Editing and shooting skills help. But the real trick for successful documentary filmmaking is dealing with becoming persona non grata.
That was director Chris Paine’s status in the auto industry after the success of his 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?. The film detailed General Motors’s unpopular decision to discontinue its EV1 electric-powered vehicle in 2002 and repossess the cars it had sold.
The doc was a black eye for GM and seen as an example, particularly during the auto giant’s bailout by Washington in 2009, of Detroit’s inattentiveness to innovation and environmental concerns.
The trouble for Paine was that he had begun shooting more footage on the subject, and was looking for access inside the industry for what became his new sequel documentary, Revenge of the Electric Car.
“I was a pariah. If you read the industry press after the first film, you’d think I was the biggest idiot on the planet, that I didn’t know the first thing about business or cars or the environment,” Paine says by phone from car-clogged Los Angeles, where he is based.
“We had to be very careful in the first film. We had to bombproof that thing for legal reasons, to not get sued by the [oil companies]and the manufacturers.”
However, Paine also received, he says, quiet notes from GM employees telling him that copies of the first film had been circulating within the company. There was more internal discussion about what went wrong with the EV1 program.
Then suddenly, to the surprise of many, Bob Lutz – at the time companyvice-chairman and the archetypal cigar-smoking, auto-industry insider – had a change of heart and wanted to renew GM’s development of electric cars.
“I think we definitely pressured the industry a little bit, which is a nice feeling, as a little documentary filmmaker. But I think the bigger thing is that the auto companies probably went too far in fighting the government on electric cars,” Paine says. In short, Detroit fought too hard on environmental and safety regulations and now, with auto companies in difficulty, they needed to improve public relations.
So, Paine found his status changing from outcast to invited guest. He’s well aware that this was all part of the push by GM and others to gussy up their image.
As Paine explains, “The deal we had is that we wouldn’t release any footage until 2011 [to avoid tipping off competitors] And that they didn’t have any editorial control over whatever we shot. But if they were really sincere and if their [electric-car]programs were substantial, we would document them. As a result, we got a lot of access that is not easy to get for a film like ours.”
Still, it wasn’t easy at first. “At the beginning, when we started filming, there was a lot of mutual suspicion and lack of trust. We’d taken GM through the wringer on the first film, and we had also felt they had been disingenuous with us.”
Rather than the technology, Paine decided to focus on the people in his sequel film. Lutz, for example, the force behind the electric-powered Chevy Volt, looms large. So does Carlos Ghosn, who runs Renault and Nissan and is betting big that the electric Nissan Leaf will catch on with buyers.
. Then there’s Greg “Gadget” Abbott, who converts showroom cars like silver Porsche Speedsters from gas to electric. And the brash co-founder of PayPal, Elon Musk, who is trying to beat Detroit at its own game with Tesla, his electric-car startup company.
Paine had initially starting filming Musk for a doc concentrating on Tesla and other Musk ventures. But then GM’s Lutz got in touch, and Paine had decided to approach other companies about their electric-car programs as well. It soon became apparent that for car makers, being in the sequel might be a good thing – completing Paine’s 180-degree reversal in reputation with industry insiders.
The trick now: to avoid going too deep into the fold.
“All the car makers know that if they have a car that the public perceives as being better for the planet, it’s going to make their brands look better,” Paine says. “My producer and I said we have to make sure that we are sticking on the side of journalism and not getting sucked into the PR machine here.”
Revenge of the Electric Car plays Toronto’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival Wednesday (with the director in attendance) and opens in cinemas in Toronto Friday. Other Canadian cities are to follow.
Also at the Planet in Focus festival
This year’s closing film, directed by Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, is about a young orca who is stranded from other whales and turns to boaters for companionship.
ON THE LINE/SPOIL
Shown together, these films are about Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Pipelines Project between Edmonton and Kitimat, B.C., and the possible impact on the ecology along the route.
The festival includes a collection of short films by young filmmakers. One to watch for: this movie about the landscape of shopping in Toronto.
Check planetinfocus.org for more films and show times.