Director Chris Paine on his Film Who Killed The Electric Car
Chris Paine is the director of the new documentary, Revenge of The Electric Car, a follow up to his 2006 film Who Killed The Electric Car. In addition to directing, Chris has served as an executive producer on films such as William Gibson: No Maps for these Territories and 2003’s Faster. He also founded the Internet company Internet Outfitters and co-founded Mondo-tronics, which produces robotic materials. I had the chance to speak with him out on the balcony of the new Trump SoHo Hotel shortly after his film premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival where it became one of the notable standout films.
How did your interest in electric cars begin?
Well, my bicycle broke down and it was cheaper to get an electric car than fix my bike up. That’s my joke answer, but my real answer is that I wasn’t really that interested in cars but then I heard that Paul MacCready, who had done the Gossamer Albatross, the bicycle powered plane when I was just a kid in the 70’s, that he had designed an electric car and I’ve got to drive it. It was a pilot program and I applied to it through GM and I didn’t get in but then the cars went on sale about a year or two later and I bought one. The first day I drove it off the lot I went, “wow, the future’s arrived!” This car was like nothing else you’ve ever driven, it was every fantasy I’d ever had of what cars could be as a little kid. I drank the Kool Aid as they say. I think that’s why it’s so exciting now because people are finally going to get a chance to drive them. They may not be quite as fast as the General Motors EV1 was but even that Nissan Leaf, you can get that EV1 feeling when you’re driving, like “wow, this is so much cleaner and [there’s] just something about it, you feel it!” so that’s what got me in.
Watching your most recent film, Revenge of The Electric Car, really evokes a feeling of excitement about the possibilities of electric cars. I had watched the previous film, Who Killed The Electric Car, which ends on a disappointing note, so it’s so nice to see how things have changed in the last few years. How far away do you think we are from a real mass-market acceptance with electric car in America?
I think we’re probably looking at 5 years before the price comes down to where a lot of people can jump into it. I mean $32,000 before tax credits is still expensive for most people but there are so many markets that already put these cars up, I don’t think they’ll have any problem selling inventory, especially with gasoline at $4 a gallon, they’ll be able to sell these cars and this will infiltrate. You’ll begin to see it, kind of like the Toyota Prius [at first it’s] “oh, this stupid looking Prius and then 3 years later it’s like, God, there sure are a lot of Priuses around.” I think this will happen with the electric car, especially [because] it’s going to be everyone from BMW to Ford with their Focus EV, this is coming from a lot of directions.
It’s exciting. One thing I thought about when I saw the film, having been to Japan and seeing Nissan’s approach in the film, is that other countries might step on the technology first and kind of drive America a little bit, just because they can put out the stations really quick and there’s not as much of a “red tape” issue.
I think the station installation in the US is one of the fastest in the world. I keep expecting to see a station or an electric car off this balcony. There’s a lot of money in venture capital right now flowing into this stuff and the right wing wants it because they don’t want to be permanently dependent on a bunch of idiots and empower the Middle East. You can already see where the Libya disruption went and that’s a fair movement. It’s already hurt the price of oil and its way too much dependency for us. The left wing wants it because they know it can be cleaner and I don’t think the obstacles to getting infrastructure are quite as big as people think in the US. It’s true that places like Japan, China, and other countries, in theory, have the ability to do this thing the fastest but I bet you it happens here faster in the US.
That would be interesting to see.
Yeah it is, you know we went to Japan to find the Mitsubishi iMIEV. They were originally in the movie and it was like it almost didn’t exist. We finally found some, we spent a whole day looking for them, 8 or 15 cars parked at TEPCO, ironically, and we went, “wow, this is a lot of hype they’re feeding into the U.S.!” I wish Mitsubishi every success, I think their car is really viable but the car companies use the electric cars to try and “green” the rest of their cars. This is what Toyota did with the hybrid. It’s part reality and part bullshit but the lucky thing about the electric car, I think, is that it is such an upgrade for the total car experience that it won’t go away, this time.
In terms of the film, I know that you’re an enthusiast and you’re also a filmmaker, but what comes first, where’s the film going to go? Is it going to be a big theatrical release or do you just want to get it out there?
