SFIFF Report: Michael Guillen Interviews The Team Behind "Who Killed The Electric Car?"

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor

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Here's Michael Guillen with more excellent reporting from the San Francisco International Film Festival ... who knew Dean Devlin had a social conscience?

The opening night gala at the Regency with its Perhaps Love circus atmosphere was truly fun! I couldn't resist my Skyy vodka martinis and you know what they say: one is too many and two is not enough! So I arrived at my interview at the W the following morning a little worse for wear but eager nonetheless to have a chat with Chris Paine, the director of Who Killed the Electric Car?, interviewee Chelsea Sexton, gas conservation expert Wally Rippel and executive producer Dean Devlin. Chelsea was overdue, having missed her flight from L.A., but was expected during my interview timeslot so we elected to start without her.

Michael Guillen: I wanted to preface this interview with a necessary caveat: I'm 52 years old, and I've never had a car. I've never had a driver's license. I'm not a motorist. But I was so enthused by Who Killed the Electric Car? that—if I were a motorist—I would have wanted the EV-1! Please pardon me if I sound ignorant about cars because I know very little about them but you really don't need to be a motorist to appreciate this documentary. I've been interviewing various documentary filmmakers lately and what seems to be a common theme through the work is the systematic erasure of history by various powers-that-be. The erasure of the history of General Motors' EV-1 comes across excellently in Who Killed the Electric Car?

So my first question is: An audience sees this movie, what are we supposed to do with it? What are we supposed to do with this information that you've given us? The culpability has been narrowed down and spread out among the usual suspects but what does a person do with this information?

Chris: That's a good question! Well, I would hope that people finish this film thinking, "My god, there are alternatives to my gasoline car I've been driving. There are alternatives in the way I think about what transportation is. About what kind of car I want to demand that be available to me. What do I want to do with the car that I currently own?" You don't use a car, which is fantastic, because you're obviously not going to be using …

Wally: You don't create emissions! [Laughter.]

Chris: That's terrific! I even hear about people talking on the radio this morning about $4 a gallon for gasoline and the solution is, "Well, why don't I just drive less?" That's terrific. The auto companies—and you would hope the government would [provide the incentive for] this—should really make it easier for us to use electricity to make cars go because we create that here in the U.S. Our film talks about how effectively that can work if we all put our minds to do it. It did work, in the 90s we had it, and it can come back now. The technology is not gone.

MG: CARB (the California Air Resources Board) initially implemented the Zero Emissions Mandate (ZEV) to ward off California's pollution crisis but then ended up revoking it due to compromises struck with auto industry personnel. Can the ZEV mandate be brought back somehow?

Wally: That's a very interesting question. It is coming back in different ways. We have right now the Prius, for example, and there's a lot of them out there. In many ways that's the same technology as in the EV-1 in some ways. It's updated.

MG: Is this the hybrid?

Wally: Yes, the hybrid made by Toyota. There's a lot of stuff happening. And I think it's being driven in many cases because of high fuel prices. We saw this coming. Remember when the EV-1 was done, fuel prices were much lower than they are now; but, we saw this coming. I think that things are going to happen whether or not government is involved. My concern is this: my concern is not are we going to do the right thing to save the planet, but is America going to be left behind? Are we going to watch as the Japanese do good stuff? As the Chinese move in and start doing stuff? As India does stuff? As Europe does stuff? Are we going to be the odd man out? I'm sensitive to that as an engineer. I want to be in the leadership role. I want to be a participant. I do not want to be an observer. It's like going to a baseball game if you're an athlete and watching the game and seeing people do stuff and feeling, "Hey! I could do better!" You want to be in the game.

MG: My concern—and I think it's a growing concern among people as we're becoming more aware of the current administration and certainly past administrations—is the addiction for oil justifying aggression. The other day I was listening to a news report about the oil resources in Venezuela and how suddenly we have war ships off the coast of Venezuela and just as suddenly we're finding reasons to be angry with them. The transparency of the situation irks me.

Who Killed the Electric Car? premiered at Sundance? Is that correct? It was the world premiere?

Chris: It was a first screening, early cut.

MG: I understand it's still not completed? And what I saw was not a finished version of the film? You're working on sound now?

Dean: There's a couple of sound tweaks. But it's basically finished. But, yeah, there's a couple graphic cards when you saw it that are being changed and some sound pieces but by tonight's showing, we'll have the final version.

