EXCLUSIVE: Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is ten days away from getting a theatrical release for his re-shot and re-worked The Current War: Director’s Cut, after more than two years spent fighting to see vision onscreen. 101 Studios is backing the theatrical rollout of a film that chronicles the battle to electrify America that pitted Thomas Edison and his DC system against George Westinghouse and his AC system, the battle coming down to who would win the right to light the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. There was also a battle of whose vision for The Current War would be the final one seen onscreen. On one side was Gomez-Rejon, and on the other was Harvey Weinstein, the once formidable mogul whose fingerprints were all over the edit of the film when The Weinstein Company was set to release before the company’s scandalous implosion. Before his Hollywood banishment for sexual assault and harassment allegations he has denied, Weinstein seemed to have won the battle for control of The Current War; Gomez-Rejon said it was Weinstein’s cut that premiered at The Toronto Film Festival. It landed with a thud there and left Gomez-Rejon crushed and wondering if his career was over.
Back in April when 101 Studios paid around $3 million for the film’s rights with a wide release commitment, Deadline revealed how the filmmaker and his team thwarted an earlier attempt by Lantern Entertainment to release overseas the old cut — which was seen in the UK in July– by invoking a clause in Martin Scorsese’s executive producer contract that gave him final cut. And how producer Timur Bekmambetov — whose obsession with electricity goes back to a childhood when his father worked as an electrical engineer in the Soviet Union — provided the extra funds and equipment for Gomez-Rejon to reassemble the cast for a re-shoot that allowed his reedit to include important new scenes. It’s almost unheard of for a filmmaker to get this kind of second chance on a film that premiered in as high profile a venue as Toronto. Gomez-Rejon tells his unusual tale.
DEADLINE: There is not a long list of directors given a mulligan like The Current War gets on October 25. I just saw your re-cut, and recall the film that premiered at Toronto two years ago, that one that bore the influence of Harvey Weinstein in the editing room. The earlier film felt long and wasn’t propulsive enough. Yours felt faster paced, with a stronger focus on the bitter feud between Edison and Westinghouse, and the genius of those men and Tesla crackling in the background. What precisely is different in your cut that merits another look from reviewers and the public?
ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: Everything. It moves faster. It is 10 minutes shorter. The rhythm is different. I didn’t want it to feel like a movie about the past; it’s a movie about the future and the struggle to get there. In its former incarnation, the studio felt there was a comfort zone in making it feel old fashioned, highbrow and stodgy. I was all about movement and energy and youth and ideas and looking into the future and having a movie be paced so that it is always a step ahead of you until the very end when it drops you at the doorstep of the future. I struggled to find that right shape because it is unconventional and not a traditional acts one, two, and three. You’re juggling three protagonists and you have to understand how the two main ones think. Why does Edison react the way he does? You have to humanize them so you see yourself in both him and Westinghouse. You have to see their dark sides, the ambition and ego and humility, this question about how far not only would they go to be remembered and to win. So you ask yourself, how far would I go? It finally has a shape, an energy and urgency and it feels like you were there, hopefully. The role of Edison’s wife, Mary, was further developed in a way that makes you understand why it was so important for Edison to continue defying nature. We also have an entirely new score that feels propulsive, which the film always needed.
There are five new scenes we shot in London that we cut for budgetary reasons in pre-production. I always felt that was a mistake and we were able to pull together the money and get the cast back to further develop Mary and Edison, and Tesla. These scenes are short but crucial, and because I had already been cutting the film in my head every day since TIFF, once we got back into the room it found its shape rather quickly.
DEADLINE: How difficult is it to erase the past blah reception that other cut of the film got in Toronto two years ago, when the judgment passed by critics there was harsh?
GOMEZ-REJON: It would have been hard, having to inherit reviews from two years ago, which are very painful because they don’t reflect what the film is and who I am. Luckily, we have a new title. The Director’s cut is part of our title, and that allowed us to start fresh with a new page on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, whatever comes my way I’m ready for, because it will reflect my cut.
