At the Experimenter reception

Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Almereyda, Jim Gaffigan and more in New York.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Peter Sarsgaard is Stanley Milgram in Michael Almereyda's Experimenter
Peter Sarsgaard is Stanley Milgram in Michael Almereyda's Experimenter Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Dream Hotel Midtown on the PH-D Terrace for the Magnolia Pictures, Montblanc and Cinema Society reception, Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo with Justine Maurer, Taryn Manning, Lori Singer, Emily Tremaine, John Palladino, Anthony Edwards, Bob McDonough, Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard with Maggie Gyllenhaal turned out before the New York Film Festival première of Michael Almereyda's Experimenter at Alice Tully Hall.

When I arrived, Michael and I spoke about the great loss of Chantal Akerman.

Sasha Milgram chats with Michael Almereyda
Sasha Milgram chats with Michael Almereyda Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the elevator with me going up to the reception was Sasha Milgram. Later on, after we talked a little, she asked me "Where is Michael?" I went to fetch the director, who was very happy to speak with her. Sasha was a great advisor to get all the details right about her husband, social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Unknown facts, such as Milgram's love for Nabokov, Kubrick and musicals, lovingly enhance the great man's story. On the rooftop terrace, I also got a chance to speak with Ed English, who made the original documentary on the obedience experiment with Milgram at Yale, and the son of the original "Learner", James McDonough.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you enjoy doing the musical number?

Peter Sarsgaard: Yeah. South Pacific. You know, it was a bit difficult to do because this is a low budget film and we didn't have guide tracks. I did it the way I could do it.

AKT: It's a great ending. He loved musicals. Milgram wrote a musical, Michael told me.

PS: He did. He did. I am not somebody who speaks musical very well. My wife and kids do.

Ed English who filmed the original obedience experiments tells Jim Gaffigan and Bob McDonough: "In fact, you do look alike."
Ed English who filmed the original obedience experiments tells Jim Gaffigan and Bob McDonough: "In fact, you do look alike." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The first line of Vladimir Nabokov's sublime autobiography, Speak, Memory, is read directly to us by Stanley Milgram, as played wisely by Peter Sarsgaard. "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

Peter Sarsgaard: I was really influenced by [Milgram's] style of performing, which is not a professional style of performing. I knew what he looked like and I knew enough to get it wrong. I thought he was the doctor in the room. But he is not in the room. He is watching from behind the two-way mirror… The thing that's surprising to me is how few actual sadists showed up - people who were like "zap, one more time, zap, because I want to, zap." There's very few of those…

Of course, every person seeing Milgram's obedience experiment will ask themselves what they would have done. The original staging details were already cinematic in nature. Sarsgaard's silky Milgram voice-over lets us in that they decided to "make the lab coat grey" for the person explaining the procedure, because a white one would look "too medical." The second start, where "it really begins" and Sarsgaard, equally poker-faced and tongue-in-cheek, brings us fully into the room, boldly confronts us with what is at stake.

Jim Gaffigan plays Bob McDonough's father in Experimenter: "Do we look alike?" they ask me.
Jim Gaffigan plays Bob McDonough's father in Experimenter: "Do we look alike?" they ask me. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

PS: I think it's hard to know what you would do in any given circumstance. Certainly, we all tacitly let things that we don't morally agree with go by without objecting. I don't know. I was more surprised that no one opened the door. Not one person when the guy was screaming. That's a significant result… When you are watching, they are all really struggling.

No one is doing it happily. They're weeping, they are laughing uncomfortably. People are really distraught by it. So to me, I see more hope in the way they are reacting. Like I said, I didn't see many sadists, people who are enjoying electrocuting someone.

Earlier I had this exchange with the director:

Anne-Katrin Titze: There is the fading and also the focus on different things within the memories. A copy askew. Speaking of memory, in Experimenter, you have Milgram read from a copy of Nabokov's Speak Memory. I have the exact same edition at home.

Michael Almereyda: That's the copy on Milgram's shelf. He loved Nabokov. Sasha still has that copy. He loved Nabokov and he loved Kubrick and he loved Broadway musicals. I wanted to include some of the things he loved.

Producer Fabio Golombek, John Leguizamo ("Teacher") with Justine Maurer
Producer Fabio Golombek, John Leguizamo ("Teacher") with Justine Maurer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Is that where Some Enchanted Evening comes from?