EC: So I need to see it again?

Dean: You absolutely have to see it again. And again and again. [Laughs.]

MG: As I was reading various print and online press about the film, it appears the audience reaction at Sundance was strong and affirmative. I was talking to your co-producer last night, Richard Titus, and he was saying he was very surprised by the Sundance response. Were you expecting that?

Dean: No!

Chris: No!

Dean: It was stunning. On our first screening there was a standing ovation at the end of the film and Chris and I looked at each other in complete shock. [They laugh.] It was such a fulfilling moment. I've been making films, different kinds of films obviously, for 12 years. Nothing was more fulfilling in my career than that moment. Because not only had we made something that was very entertaining, not only had we moved people but we told a story that we knew that the world didn't know that we wanted to get out. And it was literally one of the highlights of my professional career.

MG: It seems that it has fallen to documentary filmmakers to correct the adage that history belongs to the winners. Certain documentaries, like yours, cause us to re-evaluate what "win" means. At first we trust the decisions of our leaders, they seem to be for the best, but then we take a second look and realize their decisions are wrong and their histories self-serving. A.O. Scott called Who Killed the Electric Car? a "prosecutorial examination" and Grist Magazine's Dan Bree called it a whodunit in the form of a love story....

[Chelsea walks in. After initial introductions and salutations, she settles into the interview.]

MG: Chelsea, I was talking about how Who Killed the Electric Car? has been posed as a whodunit mystery but that it's really a love story. And you walked in just at that moment!

Dean: The love interest!

Chelsea: Hardly….

MG: What are you doing now, Chelsea? How have you continued on with your advocacy of the electric car?

Chelsea: I still do quite a bit of work with Plug In America which was the organization that you saw towards the end of the film. We went through this evolution from saving cars to trying to get more cars built. And so we still continue to do that. We work with policy makers and car companies and the whole point is to get these cars back on the road, to take the lessons that we learned and that are portrayed in the film and kind of keep it from happening again and also figure out how to move in a forward positive direction.

MG: Audiences have definitely been moved by this film. How do you think the American consumer is going to react to this information? Do you think they will rally to the call?

Chelsea: I think they will. And our experience has proven that they want to. They come out of each screening saying, "What do I do? Where do I go? Who do I call? What do I buy?" The whole point is to give them more of those options, it's about creating more choices about different kinds of cars for people to buy. And make them available again.

MG: Why do you think General Motors was so drastic in destroying the EV-1s? That was the emotional part of this documentary. Even though I don't drive a car, I think they're admirable, y'know? I can go to these concourses down in Pebble Beach and look at these beautiful cars of the past; I can admire them. They saved those cars! Right? Why was there such a systematic erasure and destruction of the electric car?

Chris: As we say in the film, I don't think the vested interests wanted to see electric cars running around on the roads to remind people that they're possible and they're now. They just want to take them off the road. So what do you think, Chelsea? How do you answer that?

Chelsea: I think the short answer is that the cars were their own best advertisement. The more they were on the road, the more people wanted them and if that's not the business you want to be in, having them out there and having that advertisement becomes a liability in itself.

Chris: The official reason they claimed was that there were no spare parts and that cars couldn't be kept on the road and that there was a potential long term liability because they didn't manufacture tens of thousands of these cars. But their arguments seem very circular, I mean we could talk for a long time about it. We really came to the conclusion they just didn't want electric cars out there on the roads. What do you think, Wally?

