The Current War: Three inventors, two electricities, one epic story

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and actor Michael Shannon describe how Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla fought over the future of electrical power.

Thomas Edison, who gave us the lightbulb, sound recording and moving pictures, would be happy to know so many of us have learned about him and how his innovations changed our world. The prolific inventor was very much concerned with his public image and his legacy.

Engineer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse, on the other hand, didn't care about what people thought of him at all. "If you want to be remembered, it's simple: Shoot a president," Westinghouse once said. "But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it."

Movie poster for The Current War: Director's Cut
101 Studios

The differences in their personalities became super clear when they found themselves in a pitched battle over whose electrical power delivery system would dominate in the US at the end of the 19th century. It's a story that appealed to award-winning director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). The Current War: Director's Cut, opening in theaters Friday, Oct. 25, tells the story of Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his efforts to popularize his direct current -- or DC -- system, with help from his personal secretary Samuel Insell (played by Spiderman's Tom Holland). But the focus is on how Edison essentially lost out to the more effective alternating current -- or AC -- system proposed by Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) with help from another tech pioneer, Nikola Tesla (played by Nicholas Hoult).

"To me, it was about how far would you go to be remembered," Gomez-Rejon said in a Live@CNET Q&A in San Francisco this month. "How far would a man go to win? You had the ego and the ambition of Edison, who carefully curated his own image and wanted to be remembered. And then there are the rare people like Westinghouse, who didn't care about that. He was truly a benevolent industrialist and inventor and creator."

Shannon, who's played the bad guy in both The Shape of Water and Man of Steel, says he was motivated to portray the self-effacing Westinghouse because he's the kind of noble leader we can use today.  

"There's something very alluring about playing an industrialist who's not just stomping all over everybody just to get what they want, who actually thinks that it is important to consider who's making the products and what is their life like," Shannon said. "I think he's a good role model. I'm sure he wasn't a saint, but I prefer his way of doing business to some other people's."

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation, which took place at CNET's headquarters in San Francisco.

Q: The movie tells the story of AC versus DC, but what is this story really about to you?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: To me it was about how far would you go to be remembered. How far would a man go to win and create the modern world? You had the ego and the ambition of Edison, who carefully curated his own image and wanted to be remembered, which is totally valid. It's a part of us as human beings. There's a side of us that wants glory and wants to be remembered and wants to leave behind the legacy. 

Then there are the rare people like Westinghouse, who didn't care about that. He was truly a benevolent industrialist and inventor and creator, but was more concerned with how he left the world and not concerned at all about his name or his image.

Can you explain the difference between AC and DC?
Gomez-Rejon: DC was an electrical current that flowed in one direction. It could power motors and was safe to use at home. But it had a flaw, which was that it would travel only short distances before losing power, which meant [installing] power stations. It was practical in big cities where you could have power stations every few miles, like in New York.

But Westinghouse saw how impractical it was and how he could improve it using AC, which could travel with a transformer that would step up the voltage. Then it could travel for as far as the eye can see. But the problem was that it was dangerous because of its higher voltage. He hadn't quite figured out how to make it safe for consumers in their homes or in the factories. That was when Tesla comes in -- he figured out a way to be able to step down the voltage, working with the current to be able to provide both power and energy in a way that was practical and safe.

Actor Michael Shannon and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Shannon (left) and Gomez-Rejon speak at CNET's headquarters.

James Martin/CNET

Michael, who was Westinghouse to you? How did you get inside his head to bring him to life?
Shannon: Well, he's very enigmatic. I mean, he didn't leave behind a lot of material.

He actually burned all his notes.
Shannon: Yes. But when Alfonso came to me about doing the movie, he brought this little, beautiful, very old book. It's very, very thin, and it just says "George Westinghouse" on it. It was written by some of his men, his employees. You could tell it was written out of admiration. It was basically, "See what a great guy this guy was."

There's something very alluring about playing an industrialist who's not stomping all over everybody just to get what they want, who actually thinks that it's important to consider who's making the products and what is their life like and are they being taken care of. I thought that would be a good thing to get out into the world. It's a good story to tell nowadays. 

There's a scene when Westinghouse meets Tesla, who has been screwed by his business partners in the past. Westinghouse offers him money for his invention -- more than Tesla asks for. It seems to speak to Westinghouse being a fair man.
Shannon: He wasn't interested in pilfering from anybody. He didn't need to be the one who got all the credit. He just wanted things to work as well as they could. And he had a lot of admiration for Edison and Tesla. He was perfectly willing to admit that someone else knew better than he did. 

