Ford v Ferrari wasn’t the only racing movie to play at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, nor was it the only one to boast sold-out screenings with a healthy dose of red carpet star power. This year, TIFF also saw the world premiere of And We Go Green, named for the signature cry that kicks off every race in the Formula E circuit — essentially Formula 1, only with electric cars, for the uninitiated.
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens and Malcolm Venville, the result is a high-octane eco-sports doc, minus the octane, with Stevens (Before the Flood, The Cove) bringing the environmentalism and Venville bringing the motorsports cred. Together, they’ve managed to craft a film that’s half rousing environmentalist doc and half adrenaline-pumping sports movie about the fast-rising motorsports circuit that bills itself “the green Formula 1.”
Proving that loving racing and giving a shit about climate change doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, Formula E has been growing exponentially ever since its launch in 2014. And the green tech at the centre of it is growing just as fast: at the start of filming, Formula E drivers were unable to complete the 45-minute race on a single charge, forced to make a pit stop to jump into a second fully-charged car halfway through. By the time And We Go Green premiered in Toronto this past weekend, a new-and-improved battery means drivers can now go the entire race without stopping — results that have gotten manufacturers like Porsche and Mercedes lining up to compete against Jaguar and Audi in the upcoming season, which kicks off this November.
We sat down with Stevens, Venville, and Formula E founder/CEO Alejandro Agag during TIFF to talk about their new documentary, predictions for the future of Formula E, and their message to — who else? — Donald Trump.
Who approached who first here?
Alejandro Agag: Actually, the documentary was an idea of Leonardo DiCaprio. He and I we were having dinner and we came up with the idea. And then he said that Fisher should do it. So he approached Fisher to convince him to do it, and then Fisher approached Malcolm.
Was it an easy sell?
Fisher Stevens: Not at all. I mean, if I didn’t have Malcolm, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I really was not understanding this world. I wasn’t attracted to it. He kind of broke it down for me, because Malcolm really understands racing. He’s a big fan.
Alejandro’s a great character. You can’t write that. We knew we had something with him. But I always thought race car drivers didn’t interest me because they’re just polluting the planet, and also they’re like rich kids, you know? I was being a judgemental asshole and I wasn’t really getting to know them. And I think once Malcolm and I went to Valencia to meet the drivers and to see what testing was like, we were fortunate enough to get to really know them. We auditioned them in a way, and kind of went, “Is there a movie here?” We knew Alejandro was good, but we needed drivers. And we got a good vibe when we got there, talking to them.
Malcolm, you had a bit more motorsports experience? You knew this world?
Malcolm Venville: I was a little boy who dreamt about becoming a race driver driver. I grew up in Birmingham, in the Detroit of England. And I understood the game like I understand soccer. I love cars. And I know where to put the camera. …I think. [Laughs.] So it was just great. For me, being near a racing car and being near drivers is one of the greatest privileges ever. Even though they’re brutal people. They’re killers.
I once did a commercial with a bunch of race horses. And the trainer was like, “Don’t go near them, they’ll bite you.” Because they’re wild. Race horses have to be wild. And drivers are a little bit like that. They’ll bite your hand off. They’re aggressive.
Were there any drivers or personalities you keyed into as potential characters right off the bat?
Stevens: The Techeetah team, JEV [Jean-Éric Vergne] and André [Lotterer]. A) Great looking guys, B) complete opposites. And I didn’t understand the team dynamic. Malcolm knew that teammates tried to kill each other, but I didn’t. I thought they worked together. But there was something about them that was very unique. The other teammates, no one had chemistry. They had chemistry. And look what happened! I don’t want to give away the end of the movie, but we got lucky.
Did it take a while for the drivers to get comfortable on camera? I know they’re used to doing interviews, but that’s a lot different than having a documentary crew following you around…
Venville: What was really interesting is watching Nelson Piquet [Jr.]. Getting close to Nelson Piquet is like walking up to a marsupial. He’s frightened. He’ll bury himself. The true Nelson Piquet is hidden behind many layers. And watching Fish move into that world very carefully, it was brilliant. It took someone of Fish’s experience and standing and instinct to get beyond the kind of “sports doc” veneer and find the lost child that is Nelson Piquet.
Stevens: Yeah, I had to work him. Sam Bird also. The first interview with Sam, I had to say, “Look, man, you can’t talk to me like I’m a broadcaster. It’s just not going to work for this movie. And if you’re like that, great, but we can’t use you.” I was that blunt with him. And he still was not great in the first interview. But there was snap with him. In Paris. He just opened up, and God…Then it just got great with him. JEV felt the most authentic from the get-go.
Venville: Yeah, JEV allowed Fish to get to the core of his fears and anxieties.
Stevens: It took work, but he wanted it, I think. He actually said that us following him helped him.
Did Alejandro give you any suggestions, any scouting reports, on which drivers to follow?
Stevens: Yeah, he steered us wrong like 50 times. [Laughs.]
Venville: He told us Techeetah were never going to win!
Stevens: He told us follow Sébastien Buemi, he’s going to win. Or Felix Rosenqvist, or maybe Lucas di Grassi. He didn’t mention JEV and André except to say, “Those guys, they’re going to come up, but not now.”
Venville: Which is great, because in Formula 1, you can predict who’s going to win. I can tell you who’s going to win this year’s championship. There’s no way you can say that in Formula E, because it’s so unpredictable. It’s exciting.
Fisher, I know you’ve worked with DiCaprio before, on Before the Flood. What’s the importance of having that kind of star power associated with both this documentary, and the sport itself?
