of that. I have enough ideas of my own to write my own scripts but it’s been a kind of luck of the draw that a lot of my movies that get made and a lot of the best ones have been adaptations.

I wanted to ask about Nadja because it is one of my favourites. How do you feel about the film now looking back?

I feel a lot of nostalgia about it and I’ve been hoping that David Lynch will see fit to re-release it because he very generously paid for the thing, he owns it, it only exists because of David. So, he’s been busy as you might have noticed and he’s hard to reach sometimes! [laughs] But I would like the movie to be back out in the world and I have a lot of fondness for it, so I’m glad you liked it. Thanks.

I’ve heard that it was a bit of a shoestring budget, and shooting at night…what was it like to make?

Well, we were privileged because it was David’s money and David’s blessing and we were disciplined but it’s the nature of doing a vampire movie, you’re up all night so everyone becomes a little bit bewildered with the rhythm of it. It was intense but it was fun and it was the kind of situation where everyone was sharing a trailer, and I think the biggest ingredient of fun or at least the biggest assurance and declaration of fun was Peter Fonda. He was the oldest person involved but also the youngest, he had the greatest enthusiasm and he would bring bottles of wine that we would open at the end of the night! [laughs] We’d start drinking at dawn. I’ve never had another experience quite like it, I have a lot of fond memories.

Finally, what’s coming up next for you?

I’m just finishing a short film I made with John Ashbery who just died and I feel very fortunate that he invited me to make this thing and we were able to put it together and I think that’s going to be on Criterion’s website, they helped fund it. And I have the rights to White Noise, Don DeLillo’s novel, and Don has given his blessing on the script and I’m hoping I can put that together very soon. And I have one other burning project that’s taking longer to catch fire completely and that’s about Nikola Tesla. It’s a biopic, Ethan Hawke will play Tesla and Winona Ryder will be Sarah Bernhardt. It’s a bigger scale that I’ve gotten to make, it’s a bigger movie than I’ve ever made so I’m very eager to step up to that, but it’s hard to find the money.

Marjorie Prime is in UK cinemas now. Read our review here.