Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim collected the gold for his second feature-length documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. The son of legendary, Oscar-winning documentarian Charles Guggenheim, Davis Guggenheim has directed two other feature-length docs, The First Year and It Might Get Loud, which explores the electric guitar through what it means to three of its best-known practioners: Jack White of The White Stripes, The Edge of U2, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Guggenheim also helmed the features Gracie (rent it, folks) and Gossip, as well as episodes of Deadwood (on which he was a producer), 24, Alias, The Shield, and many more. At San Francisco's Prescott Hotel, we chatted about It Might Get Loud and his career to date.
Groucho: Initially you resisted following your father’s footsteps into documentary filmmaking—
Davis Guggenheim: Yes, true.
Groucho: What was it that—
Davis Guggenheim: A man who reads.
G: Oh, yes. What was it that turned you around? What sparked your desire?
DG: Well, I grew up in Washington D.C. My father won four Academy Awards, and that was a terrible shadow to live under. And he was so incredible; he was such a great father. But it was like "I’ll never be anywhere as good as him." And so I moved to Hollywood. I was like "I’m gonna do my own thing and make my own way." And I did and it was actually tough and harder—you know, I did a lot of television. And then slowly, I got sucked back in. And before he died, we made a movie together: one of my first documentaries. And that was special. And he remains my biggest teacher and sort of like this voice that’s next to me reminding me what makes good films. I’ve been around a lot of great filmmakers but he taught me more than anybody.
G: What’s the lesson that really resounds or resonates the most with you—that sticks with you?
DG: It’s the same one over and over again. He always said—and he made a lot of social justice documentaries, a lot of cause stuff. He did a lot of movies for the democrats, you know? Robert Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Adlai Stevenson—but he said, "People are interested—people connect to people. And issues are important, but they’re secondary." And so, with An Inconvenient Truth—which was pitched as a movie about a slide show—I just heard that in my head. My father passed away a year before that. And I was like "I have to make this film personal." And you know, people went "Personal? This is a slide show. This has charts and graphs." But—and that’s only a third of the movie, but to me, that’s why you connect to the movie, because you say, "I thought I knew Al Gore, but I didn’t. And here’s a guy who’s been trying to get the story out and no one will listen to him." And that became to me what was compelling.
G: Yeah, what formed him and what drove him.
DG: Yes. So that’s my mantra. You’ve got to find a way to make things personal. And what was the technique in It Might Get Loud was, like, how do you get beneath—how do you get inside a rock star?
G: Yeah. You said the idea behind this film was not encyclopedic or historic but exploratory. What did you learn through the process of exploring these three guys, and maybe what surprised you the most to learn?
DG: Well, what I mean by not encyclopedic is you get these rock documentaries that are like "And in the second album, they went in and they used more violin"—and it’s sort of this chronicle, and you cover all this music that’s so interesting, but you don’t learn anything. And I wanted—I just want to know how do you write a song? How do you make that music—that song that I love—“Streets Have No Name”? Like, where did that come from? ...And so that’s what we do—we go into—The Edge is playing the early session tapes, when they’re just scratching up, you know, the early musings of that song. And you go "Oh, that’s how"—and he’s explaining it to you. And I’ve never seen anyone do that before. So it’s like "That’s what I want." How do you deal with when you suddenly become a rock star? How do you deal with that pressure to keep creating? And how do you live a creative life? [Those are] the kind[s] of things that I was after.
G: Yeah. Why do you think Jimmy Page said "yes" to you when he so often says "no" to others?
DG: I don’t know. I mean, that’s a mystery. I think all three of them liked the approach I had. And this was the pitch..."There’re no rock historians. There are no rock critics. There’re no ex-girlfriends. There’re no band-mates. This is not that kind of movie. This is about the process. And the heart and the soul of the movie will come from these intensive interviews." It started with these intensive interviews sitting with Jack and Jimmy and Edge. I sat in a hotel room with Jimmy Page—just sitting like what you are right now—for hours just talking, and just exploring what’s in their head on that day. And the whole idea is going deep—go deep, go deep. And out of that, I sort of culled these moments. And those moments are told in the film by Jimmy, because he’s in the interview—and only Jimmy. So it has a very extreme perspective. This is only Jimmy Page, you know? But it has this emotional resonance because it’s only Jimmy Page. And it has this genuineness and this emotional depth because of that process.
G: See, that makes sense to me. I would think that would be appealing. But oftentimes I find artists are very resistant to pulling back the curtain or talking about process. That’s almost like a dirty word in interviews. "Oh, I don’t like to talk about process."
DG: Actors—you talk to actors—like, "How do you work on a scene?"—they won’t tell you..
