Red Stewart chats with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon about The Current War…
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is an American filmmaker who has been working in the film and television industries since the 1990s. He is best known for his past collaborations with Martin Scorsese, as well as his directorial projects Glee, American Horror Story, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
His latest feature film was the biographical drama The Current War: Director’s Cut, which Flickering Myth had the chance to talk to him about, and I in turn had the honor to conduct:
Mr. Gomez-Rejon, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I know how busy you are and how hard it was to juggle your schedule to fit mine, so it really means a lot that we managed to make this work. Thank you sir.
No, it’s all good, it’s all good. I appreciate it.
I wanted to start off by asking you something of a philosophical question regarding director’s cuts. I remember Joss Whedon once said that he didn’t approve of extended cuts because filmmaking is ultimately a collaboration of multiple people, and you will always find things to tweak if you’re given the option to remix it.
I’m wondering – do you think that director’s cuts can be harmful to cinema since they champion this idea that there is always a more auteur-version of a movie? Or do the circumstances of The Current War’s production warrant it?
I think it’s completely different – we’re speaking to two kinds of director’s cuts. Usually the director’s cuts that I believe Joss Whedon is referring to are retooled by the directors after a film is released, and mine wasn’t released yet. What it was, was a version of the film, a very compromised version of the film, had been reviewed at the Toronto [International] Film Festival, and it became the defining moment of the film even though it was a work in progress. It was a movie that was incredibly compromised, with arguing and battling it out and all those stories that you’ve heard a number of times already.
So in order to come out and have a second chance as a standalone film apart from all the chaos and controversy, the director’s cut was a product of mine. You know, you have to understand that the film premiered and was reviewed as a final work and that was that. And so, two years later, after the studio collapsed, my film had been shelved and its future was unknown. But, without all the noise and the notes and the chaos, I kept working on the movie in my head and then, when David Glasser at 101 [Studios] gave me a chance to go back in there, I made the film I always wanted to make.
So the director’s cut is always the film I intended to make. By kind of redefining it with a new title, it was the only way we were able to separate it from the previous version whose life still remains on social media. And those early reviews remain on the IMDB page -it’s really painful to know that that still exists. The only way to start fresh was by doing this.
Now, I understand that with a director who is as obsessive as I am, and many of us are, you are going to want to keep tweaking and seeing ways to refine the film. But I think I’m more in the Scorsese camp, which is you make the film that is the best film that you are able to make under the conditions that you made it in, and then you move on, right? You hang it up on the wall and you keep walking and go “this is my moment, right now, of me making a film. This is the best that I could have done under the conditions and now it’s out and I can’t tweak it anymore nor should I.”
So it’s two very different things. One is tweaking it after it’s released and one is me tweaking it before it’s released but after a moment that was the beginning of a very surreal journey.
No, that makes complete sense. And you’re absolutely right- the situation regarding The Current War’s production more than warranted a “director’s cut” and I’m happy that your vision and version has received much better reviews than the original cut, which premiered back when it was still in the festival rounds.
Yeah, Joss Whedon would be referring to me now tweaking this version in a year.
Right, he was referring to a post-release reedit. Now, reading over your background, I know that you also come with a similar approach, having grown up in Mexico and Texas, dealing with personal tragedies. Does this background help when it comes to doing a movie like The Current War, which is based off real-life events and featured a lot of harsh aspects like greed, backstabbing, mourning, and animals being tortured?
Yes, there’s a lot of grieving in the film. I mean just look at the way Edison is using the technology of reproduction as conciliation, which is motion pictures or just technology to defy nature and be in denial of the realities of his wife’s death by keeping her alive as sound in a box and a moving image, and then eventually a memory in a movie theater. At the end, that’s very similar to what I was going through, which I explored in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with Greg Gaines grieving by making a film about an abstraction which was lost for him.