He had his own ideas about a few things, but I don't think he looked at himself as the top dog or whatever, [except] maybe from a financial standpoint. I think he, in a very childish kind of way, was fascinated by these guys. He wanted to hang out with them -- he wanted to hang out with Edison.  

Gomez-Rejon: I love very much the way we interpret these characters … That childlike admiration that Westinghouse has with just sitting in a room with Tesla. And at the very end of the film, the scene he has with Edison -- there is a wonder in his eyes, because he generally admires him. There was that humanity that was never lost. 

They're equals in that moment, but at the same time, you still see that humility in Westinghouse as played by Michael. [You see it in] those closeups and when you're looking at Benedict as Edison talking about what it was like to create a filament that would work. He would win the mini battle about who was going to take credit for the lightbulb. There are all these little mini battles in The Current Wars going on at the same time. But it's that humility and that humanity, which is a part of Michael's portrayal of Westinghouse, that I think is the heart of the film and the spine of the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from The Current War

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison, who developed the direct current.

101 Studios

You're trying to fictionalize a true story -- so there's some historical background info like newspaper clippings. But how do you make somebody like Westinghouse real given there's just that little book about him?
Shannon: I alleviate myself from the responsibility of thinking that I'm anything like George was. George Westinghouse could have been completely different from what I did in the movie. You just use your imagination.

I've done some historical stuff before. You want to make sure you don't get too bogged down in trying to act like you're in the past. Because when you see pictures of all these people, it looks so different. But they're people just like us. A lot of the things that happened in this movie are still happening today, just in a much more progressive fashion, in terms of innovation and people quibbling about how to move forward: Should it be this or this, how should people be treated? These are all themes that are very timely, even though in the movie, they're old-timey.

Well, you're dressed up in old clothes...
Shannon: Yeah, let the clothes do the work for you. [Audience laughs.]

Gomez-Rejon: That's the fun part of making a movie -- you have to get it so you can't recreate every detail, because then it becomes a documentary. We're trying to say something else with the film, and we're trying to interpret these characters. We have very little about George Westinghouse, but the little we have, written by the men from his company, reveals so much. 

There's one picture in the book of Westinghouse during the Civil War, and that tells you a different story. It's up to us to create a world that, maybe in our kind of artistic process, gets close to the spirit of the men at the time.

Katherine Waterston and Michael Shannon in a still from The Current War

Shannon as Westinghouse with Katherine Waterston, who plays Westinghouse's wife, Marguerite.

101 Studios

This movie is called the director's cut. Can you explain why?
Gomez-Rejon: Sure. There was a previous version of the film [edited by Harvey Weinstein's The Weinstein Company] that was not finished. And so the new studio, 101 Studios, gave me a chance to re-edit my film. We shot five new scenes to finish telling the story and a new score. It became my vision for the film and the best I was able to make. And so to differentiate this cut from previous cuts, the director's cut just fully is the best way to describe what it is: my version that was made for you.

You were talking about the themes in this movie that apply today. We're all tech people, we follow the tech industry. There are a lot of personalities and egos driving the tech industry today and many are disruptors who want to be remembered.  What parallels did you see while you're doing this film?
Shannon: Like I was saying earlier, one of the reasons I thought it was important to get this story out there is that it might inspire people to be more like Westinghouse. It seems like the whole situation is very cynical right now. It's nice to have a reminder that it doesn't have to be that way.

It's also nice to be reminded that it wasn't all that long ago we didn't even have electricity. It's not like this story is from 500 years ago. Just see how much has happened and how quickly everything changes.  

I think he's a good role model. I'm sure he wasn't a saint, but I prefer his way of doing business to some other people's.

Tom Holland and Benedict Cumberbatch in a still from The Current War

Spiderman's Tom Holland (left) plays Edison's personal secretary, Saumel Insell.

101 Studios

There's a scene where Westinghouse and Edison meet up at the Chicago World's Fair. In fact, it's only one of two scenes they're actually together. Edison, who's very concerned with his image, talks about building a fence between two properties. Somebody builds it, pays for it and designs it, but the other person also gets the benefit. And I thought Westinghouse's answer to that was pretty instructive.
Gomez-Rejon: That's one of my favorite lines in the film, and it's one of my favorite moments in the entire film. Sometimes that fence metaphor means so much to so many people. And when you're from the Mexican border as I am, it means a lot more. 