Wally: I think a lot of it deals with what the vision is. Let's suppose you were a typewriter company and it's 1975 or something, and you started a little venture with computers and a little bit of stuff with word processing and, of course, these things are more expensive than typewriters. And you really didn't believe in it but you thought we'll do this anyway, and people liked your product, and you're getting pushed in directions that just don't fit in with your typewriter plans. If you didn't have vision for computers, you probably wouldn't do those things that would move you into the present day world. And this is the big picture that I see. I see that General Motors is doing things that are hurtful, not just to the rest of us but to themselves! Look at their bottom line right now. They're losing a million dollars an hour twenty-four hours a day. Eventually it's going to end up to be some real money. So, it's lack of vision. The thing is also when you tell lies, you sometimes believe your own lies. I'll give you an example of one. In the days when the EV-1 was available, I thought I'd do a little experiment so I called up as an interested party—which I was—and I say, I'd like to lease one of these. Great. Now I have a question for you. These use electricity—I'm pretending to be dumb, of course—these use electricity and electricity is made by power plants and power plants put out emissions. So isn't it possible that the emissions by way of power plants are just as great or maybe even greater than from a gasoline car? There's silence and I said, "Do you have any information that deals with this?" No. I knew the answers! I had studied all that stuff and the answer is it's wonderful!! The benefit of an electric vehicle over a gasoline vehicle—even when you include the power plant emissions—is about 30 times better. It would take about 30 electric cars to create as much emissions as one gasoline car, and I knew that and I had all the numbers. I didn't share it with this person. But this was an interesting thing because here is somebody trying to sell a product, supposedly, and they're not using information that is in their interest. I found out what I wanted to know at that point and that is there's a hidden agenda here. They really didn't want to do this. They were pushed into it. They were trying to make some statement. But what they did in the whole process of trying to get out of this, is they never did get the vision, they didn't see what was happening in the world. And it's like the typewriter company missing what's happening. Computers are coming! We're seeing this happening overseas as I mentioned before and the American companies, I want them to succeed. I'm on the side—you might find this hard to believe—I'm on the side of General Motors! I want them to succeed! I want them to do what's right and what's right will be right for our environment and it'll be right for their bottom line.

Dean: It's interesting talking about General Motors, on 60 Minutes a couple of weeks ago they did a big piece about how General Motors may be near bankruptcy and they blamed 100% of this on their workers! They blamed it on how much they have to pay in the retirement funds and the health benefits and I thought, "How disgusting! Blame the people who built your company and not even mention that you abandoned the technology that you had before anyone else in the entire world, that could have put you on the map, that could have changed the face of your company, just ignore that and blame the workers. So I absolutely agree with what Wally is saying about the vision thing.

MG: The thing I keep getting from your documentary and it's a question I initially asked them, Chelsea, is I've been seeing a lot of documentaries where they point the finger and you see the wrong that's been done but I keep wanting to bring it back to the American people: what are we supposed to do? You named some actual advocacy groups and you think that's the way to go with this? I was interested whether or not the old zero emission standards could be brought back? If your documentary would in any way lobby for a re-evaluation of that decision?

Chelsea: Right. The advocacy is one avenue, it's one thing. It's something we came to after a lot of other things didn't work. The ZEV Mandate is actually going to be revisited this summer. There are some new hearings to try to figure out what to do with it and whether to include newer things that have come into the fray since they sort of watered it down in '03 to include things like hybrids and all kinds of other avenues. So we absolutely not only hope, but expect this film to have an impact on those hearings and on those long term decisions. And the bottom line is the consumers have got to start asking for what they want. The traditional model of the auto industry that we're going to build something and then convince you that you want it; it needs to be reversed. And the car companies have got to start building what people actually want to buy but people also have to ask for it.

MG: I was also struck in your documentary when you were talking about the advertising and you showed those commercials and they were soooooo creepy!
Dean: They were terrifying!

MG: They were terrifying! And I thought, "Why would I want to own that? I'd be afraid to be in the garage with it!" [Laughter.] Another disturbing element of the documentary is that you do place culpability on the consumer—their lack of awareness—and yet at the same time I'm curious whether it's entirely their fault for not being aware? Your documentary serves a purpose by bringing awareness to the forefront but the average consumer at that time was being bombarded with advertisements for "preferable" products that the auto industry wanted to sell. Can the consumer really be blamed?
Wally: This is such a fascinating question for us. We went back and forth because consumers really didn't have a chance to buy this in 99% of the country, you never ever heard about this, so how can we blame them? It's a close call, but, we decided that those consumers that knew about it amongst our friends, friends of ours who are still very close friends, who may even have hybrids, they made the call that said, "You know what? I need to wait and see." They made the call to say, "I'm going to go with what I see advertised on television." And I think sometimes of Ralph Nader who says, yes, we're all consumers, we should be chasing the best deal for our dollar, we should be maybe getting what the Joneses have up the street, but we're also citizens and we can also say, "Advertising is just advertising. What product really corresponds with my values? What do I want for my vision of the future?" And that requires that we step outside of advertising. I don't mean to soapbox here, but, we decided in the end that consumers are part of the solution. So since the electric car was killed, we're all in this together. And we all need to work together to get out of the situation we're in now.

