Arts & Entertainment - November 9, 2011

Chris Paine returns with 'Revenge'

Chris Paine of Portola Valley revisits electric car in documentary

by Dave Boyce

With gasoline-electric hybrid cars now well established and at least two all-electric cars selling in showrooms, we are several years into a revival of using electricity to propel a vehicle down a road.

It's time for a celebration, according to Chris Paine, a Portola Valley native and documentary film director who visited Palo Alto's Aquarius movie theater Saturday, Nov. 5, to talk about "Revenge of the Electric Car," his new film profiling four men and the cars they have championed in the electric car's comeback.

Mr. Paine spoke with the Almanac while seated on a low wall in front of the theater on Saturday evening amid a chilling rain and a milling crowd of fans gathered to talk with him between screenings.

At the curb in front of the theater was Mr. Paine's Chevrolet Volt, a car profiled in his film. He traded in a Prius, which has back-up electric power, for the Volt, which has back-up gasoline power.

He said he also owns a Tesla all-electric sports car and his girlfriend owns an all-electric Nissan Leaf, both profiled in the film. "I want all my cars to have plugs in them," Mr. Paine said.

Many of the cars parked nearby ran on fossil fuel, and there are arguments to be made about the practicality of electric cars today, but this film does not engage in that battle. "We wanted to celebrate early adopters and the momentum and the people taking risks," Mr. Paine said.

Mr. Paine also directed the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car," an analysis of the automotive industry's connection to fossil fuels with a focus on the EV-1, a General Motors experiment in which the company leased these cars, then repossessed and destroyed them, reportedly because they were not profitable.

Chris Paine attended local schools, including Selby Lane School in Atherton, Trinity Parish School (now Philips Brooks School) in Menlo Park, and Menlo School in Atherton, where he graduated in 1979.

"I grew up on the Peninsula and loved it," he said. He delivered newspapers in Atherton and Redwood City and made Super8 films with his friend Roger Gilbertson, who worked on both electric car documentaries.

After college at Colgate and the New York University film school, Mr. Paine studied documentary filmmaking in a summer program at Stanford University and interned at HP and Pixar Animation Studios.

Secrets on film

GM is back in "Revenge," but not for a grilling. Vice President Bob Lutz, erstwhile champion of the Cadillac Escalade and the Hummer, is the force behind the Volt.

"I would say that electrification of the automobile is a foregone conclusion," Mr. Lutz says early in the film.

Greg "Gadget" Abbott, referred to as "The Outsider," with the help of his wife Charlotte Abbott, is blazing a path by electrifying sports cars in Southern California. And a hard path it is, as the film shows.

We also meet Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of Nissan and Renault and referred to in the film as the Napoleon, the master strategist, in the race to capture the electric vehicle market. The public's expectation that car companies will respond to climate change is driving Nissan's strategies, Mr. Ghosn says.

And there is Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and a local presence, particularly in the Menlo Park showroom where there are anguished scenes about the headaches of manufacturing a new brand of car. "It's like eating a glass sandwich every bloody day," he says at a low point.

Mr. Paine filmed candid internal meetings at each company, the last in 2008. His access hinged on the three-year gap between the filming and the screening, Mr. Paine said.

"In the beginning at GM, nobody trusted anybody," Mr. Paine said. At Tesla, the film crew was kicked out of a tense meeting on financial worries. They caught Mr. Musk holding his head, but from outside the room.

"They didn't tell us we couldn't film through the window," Mr. Paine said.

The film ends on a positive note, but engineering a new status quo has opponents, and it's a leap to spend thousands on something you can't refill at a gas station, Mr. Paine acknowledged. The oil industry abets the wariness through front groups with appealing names to argue against going electric, Mr. Paine said, adding: "It takes a long time for people to change."


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