July 31, 2006

And Then There Were None: Pulling the Plug on the Electric Car

From Chris Paine's 'Who Killed the Electric Car?'

If someone you loved mysteriously disappeared, you'd use all your resources to find out what happened. In American popular culture one's car is often treated like a member of the family, so when filmmaker Chris Paine and his fellow electric vehicle owners were forced by General Motors to give up their EV-1s, he decided to investigate. The result is Who Killed the Electric Car?, a feature documentary that examines the life and perplexing death of the EV-1.

Paine originally leased his car in 1997. When he tried to renew his lease several years later, General Motors said that it was canceling the electric car program and therefore re-upping was not an option. Paine joined the group of mournful EV-1 owners forced to return their vehicles. What made the situation worse was that GM was claiming that it was canceling the program due to lack of demand.

This infuriated the cars' owners, who banded together and staged a mock funeral for the car at a cemetery. Says Paine, "The media just wasn't reporting the sort of  ‘end of an era' that all electric cars were being taken back and called off the road, so we put together this funeral as a press event to raise awareness."

The seed to make a film about the EV-1 was planted when the group decided to film the funeral. For nine months, Paine and co-producer Kathy Weiss shopped around the idea for a feature documentary on the electric car's demise, without any luck. In a last-ditch effort to get the project made, they put together a small budget to shoot the last EV-1 being pulled off the road, then edited a promo reel. At this point Tavin Marin Titus (Mammoth, On_Line) came aboard as an executive producer and brought the film to Dean Devlin (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot), with whom she had previously worked. Devlin, whose father had fought for electric cars in California, sparked to the project--not only financing it, but offering valuable advice during production.

Paine decided to structure the film as a classic murder mystery. In the first half of the film, audiences become acquainted with the "victim," learning about the development of the car, hearing from EV-1 owners and witnessing its disposal. The second half of the film investigates the potential "murder suspects," including the oil and auto industries, the federal government, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the limited range of the electric car battery and the hydrogen fuel cell. "We started off asking questions about how this happened," Paine explains. "There are so many interlocking pieces; it's like Murder on the Orient Express! So I said, ‘Let's make it a puzzle for the audience, have them take the pieces apart and then try to put this together for themselves.'"

One of the reasons that the murder mystery structure works is that Paine and his team do such a good job of turning the EV-1 into a character. By the end of the film, the audience has developed a strong sense of empathy for the little car that was never allowed to reach its full potential. One of the most powerful moments of the film features footage of the cars being crushed and shredded, evoking a profound sense of loss and wasted opportunity.

Backing up this emotional tone is a clear set of facts and figures. Much of the credit for this goes to producer Jessie Deeter, who had previously worked for PBS' FRONTLINE/World, among others. "She came in to really ground the movie in facts and she helped us get to experts," says Paine.

Another strength of the film is that despite a clear point of view on the issue, Paine and his crew shied away from the in-your-face techniques often utilized by activist filmmakers. Instead, they approached their subject with a lighter touch, allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions about who the real "murderer" was. "I think that when you let people make up their own minds, you're going to have much stronger supporters than if you tell them what to feel and what to think," Paine maintains. "Since we're all in this problem together and the problem is very serious, it's going to take all of us to get out. So why scare away people by creating something that would be seen instantly as a completely biased piece of work?" 

The film ends on a positive note, focusing on the possibilities of the plug-in hybrid, which could potentially be powered by electricity generated from home solar panels. Paine remains optimistic, hoping that today's high oil prices, the political situation in the Middle East and the recent evidence of global warming will perhaps finally mandate coalitions among unlikely partners and result in true forward movement to create and market alternative vehicles.

Who Killed the Electric Car? premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and also played at the Tribeca and San Francisco Film Festivals. The film will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on June 28. More on the documentary and the electric car can be found at www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com.

 

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.