DEADLINE: So much of these adult movie theatrical releases are about optics. Being shackled with the splatter from bad or subpar reviews on Rotten Tomatoes would be a real hardship. How hard was it to convince them that that version of the film reflected the vision of Harvey Weinstein, who for good or bad was known to impose his will on films he released?
GOMEZ-REJON: The conversation with 101 Studios became, how can we position this movie to give it a chance? You have all these other reviews of a different movie…it’s just not fair. They were able to make a case with Rotten Tomatoes that it’s such a significantly different film that it deserves its shot. And by changing the title to The Current War: Director’s Cut, we are able to start fresh. I can’t control how people are going to review it. But the response has been incredibly positive to this version. The film is now exactly what I always imagined it could be and it is very cathartic on a personal level.
DEADLINE: Much better than when you sat through the Toronto Film Festival premiere, watching a cut that wasn’t yours, and being unable to say anything? Did you know going into that Toronto theater that you were about to see a long cut that was more reflective of the vision of Harvey Weinstein and not you, the director of the film?
GOMEZ-REJON: Yes. Oh, my God, I’m getting PTSD just talking about it. Because it’s a time in my life I try not to think about. Those were some of the darkest moments of my life. Film is everything to me and it felt like a death, like something you love has been taken away from you. I had lost a lot of the battles going into TIFF but there was a small piece in me that thought, well, the movie still has a few months before it’s released, there is still hope…I have a lot of Harvey stories about the making of the film, but part of me doesn’t want to have him redefine this new version, so I don’t want to talk about him.
I knew going into that screening that the film wasn’t ready and I was very nervous. I’m exposing this to the world supposedly as a work in progress because this is September, and we’re not being released until Thanksgiving or Christmas. So part of me feels, okay, it may not go well [in TIFF], but there is still time. And the opposite happened. It was the death blow and as a filmmaker within a studio like that, once you lose leverage, it becomes a free for all, with everyone trying to be the hero. You’re just trying to stay alive as your vision is slowly being whittled down to what other people think audiences will like.
And then the studio collapsed two or three weeks later. Within a month, the world had changed, and then the film was just…shelved. But to answer your question, [TIFF] was a brutal experience; it was brutal to feel it in the air when something isn’t working. To be rushed to screen so publicly and then you see it with an audience for the first time in months, knowing it’s not ready and then being judged for that. It became less about a serious review and more about who could come up with the cleverest wordplay using ‘electricity,’ and ‘light,’ and ‘electric’ at the film’s expense. It became a game, but it felt personal for me. I’d never been on that receiving end of social media, and it was unsettling. It took a while to get back on my feet. And once I did get back on my feet, and came back to the editing room, the studio had re-cut the film again while I was away, grieving. So it just never stopped. The only thing that stopped it were those expose articles in The New York Times and The New Yorker. That stopped everything cold. But then what followed was a period of not knowing if anyone was ever going to see any version of the movie. Would I ever have a chance to get my voice back?
DEADLINE: If you had been faced with this movie just disappearing, or watching that inferior cut getting released, which would have been a better option for you personally?
GOMEZ-REJON: That’s a great question…How about would it have been better for my version to be dumped, as long as my version survived? Yes. But that was not an option for me. There was the prospect of no film getting out or a movie that had been so [studio] noted to death to come out. Neither option seemed right. I would have preferred to have had my version be dumped, and in time, discovered. Maybe that would have been the best solution. But I just kept cutting the film in my head for two years. It was hard to give up on it, even as people close to me told me, just move on. This happens to filmmakers; you do your best under the circumstances and the conditions in which you’re allowed to make a movie. Sometimes they work and sometimes not, but at least it is your version. When you start playing with more money and bigger budgets, what happened to me becomes possible. Mine was an extraordinary version of what can go wrong when you work with a studio and the more you realize what was going on behind the scenes at the time that I was trying to finish the movie, the more you get an idea of why the studio was so obsessed with this film. Later, you know why. Clearly, there was a lot of stuff happening and I became a distraction or obsession that was not healthy. You get a sense of why my film was being so tortured…maybe he knew it was going to be his last film, I don’t know.
