When I first got the email, it just seemed like one of those offers that’s too good to be true. The idea that I would be holding the reins of a horse drawn carriage tearing across the high plains of Colorado and that my passenger would be the famous movie star Ethan Hawke, the whole idea of being in a movie just seemed unlikely. This was the dream of millions of people who have made their way to L.A. It’s become a cliche, all those starry eyed dreamers flocking to California with a singular vision of becoming a movie star.
But I’m not an actor, and that has never been my dream. But it was hard not to get swept up in the excitement of it all. I was going to be a star. Technically it wasn’t my first role, I was in a short film once, we shot it mostly at my house. My friend Michael Almereyda wrote and directed it, and now he was making a feature film about the scientist poet Nikola Tesla. He’d been telling me about it for years. He wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1981, the same year he dropped out of college and headed West to make a go of it in Hollywood. And for a minute it had looked like he was going to knock it out of the park on his first swing. The Tesla screenplay, the first he’d ever written was optioned and Michael was flown to London to revise the script. Then it all fell apart and was never made. But now nearly 40 years later here we were. And this time it looked like it might actually happen. Ethan Hawke was going to play Tesla, Kyle MacLachlan would play Thomas Edison and Jim Gaffigan would play George Westinghouse. And here was this offer sitting in my lap, to play Fritz Lowenstein, Tesla’s assistant.
All I had to do was say yes.
From KCRW, this is Welcome to LA, episode 15: Nikola and Fritz
On January 12, 1943, 2,000 people gathered at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York City, for the funeral of Nikola Tesla. The pallbearers included some of the great inventors from the dawn of the electric age. But none of them had what Tesla had. He was on a different level than the humans who walked among him.
There’s a TV show called Drunk History where comedians get drunk and explain … history. In one episode, Duncan Trussel, laying on the bathroom floor, describes Tesla.
[CLIP: Drunk History]
Tesla was the electric Jesus.
This is a nightmare.
DAVID: In some ways Tesla was the electric Jesus. His inventions came to him as fully formed visions, like they were divine messages from God. Then he would simply kneel to the ground and draw the device in the dirt with a stick. Bam! A revolutionary new motor. He also claimed to have superhuman senses. He once wrote that a housefly landing on a table caused a dull thud in his ear. Tesla was so far ahead of his time that people thought his ideas were the wild fantasies of a madman. Also like Jesus, Tesla was a champion of the poor. At the dawn of World War II, Tesla wrote he hoped a new world would emerge where the poor were no longer exploited by the rich. And Tesla was a feminist who thought women should be granted the right to vote. He even predicted that some day women’s struggle for equality would end up with them becoming superior to men. Also like Jesus, Tesla was celibate his entire life.
But there are a lot of ways in which Tesla was nothing like Jesus. He treated the common people around him like trash, he said racist and anti-semitic things. But at the same time he once said, ”Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment and merging of the races and we are still far from this blissful realization.” As the writer Samantha Hunt once said about him “For all his love of humanity, it seems Tesla did not care much for humans.”
Tesla believed that world peace was achievable in his lifetime but only by building a super weapon, a death ray capable of unparalleled destruction, which he tried to build.
He was a proto mad scientist who died at the age of 86 in his room at the Hotel New Yorker. By then he was broke, frail, and a bit batty. For much of his life he watched helplessly as his greatest rivals stole his patents and used them to reap great fortunes while he slowly retreated from the world of humans spending his days with his beloved pigeons.
Two days before Tesla’s funeral, the mayor of New York City Fiorella La Guardia delivered a eulogy that was broadcast on the radio, the very technology that Tesla more than any other person, was responsible for inventing, even though his nemesis Guglielmo Marconi got all the credit. Here’s La Guardia.
[ARCHIVE TAPE: Fiorella La Guardia]
LA GUARDIA: Nikola Tesla was a great humanitarian, a pure scientific genius, a poet in science. He did extraordinary amazing miraculous things during his life among us. Now this extraordinary man is dead. Or so they say. But Tesla is not dead. The real, the important part of Tesla lives in his achievement which is great almost beyond calculation. We celebrate his achievement on earth, his great triumph which is our triumph, the triumph of all the people of the world.
