If you think you know filmmaker Davis Guggenheim by his many episodic TV credits or iconic last name, you’ve missed most of his story. Raised on social justice documentaries by his father, Charles Guggenheim, whose first Oscar-winning film, Nine From Little Rock, explored ‘60s era school desegregation, and whose second Academy Award-winner, Robert Kennedy Remembered, paid tribute to America’s greatest public education statesman, Davis Guggenheim’s first and best passion is nonfiction filmmaking, and the opportunity it gives him to “be a part of something much bigger than yourself.” His 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, placed climate change front and center in the national debate. And with his new documentary, Waiting for Superman, which won the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Guggenheim has again tapped into the national zeitgeist, exploring America’s failed public school system through the eyes of five different children whose futures literally depend on a tumbling ball in a lottery basket. As evident by the conversation below, Guggenheim, much like his father, truly believes in moviemaking as a transformative medium. In that respect, Waiting for Superman is his chalkboard and the educators who come before his cameras are textbook examples of how to change our troubled world.

ICG: An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud, and now Waiting for Superman, are all quite cinematic. Where does that approach to nonfiction filmmaking come from? Davis Guggenheim: I’m dyslexic, and was a C-minus student, at best. So I relate to the world visually. One of the breakthrough moments in this film, in fact the reason I agreed to do it after originally saying no (to Participant Media), was driving my kids past all these public schools each morning on their way to a great private school. That visual, which begins the film, came before anything else. As did the montage that followed of preparing our kids to go to school each morning – that leap of faith we as parents all take of handing your kids over to someone else is emotional, and I wanted to express that visually. The other part of that, of course, is working with great cinematographers who can help me express these ideas as cinema.

You’ve worked with Erich (Roland) on your last film, It Might Get Loud, and with Bob (Richman) on An Inconvenient Truth. Why? Erich and Bob are my go-to guys and I call them whenever I can. Checco Varese, whom I’ve worked with in episodic TV, shot some of the beginning footage (for Waiting for Superman) and he’s another great collaborator. I’d say Bob and Erich are the best vérité shooters in the industry. It’s a special skill, and their ability to listen to the characters is amazing. Both of them were placed in situations (on Waiting for Superman) where I couldn’t be there, so their contributions were central to telling this story.

As go-to guys you mean you share the same visual aesthetic? Oh yeah. When you have to talk about what you want, it’s rarely good. (Laughs.) I can say a few words, like ‘This is Anthony. Today he’s looking at a new school,’ and Erich, who shot that sequence knew exactly how to do it in an emotional and cinematic way. The same thing goes for working with Bob. They just get it.

Using DP’s with a strong sense of cinema sort of runs counter to conventional wisdom that documentaries are always ‘found’ in the editing room. Right. The old school way was to write a concept, get the money, shoot everything, and then put it all together. But during An Inconvenient Truth, I realized I could shoot, edit, and write throughout the process. In fact, I am continually pulling words out of my movies to let the visuals drive the storytelling. I think that works because documentaries are much more emotional than they were in the 1960s or ‘70s; audiences are more comfortable with seeing something that looks like a narrative film.

Your father, Charles Guggenheim, won three Oscars for his social documentaries, and was nominated for six more. You’ve been around the genre a long time. I learned pretty much everything about filmmaking from him – tone, pacing and storytelling. I remember taking my first documentary film course at NYU as a freshman in 1983, and when they talked about there being no such thing as an ‘objective’ documentary, I was blown away! I grew up on my father’s films, and others of that era, thinking documentaries were the truth. Period. (Laughs.)

How has that notion changed? Maintaining objectivity in a nonfiction film is now an old argument because audiences know the minute you turn on the camera it’s subjective. The way I would describe the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience now is one of trust. I’m asking you to go on this ride with me and accept that what I say is true to the spirit of the story, if not the literal truth of the events as they transpired. The audience can reject that trust, of course, and that happens.

The ending coda of Waiting for Superman, when we see the five kids you’ve been following around – Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy and Emily – learn their fates at the different school lotteries is astounding. My producer and filmmaking partner, Lesley Chilcott, will tell you those scenes were all about divide and conquer because (the lotteries) all happened at roughly the same time. We had to use multiple crews at multiple locations around the country. Of course, we chose each student we followed because we knew they would be in a lottery. So we’re calling each other on cell phones asking: ‘Did Francisco get in? Did Anthony get in?’ We desperately wanted them all to get in. And each lottery was different. The law only requires a public lottery, so some used computers, others Bingo balls. Trying to get a camera position at that precise moment the kids found out was very challenging.

