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CATCHING UP WITH DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Four months into the release of Waiting for Superman, glimmers of possible change in public education illuminate the horizon.

BY TERRY KEEFE, PHOTOGRAPHY KWAKU ALSTON, GROOMING JANICE BREMEC FOR SOLOARTISTS.COM/CLICKR SKIN CARE

 

Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim might be wishing for a few super-powers of his own with the virtual nonstop schedule he's been keeping to promote  his documentary about the crisis in American public schools, since its release at the end of September. A frontrunner for the Best Documentary Academy Award, Waiting for Superman has already scooped up the top feature doc prizes from the National Board of Review, the Critics Choice Awards, as well as those of numerous regional critics groups, and the last few months have required a whirlwind tour of screening appearances as part of the awards campaign. There’s a weariness in Guggenheim’s voice when we speak on the event-packed Golden Globes weekend, which he apologizes for, although his enthusiasm for both his film, and the issues it addresses, haven’t dwindled at all. Undoubtedly keeping the director inspired is the fact that the end result of more awards for Superman will be realized not just in dollars and prestige, but also in a larger audience for the film that can potentially help make the changes in public education that the film reveals to be desperately needed. The awards stakes are a bit higher in a real-world sense for Superman, rather than for, say, Black Swan. Winning the Best Picture Oscar won’t likely save many actual delusional ballerinas, but winning top documentary for Superman might eventually make a big difference in the lives of many public school students.

The title of Waiting for Superman comes from a quote in the film from charismatic education reformer Geoffrey Canada, who says, “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist. ’Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming… She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.” Canada is a former teacher who entered the profession as an idealistic young man who believed he could fix what was wrong with public education pretty quickly, but just as quickly became disillusioned with the rigid bureaucracy that worked against any significant changes being implemented. He has since founded Harlem Children’s Zone, a group of charter schools which have proven remarkably successful in improving graduation rates and creating future college students in some of the most impoverished areas of New York.

Charter schools and the alternative they offer to traditional public education are at the heart of Waiting for Superman, partially as a prize which five young students hope to win admission to in a series of “school lotteries,” in which public school students compete for a limited number of spots in the top charter schools. However, they don’t compete via merit, but instead via the random mercies of an actual bouncing lottery ball.

Guggenheim divides his film into two distinct segments, which he intercuts. On one side, he tells the stories of the young students from New York, California, and Washington, D.C.: Daisy, Francisco, Anthony, Emily, and Bianca, as they head towards the lotteries which will literally decide their futures. On the other, he introduces us to the adults: administrators, reformers, and teachers who are at odds over what types of changes in public education should take place, if any. Finding themselves in direct conflict are Michelle Rhee, the reform-minded Chancellor of Public Schools in Washington, D.C. since 2007, and Randi Weingarten, leader of the American Federation of Teachers union. Rhee has pushed for numerous reforms, such as the right to fire poor teachers, including those with tenure, and a merit pay system, where better performing teachers receive higher salaries. Many of her ideas have faced entrenched opposition from Weingarten and other union leaders.

Davis Guggenheim first came to true prominence when he directed the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, the landmark film which tackled another “large” problem, that of climate change. The son of the late documentarian Charles Guggenheim, Davis Guggenheim had planned to become primarily a director of narrative material, but decided to make his first documentary after being fired as the director of the studio feature, Training Day. That 2001 documentary was The First Year, which also dealt with the topic of public education and followed five inner-city teachers in Los Angeles for the initial 12 months of their careers.

Venice: Since Waiting for Superman has been released, have you noticed any changes in public education that you can attribute to the film, at least in terms of attitude, if not in policy, so far?

Davis Guggenheim: Well, yes. The most exciting thing is that the tone and the content of the conversation has changed. And when I started out [on the film], I think the hardest task was... how do you get people to reengage this issue? Because I think for a lot of people like myself, these problems were around when we were kids. And so there’s this unspoken sense that this is just too complex, and that maybe the problem is just too complicated to ever be solved. And so how do you bring the audience back? How do you bring regular people back into that conversation? In screenings, you see regular people, moms and dads, talking, just having lightbulb moments, going, “I didn’t know that my kid’s school is in the state that it is.” And the other part which is exciting is you’re seeing people like Randi Weingarten, the head of the teachers union, saying that tenure is not, should not be, a lifetime status.

