Energy Cast Podcast: Behind the scenes of The Current War (2019)

The Current War
Dramatic license was taken for this scene at the Chicago World's Fair. My guest says says he couldn't resist having Westinghouse ask Edison, "What is it like to be the person who gets to feel the feeling of the world changing."

Energy Cast is a regular podcast featuring some of the top experts across all links in the industry chain. Those include coal, nuclear, efficiency, renewables, oil and gas, as well as top government researchers. Longtime project manager Jay Dauenhauer created it and has been hosting Energy Cast for several years.

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I have been wanting to cover a story on “The War of the Currents” for a while now.  About a year ago, I read Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, a historical fiction, so I had some background on this important episode in world history.

The Current War, a new film based on an original screenplay by my guest, Michael Mitnick, covers that 13-year period, from 1880-1893.  Michael began writing the script as a play while in grad school at Yale (his first play featured then-student and future Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o).

After it was completed as a screenplay in 2011, it was selected for the Hollywood “Black List” of the best still-unproduced screenplays.  A year later it was optioned as a feature.  Cameras rolled in 2016 and the film was set for release November 2017, produced by The Weinstein Company—as in Harvey Weinstein.

Mitnick says a close friend called him three-days before the infamous New Yorker story broke.  “At that moment on the phone I knew, ‘Oh, the movie’s done,” he says.

The story broke a month before the film’s release.  “While we were editing, we’d get the sense that something unusually bad was happening at The Weinstein Company, though we didn’t know what it was,” says Michael.  “Notes started to come in that had no relation to reality. Why is someone obsessing over a minor word in a sentence that has no significance either way?”

He described the episode as “devastating,” adding, “I began to wonder if can even come out because people will associate it with [Weinstein], even though he had nothing to do with it, other than initially raising money.”

In 2019, Martin Scorsese, the film’s executive producer, rescued the film, exercising final cut.  This allowed the filmmakers to re-shoot and edit the picture (hence the reason it’s called “The Director’s Cut” on posters).  Michael called Scorsese’s role getting the film released “unbelievable.”

The movie itself covers two American titans, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon).  Tom Holland stars as Edison’s assistant Samuel Insull and Nicholas Hoult plays Nikola Tesla.

The two currents at the center of this “war” are alternating and direct current.  Edison, coming off the invention of the light bulb, was a strong DC supporter.  It was low voltage and required power stations close to the customers, which of course Edison provided.

Enter alternating current. This was championed by Westinghouse.  By transmitting over longer distances at higher voltages, you could then step-down (transformers) AC voltage closer to the sources that used it.  The format was clearly superior, so Edison’s only hope was to allege that AC was deadly.  There’s a subplot in the movie involving the first electric chair.

At first, all electricity was used for lighting, but customers were eager to use it to power heavy machinery and appliances.  Nikola Tesla’s invention of the poly-phase AC induction motor finally solved that challenge, and the rest is history.

Michael says he spent time on set.  He gave Cumberbatch a signed photo of Edison as a present for agreeing to do the film.  Mitnick described Cumberbatch as a “sweetheart,” but of Edison, “[He] was known for a lot of things, but he was not known for being a nice guy.”

Michael, who grew up in Pittsburgh, recalls his professor/historian father describing Westinghouse, on the other hand, “as a good guy…different from other tycoons of his era.”

When the conversation turned to Tesla, Michael agreed that it was difficult reducing the character’s role to be appropriate for the story they were telling.

“[Tesla has] emerged over the last 15 years as a folk hero, and as a representation of someone who, especially as an immigrant, is perceived to have been treated worse than anyone.  And that if he had been given his fair shake, and if capitalism didn’t have its way, he would have been one of our explicit heroes, and our technology would be far more advanced than it is.”

It wasn’t lost on Michael that his small, “prestige” picture stars nearly every superhero character on screen today.  “Well, maybe this can have a life in China because we can show all the Marvel people,” he jokes.

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Much like this podcast, I was curious how challenging it was to represent some highly technical concepts to the movie-going audience.  “The film is PG-13,” he says, “I have to make sure that a 13-year-old kid, who’s never had physics, to an older person, understands it.”

To that end, Michael says he wrote as many as 30 drafts to help explain the technology, rather than expository dialog.  One example is the map of the U.S. where lightbulbs represent cities using Edison’s DC (white) or Westinghouse’s AC (red) system.  Michael says he got the idea for this plot device after watching the stage musical 1776, which depicted delegates’ votes on a board.

Another challenge with audiences was the effort to capture the magic felt by characters seeing electric light for the first time.  He admits his drama professors questioned that challenge.

“For me it was the hope that in those scenes where we are lighting up towns, it could somehow feel like if you broke the news to everyone that time travel is possible.” (This podcast originally aired in October 2020.)

Dauenhauer himself was previously executive director of the Clean Coal Technology Association in Texas. He also has worked as project director in power generation and transmission as well as a media analyst for TXU Energy prior to the $45 billion leveraged buyout of that company in 2007. A Louisiana native and proud graduate of Louisiana State University, his career began as a TV news producer before transitioning into the energy sector. Back behind the mic, Dauenhauer hopes to bring his experience working across several energy sectors to you in a program designed to be accessible to both the public and industry insiders. Dauenhauer also is a member of the POWERGEN International and DISTRIBUTECH International advisory committees. Clarion Energy is the parent company of Power Engineering, POWERGEN, DISTRIBUTECH.

Energy Cast Podcast is hosted biweekly by Jay Dauenhauer. Learn more about the podcast here.

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