- “The Current War” was the movie Harvey Weinstein was involved with when The New York Times exposé that detailed allegations of sexual misconduct against him was published in October 2017.
- The movie’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and producer, Timur Bekmambetov, told Business Insider that before the Times report, Weinstein had taken over the film from them and had, at one point, edited the movie behind their backs.
- After The Weinstein Company went bankrupt following the reporting on Harvey Weinstein, the movie’s new owner planned to release it in the form it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. That was the version Weinstein had overseen.
- But Gomez-Rejon pleaded that the movie wasn’t finished.
- Gomez-Rejon’s agents then discovered there was a clause in his contract that his mentor, Martin Scorsese, had to sign off on the final cut. And that’s what saved Gomez-Rejon’s vision of the movie.
- Gomez-Rejon was able to finish the movie and it’s being released in theatres on Friday with the title, “The Current War: Director’s Cut.”
- “Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Timur Bekmambetov are super talented and we hear the movie is terrific, too,” Weinstein told Business Insider through his spokesman, Juda Engelmayer. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have the resources to work with it more, but are excited for it and hope they do well with the film.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Like many filmmakers before him, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was aware of the stories about Harvey Weinstein and directors. They had been well publicized for years and Gomez-Rejon even talked to some who went through the experience. But when it was time to sign on the dotted line, he did it. He would make a movie with Weinstein.
“I was warned,” Gomez-Rejon told Business Insider, looking back on making “The Current War” (in select theatres Friday). “I had some final cut language in my contract that I felt would protect me. It didn’t mean anything.”
Gomez-Rejon’s experience began in 2015, long before the 2017 New York Times exposé that detailed decades of allegations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein, and which overnight erased the once-powerful producer’s place in the movie business.
But there was something else about Weinstein that, at that point in his career, was well known: “Harvey Scissorhands,” as he was often called in Hollywood, loved control of all the films he released.
Weinstein had imposed his will on the creative process since launching Miramax Films with his brother Bob in 1979 (and starting The Weinstein Company in 2005). He had made the independent film landscape into what it is today by having a tenacious approach to buying movies, releasing them so they would be seen beyond the arthouse crowds, and ruthlessly campaigning for Oscars.
Weinstein’s notes to filmmakers about their movies were apocalyptic. He often demanded dramatic cuts to their work, and in some instances Weinstein would take the movie himself and edit behind their backs. Any pushback by the filmmakers often led to Weinstein giving those movies sparse releases or cutting marketing dollars.
The result is a laundry list of titles over the years that felt the wrath of Harvey Scissorhands: “Sling Blade,” “54,” “The Yards,” “Fanboys,” and “Snowpiercer.” But there were also titles that found success following Weinstein’s involvement. There was 1982’s “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball,” which put Miramax on the map; “Like Water for Chocolate,” which at the time of its release in 1992 was the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever; and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” nominated for 10 Oscars. That chance at success was why filmmakers would keep agreeing to work with him, up until the allegations of sexual misconduct came to light.
“He was the obvious choice,” Timur Bekmambetov, the producer of “The Current War,” told Business Insider. “He produces these kinds of movies.”
Bekmambetov acquired the script after it was selected for 2011’s The Black List, the annual rundown of best unproduced scripts. Written by Michael Mitnick, the story follows the cutthroat race in the late 1800s between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to bring electricity to the world through their differing methods: direct current by Edison and alternating current by Westinghouse.
Bekmambetov was no stranger to how the Hollywood games were played, having directed “Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” and 2016’s “Ben-Hur.” He knew that, though Weinstein was controlling, The Weinstein Company was one of the few places in town that would produce a period movie like this and get a worthy cast attached.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” before making the critically acclaimed feature “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” in 2015, was offered the directing job.
“At first I didn’t think I was the right person for it,” Gomez-Rejon said. “But the more I kept thinking about it I saw it was about artists creating the modern world.”
The Weinstein Company took to Gomez-Rejon’s pitch of telling a period piece but delving more into the inner turmoils of the main characters than the fight for who would win control of electricity. And with a cast made up of Benedict Cumberbatch playing Edison, Michael Shannon as Westinghouse, Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla, Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Katherine Waterston as Marguerite Erskine Walker Westinghouse, and Tuppence Middleton as Mary Stilwell Edison (many of whom came on because of Weinstein’s involvement), they were off and running.
