The idea of watching two of Hollywood’s finest actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, as Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battling it out for the control of electricity during The Industrial Revolution, was a tantalising prospect. The Current War, executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Cumberbatch, was even deemed a strong awards contender, especially for the British actor, who had been Oscar-nominated in 2015 and widely acclaimed for his portrayal as World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Yet when The Current War world premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival critics wrote how it lacked energy, it lacked spark.
Three weeks later, the weak reviews, combined with allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein (The Weinstein Company was the film’s US distributor) meant the film was shelved. The Current War’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (director of the Sundance prize winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as well as episodes of Glee and American Horror Story) said how Weinstein had re-edited the film to its detriment.
Once the film was re-sold after the Weinstein Company declared bankruptcy, Gomez-Rejon set about creating his own edit, adding five scenes and trimming ten minutes from the running time. However, when the film released in the UK, critics remained unimpressed, with Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian writing that the film is “Illuminating — but perhaps not quite as much as it could have been”.
In fact, The Current War is a lot better than critics have deemed, especially when it comes to the performances. Nicholas Hoult also plays Nikola Tesla, who was significant in how history panned out.
Understandably, the stars did not return to promote the film. Back in Toronto circa 2017, I caught up with Cumberbatch, Shannon and Hoult at an event for Grey Goose Vodka. All three tall imposing actors were happily imbibing on cocktails as they spoke and it made the event far more fun than the following day’s official press conference, some of which I include here.
The Current War’s writer Michael Mitnick explained how the story had started out with his play and compared it to the battle between VHS and Betamax. Edison championed the use of direct current whereas Westinghouse, backed by Tesla (a Serbian immigrant who had originally worked for Edison and moved over to Westinghouse) not only understood the benefits of alternating current, but devised a system for generating it.
“It’s a fundamental story about how the world was going to be wired and I’d never heard about it before,” Mitnick says. Nor had the actors.
Cumberbatch: “I knew very little about Edison and I discovered the stark contrast between the man himself and the man who promoted himself as part of his product, the branding as well as advancing, researching, developing and manufacturing. He’d journeyed from his humble beginnings to a point where he was seen as the wizard of Menlo Park [New Jersey] at a tender age, the king of it all. What happens when all that gets threatened? The film shows how you can lose your integrity and become someone who acts reprehensibly at times and forgets what the original intention of that invention of bettering mankind can be. I read a wonderful book called Empires of Light and then started to delve into the biographies and the opinions, which very much at the moment favour Tesla above all as being someone who’s still having an incredible impact on our lives.”
After Tesla moved over to work with Westinghouse, Edison became so competitive that he produced hundreds of flyers and pamphlets on the danger of alternating current, and gave demonstrations of the dangers by electrocuting small animals, something he called being “Westinghoused”. His financing of the electric chair (actually invented by dentist Alfred P. Southwick) came out of another battle with Westinghouse.
As with all the characters Cumberbatch has played, the British actor says he had to inhabit Edison “with a certain amount of understanding and empathy”.
“I don’t think his humble beginnings ever left him, that need to succeed and control. It’s an ugly truth that formed out of something very human. But there’s some degree of salvation in that he admits he was wrong even if he did go on to overlord a lot of patent controls in a desire to keep that fence very high and keep people out of his inventive garden, as opposed to [the more collaborative] George Westinghouse. Why not have a bigger garden? Of course, that’s the greater way, but we weren’t there. Personally, I’m interested in ideas of fame and how that can poison integrity.”
Cumberbatch was mindful that Edison has gone down in history as one of the great inventors. “I’ve played other famous men like Alan Turing and much-loved fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes and you’re treading on hallowed ground for a lot of fans, who were there way before you started meddling with the material. So, you have to be respectful.”
“To me, Westinghouse was just a name that was on products in my house, but I’d never stopped to consider that he was an actual person,” Michael Shannon said. “He seemed like he wanted it that way and wasn’t ever trying to be legendary or glorifying himself in any way. He worked hard and tried to make things that would help people. It was a real pleasure to put a face to the name. Westinghouse destroyed all the documents about his life before he died, so he’s like a ghost. Nobody is going to come along saying that you messed that up, because nobody knows.”
Hoult: “I knew a bit about Tesla as I’d read a book called Devil in the White City so I knew about the 1893 World’s Fair (where alternating current prevailed) and the build up to that. Learning about him was one of the great pleasures of doing the movie. He had such foresight, his imagination and his inventions were incredible, but I was also impressed by how selfless he was in giving up so much to create a better world. In the long run, he was unable to patent things properly or keep himself in good health. He was idiosyncratic in nature, obsessive-compulsive and germophobic. There were little things that made him slightly odd.”
Shannon: “There is speculation that Westinghouse deeply admired both Edison and Tesla and that he wasn’t interested in fighting with anybody. All he wanted to do was to have dinner with Edison.”