DG: ‘Cause I think it’s a mystery to them. And truthfully, you know, sometimes, like if I ever come up with a good idea, it’s a mystery to me. You know,"Why did I think of that?" I don’t know. And I can’t "Okay, Davis, think of a good idea now!"—arrrrggggghhhhh, nothing happens. So it’s a mystery. It’s absolutely a mystery. And it’s why people think, "Well, if I get drunk, it’ll be better—if I do drugs I’ll get better ideas, or if I am tortured or I find God"—there’s a lot of that happening. So it is a mystery and I think in the movie remains a mystery. But we’re still kind of on the hunt in the movie trying to figure out—we’re on the path trying to find—it’s like life is a search for truth; there is no truth. Well, I want to search for the mystery of what makes a good songwriter. There is no answer to that question.
G: Well, part of your approach too is the fly-on-the-wall thing—like, if it can’t necessarily be articulated, you could at least put the camera on it. You could watch it even happening; you got lucky enough to—like Jack White writing the song on camera, for example.
DG: Yeah. And if it works for no one else, it worked for me—because I, right now, am trying to finish this movie [Ed. an upcoming doc on the public school system]. And I’m trying to conjure up good ideas. And they give me—I see the movie now, and I get inspired. It’s like it’s not about someone bestowing on you "greatness." It’s not about some magic dust that gets sprinkled on you. It’s hard work. And it’s being passionate and being open—and work. You know that Jimmy Page spent hundreds of hours learning and pushing himself. And the same—all three of them share that. And that inspires me. That’s what I go home—I go "Okay, it’s all—it’s about doing that."
G: Yeah. And you’re working on, now, a documentary about public education.
DG: The public school system.
G: Yeah. And you’ve made a film in that arena before, with the angle being first-year teachers. What’s your angle going to be this time?
DG: This is similar to An Inconvenient Truth in the sense that it’s broad sweeping. It’s like, you know, how I think in America public schools [are] part of who we are. It’s a great equalizer. You know, you could be born in the wrong family. You could not even speak the language, but schools will lift you up. And often, those people are the ones that start great companies and make America great, or they were the great writers or whatever. I don’t think our schools are doing what they could be doing. And I’m also trying to figure out that mystery. I mean, I think we all kind of share that anxiety, but we don’t know how to figure that out; we don’t know why. It’s a real tough one, man. It’s like—it may be the thing that kills me.
DG: If you see that I’m dead, it’s because I’m trying to make this movie.
G: It’s funny, when you say that—I was kind of thinking about your having won the Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, which was well deserved. But I sort of wonder, you know, what does he think about that? Does he sometimes think, "Yeah, but if they only knew how much blood, sweat and tears I put into this other movie, they would have given it to me for that," you know?
DG: That’s right. My father won four Academy Awards. He always felt like he got them for the wrong movie. And I really...people in the Academy respected the movie, I think. But I think they were really voting for Al [Gore]. And they were voting for the issue. They wanted the issue in the movie to succeed. And I’m the beneficiary of that, so great. But I’m proud of how we made the movie. And so I’ll take it.
DG: Awards are always subjective. They’re never quite fair. And there’re so many great documentaries that are much better than mine that don’t get the recognition, you know?
G: Well, that’s humble of you to say.
DG: Well it’s true.
G: Anyway. It’s interesting for a documentary filmmaker to get some of his best material going in without even a camera. But that’s true of this film and others, like An Inconvenient Truth.
DG: That was a technique I stumbled upon. With Al—it’s interesting. There’s a parallel between Al Gore and these rock stars, which is that you have the disadvantage in that people know who they are already. So there’s a relationship. People came in An Inconvenient Truth with a strong feeling about Al Gore—both good and bad or not helpful. If you think he’s a saint and a hero, that’s not helpful, because you’re blind to his faults. And vice-versa. And so the idea—the process was geared toward how do you pierce through that? And the way—I said, "We have to get these intimate emotional interviews." Al Gore’s been interviewed ten million times. Maybe not ten million, but maybe four million. Like, I’ve seen him...his whole political career. So how do you do something different? And what we stumbled upon was "Let’s just sit down and talk for hours and go deep and just locate the emotion." And those—we started off the traditional way with a film crew and lights, and it didn’t yield very much, so those intimate interviews really helped with no—it’s just me and him; there’s no crew. He didn’t have to perform for anybody. True for these guys. So I just sat down with Jimmy Page for two days. I started the movie that way. And those became the heart and soul of that movie. It may be the next movie is different, but that’s how I got—if you think the movie is especially intimate, which I think it is, it’s because of that.
G: Hm. And it’s a testament to your subjects and to you that you could even make that happen—to get them to sit down and be willing to go deep with you for hours.