Dean: There's also the … what was going on at the time. It's a very different world today. Chris and I were talking about this just this morning. If these same things were coming up today as opposed to ten years ago we think the results would have been very different. The consequences of not embracing this kind of technology is much more apparent today than it was at the time for the average consumer.

Wally: Hurricane Katrina….

Dean: When you have hurricanes, and the threat of global warning is palpable now when before it was theoretical, the war in the Middle East where people are dying all the time and it's directly related to our addiction to oil and, frankly, just gas prices! If nothing else, if we had gas at $4 a gallon back then I think the consumers would have reacted in a way that they didn't then. They didn't need to as much. And if you watch how the sales of the Toyota Prius have skyrocketed, it says that consumers can make a big difference. So while it was very painful for us to make the decision to include consumers as part of the guilty party, the fact is to see how much they've done to help the hybrid car, shows what they can do in bringing back the electric car.

: Another documentary that's screening at the festival this year is out of Argentina—The Dignity of the Nobodies—I don't know if any of you have seen that? It was another one that really impressed me because here you had the collapse of an infrastructure and basically people voted with their feet, they walked away from the ways they had been taught to complain about something. What I liked about your documentary—along with its exposé of the systematic destruction of the EV-1—was its positive tone. That's why I keep repeating the question: what do we do? You're showing us this, you're giving us hope that we can do something, y'know? I love that you interviewed Phyllis Diller!! How did you get Phyllis Diller; I gotta ask this! [Everyone laughs.]

Chris: We were mixing our sound for the movie and we're in a little room in the back, the documentaries get a special closet at the back of a real sound stage, and we heard the laugh—Phyllis Diller's laugh—in the other room. I thought, that can't be the real Phyllis Diller in this building, I'm going to go over there and find out. So there she was and she was doing a voiceover for an animation series. And she said, "Now what are you doing, young man?" I'm 45, but, I'll take that. We're doing a documentary about electric cars. And she says [doing his best Diller]: "Electric cars?! I drove in one as a little girl!" So I think that's when I called Dean up and said, "Do you have any money for us to go out and film Phyllis at her house?" And Dean goes, "What?!!!"

MG: Hilarious! Which also makes me ask you, Dean, my understanding is that you created the first web site for a movie?

Dean: The first official movie website. In other words, this was back in 1994, and for most people the Internet was still a pretty new thing. There had been fan sites that had come up to support movies but no studio had ever embraced the Internet and done an official website for their film. So when we did the film Stargate, I was having a lot of frustrations with the marketing people at the time, because they wouldn't do the things I was hoping they would do. So I said, "Can I have the Internet? They said, "The what? Sure, it's yours!" And so we put a team together and we created the first movie website.

MG: That's really cool. Wally, you addressed an issue I was going to ask about emissions from the power plants. Another complaint I've heard about the electric car is replacing the batteries, that it would be very expensive: is that true?

Wally: Well, of course that bridge has already been crossed. People are driving Priuses. The battery technology that's developed in the Prius, the nickel metal hydride battery is in California being warrantied for 150,000 miles. The Prius is a little bit more expensive to buy than a conventional vehicle, you're talking about a 10-15% cost difference and the fuel of course you're saving. So when you go through all the numbers at a $1 a gallon for gas, you're right, the Prius does cost more. But gas doesn't cost $1 a gallon, it costs $3 a gallon right now and the arrows are all pointing upward. The bottom line is that there's been a lot of progress on one hand. We're going to see two years from now the Priuses being powered by lithium batteries rather than the nickel metal hydride and we have some spy people telling us that the Priuses are going to have—at least some of them—will have the option of being plug-in vehicles so that instead of getting just 50 miles per gallon, you'll be able to get well over 100 miles per gallon by mixing the electricity in with the gasoline.

MG: Well, I'm going to wrap it up because I know someone else is coming in. Thank you so much for your time. It's a wonderful project. I think you're on Oscar track. I'm serious! Thank you very much.

Chris: Thank you for spending time with us!

Wally: And don't buy a car!!

Interview by Michael Guillen.

Around the Internet:
  • Maya

    Thanks, Jon! It was the first time I had to interview more than one person at a time and I wasn't quite sure how I was going to maneuver it (especially with a hangover!), but, they were all so friendly and so eager to talk with each other that they did my work for me. As a follow-up, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is being enthusiastically received here at 2006 SFIFF. Dean told me the audience went nuts after the first screening and I dipped into the second and noticed how rapt the energy was!

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  • jon pais

    Excellent interview.

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