When Chris Paine pulls his Chevrolet Volt into a Culver City parking lot and plugs it into the solar-powered public charging station, two other electric vehicles are already there: a low-slung Tesla Roadster and a hatchback Nissan Leaf. Just five years ago, the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” wouldn’t have believed such a scene would even be possible.
After Paine released his 2006 documentary about the demise of General Motors’ groundbreaking plug-in vehicle, the EV1, his take-away was “a sense of loss.”
“There was no way to buy an electric car,” added Paine, an EV1 lessee whose car was reclaimed and crushed when GM abandoned the endeavor.
It’s the rare documentary filmmaker who gets to make a sequel with a happy ending. Rarer still is the documentarian invited into the very corporations he once vilified to witness the development of some of the most groundbreaking and tightly guarded vehicles ever produced. But Paine has done just that with “Revenge of the Electric Car,” which arrives in theaters Friday.
A few months after his first EV documentary was released, Paine received an email from General Motors executive Bob Lutz; the communication culminated with an invitation to track the development of the EV1′s successor, which at the time was called the MaliVolt.
“Lutz had to convince his team that we weren’t going to Michael Moore them,” Paine said. “GM has not had a good track record with documentaries, with ‘Roger and Me’ and then our film.”
Paine had already received the green light to do a documentary about Tesla Motors from its chief executive, Elon Musk, but he expanded the film’s concept in light of GM’s offer. Nissan agreed to participate after learning that GM and Tesla were on board — and after sending two emissaries from its corporate headquarters in Japan to Paine’s Culver City home for an extensive discussion about the project.
“It was a big risk for [all three companies] to let a documentary crew in when we weren’t exactly flattering of American corporations in our first film,” said Paine, who assured each automaker that he wouldn’t release any footage until 2011, after each company’s electric cars were on the market.
And it was also a big risk for Paine, who won wide praise from environmentalists and electric vehicle enthusiasts for the first film. The tone at the beginning of his sequel is wisely skeptical.
Early in “Revenge,” narrator Tim Robbins introduces GM’s Lutz as “Mr. Horsepower.” He refers to the film crew’s entry into the company’s Detroit headquarters as “going behind enemy lines.”
Paine and his producer, Jessie Deeter, and cowriter, P.G. Morgan, “didn’t want to be a part of GM’s green washing process, so we had to take care,” said Paine, noting that GM had advertised against his first film. Paine said GM purchased Google search words associated with “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and ran ads in Variety encouraging readers to get the whole story on the electric car.
As for General Motors’ participation in the new film, “We had to answer the question: If not the EV1, then what?” said Dave Barthmuss, a GM spokesman who was featured prominently, and negatively, in the first film and who appears in the follow-up saying, “I’m not Darth Vader.”
“We had to answer that question in a very credible, open and honest way, and the best way to do that was to bring Chris under our tent, behind the scenes,” Barthmuss said. “In our opinion, the electric car was never killed. Its life was put on pause until we were able to put out a vehicle we believed would appeal to a mass audience. Everyone seemed to have this opinion we had this secret technology we were unwilling to put in our products because all we wanted to do was make Hummers.”
General Motors was the first major automaker to mass-produce an electric vehicle. From 1996 to 1999, it leased 800 EV1s to customers in select markets in California, Arizona and Georgia for $349 to $574 monthly. The second-generation EV1 was capable of traveling as far as 140 miles per charge. In 2002, after losing more than $1 billion on the cars, General Motors pulled the plug on the program. Many of the EV1s were crushed. Some were donated to universities and museums with the stipulation that the cars’ drivetrains be deactivated.
GM’s participation in the sequel was “about trying to humanize the company and recapture the hearts and minds of the folks in the EV community that we disappointed with the way we handled the decision to end the production and marketing of the EV1,” Barthmuss said.
When “Revenge” premieres in L.A. this week, one private after-party will be held at a Tesla showroom. Representatives of all the automakers featured in the film will attend and bring their cars — an effort Paine likened to negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.
Nissan, also featured heavily in the new doc, has purchased select screenings in L.A., San Francisco and Nashville and will be giving free tickets in markets where the Leaf is sold.
“We love the movie,” said Nissan North America spokesman Tim Gallagher. “It is a film that can drive broader appreciation of this emerging trend in transportation. One of the key challenges of EVs is expanding the reach of understanding.”
Paine said “Revenge” cost $1.2 million to make — about the same as “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The cameras started rolling in October 2007 and didn’t stop until the GM, Nissan and Tesla EVs had come to market. During that time, Paine and his crew captured the ups and downs of electric vehicles’ development amid the Great Recession — when GM went bankrupt and its executives made the blunder of flying to Washington, D.C., in private jets to seek federal bailout money; when Tesla Motors almost missed payroll having built only 100 cars and spent $100 million; and when Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn was grilled by the press about the $6-billion gamble he was taking on the Leaf.
Paine, 50, grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where his mom helped start an environmental education program for kids and his dad cofounded the Peninsula Open Space Trust to buy land from developers and keep it in a natural state. He is best known for his electric car documentaries, but he has a long history in film.
In the mid-’80s, he studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York. He also studied film at New York University and Stanford. After moving to L.A. in 1989, he worked on big-budget films, including “The Player,” and on a documentary series for MTV Europe. He was inspired to write and direct “Who Killed the Electric Car” by his own experience as an EV1 lessee in the late ’90s.
Paine is working on a comedic documentary about the apocalypse, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut.
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