The Current War – Director’s Cut
by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
After reading Michael Mitnick’s script of The Current War, I was immediately intrigued by the rivalry and the race to create the modern world—but not necessarily the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse—but between ego and ambition vs. humility. What is the nature of success? How far would a person go to be remembered? These were the themes at the core of the story, and the journey of self-discovery I wanted to explore: How much of Edison was in me? How much Westinghouse? Not in intellect or talent (I wouldn’t dare compare myself), but in ambition.
Equally mesmerizing was, of course, the opportunity to make a period film that was not about the past, but about the future. And I wanted to shoot it in a style that wouldn’t necessarily be a perfect and accurate reproduction of the past, but an interpretation of it—a movie that could transport us, like a time machine, and make us feel what it was like to be there; a film in constant motion, always a step ahead, looking into the future; The Social Network circa 1893.
It was a time rich with new and revolutionary ideas and these men deserved a film that didn’t play by the rules. The past wasn’t going to be in sepia or black and white. I wanted the feeling of that period to be expressed in color and movement, celebrating the very medium (motion pictures) that was being developed concurrently with electricity. Like a concert film, I wanted there to be an aggressive musicality to the film. I saw Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla not as still, archival photographs, but as Jagger and Dylan and Bowie, or Jobs and Gates and Musk—all going toe-to-toe.
Because Edison and Westinghouse largely operated on parallel tracks, with Tesla buffeted between them, the two main characters remain apart for most of this movie. The practical implications of that structure meant that the production logically broke down into two parts: Edison and Westinghouse. I shot two movies, basically. It was challenging—you get into a rhythm, and overnight it’s a different cast, a different setting, a different… everything. But it was also very energizing and a privilege to get to live in these worlds, and witness the work of these fine actors and of the great craftsmen and women behind the scenes.
Along with Nikola Tesla, the relationship that these three futurists had with Mother Nature was extremely fascinating to me. And arguably, Mother Nature is the real winner of the Current War as there is this larger, subtle theme of the dominance of nature and death permeating the film. Tesla was seeing 100 years into the future and having trouble communicating his vision of the future. While Edison’s inventions were always orbiting around the impossible: defying and capturing nature (light in a jar, sound in a box, a memory in a motion picture)—all irrespective of public demand. Westinghouse’s genius was contextualizing new technology for the greater good (to save lives, for instance, as he did with his invention of the railway air brake). He chose anonymity. Leaving the world a better place was all that mattered.
The contrast in how each of these titans approached their work, and considered their legacy and immortality in pursuit to win the War of the Currents—and transform their world into the one we live in today—made it a film I literally needed to make.
Then you juxtapose all of the above with a whole new layer: man’s relationship with technology and the responsibilities of these revolutionary ideas. No one wants to create a dark dystopia (how could the miracle of a light bulb lead to the electric chair?); we just don’t fully understand the implications and consequences of new technology. There has always been a connection between culture and technology, but is it changing so fast now that we can’t comprehend what is happening? Can our brains keep up with it?
I’ll leave it to Bezos, Branson and Musk to colonize Mars. But who will history remember and why?