Independent Lens Filmmaker Q&A: Chris Paine on Revenge of the Electric Car

April 20th, 2012

Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car was, he thought, an elegy for an idea that wasn’t so much ahead of its time, but rather ahead of Detroit’s willingness to break free from the fossil fuel interests to which it had willingly enslaved itself. Independent Lens spoke with him about the unexpected opportunity to make a hopeful sequel to that film, and his hopes for the future of electric vehicles in a world still heavily addicted to oil.

Revenge of the Electric Car airs Sunday, April 22 at 11:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope viewers will feel energized to persevere in their own passions no matter how difficult. The film offers a unique personal view of entrepreneurship in America today  in terms of one of the biggest industries in the world, the automobile. Within that microcosm you can see how the system works and as usual – individual leadership is a big part of it.

In terms of the electric car revolution, I hope it inspires peoples to test drive or buy the new generation plug-in cars.  Change is so difficult and it takes a lot of early adopters to make the leap.  They’ll be really glad they did.  This is a leap worth taking, I can say wholeheartedly.  If the film inspires that, I’ll be happy.

What led you to make this film?

Last time, we made a film about how vested interests can disrupt or destroy innovation and why we need to fight to change the system from the outside.  This time we wanted to make a film about how very different kinds of personalities worked within the system to bring innovation to market even with huge obstacles.  The electric car of course is the subject to both stories.

The electric car is a symbol of innovation. So when everyone started coming back to the table after the 1990s debacle, we already had the experience and connections that might allow us to tell a very different kind of story then the first one – and to inspire hope instead of anger. Both of these emotions are important in activating change. That would be a nice bookend, especially since our film plays not just in the mainstream, but in schools and a lot of places where you are influencing people about what society is capable of.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film, after you skewered many of its subject in your first film?

At the end of 2008 markets collapsed and all the characters we were following hit the wall.  We had to rethink our film, find its center again, and keep moving. For awhile the film’s title in our editing room was Curse of the Electric Car.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film? It’s a competitive industry in a race to dominate a potentially extremely lucrative market. That’s a lot of intellectual property.

One step at a time.  It’s a process.  We were completely independently financed and it took time for them to understand what we wanted to document and for us to film enough to get behind the corporate veil and find our story.  We had very strict agreements not to share content with other car companies or with anyone for that matter.  Consider, two companies went public during our three years, and one went bankrupt.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

We decided not to make an issue movie, because we had done that in the prior film.  To do it well again, we would have to make a miniseries rather then a 90 minute documentary.  However, there are many issues that we would have liked to address on behalf of the electric car. For example, one of the biggest users of electricity in the world is the oil industry — simply to refine gasoline from crude oil. We could save so many resources by simply putting that electricity directly into our cars and bypassing the middle man.

When Gadget uncovers a small operating part from an electric car in the vast ruins of his garage and says he can build a new car from this part. That symbolizes the perseverance all our characters shared in terms of dealing with setbacks.

What has the audience response been so far?

Audiences are shocked by our level of access given the confrontational position we took with the first film, and surprised by our tone.  I see the two films as kind of inverse mirrors of each other – both talking about the perils of getting anything truly revolutionary done.

The independent film business is rough.  What keeps you motivated?

It comes down to passion for your subject and the challenge of telling good stories with a team.  I’m on the board of a group called Impro Theater. They do long-form unscripted theater and I see documentary making as somewhat like that. You never know quite where you are headed and that’s part of the fun for the filmmakers and the audience.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

We wanted to reach the largest amount of people possible and PBS really responded positively to the film. We know the film will be celebrated here.

What are your characters like in real life?

Probably our most-asked question from audiences is that:  What are Bob, Elon, Carlos, and Gadget like in “real life.” I have to say, almost exactly like they are in the film.  They are bigger-than-life characters because they live so deeply in their passions and ambitions.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

At least another two hours of storytelling. Keeping things to 90 minutes or less is always a challenge but asking your audiences to stay longer isn’t fair.

What are your three favorite films?

The answer really depends on the day, the year, the venue, and the quality of the popcorn.  I don’t like films with guns in them except maybe the Guns of Navarone, Naked Gun, and Naked Gun 2 ½.  I really liked Sleeper and Shine when they came out.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? inspired the name Who Killed the Electric Car? and the topic wasn’t too far off either, if you recall.  This is Spinal Tap is my favorite mockumentary about the decline of a rockband in the 1970s.  A great double feature for that film is the 2009 doc Anvil, about the travails of a Canadian metal band. Other terrific documentaries include Gasland; Inside Job; Waste Land; Why We Fight; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Brother’s Keeper; Truck Farm; Genghis Blues, and classics like Hearts and Minds, which made me rethink everything I thought I knew about military power.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Get a great team together to work with. Filmmaking to me is a community experience, from financing to filming, from the music to the editing, from the press to the distribution.  At every level, find amazing people, build trust, then let them tell their stories without interrupting. Ask hard questions, listen.