The never-ending notes
With a budget under $US30 million, production started in December 2016 in London for around 44 shooting days during which, on weekends, Gomez-Rejon and editor David Trachtenberg would get together to cut the movie. After production wrapped, post production began immediately in Los Angeles. Gomez-Rejon and Bekmambetov said they didn’t feel the presence of Weinstein and his executives until post production.
“The notes started and they didn’t stop,” Gomez-Rejon said.
Those notes ranged from adding more voice over and ADR (dialogue added by an actor after the movie has been shot), to specific music cues in scenes. But the main note was that Edison wasn’t sympathetic enough.
“There was fear from Harvey that we weren’t going the right way in the edit,” Bekmambetov said. “And we couldn’t stop Harvey. He’s writing the checks.”
Gomez-Rejon began to see his edgy storytelling of innovators being watered down, he said. And the director felt Cumberbatch’s performance as Edison was being shaped into something “likable as opposed to being human.”
“There was a lot of bullying happening and a lot of intimidation,” Gomez-Rejon said of working with Weinstein.
And he wasn’t just receiving notes from Weinstein, but also from executives in The Weinstein Company offices in New York, Los Angeles, and London. He said at times notes from one office would contradict the notes coming from another office.
“It killed me because it was neutering the movie,” he said. “There’s no war if both men are likable.”
Despite all the turmoil, Weinstein showed a rough cut to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which agreed to screen the movie at its 2017 edition in September. The news scared Gomez-Rejon and put Weinstein into overdrive on how he thought the story should be told. The director felt like he was spending most of his time defending his choices instead of getting the movie completed, and it took a toll on him physically, he said. Gomez-Rejon said leading up to the TIFF screening he was only getting two hours of sleep a night and lost 25 pounds trying to get the movie ready.
“Two days before TIFF we screened the movie before shipping it off,” Gomez-Rejon remembered. “I knew it wasn’t ready and I was very uncomfortable. We had 15 people there to see it and I actually apologised to them. But there was no way out.”
All Gomez-Rejon could think about were the Harvey Scissorhands stories.
“I thought I was going to be another casualty,” he said.
Gomez-Rejon’s worst fears were confirmed when “The Current War” premiered at TIFF. He said from the start he could tell from the audience’s reaction that the movie wasn’t working. Then the bad premiere got worse.
“When I walked out of the theatre something happened that has never happened to me before, the tweets started,” Gomez-Rejon said, with anguish in his voice as if the moment had just happened. “It was incredibly painful because they were reviewing it as a final version and it wasn’t close to being finished.”
Even Weinstein realised after the TIFF screening the movie wasn’t working.
“He sent Alfonso and I an email, right after the Toronto screening, and apologised that he was not right and the cut was too ambitious,” Bekmambetov said. “He said he was going to finish the movie and make it right.”
After TIFF, Gomez-Rejon went back to his home in Texas for three days to recharge before going back to LA to complete the movie for its scheduled December theatrical release. And in those three days away, Gomez-Rejon said the movie was cut again by Weinstein behind his back (Bekmambetov also confirmed this happened). When Gomez-Rejon got to LA, the notes increased even more. Weinstein had tunnel vision in how he wanted the story to be told, Gomez-Rejon said.
“Even the executives at Weinstein Company told me they had never seen him quite like this, being this obsessive about a project,” Gomez-Rejon said. “It was like he was treating it like the end.”
Bekmambetov also felt a change in Weinstein after TIFF. “After the Toronto screening he was different,” he said.
Almost exactly a month from “The Current War” screening at TIFF, on October 4, Variety reported that The New York Times and The New Yorker were preparing stories detailing sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein.
“I’ve not been aware of this, I don’t know what you’re talking about, honestly,” Weinstein told the trade, saying that he was busy in the edit room working on “The Current War.” (But according to the book “She Said,” by this point, Weinstein had spoken with the Times reporters and met with them at Times’ offices.)
The day after the Variety story, The New York Times ran its explosive exposé on Weinstein.
“The day before we were on the phone,” Gomez-Rejon said of the last time he talked to Weinstein. “I was making my case to shoot [an additional] scene and he said, ‘I’m getting pulled into a meeting, I’m going to call you right back.'”