MA: I actually brought that in. It felt appropriate. He loved musicals. I don't know which ones. He tried to write musicals. They didn't catch fire. From what I read, he wasn't as brilliant as a song-and-dance man.

AKT: I would love to see Milgram, the musical.

MA: He wrote a musical about Benedict Arnold [General during the American Revolutionary War]. I didn't get very far into it but it was like a historical biopic epic.

AKT: How did you pick Peter Sarsgaard? Not for his physical resemblance to Milgram!

MA: It was a bit of luck because his agent thought he'd be good for it. It wasn't my first thought. He read the script and I met with him. I knew him slightly and I've always liked him. He just had such insight and enthusiasm. He's one of those actors you feel could read and write books. And that's not always the case. He just had the charm and the intelligence somehow. He has also the sense of an interior life that's mysterious. There's a mystery to Peter. I thought that was important.

AKT: Who else is hidden in the film?

Peter Sarsgaard meets the press on the PH-D Terrace as Maggie Gyllenhaal comes over
Peter Sarsgaard meets the press on the PH-D Terrace as Maggie Gyllenhaal comes over Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MA: Robert, the youngest son of James McDonough who died when his son was three. [James] had nine children, [Robert] is in the film. He has a cameo at the end. His father is the guy who is played by Jim Gaffigan. He's the insurance man who pretended to be the victim, the "Learner". He was a great actor, judging by [Milgram's] movie. The son has no real memory of his father beyond the Milgram film. That's the crystallisation of his memories. He is also chasing after his own private mythology. He knows the sons and daughters of people who were in the experiment. I didn't meet him until we were nearly done with the film. It's fascinating how obsessive he is. He works for the railroad and he talks to everybody. He collects people. It's half a degree of separation with him.

On the roof, mingling in the crowd, I find Bob McDonough, son of Milgram's original "Learner".

Anne-Katrin Titze: Michael told me that you remember your father mostly through the Milgram experiments.

Bob McDonough: That's the only way I remember my father. I was the youngest of nine and I was born during the experiments. I was born in January of '62 and my father died in January of '65. I have no memory of him. The only way I know what my father sounds like, is by watching the original Milgram experiment. I got to see how he moves, how he sounds. I was surprised that he sounds a lot like my brothers and [me]. That's why I contacted Michael.

Emily Tremaine on the red carpet - Shelia Jarcho in Experimenter
Emily Tremaine on the red carpet - Shelia Jarcho in Experimenter Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You contacted him?

BMD: I contacted Michael and said I would love to get a cameo on this film. They had finished filming, but, as luck would have it, two weeks went by and he said "I have to re-shoot this one scene."

AKT: Where are you in the film?

BMD: I am at the very end, I hear. I am looking up, to see how many other people are looking up.

AKT: I remember your scene.

Jim Gaffigan has five kids, Jim McDonough, the man he plays in Experimenter, had nine and a heart condition. He is the original fake "Learner", the first person to sing Some Enchanted Evening, the tune that haunts the movie.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Do you ever experiment with your kids?

Jim Gaffigan: Experiment? Well, you know, that's one of the great things about having young kids - you can cut their hair however you want. My son, right now, my nine-year-old son, has a mullet. He doesn't know.

Dream Hotel Midtown on West 55th Street
Dream Hotel Midtown on West 55th Street Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Next, I speak with a slightly more serious gentleman, Ed English, who filmed the original obedience experiment with Milgram. The "first" beginning drops us off at Yale in August 1961, where Milgram's famous experiment on obedience took place. 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.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Tell me about your work with Stanley Milgram. You were the editor?

Ed English: In '61, I was working on a contract at Yale and Stanley hired me to do his movie. This was just a documentary, straight forward what happened. It is the original documentary. I'm such an admirer of Stanley's work that I am glad the human side of him is coming out in this feature film. From what I've seen, he [Almereyda] is getting underneath all the criticisms that were leveled against Stanley, I think, unfairly.

Experimenter US poster
Experimenter US poster

I was there when he de-briefed the people he worked the experiment on and fooled, there's no doubt about that. But he de-briefed them very sensitively and was not in any way hurting them or using them as some people accused him of.