DG: Yeah. I mean, it’s a testament to them. Musicians are improvisational. They’re intuitive by nature, and so the idea of not having a plan was nice to them. We could talk and find their way. And it was actually kind of—it warmed them up to the idea.
G: Yeah. And of course you can only get to where you’re going by trust—an initial trust, but also one that develops over the course of those conversations, I imagine.
DG: Yeah. A lot of people want to—you see this with journalists—they want to "I’m going to write my story and it’s about how John Bonham died." And then [they] talk to Jimmy Page, and his answer isn’t all that interesting. What’s the point? I’m about finding the emotion in what’s interesting to him. I’m sure he’s interested in John Bonham dying—that’s not the point. The point is that I want to go where they want to go. I’m not trying to steer them into a place they don’t want to go. Michael Moore is the exact opposite. You know, "I’m going to go—and fuck you if I—excuse me, f. you if you don’t like it."
G: Yeah. Can you talk about the degree to which this became sort of an anthology of artistic experimentation?
DG: Wow...yeah. In the sense that we’re all experimenting, I think that when we’re with Edge in the studio where they’re writing the album that’s out now, we see him write the song. We see Jack; it was a film and music experiment where we—I said, "I don’t think it’s ever been done before. Hey, I’ll be over here, take the whole day. Write a song from beginning to end." And he goes "Okay." That was an experiment, and he was scribbling with his pencil the lyrics and then sort of playing—figuring the tune out. And I guess—maybe some people are different, you know. But certainly making documentaries is improvisational. You go, you shoot some stuff, you come back, you look at it. "This works. Oh, the story’s going this way. Great." That’s what musicians do. You know? I think they play and when they hear it they go "Oh, I like that." I don’t think it’s "I’m gonna write a hit this morning. I’m going to write the second-to-the-last-track of the album this morning." That doesn’t happen. It’s all experiment. It’s all following instinct.
G: We have not too much time left, so I want to mention Gracie, which I think is a fine film—
DG: Thank you.
G: That was not given it’s full due.
DG: Right. Thank you.
G: Did you feel that the marketing support wasn’t there, or why do you think that film didn’t reach a bigger audience than it did?
DG: It’s heartbreaking, because my wife and I—it’s her story and her brother, you know, [we] devoted a lot of our lives to it, and we put all our hearts into it. It’s a strange time in movies. There’s a lot of competition for shelf space. In the supermarket, it’s like if you’re a little product, and Campbell’s soup is getting in your way—that’s part of it.
G: I wonder if that might actually alleviate a little bit now—I mean, studios are cutting their slates. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But maybe there will be more room—
DG: I’m worried about this movie. I’m terrified. I mean, people who see it really like it—I say that modestly—but then when they hear about it, they’re going "Oh." But will they get in their car and go to the movie theater? At this time in our lives, somehow, that takes a lot. And that depends on the success of this movie. Gracie—it was the same thing. I think when people see it, they really enjoy it. But how do you—it’s a mystery. And yet, people go see the Transformers, and they know it’s not a good movie. They even say, "It sucks. But I went anyway and I drank a lot of Coke and I munched popcorn and I was fine—you know, I enjoyed myself."
G: Yeah. It’s very frustrating. I hear the same thing from readers, like "I knew it wasn’t going to be any good, but I had to go." I don’t know why you have to go see it.
DG: My wife and I were going to see [The] Hurt Locker. And then we saw that The Hangover was playing ten minutes before, and we went to that instead. It’s like, after a really long day, sometimes you just want to have fun. Which is nice about this movie, because...this is a really fun movie.
G: Yeah, it’s breezy.
DG: It’s like eighty-one music cues, Led Zepplin blasting really loud and U2 and Jack White—it’s pretty—in that sense, it’s easy. Still, it’s an interesting time for movies, and it takes the audience to be committed as deeply as the filmmakers.
G: You’ve also done quite a bit of work in television as director and as a producer on Deadwood. I’ve never talked to anyone about Deadwood, so I’m curious just to get a sense of what it was like walking around that world. You know? It seems like such a complete world through the shows but you wonder—
DG: A foot of mud. I was talking to an actor once, and I’m like "Who’s pouring coffee on my leg?" and I looked over and it was a horse urinating on me. Like three gallons of horse urine on my leg. It was intense. It was also one of the harder shows I’ve ever done because it was also really hot. We were shooting in Santa Clarita; it was 115 degrees. And David Milch, who’s a writer on the series who’s the really creative force behind it. He’s just a genius, and the writing is so great. And the acting was so great, you know. Amazing show.
G: Well, it was great to talk to you. I wish we had more time.
DG: Me too. Thank you very much. This was really fun.