That’s a significant change.

Yes, so there’s these things that were not even discussed and off the table, which are now being discussed and are on the table, which I think is really significant—the idea of reforming tenure, the idea of merit pay, the idea of really thoughtful evaluation. You’re seeing people on both sides of the issue having real conversations about how do you evaluate teachers? As opposed to this sort of polemical thing. There’s still the polemical thing, but you’re seeing good people now part of the conversation.

Have there then been any changes in the attitudes of the teachers unions in regards to the concept of merit pay, which they refused to even vote on in the film?

Well, yeah, since the film, they did come up with a deal in D.C. And that’s the good news, and it was about two-thirds of what our reformers wanted. The bad news is that Michelle Rhee’s mayor (Adrian Fenty) got booted out of office... and that had a lot to do with the union putting a lot of money against him. And when I say this, I never thought of myself as a guy who would be criticizing unions. I’m a leftie, I’m a Democrat, my father used to talk around the kitchen table about how it was a great day when workers organized. And I’m a member of the Directors Guild of America trade union. I believe in those principles. But when you go into these schools, and it’s true in schools in Venice, these rules and these restrictions are not the only thing, but they are one of the big, big restrictions to change.

As you mentioned, the problem is immense and very complicated. And also from a storytelling point of view, it must have been very daunting to even start to think about narrowing this topic down

That’s right. I think this is by far the hardest movie I’ve ever attempted to make. The complexity of the issue...how do you make things simple enough for a wider audience to grasp, and then how do you get people to care, and to invest? So that finding these kids and showing what’s at stake: If they go to this school, this; and if they go to that school, that. And showing that it’s a matter of luck whether you get a good education. That was a breakthrough. The lottery piece was a huge breakthrough.

It works as a great storytelling device, but were you as horrified as I was when you realized it was an actual, physical Lottotype lottery?

Yeah. Tom Friedman [of The New York Times] wrote a piece about witnessing a lottery in Baltimore. And that piece sort of gave me the idea for the structure of the film for the kids...you know, not every kid in America goes through a lottery with a bingo ball, but it’s a great metaphor...there is kind of a lottery for all of us: you know, what zip code you’re born in, what district you’re in, what teacher you have.  

In terms of the structure, is it accurate that the two storylines of the film, that of the kids and that of the adult teachers and administrators, were not actually intercut, as they are in the finished film, during much of the post-production?

Yeah. The structure was very experimental. I built two separate films, one about the kids, and one about the system, and I had this feeling that if I kept them apart, if I cut them and finished them, beginning-middle- and-end, made them work separately...then when I cut them together it would have this sort of magnifying effect. Many times Lesley Chilcott, my producing partner, would say, ‘You know, it’s a month before the Sundance deadline. Don’t you think you should start cutting them together?’ And I’m like, ‘No, they’re not ready, they’re not ready.’ But I just had this instinct that there really is this tension between the dysfunctional system the adults have created, and that’s its own story. But first is the reality of these kids, who just expect a lot from us and who just want a chance, you know? And if I put those two things in opposition to each other, [I knew] there’d be some powerful drama.

The two stories are great counterpoints to each other. Did you know generally what the film was going to look like early on in terms of overall content, or did you take the tack of: “I’m going to do a lot of interviews, and then possibly discover it as we go along?”

A process of ‘discovery’ sounds so productive. My process was far from productive. It was really banging my head against the wall. And pursuing many different storylines, interviewing a lot of different people, and building six or seven  scenes...storylines, that I would just throw out.

And you were cutting as you went along in the shooting process?

That’s the exciting thing about where my process has changed since An Inconvenient Truth, or because of An Inconvenient Truth. If you look at a traditional documentary, it usually goes like this: You pitch an idea, you raise the money, you go shoot, you come back, you edit it, you find your stock footage, you finish. So, shooting and editing are separate steps, but with Inconvenient Truth we were shooting so fast...we were shooting as we were editing. It’s a great way to do it because editing is really as close to writing, as anything. The process of putting images together is editing, but what you’re really doing is you’re saying, ‘Where’s this going? What leads to it next?’ And it’s as much writing as anything. So we’re shooting up until the last day of editing. It's really wonderful...it is a way in which technology has really changed the way you can do documentaries. 

I can only imagine trying to do the same thing on a flatbed with 16mm film.

