Not many screenplays have their genesis during the rush of a college orientation week. But that’s exactly where The Current War began. On screenwriter Michael Mitnick’s first day at Yale University’s School of Drama, he was given a simple assignment: to bring an idea from history to class. “My mind flashed back to an Apple computers poster of Thomas Edison I’d had on my childhood bedroom wall,” he remembers, adding with a laugh: “I’d picked [that poster] mainly because I thought Edison looked like a mad scientist.”
That first night in New Haven, he began researching the famous inventor. He quickly discovered that there was much more to his story than the invention of the lightbulb. “I stumbled upon ‘The War of the Currents’ — an epic battle between Edison and [industrialist/invention enthusiast] George Westinghouse to determine the world’s standard of electricity,” Mitnick says. The story took all sorts of unexpected, tragic and thrilling turns. There was a scurrilous smear campaign, the secret invention of the electric chair, the violent death of a man, and the advent of a unique scientific talent in Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla. “I remember thinking, ‘How did I not know this?’” he marvels. “Then it became a ten-year process of writing it, first as a musical and finally as a film.”
Producer Timur Bekmambetov was immediately intrigued by the script. “It’s about innovation and new technologies AND about the responsibility that comes with that and the dichotomies. Edison, the genius who gave us light, also gave us the electric chair … but it’s also about a rivalry of geniuses driven by both personal and civic motives. It also illustrates the tremendous, tectonic shifts their work brought to all our lives that echoes today – ultimately, electricity was not just about light and power but changed our entire lives in almost every way.”
Benedict Cumberbatch was approached for the project and was also struck, entranced by the screenplay right from its opening scene. In it, Edison — the so-called ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ — impresses a gathering of New York magnates and influencers by lighting up a wintry field with giant bulbs. “All you see is this wave of furs and silk-top hats and spats getting covered in mud,” says Cumberbatch, reliving his first impression. “Then in the distance there’s this glowing ember of a cigar. Then the flick of the switch and this pop and crunch of all these bulbs coming on. It was the idea of this man in a muddy field playing God — making light out of dark.” It was, he remembers, “a dazzler” of an opening.
Cumberbatch regards Edison as the “fallen hero” of the story. “It’s about stripping the man from his image of himself as a god of industry — a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg — into being an embittered loser. But then he dusts himself off and he’s off again in search of a new prize. The wheels don’t stop turning in his head just because he’s fixated with one battle and fighting court cases over patents, he’s still doing the good stuff in tandem. He’s a remarkable man with many, many human flaws.”
Watch the epic battle between Edison and George Westinghouse – The Current War: Director’s Cut opens in theaters October 25th.