EXCLUSIVE: Marginalized by a version rushed for the 2017 Toronto Film Festival weeks before Harvey Weinstein’s banishment and The Weinstein Company’s implosion, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War has a new cut and the kind of second chance that most prematurely premiered festival films never get. Upstart 101 Studios has closed a deal for domestic distribution rights and will make The Current War its first substantial theatrical release, eyeing August. That distributor, which paid around $3 million for the rights, has made a wide release commitment, after Gomez-Rejon presented them with an overhauled picture that added five scenes and still came in a good ten minutes shorter than the cut that premiered two Toronto festivals ago.
The director got the chance to do his own cut because of a lucky unexpected break: a final contractual sign-off by executive producer Martin Scorsese hadn’t been executed, which legally prevented TWC’s new owners — Lantern Entertainment — from setting a quick overseas release with a cut the director disliked. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, and Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla. The drama is the raging battle to light the Chicago World’s Fair and bring electrical power to America.
Taking a break from shooting The Hunt — an Amazon drama series about Nazi hunters that stars Logan Lerman and Al Pacino — Gomez-Rejon told Deadline he was exultant about a film that over a year brought him to the depths of despair because of a rushed and too-long cut that sounds like it was imposed on him by Harvey Weinstein. He was crushed by a helpless feeling that he had missed the chance to succeed with the kind of you-are-there-in-an-atom-splitting-moment narrative that propelled films like The Social Network and The Imitation Game. And then, suddenly, a set of seemingly impossible circumstances gave the director his second chance.
“I had gotten to the point where I realized it was likely I would have to make peace with having a film out there with my name on it that wasn’t me,” Gomez-Rejon told Deadline. “But we never gave up, not Timur Bekmambetov, Basil Iwanyk and not my WME reps Mike Simpson, Roger Green and Chris Donnelly at LBI. They waged a constant fight to get it back so I could give it the shape and tone I always wanted. There were times that this film left me shattered for so long that sometimes I couldn’t see the light.”
The Current War‘s twisty road began when Timur Bekmambetov sparked to a Black List script by Michael Mitnick. Bekmambetov had more than a passing interest in the subject matter. His father was an electrical engineer in Kazakhstan in the Soviet Union, and the son studied to follow in his footsteps before instead veering to film. Bekmambetov had thought the movie was in Serbian-born electrical engineering genius Tesla. “I could never find a way in, and when I read this I realized that Tesla wasn’t the hero, because he was a bit of a trickster,” he said. “Edison was the great character here.”
He made a deal with The Weinstein Company, and lobbied for Gomez-Rejon to direct. A Scorsese protege, Gomez-Rejon asked that director to backstop him in a godfather role, something that was an afterthought when the deal was made. The stellar cast came together quickly, the film was made for a reasonable budget in London. Then the young filmmaker felt into the proverbial rabbit hole as Harvey Weinstein’s determination to make the Toronto Film Festival — where he’d had so much awards success with films like The King’s Speech — led to a rushed post production and editing schedule that accelerated the finish of a film that wasn’t ready. Though he kept it secret from all involved, Weinstein would certainly have known by that time that reporters from NYT and The New Yorker were bearing down hard with imminent exposes on decades of alleged sexual harassment and assault allegations. Whether he was distracted by that, or compelled to rush because he knew what was coming — he also premiered an early cut of The Upside at that festival — it proved to be a mistake, rushing the film.
“It had been accepted to Toronto based on an early cut and then came the rush to finish in time,” Gomez-Rejon said. “I knew in my heart, and every fiber of my body was saying, it’s not ready. I was drowning in notes, to the point I was addressing them more than editing the film. I’d get them from London, and then more from New York. We rushed the mix, ADR, sound. You go in knowing [Harvey Weinstein’s reputation for re-cutting films]. People warned me to be careful and I was determined to not be another casualty until I saw the [Toronto] cut and felt like an idiot. I went in fearless and then suddenly you realize you are a casualty, a footnote.”
Then came the premiere. I saw the film there and recall Weinstein telling me in the theater he’d made a mistake by rushing it and not making the picture ten minutes shorter. Gomez-Rejon was also there, and said he could feel himself dying inside as he observed the restlessness of the polite Toronto audience. As he watched, he replayed in his head every scene he was forced to cut in pre-production or that he lost in editing that would have made believable the intensity of the rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse. Instead, in that Toronto version, Cumberbatch’s Edison came off a narcissist and Shannon’s Westinghouse too classy a gentleman to get in the mud with him. Until, finally, Edison taunted Westinghouse’s AC current innovations as dangerous, playing up the potential for fatal accidents in a dramatic public presentation. After that, Westinghouse released correspondence showing that the hypocritical Edison served as a technical adviser on the development of the electric chair, this after Edison proclaimed than unlike his rival he would never use electrical power to harm a human being.
