Filmmaker Talks Sweet Revenge for Electric Cars
When the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" came out in 2006, director Chris Paine thought he had laid the subject to rest as a filmmaker. But the electric car that once dominated America's roads during the automobile's infancy has staged a remarkable comeback in the past five years. Thousands of drivers are on waiting lists for vehicles such as Nissan's all-electric Leaf, and auto manufacturers can't produce the cars fast enough.
Now Paine's follow-up film, "Revenge of the Electric Car," has debuted at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival with the stories of four innovators who hope to speed the electric car's return from the grave. Paine had a face-to-face conversation with InnovationNewsDaily about selling the dream for electric cars, sticking it to the Man, and the human story behind the rides of the future. The edited and condensed results are below.
[See our review: Revenge of the Electric Car: Inevitable or Impractical?]
InnovationNewsDaily: Do you sense a difference between the public responses to "Revenge of the Electric Car" as opposed to "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
Chris Paine: I think more people knew about "Who Killed the Electric Car" a year after it came out. There was sort of a growing awareness because people said: "There's a film about killing it? Well, where was it to begin with?" A lot of people spread it around on the Internet and it became an underground thing. Then it became mainstream. Every time gas prices went up, you'd see it on the right-wing shows, the left-wing shows, and it just sort of became a zeitgeist, a barometer for the issue.
I wasn't going to make another electric car film – as a filmmaker you want to have different topics – but I'm also an activist and really believe in this. When I saw things turning, I just said, "Oh, wow, if this turns around in the next few years this could make a great story." But rather than an issue movie, I wanted to make a film about character and what kinds of characters it takes to innovate.
InnovationNewsDaily: The name of your new film reminded me of "Revenge of the Sith," but it's a surprisingly optimistic film. It's almost a total change from "Who Killed the Electric Car," which is like a murder mystery plotted out.
Paine: It's true it has a different tone, but both films are unequivocal about the evolution of the automobile in that direction. After the first film, we had school kids writing to us: "Oh, I'm so mad, I'm so upset, I'm so angry." I grew up in the Watergate era, and I didn't want to have the whole legacy for my comment on the electric car to be: "The Man always wins," because that's not true. The Man sometimes wins, but sometimes the Man doesn't win, or the Man changes. We can work within the system to create big changes, and that's an important message for a lot of people.
One of the critiques we had from a review of the new film was that it was a little light on facts, which was interesting to me because I didn't want to fill this film with facts. I wanted this film to inspire people to go get their own facts. We did a lot of facts in the first movie and it's great, but for me I didn't want to make a remedial film. I wanted to make a momentum film.
InnovationNewsDaily: Of the four innovators you focused on, Greg "Gadget" Abbott also made a brief appearance in your first film. Was there a reason you decided to make his story one of the four main threads in the new film?
Paine: There are a lot of incredible people doing electric car conversions around the world. But at the end of the day, Gadget is my next door neighbor. I started filming him, and then [he and his wife] had tragedy hit them, and so the universe was telling me: "This is a story and you just gotta follow it." That's documentary filmmaking – you never know where you're going.
InnovationNewsDaily: All four innovators gave you a lot of access, but Elon Musk of Tesla Motors in particular stood out. You were in all parts of his life.
Paine: Isn't that amazing? That's one of the things that makes Elon great. I said to Elon, "Your handlers must just go crazy whenever I'm here," and he said, "I don't have any handlers." I'm sure he does have handlers in his own way, and Bob Lutz [former vice chairman of General Motors] is the same.
But both of them understand that in 2011 – especially with your generation – bullsh** walks. Even if they're selling something that they may not believe 100 percent, if they can't speak candidly about it then there's no audience for it. I think that's why they're both great leaders in their own way, because they understand they have to talk more directly.
InnovationNewsDaily: Speaking of leaders, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan appears at first glance to be your typical pragmatic CEO. But he really pushes himself as an advocate for electric cars.
Paine: He's selling what he sold the board on. At one level, they're all car salesmen. But the electric car is not just a car. It's a symbol of moving from 20th century technology to the 21st century. I think it's much deeper than selling cars or being the number one brand. To lead into the future, you have to set a vision and then you have to fight for it.
InnovationNewsDaily: The film ends on a happy note, but it's also a cliffhanger. Are there any thoughts of a follow-up?
Paine: When we finished the last film, there was no way we were going to do another film about the electric car because it's just such a massive effort, But maybe we'll be sitting here again in five years. I hope there doesn't need to be any other movie about it. I hope the momentum picks up all by itself.