The Making of WKtEC?
By Bill Moore
I imagine that if you're a past or present General Motor's employee, it might be easy to see Chris Paine's new documentary as a diatribe against the company, especially if you've not seen it. But for the California-based writer/director, GM is only one of a number of "culprits" in his mock murder mystery about the untimely death of the electric car.
In fact, Paine's film identifies at least seven potential suspects in the "crime" from consumers to big oil to carmakers , including other auto manufacturers besides just GM. Surprisingly, Paine is even a bit sympathetic towards the struggling giant that developed such a ground-breaking car only to let its technological lead slip from its grasp and into the hands of Toyota and Honda. He sees the maker and destroyer of the EV1 in almost Shakespearean terms, a tragic character like Othello, who murders that which he loves.
"They are blinding themselves to their own fortune. Having made these cars that were so amazing... they were pulling their way into the 21st century and yet to go after them the way they did. I personally had a great experience with GM," he noted. "I probably would have been a GM lifer based on my experience with the EV1 and the customer service was terrific, and all their sales people were terrific. It was only at the end when they turned their blast furnaces on against the electric car program in California..."
Paine's respect for GM began to fade when the company and its allies in the federal government and industry began their assault on the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate and its subsequent Memorandum of Understanding. It also was the pettiness with which it started treating customers after the decision had been made to terminate the program. It would charge customers for nicks and scratches on the leased car after it was turned in and then send the car to be crushed.
As becomes obvious in "Who Killed the Electric Car?", GM and at least a half-dozen other "culprits" identified in the 90-minute film weren't above political dirty tricks, back-room deals and out-and-out lying to garotte California's EV car program.
"Leading this lawsuit against California and getting Chrysler and their car dealers in on it, and then getting the federal government to support them... I mean this is the worst kind of corporate leadership and it came out of the best kind of corporate leadership. So for me, I see them as a tragic figure."
For Paine the "deeper crime" in his film is the industry's complicity in keeping viable alternatives to the monopoly of the gasoline internal combustion engine off the market, especially one that can use domestically-produced electric energy, finally breaking the nation's "oil addiction."
The genesis of WKtEC?' came gradually for Paine. It started when he began shooting video of his own EV1 to share with friends on the East Coast. Then as GM began recalling the cars, he hired a professional video crew to tape the now famous mock funeral of the EV1 that he helped organize in Los Angeles. That footage serves as the introduction to the film.
Paine's original idea was to piece together a "Spinal Tap"-type spoof , but the more he researched, the "heavier and heavier" the piece became. He would eventually hire a PBS "Frontline" producer, Jessie Deeter to add a news professional's touch to the film.
He explained it was when he discovered that there was only one car left in consumer hands, this one leased to actor/director Peter Horton, that he realized an important piece of history was slipping through his fingers. It would take some arm twisting to get Horton's car away from him for four days -- he only had a week left on this lease -- plus $20,000 to shoot the High Definition video of car. It was while taping the EV1 vs. the Hummer sequence that Paine and a colleague began musing over what kind of a film they could make. Out of this exercise of literally throwing 3x5 index cards on the ground with ideas scrawled on them, that the murder mystery theme was born.
Paine began collecting additional video footage when and where he could. He recorded the EV1 vigil outside of GM's Burbank training center where 80-plus EV1 were stored prior to being sent to Arizona to be crushed. He showed up to tape Governor Schwarzenegger opening a California hydrogen refueling station only to be refused entry because he wasn't "properly accredited". He ended up taping it -- Michael Moore-style -- through the fence.
But it was the helicopter flight over GM's Arizona proving grounds when he and Ken Adelman discovered the crushed remains of scores of EV1s stacked in the desert that Paine knew he had a compelling cinematic story to tell, one that would eventually focus largely on an attractive, articulate redhead called Chelsea Sexton. Sexton had been a GM EV1 specialist and a passionate believer in the technology. It would be her story -- along with some surprising others -- that Paine would tell instead of his own.
"She would become my protagonist, the protagonist I wouldn't have to be in the film. It was hard for me to edit it, looking at myself... all those things we hate about ourselves... This is getting in the way of me working creatively and the interview with Chelsea was just so spot-on... The electric car attracted so many amazing people to it that I don't need to be in it."
Paine soon found lots of people "falling out of the trees" wanting to tell him their electric car stories including actor/director Mel Gibson who took time from shooting his latest epic in Mexico to relate his experiences trying to lease the EV1 from GM -- and it wasn't easy, even for a multi-millionaire of his stature and fame.
Two of the more revelatory interviews were with GM insiders: John Dables, a senior sales VP; and former GM board member Tom Everhart. Other retired GM executives involved in the EV1 project in the 90s "mysteriously" were unavailable to be interviewed, likely for fear of having their "golden parachutes" cut.
Despite this, the film tells a compelling story of individual vision versus corporate myopia.
"If only GM had the vision of Sony. Sony could say oil prices will be high next summer, let's have a movie in case people want to connect the dots, and this is a connecting-the-dots movie."
To connect more of the dots of my interview with Paine, be sure to listen to the full 30-minute dialog by using the MP3 players in the right hand column or by downloading the file to your computer hard drive for playback on your favorite MP3 device.