DAVID: It didn't take long for the original plan to start unraveling. The first clue came a few weeks after I got the offer to be in the movie. Michael, the director, called me and asked if I could get my hands on a horse for the shoot. I grew up in Colorado, where we would be shooting all my scenes. I was from the suburbs and didn't have any experience riding horses but I knew people who did, and so I told Michael, sure I can track down a horse. But I was also a little bit concerned. Shouldn’t it be someone’s job who worked on the movie to get a horse?
When Michael emailed me the offer to be in the movie he attached the script, the same one he started in 1981. In the 38 years between the first and final draft of Michael’s screenplay, he’s had a prolific career as a filmmaker, writing and directing 18 feature films and documentaries and just as many short films. He has worked with a ton of brilliant actors including Elisabeth Moss, Peter Fonda, and David Lynch who played a morgue receptionist in his movie “Nadja” about a dysfunctional family of vampires. His most recent movies include “Marjorie Prime” starring Jon Hamm and Geena Davis, and “Experimenter'' with Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard.
After I read the Tesla script I started researching Fritz Lowenstein, who I would be playing in the movie. He was a real person, an assistant who accompanied Tesla to Colorado Springs where they conducted a series of experiments with lightning and wireless transmission. Not much has been written about Fritz. He was a German immigrant to the U.S. Tesla described him as “a man possessed of the highest technical training.” In the only physical description I found it said he had bright red hair. Fritz first appears in the screenplay on page 69. He is described as 26, pale, wiry. He enters the scene holding a plate of eggs, bacon and potatoes. His first line is “I’m feeling better now.”
One of the first motors that young Nikola built was made of insects. Every year in Smiljan, Croatia, great swarms of June beetles descended on Nikola’s village. And one day in 1865 when he was nine years old, Nikola went out and filled a glass jar with the bugs and brought them into his workshop where he glued their bodies to the gear of a motor he’d built. As the captured beetles struggled to free themselves, the motor turned and the budding inventor had a vision for a future where all humans would be free from the toil of manual labor. While he watched his tiny motor spin and daydreamed about this utopian future another boy wandered into the workshop. I don’t know what this boy looked like but let’s imagine him as a towering bully with a sweaty hand which he shoved into the jar, pulling out a handful of bugs tossing them into his mouth, and chomping down on the exoskeletons. Poor Nikola ran to the bushes and vomited. The motor kept whirring.
Young Nikola was a bit of a mess. He was forever haunted by the death of his older brother Dane, who fell off a horse when Nikola was seven. The family worshipped Dane, their oldest child. Nikola’s mother made him kiss the cold lips of his brother’s corpse before he was buried. And Nikola was racked with illness and hallucinations, he was awkward and shunned by other kids in the village, but he was also brilliant and courageous. One day the local fire department started a fire to show off their fancy new fire truck, but it didn’t work and the fire started to get out of control. But young Nikola saw the problem. He ripped off his clothes and dove into the water to unkink the firehose and he became a local hero saving the village from burning to the ground.
There is a fantastic biography about Tesla called “Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.” In it the author Marc J. Seifer, who is also a psychologist, analyzes this scene and believes it is a formative moment in Tesla’s life. Seifer says that it, “Symbolized a new way to obtain love and admiration not only from his parents but also from society.”
Eventually Nikola decided to seek his fame and fortune in America. It was 1884, he was 27 years old. As he was leaving home he was robbed, but managed to make it on board the ship to New York with what was left of his possessions — along with some poems he had written and a notebook full of calculations for a flying machine he invented. During the voyage at sea there was a mutiny on board and Tesla was almost thrown into the Atlantic. But once in America he got a job working for Thomas Alva Edison. A lot has been written about the rivalry between Edison and Tesla, the first spat in their long war was over money. Tesla was pissed off that Edison refused to pay him $50,000. Edison claimed that when he offered Tesla $50,000, he was being sarcastic and perhaps the young immigrant did not understand the American sense of humor.
