Few documentaries have had as profound an impact as 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth. Davis Guggenheim’s film about Al Gore’s crusade to educate the public about global warming won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, helped Gore snag a Nobel Prize, and incited a culture-wide debate about the film’s subject.
Guggenheim has worked extensively in television and narrative films. He worked as a producer and director on Deadwood and helmed the pilot for the recent Melrose Place remake, in addition to directing films like Gossip and Gracie, a docudrama based on the teenage years of Guggenheim’s wife, actor Elisabeth Shue. But Guggenheim is best known as a muckraking documentarian whose ambitious, zeitgeist-capturing epics forthrightly address major social issues. Guggenheim has made headlines for his latest documentary, Waiting For Superman, an impassioned exploration of the failure of the American public-school system that has incited heated debate and attracted vitriolic attacks from teachers’ unions for its less-than-flattering depiction of them and its evangelizing on behalf of charter schools. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the idealistic filmmaker about making movies about quagmires, being hated on by teachers, and whether President Obama is a cactus.
The A.V. Club: What’s the relationship between your documentary about first-year teachers, The First Year, and Waiting For Superman?
Davis Guggenheim: I was going to direct the movie Training Day, and I got fired. Denzel Washington didn’t want me to direct the movie. Yeah, everyone in Hollywood behaves so badly. So I thought, “I’m going to go make a movie about people I like,” and I bought a little camera, and I spent a year in five different schools, and I was literally in the car with them driving to their first day of school. And they’re like, “I’m going to change the world, and it’s a civil-rights issue.” You just fall in love with them eventually, with their passion, and this pure sense of mission. Then you follow that idealism as it hits the brick wall of reality. I did that more than 10 years ago. When I was asked to do this movie—well, looming, hovering over the classroom is the sense that there’s a system, this giant—[Newsweek columnist] Jonathan Alter calls it the Blob—which just hovers over everything and crushes good people and devours money. I thought, if I made a film that attacked that—the other movie was sort of simple and pure and vérité. This is a slaying-the-dragon-type movie.
AVC: Who asked you to do the film?
DG: Participant Media, who funded An Inconvenient Truth, said “Hey, we want to do a film about public education.” And I said, “No, can’t do it. I did it. I think it’s a storytelling quagmire.” Then after I said no, I found myself driving my kids to school in the minivan, and I would count the schools I was passing. I passed three public schools, and I live in a good neighborhood. And my parents sent me to a private school because the schools were broken. It’s been 40 years. So I said, “What if I make a more personal approach, in that I betrayed the ideals I lived by?” The key line is “I betrayed the ideals I thought I lived by—my kids are okay, but I’m a part of this big problem.”
AVC: Global warming seems like a storytelling quagmire as well.
DG: I’m looking for my next quagmire. Can you help me?
AVC: What about the coal-mining industry?
DG: I’ve got a three-quagmire deal, and I’ve got two years left.
AVC: Was that intimidating? It’s such a vast problem.
DG: This thing almost destroyed me, it really did. There were days where I thought “I’ll never get this,” and the minute you think you’re onto something, something else contradicts it. The minute you think someone makes sense, someone else contradicts them. It’s a world where people devour each other, and destroy each others’ ideas, and almost stand on the sidelines and argue, which in its own way is part of the Blob: perpetuating the status quo, the educational elite that are constantly having a perpetual debate about things. So it’s like cutting through thickets of really smart people’s ideas with really nothing to grasp. And the things I felt myself drawn to were these pragmatists. I think you really can call it a revolution, these reformers.
These are people who say, “This is broken, this is ridiculous, I’m going to change the world in front of me.” So over here, Geoffrey Canada, over here, Michelle Rhee, over here, the KIPP guys. Hundreds of them, and they’re pragmatists, they’re not politically driven, they’re not ideologically driven, they’re pragmatists, and that’s what I think makes them win. This is hard work, but it’s not as complicated as you very smart people tell us it is. It’s about longer days and great teachers and hard work and changing the culture of a school, and that’s what so exciting now that wasn’t there 10 years ago. The sense that it’s possible.