But [Westinghouse] said, "What if we didn't have a fence at all? Our garden would be twice as big."

I find it quite moving.

Michael, GQ wrote that you have one of the most recognizable frowns in America. Are you enjoying your adventures as an actor?
Shannon: I mean, one of the really wonderful things about being in this business is that people get to say things about you that you may or may not agree with, and have opinions about you that you may not agree with or find silly. [Audience laughs.] I don't know if I have the most recognizable frown [says while frowning].

Gomez-Rejon: I think if you know Mike a little bit, you can be an SNL regular. He's very, very funny.

Shannon: Do I enjoy what I do? That's a hard thing to say. It's a hard time to be alive right now. There's a lot of really scary things happening. I have a family, so I'm worried about my kids, and I'm worried about the future. Sometimes I'm not sure that making movies is going to have a huge impact on that. 

But it's what I know how to do -- or I hope I know how to. So I don't have any other options. I guess some people imagine that, you know, being a movie star or whatever, you just go around doing a bunch of cocaine and drinking champagne all the time. But I'm pretty much a regular guy just like anybody else.

Gomez-Rejon: All I can say is that Michael and I have been in each other's lives for a very small amount of time. But hopefully it's the beginning of longer collaborations and friendship. So I can speak on working with him and and how the craft, even for a filmmaker, is always hard, because you have something in your head that you're trying to realize. I think we're all striving for excellence. And we know we're never going to get there. And the sun will come down, and you have to move on. So the process isn't always fun. But as a director, to have the privilege to witness a process like Michael's is a beautiful thing.

I mean, ultimately, you're both storytellers. How that manifests itself is is your craft. But people are changing the way that they're telling stories, thanks to technology like iPhones. What do you think about this idea that storytelling can be become more accessible? What's your view that anybody can be a filmmaker at a level of quality beyond the YouTube videos people have been putting up for years?
Gomez-Rejon: Well, anyone can sing, anyone can dance. You don't need technology for that, but the cream will always rise. And if you have a point of view, and something to say, it will be heard. Technology is only one part of that. 

I remember in the early '90s or late '80s a documentary that featured Francis Coppola talking about someday in the future, technology will be so accessible. I went to film school because I needed access to movies because those movies didn't come to my hometown. I needed access to equipment -- I needed access to a camera, 16 millimeters at the time. 

But he said at some point there will be a 6-year-old Mozart somewhere who will have the ability to make a story inexpensively. So that is out there, it's whatever tools you need to express yourself with. When I was at Sundance with Me and Earl, I saw a movie called Tangerine, by Sean Baker, that was shot on an iPhone . It was one of the greatest things I've ever seen. So it's all about the truth that you're trying to tell, the story you're trying to tell.

CNET's Connie Guglielmo with actor Michael Shannon and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejn

CNET Editor in Chief Connie Guglielmo interviews Shannon and Gomez-Rejon.

James Martin/CNET

Are you going to be doing it?
Gomez-Rejon: I'm open to anything. I'm a little more 20th century. I love the idea of a motion picture. I love the idea of exhibiting it in a theater and the communal experience -- that is part of what I love about movies. I want to be a part of that tradition. But I also have to keep looking ahead and exploring other ideas. You can't be stuck in the past. So if there is a story that is best told with an iPhone, then that would be the tool that I would use.  

Michael, you're a parent. Do your kids use tech?
Shannon: Yeah. I'm not real uptight about it. I don't mind them looking at screens. There's a lot of games that are very educational, a lot of great math games and language games. My 5-year-old is studying Spanish right now on Duolingo. I guess maybe it's not the best thing for your eyes to be staring at the screen all the time. But in terms of what you can get out of it, you just try and make sure it's not hours on end. A half hour here and there ... I don't think it's gonna hurt anybody. 

Michael, you once said that your iPhone can be a narcotic.
Shannon: I definitely think I see that. I notice it mostly when I'm out, like on a train … it's kind of creepy. You look in the subway car, and just every single person is staring at their smartphone -- literally every person. It seems like some bad sci-fi short story from the '50s or something. 

[Does an ominous voice] "They were all staring at their rectangles." It's kind of weird. 

Do you have a favorite piece of tech?
Gomez-Rejon: I can't think of anything. I just I like to sketch a lot. So it's really just a pencil. [And] my iPhone to just access basically old interviews and  news.

Shannon: Slinky.