After their falling out, Tesla quit and ended up working as a ditch digger.
By the time I arrived on the movie set, the original plan had changed quite a bit. The trip to Colorado was postponed, and instead I flew to New York to shoot my scenes in Brooklyn. I arrived three days into the shoot, at the Grand Prospect Hall — a palatial four story building from the 1880’s. It was an incredible space with a Venetian garden, a huge dance floor and stage, with two stories of balconies lit by an extravagant crystal chandelier. In 1908 a movie company operated out of the building but it had to close after Thomas Edison threatened legal action.
I made my way into one of the smaller rooms where Kyle MacLachlan and Hannah Gross were shooting a scene. MacLachlan plays Edison and Gross, his second wife, Mina. I was surprised that the crew treated me like someone important. People kept asking me if I needed anything — bottled water, snacks, a more comfortable chair. At first it made me feel uncomfortable, but then it felt pretty nice.
Around the corner from the building were a couple of trailers, one for hair and makeup and one for wardrobe. Michael accessed my physical appearance and decided that I would need a more turn of the century appropriate hairstyle. So I made my way over to the hair and makeup trailer.
The scene we were shooting that day was based on real events. In 1899 Tesla set up an experimental station in Colorado Springs. He believed he could use the earth itself as conduit to send sound and energy around the world. And he had early successes, sending a recording of the song Ben Bolt from one side of Pikes Peak to the other.
[CLIP: Song Ben Bolt plays]
DAVID: Inside the Grand Prospect Hall, one of the rooms on the second floor had been decorated to look like a dining room inside the Alta Vista Hotel in Colorado. Once Michael said action, I would walk to the table holding a plate of food and sit down with Ethan Hawke, and another actor named Joshua who was playing a young man applying for a job in the lab with us. This was the only scene in the movie in which I spoke.
I didn’t feel like it was going well. I was so nervous that it was difficult for me to act naturally. To just pretend like it was a normal conversation. I kept waiting too long to respond because I was in my head trying to remember the lines. Also, just being in the presence of a famous person, surrounded by a crew of people all watching... it was a lot to take in. But we did several takes, Micheal kept reassuring me that I was doing great.
A friend once asked me what it was like to be in a scene with Ethan Hawke. Was it like seeing magic happen? Did he become Tesla? He asked. The truth is that I was so focused on looking natural and not flubbing my lines, I wasn't really paying too much attention to what Ethan was doing. He seemed like he was having fun with it though. He was confident and had opinions about every aspect of the scene, not just his performance. Which is more than I could say for myself. It felt so unnatural to me. Kind of like the elaborate games of make believe I play with my five year old daughter, but with less hysterical laughter. I no more believed that I was in Colorado with Nikola Tesla than I believe that the small hand of a child is a giant crab that has taken hold of my shirt and won’t let go. In fact, if I had to rank my acting performances I think grabby crab is probably my best work.
After we shot the hotel scene I was done for the day, but I had nowhere to be, so I stuck around watching other scenes. I was an actor, yes, but I was also wandering around with a microphone collecting tape, so I was a reporter. Except I wasn’t allowed to interview anyone and any audio I recorded was legally the property of the film studio. At one point the sound man saw me with my microphone and, looking confused, asked me what I was doing. I stumbled through a halting explanation about how even though I was an actor in the movie I wasn’t really an actor, I was a reporter. He seemed skeptical.
Tesla had many rivals, but his relationship with Edison usually gets all the attention. When George Westinghouse bought Tesla’s patents for alternating current, he used them to launch a business that was in direct competition with Edison over whose system of electricity would power the world. And it played out in a very ugly fashion. Edison sponsored the use of alternating current to electrocute animals in public, to make the people afraid of the Tesla/Westinghouse technology. Then Edison helped design the electric chair which led to the first execution by electricity for William Kemmler, an ax-murderer whose botched execution lasted an excruciating eight minutes.
