TMW interviews documentary director Davis Guggenheim

By Tatiana Craine

Last Friday, the much-anticipated documentary by director Davis Guggenheim “Waiting for ‘Superman'” premiered to rave reviews. Guggenheim struck documentary gold back in 2006 with the environmentalist film “An Inconvenient Truth.” This time, he reveals the shortcomings of the American public school system by chronicling the lives of five young grade-school children as they try to enter into better schools. The film also focuses on Michelle Rhee’s ground-breaking and often controversial changes to the Washington, D.C. school system during her time as superintendent. Audiences will discover the pain and heartbreak associated with lottery systems executed by charter schools across the country in efforts to provide a random and fair way to admit a limited number of students into their institutions. Guggenheim also covers the “broken” schools of America, and what kind of issues contribute to the problem including teachers’ unions, unreasonable teacher assessments, bad qualifications for tenure and the ever-unpopular No Child Left Behind policies. At times a little heavy-handed, but always thought-provoking and emotionally rousing, the film’s most poignant and climatic point comes when the five children attend their respective lottery gatherings in efforts to secure one of the charter schools’ coveted seats. “Waiting for ‘Superman'” brings light to an issue that has long plagued American public schools with refreshing warmth, heart and gravity.

TMW: What inspired you to make this film?

Davis Guggenheim: [After he was fired as the director from “Training Day”] I was so angry I bought a camera and said I’m going to make a movie about people I like. There were these teachers that were my age going into LA’s toughest schools. So my very first one was about public education, and I fell in love with these teachers. And that sort of made me realize that first of all, you’ve gotta follow the things that you love. And the stories that are exciting for you. But also that when you spend time in these schools, and I spent every day in these five schools, that you really feel like there are life and death stakes in these neighborhoods and the teachers that are in these schools are really changing kids lives. And the quality of our schools is the biggest civil rights issue of our time.

TMW: You originally followed about 20 families around for the documentary. Can you describe the process of choosing the families and whittling down the focus to a select five students?

DG: I’d read about the lottery, this great editorial by Thomas Friedman was about witnessing the lottery in Baltimore schools. And there were families that were winners and there were families that were losers. And I was like, Wow, that’s an incredible metaphor for the movie, so we found different lotteries around the country. We found the schools and went to information sessions, so families would go in and learn about the school and we would meet the families there and ask them if they’d be part of the movie. So we followed about 20 families for only a couple days, and then we winnowed it down to about seven, and five made it in the movie. The tragic thing is it’s not hard to find families that are desperate for a good school. That are struggling. And they have to take part in this heartbreaking process where they have to win the game of luck to get a great school, which to me is cruel and heartbreaking.

TMW: Did the film come together quickly? Would you add anything else if you had more time?

DG: I’m always recutting the movie in my head. I’m not sure it came around quickly. I originally said no to it because I thought it was impossible. And then I sort of had the breakthrough of telling it from a personal point of view. Because I had made [“The First Year”], and I had my own kids, and I had the point of view of a parent now. Look, I’m learning stuff every day about public education and the controversy that’s swirling around it. There’s no way to avoid the controversy. My strong feeling was that there are these taboos about schools and our school system. Like “You’re not allow to talk about it!” But my feeling was that if you don’t talk about it, we’re never going to fix our schools. So talking about the unions, talking about the political parties that take money, talking about people like me that send their kids to private school. Those are taboos, and we need to talk about them. And we’re not going to fix our schools unless we do.

TMW: Do you consider the film a call to action for education advocacy and reform?

DG: I actually feel very hopeful. Last week was the Education Nation in New York, and Mayor Bloomberg gave a speech and the first thing he mentioned was Waiting for Superman and the next thing he mentioned was how he’s going to reform tenure in New York, which I think is a key thing to reform. Barack Obama said he saw the film, and found it powerful and talked about how we need more school days, which I think is a key piece of the film. People are coming together, watching the film and having these intense discussions. So I’m very hopeful and having been part of “An Inconvenient Truth” where the film really changed the conversation, I think I’m very hopeful. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a long road. I don’t think our schools are going to be fixed overnight. The types of reforms that are happening make me very hopeful.

TMW: How would you describe your personal experiences at school?

DG: My first day of school when I was five years old in 1968, tells you how old I am [laughs], I came home and I asked my mom, “Why do I take a school bus from Washington, D.C. into Virginia? Forty minutes to go to school when there’s a school down the street?” And she responded because the schools in Washington, D.C. are broken. And they were broken. That was more than 40 years ago, and now I’ve got my own kids, and I’m looking around my neighborhood and the schools around my neighborhood in Los Angeles are broken. And I’m like, “What’s going on? How is it 40 years in our country, this is America, that we have not been able to fix our schools?” So that’s personal experience of seeing that, and also feeling like I’m part of the problem. I pulled my kids out of the system. I take care of my own kids. And I do what a lot of people do. They stick their head in the sand and hope that schools will change on their own. And that sort of frustration and outrage pushed me to make the film to hopefully help change our schools.