That’s the way my father made documentaries. And it was exactly the way they would do it. You say, well, let’s restructure the first third of the movie. Well, that might take a week.

If you’re lucky.

If you’re lucky — just physically unsplicing and splicing things back together, and then you look at it and say, ‘Oh, that didn’t work.’ And in that amount of time, we can go shoot for two days, re-cut things, try three different ways and go back...the technology is so incredible right now. And the fact that you can get a fairly inexpensive high-quality camera that anybody can put on their shoulder, that’s pretty exciting.

I imagine after An Inconvenient Truth you were presented with every possible cause to make another documentary for, and what struck me when I went to your Waiting for Superman website was that, unlike a lot of filmmakers who finish their film and then can just promote it, you have a whole additional step with a film like this where you have a responsibility on your shoulders, to answer the audience question, “What can I do about this problem as a citizen?” Was that daunting in taking this on?

Well, yeah, it’s not just making a movie. It’s part of a movement. This is awards season, and awards in general are very confusing, and can often be a huge distraction. But for something like this, they’re essential, because they just bring more attention to the issue. We finished the film in May, and I’ve been working on it full-time, up to now. That’s all about the social action campaign.

Because unless you get a wide audience to see it, you’re basically preaching to the choir.

That’s right.

Do you plan to revisit the kids with a camera anytime in the next few years, to see how they’re doing and how  they’ve changed?

Well, in September I took them to the White House [where they met Obama]. So I interviewed them the morning of that, and I got to reconnect with them. I’ve seen them all at different screenings and stuff. But, yeah, I think it might be interesting to see what happens with them. I think you need enough time to pass, like five years, maybe, when they start going to high school. But the biggest thing is...you just fall in love with them. When I hear a piece of good news, like Anthony’s grandmother called me and said that he’s on the dean's list...

Oh, is he? That’s great.

Anthony’s a kid that’s really at risk, you know? He never knew his father. His father died of a drug overdose. And the fact that he’s on the dean’s list, it’s the most exciting thing you could hear.

In the film, Anthony says, ‘I want my kids to have better than I had.’ I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘What kid at that age thinks that way?’ It’s very remarkable.

Well, certainly not kids in my world, because kids in my world, they’re sort of given everything, and so they don’t ask those really tough questions. But a kid like Anthony, who sees all sorts of trouble and chaos around him, really does think about those things. That’s what he’d say, because he hears those conversations, and he sees friends and neighbors, you know, fall.

Did you get any feedback from President Obama on the film?

He said that he found the movie very powerful. He was very moved by the kids, by their stories.

Do you think that his philosophy toward public education would be similar to that of Michelle Rhee’s?

I would say they’re in the same family of reform. I think he’s in a really careful political position. I think he wants all these reforms, but it’s a very tricky position, because the teachers unions have been one of the biggest givers to the Democratic party— it’s in the movie. And so what I think he’s doing is exactly right. He’s pushing for these things, but he can’t be as overtly critical. But what’s very exciting is Arne Duncan, his Secretary of Education...he’s been the most effective member of his Cabinet, and actually pushing a lot further than most people give him credit for.

Have you spoken to Randi Weingarten much since the film was released?

A lot. I knew that this was going to be politically uncomfortable, but immediately before the movie came out, I said, ‘Let me screen this for you. I know we’re not going to agree on everything, but I would just love it if you stayed part of the conversation.’ So she has been; I think she’s served on three panels with me. She’s very openly critical of the film. At the same time, she’s been an essential voice in the conversation.

That’s good to hear.

And that’s what the movie’s about. A documentary can say things that people can’t say. When you read the L.A. Times, which is a great newspaper, The New York Times... that sort of journalism kind of follows the puck: ‘Well, this official said that, and this official said that...’ and it sort of describes the conflict. But this documentary can really say, ‘Look, these rules are really holding things back.’ The movie has this great effect of being a way in which people come together around this, and it brings more people into the conversation and heightens the conversation. This is what I’ve observed, with this movie in particular. It’s accelerated this sense of ‘Let’s get this done.’

You chose to narrate the film. Was the narration something that you knew you’d be doing from the beginning?

