Interview With Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT is a deep dive into the drama that preceded how the world uses something we now take for granted, electricity. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as his foe George Westinghouse, the film depicts the two genius rivals who battled over the delivery of electricity to the world.
“Both men knew there was room for but one American electricity system, and Edison set out to ruin Westinghouse in “a great political, legal and marketing game” that saw the famous inventor stage publicity events where dogs, horses and even an elephant were killed using Westinghouse’s alternating current. The two men would play out their battle on the front pages of newspapers and in the Supreme Court, in the country’s first attempt to execute a human being with electricity.” – Gilbert King, Smithsonian Magazine
I’m happy to say that I didn’t see the original edit of THE CURRENT WAR, which started filming in 2016 and premiered at The Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, It was said to be a rough, heavy-handed edit controlled by Harvey Weinstein and as a result screened to a mostly unimpressed audience. Luckily, with the shakeup at the Weinstein Company, the movie was able to find another distributor and a re-edit under the control of Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT is now the film that Gomez-Rejon intended for everyone to see.
What a film it is. It covers a lot of territory in the one hour and 37 or so minutes, and is a masterfully crafted story of the interaction between two titans of industry, Edison and Westinghouse, and their terrible treatment of the major key to the successful harnessing of electrical power, the genius Nicolas Tesla. (Nicholas Hoult). Fast pacing and cuts have compressed time as Gomez-Rejon helps instill the urgency of the race to be the first investor/inventor/company/man to claim the title of winner in a high stakes game. As a result, parallels can not help but be drawn between industry of the previous century and the industry of today. Not much has changed…”faster, better, cheaper,” Westinghouse’s rallying cry, echoes down to the Fortune 500 companies of today.
In 1880, Edison and his workers invented the light bulb and DC current, which was powerful but couldn’t carry over distance. Westinghouse used A.C. current, which could carry electricity over longer distances and into homes and businesses. What should have been a collaboration led to an intense rivalry, and Gomez-Rejon manages to depict the invention of electricity (and the electric chair and the horrible execution of Willem Francis Kemmler) and the egos that drove the inner workings of the business world as well. This many-layered film is an intense look back in history but has a contemporary feel, due in part to the acting skills of Michael Shannon and Benedict Cumberbatch, but also because of the fantastic costuming and set decor.
We talked to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon about the film and how his vision was brought to life in THE CURRENT WAR: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT:
About Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Alfonso was born and raised in Laredo, Texas on the US/Mexico border. He received his BFA from NYU and his MFA from AFI. He began his career as personal assistant to Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, Robert De Niro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He has gone on to direct second unit for Ms. Ephron, Inarritu, Scorsese, Kevin Macdonald, Ryan Murphy and Ben Affleck (on the Academy Award-winning “Argo”). He has directed acclaimed episodes of Glee and American Horror Story, as well as numerous national commercials for the likes of T-Mobile and Chevrolet (Super Bowl). He was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Directing For a Miniseries for “American Horror Story: Coven,” as well as for Outstanding Miniseries as the show’s Co-Executive Producer. He also directed the pilot for Fox’s “Red Band Society” which was picked up for series. He just finished work on his second feature, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl for Indian Paintbrush, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival 2015.
AMFM MAGAZINE: What made you decide to take on this project, what was the impetus?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: The interaction between the titans of industry, The humility of, battling it out. How much of you is Westinghouse and how much of you Edison? How ambitious are you, and how much do you want to leave the world a better place vs. being remembered for leaving the world a better place – are your deeds good enough? There’s a connection between inventors and filmmakers because as an inventor you want your inventions to last, and as filmmakers you want your stories to last as well. and inn some small way make a dent – change how some people think, maybe inspire them.
Not to give anything away, but when you see Edison and he’s working on the kinetoscope and you see his wife on film smiling, and then at the end when he’s in the movie theater and he’s projecting Niagara Falls, that is now a memory of his wife.
In some ways there’s a connection to “Me and Earl and The Dying Girl,” which is using technology as a way to console and using motion pictures to keep someone alive. Death is still a big issue for me and I’m still trying to understand it and work my way through it. (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s father passed away recently).
SEE OUR INTERVIEW WITH ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON FOR “ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL” ON OUR CACHED SITE.
I was fascinated by Edison. Mother Nature is ultimately the winner of the current war. To see Edison constantly try to defy mother nature. He wants to control it and trap it, like light in a jar, or sound in a box. When his wife falls ill, there’s a scene with the doctor where he says “I’ll fix her.” He wants to come up with a solution and keep her alive. Even when Mother Nature takes her at the end, he has one up’d her, because he’s trapped mother nature on the silver screen. Not in a box, not in a jar. He’s literally trapped Niagara Falls on that silver screen.
I was fascinated how much of him was in me, and how much of my mother and father, who are among the most ethical human beings you will ever meet, are in me. It was all of this, and the idea to make a period piece that could be shot in a way that would make it contemporary. To shoot it in a way that made you feel what it would be like to be alive in a moment back then. The past wasn’t in stills, or black and white, or sepia. It was not stodgy like so many formal pieces. I wanted to make something that was looking ahead into the future, and in constant motion, almost like a rock-n-roll or musical sensibility. The editing was at a fast clip, you had to stay ahead of it, and it’s in constant motion. In the end, it drops you off into the future, which is the medium that he began, that you are now experiencing the story through. All of these ideas made it impossible to resist.