I just want people to see it. Last time we did a deal with Sony and once you sell it to a studio they lock it down in their own business plan. Sony did a decent job putting the film out there but what really helped that film was Internet adoption and people saying “hey, did you see this movie?” and to this day you can’t even get that movie on Netflix streaming.
Yeah, I know it’s shocking!
It’s like, come on Sony, can you please do that? So our producers want to make sure that it doesn’t get locked up again and if that means we miss a big theatrical release, it would be painful to me. I feel it now because we’re buzzing right now, we’re the hot movie today and tomorrow people don’t remember us but I’d rather see us have more freedom with the movie than give it up to the man.
What made you choose TriBeCa as the place to premiere it?
Oh because this is New York, it’s just, the media and you’re here and Earth Day was here.
Yeah, it was nice to premiere the film on Earth Day.
We knew we could probably get Bob Lutz (Former vice chairman of GM) or Carlos Ghosn (C.E.O. of Nissan) and Elon Musk (C.E.O. of Tesla Motors) to all come here and if we had opened at South by Southwest, which was our other option, we may not have gotten that triangulation. I had an interview on MSNBC with one of the main programs and it was because it was Earth Day so…
Yeah, that sounds like good timing, it was nice having David Duchovny moderate the discussion with those guys after the film. How did Elon and the different people involved with the film feel about how they were portrayed?
Oh, they all liked it. Carlos wanted us to know that he wasn’t betting “the whole” company on the electric car and you know Dan Neil (columnist for The Wall Street Journal), who’s usually the guy who says the most inflammatory things, he’s sitting in the thing and I’m sure Elon is kind of excited that Dan Neil’s prediction that he’s going to lose his shirt may not be coming true. As a filmmaker sitting in a room like that, that these people who exist on video screens for 3 years, like you’re playing a video game, suddenly they are alive and breathing and interacting with you, it almost scrambles your brain
Yeah, I can imagine. It’s exciting as an audience member to have the cars right on the street after you walk out of the film and see how real it is, it’s amazing.
It’s fabulous, fabulous
You started out as an assistant for Michael Tolkin, a big writer in the film industry. How did you feel about that experience and what did you learn from it?
Well, he did The Player and I thought if I have to live in Los Angeles, I at least want to work for a smart New Yorker. I’m from San Francisco so we’re all supposed to hate Los Angeles but I slowly began to really like LA. A lot of great people came from NY and Michael was the right person to work for. He’s just in the zeitgeist of American culture in some way, but what I also saw in working for him was that a project could get locked up with studios. He did a film with Judy Davis I worked on for awhile and it just became a very painful process. The movie business was like walking through quicksand and you know what’s happening? The Internet is happening, so I jumped ship and I went off to play the Internet game for few years and it kind of refreshed me on two things- one, getting out of the baby boomer quicksand and two, picking up a younger generations energy for reinventing media and so when I finally came back to filmmaking, I was lucky enough to have that double perspective and I didn’t need to get totally beaten down by the film industry, which can be pretty punishing.
Yeah, actually it’s really interesting, I had read that you sold your Internet company, and I guess that must give you a lot of insight into Internet marketing and just knowing what’s out there. I mean the Internet is the future of film in some sense.
It’s real. I’m a film teacher so I see the change in the students. Netflix has changed the world.
Yeah, and it’s really good for documentaries.
Yeah, that’s what we find ourselves often watching.
Because a lot of times the studios hold back on what you really want to see on Netflix. “Oh, I’ve seen all those movies- oh, that new documentary, okay, I’ll watch that” and that documentary, you’d never put on your list if you could’ve watched the new Harry Potter or something.
I also read that you co-founded a robotics company and that you did work for the Mars robot?
Yeah, my friend Roger from high school got me involved with his company doing a Nickel-Titanium wire, like muscle tissue made out of metal and one of the designs he sold to a NASA group that did the Pathfinder. It was used to basically dump dust off of the top of the spectrometer because there is so much of it on Mars. I still think that was one of coolest things, something we touched is sitting on Mars
Well, maybe it won’t be so amazing in 50 years when Elon Musk is landing on Mars with his family or something. So yeah, like what you’re doing, that Joseph Campbell thing about “following your bliss” and not just hitting your head against the wall, I’m just lucky that the passion happened to line up with what I like doing…at age 50.
