Tesla

ALL MY DREAMS ARE TRUE


MICHAEL ALMEREYDA

“This insightful and entertaining book will let you sink deep into the brain of legendary electrical genius Nikola Tesla. What’s more, you’ll get to know some of his wild and amazing contemporaries. And on top of that, you’re getting into the mind of one of the great American filmmakers, Michael Almereyda, who dared to tackle the mysterious Tesla and a bunch of unlikely supporting characters. Wow!” —Wim Wenders

“With Tesla: All My Dreams Are True, Michael Almereyda shows the route he took in making his extraordinary sort-of biopic about Nikola Tesla. The dazzling result is part memoir, part biography, part filmmaking diary, a meditation on what it means not just to make a movie, but to will it into being over decades.” —Stephanie Zacharek, film critic, Time

“This superb, wonderfully illustrated book is much more than a companion to Tesla. In its fascinating detours and observations, we gain an understanding of the meticulousness of Almereyda’s research, his eye for strange and revealing details, and his unique way of blending the past and the present, the historical and the speculative, the intimate and the monumental. It’s a joy to spend time with an artist for whom filmmaking and criticism are so richly intertwined.”
—Andrew Chan, critic and web editor at the Criterion Collection

“Candid and poignant, Almereyda's account of Tesla and himself is illuminating, ironic and intimate. Acrobatic without pretense or strain. A joy to read. (A book to keep.)” —Hampton Fancher, screenwriter of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049

“You will find books about Nikola Tesla that describe him as a genius, even an extraterrestrial, but none that really capture him as a human being. Michael Almereyda, having spent decades writing, re-writing and eventually directing a film about Tesla, shows us why. He examines the facts and myths (many Tesla-created) from every angle, resulting in a book of reflections and refractions that, taken together, encompass the inventor, the filmmaker, and the film in one remarkable multifaceted work.” —Carter Burwell

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About the Book

TESLA: All My Dreams Are True jolts and flows between the extraordinary life of the inventor Nikola Tesla, the making of a feature film about him by the celebrated director Michael Almereyda, and episodes from the filmmaker’s own restless, quixotic career. In these pages, we encounter Tesla’s colleagues and friends intermingling with Almereyda’s collaborators and influences: Thomas Edison and David Lynch, Mark Twain and Sam Shepard, Sarah Bernhardt and Ethan Hawke, J.P. Morgan and Orson Welles. A rich array of illustrations – vintage and personal photographs, film stills, drawings and comic-book art – enhance the sense of time travel and parallel histories, as we read of a scheme to transmit wireless energy through the earth, of the electrocution of an elephant, of fortunes made and surrendered, and of the obsessions that propel a scientist seeking to transform the world and a director seeking to make a movie.

248 pages b/w illustrations throughout • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-507-9 •
E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-262-7

About the Author

ashley dawson author photo

Michael Almereyda in New York in 1981, the year he completed his first Tesla screenplay. Photo: Tom Jenkins.

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Michael Almereyda has written and directed fourteen feature films, most recently Cymbeline, Experimenter, Marjorie Prime, Escapes, and Tesla. He has edited and contributed essays for books on Vladimir Mayakovsky, William Eggleston, Manny Farber, and Garry Winogrand.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: NASTY MICROBES

Nikola Tesla in January, 1894. “First photograph ever taken by phosphorescent light.”
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What drew me to Nikola Tesla when I was a teenager, more than forty years ago, is not quite the same as what drew me to make a movie about him in 2019, and the coordinates shifted altogether during 2020, a shared hallucination of a year, when this book was written and time, it’s been commonly agreed, feels different: muffled, staggered, destabilized, alternately freezing and skipping forward, as we’ve found ourselves jostled between quarantine and protest, detachment, division, and some semblance of solidarity.

