Not many screenplays have had their genesis in the rush of a college orientation week. But that’s exactly where the 10-year process of writing the story for The Current War began, first as a musical and finally as a film.
On its screenwriter, Michael Mitnick’s first day at Yale University’s School of Drama he was given a simple assignment: to bring an idea from history to class. “My mind flashed back to an Apple computers poster of Thomas Edison I’d had on my childhood bedroom wall,” he remembers, adding with a laugh: “I’d picked [that poster] mainly because I thought Edison looked like a mad scientist.”
That first night in New Haven, he set to work researching the famous inventor. He quickly discovered that there was much more to his story than the invention of the lightbulb and a shock of mad scientist hair.
“I stumbled upon ‘The War of the Currents’ — an epic battle between Edison and [industrialist] George Westinghouse to determine the world’s standard of electricity,” Mitnick says.
The story took all sorts of unexpected, tragic and thrilling turns. There was a scurrilous smear campaign, the secret invention of the electric chair, the violent death of a man, and the advent of a unique scientific talent in Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla. It was a eureka moment. “I remember thinking, ‘How did I not know this?’” he marvels. “Then it became a ten-year process of writing it, first as a musical and finally as a film.”
His initial musical featured songs such as ‘I Believe’ (“Edison tries to scare the crowd into choosing his electricity by zapping a horse dead with Westinghouse’s generator,” explains Mitnick of the lyrics). It played for four nights at Yale’s Black Box Theatre in 2008.
“We had a cardboard horse and the Westinghouse generator was a metal switch I bought for a buck from a New Haven hardware store,” he says. With a $250 budget, a real Westinghouse generator — or horse — were out of the question. He tried to move the show to the grander surrounds of the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, only to be met with frustration. “The theatre didn’t want to produce it,” he says, “and no-one else did.” The story seemed to have ended there. Except, well, it hadn’t.
As his screenwriting and playwriting career took off after leaving Yale, his Current War musical gathered dust. But it nagged away at his newly-hired movie agent. “He asked if I’d ever thought about making it into a movie,” says Mitnick. “He meant [for me] to keep the songs, but I went away and wrote it as a straight-up drama. I used the places where there were songs to go deeper into [Edison] and [Westinghouse’s] characters.” Suddenly, there was a chance of making The Current War into a movie. He’d even get real horses this time.
Completing the Circuit…
Mitnick’s first draft began to come together. Out went the songs; in came a deep dive into these famous, but much misunderstood figures. “I had a long period of research,” he remembers, “going through archives, newspapers, primary sources.”
Key reference books for his two — with Tesla, three — main characters were Francis Jones’ ‘Thomas Alva Edison’, ‘A life Of George Westinghouse’ by Henry G. Prout, and Tesla’s own autobiography, ‘My Inventions’. Three books by a one-time Edison employee called Francis Jehl, ‘Menlo Park Reminisces’, offered invaluable, if partisan insights into life at Menlo Park. All went into the pot.
Mitnick also scoured Edison’s extensive notebooks and journals, paid visits to the Library of Congress and Pittsburgh’s history museum, and enlisted the help of pre-eminent Edison historian Paul Israel. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the first draft clocked in at a hefty 168 pages.
“It went everywhere,” he remembers. Fined-tuned and pared down (there were more than 60 drafts in total), the screenplay for The Current War made its way onto the prestigious Black List, Hollywood’s repository of highly-rated, unmade scripts.
It was quickly picked up, initially by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, before finding its way into the hands of American director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Fresh from directing the much-loved Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, the American director was at a crossroads at the time. “I had choices and that can be very confusing and distracting,” he says. “I didn’t want to get lost.” Gomez-Rejon didn’t immediately connect with the script, until his agent suggested he take another read. “There was more to it than I’d seen,” the director recalls. “This idea of the nature of success and how far a man would go to win, and how far will you go to be remembered.”
His imagination was stoked, too, by the contrast in how its central figures approached their lives. “One, Westinghouse, through staying anonymous and leaving the world a better place,” he explains, “and the other, Edison, [was] aware of his own iconography. He lost the War of the Currents, but he’s the one we remember the most. It brought out questions of ego versus humility. I saw a lot of my father in Westinghouse, [and then] I started to see what it could be.”
There was a thematic progression from Me And Earl And The Dying Girl that had a pull, too. “Earl was an attempt to understand loss,” he adds, “and The Current War looked beyond that. A feeling of rebirth through creativity, spontaneity, invention. A love of making things and a chance to explore the true nature of winning.” Edison would be defeated by his rival and broken by a huge loss, but remain undaunted. He’d go on to help invent the motion picture business, for one thing.
“It may seem to be a cold and ruthless story about science and ambition on the surface,” says Mitnick, “[but] the emotions run so deep.”
Flicking The Switch …
The screenwriter recalls his first meeting with The Current War’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. “It was in a Manhattan bar,” he remembers, “and we talked about what drew each of us to the story. One of the things was that these people were changing the world aged forty. We think of Thomas Edison as this white-haired Benjamin Franklin-type who ‘invented’ the lightbulb. What these guys [really] invented was the idea of not playing by the rules.”
The rules weren’t in Gomez-Rejon’s playbook, either. Rather than a fusty, Masterpiece Theatre-style movie, or taking a painterly Merchant Ivory approach, he wanted to juice the story up with energy and bring a modern spirit to its telling. “I love Merchant Ivory — The Remains Of The Day is one of my favorite films — I just didn’t think it was what this movie needed,” he says. “These men are futurists and I wanted it to be in sync with the spontaneity of their ideas.”
“The reason why we love Alfonso for the movie,” says producer Basil Iwanyk, “other than that we needed it to be emotional and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is very emotional, is that this is a very American movie. He wanted it to feel like an American movie, not a BBC-style [period piece]. He’s a Scorsese protégé and like Scorsese, he plays with the , whether it’s where he puts the camera, the montages, the music… he just wants it to feel lively and fun and visual.”
Gomez-Rejon took inspiration from the tumultuous changes of the late 19th century. “Everything that was happening in the world at that time — art, music — was evolving quickly,” he says. “I felt that if I could capture that energy then maybe this could be decent.”
As Iwanyk notes, he had modern inspirations too. “Alfonso connected with it on a very rock ‘n’ roll level,” he explains. “He saw this movie like Mick Jagger and David Bowie, or Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, going toe-to-toe.”
Gomez-Rejon assembled a look book to share the visual language of the film he wanted to make. “It was full of life and color,” he says of the reference guide. “It wasn’t black-and-white sepia. There were very few film references. It was all back to rock ‘n’ roll: concert films like Gimme Shelter, D. A. Pennebaker, that was the vibe.”
“The thing Alfonso told me that I always thought was interesting was that this wasn’t a movie about the past, it was a movie about the future,” adds the man who plays George Westinghouse, Michael Shannon. “I thought that was a really cool way of looking at it.”