Illuminating History: Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on the Journey to Release ‘The Current War: Director’s Cut’

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Starting out, filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) was a personal assistant for Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, Robert De Niro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. “The greatest gift that Scorsese gave me is a lesson in humility,” Gomez-Rejon recalls. “You cannot have a conversation with Scorsese without him talking about all of the masters who came before him; he is part of my DNA because I was obsessed with his films as a kid. Scorsese on Scorsese became my bible and I tried to watch all of the films that he mentioned in the book. I decided to follow in his footsteps. I applied to the same film school and wanted to work for him when I got to NYU which I eventually did.”

The behind the scenes drama of bringing the story of George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla to the big screen with the release of The Current War: Director’s Cut was nearly as turbulent as their real-life battle to bring electricity to the masses. Originally, the biopic had a World Premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently disappeared under accusations that producer Harvey Weinstein had screened an unfinished version. Then The Weinstein Company was thrown into turmoil when Weinstein was the subject of exposés from The New York Times and The New Yorker detailing his sexual improprieties. Two years later, newly formed 101 Studios secured the film’s distribution rights and Gomez-Rejon added five scenes and removed 10 minutes to complete what is being billed as the director’s cut.

“Isn’t it crazy!?” admits a relieved Gomez-Rejon. “The film when it first screened was still two or three months before release, which originally was going to be Thanksgiving. We were rushing it to make the festival, but I knew that The Current War wasn’t ready because it hadn’t found its shape yet. The pacing wasn’t right.” The added scenes did not center upon the role of Nikola Tesla. “There was only one additional Tesla scene. Tesla was always a secondary character because the war was between Westinghouse and Edison. However, you can’t tell the story about the war of the currents without introducing Tesla, his role in the war, solving Westinghouse’s problem, and their eventual partnership, which is a whole other film. Tesla is Westinghouse’s missing motor. The new scene with Tesla is when he’s fired which I needed for audiences to fully understand his arc.” The additional scenes were shot after the original principal photography. “I had the luxury of knowing exactly where it was going to go in the film and the camera moves that proceeded and came after it. You know that it’s better as a still shot or a slow zoom or handheld. All of the actors look exactly the same as only a year and a half had gone by.”  

Most of the editing involved finessing scenes that were too long. “The film doesn’t have a traditional structure,” notes Gomez-Rejon. “Sometimes you can move a sequence from here to there or start with Edison and handoff to Westinghouse or vice versa, or introduce Tesla late or pepper him throughout. It took awhile to find the right shape. The new scenes weren’t long but were needed for psychological clarity, mainly for Thomas Edison.” Getting the right tone and pacing was not easy. “Early on there was so much meddling and so many notes that David Trachtenberg [editor]  and I weren’t allowed the time to focus on it. We were left alone much later in the process. How do you communicate these ideas about AC [Alternating Current] and DC [Direct Current] so that the audience can follow without it seeming like homework? I had to create tension between the two men without making one into a devil and the other into a saint. It was a challenge to provide information but still have a quick movement to the film.”   

It was important to capture the spirit of the times. “It’s about rivalries, lessons in humility, who will win, and how they will be remembered,” remarks Gomez-Rejon. “Those were the big ideas that I was interested in. [Screenwriter] Michael Mitnick [The Giver] and I challenged every line by asking, ‘This scene works great but what really did happen?’ We would research it and had researchers. Then what we did was come up with the final shooting script that sometimes collapsed two real figures into one, like Southwick Brown, the human rights activist behind the electric chair; he’s a combination of Alfred Southwick and Harold Brown. There were careful and judicial decisions I had to make that needed to be true to the time, the character, and the themes of the movie.”

Scenes had to be cinematic and also depict an era yet to be powered by electricity. “My cinematographer was Chung-hoon Chung [Oldboy] and we’ve done three things together now,” states Gomez-Rejon. “It was a difficult process because in most of our locations we couldn’t use candles, so had to use small LED lights and lightbulbs. We always wanted to be natural.” Everything was storyboarded and shot listed. “It’s a process that Chung and I enjoy. Once we get it all out there you tend to forget it. By the time we’re location scouting I’m already mapping how these transitions are going to work even editorially. There was a lot of work with split screens, more so in the storyboards. It became too much and I only used it at the end, the World’s Fair sequence and the Civil War flashback where every shot was designed to fit in a certain place in the frame. Ultimately, even though it was shot listed and storyboarded, when Chung and I showed up on set there were no rules.”

Footage was captured with the ARRI ALEXA XT Plus and ARRI ALEXA Mini with Panavision G-series anamorphic prime lenses. “We had a few zooms and spherical primes,” remarks Gomez-Rejon. “It was an ongoing joke with the first AC who always had the 25mm anamorphic because he was sure that Chung and I would settle on that one. We didn’t approach coverage traditionally unless it was called for. What were the least number of shots that we could tell the story in? What came before and after? Those were things that we were always aware of.” The Current War was always going to be widescreen. “The world doesn’t exist anymore so it’s hard to find that world in the States. The hardest location to find was the courthouse. The design of a courthouse in the UK is different than in the States. That had to be built in a location. The interior of Westinghouse’s factory was also difficult to find because spaces that I had seen in pictures were too dangerous to shoot in for various reasons. We ended up creating a number of places and extending them in visual effects.”

Visual effects were necessary to achieve the desired scope. “To create Chicago and the World’s Fair in 1893 in London was the most difficult and challenging part of the visual effects,” remarks Gomez-Rejon. “Crowds needed to be produced and there were only a few key buildings that resembled the architecture of the time. Occasionally, we had the exterior of Edison’s factory in Menlo Park.” The color palette did not need to be extensively changed in the DI. “I worked closely with Michael Wilkinson [costume designer], Jan Roelfs [production designer]  and certainly with Chung on the palette and wardrobe, and how they interacted with each other. We knew exactly who was going to wear what in each scene so when Tesla was in Westinghouse’s or Edison’s world he would pop in a certain way.”

Upon getting a second chance at The Current War, Gomez-Rejon decided to redo the score. “The sound design was weaved into the music. Embracing the sound of steam and machinery as well as the silence that you feel when Edison is only focusing on the screw in front of him and not his child. Those kinds of elements became part of the score.” Casting was not difficult. “It was a joy. We had such a big cast of minor characters that tended to be brilliant British theatre actors. Benedict Cumberbatch was already attached to the film when I came along [as Thomas Edison]. The first two people that Ellen Lewis [casting director]  pitched me for the Westinghouses were Katherine Waterson and Michael Shannon. Luckily both of them said, ‘Yes.’ The same goes with Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla and Tom Holland as Samuel Insull. Tom and I had met years ago about a different project. It was so long ago he had to bring his mom to the meeting.”

“The biggest challenge was getting my voice back and the chance to show the world the film I intended to make,” remarks Gomez-Rejon. “This film could have been buried because of the chaos that it went through. The challenge was to stay alive, never stop fighting, and collectively show everyone’s work below and above the line. I was deeply afraid that it would never be seen. I appreciate the beautiful performances in The Current War. The World’s Fair sequence was loosely inspired by Abel Gance’s Napoleon. I tried to do a homage to it in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It finally found a way into a show to communicate the love of the craft of filmmaking. The film in many ways shows you the evolution of motion pictures from the inception of the idea to the way for Edison to one-up Tesla and Westinghouse by capturing Niagara Falls.”

-S&P-

­Images courtesy of 101 Studios

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