Posted by Matt Rosenberg on May 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm
Late last week, I got a chance to talk to documentary filmmaker Chris Paine, director of documentary Revenge of the Electric Car. Revenge of the Electric premiered during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival on Earth Day (4/22/11)
The film details the push by major players in the auto industry to get an electric car on the road. From following former legendary GM executive Bob Lutz, the young, charismatic CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, the arrogant CEO of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, and Paine’s tech savvy buddy “Gadget,” Revenge of the Electric Car shows the aggressive push to get electric cars on the road.
I provided some color commentary after some of Chris’s answers (A) under the header ‘MR.” Check out our conversation
Q. Tell me how you got access to these people? Why specifically Musk, Lutz and Ghosn? Why not anyone from Ford or Chrysler?
A. Well, we knew we wanted to do a Detroit car company and also an outsider. Ford and Chrysler blew up their electric car program and never got it back on track. They were never an option, but we knew we wanted a major US automaker in the mix. We chose GM because that’s where the project started [referring to the EV1 model back in 90’s]. We reached out to Bob Lutz and we started emailing. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, was the perfect outsider to follow and went with him. We also featured Tesla in the first film [Who Killed the Electric Car]. We reached out to Musk and they said ok.
Ghosn said ok because GM and Tesla was already in the game. We told each team that we wouldn’t air anything until 2011 and that our mission here was to simply tell the story of getting these cars back on the road. They each took a risk with making electric cars, but also took a risk with letting a camera crew come in.
Overall, we wanted one outsider, one insider, one multinational, and one everyday guy.
MR – The inside access Paine gets is amazing. He must be one witty and trustworthy guy.
Q. Which of the three do you think will win out?
A. All 3 will hit a sweet spot. They all hit different niches. Leaf, Nissan’s car, is pure electric – beautifully done car. Tesla is going to have high-end pure electric car for wealthy individuals. Gadget represents the people who are looking to convert cars from oil to gas, which will probably be a large market.
Q. Did you know you wanted to make this follow up film after the success of the original? Were you waiting for someone like Elon Musk in order to make it? What other parts/factors were you looking for?
A. We were tracking several other characters, from the “outsider” aspect at the time before production hit. Good story telling is a product of strong characters. We chose Elon because he was a strong character with a lot of charisma.
MR – I was surprised to hear Chris had several other outsiders in the pipeline. Elon seemed like such a perfect candidate right off the bat. The decision to go with him definitely made the film what it was.
Q. What is the dynamic between Ghosn, Lutz and Musk? There must be some personal competition. Tell us about that.
A. Between Lutz and Musk there is an unspoken mentorship. The way Bob talks about Elon. We even caught some of that during the film with the shot of Lutz in the factory. Elon, the confident CEO, ends up working with the big car companies after all. He realizes he can’t do this alone. They often talked directly about each other.
MR – the relationship between Musk and Lutz during the film is quite endearing. Ghosn was never in the relationship mix being that he was always running around internationally.
Q. How did you deal with the information you received? Would Tesla ask about GM or Nissan about Tesla? There had to have been some moments where they were testing you.
A. There was a complete information embargo – a straight-line embargo where we would not discuss anything. Nobody even asked about the others. They abided by the honor code. However, all three were definitely afraid the film would capture corporate secrets or information that would be aired to audiences. To put those fears to rest, we let representatives from each company into a prescreening of the film to check the film for facts and to verify everything was accurate. We wanted to avoid controversy.
MR – I expected to here some things about one of three egging the film crew on for information about the other companies. Chris was very clear that none of the three asked anything about the other.
Q. In addition to your Tesla, what other cars do YOU drive? Are you a believer in your own film?
A. I have had a Tesla for 2 years now and it is doing great. I take it to schools and functions to educate people. It performs great as well. Tesla has won over a lot of people. It represents “raw power.” I actually expected more problems with the car. Especially since the original production kept being pushed back. I am pleased to say I am very happy with it thus far. It’s worth every penny. I also bought the Leaf and I traded in my Prius for the Volt.
MR – I think it’s safe to say Paine is a true believer.
Q. Are you facing any pressure from the oil companies? Are they trying to shut this film down?
A. They [Oil Companies] got in the way of the electric car the first time around. Right now they are at 100% capacity with gasoline demand and pricing. They aren’t going to deal with this. They aren’t going to start trouble with the electric car this time around.
MR – Chris elaborated on there are so many pushes from people on finding new sources of energy. I expected Chris to tell me about problems the oil companies were causing the film. There is just too much awareness for them to mess with it now. For example, Counterspill.org tracks fossil fuel disasters and Charge.com covers electric motorcycle racing. I guess its out of anyone’s control at this point.
Q. Talk to me about distribution? Are you looking for a theatrical release?
A. Well we wanted come to Tribeca completely clean. We were actually invited to SXSW and turned it down. Doing it in New York felt right. The coverage we got from you guys is a big help. Goal is to get people to see things. Video-On-Demand and people like Michael Moore have really helped documentary filmmaking. ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’ did $1.6 million in six months. Our plan is to do a theatrical roll out of city-by-city basis. Make it more of an event thing.
MR – I can’t wait to see the reaction when its hits major cities.
We thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us. Good luck with the film