[Interview] ‘CURRENT WAR’ director charges his bio-drama with layered storytelling, magnetic performances

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

During the awards season each year, biopics are chasing golden statues. So many of them have been made that the most common result is a film that seems like it was solely created to see a trophy-less A-list actor win glory. Think about how many biopics had performances that rose above the material that surrounds them. 

THE CURRENT WAR, about the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to light the world, is equally a performance and storytelling showcase. 

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL) faced many obstacles in getting his third feature to the big screen (including the Harvey Weinstein scandal and studio meddling). Still, after two years of headaches and five additional scenes, Gomez-Rejon has powered fall with one of the year’s best films.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with Gomez-Rejon by phone recently. We discussed the struggle to get the film to the screen, Gomez-Rejon’s storytelling methods, and what we can learn from the film’s hard-hitting themes.

– New York, NY – 10/21/19 – New York Premiere of The Current War -Pictured: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon -Photo by: Patrick Lewis/StarPix -Location: AMC Lincoln Square

Preston Barta: There’s a lot that I want to discuss. However, I think it’s important for our readers to understand the struggle you faced in getting the movie you wanted made. Could you talk about the journey from premiering the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 to now?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: “Leading with Toronto was a very chaotic time. A lot of interference. The movie wasn’t ready to be shown. They rushed it and screened it as a work-in-progress. The studio had final cut, and the bad press after it screened hurt the film. It was an all hands on deck situation after TIFF as opposed to letting the filmmaker finish the film or get it back on track for what I originally intended. And then the company collapsed, and the movie was on hold for over a year. I never stopped reworking it in my head.”

“With the silence, as difficult as it was, it did allow me to have my ideas settle without all the noise, interventions and notes. I saw the film that I fell in love with and intended to make. I had the opportunity a year or so later to steer it back on track. I got the cast together. We shot five new scenes and reworked the movie. Even though I added five new scenes, it was 10 minutes shorter. It also had a new score.”

“Everything feels right. I can honestly say this is my version and the best I can give you. In between now and TIFF were some very dark times where you don’t think the movie will ever be seen, or the wrong version will be seen. It’s a triumph on behalf of the cast and crew that we survived. I am really proud of it.”

As you should. The thing that I am most excited to talk to you about is the style. I feel like this film is one of the few that I can think of that has all the components of filmmaking and storytelling working in conjunction. The camera movement has this kinetic feel. The scene transitions are not your standard exterior shots. You flip the camera in creative ways, but not in an overwhelming one. The score has this classical feel with an electric hum on top of it. How did you find all that and trust that it would work?

“That means so much to me. This is either for your story or just you, but I read a lot of criticisms back at TIFF. Maybe too much. It took me a while to recover from it, which is my nature. They criticized the style. There were no rules in making the film. It celebrates the medium that is being invented while the film is happening. There was always going to be that celebration and look toward the future. It needed to be dialed back, and I needed to find that balance. The criticisms hurt, but I was still on a journey to find that balance. The shape of it now feels right.”

“I can’t talk about this without talking about my cinematographer (Chung-hoon Chung), my producer designer (Jan Roelfs) and costume designer (Michael Wilkinson), etc. If you walked into my office, there was a gallery of images that I used as inspiration. They were inspiration boards that included everything from Cy Twombly to early experimental photography to [Bob Dylan and David Bowie].”

“We didn’t see the movie as a static period piece. It was a movie about the future and not about the past. I wanted there to be constant movement and for the music to be another character. I wanted it to feel relevant in a moment in history that had new ideas. A lot of thought was put into the scene transitions and overall design of it. There were no rules for the format. It wasn’t a film that was all handheld or static. It was whatever felt right at the moment.”

Well, it works with that line in the film about having to work outside the rules to get what’s right. At this point, it’s a weird time for biopics. It’s as if they can’t walk away unscathed. However, this isn’t any ordinary film that teachers will be showing students for the hell of it. It does feel like a continually evolving experiment. 

“It’s like taking a biopic and stomping on it and breaking it up and reshaping it, so it’s not one. It’s more of an homage to the people we are making the movie about.”

Katherine Waterston, left, and Michael Shannon as Mr. and Mrs. Westinghouse in ‘THE CURRENT WAR.’ Photo credit: Dean Rogers.

Something I sincerely appreciate about your film is how each of the characters feels like they have 100 pages of characterization, most notably the families of our two competitors. There’s the morse code communication between Edison and his son, and then Westinghouse’s wife, Marguerite (Katherine Waterston), has a compelling dynamic with her husband. They are partners in business as much as in life. Is it a complicated process to make each of the characters feel as real as they do, even if they don’t have as much screen time as our central characters?

“It’s the great casting. Tuppence Middleton [who plays Edison’s wife, Mary] and Katherine Waterston are a force. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be their story. I also didn’t want the ‘woman in the shadows’ kind of feel. I wanted them front and center in their scenes as partners. That’s why when Marguerite steps onto the scene, her title card reads, ‘wife and partner’ as her description. Westinghouse saw her as his equal, and it’s true to their real relationship. So every scene with her matters. She’s not just in the background because she’s an extension of him at a time when that was uncommon. [Waterston] captures that with the power of her performance.”

“And [Middleton] is fascinating because she doesn’t have many scenes. After her character leaves, she remains throughout the entire film. It’s this underscoring of Edison’s fight with mother nature, which is the ultimate winner. In the beginning, it starts with nature. Nature is sometimes a lot of air in the frame. It was always in their relationship to have mother nature there to say, ‘Try, keeping trying to trap me – light in a jar or sand in a box.’ And then memories on celluloid at the end.”

