They say lightning doesn't strike the same place twice. But when it comes to Nikola Tesla — mystic, inventor and pioneer of alternating-current electricity — there are bound to be exceptions.
Among them is Michael Anton, a native of Jeannette who's returning to filmmaking to tell Tesla's story.
When Anton left filmmaking at age of 23 — "It was the Robert Downey Jr. story, without the drugs," he says of his departure — he'd already made a handful of low-budget films. The best-known was 2006's Potheads: The Movie, which attracted a surprisingly high-profile cast for a film shot on a five-figure budget. (The cast included the guy who'd played Darth Maul in the Star Wars prequel, and one-half of the electronic dance-music duo LMFAO.) But when asked about the film, Anton winces like he's been zapped with 120 volts. "I was young. One of my mistakes was the execution of Potheads," he says.
More recently, the now-30-year-old has been doing marketing for hospice-care facilities outside Pittsburgh. But then Ti Bureau, his film producer and romantic partner, asked him, "Have you ever heard the Nikola Tesla story?"
As Anton discovered, that story is a classic tale of immigrant success, unsung genius and occasional pigeon-coddling. And it forms the basis of The Mad Scientist, the biopic Anton has written and hopes to begin shooting in Pittsburgh late this summer.
A Serbian, Tesla came to America in 1884 with four pennies in his pocket and the dream of working for his hero, Thomas Edison. But while Edison recognized Tesla's genius, he was threatened by it too: Tesla was pursuing an alternating-current system of generating and distributing electricity, which Edison saw as a rival to his own direct-current system. While he hired Tesla, the two soon had a falling out: For a time Tesla found work digging ditches, but was later hired by Pittsburgh's own George Westinghouse. Together, they established a working AC system that became the national standard, despite Edison's bitter opposition.
But Tesla's real mystique stems from his eccentricities — he liked to care for injured pigeons found on city streets — and the inventions the world wasn't ready for.
Tesla had early intimations about such futuristic technologies as radar, robotics, drone warfare — even the Internet. He envisioned a "world wireless" system with which "[a]n inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader ... or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman."
Since his 1943 death, Tesla has been overshadowed by the American capitalists who exploited his genius — even in Pittsburgh, where Westinghouse was more than a household name. Stefan Lorant's coffee-table history, Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, relegates him to just a couple sentences. Many local histories don't mention him at all.
But as Tesla once predicted, "[T]he future, for which I really worked, is mine."
"Our 4-year-olds are playing with iPods," says Anton. "That's because of Tesla." And they still may see the famous Tesla-coil science-class demonstration. Tesla is championed on Facebook pages with titles like "Occupy Energy — the World's Call to Release Nikola Tesla's Scientific Research." ("We ... demand Nikola Tesla's research into harnassing [sic] electricity from the ionosphere.") There's even an annual Wisconsin gathering called "Teslacon" attended by steampunks — members of a cultural niche that, like some of Tesla's inventions, seems to have come from an alternate universe that branched off in 1887.
"He's very much a cult icon," Anton says. And a natural subject for a film: "You can have a million ideas, but all it takes for a film is one great story."
Anton and Tesla may even be kindred spirits: dreamers who have struggled to capitalize on — or to find the necessary capital for — their dreams. A decade ago, Anton named his production company Silvermask Productions, because back then, "When I'd go in for an audition or a meeting, I always felt like they saw me as second-tier."
But the Tesla project, Anton says, is generating audible buzz. He's cast Serbian actor Branko Tomovic in the feature role, and he says investors are showing interest in the film, which could mean a budget in the seven-digit range. With such prospects, he can mount a production with its own "Tesla-coil specialists."
And, hopefully, put Tesla's name back where it belongs: in lights.