In 1961, psychologist and Yale professor Stanley Milgram ran a controversial experiment to see whether ordinary people would deliberately administer harmful electric shocks to strangers just because an authority figure told them to.
It’s a good question. If only the answer had been, “No, of course not.” That sure would make human history less horrifying, but it also would deprive us of writer-director Michael Almereyda’s new movie, Experimenter, which artfully interrogates the many fascinations of Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard) and his ever-relevant work.
Almereyda is something of an experimenter himself, with an eclectic creative disposition equally inclined toward Shakespeare texts and Fisher-Price technologies (though as yet not simultaneously). In person he gives off a vibe of coolly thoughtful curiosity, and seems glad to sit for a while and discuss his latest film.
Where did Experimenter come from?
I was spending a lot of time with a young woman who was going to Bard, studying psychology. And one of her classes was purely about the Obedience Experiment. I was literally carrying her books, and one of those books was Milgram’s great classic study, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. I cracked it open and immediately the dialogue was captivating. And I knew vaguely about the experiments, but I didn’t know how detailed and cunning and darkly funny they were. So that tripped a wire in my head, and I thought it’d be worth making a movie. And the more research I did, the more I got to know this guy, the more compelling it was. His work spilled over past those experiments. And he never quite escaped the growing shadow of the experiments. But also, recognizing who he was and how his mind worked, it seemed futile to make a movie that was conventional or had the conventional framework of lots of biopics. I wanted it to be more focused, and more inventive, and more fun.
Did that make it hard to get funding?
I’ve never had an easy time getting funding. The cast came aboard about two years before the money. And Peter Sarsgaard — we have his agent to thank. His agent thought he’d be perfect, and it hadn’t been my first thought. But I’ve known Peter for a while, and once I started thinking harder about it, I recognized that he had the resources. He channeled it. He did a great job.
He’s such an interesting actor. He has an inscrutable quality, yet he makes you lean in to pay attention to what he’s doing. How did you work with him, and the others?
Well, one good thing about making movies about real people is that you’re able to lean on sources that help frame and define that person. So Peter and I went and visited Sasha, Stanley’s wife [played in the film by Winona Ryder], and saw their extensive film clips of Stanley, and his writing. And one of the most influential bits of all this that Peter revealed to me was a drawing that’s unpublished, a self-portrait that Stanley made, where he’s wearing glasses and you don’t see his eyes. And that was meaningful to Peter, to have that kind of veiled or, as you said, inscrutable aspect. So I think he recognizes that in himself, or tapped into it for the character. At the same time, I think there’s a warmth to Peter. I think he also connected, in a beautiful way, to the fact that Stanley was a family man. I think that Peter has two daughters, and Stanley had two kids. And that his grace as a father, his sensitivity as a father, offsets that coldness or that detachment that could have been bluntly applied by some other actor. He’s engaged, but restrained. And his connection with his wife also was important. Winona and Peter go way back. That they’ve known each other was a huge factor. I didn’t cast Winona without Peter’s consent. Peter was cast first and when Winona’s name came up I was really happy because I’ve known her since she was 16, and she’s great. For me she’s the heart of the movie — that relationship.
Conceivably some actors might not want too much exposure to the real people.
Of course. But the luxury here is that it’s not like Stanley Milgram is Albert Einstein. People don’t have a preconceived idea, and aren’t likely to measure the performance against the archival material. So you’re not locked in on playing the figure — the Einstein, the Abraham Lincoln. There was an implicit freedom, and we agreed it allowed that it was not going to be an imitation of a known man but an interpretation.
Has your stance toward the man evolved in the course of making the film?
It’s lucky. I think he grew in my estimation; he didn’t diminish.
Were you anticipating that one of those things might happen?
Well, sure. I think it’s kind of common that if you get closer to people, you see the feet of clay. Stanley remained wonderfully human, but also truly adventurous — and compassionate, from what I could tell. And since he’s been so often vilified, it made me feel defensive toward him. I’m glad to recognize that he’s better than his attackers would maintain.
