School Daze

Vérité pros Bob Richman and Erich Roland reteam with Davis Guggenheim for a new documentary about the past, present and future of public education

Full disclosure: I saw Waiting for Superman, a nonfiction feature that traces the journeys of five diverse American children through the nation’s collapsing public school system, with my mother-in-law, a retired educator who once taught in one of the most highly rated elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The screening came six weeks before our 5-year-old son would enter kindergarten – listed 35th on a 72-family waiting list for our school of choice. At the time, I had no idea if we’d be adding on the cost of another house payment for a private education, or handing our boy over to a school in one of the same massive and dysfunctional bureaucracies so expertly depicted in Davis Guggenheim’s film. In other words, I was not an unbiased audience member, and I left Waiting for Superman, shattered, angry and wanting to somehow affect what fate had in store for our family.

This is, no doubt, the kind of response the filmmakers wanted. Working again with his self-described “go-to” DPs, Bob Richman and Erich Roland (It Might Get Loud), Guggenheim clearly loves making interactive cinema. An Inconvenient Truth, led by Richman’s elegiac footage of Al Gore at home on his Tennessee farm, won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, and helped ignite a groundswell of interest in environmental stewardship. Waiting for Superman takes on a similarly themed national debate – the future of public education – however, the dexterity with which a failing political machine is juxtaposed with the lives of individual students is something that feels brand new in the documentary format.

Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily are, ostensibly, just statistics, potential victims of “drop-out factories” that prohibit millions of American children from reaching their academic potential every year. But when Guggenheim’s cameras journey with each child on their quest to enter charter schools, the stakes become infinitely higher, particularly when stacked up alongside interviews with educators like Geoffrey Canada (whose Harlem Children’s Zone is being replicated by the Obama Administration in dozens of other American cities), and Washington D.C. Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose radical overhaul of the nation’s worst school district included the firing of several hundred teachers and the closing of 24 under-performing schools. Both story threads – the personal and political – are underscored by an engaging use of animation (done by Sean Donnelly’s small Brooklyn-based shop Awesome + Modest) that reveal some truly frightening statistics on American education – 70 percent of 8th grade students can’t read at grade level and will never catch up; 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year; public school dropouts cost the nation more than $300 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity; and on and on it goes.

The numbers aren’t the only scary stuff in this first-ever educational horror film. There’s also archival footage, taken from a student’s backpack in the 1990s, of a teacher, feet up on his desk reading a newspaper while his students shoot dice in the back. Then there is a “rubber room,” somewhere in New York City, where hopelessly unqualified and ineffective teachers go to bone up on their skills, i.e., they sit around reading newspapers for eight hours while still collecting a paycheck.

Blunt-force images to be sure, but the emotional core of Waiting for Superman is really the vérité footage of the children Guggenheim follows. They come from different backgrounds and cities – Harlem, East L.A., San Bruno, and Washington, D.C. – and have varying support structures: single mother working two jobs, grandmother with no parents around, affluent suburban family, etc. What they all share are fates that will be decided by public lotteries, which the movie builds precipitously towards these events, when the audience’s investment in each character is at its peak.

“We had other great shooters (including 1st AC Logan Schneider) on this movie,” describes producer Lesley Chilcott. “But it was either Bob or Erich, or both of them, who were at the lotteries. They’re both so intuitive. I could completely trust Bob to follow Maria (Francisco’s mom) as she walked over to the corner, or Erich would be following Nakia (Bianca’s mom). It takes an extra special talent to get those special moments from a live event where you don’t know what’s going to happen!

“We used four cameras on this show,” she adds. “There were two 720p (Panasonic) VariCams, because we knew we’d have a lot of stock footage – it turned out to be 22 minutes worth – to intercut. The newer 1080p cameras show everything, so when Erich or Bob are tight on a kid finding out the lottery results, the older VariCam would provide a softer look that doesn’t feel hyper-real. Also the 720p filmed out really nicely.”

In addition to the tape-based VariCams, the WFS team used two Sony PMW-EX3s that Chilcott calls “incredibly forgiving” in low light. “Maria, for example, comes out of the subway into sunlight, and then back into this huge stadium lottery, and the EX3 was perfect for those situations,” she adds. “And even though the EX3 captures at 1080p, Erich shot a lot of the (B-roll) at high speed, so in the end we’d be at 720p.”

The producer, who cut her teeth in live television, like MTV’s video music awards, says such events “pale in comparison to a truly live event like a public lottery, where we not only had no lighting control or potential for retakes, but the futures of these kids you’ve been following for six months were literally on the line. It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever encountered, for so many reasons. Not the least of which is you wish you could somehow affect the outcomes and make sure everyone gets picked!”

And the lottery scenes were hardly a uniform bunch. They ranged from 10 kids and their parents, sitting outside on folding chairs in the California sunshine, to thousands inside a New York City arena. The only saving grace was the shooters knew their subjects’ entry and seating paths in advance.

“I always showed up the day before to stake out our camera positions,” Chilcott grins – no small trick given the Harlem Success Academy lottery, held at The Armory in Manhattan, had 3,000 people and 12 other production crews.