But all of Edison’s grizzly tactics were futile. The world came to see for itself the superiority of Tesla’s system. The turning point was the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Tesla and Westinghouse won the contract to light up the world’s fair using alternating current.
Edison’s system used direct current which means that the flow of electricity only goes in one direction. But with alternating current, which was Tesla’s system, the current ingeniously switches between alternating directions, and without getting too technical, Tesla could send electricity much further for much cheaper than Edison.
That was essentially the end of the battle over AC vs DC. Tesla’s system won and Edison moved on to other projects and the two men basically came to a detente. Years later they even went fishing together. Despite the stormy seas, someone wrote of the trip “Bold fisherman were undismayed, in stately grandness as happy and well satisfied a party as ever rode the waves of the Atlantics billows. Nikola Tesla caught a flounder of large dimensions and Edison had a shocking big fluke.”
The rivalry that really broke Tesla and cost him the most was his feud with the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. Their clash could be boiled down to a single question. Who invented radio? The answer is no one person. There were a number of individuals who made contributions to its discovery starting with Joseph Henry who was the first person to send electrical energy across a room in 1842, a full 14 years before Tesla was even born. And then there was Mahlon Loomis, and Samuel Morse who both made advancements. But none of these were radio.
Tesla believed that he could send not only sound, but actual power from a transmission station to any other point on the planet, using the earth itself as a resonator. So he set up an experimental station in a barn in Colorado Springs. But something unexpected happened when he turned on his equipment. Instead of transmitting messages to distant corners of the planet. Tesla received a message. It arrived, as Tesla described as three fairy taps. A message he believed came from Mars. Tap tap tap. Tesla described the experience this way: “I have observed electrical actions, which faint and uncertain though they were, they have given me a deep conviction that we have a message from another world.” Others may scoff at the suggestion of communicating with one of our heavenly neighbors as Mars, or treat it as a practical joke, but I have been in deep earnest about it since I made my first observation in Colorado Springs.
Tesla’s reasoning was that there was no one else on earth with the technology and know how to transmit signals through the air. So it had to be extraterrestrial. Only later did he realize that there was in fact another person who had the technology. And the reason he had that technology was because he stole it from Tesla — and that was Marconi. Those three faint taps coming through the static, did not emanate from a distant planet, they came from Tesla’s enemy. Tesla paid a price for his emphatic proclamations about aliens — people thought he was looney. One newspaper critic wrote that, “Everyone would be greatly interested if it were true that signals are being sent from Mars unfortunately he has not produced a scrap of evidence to prove it. His speculations on science are so reckless as to lose an interest. His philosophizing is so ignorant as to be worthless.”
Meanwhile Marconi soldiered on, illegally using Tesla’s patented technology to establish himself as the inventor of radio.
After we shot my first scenes I flew back home to L.A. and a couple weeks later I returned to New York to shoot the next set of scenes. And this was the part of filming that I was most excited about — these were the interiors at the experimental station in Colorado. Inside a warehouse along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, the art department had built a replica of Tesla’s laboratory. This was the moment I would step inside history in a way that few people ever do. Don’t get me wrong, museums are great — getting to look through glass at the real artifacts of history is wonderful, but this was different — this was on a scale much grander, more immersive. And it’s one thing to step inside the world of the past, it’s another to become the past — or at least pretend to.
Being inside the replica of the lab was amazing, though if you looked up the illusion dissolved because you suddenly became aware that you were staring at the roof of a warehouse in Brooklyn. But there were moments of pure magic, like when the crew used colored lights to make everything look purplish blue during the lighting storm, and I was momentarily transported to the 1800s. I had a real sense of what it must have been like to be in that barn, how Fritz must have felt watching his boss break the barriers of human knowledge, to be the first humans to receive contact from another planet. And how all that must have been amplified by the awesomeness of the epic lighting storms that pound the Rocky Mountains. In fact, it was the power of those storms that caused the error in Tesla’s thinking that led him to believe that he was capable of sending power to the other side of the planet.