AMFM Magazine: The ultimate irony of all of this is that we are all benefiting from what they were fighting about. And poor Nicholas Tesla, he was the one who died in poverty but was actually the one that really brought it together. It’s just a very human story. How did you prepare for this? Was there a deep dive into the writing? How did you bring it together?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I surrounded myself by great artists, because I didn’t make this film by myself. I had my great cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, and production designerJan Roelfs, who I was huge fan of because he designed the great Peter Greenaway movies that I’m such a fan of. Michael Wilkinson did the costumes.
AMFM Magazine: The costumes were amazing, and the production design did have the effect that it felt very current. In fact, I thought to myself “wow, we still have couches made just like that…we may have electricity but we haven’t come that far.” Or another way to put it is it wasn’t that long ago.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Yes, the beautiful costumes! Also, Danny Bensi and Saunders Jurriaans with the music – music is always going to be a character. I had a great team and we didn’t have a lot of days to make this movie. This is a great team that were thinking out of the box. For example, we knew we didn’t want to just put sideburns, or “lamb chops” on Michael Shannon that were exactly the way that Westinghouse had them, we had to interpret them as to what worked best with Shannon’s face. Also, the costumes were meant to be a nod to the past but also nod to the future because the turn of the century wasn’t just black and white.
The past was in color and dynamic. There were a lot of inventions going on at the same time. The models for Edison and Westinghouse and Tesla weren’t the real guys, it was Jagger and Dylan and David Bowie. It had a kind of rock and roll spirit to it, it was a way to direct all the departments to think out of the box. The secret in the movie is that all along, throughout the War of The Currents, there was another invention being created at the same time – which is motion picture. That’s why there’s a nod to motion pictures throughout the film. My bridge montage is in the studies of animal movements in photography that eventually ends with the invention of the motion picture industry.
AMFM Magazine: Can we talk about who won the contract the World’s Fair? Something I though was hilarious yet not hilarious…make that ironic. Better and cheaper always wins out now, and you can definitely see the characters of the people who laid the groundwork for today’s business environment… .but you have to keep making room for the dreamers, like Edison and the invention of motion pictures.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I could go back to the scene between Tom Holland (who plays Edison’s Assistant Samuel Insull) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Edison), when he calls Edison out on his ambition and for purposely railroading Westinghouse, He tells him he knows he didn’t invent the light bulb, because there were inventions happening concurrently in England and France, but he’s the one that won cause he found the right filament.
AMFM Magazine: After about 10,000 tries.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Right, and that’s when he says, (paraphrasing) “look, you know, we’re all inventors here, right? Everyone has an ingredient, but only one person makes the bread rise, and it’s me. And that’s why I’m going to put my name on it.” That’s all that matters to him because he wants to be remembered. And it worked. As far as the World’s Fair goes, we don’t remember that the person who actually won the Current War was Westinghouse. He won the bid for the World’s Fair and eventually Niagara with Tesla. But we remember Edison because Edison went out of his way to make sure that we never forgot him.
So the big question is what matters most? The person that left the world a better place, and is the reason why we’re speaking on the phone the way we are now, or the person who is remembered for being famous and brilliant? It comes down to us as individuals. For example Westinghouse didn’t even like to be photographed because it wasn’t about him, it was just about his deeds. As for his deeds, he won, but is forgotten and he is okay with it, you know? In some ways we’re correcting history here by reminding people who the real winner was, it was the guy who ran an ethical game play.
That sequence is all about the juxtaposition between the good and bad that comes with new technology when it’s unchecked.It could lead to some terrible things.Just like, uh, the light bulb gave us the electric chair and the execution of William Kemmler.
It’s like social media, it connects us all but the by-product of that is loneliness. That’s the same kind of double-edged sword that the whole sequence was truly about.
AMFM Magazine: That was horrific. The irony of Edison not wanting to take human life and then human life being taken horribly. The film shows why it was his fault, in a very clear way.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: He just he had to win. In the end without (his wife) Mary to keep him centered and act as a moral compass, he loses himself and his ambition takes over – he wanted to win at all costs.
AMFM Magazine: Can we talk about the percentage of script that was made up and how you managed that?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It’s a difficult process, but one that’s been around since the beginning of motion pictures. You’re either an eight part documentary or you’re an hour and a half film. To do that, we explored everything and all the real players, and then we started to collapse them and combine them. For instance, Southwick Brown, who was played by Tom Fisher, is one of my favorite characters in the story. He’s a combination of two real people, Alfred Southwick and Harold Brown.
I was already juggling three storylines for Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla and I couldn’t juggle more, so he was a combination and symbolized the acts of the engineer and the dentist that helped invent the electric chair. Just like Stanley Townsend’s character played Westinghouse’s electrical engineer Franklin Pope, but he was actually a combined character of Franklin Pope and William Stanley. Sometimes you have to combine characters and collapse time to get to the essence of the story.
Another good example is Mary Edison, she is actually a combination of both his wives. His first wife Mary died of “congestion of the brain,” or maybe laudanum poisoning. Edison’s second wife Mina was a real partner to him, a real force in his life. So we combined both traits of the women and made it into a Mary Edison that Tuppence Middleton portrayed, she did a beautiful job.
Initially (writer) Michael Minnick and I did work on a draft that included all the real characters and the two wives but the script became 180 pages, so you just can’t do all of that.
AMFM Magazine: How do you you winnow down through all of that? What is your process like when you’re working?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: You work closely with the writer and you try different drafts, eventually you make choices that are difficult but help propel the drama and the emotion. The theme is in the story you really want to tell, it’s not a history lesson about the world occurrence, but about the interaction of the people.