Experimental thinking

Michael Almereyda on Stanley Milgram and the making of Experimenter.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Experimenter director Michael Almereyda
Experimenter director Michael Almereyda Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Almereyda's thrilling Experimenter with Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram, Winona Ryder as his wife Sacha, Jim Gaffigan as the "Learner", "Teachers" including John Leguizamo and Tom Farrell, and Ned Eisenberg as social psychology pioneer Solomon Asch, is a storytelling experiment on its own.

Busy preparing his new film, starring Lois Smith and Jon Hamm, based on Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize nominated play, Marjorie Prime, Michael met me at a café in the East Village to discuss Experimenter with a quick glance back at Sam Shepard directing The Late Henry Moss in Almereyda's This So-Called Disaster (starring Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Sheila Tousey and Cheech Marin), and a move forward to more Italo Calvino folktales.

Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram:
Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram: "My admiration for him just deepened as I went."

Experimenter jumps straight into the obedience experiment, which over half a century later, is as fascinating and timely and important as ever. The original staging details were already cinematic in nature. Social psychologist Milgram, played wisely by Sarsgaard with a silky voice-over, lets us in on the decision making and explains the procedure.

At Yale in August 1961, two subjects are assigned roles, one as "Teacher" and one as "Learner." It is a study of "reward and punishment", they are told, the latter consisting of electric shocks in mounting strength, given to the "Learner" if his memory of word pairing fails him, and he gives the wrong answer to multiple choice questions. The first study included only males. 65% administered the shocks up to maximum levels.

Anne-Katrin Titze: On my way to meet you, the Film Forum premiere of This So-Called Disaster [Sam Shepard Directs the Late Henry Moss] came to mind. I was trying to remember who was on stage for the discussion that night. I know Sam and Nick Nolte were there. Do you remember who else was there?

Michael Almereyda: It wasn't that many people. Jessica Lange was there because she was with Sam, but she wasn't on stage. I think James Gammon was there who was a great actor who died about five years ago.

AKT: I remember only that it was a great discussion.

MA: You remember more than I do in that case. It was an exciting chance to be… I remember more making the film than the aftermath. I think it's an under-known film because it's not often that you get to watch actors of that calibre rehearse. It's a special circumstance with Sam who insisted and welcomed us in.

Stanley Milgram with Sasha (Winona Ryder):
Stanley Milgram with Sasha (Winona Ryder): "What I recognized early on was that he's not just the father of the obedience experiments …"

AKT: He insisted?

MA: Yeah. It was his idea. The film wasn't my idea. He called me up and asked me and then it became very difficult. All he did was ask, I had to raise the money, I had to make the film. But he opened the door. I still see him a lot. I've always wanted to work with Nick [Nolte] and with Sean Penn but it hasn't worked out.

AKT: Now you have Experimenter showing at the New York Film Festival. Your film impressed me very much.

MA: Have you known much about Stanley Milgram?

AKT: Like many people, I first heard of him in school and then throughout my life, he kept popping up in different contexts. I liked very much the freedom you took. The film itself seems like an experiment that he could have done. Is that something you were thinking?

By so freely utilising all that the medium allows, the film makes us acutely aware of the shackles so many filmmakers put themselves in. In obedience to whom, we may ask? Which eminence in a grey coat is the authority on the blockbuster and denies the killer charm of a rear projection in black and white? Why listen to him?

MA: I've heard people say it's the kind of film he would have wanted made about himself or that he would have made himself. That's the highest compliment I could expect. Because why make a conventional film about such an unconventional thinker? Or about someone who was interested in breaking convention, understanding it and getting inside of it? So it was implicit to be free. And that's what you wrote and I'm very grateful for. Because you recognised it. As a language, movies are so often locked into convention. There's no reason. Especially in a biopic, where we have certain conventions that exist.

AKT: That is the question of obedience. Who as a filmmaker do you feel you have to obey? At certain points you use black and white photographs as a backdrop. These are such beautiful images, so why not?