The scenes we shot in the Gowanus warehouse were my time to really shine as an actor, to really show off my range. I didn't have any lines but I had to make a wide variety of facial expressions as I reacted to the man-made lightning flashing wildly inside the barn. At one point I had to save the day by dramatically flipping a circuit breaker. As I pull the switch down, a tiny bolt of lightning jumps from my thumb to my forefinger. Of course the lighting would be added later as special effects so I had to react to something that wasn’t there. I was spectacular.
One of my favorite moments on set was the scene I got to be in with the actor Peter Greene. You may remember him as Zed from “Pulp Fiction,” or the villain in the Jim Carey movie, “The Mask.” He was wild on set, carrying his geriatric pit bull around in his arms, telling crazy stories. At one point I joined him on the sidewalk for a cigarette. I told him this was my first time being in a movie and he was encouraging. Later when we shot our scene together we had to do three separate takes. Once with the cameras focused on Ethan, once on Peter, and again on me. Just before my turn in the spotlight Peter grabbed me and gave me a violently powerful bear hug, and he kissed me on the cheek, then whispered in my ear, don’t f*** it up.
Tesla came up with a number of revolutionary inventions and discoveries. He invented crazy flying machines and super efficient turbines, even a brilliantly designed speedometer for cars. But in May of 1898 Tesla unveiled one of his most remarkable inventions at the Electrical Exposition at Madison Square Gardens. Though, to call it a single invention doesn’t do it justice. What he unveiled that day was really the seeds of several world altering technologies.
Tesla called this device the telautomton. But the audience did not see the world altering masterpiece of technology for what it was. What they saw was a toy boat.
Tesla was an incredible showman. He often held salons where he would shoot lighting out of his head and fingertips. Sometimes he would send thousands of volts of electricity through his body to illuminate another of his inventions fluorescent lighting tubes, which he held in his hands as they glowed. Tesla turned himself into a star. But on that fateful day in 1898 inside Madison Square Gardens, Tesla made a miscalculation in the way he unveiled his creation. The unveiling took place in a private auditorium which was part of the problem. Access was limited to wealthy investors who upon entering the space would have seen a large tank filled with water, and sitting atop this miniature pond was a little boat roughly four feet long. Tesla told these men that they could ask the boat a question and it would answer.
Standing at the edge of the tank,Tesla had a remote control that he could use to steer the boat and turn its lights on and off. But he didn’t tell the audience that he was the one controlling the boat. I’m sure it was cool to witness the magic of a sentient boat, but this spectacle proved to be a grand failure. Because it obscured the true genius of his invention. If he had just said, check this out, I can control my boat from way over here, without any wires. That would have been something. And people would have understood just how valuable this new technology was, especially at a time when the U.S. was engaged in a war with Spain. Instead he created this bizarre spectacle where a small group of wealthy men were offered the opportunity to ask a boat a question.
Meanwhile Marconi — at the same expo — had a different idea for how to unveil his very similar invention. First of all, he had the foresight to invite the media. Secondly he blew a bunch of s*** up.
Marconi also had a boat. A scale model of a Spanish warship. And for his unveiling he enlisted Thomas Edison’s son Tom Junior. With the press watching, Tom Junior used a remote device to detonate a bomb that was planted on the boat, blasting it to smithereens. But Marconi was no Tesla and he didn't know how to properly tune his device. At one point Tom Junior accidentally blew up the wrong bomb exploding a desk at the back of the room. Luckily no one was hurt. The media fawned over the grand display of destruction, publishing the news in the papers, once again Marconi won the day, even though Tesla’s technology was far superior.
In the end there was no trip to Colorado. Instead, I flew back back to New York, to shoot one final shot. This time in a smaller warehouse in a different part of Brooklyn. Instead of tearing across the plains in a horse drawn carriage with Ethan Hawke, I stood in front of a green screen holding a wooden chair above my head. I wore a goofy straw hat and a collared shirt with a vest. I walked across the frame at various angles, I held the chair up in the air, then again higher, then again a little lower. This was intercut with shots of Hawke filmed earlier. There were no horses, but my chair poses were flawless. I changed out of my movie clothes and gave them back to wardrobe. And with that, my time as an actor on the set of the movie “Tesla” was over. So I went and got a slice of pizza.
