Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim may be best known for the 2006 documentary that won him an Academy Award, 'An Inconvenient Truth', although a lot of people seem to associate that film solely with Al Gore. More recently, Guggenheim directed a feature film, Gracie, based on the high-school experiences of his wife, Elizabeth Shue, and It Might Get Loud, a documentary about the electric guitar with a focus on Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge.
Davis's most recent documentary feature, 'Waiting for "Superman' ,opens today (read our review). Like An Inconvenient Truth, it's an unabashed call to action, this time about the problems with America's public education system. The film focuses on five children who are not being served well by this system, and are hoping that "lotteries" for charter schools with bring them some help. Most are in inner-city public schools; one is having difficulties with her school in a California suburb. Davis notes at the beginning of the film that his solution for his own kids was to put them in private schools, and that's part of the problem, too.
Cinematical sat down with Davis earlier this month in Austin to talk about his film, the issues he chose to address and other related topics.
So how long have you been working on Waiting for "Superman"?
About two and a half years. It was really tough -- first of all, to tell the story in a way that was entertaining, and also to be accurate. Also, it needs to speak to people -- a lot of people say "Don't bother me with that stuff," so you have to cut through all the b.s. and tell people a good story. And there's a sense of, "I've gotta get it right." If I don't get it right, people won't care -- I want people to care about Daisy, I want them to care about Anthony.
I fell in love with these kids. I think there's sometimes this feeling in people's heads, "Kids over there, they're just not interested, they don't need to learn, they don't care." But you drive over to East L.A. or to Harlem or even to middle-class schools in northern California and you realize that kids are all the same. They all have big dreams. And they all want a great education. And that's what's so heartbreaking, is that I think we're letting those kids down.
How did you find the kids who are in your movie? It was impressive to see them open up to you -- not only the kids and their parents, but also the schools.
We just found kids that were in the lottery, and were available. The biggest challenge was to get parents who were available. "You want to make a movie? Sure!" "We want to come at 6 am tomorrow when you wake up Francisco." "Really? Why? I'm too busy, I've got three kids." A lot of it is just finding people who can make time for you. And kids who can talk about themselves. Anthony is so wonderful because he talks about what's going on with him.
One of the problems Waiting for "Superman" cites that bugged me a little was with teachers' unions, which are portrayed solely in a negative light in the film.
I've got to be really clear. I believe unions are essential. I mean, I'm a member of a union. I'm a lefty. I know my history about how workers unionized, and it's a proud chapter in American history. And I think there should always be teachers' unions -- they're essential, and they should protect teachers. And they should fight to get them to be paid more, and more, and more.
The problem is that in lieu of getting them paid more, they've fought for other things, which have kept schools from getting better. And they should not protect bad teachers. I hope people don't draw the wrong conclusion, that I'm bashing unions.
I don't think they will, but it's an interesting point because in the movie, we're only seeing the problems that the unions are causing.
Well, I made a decision to be hard on all the adults, starting with myself. What's different about this movie is that it's told from the point of view of the kids. You've got five kids, all they want is a great education. What's in their way? What's in their way is a system that, in large part, works for the adults. I make things work: I pay for three private schools [for my kids]. So I'm hard on myself, because I pulled my kids out of public schools and put them somewhere else.
I hope that smart teachers see this movie -- smart and effective teachers -- and say, "Yeah, you know what? They're right. And in the next union meeting, I'm going to go and demand that we get on the right side of this."
What were some aspects of the education system you wanted to include in Waiting for "Superman" but couldn't -- because of time or complexity?
Like ... everything? [laughs]
Movies are by nature simple -- reducing very complicated things. If you really want to learn a lot about our public schools, you'd read a book. So I had to leave out a lot of things. I wish there was more about art in schools. I wish there was more about the nature of testing and teaching to the test. I'd love to have spent half an hour talking about what makes a great teacher, and why we don't do a better job of recruiting good teachers. So there's a lot of stuff ... maybe that's the next movie.
At the end of the film, there's a URL to a website that has a lot of options about how you can take action. What is the one thing people can do about public schools -- the equivalent of the "Replace your light bulbs with CFLs" action from An Inconvenient Truth?
The first step is to be informed. I find that even friends of mine that are extremely well read don't know the basic stuff that is going on in our schools. And I honestly believe -- it was the same with An Inconvenient Truth -- the first step is to see the movie.
You obviously want your documentaries to have an effect. How do you know that they are?
I already know this film is having an effect. When the movie's playing, I'll sneak in and watch an audience watch it. That's really exciting for me. So the biggest challenge is, how do I get as many people to see it as possible? I know it has an effect, but how broad an effect? And then -- how you measure that is a little inexact.
But with An Inconvenient Truth, the percentage of people who thought global warming is real went from something like 30 to 80, and there were a lot of laws passed, and a lot of lives changed. And hundreds of people kept coming to me saying, "My company changed its policies," and "My daughter made me buy a Prius," and "I put solar panels on my house."
Do you have anything in the wings you're going to work on after this?
Davis Guggenheim: No. It's the first time in eight years I don't have the next thing, and it feels great. My next mission -- my next movie is to be a good dad. That's an endless movie.