Filmmaker Michael Almereyda is a poet of emotional concision, expressing recessive human textures through a pared sense of editing, staging, and collage. Almereyda’s two superb new films—Escapes and Marjorie Prime, a documentary about Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher and a sci-fi-tinged chamber drama, respectively—both rely on the sorts of intricate juxtapositions that have formed the bedrock of the filmmaker’s cinema. From his modern-day Dracula cover, Nadja, to the prescient corporate machinations of Hamlet, to the profoundly neurotic power of Experimenter, Almereyda has followed his own idiosyncratic interests, uncovering fleeting glimpses of the concentric patterns that unite all art as well as life. We talked about the origins of Escapes, the visual influences behind Marjorie Prime, and a bit about the stories that hide in between the lines of art.
I’m curious about your interview process with Hampton Fancher. How long did it take to record him for Escapes?
The original impulse came in 2012, and I’ve known Hampton a long time. We’re pretty good friends, and it was like extending a conversation rather than having a series of interviews. It was just me and usually one other person visiting him in his apartment, and it was kind of casual. We had a few sessions over maybe three or four years.
Did the project initially have a different intention? Did it grow out of something else?
It did. I don’t know if you’ve seen a short film I did called Skinningrove. Did you, by any chance?
I’ve seen it, yes.
Well, Escapes came out of that, because that was done with another friend, someone I knew well. Skinningrove came out of a slide collection and, even though it took two hours to shoot, it took practically a whole summer to edit because it was so distilled. I learned something from that film about measuring or pairing images with commentary. In some ways it’s an obvious thing, but Skinningrove felt more open-ended and more revealing than I expected. The thing is, of course, when you look at a photograph of a person there’s a lot that you can’t know. Even if you consider it a great photograph, there’s a lot of missing information, narrative, and emotion. Of course it’s the same or even more so with the moving image.
There’s a movie that Hampton’s girlfriend from some time back did called Blue Hawaii. Joan Blackman and Hampton were involved for a while and she’s the one starlet that didn’t sleep with Elvis after starring in one of his movies. Hampton told a story about Blue Hawaii, which has this breezy, idyllic quality. But to recognize what was going on while these images and scenes and happy musical numbers were being filmed was pretty remarkable, and I thought I could make a short film with Hampton’s commentary and scenes from Blue Hawaii. When he told that story for the camera, maybe because it was the first time that we were doing it, it just wasn’t as alive or as interesting as I imagined. Another story he told about Teri Garr felt more vital, and more personal in a certain way—in a way that began to connect to other stories.
You know from seeing the movie that there are a series of episodes, almost each one involves something that could be called a near-death experience. Something that Hampton emerges from and has to survive, and there’s usually a woman involved too. So there’s a kind of symmetry that, of all the stories he’s told in his life and can continue telling, the stories I chose to film are heading toward the improbable arrival at the point where he writes Blade Runner. That became the structure, and that was something that was discovered rather than preordained.
I love how the personal is shown to yield something that everyone’s familiar with and takes for granted as another pop-cultural given. In less certain hands, it could have felt as if Escapes was entirely about the Blade Runner climax. Instead, it almost feels, as you said, as if Blade Runner arose, inevitably, out of these intense Hollywood stories.
Things happen to Hampton and he also makes things happen. He’s almost like a figure in a Philip K. Dick story where reality bends around him, and Blade Runner is one of the more public and accredited triumphs of his life. But there’s a lot of lucky circumstances that built up to it, and they seemed as interesting as the writing itself. I’m glad you appreciated the balance. That was what we were attempting to do.
Something else that struck me, near the end of Escapes, is when Hampton says that he feels his life is governed by fear. Because this man appears to be rather distinctively fearless.
Hampton’s also very honest, and I think we all have degrees of fear. He was partly talking about himself when he was young. I hope it’s threaded into the film that he was measuring himself against these macho images, which he was able to emulate and mirror but didn’t necessarily reflect who he really was. He was acting a role, and I think he’s moved past that. He still has fear, but it’s now a different sort of fear—a different measure. That was one of the later interviews, where I wanted him to talk about how his life and images of men [that he saw] as he was growing up were related. He doesn’t go into the obvious thing where he wanted to be Humphrey Bogart, which he already said. He talked about fear, and I thought that was pretty pointed.
I would look at someone like Hampton and would probably feel the admiration for him that he feels for his own heroes, and so you think about these nesting dolls of neuroses and admiration that abound in pop culture.
[laughs] That’s a good way to put it. I thought you were going to say something slightly different. There are nesting dolls, yeah. Almost every kind of great actor reveres great actors from the past. There aren’t actors who don’t buy into, on some level, the glamour and the craft that we all, as fans, respect. And you’re right: Neurosis is part of it too.
The editing has a punchy, succinct, pop-art rhythm to it. Were there longer versions of the film? What was the process of arriving at this particular cut?
I’m glad that you like it. It’s really me and two different editors, both young women in their 20s. One of them had to go back to Estonia because her visa ran out. But they’re both students. This, as you can guess, is a handmade, homemade film. Escapes wasn’t funded by anyone, it was patched together. And so I had the leisure of building it gradually. But I also had the luxury of showing it at a couple of film festivals as a work in progress, which allowed us to recognize, through audience’s questions, if something was missing, or if something was tantalizing and wasn’t clear. The film gathered steam in a way, getting tighter and more dimensional. And also, when I started, half the things that are on DVD now weren’t then. It’s a kind of a weird loosening or ripening of the goods. We were lucky. There’s a still good amount of things that Hampton’s in that I didn’t get ahold of, but it’s amazing what came to light.
Did you have any issue with clearing the footage that you used?
Well, you’ve probably seen Thom Andersen’s great Los Angeles Plays Itself, which touched on that issue of fair use. I got the same law firm that he employed, and they reviewed Escapes in a scrupulous way, and there’s something about the nature of fair-use law that allows you to make a mosaic like this, to make a collage. We can’t use any of the footage in the trailer [laughs], but we can use it in the film.
There’s precise matching between Hampton’s voiceover and footage of him in various films and shows. How does one go from a blank canvas to such intricate juxtapositions? The task sounds impossibly vast.
Well, it was organic. And it was really about me discovering these old shows. Hampton was in a handful of movies, but mostly shows. In an incremental way, I’d watch and rummage, and then I’d meet with the editor [Piibe Kolka] and tell her where things should go because I’m technically inept, but I have a good memory. It was like a collage, and most of my movies, including Hamlet, configure collages, where you bring disparate things together in a way in which they speak to and inform each other. It’s maybe the way that I think, so the process didn’t feel daunting but fun.