Car Story

Director Chris Paine talks about his new documentary Revenge of the Electric Car

Jul 7, 2011
Outside Magazine
Paine at the Tesla dealership in Los Angeles

Paine at the Tesla dealership in Los Angeles    Photo: Paine: Westmidwest Productions

A record 27 Hollywood sequels are hitting theaters in 2011, and now even the documentary world is embracing the recycling craze. Following up his 2006 hit Who Killed the Electric Car?, which chronicled the demise of General Motors’ EV-1, director Chris Paine is back with Revenge of the Electric Car. Paine spent three years following the development of a trio of new vehicles: the Tesla Roadster and Nissan Leaf (both pure electric plug-ins) and the Chevy Volt (a plug-in hybrid). If the first film was a murder mystery, Revenge is a race against time—and a surprisingly gripping one, thanks to a global recession that wreaked havoc on the companies’ plans. The author spoke with Paine, who was behind the wheel.

OUTSIDE: Is this an OK time to talk? It sounds like you’re driving.
PAINE: I am. I’m going to my house in Culver City. And I’m in a Chevy Volt! I have all three cars. The Tesla I bought three years ago. And the Volt and the Nissan Leaf I bought this year—all at full price, I might add.

You got pulled over the first time you were driving the Tesla.
Right. The police stopped me because the officers were arguing about whether it was electric. It was pretty ridiculous.

GM looked like idiots in the first film for killing their own invention just as gas prices were surging. For Revenge, they rolled out the red carpet for you. How did you manage that?
The brand had suffered so much after making mediocre cars for so many years, they didn’t really have much to lose. We told all of these guys—Nissan, GM, Tesla—that no footage would be screened until 2011. That’s why we got as much access as we did.

Did you panic when the recession hit?
We wanted to tell a story about entrepreneurship and what it takes to turn things around. When the meltdown happened, it was kind of perfect. I didn’t know if Nissan was going to pull the plug on the Leaf, or if GM was going to be forced by the bailout to destroy the Volt, or if Tesla would run out of money.

All three cars are now on the market. But when will we have an electric vehicle that can fit my kayak and mountain bike for a cross-country trip?
You can be a kayaker and rock climber and drive an electric vehicle if you play within a reasonable distance of your home. There are so many people that could take advantage of a car with a 100-mile capacity. Even if every factory was churning these out, they couldn’t meet the potential demand.

With prices starting at $32,780 for the Leaf and going up to $160,000 for the Tesla, do you think people will shell out?

The fortunes of the electric car will go hand in hand with gas prices. If gas is up over $4 per gallon, the consumer says, “Huh, electric car. Maybe I’ll check it out.”

Are you still driving?
I just got home. I’ve driven 550 miles since I bought this car. So far I’ve used 1.4 gallons.