The statistics revealed about public education are shocking. Yet you dole those out through a clever and engaging use of animation. If you had asked me before An Inconvenient Truth if you can put heavy graphics and animation in a documentary and make it compelling, I would have said no. But we had all this information in Al Gore’s slide show and we realized that, used properly, animation was a great way of helping that information advance the story. I saw with this film how effective it was to cut from a kid in D.C. who has problems with his (under-performing) school to a chart of national reading levels. It’s the equivalent of a camera zoom in/zoom out – going from the macro to the micro. Everyone thinks, in a documentary, you either do the intimate story or the big-issue politics, but never both. But I’m finding it’s powerful to go back and forth. I haven’t seen others do this and I would not have imagined myself doing it had I not done it on An Inconvenient Truth.

As you mentioned, the movie begins with your voice-over as you are driving your own children past your local public schools to a private school. Are parents who run away from our public schools part of the problem? You’re part of the problem if you’re not doing everything you can to help fix the system. Having said that, parents are always going to put their kids first – the bear protects its cubs. I’ve seen this happen with educators who spent their lives in the public school system, and are now sending their kids to private schools. I asked them, ‘Should I feel guilty?’ And they say, ‘No! Your kid’s going a great school.’ My mantra (on this film) was that if I could get people to care as much about other people’s kids as I do, the schools can be fixed. I dream about my local public school being up to snuff but it’s not. And yet, I could not drive by it every day without feeling compelled to do something.

What do you say to people who call you Chicken Little? Making films about these big, amorphous issues, where the sky is (literally) falling? (Laughs.) Well, if anything, the climate crisis is even worse than when we made An Inconvenient Truth, despite all the noise you may hear. In fact, we were moderate, not alarmist, as Al Gore was very careful with everything we put in. I wish I were being alarmist about our schools. But I’ve spent the last two years studying them and they’re worse than I thought. Our schools are failing millions of kids every day and no one is really arguing the point – Republicans and Democrats alike. They might criticize me for other reasons, but I don’t think they’ll call me Chicken Little. (Laughs.)

Did you know going in that (Washington D.C. superintendent) Michelle Rhee and (charter school activist) Geoffrey Canada would become such major characters? I had no idea, actually. A friend told me Geoffrey Canada had an amazing school but I didn’t think he would become a central figure in the movie. His was the most productive interview I’ve ever done and he just dominated the editing room. As a filmmaker, you follow the people who are speaking to you. I had a similar reaction to Michelle Rhee.

Sounds a bit like characters taking over a novel or screenplay. Very much so. One of the most important things about a documentary is listening to what’s in front of you. There’s no real discovery to starting with a fixed premise and finding the pieces that fit. If you truly immerse yourself in a topic, it will change you. I’m a different person than when I started (Waiting for Superman) two years ago.

We won’t give away the ending but suffice to say it’s bittersweet. I didn’t realize it would be so cut and dry, that is, getting into one school means having a future and pursuing your dream, and another school means the odds are hopelessly against you. The stakes are that high. But making the movie has made me more hopeful. Guys like Geoffrey Canada and the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools have proven that even kids in the worst situations can learn and achieve. If just one person sees this movie and decides to become a teacher, or start a school, or change their neighborhood school – those things happen when you make a documentary. I’ve seen it. And it’s pretty exciting.

This is your second journey into public education. You show clips from your first documentary, made ten years ago. How have things changed? In my first film, there wasn’t a sense that anything was possible. The teachers were talented people with the best of intentions, but no matter what, the system was going to crush them. Now that others have proven (change) is possible, inspired people will move into this field and transform our schools. I really believe it. No one thought the sound barrier could be broken until Chuck Yeager did it. Then in the years after, a hundred more like him went up into the sky.

You’re obviously passionate that movies can make a difference. I’ve seen it firsthand. I grew up watching my father’s great social justice films make a difference. I was part of An Inconvenient Truth as it changed people’s lives. Even with the recent swing in the negative direction, I saw that movie change people, corporations and behaviors. Films do not write policy or teach your children. But they can inspire people to do both those things. And, much like on An Inconvenient Truth, it feels like this issue is in the air. The Obama Administration’s new Race to the Top program, the new laws in Colorado about tenure and merit pay, a new contract in the D.C. school district – why can’t films be a catalyst for helping to push things in the right direction?

You mentioned you were not a good student. I was at the bottom of my class! But, luckily, I had a few great teachers who said, ‘You are not dumb, you have something to say and contribute to the world.’ Now I’m a productive citizen because of them. There’s no doubt that without the handful of inspiring teachers in my life, and that includes my father, I’d be lost and listless. You know, it’s really a gift to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself, as I feel my movies have been. But that’s not a belief that’s inherited, that’s taught.

Interview by David Geffner. Photo courtesy of Davis Guggenheim.