TMW: So since this film is a bit of a call to arms, how would you suggest people contribute to the solution?

DG: I feel like movies are stories first. People go to movies to have an experience. And you have to understand that movies are good at some things and not at others. My strong feeling is that if you tell the audience what they should do, it kills the experience of the movie. They start thinking, “Oh, I’m in a classroom and I’m eating my spinach.” And what a movie can do is show them the stakes. What happens to this little boy in Washington is important. The stakes are really high. It affects all of us. And it inspires you. It can say, “This is possible. They’ve now done it, they’ve broken the sound barrier.” After the movie is over, that is when we start giving people solutions. So then you go to our website – first of all, pledging to see the movie will give you a coupon to give to You go in and pick a teacher, and you can give money to their class. First off, very simple, it’s like screwing in a light bulb, but it’s a first step towards action. You pledge to see the movie, you get a coupon to give to a teacher: first step.

The next step you can go onto our website and click action. And in the top 25 cities, we have a campaign manager, a person with a name and an email you can contact, and they can tell you what’s going on where you live. And those actions, once you’re motivated (and that’s the key role of the movie-to motivate) there’s a whole host of things to do. You can become a mentor. You can bec
ome a teacher. That’s maybe the best thing you can do. You can volunteer at a school. And mostly, you should become an advocate for reform, a soldier in the fight to give every kid a great education. Our website will give you a thousand ways to get involved, but that’s the basic idea. People should understand the reason why so many films about important issues are so boring is because they’re constantly telling you what to do. A film’s first role is to engage the audience and inspire them and then send them to action. We learned that on “An Inconvenient Truth,” and we’re doing that here.

TMW: Some public school teachers have reacted poorly to the idea of this film’s message, feeling it’s almost like a personal attack. How would you respond to that?

DG: Let me be clear. I’ve screen this film in more than 20 cities and in the audiences, there’s usually 20-50 teachers. Most teachers get this film. Most teachers embrace the film. Most teachers say, “Thank you for making this movie.” Because they get it. A really good, effective teacher feels all the problems in the movie everyday when they see the problems of the city, the problems of tenure, the lack of support and assessment. Most teachers who have seen this movie are behind it and they thank me. I think there’s always going to be this percentage that feel threatened and defensive, and that’s understandable. And I hope the ones that are criticizing the movie actually see the movie because I talk much more in the movie about how teachers are a work of art. How it’s the hardest job that anyone can do. That it’s the most noble job. And that I make this really important point that teachers are the solution, but often their union is an obstacle to change. It’s an important distinction for people to make. I believe in unions. I’m a member of a union that supports me. I just think it’s the teachers’ union shouldn’t be a barrier to change. It shouldn’t be an obstacle to reform.

TMW: After following these kids around chronicling their battle against the school system, do you feel any obligation to help them out later on? What do you think of doing a follow-up piece on them in a few years?

DG: Most importantly we want to make sure the kids are okay. So we have a relationship with them and will be with them long-term to make sure that we’re going to help them as much as we can long-term. We also want to respect their privacy so we’re not revealing what’s going on with them right now because they’re kids and we want them to have a normal life. We’re very personally invested because we love these kids and want to see them succeed. And maybe down the road, their stories will be interesting to continue.

TMW: A lot of the issue with the school system has to do with funding. How can the system be fixed if the funding keeps going to the wrong places?

DG: I show in the movie that we’ve doubled our spending and the scores are still low. And yet, there’s a riddle because when you go to most classrooms, you see these classrooms are desperate for more books, more equipment, more supplies. And I think great teachers should be paid more. So there’s a riddle. So my theory is if you had a hundred billion dollars or a trillion dollars, if you pour it into the school system, would it go to the right place? No. It would go to these centralized bureaucracies and it would go to the wrong place. So I think you need two things. You need to fix the system and you need more money. Pouring more money into a broken system isn’t going to work, so you need to pay teachers more, and you also need to do things like recruit the very best and reward good teachers. But if you keep the system of teachers we have right now and just pour more money into it, it’s not going to change the outcome for the kids. But the truth is a lot of the people in our country do not want to pay more taxes to make our schools better, and that’s a problem. But we need to fix the system, and [we need] more money.

TMW: What’s your next project?

DG: I was actually, I’ve never said this before, I was thinking the next documentary would be [about] what makes a great teacher and the elements of what makes a great teacher. But I’ve been working back to back for about eight years, and I’m actually going to take some time off and be a good dad. I’ve been spending the last two and a half years of my life thinking about other people’s children. Now I’m going to spend some time with my own.