AKT: Would he ever have been able to find out what he did without some trickery? I doubt it.

EE: You know, before anyone actually did the experiment, they were given a sample shock. Then they went into the room with this giant machine that went up to 450 volts which is definitely murderous. At that point, he could have stopped the experiment because they went on. Nobody [said no], 100% of the people went on. Milgram got the criticism for continuing it.

AKT: How did you end up filming this?

EE: I was actually on a government contract working at Yale, making films, at that time for the US Office of Education teaching Russian. In my eyes, I thought Stanley's film was a great rebuttal to what was going on in Vietnam. That's what it was about. It was about not obeying authority without question.

AKT: That still is very relevant today. It is about the Holocaust, it is about Vietnam, and it is about daily decision making.

The "small world" theory explaining how closely we are all linked, the "familiar stranger" we encounter again and again without speaking, and the effect of the camera that "actively attracts the people it records" never managed to overshadow his findings on the "Agentic State".

EE: The Agentic State, all the things he goes into, it's difficult to understand. Because obedience is essential. He doesn't deny that. He says, society wouldn't exist without obedience.

On the Walking With Dinosaurs red carpet, John Leguizamo spoke to me about deflated dinosaurs
On the Walking With Dinosaurs red carpet, John Leguizamo spoke to me about deflated dinosaurs Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It is the essential question, which is also in the film - Why did you obey the man in the gray coat and not the man in pain?

The "Teachers", the only ones not in on the experiment, show themselves as, one by one, they administer (nonexistent) shocks to a person in the other room, who begs for them to stop. 120 volts, 135 volts, 150 volts, on to 450 volts. A wrong answer and the next button is pressed. We watch with Milgram from behind the frame of a two-way mirror how one of the subjects "finds a groove", how they turn around with fleeting pleas to the "authority" in the lab coat to let them off the hook, then continue anyway.

EE: Exactly. The only people who bowed out of the experiment, they had a higher authority. One person who got out and made a big name for himself, he worked for Yale. He shouldn't have been in the experiment. He was able to bow out because he worked for Yale. And the other people did it for religious reasons. They had a higher authority.

AKT: In Michael's film there is one who is an engineer and knows…

EE: … that 450 volts will kill you. There's no doubt about it.

In tune with Milgram's playful spirit, the actors have been cast because of their varying familiarity as the subjects. There is the well-known face of John Leguizamo, questioned after he went all the way with the "Learner" for mis-matching the words "wet duck" and "brave woman". "Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain? Who bore the responsibility that this man was being shocked?" Milgram wants to know.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Last time we spoke was about deflated dinosaurs, and now about giving electroshocks. Did you learn anything new about Milgram during this movie?

John Leguizamo: Absolutely. I knew about Milgram a little bit because I was a Psych major for a year when I was an undergrad. You always study about him but I didn't know much. I did a lot of research for the movie. I saw the documentaries, I read about him. He is one of the most important people in terms of psychological behavior. Conformity, how people conform to authority. How do you conduct experiments on human beings doing pain to others?

AKT: We don't really know how we would react.

JL: No, we don't. You always think, no, I'm not going to hurt anybody. But you don't know. The thing is, there were some people who said no and they wouldn't do it. There were like two people who walked out.

AKT: I just spoke to the man who filmed Milgram's original documentary and he told me that they all referred to a higher authority.

JL: They used authority! The thing the experiment proved that people did have sympathy and guilt. It wasn't a totally hopeless thing. People did feel bad.

AKT: You show that well in your performance.

JL: I based it on the documentary. I'm playing a real character. I could see him really struggling and suffering doing this. I was really just trying to pay tribute to that.

I am turning to Justine Maurer, Leguizamo's wife and ask about her feelings towards the experiment.

Justine Maurer: It's upsetting how vulnerable we are towards authority and being told what to do.

AKT: You must have had conversations about this when John was preparing for the movie?

JM: Yeah, we did. We talked about this a lot. And I'm familiar with the experiments. I know them from growing up - I think all American kids watched those films.

Read Experimental Thinking with Michael Almereyda.

Remaining New York Film Festival public screening of Experimenter: Wednesday, October 7 at 9:00pm - Walter Reade Theater, followed by a Q&A with Michael Almereyda.

Experimenter opens in the US on October 16.

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