DEADLINE: Describe the chaos that came from that.
GOMEZ-REJON: Well, it was fucked up, even within the world of The Weinstein Company. Within his inner circle, I was getting notes from LA, New York, and London. It just wouldn’t stop. Obsessing over decibels and ADR to the point that it just became obsessive, like being told that one word or other just had to be in there. It got to where it didn’t make any sense even to the people in the studio, but there was no way of stopping it. Obviously there was so much going on behind the scenes that no one knew about, and this film in some way was the outlet for a lot of that, I guess. I don’t know that for sure, and I don’t really want to know. All I do know is that the impossible happened. Which is, the film wasn’t released to the world. And then the fear of it never being seen was also painful, because I had so much to say and I fought and I fought and never gave up because I thought the movie that I had in my head was still possible. And now it’s at a point where I’m really proud of it and it seems to work in the way that I always intended it to. It was worth the fight. Hopefully it won’t be this painful every time, but this was worth the fight.
DEADLINE: A few directors who backstopped you as producers really came through for you. Timur Bekmambetov fronted money for your re-shoots, after executive producer Martin Scorsese’s final cut provision in his contract prevented Lantern Entertainment from releasing overseas a cut you hated. Why didn’t you play that Marty final cut ace card back when Harvey Weinstein was being so heavy handed?
GOMEZ-REJON: First, Timur has been a real guardian angel. He gave me a key to his office, he gave me an Avid, and any time I had an idea, I’d call my editor and we’d just go up to his cutting room, any time of day or night. It is great to have a producer who’s an artist and is constantly just supporting you and hearing you out, and suggesting how to fix something. He has such a strong visual effects background that we would sketch something together there and then we’d get it done through his company.
As for the Scorsese thing, the reason that trump card wasn’t used earlier was because… you have to understand everything happened so fast. TIFF was early September, our release was November or Christmas, and the weeks after TIFF were so chaotic. And then everything just suddenly…stopped. The rush to make TIFF and then the end of The Weinstein Company all happened within weeks. As soon as the stories broke, everything was frozen. So we never really followed through to the end of a cut because the studio collapsed quickly.
It was only when we read…and this is my agent Mike Simpson and Roger Green and Chris Donnelly, we read in the trades that the film was going to be released internationally, which was news to us. We had been waiting to get the movie back from whoever was going to buy the assets to give me my opportunity to re-cut this film, and we thought maybe there was never going to be a need to bring in Marty. It was only after we realized what was going to happen that we needed to prevent it. Marty had never signed off on the final cut, which was in his contract. And that’s when everything stopped. Marty got his final cut, and he turned it over to me to fully realize the movie I had in my head.
DEADLINE: One of the problems with that Toronto cut was, here’s a movie about two iconic inventors trying to control how America would receive electricity. You had Edison, who favored Direct Current or DC, more than happy to slander Westinghouse’s Alternating Current, or AC system. Westinghouse was too decent a man to get down in the mud and fight dirty. Now, he gets down there much quicker, and Tesla seems more purposeful in applying electricity to power machinery. Which character benefited most from your re-shoots and editing?
GOMEZ-REJON: I think they’re all so connected that when you elevate one, everyone else’s mission and point of view is clarified, too. There’s a new scene where Tesla gets fired, when he’s singled out and dismissed as an immigrant.
DEADLINE: And the company that sponsored his research claimed ownership of his work…
GOMEZ-REJON: It shows a fear that a lot of artists have. You live with your ideas in your head and the fear is you’re never going to be able to realize what’s in your head. And then, because you’re just an immigrant…that scene elevated his story and the humanity and the vulnerability of someone who thinks so far ahead into the future. By adding that immigrant line alone, it elevates the fence metaphor analogy throughout the film. There is a literal fence that Edison’s wife Mary wants built, there is a fence Edison puts up to prevent people from stealing his ideas which made him avoid collaboration, and there’s a fence that ends the film at the World’s Fair that is at the heart of the final scene between Edison and Westinghouse. As a child of immigrants, the fence will have another layer to it, it’s just the nature of who I am.