You know, when Diane Weyermann, the head of documentaries for Participant Media, asked, ‘Would you be interested [in directing the film]?’ I originally said no. I had done a movie about public education ten years ago [The First Year] and I felt like, well, I’d done that. And I also felt like it was too complicated. And then I sort of had a breakthrough, which was that maybe the only way you could make a documentary about this is if you had a really strong, pointed voice in the movie. In the same sense that Al Gore did for Inconvenient Truth: He wasn’t trying to say, ‘Well, some people say this, some people say that.’ He was saying, ‘This is what I believe, and let me show you why,’ you know? And I would not equate myself with Al Gore — he’s much more knowledgeable about global warming than I am about public education — but I felt like what the great ‘bingo!’ on the film was, was a personal point of view, like: I have children. I want them to have a good education. And I made the film, and I had this anxiety, because I believe in this thing, that America is grounded in great schools for everyone, and yet every morning I go and do something different —

Your kids go to private school? Was that it?

Yeah, exactly, so I didn’t have the strong desire to narrate it. I probably will never do it again. It just felt like an effective storytelling device.

It feels a little bit more daring to do because you lose a layer of remove between yourself and the subject matter of the film.

Yeah, and I grew up thinking that narration was old-school at best, and, what you learn in college is that it’s this authoritative voice-of-God thing. But I think there’s been sort of a shift of more of a personal voice to these films and it allows...there’s some lines in the movie that you just couldn’t do, things like: ‘Now that we know that it’s possible to give every kid a great education, what is our obligation?’ [which is said in the narration at the end of the film.] That’s kind of the one time the movie stares the viewer in the eye and says, ‘What are you going to do about this?’

Charter schools are regarded by many as an alternative to the public schools, but what are some of the problems that charter schools have?

Well, there are a lot of terrible charters that should be shut down. Charters are public schools, but they can be run outside the rules and restrictions of the district, and outside the union contracts, so they have much more freedom to do what they want. But they can still suffer from what other schools suffer from: bad leadership, poor quality teachers, often they get crippled by these huge start-up costs, because charters don’t get as much money, per student, as the district does. But it’s interesting, how I think the enemies of the film would say the film is procharter. I think even the reformers would not say it’s pro-charter. The exciting thing about charters, and why I like them in the film, is that the successful ones are so successful, so remarkably successful. They’ve disproven the long-held and sometimes unspoken belief that you can’t do it. ‘You just can’t go into Harlem and teach those kids. You can’t go to East L.A. and teach those kids. Those kids can’t learn.’ Andthat’s a powerful breakthrough. That has happened since I made the first film [about education]. The charters that hold, they’re like incubators for new ideas. It’s kind of like if you look at the post office, and how the post office is run all the way up to now, but in the ’70s, there was one way you could send a package. And walking into the post office was like going into any kind of Soviet-era government building, where the time stands still, and then FedEx came along. And FedEx was free from all those restrictions, and they found a way to revolutionize the way you send packages. That doesn’t mean that every new company that sends packages is going to succeed. It just means that they had the freedom to do it, and the exciting part about it is, that FedEx really kicked the postal service in the butt, and made them evolve. You know, since FedEx, you can send something overnight. There are more flexible ways to send a package.

Do you know what you’re working on next?

No. I think I’m going to take a breather from a big issue film like this. Partly from exhaustion, partly just because an  equally satisfying film [for me] was this movie It Might Get Loud, which is an electric guitar film (featuring the Edge, Jack White, and Jimmy Page) which was really one of the most exciting projects to work on. And so I kind of want to do something like that to, you know, work another muscle.

Thank you for talking with me. It’s a great film, and I hope everybody sees it.

Well, me too. I mean, it’s so funny: I moved out here twenty-three years ago, and I had a plan to sort of become a director, but I had one thing I was certain of, which was that I would never make documentaries. And so to suddenly find myself making documentaries is pretty extraordinary.

Was your dad based somewhere other than L.A.?

Washington. And he was just so good at what he did, and I felt like I could never do that.

Did you grow up with a flatbed in the  house?

Yeah. Even, actually before that, a Moviola. I’ve worked on both and had to master both horrible devices...the flatbedbeing a lot easier. The flatbed being the total revolution. That Moviola is grinding [imitates Moviola sound], and: ‘Oh, Dad’s up at six!’ ▼

Waiting for Superman is currently in release. Information on the film, the crisis facing public education, and what can be done about it, can be found at www.WaitingforSuperman.com.

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