Far too many people think it was actually directed by Al Gore but An Inconvenient Truth was actually helmed by the mega-talented Davis Guggenheim. It's been a ridiculously-strong year for documentaries (Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, The Tillman Story, and more) but I expect that Guggenheim should clear space for his second Oscar for the incredibly-powerful Waiting For "Superman," a riveting piece of work about the disastrous state of the American school system. The incredibly-smart Guggenheim recently sat down with MovieRetriever in Chicago to discuss his film, the state of the schools, and the power of knowledge.
By Brian Tallerico
MovieRetriever: When the concept of dealing with bad teachers comes up, there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction that starts with "Now there are a LOT of good teachers out there …" Don't we know that? When a person is fired for poor performance in another profession, it doesn't say anything about his co-workers who are doing the job well. But there seems to be a fear that leads to over-protection and rhetoric in education. Why is that?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I think there's definitely a taboo. I'm speaking not as an expert but an observer of things. There's a taboo of criticizing teachers and criticizing unions because everyone holds teachers up to this high level – we know they're the solution. But we really have been in denial about doing the hard work of really thinking about how do you develop teachers; how do you manage them; how do you assess them. And we're just starting to do it. All of this debate is proving that we're starting to do it. But there is a taboo thing, which is also there in criticizing the unions. That was the hard part in making the movie. I believe in unions. I'm a leftie. The taboos are there for good reason but we're not going to fix our schools unless we get past them and push through them.
MovieRetriever: I saw you on Oprah last week and it raised two questions. First, how important is it for a filmmaker to have people like Oprah and Bill Gates behind them? The fact is that not a lot of people see documentaries in 2010. When you get those kind of names on-board, what does that mean to you as a filmmaker?
GUGGENHEIM: It's huge. It's essential. My presence in the film doesn't sell the film. The kids are the things that move people while they're in the theater. But having these names gets the audience TO the theater. That's the big challenge. I know that the film works. Once people are THERE then the film works but it's very difficult to get people to the theater.
MovieRetriever: Why do you think that is?
GUGGENHEIM: It's just media right now. Part of it is the nature of documentaries. I have three kids. My wife and I have busy lives. When we have the one night together, we want to escape from our problems and not face them.
MovieRetriever: And there seems to be a wave of problem-facing documentaries – this one, Inside Job, Countdown to Zero. It's been a great year for documentaries.
GUGGENHEIM: I agree. I haven't seen Inside Job yet. I can't wait. There's room for a lot of great documentaries.
MovieRetriever: The other thing was the incident with Bianca [one of the children from the movie] being in the Oprah audience and seeing her clip when she couldn't go to her graduation. You got a little emotional on-stage. And I wondered how you make it through a film like this without breaking down. Do you have to leave your emotions separate or do you try and use them?
GUGGENHEIM: I want them to break me down. I think when you disconnect and become cold and calculated to the story then you become lost and cynical. I've seen the movie hundreds of times … I was at the screening last night and I always come in for the last half hour and watch the lottery and I get very emotional. It's weird: I still want each kid to win. I hope I never get cut off. And, at Oprah, seeing Bianca watch her not get to go to her own graduation was a whole ‘nother level. She's seeing the world look at her. You can't help but hope that she doesn't feel like there's something wrong with her. The world that we've created for her, not only is it cruel, but kids have this way of saying "maybe there's something wrong with me" and that's heartbreaking.
MovieRetriever: How did you select the kids?
GUGGENHEIM: We wanted different cities, ages, and ethnicities, but they weren't hard to find. It was very easy to find families that were trying to find a good school in a lottery where the stakes were really high.
MovieRetriever: I'm curious about the process. Did you get going with children where it just didn't work out in the context of the film?
GUGGENHEIM: We had about twenty when we started but after a day of shooting it became six or seven. A lot of it is just ability of the kids to talk about what they're going through. Some kids are really great but they can't and then you get a kid like Anthony who's an open book. Same with Daisy. But there's no "secret process." Anyone who made this film would have been drawn to the same people. What's interesting … I get this weird response of "You picked the parents who care …"
MovieRetriever: There are a lot of parents who care.
GUGGENHEIM: Yeah. And I find that kind of offensive. I didn't meet a parent who didn't care. There's a block; the unspoken excuses that people make in their minds not to help or do anything and one of those blocks is "Those parents don't care enough to do anything." Or "Those kids can't learn."
MovieRetriever: Why are those blocks there? To insulate us from the real problem? Excuse our laziness?
GUGGENHEIM: Yeah. I think the system has made a lot of people act out of self-interest. I send my kids to private school. My kids are okay – stick my head in the sand. That's why I start the movie with the idea of betraying the ideals I thought I lived by [that he would send his kids to public school when he now drives past three to take them to a private one.]
MovieRetriever: I've received an interesting response from people I know that kind of baffles me that's "I went to public school, I'm okay." Do you think that's part of the same reaction?
GUGGENHEIM: It's interesting. There's a study that shows that 75% of Americans think that the schools are broken but only 25% think that their OWN school is broken. A lot of people want to believe that other schools are broken but not their own. It's human nature. The problem is over there. And, a lot of times in these poor neighborhoods, these families are very upset when a school gets closed down. Even though they know it's broken, you're attacking their school. You're attacking their experience and telling them that something's wrong with them. School is very "loaded." For everybody. We all have these intense experiences from a young age.
MovieRetriever: When people see the film and it pulls their head out of the sand what do they do? What's the action?
GUGGENHEIM: The first step is to be informed; be aware of the situation. People think their schools are better than they are. So the film is a wake-up call. So the first step is to see the movie. When you pledge to see the movie, you get a couple to give to a teacher. It's a little step but when people take the first step then the second step is easier and usually bigger. Go to the website and hit the button action and hit Chicago and there's actually a physical campaign manager for Chicago with a phone number, email. You have to think very local and very wide. Go in and help a kid. Mentor a kid. Go ask what you can do. Go meet your principal. On a broader level, understand that big choices are happening every day. Know your school board member. Are they fighting for reform or the status quo? All of that you can find on our website.
MovieRetriever: It's a gradual process like An Inconvenient Truth.
GUGGENHEIM: I really believe there's a revolution going on. There are low-performing charters and they should be shut down but the high-performing charters are proving that they can go into the cities and take 90% of kids to college. They really have broken the sound barrier. That's happening in Chicago. Just for people to go to one of those schools and see it is mind-blowing. This is POSSIBLE. And it's hard not to say that I want to get on-board.
MovieRetriever: The on-the-ground approach is important because those of us who've followed politics for decades, and you touch on this in the film, have heard politicians preach education reform forever. Some of us have become a little immune to it and consider it all soundbites.
GUGGENHEIM: I'm cynical about the system fixing itself. I really don't believe it's possible.
GUGGENHEIM: Because it's so huge. Jonathan Alter calls it "The Blob." People want to change it but it's impossible. But there's a revolution that's not politically or ideologically-driven. It's pragmatism and that's what's making it work. It's simple and it's hard work.
MovieRetriever: What's the model?
GUGGENHEIM: It's individual. In New Orleans, there's a business school with two principals and they're in trailer homes. It's a business school for boys where they wear jackets. But it's working. There are a thousand flavors to make it work.
MovieRetriever: What are you working on next?
GUGGENHEIM: I'm going to work on taking time off to be a dad.
Waiting For "Superman" rolls out across the country in October and opens in Chicago on Friday, October 1st, 2010.