Adding new scenes that clarified Mary’s illness allows you to understand Edison’s reaction to the loss and how she centered him and why he’s going to spin out of control and how it motivated him to keep her alive through early recordings of her voice, and by other means that should be left a surprise in the film. He was always trying to defy nature and win. You understand his ambition, but the film now humanizes him because you understand how lost he is without that one person he’s trying to keep alive. One of the problems with the early cut was that the studio didn’t want anyone to dislike Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought that was a huge mistake, that it neutered the movie if we just have two nice men going after each other. It’s okay if you see the dark side of Edison, as long as you understand where it comes from. It’s now a beautiful, complicated, dark, multi layered performance by Benedict. I’m proud of all the performances but what he’s able to do, and by me embracing the footage that I knew I had of him being a darker character, and that emotional connection to his wife even as she becomes this ghost by his side, watching him. It becomes so much richer.
That alone made him different from Westinghouse who had this front of being a man of the people. But now we show another layer, him in the Civil War, that slowly shows he’s a fighter and a killer too; he just operates differently. You have the two men pitted against each other, and we explain the technical aspects of what set them apart, AC vs DC, just enough to not stop the movie and make it feel like homework. You only have to understand enough to latch onto it. One of the mistakes of that early cut was to over-explain. It just stopped the movie cold and I wanted it just to be in constant motion.
The movie had too much fat. Removing it allows you to see the themes I love so much, which includes the consequences and responsibilities of technology. You get the light bulb and that also gave you the electric chair. There are ties between technology and culture everywhere, from penicillin to birth control pills or the flushing toilet. Right now, things are moving so fast that you wonder how we are going to adapt. There was no Facebook 15 years ago and now it helped weigh a democratic election.
DEADLINE: There is a wonderful scene near the end where Westinghouse and Edison strip away their rancor and Westinghouse gets Edison describes the euphoric feeling when his light bulb first worked. It’s that atom-splitting moment of wonder of genius and discovery that wasn’t there enough in the previous cut I saw at TIFF. When you finally overcame all that was stacked against this movie, and showed it in public, describe what that breakthrough moment felt like for you as a filmmaker.
GOMEZ-REJON: Well, I think the big moment for me just happened, though it’s a bit embarrassing. I had worked on this so hard and for so long, and other than my inner circle, I hadn’t screened it for the public, where you know it’s your final version and there is no going back. I showed it at AFI to students and brought back my favorite teacher from when I was there, Jim Hosney, to moderate the Q&A. As an artist, it’s not for you to say if your movie is great; that’s for audiences to decide. But I could feel that the movie worked, and I had a lot of interaction with the students and could feel they connected to its themes, and what I tried to do technically, and that they appreciated the performances and the dark sides of it. When I drove home, I just broke down in a way I wasn’t expecting. I haven’t had a good cry in a few years, and my body just let go and I realized that I had been holding on and steeling myself for so long.
You can lose your way on a journey like this, and I did. You can get confused, and I did. But I realized I finally saw myself in the film again. The personal hook that made me want to make this to begin with, was restored. All the noise and chaos was gone and now it was all on me. I drove away and it just flowed out of me. I realized it came from a great place, and not one of the fear or shame I felt with the other versions of the film. It just came out of a place of truth and me saying, this is who I am. I can honestly say this is the best I could have done. Come what may with the reviews and whatever else, it’s all me, the best I could give. It was a final letting go of the bad. It gave me strength and confidence and it just made me look forward to the next time I do this. Which seems ridiculous after you go through so much pain, but you just have to get up and do it again because the highs…nothing compares to it, you know?
DEADLINE: If another director was facing similar adversity where control of the film is taken from them, what advice would you give them?