Stevens: Last night we screened a documentary at a thousand-seat cinema, and it was packed. And I’d like to say it was because of my great looks… But it’s because of Leo. [Laughs.] It’s great to have him supporting a small film that he believes in, and also just having him promoting clean energy is important.
Before the Flood was a great film, I loved doing it, but it was a climate change film for people that didn’t know about climate change. This is more of a climate change film for people that don’t think about climate change. That was the idea. And having Leo, hopefully we’ll get a bigger audience just by having him in the movie for a minute, and having his name attached.
Agag: And for the championship itself, it’s great to have someone like Leonardo DiCaprio. Because first, he has the credibility in the environmentalist space, and second, he helps to reach a much larger audience for us. As a new sport, what we need is visibility and reach and funds. Having people like him definitely is a huge boost for something like Formula E.
This sport seems to be growing exponentially. Have you noticed a change even just since you started filming to now?
Stevens: I went to the New York race this year, and we filmed the New York race, Malcolm and I, last year. It was night and day with the amount of people, the coverage. It was a completely different feeling.
Agag: The growth of the championship is incredible. It’s unprecedented in sports, especially in motorsport. From year to year, we have more cities, we have more fans, we have more followers, we now have more teams – Porsche and Mercedes are coming. All the big manufacturers are coming. It’s like a snowball.
Any plans to bring Formula E to Toronto?
Agag: We would love to come to Toronto! We have a litigation ongoing with Montreal, because the previous mayor who was there, the new mayor broke the contract. We are clarifying the situation there; once that’s clarified, then we will look for another city in Canada. And definitely Toronto would be a great option, because there’s already the street track for the IndyCar, so we could use that.
Where do you see the future of this sport, five or 10 years from now?
Agag: I think it’s going to continue growing, and I think that growth is going to accelerate even more when people start really massively adopting electric cars, which is going to happen in the next three to five years. But definitely within 10 years, the adoption of electric cars will be massive, and then the championship will be the championship that will be linked to what’s going on our roads, on our streets. And I think it will become the main motorsport in the world.
Stevens: That’s big balls right there. Big balls.
That’s a confident statement.
Agag: [Shrugs.] You asked me!
Venville: Well, I think it’s true. I think Alejandro is the motor at the center of all this. He’s a visionary. He understood that there has to be a sea change. When Porsche decides to go motor racing, they go to Formula E? For someone like me, it’s huge.
Well, it seems like an easy sell. The idea of a green Formula 1.
Agag: Now it is. Five years ago, it was tough. Now, it’s like, Yeah, of course. It’s a no brainer. But seven years ago, when I had the idea, people were looking at me like I was completely mad.
Is that just the snowball effect, like you were saying, or something else?
Agag: It is, and also the world has changed. Now people are really more concerned [about climate change]. Fisher is one of those that I consider “the idealists.” The true believers. Leo is like that and Fisher, and environmentalists like Greta [Thunberg], for example, from Sweden. Those people are the ones who are changing the world, in terms of perception. Then we are the followers – the eco-capitalists, if you like. Who can make a lot of money, thanks to these guys.
Because these guys are changing the world! So we can do business, green business. They need us, and we need them. Because only together will we change the world. Like Greta, when she was doing the speech in Davos: “The house is on fire.” That’s true. I’m a great admirer of Greta, and she did this trip by sailing boat, from Europe to here. I think that’s great. But that’s a symbol. That’s not going to change the world. Electric planes will change the world.
And we will do electric planes. But we need her to do this trip on the sailboat for people to want to go on electric planes. The battery technology [from Formula E] can be used in electric planes. Which is what will sort the problem of planes. I mean, it’s not going to be going by boat. People are still going to go by planes. You just need to find a better plane.
It strikes me that you’re offering people a similar alternative here. You’re not saying you have to be interested in either motorsports or climate change. You can be into both.
Agag: Oh yeah. And the thing is, sadly there are a lot more sports fans than environmentalists. So you use the sport as a tool to get your message out on the environment.
Stevens: We made this movie for people like me, who don’t give a shit about racing, don’t know anything about Formula E, and maybe you don’t even care about cars. Or maybe you don’t care about the environment but you care about sports, or you don’t care about sports but you care about the environment. And I think Malcolm and I, coming from completely opposite corners of the world about this, about driving and the environment, it helped make the movie accessible, and a good sports movie.
What are your hopes for this film going forward?
Stevens: I guess I hope that it boosts the sales of electric cars. That buyers see this and go, “You know what? It’s cool to drive an electric car.” I mean, I still live in a place where it’s basically almost impossible for me to have an electric car. Because I live in Brooklyn, there’s parking on the street, and the garages near me do not have charging stations yet. But what I would love is that: people see this movie and demand goes up. The Jag E-Pace, the Audi e-tron, those cars are amazing. The Teslas, obviously. I’m also hoping that one of them will give me a free electric car. [Laughs.]
Venville: I agree with Fisher. It’s just over for gas cars… The internal combustion engine, it’s just not a viable thing anymore. Building it. After Brexit, in England, no one’s going to be able to afford to build a car engine. Just give me a motor, an electric motor – it takes 10 people to build. A robot can make them.
Stevens: I know Malcolm gets tired of hearing this, because I go off on Trump but…
Venville: Oh my God. [Laughs.]
Stevens: But Trump, his administration is funded by the fossil fuel industry, and he’s going to do everything he can to make sure that nobody sees our film. So we’ll see. Trump, maybe you can watch this film and you’ll change your mind about fuel standards and carbon emissions. Maybe. Before the Flood, he couldn’t even get through. I know that for a fact. But I don’t think he can read more than five pages at once. Or two pages even.
Venville: 140 characters though, right? [Laughs.]