MA: To be honest, the producers were worried about this. And then they saw how good it looked. The main incentive was that we were saving money. But I knew there were better reasons than saving money and I'm glad that it seems to be recognised.

Jim Gaffigan as the
Jim Gaffigan as the "Learner": "He was curious about human nature."

AKT: It has to be done with conviction! Otherwise…

MA: Yes. That always helps.

AKT: How did your relationship to Milgram evolve throughout the making of the movie? Do you have a different focus now?

MA: What I recognized early on was that he's not just the father of the obedience experiments, he really had a generous and playful attitude about life. He was curious about human nature. He was in some ways a moralist, but he was also a creative artist. What he was doing was exploratory and searching and it wasn't limited. Those experiments he did when he was 28 and although they shadowed and chased him throughout his life, I wanted to make people aware of the other things.

AKT: He did so many different experiments and you made some interesting choices on which ones you included. The photography one, for example.

MA: That's an unknown one. I discovered that in the archives. That hasn't been written about, hasn't been publicized in any way. We just reenacted it and quoted it. Almost all the dialogue, within reason, is literally from texts and statements and writings that he and other people said. I was kind of collaging things together.

AKT: What exactly was the Polaroid experiment?

MA: He had people come into his office and take their picture and then he would type up on a notecard, dictating to his wife, what was happening at the moment.

AKT: Their reaction?

John Leguizamo as
John Leguizamo as "Teacher"

MA: Yes. Including the messenger, the grad student who was reproachful - all those people were part of the experiment. It's not exactly a successful brain experiment but it's fascinating and intriguing and I wanted to retrieve it from oblivion. It's like an art piece.

AKT: Singing loudly on a bus …

MA: That's what he did as an assignment.

AKT: You never gave anyone working on the film any of his assignments or were tempted to do that?

MA: No. Next time. We had 20 days to shoot the movie, so that moved a little too fast.

AKT: You must have prepared it for many years? There is so much in it, that is intricate and precise.

MA: Sure. Yeah. I'm glad you think so. The script took a while to write. There's a lot of research. You asked how my thoughts changed. When you research people, sometimes you become less enamoured of them and sometimes more. In this case my faith in him didn't fall away. He seemed subject to so many attacks that seem shortsighted and narrow-minded. My admiration for him just deepened as I went.

AKT: I agree. There is one question he asks during the obedience experiment which you have in the film, that for me sums it all up: "Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain?"

MA: That's a transcript. That's directly from the recordings.

AKT: The fact that Milgram was asking these questions directly to the person…

Experimenter US poster
Experimenter US poster

MA: He was having debriefing sessions. At the time that was a novel idea to actually talk to people afterwards. That was built into the experiment. He has been criticised for not being as honest or forthright or gentle as he could be, but in many ways, he seems really very compassionate.

AKT: Talk a bit about the recent French TV show that reconstructed the obedience experiment.

The elephant in the room - and Almereyda takes that proverb hilariously non-figuratively, with a beautiful elephant, credited as Minnie in the end credits, trotting behind Milgram down the corridor - is, of course, how the results of this study shine a dim light for the future, especially considering the then very recent past. The experiments ended in May 1962. Four days later, Adolf Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem.

MA: 80% of the participants went all the way and thought they were electrocuting someone who was screaming, who was an actor. It's well known in France. I was just at the Deauville Film Festival, and there were two things - plus and minus. In France there is no proverbial expression about The Elephant in the Room. So that was very baffling for people. They didn't get it. But they did know this TV show. I didn't quite realize how finely graded it was. It was a fake TV show, they did it specifically for sociological reasons. It was appalling and sobering. It carried forth Milgram's thesis and it just verified it. There's a lot of complacency.

AKT: I lecture a course on fairy tales at Hunter College and whenever we discuss the tale of Bluebeard, I am always surprised at how many students read the tale as one that teaches curiosity killing the cat. A serial killer gives the woman keys and tells her not to open a specific door. By the act of opening the door, she stops the killings and he is punished for his crimes. Far too many overlook the ending and conclude that she shouldn't have opened the door. It always makes me think of Milgram.