The other relationship that really haunted Tesla, the one that sent him into a tailspin of despair, was his relationship with J.P. Morgan. Morgan was an early investor in Tesla’s dreams. When Tesla came to J.P. Morgan's office in 1900 and explained that with some financial help he could build a transmitter to send messages across the Atlantic, Morgan's ears perked up and he saw an opportunity
But Morgan's vision for this technology was vastly different than Tesla’s. Tesla wanted to build a world telegraphy center, capable of sending energy around the planet, even controlling the weather. But Morgan simply wanted a small transmitter that he could use to receive reports about yacht races, and stocks, and send morse code messages across the Atlantic. After hearing Tesla’s pitch, Morgan said, quote, “I want to be frank I do not have a good impression of you. you abound in controversy, you’re boastful and aside from your deal with Westinghouse, you have yet to show a profit on any other creation. On the other hand I appreciate your talents so let me put my cards on the table. If we proceed whatever figure we decide upon shall be firm.
He wrote Tesla a check for $150,000, and with that money, Tesla ignored the man who funded his dream. Instead of building what Morgan asked for, Tesla hired a world class architect and began construction of Wardenclyffe— a giant tower and laboratory on the north shore of Long Island.
With all the footage in the can, as they say in the movie biz, Michael went to Sofia, Bulgaria to do the sound mix and color correction. Several weeks later he called with good news. The movie was going to premiere at Sundance. So I booked a flight and a few weeks later landed in Utah.
I emailed a friend who lives in Salt Lake City to say I was coming to town and he replied, “Sundance is all about desperation. So be careful not to get submerged in it.”
[ARCHIVE: Sundance recording]
ANNOUNCER: Good evening everybody, welcome to the Sundance Film Festival
DAVID: The movie premier took place at the theater inside the Park City Library. Michael provided a ticket, and I got to the venue early and stood outside in the cold waiting for the doors to open. A few hours earlier, Michael had told me there were strict definitions for who was allowed to walk the red carpet, and I wasn’t allowed to join in. It was beyond his control. He himself, he said, would prefer not to walk it. I actually never even got to see the red carpet because it was hidden away in a small white tent on the front lawn of the library. It looked pretty rinky dink, like an outdoor buffet at a wedding. But if you saw the desperation of the people trying to get inside, you would think that they were giving away vast riches inside the tent.
[RECORDED SOUND: Person trying to get onto the red carpet]
What the red carpet tent was giving away was validation. We were all being divided into two groups: those who matter and those who don’t.
I fell in with a bunch of dudes, all holding big envelopes full of photographs of the actors in “Tesla.” They were waiting as actors stepped out of their car, so they could hound them for an autograph. When Jim Gaffigan, who plays Westinghouse in the movie showed up they rushed over to and mobbed him.
After a while I got bored with the autograph boys and noticed a guy standing next to me who looked interesting so I turned and asked him about Tesla.
DAVID: You here to see “Tesla?”
DAVID: Can I ask you about it?
MAN: I love that guy
DAVID: What do you know about Tesla?
MAN: Oh s*** I’ve looked at every picture, every piece of writing on him. I’m really curious what they’ve done. What a tragic story — the guy was so far ahead of his time. They just destroyed him. Those guys all got together and stole everything he had... crazy stuff.
DAVID: What’s your name?
MAN: Lance, like a spear
As we were talking Viggo Mortensen walked up and said something to the guy before he noticed my microphone and then walked away. Only later did I realize that the guy I was talking to was Lance Henriksen who stars in “Falling” — the movie directed by Viggo Mortensen that was also premiering at Sundance.
We chatted for a while and then it was time to go into the theater for the world premier of Tesla.
[TAPE: Ambient sound from Sundance]
A big section of the theater had been roped off for cast and crew, and as I made my way down the aisle I saw a sea of familiar faces. It felt like a joyous reunion, seeing all the people I had worked with on set. Everyone was in a good mood, charged with the excitement of getting to see the fruits of our labor.