Cumberbatch: “It’s a film about misinterpretation, about missed opportunities. Edison was profoundly deaf and only heard what he wanted to hear. He created conflict where there could have been accord and that’s a universal story. I know from research and letters that Edison did have a respect for Westinghouse and Tesla as well. He just didn’t want to hear the argument on AC/DC and it cost him the war. They had common ground they could all work on. So, for me the story goes beyond the human angle and it becomes about how big business can turn it into something that has to be consumable and profitable. These men were young pioneers in an age of extraordinarily fast advancement and could have held hands and been firebrands in human advancement.”
As one might imagine, the actors did not come to the project with a wide technical knowledge.
“I was really bad at physics at school,” Cumberbatch confesses. “Circuit boards used to make me freak out. But I liked drawing them, only I’d put the switches in the wrong place and none of my LEDs would ever light up! So, I have a profound respect for the men and women in that field. Whenever I’ve done roles that have a level of genius, I try to at least have a layman’s understanding of it. Did I understand why he held onto DC when AC was clearly the better option? That to me seemed more a human dilemma than a scientific one. Again, going back to business, that was an angle to sell his idea, which he was stuck on.”
Shannon: “Like Benedict I wouldn’t be able to come up with any of this myself,” he admits. “What I found fascinating was not so much the creation of the inventions or the idea, but what these men did with them once they arrived and whether they were going to be helpful or not.”
Hoult: “I understood everything, and I think that shines through in my performance,” he jokes. “We had a science lesson where men came in trying to teach us this stuff and that got me in more of a tizzy, to be honest with you. I was trying to understand and that just spiralled into more questions.”
Cumberbatch to Hoult: “You did well, though. You did kind of get what he was on about. I was lost at page one, but you stuck with it.”
Hoult: “The thing that was really remarkable about Tesla was that he could create these things in his mind without building a model and he claimed he could run them in his imagination and fix problems that way as well. So, you can understand why people of the time were like, ‘Dude, you’re insane. That’s not possible’.
“Tesla had the vision when he was around six of harnessing the power of waterfalls and creating electricity through that. He could see such highs and lows, because he saw so far into the future that a lot of people couldn’t comprehend. He ended up penniless and came back from that. He had so many ups and downs.”
The idea in the film that the person who controls the current, controls the future, relates to today.
Cumberbatch: “Tesla was a century or so ahead of everybody else and I think it’s no mistake that Elon Musk named an electric car after this great, great prophet.”
Could you talk about your own relationship with electrical energy and the environmental problems it has caused?
Shannon: “These guys let the cat out of the sack and now we’re dealing with the repercussions of it. I think as many problems as it’s caused, that it’s a little cynical to look at it as a problem. Electricity has done a lot for us and is doing a lot for us right now. I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom.”
Cumberbatch: “You’re right. Not all the responsibility lies with them. I feel deeply hypocritical being flown here to talk to you on a lovely rooftop and the sun’s heat is probably as hot as it is at this time of year partly because of some of the fumes shooting out from the back of the plane I was on. It’s very hard to talk about environmental concerns when you’re in our industry and I think we’ve got a great way to go. The problem is, you need light to reflect through a lens onto film, or digits these days. Natural light often isn’t available, so you need electricity for stories to be told like this. There is a way to recycle on sets; there is a way to go about how we transport people on sets. I think electric vehicles should be mandatory. It gets you there; you can re-charge it when you’re at work. I don’t know why we don’t all do that on sets, but it’s probably the cost of the hardware at the moment. It needs to be more mass-produced or readily available. The markets need to cheapen their specialist products like Teslas and even hybrids like Priuses and Lexuses and that’s starting to happen. On a personal level, yes I recycle, and I try to wear clothes more than once.”
The actors were greatly attracted to work with their talented co-stars.
“Benedict and I only really have one scene together at the end and I was really looking forward to shooting that scene,” notes Shannon. “Filming primarily started with Edison’s stuff and I was busy then. By the time I showed up, Benedict was having a baby; it was crazy. Towards the end of shooting my stuff we met at the Brighton Pavilion (where the World’s Fair scenes were shot) and I remember walking onto one of the coolest sets I’ve been on. Shooting in the house that was Westinghouse’s home was really exciting, so there were some really inspiring locations. I’d done another film with Nick (their characters fought over water in 2014’s dystopian sci-fi thriller Young Ones) where he killed me. So this was a lot friendlier.”
Hoult: “My scene with George in the hotel room was brilliant.”
Cumberbatch: “I was over the moon when I heard about these two actors being cast. Michael is one of our great heavyweights, he’s the real deal, he does what cinema can do best and I hear he’s exceptional in the theatre as well. I love our scene together. It really upped my game; it’s such an important moment. Those two men have an almost consolatory meeting and it ends with the big question: Why not share the rewards? Why not just enjoy it and move on together? Then Edison moves on to new terrain and to a new tyranny of that terrain. [Of course, the meeting is fictional.]
“As for this young pup [he turns to Hoult] we’d met a couple of times and it was very exciting to work with Nick as well. I got the giggles very quickly as he’s very funny.”
The Current War is in cinemas March 19, 2020