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Filmmaker Interview: Chris Paine, “Revenge of the Electric Car”

January 27th, 2012 by Rebecca Harper Editor

In “Revenge of the Electric Car” — available for free exclusively on Hulu for one week — director Chris Paine knew he had to position things a little differently than his 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which centered on the demise of GM’s EV1. “It’s always a trick to how you structure a documentary as a film,” Paine said by phone this week. “The first movie was set up as a murder mystery. This time, I saw it as a race. I kept the camera moving all the time. I didn’t want things to feel like a ‘Dateline’ special.”

While “Revenge” centers on the latest generation of electric-powered autos, Paine said he wanted the film to show what it takes to move things forward inside the system. “It’s really about how you can get things done from the inside,” he added. To build momentum, the director centered on the powerful personalities behind three electric car manufacturers — Bob Lutz (GM), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Carlos Ghosn (Nissan) — and the race to be first to market.

Below, we asked Paine for his take on the return of electric cars and what car he’s driving these days.

Your first movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” chronicled the demise of the beloved EV1 from GM. In “Revenge of the Electric Car,” electric-powered vehicles are back. What do you think contributed to their return?

The biggest factor was gas prices. They were up to $4 a gallon, and car manufacturers saw that gas prices could go up as high as $5 or $6 a gallon. They realized that they don’t have anything to sell consumers when the prices are that high.

Meanwhile, there was also pressure from the right wing. They were pushing electricity that we can produce in the U.S. Environmentalists, of course, were concerned about global warming, and legislators were passing regulations about emissions and gas consumption.

You started working on this film before 2008 and the collapse of the economy — and GM. With the Volt and Tesla still in development at that time, did you fear these products were going to be shelved?

Halfway through filming, GM went bankrupt, funding dried up for Tesla, and my friend Gadget’s electric car conversion garage burned down. It wasn’t looking so good. What I ended up documenting was that the best leaders can keep going when everything else collapses around them. They kept fighting for what the wanted to happen. Each case is individual.

For Tesla, [co-founder] Elon Musk spent every last dime he had to make payroll and keep the company going because he believed in the product. GM felt they had nowhere else to turn. The Chevy Volt represented the future for them. Things weren’t as dire at Nissan, but Carlos Ghosn saw the electric vehicle a their chance to be the first to market. Their attitude was “move now or fail.”

With this documentary, you had approved access to meetings and factories that were “enemy territory” in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” What changed this time?

We approached 12 different people. We faced several challenges. You can imagine they were nervous about trade secrets. Then there was GM’s bankruptcy. And two of the companies ended up going public, so everything was kept in secrecy so we didn’t destroy an IPO. Nissan had our editing room locked down for almost three years as they got the Leaf into production. It’s remarkable we got as much access as we had. I knew Elon personally, but when I approached GM, they said, “You? No.” But they came around.

So what car do you drive, Chris?

I have the Tesla Roadster from the first movie. My girlfriend drives a Leaf, and I use the Volt as my car. It gets 40 miles on electric, which works for getting around Los Angeles.

I wanted to put my money where my mouth is. These cars are worth a lot more than they’re charging for them — the electricity costs just $1 for the equivalent of a gallon.

What do you think about each of the cars, since you have them all?

Well, the Tesla has this sex factor. It looks like $1 million, and it goes superfast. It’s fun for showing skeptics that an electric car can be fast.

The Volt is great for my daily drive around L.A. Ninety percent of the time, it has no gas in it. If we want to go on a trip, it turns to a 38 miles-per-gallon car.

The Leaf is a super-practical urban car. My girlfriend loves it. You’re high up, and it’s easy to drive.