Fisher, I understand that this film had a pretty unique origin story?
Fisher Stevens: Leo [DiCaprio] called me and told me he was in Brooklyn, and that I should come meet him for lunch at the racetrack in Brooklyn. I told him there was no race track in Brooklyn! He said, “yes there is! They’re building an electric car racetrack, come meet me, you’ve got to come check this out.” So I Vespa’d over there, and sure enough, there was a racetrack being built in Red Hook Brooklyn for this thing called “Formula E,” which I had never heard of. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know anything about any kind of racing, period, and I was shocked that Leo was into it. But he was focused on the fact that they were electric cars— he felt strongly that it was a great event, and he said right then we should make a documentary. I just said… Slow down! What? And then this crazy guy Alejandro [Agag] comes up to me and says, “Fisher, nice to meet you, Leo says you’re gonna make a movie about this.” And I just said, “Whoa whoa whoa… slow it down man.” So we have this amazing lunch, by they way… Alejandro had it all laid out. And I said I had to think about it. And Leo was saying that we could make an environmental film with sports. And I thought that was interesting. So I called Maclcolm [Venville] immediately— I knew he knows everything about Formula 1 and racing. And he’s a great director; he’s filmed many commercials shooting cars. I asked him if he had heard of this project, and he had. And I convinced Alejandro to fly Malcolm and me to Valencia to see if we wanted to do this— they were testing the cars there, and we could meet the drivers. Malcolm and I flew over and, essentially, we decided there was in fact a movie here after meeting the drivers. We basically started a casting session on the spot. We knew that was the beginning right there.
their journeys became a redemption story.
The fact that this starts in New York is so important, because it moves the film into brand new territory for a racing film. But it all comes down to casting. I’m interested to hear about that process.
Malcolm Venville: When we arrived in Valencia, we knew we were going to make a feature film that chronicled a season of ten or twelve races, and at the end we’d discover who would become champion. And when I arrived there, Fisher was already going to work— he’s been acting since he was a kid, and it was really interesting seeing him looking at the drivers, almost as if he was auditioning for a play. And he pointed out Jean-Éric Vergne and he said, “he’s cool— let’s follow him.” He was operating from a very instinctual level. And it turns out they became really interesting. You know, it’s so exciting working on docs because there is this very kind of pivoting, nimble, shape-shifting aspect to making a one— you don’t know exactly what direction you’re going to go in at the start, and that’s really exciting.
FS: There were just some really exciting, fortuitous characters. For instance, the fact that there was a guy named André Lotterer who was Jean’s teammate, who was eleven years older than him, who had won La Mans 3 times in a row (and I didn’t know how important that was, but Malcolm made it clear how major an accomplishment that really is). And we see their relationship, and there was Nelson Piquet Jr., and Lucas di Grassi, who were the two Brazilian type-A personalities… we knew they had a history and hated each other— we had done our research! They had been driving against each other since they were eleven years old, and there was a lot of animosity there. So we knew we wanted to key in on those relationships. We knew Piquet had been thrown out of Formula 1, because he had thrown a race in order to sign a new contract (he let his partner win), and we knew there was a cool Formula 1 connection there, and Formula 1 is the precursor to Formula E… and it was just exciting. Originally, Malcolm and I were thinking that maybe Alejandro would narrate the whole movie. He’d be our guide. But what we realized was that Alejandro needed to be one of the characters the same way that the drivers were. So we made him a character in the film, just like the drivers. Because we didn’t need him to narrate— we didn’t even need a narrator. Let the audience see it through the characters’ eyes. The tricky part was, there was a guy named Felix Rosenqvist, who started out really strong in the championship. After the first four races he was in first place. And Malcolm and I said to ourselves, “he’s a nice guy, but he’s a little standoffish, not the most charismatic guy…” And we interviewed him and we tried to get it out of him, and we realized we’d be in trouble if he won the championship! He couldn’t have carried the movie. But then, thank goodness, the documentary gods were smiling on us and he started fading a bit. And this guy Sam Bird started coming up. And Sam had this whole history with the other racers (they hated him). So thank goodness that drama could play out at the end of the movie. So we had a lot of gods smiling down on us… and it really worked out. The only thing is, we had originally planned to make it more informative about the state of the planet. We thought it would have a lot more messaging about the environmental aspects of racing, and the imminent danger the world is in due to climate change. But we moved away from that. I think you still understand the environmental problems with the world, so it’s definitely there.
MV: The most interesting drivers in Formula E are the guys who have been fired from Formula 1. They’ve all been rejected; they’re bitter; they’re angry. And their journeys became a redemption story.