“I didn’t know what rock bottom was until that moment,” the director said. “I was completely shattered by one screening I knew I wasn’t ready for.” Actually, rock bottom came shortly after, when Gomez-Rejon said Weinstein sent him a new post-Toronto cut, demoralizing because the director thought that with a Thanksgiving release date, he’d at least have time to make some fixes himself. “I could barely watch but I had to. I could see battles I’d won and all that I lost in the negotiations to keep moments I was proud of,” he said. “And I could see that there was too much negotiation and compromise on the screen. It felt off, and I found myself wondering if this was the film I would have to make excuses for my entire career, because the story had so much potential.”
He said he could practically hear the thought process of reviewers there, “that it was game on for every pun on electricity in reviews that would dismiss this film. And then when I got back to L.A. and was presented with the new cut [Harvey] put together, it was like being kicked while I was down. And then the company imploded and Harvey was gone.”
That, and the resulting plunge into bankruptcy, turned out to be a saving grace for the film, among the very lucky things that happened. First, Bekmambetov, whose Bazelevs banner regularly finances his films and had Russian distribution on this one, got tipped to the fact that Lantern — which had emerged with TWC assets from Chapter 11 bankruptcy — was preparing to cut its losses. Bekmambetov received a letter authorizing him to release that last cut overseas.
“The film was frozen in time, and I found myself dreaming of being able to present to its new owners my vision for how I would fix it; about the scenes that were cut in pre-production that would have explained so much,” he said. “The meeting never happened and we read in the trades about the imminent international release of the film. I was confused, and felt powerless but there was still something in the furnace and I couldn’t let it go.”
Then, Scorsese blocked the release.
Gomez-Rejon grew up in the Texas border town of Laredo and the early films of Scorsese forged his determination to be a filmmaker. “I was obsessed with his movies as a kid, watched them over and over on VHS and applied to NYU because he went there,” Gomez-Rejon said. “I interned in his office and got to be his on set assistant during Casino and I wrote a Chanel commercial he directed and he has always been an important person in my life. He came on as producer simply to have my back, should things get ugly along the way. And then they got not ugly but surreal. Nobody expected that to happen to The Weinstein Company, and the way that everything happened, Marty never had a chance to give his two cents on the cut. I had final cut, but it was conditional. But there in the contract it said, should I lose my final cut and a new cut is created without my consent, he would have to sign off. There was no chance for that to happen.”
That legally blocked Lantern from releasing the film overseas and collecting the proceeds on one of the many distressed TWC assets. Gomez-Rejon said that Lantern has since been helpful and supportive, after the director’s agents locked horns over Scorsese’s check mate.
“Marty called it a miracle, something that just never happens,” Rejon-Gomez said.
Bekmambetov provided the cash flow for Gomez-Rejon to fix the movie. Even though he had one day in an English farm house, the stars all showed up, and the director knew everything he wanted to reshoot and got it all done, quickly.
Separately, 101 stepped up to settle a debt with a bank, which became part of 101’s domestic commitment.
“It would have been easy to move on, but it would have been with this nagging feeling that if I hadn’t spent all my time addressing notes from multiple parties [before Toronto], I would have made close to the film I wanted to. And then I get the call from my reps,” he said. “I was getting the film back and had six to eight weeks and the chance to shoot one extra day. I was never more prepared for anything in my life. A lot of actors needed to be there on one Saturday in December and they all stepped up. We had this farmhouse and one room was Tesla’s office, another was Edison’s bedroom, and on and on.” He also added a new score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, and incorporated suggestions by Scorsese and Timur that were helpful and didn’t leave him feeling strong-armed.
The difference from the Toronto cut to now?
“Everything missing is there now, including the right pacing that escalates the tension between these two men,” Gomez-Rejon said. “The heart of the film is restored: Edison’s relationship with his wife, and the explanation of her fatal illness and what it did to him. You feel her loss deeply and it carries you through as he goes to a dark side without her there to humanize his ambition. Westinghouse has been humanized without making him a saint, and there are now layers and complicated performances so that instead of spoon-fed emotion, everything is earned. The music heightens the tensions of their war. There are new scenes with Tesla, who was never meant to be a lead character but now you see his genius and vulnerability. He doesn’t feel forgotten in this movie, and he gives heart and clarity to the clash between these two men and what drives them to go to such dark places.”
It will now be up to critics and audiences to give the film a new shake. That certainly did happen with The Upside, which became a hit, even after The New York Times dismissed it as a “flop” months before its theatrical release.
“The film is very different stylistically, more edgy and visceral and more like The Social Network in its energetic, contemporary tone,” Bekmambetov said. “Thank god for 101, which will give a theatrical release on the movie Alfonso wanted to make.”
Endeavor Content brokered the deal with 101 Studios.