MA: That's fascinating. Have you read Calvino's folktales?

AKT: Yes, I have.

Milgram student Harold Takooshian, science advisor on Experimenter
Milgram student Harold Takooshian, science advisor on Experimenter Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MA: I have done two adaptations and I want to do more.

AKT: Which ones have you done?

MA: The one that showed at the New York Film Festival was called The Man Who Came Out Only At Night, the other was The Ogre's Feathers. I want to do about six of them and make them into a feature. They are very rich, very exciting.

AKT: The pomegranate….

The name Milgram is Hebrew for pomegranate, "one of the seven fruits of the Bible" he explains in Experimenter. Could it be the one that caused the fall from grace?

MA: Sometimes I would examine what Milgram said… That line he said, Milgram means pomegranate in Hebrew, people would say 'no'. People who knew Hebrew would say It means pomegranate in Yiddish. So it's curious that he did that. I kept it.

AKT: Pomegranates start popping up in other NYFF films, The Assassin for example.

Bertolt Brecht formed an entire theory on the benefits of knocking down illusions, Alfred Hitchcock loved the effects of a painted backdrop, and Søren Kierkegaard had some insight into the diegetic time continuum and is quoted twice [the second time by the postman] in Experimenter with the following discernment: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

MA: I've heard that the Kierkegaard quote shows up in Laurie Anderson's movie. So I'm not the only one who reads Kierkegaard… So you could see Wim [Wenders] when he was in town? It seems like you had a good time.

Stanley Milgram with Sasha with black and white photographs as a backdrop
Stanley Milgram with Sasha with black and white photographs as a backdrop

AKT: Yes, we had a long talk about his director's cut of Until The End Of The World.

MA: I saw it got good reviews. It's a sort of redemption, if you wait 25 years, I guess. I saw it at MoMA.

AKT: You are working on a new film right now. Can you talk a little bit about that?

MA: Sure. It's based on a play I happened to see last year and I wanted to do it with my friend, Lois Smith, who is 86. The play is something she had been talking about for a long time. When I saw it I recognized a potential in it. It had a staying power and I optioned it, an early script. And it got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize which is a curious thing. So someone else liked it. And now we're about to shoot in two weeks with Lois's very defined window. Because after we wrap, she is going to do the play in New York. Which must be some sort of record.

AKT: What is the name of the play?

MA: It's called Marjorie Prime. It's been performed in Los Angeles once. It's going to be made into a movie and then performed again with the same actress and then it's going to travel. The play is the heart of it, but I changed it a bit. I changed it significantly with the author's [Jordan Harrison] approval. Jon Hamm is going to be in it. It's a bit of a science fiction story.

Stanley Milgram The Experimenter:
Stanley Milgram The Experimenter: "He was in some ways a moralist, but he was also a creative artist."

AKT: What would you say is the core of the play?

MA: It's about identity and memory and love and mortality. It's a thoughtful, delicately thoughtful, play that has a lot of strong emotions. It's four characters in a house, basically. So I spend a lot of time watching Bergman movies.

AKT: Watching Bergman movies?

MA: Bergman and Polanski. People who know what to do in a house. So I'm doing my homework. It's going to be shot by Sean Price Williams. Do you know who he is?

AKT: Yes, I do. [His last work I saw was his cinematography for Alex Ross Perry's uncomfortably intimate Queen Of Earth].

MA: So, he knows how to deal with confined spaces. I'm excited about it. It's keeping me busy.

New York Film Festival public screenings: Tuesday, October 6 at 9:00pm - Alice Tully Hall with Michael Almereyda, Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and Jim Gaffigan in attendance; Wednesday, October 7 at 9:00pm - Walter Reade Theater

Magnolia Pictures will release Experimenter in the US on October 16.

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