Gomez-Rejon never heard from Weinstein again.
The ‘Scorsese Clause’
In the aftermath of the New York Times story, Weinstein was dismissed from The Weinstein Company and the slate of upcoming releases was put on hold, including “The Current War.”
Gomez-Rejon had no way of getting to the movie to continue editing it. Though many in the business told him to move on, Gomez-Rejon couldn’t let go of the story he had been battling for a year to finish.
“I really did think that what happened to Harvey was going to define this movie and me,” Gomez-Rejon said. “After the New York Times story I never stopped cutting in my head. I had on my desk scenes I wanted to reshoot. I storyboarded them. I was ready for whenever the call came.”
After almost a year of the movie sitting on a shelf, untouched, news about “The Current War” finally got to Gomez-Rejon. But it wasn’t good. The Weinstein Company declared bankruptcy in February 2018 and three months later Lantern Capital won the studio’s bankruptcy auction. That meant Lantern now owned The Weinstein Company library and the films that were to be released. Gomez-Rejon saw in the trades that Lantern was planning to release “The Current War” in the version that was shown at TIFF. Bekmambetov, whose production company Bazelevs is releasing the movie in Russia, also received an email from Lantern describing the movie’s release plan.
The two said they begged Lantern to let them finish the movie the way Gomez-Rejon intended it to be seen, but weren’t getting anywhere.
Then Martin Scorsese entered the conversation.
Back when Gomez-Rejon signed on to make “The Current War,” there was a clause put into his contract that if a cut of the movie was done without Gomez-Rejon’s consent, Scorsese would have to sign off on it. Scorsese had long been Gomez-Rejon’s mentor, as the young director first interned for the Oscar winner, and then was his on-set assistant during the making of “Casino.”
The “Scorsese clause” was discovered by Gomez-Rejon’s agents at WME, Mike Simpson and Roger Green, and his manager Chris Donnelly, as they combed through the contract with lawyers. Once Scorsese caught wind of what had happened to his protégé, he did not sign off on the movie until he knew Gomez-Rejon’s vision was on the screen.
Gomez-Rejon and Bekmambetov raised $US1 million in finishing funds, which covered a complete overhaul of the score, finishing the CGI, editing, and reshoots.
Gomez-Rejon convinced Cumberbatch, Middleton, and Hoult to come out to England for a one-day shoot. He even included a new scene inspired by his experience with Weinstein, in which Tesla, who in the movie works with both Edison and Westinghouse at different times, is stripped of his patents by a businessman he made a deal with.
“It was a scene that reflected how it feels when your voice is ripped away from you, which is what happened to me,” he said. “I wanted to get that emotion that I had out on the page.”
The Gomez-Rejon version is now being released with the title “The Current War: Director’s Cut” through newcomer 101 Studios, and is vastly different than the version shown at TIFF.
Business Insider has seen both versions of the movie. The TIFF version feels like it’s hand-holding the audience through the story and attempting to make Edison sympathetic. The new “Director’s Cut” version, which runs ten minutes shorter than the TIFF version, has better pacing and feels less rushed in the storytelling.
In the new version, the Edison voiceover in the opening and closing sequences has also been completely redone; the CGI explaining how electricity works through transformers has changed from a dull animated blueprint showing the expansion, to a town in darkness lit up with lights as far as the eye can see; and Tesla’s role has been beefed up.
“Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Timur Bekmambetov are super talented and we hear the movie is terrific, too,” Weinstein told Business Insider through his spokesman, Juda Engelmayer. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have the resources to work with it more, but are excited for it and hope they do well with the film.”
At the same time the movie was getting finished, letters were sent to distributors around the world pleading with them to not show the TIFF version Lantern was offering and to wait for “Director’s Cut.” All regions will release “Director’s Cut,” except for the UK, which ran the earlier version in July.
Almost three years after starting production, “The Current War” will finally be seen by audiences. It’s a fact that Gomez-Rejon is still coming to terms with – that he no longer has to fight for it anymore.
“I had my first public screening a month ago and it hit me that it’s really happening,” he said. “Tears just started to flow. Out of nowhere. I hadn’t cried in years. It made me realise that anything I take on now I will expect the worst but know I can survive it.”
Gomez-Rejon took a breath before finishing his thought.
“I’m proud of the film and it’s mine.”
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