I haven’t been able to resist thinking about how I’d make my film over again, if I could start fresh or simply apply a new coat of paint. I’d pretty surely pay more heed to Tesla’s germaphobia. In My Inventions, the autobiography serialized in Electrical Experimenter magazine in 1919, written when Tesla was sixty-two (startlingly, not much older than I am now), he describes his experience with cholera, when an epidemic descended upon his home town of Gospic, in what’s now Croatia. He was eighteen, returning from school:

It is incredible how absolutely ignorant people were as to the causes of this scourge…They thought that the deadly agents were transmitted thru the air and filled it with pungent odors and smoke. In the meantime they drank infested water and died in heaps. I contracted the dreadful disease on the very day of my arrival and although surviving the crisis I was confined to bed for 9 months with scarcely any ability to move. My energy was completely exhausted and for the second time I found myself at Death’s door. In one of the sinking spells which was thought to be the last, my father rushed into the room. I still see his pallid face as he tried to cheer me in tones belying his assurance. “Perhaps,” I said, “I may get well if you will let me study engineering.”

That is an origin story, of a kind, building on Tesla’s first visit “at death’s door,” just a few years earlier, when he was fifteen, bedridden with malaria. (The malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, had lingered, leaving him particularly vulnerable to cholera.) Images of lethal micro-organisms chased Tesla throughout his life. In Paris, shortly before leaving for the U.S. in 1884, with an introduction to Thomas Edison in hand, he worked with a scientist studying the properties of drinking water. As recounted in a letter written sixteen years later to his friend Robert Underwood Johnson, the invitation to look through a microscope perpetually heightened Tesla’s horror of germs:

If you would watch only for a few minutes the horrible creatures, hairy and ugly beyond anything you can conceive, tearing each other up with the juices diffusing throughout the water—you would never again drink a drop of unboiled or unsterilized water.

I wasn’t interested in making a matter-of-fact biopic showing young Tesla moving through his travails and triumphs, but the inventor’s lifelong fear of contamination is acknowledged throughout the film. His memory of the cholera epidemic surfaces in an important patch of dialogue, with a bitter nod to the superstition that guided his countrymen to mismanage the crisis. He’s shown wiping glasses and cups before drinking, avoiding handshakes, wearing gloves, and, while seated in a restaurant, working through a stack of cloth napkins to clean utensils and plates. But I now wonder if we could have underlined this a bit more, given how far and deep Tesla’s fear reached, and how the present moment is saturated with a commensurate dread.

In the fifth installment of My Inventions, after praising the departed J.P. Morgan, an investor who had, in reality, left him high and dry, inspiring a string of private pleas and complaints, Tesla offers a curse to unspecified enemies. “I am unwilling to accord to some small-minded and jealous individuals the satisfaction of having thwarted my efforts. These men are to me nothing more than microbes of a nasty disease.” For Tesla, no insult could be loaded with more contempt – nothing’s worse than “microbes of a nasty disease.” But his next lines swerve to self-justification and prophesy, a tone that characterizes Tesla’s written pronouncements, inviting a martyrdom that many of his fans continue to embrace. My movie carries him up to 1901, drawing the curtain with the failure of a grand scheme for the worldwide transmission of wireless energy, involving the construction of an enormous tower in Wardenclyffe, Long Island. This was the enterprise J.P. Morgan had withdrawn from after giving Tesla the equivalent of four million dollars in today’s money. With the dismantling of the Wardenclyffe tower, Tesla was, indeed, thwarted and finished. But he was hardly able to admit this to the readers of Electrical Experimenter, or to face his own role in the defeat. “My project was retarded by laws of nature,” he concludes. “The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time. But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.”

Tesla, age 35, in England, 1892, photographed by Herbert Rose Barraud.space after caption

Tesla lived another twenty-four years after writing these words, long enough to see the future consumed by the Second World War. By then, he had suffered more setbacks, and became increasingly reclusive and unhinged, the predictor of doomsday scenarios, the promoter of an unrealized death beam. I had included scenes of the wraithlike, elderly Tesla in my original script: a gaunt old man in a barren suite in the New Yorker Hotel, where he kept pigeons while instructing the staff to maintain a three-foot distance from him at all times. Budget constraints convinced me to cut this material, but the image of a skeletal, self-isolating germaphobe continues to haunt me. I chose to focus on a different Tesla, the inventor of technological breakthroughs that still define the way we generate and receive light and power. A proud, recessive outsider, motivated by an idealism that was seldom practical. I wanted to honor him, a scientist of mind-bending resourcefulness and prescience who was also hapless with money and even more hapless in making and keeping personal connections. I saw the movie as a story about love and money, even or especially if the brilliant protagonist had little talent for managing their flow.

Tesla caricatured by Marius de Zayas, New York, c. 1908
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