Well, it happens, you know? I understand, many people don’t ever have that so it makes a difference, it’s great to see this film is out there. There is a big jump from your previous film, the production value is so much nicer, the title sequence is terrific, it’s a sleek movie. It’s nice because the content of the original film was so good, that now with the new film, the production value really matches the content.
Yeah, and we had the luxury of technology moving ahead in the last 5 years, we didn’t have the budget for that the first time. Plus, the first film depended on, as you said, a lot of investigative type camera work which means shitty cameras and this time we go well “we have our one day with Carlos here so I’m going to rent a camera that’s $2000 with a beautiful lens with a camera operator that know how to operate it” and it makes a difference, you know, it’s hard to get stuff like that on an iPhone 4 video camera.
How did you manage to get the access that you did? I was shocked that someone like Elon was willing to put himself out there in the way that he did, it actually makes him look stronger in a sense because you see him bounce back. It makes him more human as opposed to a lot of the corporate people who are just “corporate faces.” How did you manage to get that?
Well, I met Elon Musk at like Burning Man or something years ago and he’s just a remarkable guy and I think he had seen the first movie and I think he felt the same way about what happened to the EV1 and he had the means. After Tesla I said “I’d like to track your story. If you’re serious about Tesla, I’ll buy one of your damn cars” and he made an instinctual choice that I wasn’t going to fuck him over and let me in. After you film for a couple of years people just begin to trust you. It was dicey for him, especially with some of his communication people when they got into their IPO because if things got out, that could’ve really adversely affected the IPO pricing. Our deal was nothing gets out until 2011. Elon is just brave, but you know, Bob Lutz is brave too.
Yeah, I was surprised with how honest Bob was.
Yeah, that’s why I put in that whole thing about risk adverse communications, whenever Lutz was doing stuff, his handlers were all around him and they’re like “oh Bob don’t hit on the girl at the Detroit auto show while you’re on camera.” Bob doesn’t give a shit, he knows that people are attracted to raw charisma even if they sometimes don’t do something PC or whatever.
It’s refreshing to see especially from someone from like GM. We’re so used to seeing the opposite where it’s just closed down.
Yeah, and I have to ask what cars you’re driving, I know you bought a Tesla from the movie.
I bought a Tesla 3 years ago. They had my money for a whole year and that’s why I was worried about putting a scene in the movie because it makes me look like some rich guy that just buys electric cars, but I go well, I am a true believer, you know, I might as well out myself so there I was. I’ve since bought a Volt and had to pay full retail price for these fuckers and they are nice cars and part of the reason I did it was, I don’t believe in spending all your money on cars but because I do college tours and stuff like that, everyone and their brother calls me [and asks] “what did you think of that car?” I didn’t want it to be just based on a movie, I wanted to see and it’s kind of expensive but it is worth it. That Volt is a much nicer car than I thought, even when I finished the film I’ve had it for 2 weeks now and I’ve driven about 500 miles in it, in California and used a gallon of gasoline and I think I’m understanding a little better why a plug in hybrid will work for so many more people than an electric car out of the gate, you know, you have to grow to an electric car. It’s for a certain kind of person.
Is it like a weaning process?
Exactly, and it doesn’t mean its bad. The Prius is a weaning process, selling a Prius and buying a plug in hybrid is kind of a great moment.
Yeah, you know it was exciting watching the movie, I thought to myself, well maybe this is the last gas car that I will have and I’m looking into it and understand the fears you have as a consumer but it’s exciting to see that it’s only a few years away.
And I had a dear friend who hates cars and she’s like, if I’m going to have car, it’s going to be a Zipcar, I don’t need to have a huge factory spend all this energy to make me my personal car and in fact, I took her into my electric car garage in California to impress her, “look it’s all solar powered, I’m all sun powered here” and she looked in the garage and there’s a Tesla sitting there and my old Rav 4 EV and she goes “don’t you have any bicycles?” Not one comment about solar energy or anything like that so I think that’s a great thing about generational change, you don’t need to own.