You might think a film about the world of Formula E racing would focus on the electric car technology being battle-tested by the sport. But And We Go Green—a new documentary now streaming on Hulu—is a much more emotional story about the sport. It takes about two and a half minutes for someone to drop the first F-bomb. We’re in Hong Kong, and the electric racing cars of Formula E are lined up and waiting for the signal that starts the race. The only problem: those lights aren’t working, and series boss Alejandro Agag wants to know “who the fuck is responsible” for messing up. That should make it clear that this is an unvarnished look at the sport.
The film follows this upstart race series as it goes about its fourth season, and more particularly some of the intense, sometimes long-standing rivalries within it. And I bring up the profanity—which starts with Agag but continues aplenty from everyone else—because so often that kind of thing is smoothed over by anodyne corporate messaging. But Formula E has always been a little more freewheeling than a series like Formula 1.
Unvarnished doesn’t mean unpolished, though. And We Go Green is as much of a visual feast as any recent motorsports documentary, and if you think you detect the influence of legendary Director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin), good guess.
“Grand Prix was our bible. We watched Grand Prix probably 10 times,” said Fisher Stevens, who directed the film with Malcolm Venville. But another big influence was Pumping Iron, a 1977 documentary about the body-building rivalry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. “It was a competitive film, a film about character— Pumping Iron is a great character study of a sport. So those are two of the bibles that we went by, and the fact that [Jean-Eric Vergne] says that ‘I would rather win than breathe’ in the movie, you know, it just kind of sums up what these guys will go through,” Stevens said.
Tell us how you really feel
Getting the interviewees to be candid was a conscious reaction to the F1-produced Drive to Survive series on Netflix, Stevens told me when we spoke by phone earlier this week. “I watched the first season, and my issue is that it is beautifully shot but it’s very corporate; you don’t really get to know these guys, and we wanted the opposite. These guys are rebels, these guys are renegades. Yeah, they’re not driving Formula One—they’ve been kicked out, most of them—but they’re really killers,” he said.
In addition to Agag, who left the world of Spanish politics to start an electric racing series in the face of extreme skepticism, And We Go Green focuses on a handful of the series’ drivers. As Stevens noted, many of them still have an F1-shaped chip on the shoulder, like Jean-Eric Vergne (aka JEV) and Nelson Piquet Jr. Others are refugees from the halcyon hybrid era of endurance racing, Le Mans-winners with firmly established careers like Andre Lotterer and Lucas di Grassi. The drivers have raced alongside each other for years in this series and others, and along the way people have picked up grudges. And Stevens and Venville skillfully manage to get the drivers to open up about these and other emotions.
“Sam Bird started out just like a corporate kind of spokesperson, and I finished the first interview with him and I said, ‘Listen, man. I think you’re going to do well. I want you to be in this movie, but if you’re going to be like that in the interviews, I can’t have you in the movie.’ I literally just said that. And in every interview, he started opening more, opening more, opening more, and, you know, this guy’s never sworn on camera in his life,” Stevens explained.
Fisher told me that making the film helped alter a (fairly well-justified) stereotype of racing drivers as privileged and selfish. “I thought all racecar drivers are just arrogant and wouldn’t open up and didn’t have personalities, and I was wrong. Once I got to really dig deep with JEV and Andre, and once Nelson Piquet told me his story, I knew we would have an emotional story about people trying to win, and everyone can relate to competition, so that was something special,” he told me.
For Formula E fans, the documentary should be considered essential viewing. But as a story of the human side of a highly technical sport, it should appeal far and wide beyond that demographic.