Though his startlingly original work has remained largely unseen, the Kansas-born writer-director Michael Almereyda has consistently elicited complex, arresting performances from name actors and non-actors alike in a series of films where narrative has remained secondary to emotional and visual impact. After dropping out of Harvard, he moved to NYC and began writing screenplays, quickly securing an agent and soon after his first Hollywood job rewriting the unproduced "Mandrake the Magician" for Embassy Pictures. Almereyda provided the tongue-in-cheek screenplay for Steve de Jarnette's sci-fi action feature "Cherry 2000" (1988), starring Melanie Griffith as a female mercenary hired to bust into a 21st-century robot warehouse operated by psychos in what used to be the American Southwest. He then escaped the trouble surrounding his yet-to-be filmed first feature as director, "Twister" (1989), to go to Australia and collaborate with director Bruce Beresford on an early draft of what would eventually become "Total Recall" (1990).
Financing had already fallen apart twice when "Twister" finally commenced shooting in Almereyda's native Kansas, and the neophyte director watched in horror as his "vision" receded before his eyes. Director of photography Renato Berta had worked with the likes of Goddard, Rohmer and Rivette but spoke precious little English and failed to help the helmer's humor emerge. The set was rife with dissension, actors worked behind the scenes to get either the director or director of photography fired, but somehow Almereyda survived the shoot. Despite not fully realizing the comic possibilities, he managed to capture the idiosyncratic communication of a quintessentially dysfunctional family headed by family patriarch Harry Dean Stanton and including Suzy Amis and the always eccentric Crispin Glover, among others. After an uncredited collaboration with director Wim Wenders on "Until the End of the World" (1991), he became familiar with the now-discontinued Fisher-Price PXL-2000 Pixelvision camera, and the intensely fragile and secret images of this child's toy seemed to capture the surreal, dream-like quality he was looking to reveal in his movies.
Delving into the realm of DIY (Do It Yourself) filmmaking, Almereyda used Pixelvision to shoot the 56-minute, self-financed "Another Girl, Another Planet" (1992) in a week plus one weekend. Its slice of East Village life revolved around two tenement neighbors and the parade of women through their lives, and the fuzzy atmosphere provided by the 2000 pixels (oversized versions of the rectangular dots that make up the information on a standard black-and-white TV) were the perfect medium for the haze of confused feeling the director wanted to communicate. For his next feature, the vampire thriller "Nadja" (1994), which also employed Pixelvision to show the vampires' distorted points-of-view, Almereyda returned to the theme of family dysfunction, with all characters, vampires or not, apparently related. Clearly having fun with the material, he made many visual allusions and satirical references to vampire pics and lore while his actors (i.e., Peter Fonda as a crazed vampire-killer) played it strictly tongue-in-cheek. Fans of his artsy, atmospheric visual style called it hip, cool and chic, but others who wearied of the excessive irony found it self-indulgent and pretentious.
Almereyda continued experimenting with Pixelvision, recording an impressive roster of independent directors for the documentary "At Sundance" (1995). He also employed the defunct technology in his short "The Rocking Horse Winner" (1997), adapted from the D.H. Lawrence short story. A clairvoyant child can predict the outcome of horse races bouncing up and down on a rocking horse, and Pixelvision supplies the appropriately blurred image when he is "channeling" atop his mount. He abandoned his toy for "Trance" (1998), shooting in color for the first time since "Twister," and though the straight-to-video horror flick features some bizarre performances and stunning images, Almereyda did not have final cut, something he claims he will never allow again. He turned to Shakespeare next, achieving a career visibility peak with his East Village version of "Hamlet" (2000). Ethan Hawke may have been a tad too introspective in the title role, but supporting characters, particularly Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius and Sam Shepard as the Ghost, sparkled, while the director's visual language, including a Pixelvision twist to the "What a piece of work is man" speech, served as a nice complement to the Bard's words.
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First Hollywood job, rewriting for Embassy Pictures the unproduced "Mandrake the Magician", based on the comic strip
Traveled to Australia to work with director Bruce Beresford, polishing a script inspired by a Philip K. Dick short story that would eventually become "Total Recall" (1990), directed by Paul Verhoeven; received no screen credit
Received first screenplay credit for Steve de Jarnette's sci-fi action feature "Cherry 2000"
Feature directing debut, "Twister", a tale of family dysfunction set against a raging tornado in the director's native Kansas; writer William S. Burroughs appeared in a cameo
Uncredited collaboration with Wim Wenders, the screenplay for "Until the End of the World"
First producing credit, the 56-minute "Another Girl, Another Planet"; also wrote screenplay and directed; received a special citation from the National Society of Film Critics for "expanding the possibilities of experimental filmmaking including the use of the Pixelvision toy camcorder"
Continued to use Pixelvision (to represent the vampire's point-of-view) in his eccentric, ironic vampire feature "Nadja", executive produced by David Lynch
Inspired by Wenders' "Room 666" 1980s documentary of the Cannes Film Festival, co-directed (with "Nadja" producer Amy Hobby) documentary "At Sundance", shot on the fly in Pixelvision at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival; narrated film and also received credit for cinematography and sound
Wrote screenplay for artist David Salle's feature directorial debut, "Search and Destroy", adapted from the play by Howard Korder
Commissioned by director Tim Burton to adapt Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"; although it was never produced, Burton seems to have absorbed some of it into his "Sleepy Hollow" (1999)
Produced, directed and wrote the 23-minute Pixelvision fable "The Rocking Horse Winner", based on the short story by D.H. Lawrence
Directed and wrote the straight-to-video sci-fi horror feature "Trance"; first color film in nearly ten years
Helmed and adapted modern dress version of "Hamlet" set in NYC
Wrote and directed "Happy Here and Now"
Wrote and directed the post-Katrina set drama "New Orleans, Mon Amour"
Wrote and directed "Cymbeline"
Wrote and directed the biographical drama "Experimenter"; based on psychologist Stanley Milgram's controversial behavioral experiments from the early 60s