[I first saw Chris Paine's WKtEC in an almost-finished version at the San Francisco Film Festival a few months ago; it was no accident that I chose it since I presently drive an all electric car & have been advocating & following the progress of EV's for more than seven years. Didn't think I'd cry at watching cars get crushed, but I did. At the July 7th, 2006 opening of WKtEC in Berkeley, California, I organized leafleting—cards & trifolds graciously provided by Plug-in America, a group which promotes the creation of plug-in hybrid vehicles. At the Q&A after the first evening showing, Jessie & I fielded many questions from a very enthusiastic crowd and she consented to an interview later that week. My personal commentary follows.]
Interview with Jessie Deeter, Producer of WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?
CJ: What was the original attraction to the project?
JD I've been following electric and hybrid cars since the late '90s, when I wrote an article about them for the East Bay Express. Plus, I really liked the people I would work with, which makes a big difference to me.
CJ: What's your personal experience with EVs; ever get to ride/drive an EV1?
JD: Unfortunately, I never got to ride in an EV1--I only saw dismantled cars.
CJ: How long was your involvement, start to finish and what were some hold-ups and road blocks?
JD: I worked on the project for just about exactly one year--from April, 2005 through April-May 2006. There were many road blocks, the biggest getting people who didn't want to talk to us to talk to us--that was a very big part of my job. Anybody who was working for or had worked for GM didn't want to talk to us, for example. They didn't trust what they thought was Chris's activist slant, and they had no real reason to talk to us. I basically wore a couple down, and convinced them that I really had been hired to try to provide the film with some form of balance (coming as I did through a real journalism school followed by years working on Frontline projects).
CJ: Favorite bit(s) that didn't make the final cut? Is there extra footage in the DVD?
JD: I miss a scene of Bill Reinert [featured in the film, national manager in charge of the Advanced Technology Group for Toyota Motor Sales] doing talk radio in Montana and I would have had more of Chelsea's [Sexton, former GM salesperson, featured prominently in WKtEC] personal story, with her husband and son, who was literally born into the EV1 program, had we had more time. The DVD is in the process of being compiled, and though I have no control over what will eventually appear there, I am making suggestions.
CJ:How much were you involved/present in the actual interviews/shooting?
JD: I helped choose the interviews, procured them and did all of the arranging for every single one that happened after I was hired. I also chose the director of photography, who was very much responsible for raising the level of the look and feel of our film from the home video shot by activists to the gorgeous high definition interviews and b-roll that now comprise the majority of the film.
CJ: Chris is clearly an impassioned filmmaker; did this project take over your life?
JD: Yes. 1000 percent. I flew back and forth from Oakland to LA for a year, leaving my husband in Oakland during the week and relying on the very good humor and love of friends who put me up at their place in LA for the entire time.
CJ: What's your favorite documentary?
JD: I have many, but one of my all-time favorites is "When We Were Kings" [Oscar-winning doc about Muhammed Ali, George Foreman and The Rumble in the Jungle]…a marvelous piece of work that is nothing like our film at all—wish I could say that it influenced this film, but it didn't. The neatest thing about our film is that it is completely structurally unique, from a documentary-making perspective. Which was also part of the challenge--nobody had tried to do exactly what we did before. More recently, "Murderball" [concerning paraplegic athletes] was an astounding piece of work, and definitely my sort of documentary.
CJ: As a producer, which would you prefer to do: documentaries or features?
JD: I would rather produce documentaries--largely because the producer of documentaries usually does all things, finding and getting the story, directing, all that in addition to taking care of the money. I would love to work with most of my crew again--I prefer to work in a small unit… next time, I'll be my own director, unless hired to produce for somebody else.
CJ: How can or should this film get folded into Plug-in America? How about as an educational tool?
JD: Our hope is that Plug-In America picks up where this film leaves off--on the call to action. And I believe they are doing that. They have a tremendous amount of energy and momentum right now, and they have a little bit of political interest as well. They have smartly allied themselves with people like Jim Woolsey [ex-CIA Director], who know the system and know how to get a bit of attention. I think that we can make a fabulous educational tool, and a mock-up blueprint is already on the Who Killed the Electric Car? website. [note: WKtEC has apparently bothered GM enough that if you google the film, the first thing you will see is a sponsored link paid for by GM which attempts to refute the information in the film. Try www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com or www.pluginamerica.com instead.]
My oldest son was in the mood for wheels; what young man isn't? He had started out with scooters & did well with them, graduated up to a pretty beefy model, sleek & all-black, but rain was always an issue--not to speak of the inadvisability of taking it on the freeway. We didn't have a lot of cash to spend, either. The subject kept coming up like blisters on your heel & he was talking motorcycle & I was getting deeper and deeper into the Worry department, Mother division.