And what do you think about the legacy of his research? It is unnerving to think about it even now.
I think that’s healthy. Like any legacy, I think it’s evolving. He was better at asking questions than answering them. And in some ways he got into trouble for that, but that makes me respect him more. In that way, for me, he’s more of an artist than a scientist. Because he’s provoking a kind of awareness, and provoking more questions, and that has an abiding value and resonance, for me.
Of course we think: What would I do in that circumstance? And there’s data to suggest what we would do, in spite of our best intentions. But there’s also the broader picture. It becomes: Well, now that we’ve figured this out about ourselves as a species, why can’t we get past it?
Yeah. It goes deep. Yeah. The good news for me is that I’ve made a lot of movies that don’t necessarily speak to people as directly. Either they’re too subtle, or too oblique, or too much about personal things, and this seems weirdly relatable. People can recognize themselves in the movie, and they get intrigued. And it was encouraging while we were making the movie that the crew was actually engaged. They weren’t just hanging around, suffering through one of my little stories.
So, in the context of your previous work, do you consider this a turning point?
I think I’m really clumsy at “career” things — or how things relate to each other. But in many ways it’s obvious, or obvious to me, because I’ve been writing stories based on real people for a while, and this was the first one I was able to get made. It was liberating and exciting, that fusion of fiction and fact. And I feel galvanized by that, and I want to make more movies like that.
One very economical encapsulation of Milgram’s legacy is the scene where he reports the JFK assassination to his class, and they refuse to believe him.
It’s a real thing, that’s what happened.
By now we’re awash in conspiracy theories about all sorts of events, and challenges to official accounts. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of skepticism that gets misdirected. And still questions about how individuals respond to authority, and what happens when they get some.
I hope it’s more about people having responsibility for their own lives. And not falling back on these set phrases like “I’m just doing my job,” or “It’s the rules,” or “I can’t help it.” I think the challenge is to find ways to escape that kind of thinking — whichever end of it you’re on, whether you’re on the delivering end or the receiving end. Because that’s something that we encounter every day. It doesn’t have to be a malevolent authority. It doesn’t have to be a life-or-death situation. This is a sort of creeping soullessness that is everywhere.
I have a hunch that the Internet has maybe exacerbated that problem?
I wonder. It’s another part of Milgram’s legacy, because the whole idea of the interconnectedness of people’s lives was something he tapped into. He didn’t really pursue it, but that was one of his key experiments. The so-called “Small World problem.” which was really groundbreaking and had a lot of mathematical reverberations. But he didn’t chase them. A lot of people have been tracking that experiment, but in terms of his own work, he let it go. But it is connected to this notion of how we all relate — whether we’re alone, or responsible. It’s intriguing. The Internet, it splits people and also draws them closer; it’s pretty confounding.
As you said earlier, Experimenter definitely is not a standard biopic. It has some unusual flourishes, like Milgram’s direct-to-camera asides —
— Not just for Shakespeare. Or Ferris Bueller!
Right! And, eerily, one of these asides is even…um, posthumous. What can you tell us about these unconventional techniques? Do you consider audience alienation a risk?
I hope it’s not alienating. It’s meant to be engaging. When people refer to the alienation effect, I truly don’t think Brecht had that in mind. I think it’s more about consciousness, it’s more about making you think twice, or three times, and getting closer to the material, not farther away from it. To me, that applies to emotions, too. It’s not meant to distance you. It’s not meant to make you less emotional. In fact I think it’s very emotional when he says, “That’s the year that I died.”
Ultimately there’s a lot of tenderness in this film.
I hope so.
Just because we’re on guard against it doesn’t mean that it’s not available. Even under false pretenses you get a sense of some tenderness between the test subjects.
Even when people were delivering shocks, they were doing it compassionately! Sometimes.