A keen desire to put the story straight and to encourage a new generation of young people to take a fresh look at science has inspired American screenwriter and director Michael Anton to make a film about the life and works of pioneering scientist Nikola Tesla.
By portraying the truth about the man behind the science, Michael hopes to combat the lack of awareness about Tesla’s revolutionary work and to set the record straight about the continued impact that his discoveries have on our lives today.
Pride in the legacy of Tesla has led to many Serbs feeling frustrated by the lack of knowledge about his achievements, as most schoolchildren outside of the Balkan states hear little or nothing of the great man. “They should be frustrated, insulted even,’ said Michael. “I have had to defend my title for the film on a few occasions since the film went public.
“I respect the concern by some Serbians in regards to an American filmmaker making a film about Nikola Tesla and calling it The Mad Scientist, which was the very label bestowed upon him by his American rivals during his time here. I believe titles are doorways not slogans. We wanted to widen the doorway with a title that would bring more than just Tesla supporters into the theatre. I want everyone to see how truly brilliant and inspirational this man was.
“Growing up here in America in a school system that only preaches the history of Thomas Edison and ignores Tesla, I felt it was important to keep the story as real as possible,’ said Michael. “The American public is not satisfied with filtered information anymore so the mystery behind Tesla seems to be the draw. His history in my opinion is far more intriguing than his mystery.”
For Michael, it is clear that the lack of appreciation for the deep-seated impact that Tesla’s work has left on our everyday lives has left a void in the education of many young people. “He is the greatest mind of our time and my kids will have to learn his history from the internet and films like mine rather than in their own schools, because schools today still ignore Tesla’s achievements,’ he said. “Imagine what the next generation could accomplish if they believed that anything is possible, the way Nikola Tesla did.”
Screwed by Edison
It was that feeling of injustice that drove Michael to look closer at Tesla’s story. “Producer Ti Bureau brought me the idea of creating a film about Nikola Tesla a little over a year and a half ago,’ he said. “Tesla’s story has always been intriguing to me but my knowledge was relatively basic before we began our research. All I knew of him was that he was a genius and that he was screwed by Edison, figuratively speaking.
“I knew little details, but as we dipped deeper and deeper into his actual history, I became one of his biggest fans. I began researching beyond what I already knew and it became an instant focus and passion of mine. The more I discovered and learned about this brilliant man and his unacknowledged achievements, the more driven I was to begin this project.”
Maybe it is because Tesla’s life is so rich with fanciful tales, conspiracy theories and reports of strong-arm tactics by some of the period’s biggest names that his story has been left on the shelf. But Michael has not flinched at the scale of the project. The Mad Scientist, to be produced by Silvermask Productions and North Shore Pictures, will take in the full span of Tesla’s life, from when he first stepped foot on American soil, in 1884, through to his great vision for universal free energy at his lab in Wardenclyffe, and ending with his final days living alone in a New York hotel.
“It was important for me to keep the story authentic as possible, without turning it into a documentary,’ said Michael. “There are many incredible pieces of literature about Tesla, but I preferred to pull from historical records rather than someone else’s version of his life.
Keeping the Story Authentic
“We were privileged to be allowed to view the Leland Anderson Collection when it was at Heinz History Center, as well as numerous published articles that came out during his time. I can not stress enough how important it was to keep the story authentic, people are excited about the aura behind his work, but his true story was a remarkable one.”
With so many episodes and characters to cover, any film about the life of Nikola Tesla will need to pack in a lot of detail. “The film will be close to 105 minutes when completed,’ said Michael. “With that said, the film moves at a faster pace than expected for a biopic, because his true story was so fascinating we were able to incorporate that time frame without sacrificing the integrity of the story. Although I do appreciate the reactions from everyone so far in regards to the script, I still believe the story of Tesla writes itself.”
In Serbia, Nikola Tesla is revered as a hero and an inspiration to every school child. His poster hangs at the head of many classrooms, buildings are named in his honour, and the importance of his inventions is well-known to everyman. It is fair to say that Tesla also attracts a great many admirers who follow closely every word that is written about him and who feel quite strongly about promoting and protecting his reputation.
London-Based Serb to Play Nikola Tesla
By portraying the life story of Nikola Tesla, to be played on screen by London-based German-Serb Branko Tomović, Michael Anton is also choosing to take on a responsibility to partially right some of the wrongs that history has done to the great scientist.
It is also true that he will be presenting himself up for critical analysis by people in Serbia and the diaspora who will go over the script with a fine-toothed comb. Michael is clear on where his responsibility begins and ends. “It is an incredible responsibility, but am I pressured by it? Absolutely not,’ he said. “Both myself, my production team and Branko are 100% committed to bringing Tesla to life on the screen.