“So, with [Middleton], you needed that short scene with her centering [Edison] and telling him I care what people feel, and what we did was wrong. It’s a tiny, little scene, but you need to see that and understand their dynamic. So, when she’s gone, [Edison] loses himself, and then it becomes underscoring another layer of the film, which I think is about communication and how they express love to each other. And Edison with morse code, that is his capacity for affection and love. That’s the way he expresses himself.”

“Westinghouse is so direct and connected to his family. And then [Nikola Tesla, another historical figure with his eyes set on the future who is portrayed by Nicholas Hoult], no one understands what he is saying because he’s speaking 100 years into the future. But if you look back over it all, the answer is great actors.”

That’s great. By the way, I love that you used title cards to introduce each of the characters. Personally, I find it a bit phony when a script tries to insert a character name. You can tell when it feels unnatural, and in most cases, it does. 

“[Laughs] It usually comes up in some expositional scene. Yeah. And this is a tough one about exposition. I didn’t make the movie because I wanted to explain AC/DC. Trust me. I love these characters and the themes. I was challenged with the question of how much exposition is too much exposition and how much is just enough so you can trust the audience to keep moving with you. Those title cards helped and were fun to use.”

Tom Holland, left, and Benedict Cumberbatch star as Samuel Insull (Edison’s assistant) and Thomas Edison in ‘THE CURRENT WAR.’ Photo credit: Dean Rogers.

Speaking of themes, I noticed that the universe has been speaking to me lately with the idea of family versus career and passion. So many great things can be achieved through our interests, as this film shows, but it also comes with great sacrifice. It’s very evident that Edison sacrificed so much, but he also did so many remarkable things. As I am watching the film, I ask, “Is it worth it?” Does that theme scare you at all? Do you find yourself wrestling with that question?

“The specific theme that you are talking about is something that revealed itself to me throughout this very difficult post-production. It was so easy to give up on this movie and just let it be, to release it as it was under the circumstances, and move on. But I couldn’t let it go, and that decision does push people away and isolates you. It becomes an obsession. In your head, there’s a better version of the movie. There’s still a chance; it’s not like it’s out in the world yet. I still saw this potential. I still believed in it. That single-mindedness sometimes can isolate you, but hopefully, the result is worth it, and people understand me better. Does that answer your question?”

Yeah, yeah. It does. I’m not gathering that it was a situation, as the film says, “desperation leads to unwise choices.” I feel that it was a wise choice for you to move forward with this film.

“I felt like I owed it to the cast and crew to finish it and not let something be taken away from me before it was fully realized. It’s not only me that will be judged off that work; they will, too. For a movie that is so much about mortality and immortality and legacy, I owed it to them. I would have been living with a lot of shame if I hadn’t. Regardless of how it does, I can sleep better, knowing that I gave it my all.”

Would you say the concept of legacy was always something important to you? Did it change after this experience?

“Yeah. It’s funny how movies can sometimes, with time, reveal a lot about you and who you were when you were making it. Usually, that comes after the movie is out, and you’ve had time to think about it or people point things out to you. There’s a lot of work and decisions that come from a level that you don’t fully understand because you’re not forced to put it into words yet or intellectualize it.”

“Coming off ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, there was some obsession with understanding death and grief in that movie. There was an integration of that, that worked itself into this movie, in Edison’s journey. That was always there. But because it was so difficult and I had so much more time with it, I realized that this spirit of trying to seek to push oneself to achieve the best that one can. Like an invention, movies are permanent. Inventions are solutions that last. As a filmmaker, you want time to be kind to your work. Whether you admit it or not, you do. So, there was a lot of me pushing and fighting to get another shot because this film will outlive me. That’s important to me. It was legacy on another level that I didn’t quite understand. It became more complicated with the time that I had to let the experience sink in.”

Michael Shannon is George Westinghouse in ‘THE CURRENT WAR.’ Photo credit: Dean Rogers.

There’s an interesting scene in the film when Westinghouse tells Tesla what he wouldn’t give to flip through his notebook of the future. But then Tesla offers it to him, and Westinghouse hesitates, knowing that it’s years of discoveries and ideas. I am curious whose handbook of secrets you would like to flip through. If you had the opportunity, would you take it? Would you sample it? Or, would you continue to carve your own path based on your perspectives and interpretations?

“[Laughs] What I love about Westinghouse, and in that final scene with him and Edison, you can tell the admiration he has for Edison, even after everything that has happened. He asks him how he accomplished that true miracle [the lightbulb] and what it felt like. There’s a fanboy in him and an insatiable curiosity that keeps him so interesting and makes him so humble.”

“But I think I would choose to continue to carve my own path. I’m always open to listening, seeing everything and learning all that I don’t know. I wish I could pick one person. No one comes to mind that would make a nice soundbite.”

The number one thing that I always most fascinated by when it comes to interviewing talents is the lessons they take away from the story. We’ve talked extensively about that, but would you say there’s an aspect of the film that spoke to you most and caused you to work it into your own life?

“It was always meant to be a journey of self-discovery. Why else make a movie, right? How much in me was Edison’s ambition and ego, and how much was that humility in me (that I see so much in my parents), the idea of leaving the world a better place and not worried about being remembered? There’s that struggle between the two when you’re a filmmaker. I’ve gone through excruciating periods because of ego. It made me press the reset button and realize that one doesn’t have to suffer as much. Like the opening of the film, with the sky and that train at the bottom, it’s a lesson in humility. Hopefully, our version of Westinghouse will be a reminder of what a person should aim to be and continue to be.”

THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT is now playing in theaters nationwide.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.