As history is writ, these are the moments that occur inexplicably; all I can tell posterity is that one day in 1998 I thought I had the answer & I walked up to my boy & said, "I have two words for you, Sam: Electric Car." In the storyboard of this scene, we would have a close-up of his face suffused with instant zeal, followed with a montage of internet searching & phone calling. In real life, I was pinned to my own dart board. I don't remember if I was truly realistic in this quest or I just wanted to divert him for a time while I thought up something else to delay the inevitable expenditure. I've always had my hippie roots & my kids are grafted onto this old organic tree, so going green was not new. I just didn't feature how fast Sam would put together this proposal. Before I could say 'clean fuel connection', we were introducing ourselves to a nice young woman up at Saturn who was going to take us out for a test drive in a car called an 'EV1'.
The EV1, if you don't know, was a sweet, low-slung little two-seater. Now, I know my boy like I made him & after he went out for a spin with her (the car) & I saw his face, I knew it was all over. I am stubborn, however, so I supposed that I would have my own opinion, without prejudice & tried not to look him in the eye when I said that.
My own history with 'sporty' vehicles is a bit fraught since my dad refused to let me drive his red '57 Corvette hard-top convertible when I was 17, even though my brother (two years older) had been driving it since he was legal. 'Too powerful for women to drive' my father pronounced, 'it might get away from you.' I could have thrown a fit; don't know why I didn't come to think of it, would have done me a world of good.
Anyway, here I am in San Rafael, California, a grown woman with three sons, getting in this little EV1, with a woman beside me; some kind of visceral thrill runs through me. She shows me the code, which I punch in, & then I hit 'RUN' & hear a humming sort of preternatural whine, & the absurdly science-officer-spock dashboard lights up like Jesus-God Christmas & we're off! Of course the lady goes on about the technical stuff, yada yada, which is her job & she laughs & says, 'you know, your son knows more about the EV1 than I do'. But then the test drive is over & my mind is chanting 'I want this car, I want this car, I want this car.'
Naturally, I do my utmost to hide this from my son.
We are given many documents to read & sign before we can call Zippie ours & in fact it is only a leased 'experimental car' & we are advised of its limitations. It takes a few months of waiting, but we get the call. We meet the service team that specializes in the EV1 & there is a Japanese fellow who apparently is so good at what he does that they even wait until he is back from Japan to do certain diagnostics. Our photo is taken with the car, to be immortalized on the wall inside the Saturn dealership. We get a souvenir keychain (which I still have) shaped like a little charger paddle. Everyone is very happy. But not for long.
As with any love affair, there were ups & downs; I never thought I'd be in a ménage-a-trois with my son, for one thing. Sometimes we stared each other down over dibbs on who would get to take her out for errands & show her off in parking lots with her license plate GAS HA. Sam developed a quick FAQ which he posted in the window to fend off the loopier questions (how many MPG does she get?) Oh, and did I mention that he took his driving test in the EV1--the DMV examiner almost made him stop because there were some issues with the defogger. My favorite trick was to take sceptics for rides in my 'golf cart' off on some stretch of road where I could slam them back in their seat with a little poke of the accelerator.
Then they took away the Gen I because of an ephemeral fire hazard—a guy's garage had smoke damage or something—we thought we were in a nightmare back on the waiting list. Once again we got the call; they replaced her with a Gen II—more range, different batteries & other improvements I wasn't even aware of. We had to switch from Large Paddle (the thing you insert into the front of the car) to Small Paddle when they changed the charging protocol, but no problem: just stuck a plastic adapter on to the paddle and plugged her in.
Until of course, GM notified us that we could no longer lease the car of our dreams. They were demanding return of the EV1 & there wasn't a damn thing we could do. We jumped on the chance to lease a RAV4 EV (which I will not talk about here; suffice to say, we went from a gazelle to a hippo, but still zero emissions & with solar energy, we're definitely walking the talk with license plate IM SOLAR, and since my son is off on his own, I made the decision to buy my lease, an option we never had with our Zippie.) I put a note on Craigslist, offering to let someone assume the lease while her time ran out, but nobody wanted to pay to drive her for just a few months; it was too cruel.
No, we could not continue with our beloved space pod. We took her out on her last night with us and shot a bunch of footage up in the hills above Berkeley and then down in an empty parking lot, where Sam made a half-hearted attempt to get some shots for an animation featuring a doomed EV1—stood outside and got me 'gunning' the 'engine' towards a brick wall and swerving away at the last minute. I only wish that hadn't been prophetic: not long after that, our car & pretty much all of her sisters were crushed & shredded in a lonely scrapyard far away from the ones that loved them.
But enough of the mundane; after all was said & done, after all the payments, rebates, HOV lanes, free tolls, rotated tires, onboard computer checks, and double-takes from an amazed public, for more than three years we shared a car that never spewed a drop of pollution from her non-existent tailpipe & for me, made that old dream of driving the Corvette just fade clean away…