“The conspiracy theorists may be upset that I did not include every innuendo or third-party story that circulates through the internet, but that is for a different movie and a different director. I am here to tell Nikola Tesla’s story as accurately and as interestingly as possible.”
As well as telling the human story behind some of his greatest scientific works, the film follows Tesla’s battles with arch rival Thomas Edison and other well-known names, some of whom clouded his glory.
“I think the best way to describe a few of these characters in the script is as follows: Mark Twain is a breath of fresh air, Thomas Edison is the world’s most insecure success story and JP Morgan is a sociopathic puppet master,’ said director Michael Anton. “Marconi is mentioned, but will not make an appearance in the film. There are a significant amount of colourful characters that were a part of Tesla’s life, George Viereck, Katherine Johnson, Kolman Czito, H.P Brown and Lord Kelvin. I could go on and on. They seemed to all fit perfectly within the timeline of Tesla’s life.”
British actor, Julian Shaw will play George Sylvester Viereck, a German-American writer and propagandist for whom Tesla composed the poem Fragments of Olympian Gossip. “There is an irony in casting a Serbian to play Tesla and a Englishman to play Viereck, but I saw serious potential in Julian,’ said Michael Anton. “Whether an actors is international or US, their commitment to the role is what I am looking for in casting. Although Viereck’s appearance is brief, I have no doubt Julian will do it justice.”
While the majority of the dialogue will be in English, the director made the decision for some scenes to be spoken in Serbian. “It is simple,’ he said. “When Tesla is with his family he speaks Serbian. When he consorts with his fellow Serbian ditch diggers during the two years he was performing that act he will be speaking Serbian. I think we should question why this is this not done in most historical films.”
Michael is also giving Tesla’s many supporters worldwide a chance to be associated with this film, with title credits, signed DVDs, set visits and even lunch with the cast, via a campaign on crowd-sourcing site Indiegogo.com. This same site raised more than $1m for a Nikola Tesla museum in New York. Michael and the film’s producers have since pledged ten per cent of the film’s profits to that museum.
A Chance for Tesla Supporters to Get Involved
“Our film is unique in that we wanted to give Tesla supporters an opportunity to have their name credited into the film. At the possibility of adding hundreds possibly thousands of names to the end credits we set up an IndieGoGo campaign to reach out. This had nothing to do with funding the film, but was important probably more to me than anyone else on the team. I have told every actor, crew, etc that has come on board the same thing. If the ending credits are a little bit long because we are scrolling through special thanks credits, I will be the proudest person in the theatre, next to the person who now is a part of this film.”
Filming on The Mad Scientist will begin in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in August, with plans for a festival and cinema release in 2014. As well as shooting in Pittsburgh, Michael has committed to employing ninety per cent of his crew locally. “There is excellent talent in Pittsburgh and we want to be able to showcase that,’ he said. “The history of the relationship between Westinghouse and Tesla is well documented and he did live in Pittsburgh for a short time. I live 15 minutes from the city and have access to incredible locations provided by the city and surrounding areas. Honestly I could not think of shooting this film anywhere else.”
Having access to such idea locations and working with an engaged crew has allowed the film’s director to damp down the budget, as he explained: “IMDB lists the budget at $400K, but that has since changed due to the excitement about the film and the script. The shooting budget by August will be much higher. We are talking with multiple international sales agents and distributors in regards to the film: it is amazing how much excitement has built up over the script. People are really coming together to see this film succeed.
“Although the actual production budget will be higher, cameras and other required film equipment today are light years ahead of what they were a decade ago, so shooting a cost effective, visually striking film for $400k is not a long shot.” Even this is a major step up from the budget of Michael’s previous film, Potheads, The Movie. For that movie, which was written and directed by the former university football star and actor, the budget was just $20k. Although not uniformly acclaimed, it brought positive attention to Michael’s work, with one publication as The 21st Century Answer to Monty Python.
Far Removed From Potheads, The Movie
As a historical biopic, this film is clearly very different to Michael’s past work, which also includes the films: Dead in Texas and Kill Johnny. This is not something that seems to daunt him, though. “Because I was only 21 when I directed my first film, I was a bit of a know it all, because I thought I had to be,’ said Michael. “When we did Potheads for only $25k for a film budget and a 35-day shoot, the pressures are astronomical. I was so disappointed in my finished product that I stopped making films for five years. I asked myself ‘How can I write about life when I have not even lived it yet’.
“In that half decade hiatus I saw both of my daughters being born, fell in love with the woman of my dreams and dedicated a very significant amount of my time to helping the elderly in personal care homes across the state of Pennsylvania.
“I realised that everything in life is a collective effort, and in order to tell a great story you have to trust the people around you to help you tell that story. My team will know more about their respective discipline than I ever will, that’s why we are so selective in the casting and crew selection process. I do not plan on ever making that mistake again.”