GOMEZ-REJON: Every movie you make should be worth fighting this kind of fight; it has to be why you’re making the film in the first place. If you walk away and go, let’s hope for the best and move on to the next, you will be haunted by the result. And what happens if the next one is worse? You can learn so much about yourself by fighting. But you should surround yourself with people you trust so it doesn’t have to be so lonely, which it was for me at times. And when you go in business with someone, put language in your deal that protects your vision, even though the higher the budget the harder that gets sometimes. I’m ready to fight for the next one, I just hope it’s not as unpleasant as this was. It won’t be if you’re surrounded by people who understand your vision and will as a director and who don’t suddenly assume they are also directors, too. That was a problem at that studio, that they could do everything better. We didn’t go over budget, we made every shooting day. This was about control.
DEADLINE: This second chance was made possible by real filmmakers who were your producers. What was most gratifying in showing your cut to Timur Bekmambetov and Martin Scorsese, and the cast of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult and everyone else who came back for reshoots two years after completing their roles?
GOMEZ-REJON: They all finally saw the film I intended to make. By the time we re-shot those scenes, they had seen the cut I had worked on, before the new scenes were shot. They saw it coming together. That’s the only reason they all came back. They’ve been nothing but supportive, every one of them, in seeing the movie through to the end. They believed in me and I’ll never forget them. This beautiful, crazy bunch of artists trying to tell a story with no one taking the easy road, which they could have. They all just stood behind me; they knew how much it had been altered and how many fights I had lost in my negotiation to keep my vision intact until I saw less of me on screen and more of him. I needed to upset that balance and go back to putting in as much of me that was possible. My story isn’t new. Miramax, Weinstein and so many other studios have stories of filmmakers going through this. But this just happened at an extraordinary moment in that studio’s history, because of everything that was happening behind the scenes. That is what made this story so different, and also contributed to me being able to get a second chance.
DEADLINE: Martin Scorsese is launching his own film, The Irishman, but we wouldn’t be having this conversation were it not for the final cut checkmate he invoked to protect you. What can you share about his reaction to the version of the movie that will soon be opening in theaters?
GOMEZ-REJON: There’s a lot that I’d like to keep private because it makes it so special. Marty was my hero before I ever met him; his movies changed my life, made me leave Laredo, Texas after I discovered them on VHS. His movies spoke to me so directly that I had to make movies. So many years have passed, but to see his humility and generosity of spirit as intact as I always imagined it would be…when you meet your heroes, you can be disappointed, but I never was. He gave me incredible notes throughout the process and he actually said early on it might take a while to find the right shape of a film, and that finding Edison would be like trapping some elusive beast and it would be difficult because we were trying to shoot the film and release it within the same year. That’s possible for certain films but this one was harder because the structure wasn’t as clear as acts one, two, and three and it wouldn’t be so easy to edit. He was right and only two years later did we tame the beast. All you needed was time and stillness to be able to settle your thoughts. Because I was in a storm for weeks and months and when you’re in a storm, you don’t have time to listen to your inner voice. Marty’s guidance was dispensed as filmmaker to filmmaker, and the notes were never prescriptive. It was not his film, it was mine, and he respected that. And when it was time to exert the power to take the lead on it, he respectfully handed it to me. Because I was the director and there’s only one vision and it is that of the director.
DEADLINE: One of the themes that resonates from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading TV star character melting down as he watches his career slip away. I wonder if that was comparable to how you felt at Toronto, sinking in your seat as you watched Harvey Weinstein’s cut on the screen, wondering if this you were watching your directing career get killed?
GOMEZ-REJON: A hundred percent. And the silence that followed [after the premiere] confirmed that [dread]. You wonder, is it all in your head? Probably half of it is, but there was a period I thought it might be true. I think of my heroes like Scorsese and how they are doing their best work that is personal, big and with no end in sight, and that is the trajectory you want to be on. For a minute there, I thought it was all over for me. Now, I really do feel like I’m alive again, and bursting with ideas. I look at Marty, and he’s moving so fast he never allows himself to fail, which is somehow similar to Edison, and the movie now follows that idea too. Edison fails, and he’s already onto the next and you know it’s the nature of inventors who are out to create permanence. I think that’s the nature of filmmakers, too and it’s that balance between the ego and humility that ultimately will define us.