Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon Talks Bringing Edison To Life In 'The Current War'
The new biopic stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison as he races to bring electric light to the masses.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon won many fans with his second feature, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in 2015. He was a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner and the future was very bright. Immediately, he jumped into his next project, The Current War. Gomez-Rejon's follow-up would be an ambitious depiction of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse as they raced to bring electricity to the masses in the late 1880s. Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon were cast. The movie came together, but it was rushed against the director's wishes in order to premiere at TIFF in 2017. Then it was subsequently shelved for two years by TWC while allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced. Gomez-Rejon would have to wait.
Fast-forward to today and The Current War is finally opening in theaters thanks to a new distribution deal. Gomez-Rejon was able to raise more money, add five scenes, and trim 10 minutes so the finished product is also stamped with a "director's cut" label. Perhaps the movie didn't go exactly as the filmmaker planned, but he got it done.
In addition to Cumberbatch as Edison and Shannon as Westinghouse, The Current War stars Nicholas Hoult (as Nikola Tesla), as well as Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, and Matthew Macfadyen. Martin Scorsese is an executive producer.
We were lucky enough to talk with Gomez-Rejon about The Current War and we didn't want to bother him with questions about the arduous production process. He's talked about it enough. We wanted to ask him about the craft of filmmaking. What he was thinking when he was directing these famous actors, and plenty more about the film.
Hi Alfonso, thank you for talking with us. I know it's been a long road with this movie and just wanted to say congratulations, first.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Thanks.
You've got an all-star cast here. Could you discuss directing prominent actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon in tight quarters? How was working with them?
AGR: Michael is very talented. He appreciates feeling creative and safe. And Benedict needs different energies than Michael does. And it's creating a space for them... Everyone's respectful of each other's processes as long as it's a creative environment — not only for them but for all the departments. I love actors so much, man, so I love the process of directing actors, interacting with them, and seeing how they do the mysterious — which is just... There's that great Mike Nichols line where someone asked him... I think it was Philip Seymour Hoffman or Meryl Streep... "How do you think they do it?" Since he's obviously been around for so long and his answer was something like, "You'll never know." There's always some mystery to the process of how they can realize an emotion. And I love being witness to it. It's a total privilege with both these guys, all the actors in the film.
It must've been fun just sitting back and watching.
AGR: Yeah, I stay as close as I possibly can. Maybe something rubs off.
(Laughs) Cool. So you've go these big names, and they're playing big names, obviously. Could you talk about how you wanted to introduce Edison and Westinghouse — their first shots of the movie?
AGR: Oh, that's a great question. It's the difference between — one man is the show, it's Edison, right? He was very into curating his image, very aware of his image, his face, his name. And the other (Westinghouse) couldn't care less. He didn't even like to be photographed and burned all his personal things, his papers, after he died. It was about introducing them in different ways and I love introducing Edison as the show, literally, at the center of this field of light — as the star. And then Westinghouse is introduced in a very quiet, domestic setting with his wife, nervous, on his way to meet his hero, or rather, someone he admires greatly. The context within which I introduce him is important to show him as a man's man, a factory man. But I chose to do something very quiet and simple of him with his partner, who is his wife (played by Waterston). In a very quiet, domestic way — even though it was a gigantic house (laughs) — like Xanadu, I wanted to show the kind of simplistic benevolence, humble approach as opposed to the "all spotlights on me" approach.
This is a "Making of America" film. Can you talk about the sequences that show the manpower behind the War of the Currents — the shots from below, looking up through the wires, the underground cross-sections. How did you decide to pull that off? Did you accomplish what you wanted to with those scenes?
AGR: Well, of course not.
AGR: I wanted to keep going bigger. It's funny you mention that shot of Tesla looking up at the telegraph and phone lines because the original shot was looking down, over buildings and through wires, and horses, and crowds, and New York City. Couldn't afford it, so we look up, then (laughs). That's how that shot came to be. We can't look down so I guess we'll look up. And it ends up being one of my favorite visual moments and a great reintroduction to Tesla. But it's funny you mention that because it's the complete opposite of what I wanted. I just needed a few million to pull that one off.
Right. Hey, it's still a great shot.
AGR: (Laughs) Thanks, it was that or nothing, so I came up with that. But no, I wanted to show the scope. I wanted to show color. I wanted it to feel alive. The palette of the film was early experimental color photography — kind of imperfect, but colorful, and, you know, the linings of the suits had patterns and colors. I wanted to make sure it wasn't a stodgy, old-fashioned still movie. I wanted the movie to be in constant motion and without rules, kind of take the biopic and deconstruct it as almost an homage to the people we're making the movie about. So, of course, I wanted to go bigger and bigger and bigger to reflect the size of the world and the impact their ideas are going to have. So you go as far as you can. But you're never happy.
What about all the off-center shots, putting the actor in the corner of the frame, what are you going for with those?
AGR: It's not an intellectual process, you know? (Director of photography) Chung-hoon Chung is my brother. We've done three things together now and we knew we didn't want to have any traditional rules or coverage. We wanted to always be pushing each other. And maybe we even recognized we went too far at times but it's something that felt right in the moment. Who says that it has to be two matching over-the-shoulder shots? Who created that rule and why do I have to adhere to it if I find a way of telling the story that feels right in that moment that doesn't distract too much away from the emotion but maybe gets closer to the feeling of the character in that moment? If something is asymmetrical or just a little off, or it's going darker, or into paranoia, or as Edison's crossing to the dark side. We allowed ourselves to go there and explore certain lens selections like a 25mm anamorphic was one that we liked very much... So it's just about what felt right in the moment and we didn't want to... Sometimes a slow approach is all you need. A slow zoom-in on Edison as he's talking to the doctor telling him his wife is getting sick is all you need. And sometimes traditional coverage is all you need but sometimes it feels like it deserves something else and we go with that and explore and in that moment it felt right. We just didn't want to play it safe.
It just reminded me of noir. What are your favorite kinds of movies?
AGR: I'm so obsessed, man. I love movies so much. And this, in some ways, is kind of the evolution of motion pictures from the sequence that I used to tell the story of the zapping of animals in Edison's lab, using that as an "Oh, this is another thing that's going on at the time..." But yeah I love movies. I also know how little I know and so I love actors and getting lost in the movies. It is why I've dedicated my life to try to make movies and hopefully continue making them. It's hard to say which kind. I guess I love lost heroes more than anything.
Very cool. Thanks so much for talking, Alfonso.
AGR: Thanks. I appreciate it.