“The Current War – Director’s Cut” hits theaters Friday.
While one battle is documented within the film, a completely different war emerged in trying to get the movie released.
The screenplay brings the historical “War of the Currents” to life; Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison, inventor of the light-bulb and proponent of direct current (DC). He stars opposite Michael Shannon, who portrays Henry Westinghouse. The industrialist is known for inventing air brakes used on railroads, and with the help of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), aims to power America’s electricity through alternating current (AC).
However aside from the history lesson, viewers also witness the personalities and motives that drove each individual. Edison fed off fame and struggled to balance his professional and personal life. He doesn’t begin to cope with this struggle until his wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) suddenly dies from a brain tumor.
Westinghouse is much more understated — a Civil War veteran and family man who enjoys his riches but is equally motivated to win the “war.”
And then, there was the different battle over getting this film shown in the first place.
The Current War initially made the festival rounds via The Weinstein Company in 2017. Later that year, the Harvey Weinstein scandal became international news and the movie was pulled from its release.
Eventually, the distribution rights ended up with 101 Studios. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited the piece, adding five scenes and trimming 10 minutes.
“Every movie is worth fighting for and dying over,” he told The Knockturnal this week in New York. “I really believe in the film. I never forgot why I wanted to make, and that’s the reason why I kept fighting to get my version out.”
Here’s our only spoiler alert: Gomez-Rejon won.
The Knockturnal: When you are playing historical figures and you’re talking about a certain period of time, how important is it for you as actors to educate the audience as opposed to simply entertaining them?
Benedict Cumberbatch: I think it’s really important that the two are sort of seamless, because you don’t want to patronize an audience by telling them a bunch of stuff. You want to involve them in a human story that has a heartbeat and with recognizable people doing things that are relatable, so I think it has to be a kind of a fluid interaction between both things. I think the astonishing things that aren’t in the history books. Well they are in the history books, but you have to delve quite deep to find out the detail of them that we kind of examine in this … [the] very personal struggle between two sorts of titans of the new electric industry. I think if you are laying on the facts too heavy and it’s not dramatized, it feels like a lesson and it’s kind of a turn off for an audience. It certainly is when I’m in the audience watching a film like that. There’s so much that’s entertaining about this anyway, in the fact that by playing it out in the scenes that we had to tell the stories of their relationships, of their inventions, of the era, of the business, of the transport, of the light, everything that colors this story with its humanity. It kind of takes care of itself. You can’t look into this story and not realize more about the personalities at the same time as what they’re doing, which was so extraordinary. Hopefully you’ll be entertained as you kind of learn.
The Knockturnal: It’s interesting you mentioned … the personal intricacies and the personalities of the figures that you portray. How difficult was it to portray those personalities on camera?
Benedict Cumberbatch: I had a hard time at points I guess with the idea Edison was quite such an asshole, because you know I’m an Englishman playing an American icon who’s known as the greatest inventor of all time and the largest number of patents ever filed in this country and possibly the world, I don’t know, but definitely in the US and I thought, it’s quite hallowed ground to be critical of, but there it is and I guess that was a challenge for me, but it’s not the case of good guy, bad guy, villain, goodie. It’s not quite that polarized and black and white. It’s a little bit more subtle. I hope it’s a bit more subtle than that in the end result. You have to understand and empathize in some way, like or love the character you play I think, to really enjoy doing it. You kind of fight for their corner and have to give up on that sometimes and just play the bad.
The Knockturnal: It’s billed, obviously, as kind of like this Edison versus Westinghouse type thing, where does Tesla fit into this?
Michael Shannon: Oh wow. He’s like this roving super-agent you know, but there’s a lot of people they don’t even know it, you know. It’s amazing how many people let him just slip through their fingers. Benedict’s been saying that it’d be fascinating if all these people just agreed to get along and cooperate, how much more perhaps they could have accomplished. They accomplished a staggering amount, but it really is funny to see how Tesla was treated during this time. I mean now he’s considered, probably of the three of them, the most fascinating.
Benedict Cumberbatch: If these guys were sort of thinking ten years in advance, he was the one who was thinking 100 years in advance. I mean, he was a true visionary.
Michael Shannon: Yea and he didn’t even need the wires.
Benedict Cumberbatch: He was onto wireless before, but yeah. It’s incredible what he achieved, and what he imagined.
Tuppence Middleton: What a character too, so eccentric, I had no idea. I mean the way he dressed, he died penniless I think didn’t he, in a hotel room. It’s so interesting that we don’t hear any of that because he was so undervalued and underappreciated in his time.
Benedict Cumberbatch: I think it’s powerful that Musk has done this thing with the Tesla patents of putting it out there so we can advance the proliferation of the electric vehicle, after a sort of suppression of it from the petrochemical industry for so many years, which is scandalous in itself. That’s another example, well can’t we all be in this together. You could have made a sh*t ton of cash if you would have invested in renewables before now and solved a lot of problems which we are now facing. I guess it’s another beat in history that we’re examining with this story of what could have been and that for me is the tragedy of that end scene between the two of them. If only Edison had dropped his guard and not built the fence, using that metaphor in that scene to describe how he felt abused. He put the fence up and someone else benefited from it. Westinghouse’s beautiful comeback is “why need a fence at all? Why not just share the land and we’re all in this together. Ultimately, you can’t take it with you when you go.” All those profound cliched t-shirt truths, are truths. We could really learn something about that from that era now.
The Knockturnal: Alfonso, when your friends ask you what it took to get this film to what is now a theatrical release, what do you tell them?
Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon: That every movie is worth fighting for and dying over. It’s that anything you take on, it could be a breeze, or it could be a joy, or it could be a nightmare, but I really believed in the film. I never forget why I wanted to make it and that’s the reason I kept fighting and kept pushing to get my version out. If they’re talking to me and supporting me still, I have nothing but love and appreciation. I owe so many people. I’m so grateful to so many people.
The Knockturnal: When you’re doing a movie where you have historical events and figures, how important is it as a director to not only entertain the audience, but also entertain them?
Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon: That’s a fine line. If you do too much education, it sounds like homework and doesn’t feel like a movie anymore. That was something that we kept playing with throughout production and in post. How much do you explain? How much do you trust an audience? How much do they want to know or how much information do you give them before it starts getting in the way of drama. As long as there isn’t confusion and there is enough to latch on to, that’s just something you want to calibrate in editorial, because ultimately you want to be entertained and you want to have an emotional experience. You want to see parts of yourself reflected in these men.
The Knockturnal: What did you find interesting about the personalities of some of these these figures?
Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon: What I found interesting in them is that they would be lost without the women in their lives. Edison needed Mary Edison, at least in my interpretation of Edison in this film to center him. She was his moral compass and without her, he will drift into the dark side and I loved, which is based in history, the relationship between George and Marguerite and their beautiful love affair. They never went a day without speaking with each other on the phone if he was out of town. The way he treated her as an equal and the way she was perceived and treated by everyone at Wapco. That’s what I thought was quite beautiful about finding their human side.
The Knockturnal: I know it’s obviously Edison versus Westinghouse, but where does Tesla fit into this?
Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon: Well, Tesla literally is the missing motor between both men. He is the one that’s seen 100 years into the future and has seen how to improve. He acknowledges and he knows clearly that Westinghouse has the better system, yet he has some problems of his own. Tesla knows what that is, and he tries to communicates that to Edison earlier in the film, but Edison again won’t listen because he’s a very stable genius I guess. He just won’t listen because it’s not his idea, so he is the missing link between the two that really takes us into the future.