When Michael first broke the news to me that I wouldn't be allowed to walk the red carpet, I was disappointed. But then he asked me if it would be ok if he called me up onstage at the screening during the Q&A, and I said of course. Just before they dimmed the lights in the theater, I got a text from Michael saying that he was sorry but he wouldn’t be able to bring me up onstage. Which was a bummer, but I understood.
When the actors were called up for the Q&A and I saw them all in a row — Ethan Hawke, Hannah Gross, Eve Hewson, Rebecca Dayan, Kyle MacLachlan, and Jim Gaffigan — I felt delusional for having hoped to be standing up there with them, the audience wondering who is that pale wiry guy standing next to Ethan Hawke. Wait a minute, is that the guy in the straw hat who held the chair in the air? He was great!
[TAPE: Sundance announcer]
ANNOUNCER:….And now to introduce the film, please help me welcome the writer/director, Michael Almereyda...
DAVID: Michael stood at a podium at the front of the theater and introduced the film.
[TAPE: Michael onstage at Sundance]
MICHAEL: Every human being is an engine geared to the wheelwork of the universe.That’s a Nikola Tesla quote supplied to me from the Tesla scholar Ethan Hawke...
DAVID: Then the lights dimmed and my heart started racing as the opening scene of the movie appeared on screen.
It turns out that the one scene in which I speak was cut from the film. I was worried that my poor acting had ruined a perfectly good scene. I asked Michael about it and he assured me that it had nothing to do with my performance — it was cut for other reasons. I was relieved and also it seemed fitting. I have built a career and an identity around my voice, so appearing in a movie as a voiceless body had a certain poetic logic to it.
The film was beautifully shot and the performances were great. I laughed a lot more than I was expecting and I loved the crazy way it ended. I won’t spoil it here but I’ll just say that this thing happens at the end that totally changes the whole temperature of the film and I loved it.
Later that night at an after party I was hanging out with Jim Gaffigan, and I was a little drunk and high cracking jokes, and a couple times during our conversation Gaffigan said something like, that’s a good one! And then he pulled out his phone and recorded himself saying exactly what I had just said. My dream is that someday, I will be sitting on the couch watching his comedy special and I’ll turn to my wife and say, I wrote that joke on a snowy evening, in a bar in Utah. Sadly that dream will never come true, because I have no memory of anything I said to him that night. But I’ll Jim and I will always have that moment together in the bar, and the truth is that it was one of those moments where I did feel like a somebody.
As Tesla was breaking ground on his world telegraphy center on Long Island, Marconi was setting up his own transmitter in England. And on Friday, December 13th, 1901 the world was forever changed when a faint signal came through the static at Marconi’s receiving antenna in Newfoundland, Canada. The message had traveled across the Atlantic. Three short bursts of sound. Tap, tap tap, the letter S in morse code. And with that Marconi became, at least in the eyes of the public, the inventor of radio. Even though the equipment Marconi used was pirated from Tesla.
But Tesla forged ahead with his lonely wooden tower. He must have assumed that the world would forget about Marconi’s pathetic little taps when they saw that his tower could transmit actual power, and would control the weather, bringing rain to the desert. But Tesla’s science was flawed. The desert would remain dry.
With J.P. Morgan’s initial investment of $150,000, Tesla was able to begin construction of the tower, but he never got the money to finish it. Tesla was stunningly naive about Morgan — and that rings true for all the wealthy investors that Tesla seduced. When they gave him their money, it wasn’t out of the generosity of their hearts — they were businessmen who wanted a return on their investment. They expected Tesla to create practical devices that would make a profit.
What Tesla was trying to do, whether it was communicate with martians, or provide the world with limitless clean energy, was laudable but ultimately impossible.
One of Tesla’s favorite works of literature was “Faust” by Wolfgang von Goethe. It’s a play about Mephistopheles, a demon who makes a bet with god that he can lure god’s favorite human, Faust to the dark side. Faust is in pursuit of righteous truth and wants to unlock the mysteries of the universe, But he gets depressed and attempts suicide, and ends up selling his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for magic powers. Tesla was obsessed with this story, so much so that he memorized the entire play.