AVC: Why did our schools go awry?
DG: The film is definitely a wake-up call. It steps back a little bit and gets simpler, like An Inconvenient Truth. Most environmentalists didn’t need to hear that—it was kind of simple-minded for environmentalists. For most people, they don’t get why we are where we are today. It’s like a primer on why we got here.
AVC: What do you say to people who counter that testing illustrates that charter schools don’t do better than regular public schools?
DG: There are a lot of charter schools that don’t do better, and we put the study in the movie that only one in five do better than the school average. It’s a relatively new experiment, charters. All charter means is that they work outside district rules and union contracts. So they can do, some will—
AVC: They’re not bound by the logjam, or inertia.
DG: Yeah, but also it means they can do anything they want, and some haven’t done the right thing. So those should be shut down. They fail for all the reasons other schools fail—they don’t have great teachers, they don’t have great leaders, they don’t have a great mission. But the ones that are doing well, the one in five that are doing well, are usually a system of high-performing charters. You can’t ignore them, because they’re doing so incredibly well, and they’re sending 90 percent of their kids to college. And they’ve disproven a bunch of strongly held beliefs, like you couldn’t break the sound barrier. You know, “Those kids can’t learn, parents are the problem, you can’t fight these environmental issues like poverty.” And they provide, for everyone, the ingredients for success to put into mainstream schools. Those ingredients aren’t difficult, they just take political will.
AVC: Conventional wisdom contends that our schools are failing because we aren’t spending enough money and we aren’t paying teachers enough, but your film suggests it’s a lot more complicated than that.
DG: There’s this riddle that we’ve doubled the money that we spend on schools, and yet our numbers have flat-lined. The solution is great teachers. The high-performing charters have great teachers, so the real effort would be “How do you recruit the very best, and how do you develop them?” We don’t do that. “How do you reward the good ones and get rid of the bad ones?”
AVC: It seems like free-market incentives aren’t at play in the school system.
DG: The way it’s built—and this isn’t me, this is some study in New York—all teachers are exactly the same. They’re widgets, and you just plug them in. And that’s why if this one isn’t working, move them to that school. As opposed to “Teachers are professionals that you need to recruit.” If you need professionals working in your corporations, you need to recruit the very best, and you need to develop them so they understand your mission, and they grow in your company, and you need to reward them so they don’t go somewhere else. And if someone isn’t working, you need to lose them. And if they’re not working to realize your vision, you need to get rid of them. That’s how you make any great organization. That’s how you make a movie, that’s how you make a business. They just literally plug in teachers, they treat them all the same.
AVC: So where did schools go awry?
DG: I get shit, I get in trouble in the movie for saying our schools were the best in the world. A lot of people say that they were okay up until the ’70s, but they were built for a system that was only supposed to get 10 to 15 percent to college. I talk about it in the movie—that’s what we needed. We needed factory workers and agricultural laborers and middle managers, but the world changed, and we didn’t. Now, what we need… We went from agricultural to industrial to manufacturing to now a service-and-information society, and we’re still on a manufacturing model where only a small percentage need to go to college. So even these really good schools, in these suburbs where if you buy an expensive home you can go to a “good school,” most of those are really only geared toward educating the top 10-15 percent, the upper track. Even those schools that are supposed to be good are built for another era. The big problem is that we never adapted. We never evolved. And now it’s a whole new idea. We have, in the movie, I think 150 million high-skilled, high-paid jobs, but we’re only going to produce about half that. Our schools are not geared toward building, preparing kids for the modern economy. And they really don’t—underneath that is this sort of thinking that all kids can’t learn. The new revolutionaries, these new insurgents, are saying “No, every kid can learn.”
AVC: You’re setting children up to fail.
DG: Yep. Underneath it, in An Inconvenient Truth, we talked a lot about the unspoken decisions that people make in their heads. “Oh, the world’s too big to change. Oh, environmentalism is unpopular…”
AVC: “The system is too ingrained.”
