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Winning The War - Producing Partners Never Give Up the Fight To Bring Their Current Project To The Screen

Posted By Katie Grant, Friday, October 11, 2019

What happens when a stellar script, straight from the Black List, gets made into a potentially great movie, only to have it caught in the crossfires of a notorious scandal around its formerly great, now uncredited, producer? In the case of The Current War, two of its producers, Basil Iwanyk and Timur Bekmambetov, never give up on that potential greatness, ultimately fronting their own funds for reshoots, recuts and rescoring the movie to restore the creative vision of the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. The story of how The Current War morphed into its existing form could be a movie all its own, complete with the hero saving the day at the 11th hour and a few fundamental lessons in what producing is all about.

“It’s just a good man who makes bad decisions in the search for greatness,” Iwanyk notes of The Current War’s main character, Thomas Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The Current War recounts the story of the cutthroat race among Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla to bring electricity to the Eastern Seaboard in the 1880s. “It was an absolutely beautiful script. I thought it felt like The Social Network, like a period movie that was done in such a contemporary, fresh way.”

The Current War producer Timur Bekmambetov

The Current War, initially a Weinstein Company production, was pushed for early release—apparently to beat the news of Harvey Weinstein’s past going public—in a rushed cut that did not fit with the director’s vision. After The Weinstein Company’s collapse, the film was shelved for two years, only to be saved by the William Morris Endeavor agency. Gomez-Rejon’s lawyer there found a contractual clause granting the director’s mentor, Martin Scorsese, final cut. Up until that point, Scorsese had yet to even see a cut. This gave Iwanyk and Bekmambetov a chance to move back in the direction of painting the competition among the three inventors as more a modern Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg versus the Winklevoss twins story than a mere period piece.

Iwanyk recalls, “The loophole came from WME and their lawyer, P.J. Shapiro. We never gave up, and they never gave up, and Benedict never gave up saying, ‘Okay, we are going to lock hands here and we’re going to figure this out.’ And remember, I’m friends with all these people but still, agents and producers are often on other sides of the table. On this one, we all got together and said, ‘We’re not going to allow this thing to die.’ And so I’d love to take credit for it with Timur and Alfonso, but I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the reps. They were amazing.”

Another amazing tale is how Bekmambetov found the story. “I had a dream to make a movie about Tesla for 10 years. I didn’t find a good story. And the first time I read Michael Mitnick’s screenplay, I finally understood that I should make a movie not about Tesla, but about Edison,” he explains. “We can understand Tesla better through Edison’s point of view. Every story I read was about some freaky, crazy guy and absolutely unrelatable. To make the story understandable you need that bridge. You need a normal guy with relatable weaknesses and talents.”

Both producers have serendipitous connections to Edison’s story. Iwanyk’s maternal grandmother actually lived next door to Edison in New Jersey, and his other grandmother worked for Westinghouse. Bekmambetov’s father and brother were both electrical engineers in the Soviet Union. He himself even went to the Moscow Power Engineering Institute. “I spent two years, and I was fired because I spent more time directing shows in the theater than studying electric stuff. Then I studied as a production designer for six years at the Alexander Ostrovsky Theatrical and Artistic Institute.”

As such, getting this story out there in the way the script promised, followingGomez-Rejon’s creative approach, was more than just a bone to pick for each of them. The way they collectively dug their heels in to get the movie back after the hasty original cut speaks to the power of producing.

Iwanyk says, “The dailies were amazing … in some ways, the dailies were so great, and the performances were so great, that it brought Harvey closer to the movie, because he smelled something that could be spectacular. And he held onto it really tight, and usually, when somebody holds onto something very tight, it becomes dysfunctional. And so our post process quickly became dysfunctional.”

Once that happened, Iwanyk’s approach was to keep going. “You can’t ever give up. And I believe so much in Alfonso, personally and professionally, and I saw what he did and sacrificed for the movie, that even on that level, I was never going to surrender.           

“But I also thought, ‘This movie could be great. And I’m not going to allow [anyone] to harm this movie.’ And I’ve got to tell you, there were incredibly dark days. And even when it’s at the most despairing, darkest place, if you believe in it, you just have to push forward.”

He continues, “I have to say, of all the movies that I’ve ever worked on in my entire career, I’ve never had a more cohesive and effective and functional relationship with the talent and their reps, as I’ve done in this movie. And so I have to hand it to Mike Simpson, Roger Green and Chris Donnelly on behalf of Alfonso, and Billy Lazarus on behalf of Benedict and Nick Hoult. We were all on the phone two, sometimes three, days a week. We were all in it together.”