In Marc Seifer’s biography of Tesla , the psychohistorian analyzes Tesla’s love of Faust. He writes, “It was a Faustian Paradigm to which Tesla adhered when he linked the invention of the world telegraphy system to the discovery of the Holy Grail.
Tesla never stopped begging Morgan for money. In 1904 he sent a 13-point letter dated on October 13th because Tesla’s lucky number was 13. In it Tesla asked Morgan for more funds to finish his tower and he ended the letter this way. “Since a year Mr. Morgan, there has been hardly a night when my pillow is not bathed in tears but you must not think me a weak man for that I am perfectly sure to finish my task come what may.”
Tesla and Morgan both wanted to rule the world, just for different reasons. For Morgan it was about power and money. But Tesla wasn’t really interested in either. You get the sense that Tesla believed money was beneath him. For one he never paid his hotel bills. He spent his whole life living in the nicest hotels in New York but refused to pay — that’s how he lost his holy grail. By 1915, Tesla was living in the Waldorf Astoria and owed the hotel $19,000 in back rent. But Tesla was broke so he offered up his tower and laboratory at Wardenclyffe as collateral, expecting to eventually pay the bills when his grand experiment succeeded. Instead, the hotel had a wrecking crew dismantle the tower and sell the parts off to cover Tesla’s debts — and Tesla never really recovered from that. He moved into another hotel and slowly retreated from society. His OCD got worse and he became even more of a germaphobe. He stopped eating solid food, and started spending more and more time with his beloved pigeons. He once wrote, “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was purpose to my life”
In the end Tesla did claim one final victory over his nemesis Marconi. The Marconi company filed a lawsuit to recover damages from what it claimed was a patent infringement. The case made it all the way to the supreme court. The high court ruled against Marconi, and finally established Tesla’s role in the invention of radio. But Tesla said nothing about the ruling, because he had been dead for three months by the time he got his credit.
Fellow inventor John Stone, who was also a pioneer in the invention of radio, was called to testify in a different lawsuit that Tesla filed against Marconi for patent infringement, but Tesla lost that case. On the stand, Stone defended Marconi. Later in life Stone realized how wrong he had been — “I think we all misunderstood Tesla,” he said, “He was so far ahead of his time that the best of us mistook him for a dreamer.”
The movie Tesla ends with a short monologue spoken by J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne. She brings up another victory that Tesla claimed over all his rivals. He outlived them all.
Here’s the clip from the movie.
[CLIP: From “Tesla”]
ANNE: He was always looking ahead, projecting himself into the future. Maybe he promised more than he could deliver, maybe he overreached, or maybe the world we are living in is a dream that Tesla dreamed first.
I think in some ways that’s true. Look all around you — the lights, the computers — it's all powered by alternating current, Tesla’s system. The radio, the cell phone, these are possible because of Tesla’s visions. But Tesla’s big dream of a world without war, where all manual labor is done by robots and armies of captured insects — a world where all our devices are powered by clean energy, transmitted wirelessly to everyone without pollution — those were fantasies.
I think the world we are living in is more like the one dreamed up by J.P. Morgan and the other capitalists who built a society where a small number of white men control nearly all the wealth and pay the workers as little as they can. But maybe we are on the path to that world that Tesla dreamed up. Maybe we’ll get there before the captains of industry sink us all. Maybe we will stop looking at people as nobodies and somebodies, dividing them into categories: people who matter and people who don’t.
As I record these words in my attic, I am not yet a movie star. The film doesn’t come out until August 21st. I don’t expect my life will change much when it does. It will probably just become a story I tell at parties to impress people. One time I was in a movie with Ethan Hawke, I’ll say. It was a period piece about the poet inventor Nikola Tesla. My dialogue got cut from the movie but I still remember my lines. Sitting down with a plate of food I glanced up at the famous actor and said, “I’m feeling better now.”