DG: “System is too ingrained…” With this, there are these unspoken choices that we make in our brains. “Oh, I really think school is great for every kid, but those kids over there can’t learn.” Or “Those parents don’t care,” or “It’s impossible, right?” And that’s what the film is supposed to do. More than the conscious decisions, I’m more attacking the unconscious decisions, to get people to believe again.
AVC: You talk a lot about dynamic teachers as a remedy, if not the remedy, but it seems like the problem is too big for an influx of charismatic teachers to be the solution.
DG: That was the thing with the KIPP schools. David Levin and Mike Feinberg are incredible, they were on 60 Minutes. “Look at this story, look at all their kids succeeding.” Well, that’s because David Levin’s an amazing teacher. And so that was more than 10 years ago, and people thought “That can’t be brought to scale.” And now there are 90 KIPP schools, three in Los Angeles, and they don’t have that charismatic figure. It’s sort of the charismatic-figure myth. There’s a KIPP L.A. Prep that’s really just a regular school made in the KIPP model, and last week, it was named the second-highest-performing middle school in Los Angeles. There are 750,000 kids in Los Angeles. They’ve proven that you can do it without the charismatic figure.
AVC: How does it feel to have teachers’ unions attack the film?
DG: It sucks. I mean, when you make An Inconvenient Truth, it’s not difficult to have your enemy be Exxon Mobil or the dirty coal company. In this case, I’m a Democrat, and I believe, I really believe in unions, I’m a member of a good union. So that was an uncomfortable truth for me to have to talk about, but I’ve tried to make a reasonable film. I don’t know where it’s written, but somehow it’s written that you can’t criticize the unions. Otherwise, you hate teachers.
AVC: It also seems like there are very few unions left that have any kind of power, but the ones that do are incredibly powerful.
DG: Really powerful.
AVC: They almost have too much power, in that they can call the shots.
DG: And they do call the shots, and those contracts they have are so restrictive. I don’t know if this is too background for you, but what’s really fascinating is because in the last 40 years, we didn’t want to spend money on schools, instead of giving teachers more money, we gave their unions more concessions.
And that’s why now everything is so buttoned-up. School day ends at 3, principal can’t visit the classroom, can’t fire a teacher, can’t reward another good teacher. The contracts are more than 200 pages long, and they control everything. They control how a school is run, because every time, “Instead of paying any money, we’re…” and that’s what’s killing everything. These contracts which are just so restrictive, that’s what we have to lift, and that’s why these high-performing charters are doing great.
AVC: Though as the boyfriend of a charter-school teacher, I like the idea of her getting out at 3 p.m. every day.
DG: I love the Steve Barr model. [Barr is a charter-school organizer in Los Angeles, featured in Waiting For Superman. —ed.] He’s got what they call “thin contracts.” Every great revolution swings to the wrong direction, and I’m sure you’re going to find these teachers in these high-performing charters that burn out. I have no problem with those teachers being unionized and making sure that they’re being paid properly, and that they’re not taken advantage of.
AVC: You shot the Barack Obama biographical film for the Democratic Convention. How does it feel to have the narrative in a lot of people’s minds spin to the point where he’s become a Muslim from Kenya who is possibly the antichrist?
DG: This is such a strange time in America. It’s so strange. You know, the quality of the debate is so perverted now. I’m not saying anything anyone else isn’t saying, but it just seems so off. And part of me thinks if we’d been educating our kids for the last 25 years, the quality of the debate would be a whole lot better. We’ve created a huge swath of ignorant people.
AVC: When a sizeable percentage of the United States thinks their Christian president is secretly a Muslim, something has gone horribly awry.
DG: Yeah, you know, it’s hard to believe that people who are saying these things are even reading the paper, or have a basic understanding of what’s going on. I liked what Obama said about the Tea Party thing: that America has always had this healthy distrust of government, but when it becomes so fear-based and so lacking in any root into reality, then the conversation just gets perverted.
AVC: The Onion ran a story recently claiming that one in five Americans believe Obama is a cactus.
DG: [Laughs.] I’ve met him, and I’m not sure he’s not a cactus. I can’t confirm or deny.