That stick-to-itiveness comes honestly to each of these producers, who chose their own paths to storytelling through cinema. Iwanyk headed straight to a mailroom post at Warner Bros. after studying political science at Villanova. He knew he didn’t want to be a lawyer and wanted to give his passion for movies a shot. He fully assumed he’d be back in New Jersey a couple years later if it didn’t work out, but that was in 1992 and he’s still here, heading his company, Thunder Road Pictures.

DP Chung-hoon Chung, Stanley Townsend, Comez-Rejon

Iwanyk’s desire to tell stories through film came after he saw Ordinary People. “At first, I just enjoyed movies. For me, they were an incredible escape. It was Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the John Hughes movies. I was blown away by those movies. And then, as I got a little bit older, the first time I saw a movie that didn’t exist for my enjoyment and my entertainment—but existed for me to think about life differently—was Ordinary People. When I saw that movie, it shook me to the core.

“I thought, ‘This movie doesn’t exist just to thrill me. This movie exists for other reasons.’ And I think that was the first movie when I realized, ‘OK, this is a form. This is a way of storytelling that could go above and beyond entertainment.’ They could coexist, don’t get me wrong, but it was the first time I realized the emotional power of it.”

Iwanyk’s time at Warner Bros. taught him about three fundamentals of producing: one’s own point of view, relationships and writing notes. “The only thing you really have is your point of view, as an executive or as a producer, because we’re not writing or directing anything. So understand what that point of view is.

“Two, sometimes it’s about relationships and about trusting people. That, even though you may not be completely on board, you should trust in people who may be right. And then, the third thing was, they taught me how to write notes. I was writing five or six sets of notes a week. It was hell. It made you go into your instinct, and listen to yourself about why you’re not responding to certain things on a script or on a cut.”

Bekmambetov, on the other hand, started as a writer and ended up directing his own movie because he couldn’t find a satisfactory director. And the same was true for producing, “Then I couldn’t find a good producer to produce my next movie, and I became a producer myself. And since the end of the ‘90s, I’m directing and producing at the same time. It’s just about the freedom and to have responsibility. As you know, it is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” His company, Bazelevs, produces movies and commercials and houses his creation, Screenlife, “an innovative digital language that tells a whole narrative within the frames of a screen.”

“I think for centuries our ancestors were trying to create a trust between people. Between people and nature, people and God, and the universe. I learned that the only way to create this trust is to tell stories. You can’t dictate what they should feel,” Bekmambetov explains, “You should just tell them the story. They will all love, cry, have fun or be scared. Just emotions. Emotions, a collective experience, help to create this kind of trust between people.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon with producer Basil Iwanyk

“And I believe we cannot save the world or change the world by creating rules or dictating. What we can do, as filmmakers, is just tell stories—emotional and touchable and inspiring stories. And these stories will change people. I believe this movie, The Current War, is a movie, which potentially will help people to understand how inspiring, but how dangerous is technology.”

Although the two producers had not previously worked together, and their producing roles were very different on The Current War—Bekmambetov as the one who generated the material and Iwanyk as the one on the ground to get the movie made—they became a really good team.

Bekmambetov explains, “I cannot imagine this movie being made without [Basil], because he is like the spine of the production process. I was involved more in development. I just inspired this, let’s say. He was literally in charge to drive this process. And he was, until the end, the driver. He did everything. It’s about his ability to force people to do what he thinks is right and to listen to what they’re saying, and to be able to find the elegant. That contribution is very important—to be creative as a producer. To find a way to make things happen.”

In the end, they both followed Iwanyk’s belief in betting on yourself. “On a financial level, if you have the opportunity, bet on yourself because, if it works, the windfall, financially, is great. So, don’t be afraid to spend your own money,” Iwanyk says.

On-set picture from The Current War

Self-financing is what helped save The Current War from the wrong creative road it went down in post. But they did much more than bet on themselves. They bet on the quality of the material, the caliber of the performances, the creativity of the camerawork and the vision of the director. Holding onto that vision is a job that both these producers take more seriously than most. They are hoping and betting that the rest of us respond positively, as they did, to the story of three historical visionaries. As Bekmambetov puts it, “We live in the world of these visionaries and inventors, and they will really change the future. They are the real heroes, not soldiers, not boxers, not politicians. I believe inventors are the most influential and attractive characters in today’s world.”

He adds, “It’s about cinema. Cinema is an unbelievable source of magic. You know, power. Of course, I’m just a part of the process. And that’s the case [for all] art, but specifically cinema. It’s like we’re dreaming for two hours. In that vein, it’s magic.”

The Current War can be seen as a collective invention of these two talented producers. They are hoping their creation will allow us to see ourselves in the magic reflected on the screen.

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