I think grief is, for me, an extension of that, of those themes, but on a bigger scale I guess. The integration of loss into your life, as opposed to the beginning of a journey of grief and death. This was more about the slow integration of someone who was incredibly ambitious and in denial. But so much is also tied into the themes of the movie about immortality and legacy, so they go hand-in-hand; there is a feeling of rebirth by the end.
So yes, an obsessive ambitious inventor dealing with death and all that, yeah there’s some ties there, but of course there’s a lot of Westinghouse in me as well, and in my parents. And that was one of the first things I thought of when I read [the screenplay], because my dad and my mom were so ethical and so clear in what was right and wrong, and how you need to come from a place of kindness- there was a lot of them in Westinghouse. And I hope that there’s some of that in me.
It’s always wonderful to hear when filmmakers are able to take their personal backgrounds and apply it to the story that they’re telling, even if that story is something that happened decades ago in this case.
Now you talked about George Westinghouse, and these days, both him and Tesla are seen in a very favorable light compared to Edison. The general agreement is that Tesla was a nicer person as he had a utilitarian motives like wanting to make electricity a public good. I know you personally love dealing with antiheroes as a storyteller, but how hard is it, as a filmmaker, to not give in to a black/white depiction of the persons/events involved? How much of a balancing act is it where you have to remain true to who a person was. but also show that they possibly came from a place of good intentions?
Yeah, one of the themes of the movie is you’re dealing with a double-sided event, the unintended consequences of technology. You know you have the light bulb that leads to the electric chair, just like how social media leads to loneliness even though it’s about the connections. Facebook, 15 years ago, didn’t exist, and now it’s swaying elections. I don’t believe Edison went into his creations and inventions trying to build some kind of dark dystopia, you know? It’s all about the greater good and what you don’t know is who controls technology eventually- what happens if it gets into the wrong hands?
And as long as you understand how Edison thinks, you maybe see a piece of yourself in him and how important his wife Mary was to him, at least in our interpretation of Edison in the story. When that person who was his moral compass who centered him and pressed reset and reminded him of the good, when that person was gone, then you can go into the dark side with him because he’s already anchored on a human level- you get him as a human being with all his flaws, warts and all, you get him.
You can then follow him that way and he’s not a villain, he’s just an incredible film antihero. You just have to treat them all and never judge any of them, any of your characters, the good ones and the bad ones- just treat them with respect and approach them on a human level and let them carry the story.
That’s sensible and you’re right, as a filmmaker, you should come from an objective approach to your characters. And that shows- usually when you have these kinds of biographical movies, there’re a lot of reviews that come out saying how someone was portrayed as too much of a villain, yet I’ve seen nothing of the sort here. Everyone agrees the portrayals were on point, so I believe you did a great job.
Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. I wish you the best of luck.
No it’s great, thank you!
Flickering Myth reached out to composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans to ask them about their role in The Current War: Director’s cuts’s score:
How did you get involved in The Current War: Director’s Cuts’s reedit and what were you trying to achieve with the music for it?
Alfonso reached out to us as he had heard a couple of our scores and liked our work. We were excited to jump on board immediately and we discussed the subject matter and main characters intensely. There was only a short amount of time for us to complete the score! We wanted a sophisticated, energetic, and poignant score for the film. A strong orchestral score but with electronic/industrial sounding elements also. Click clacking percussion, time crunching rhythms, deep thudding double basses and cellos resembling generators, and “motorized” string motifs – all juxtaposed under soaring melodies. We wanted original and unique textures. Ones that might bring out the sound of a changing world, perseverance, opportunity, high stakes, deep emotions, and a time in society of changing moral and ethical standards.
What has been the primary motivation behind your own musical background- what drove you to want to do music in the first place?
Perhaps people who pursue music have the desire to express something which is otherwise inexpressible.
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Gomez-Rejon, as well as Mr. Bensi and Mr. Jurriaans, for chatting with us. The Current War: Director’s Cut is currently out in theaters now.
Special thanks to Chloe Lauter, Ali Kuriyan, Stacey Tesser, Jayne Sullivan, and Francesca Ciuffo for making this interview possible!