Michael Almereyda’s latest film, “New Orleans Mon Amour,” is a love story set in Louisiana and focused on an unfaithful doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his young mistress (Elisabeth Moss). While they both help to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, passion grows and trouble mounts. The film recently debuted on Cinetic Rights Management’s cable video-on-demand channel, FilmBuff. Following its release on cable systems nationwide, it can be found on iTunes, Amazon VOD, and more.
Almereyda’s previous work includes “Twister” (1989), “Nadja” (1994), “Hamlet” (2000), and the documentary “William Eggleston in the Real World” (2005).
iW: Please tell us about yourself…
MA: I’ve written and directed about a dozen movies. Some of them are very good. A few of them are better than very good.
iW: How did the idea for “New Orleans Mon Amour” came about and evolve?
MA: Over the years, New Orleans has been a second home for me. I checked in after Katrina, in October of 2005, and stayed for longer stretches through the spring of 2006. The situation was so dramatic that it seemed natural and necessary to make a movie there. I first thought of adapting a Ray Bradbury story called “The Screaming Woman,” but the rights were tied up. (There’s a vestige of the story in the movie we eventually made.) My friend Katya Apekina had come down from New York as a volunteer, living in a tent, gutting houses, going to the kinds of meetings you see in the movie. A good deal of the script, which Katya co-wrote, grew directly out of her experience. James Robison, a terrific novelist and short story writer, emailed script pages and ideas. Most of the movie was shot in a rush in the summer of 2006. It took a long time to finish.
iW: How did you tackle making the film?
MA: At one point, doing relief work. I helped paint street signs for the Lower 9th Ward. All the signs had been ripped or washed away – and most of the houses, too, of course – so making signs was an elementary form of civic service. The idea was to make the neighborhood semi-legible, both for people who knew the area but couldn’t possibly recognize it, and for people visiting for the first time. As we were putting the movie together, I began to realize that this sign-making chore matched up with what I wanted to do with the film.
The movie isn’t a documentary, but the fundamental impulse behind it had to do with mapping the territory – giving an accurate account of the scene, the time and the place and the people moving through it. If the movie has value, I suspect it comes out of this and a related approach in the casting – how, from the first scene on, professional actors share the frame with local people playing versions of themselves, moving through territory that bears an imprint (psychological as well as physical) from the storm.
iW: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
MA: An expected source of financing fell out, and so my good friends Edith le Blanc and Michael Martin valiantly put the movie on their credit cards, and I signed over a check from another job, and from week to week we didn’t know how or whether the movie could be kept afloat. I’d say that was rather challenging.
iW: How did the casting come together?
MA: The casting director, a charming fellow named Jack Doolin, recommended the two leads, Christopher Eccleston and Elisabeth Moss – who promptly read the script and agreed to jump in. Barlow Jacobs, who plays Emerson the community organizer, was living in New Orleans at the time; he auditioned for the part and was particularly impressive. I’d worked with Dayton Callie and Isabel Gillies on other things, and had them in mind early on.
Similarly, with Andre Williams, I’d loved his music and hoped he’d be willing to participate. I should also single out Marco St. John, a terrific actor who lives in Mississippi and usually plays working class stiffs. (He’s best known as the would-be rapist in “Thelma and Louise.”) Here, Marco plays an upper-class physician, and he did a remarkable job. And I repeat, local people playing local people, fill out the picture. I’d like to single out Derrick Bentley Wells, Kirsha Kaeshele, Miss Lydia and her daughter Dalandra.
iW: What is your next project?
MA: I like biopics. I’m working now on a biopic about Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist whose obedience experiments, conducted at Yale in the early ’60s, remain incredibly resonant and relevant. Milgram also happens to be a vivid, fascinating character.
iW: Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
MA: I’d like to do more voice-over work, particularly for cartoons.
iW: What general advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
MA: I’ve always been fond of the advice I once heard from Robert Frank, “Keep your eyes open.”
iW: What are you most proud of from your filmmaking career so far?
MA: Looking back, I can confess feeling inordinate pride from the fact that David Lynch produced my film “Nadja” by reaching into his own pocket – paid for the whole thing, very magnanimously, very generously, insisting I retain final cut. He also acted in the movie, playing a security guard at a morgue.
We were shooting in a municipal building and I remember a lot of people coming up to David and politely asking if he could direct them to the bathroom. At any rate, Mr. Lynch made his money back and now owns the film. I look forward to the day when I can help another filmmaker in this way.