“That was such a crazy day,” Richman recalls. “We had three to four cameras, and there were at least two crews that had been making movies on charter schools, along with 20/20 and many other local media outlets. It was a massive space, but since we all had different subjects we were covering, we respected each other’s turf.”

Richman calls such spontaneous, yet drawn out, real-life situations extremely challenging, even for a seasoned nonfiction DP. “It’s very difficult when you have no idea when (or if) they’re going to be called,” he adds. “You sit and wait to catch that perfect moment. But it can happen so fast, you end up being in a constant state of readiness, even as you’re sitting and waiting.”

Roland, who shot the SEED School of Washington, D.C., lottery, featuring the film’s main subject, Anthony, says that “even with Lesley on radio trying to direct things, no one really knew what was going to happen, and I was flying by the seat of my pants just praying I didn’t miss that magic moment.” [He didn’t.] The DP says he was able to go back and piece the puzzle together from that day. Cutaways of balls tumbling down their chutes, hands picking up the balls, the numbers of each child being seen in close-up, became vital visual tools to build the scene out. “But the vérité stuff can’t be re-created,” Roland insists, “so there’s a lot of pressure to stay on that character all the time.”

Anthony, a quiet kid who lives with his grandmother, is the first story to fill the screen, and Roland said he was unsure how important a role it would play. “The scenes in his grandmother’s kitchen were so challenging,” Roland laughs. “It was tiny with terrible light and you couldn’t even turn around without hitting a wall. There was nowhere to hide the gear, so the four or five times we were there I had to let go of how compromised I was photographically and just follow the story. That’s really the key to so many documentary situations.”

Roland says that while many of the lottery moments were emotional and heartbreaking, his role as a cameraman did not cross over into exploitation. “That’s never been an issue for me,” he explains. “My job is to stay right there with these people and keep the camera rolling so that the world gets to see and hear their stories. Without movies like this, many people would never know about the Anthonys or Biancas of this world. And whether the brass ring slips through their parents’ fingers or their hopes and dreams are realized by getting into that one all-important school, we’re there to let you feel their journeys. If anything I saw (the lottery scenes) as exploitation in a good way. You want to wrap (the subjects) up in your arms, give them a hug, and let them know everything is going to be okay!”

Both cinematographers describe their creative process with Guggenheim as unprecedented, even within their many other nonfiction films. “We’re on our fourth project,” Roland laughs, “and I still have trouble putting into words how we sync up so well. For me, the connection deepens with each film. For example, this film could not have been the movie it was without It Might Get Loud coming before.”

Roland goes on to call the relationship “empowering.”

“It just feels so good to know that the people calling the shots have total creative trust in you going into an important scene,” he continues. “I can let my own instincts take off and not second guess my choices. That’s key on a film like (Waiting for Superman), where every moment felt so intense for these families. It’s really when filmmaking is working at its best.”

Richman sees the give-and-take differently. “On the surface,” he reflects, “Davis and I come at (the nonfiction format) from different perspectives. I’m always looking for the intimate vérité moment and (Davis) is often matching powerful voice-over (interviews and narration) with strong visuals. That’s why he likes using the VariCam for the more cinematic (insert footage). Where we come together is on the minimalist approach to impacting the subjects and their environment. Like that scene with (Bianca) looking out of the window (and watching her own graduation ceremony), Davis sort of predicted it would happen and told me to look out for it, even though he wasn’t there that day.”

The moment Richman calls “technically not very great” is also one of the most indelible. As Nakia talks about her daughter not being able to attend her own Catholic school graduation (Nakia is delinquent in the private school fees despite working overtime), the little girl thrusts her head out the window to watch her peers parade inside.

“The apartment was small and dark and I was shooting her mother wide open,” Richman recounts. “Suddenly (Bianca) sticks her head outside and I had to move over and jam the f-stop down to compensate for the four-stop overexposure, and nearly missed the moment. I knew the conditions were far from ideal. But, in the end, it’s more about empathizing with the character then imposing your ideas as a DP, and Davis gets that. He said I put up too many lights on this film, and I maybe put up one or two!”

Of the movie’s most charismatic voice, Geoffrey Canada (who provides the film’s title, explaining that he was devastated upon finding out no superhero was going to rescue his South Bronx neighborhood), Richman says he, like Guggenheim, had no idea what was in store.

“That interview was one of the first things I did, and it turned out to be mind-boggling,” Richman continues. “Many people lock the shot off (for interviews), but I like to have the camera move in response to the subject. When I’m moving in physically, it’s because I’m moving in emotionally. You can tell by the speech cadence when something important is coming. And listening to Geoffrey Canada was filled with those kinds of moments. Some people see that as manipulation, but the camera is the surrogate eye of the viewer and that’s a subjective thing.”

Roland, who shot all the interview footage with Rhee, says tilt-shift lenses were used thematically early on, and then later discarded. “Some of that pinpoint focus-within-the-frame was used on the B-roll at the schools – hallways, following kids walking, etc.,” Roland notes, “and it’s beautiful, cinematic stuff. I love that Davis is so keen on visualizing a story’s subtext. He’s unafraid to find stylized departures, and I really see it as my job to look for and take advantage of those possibilities.”

As for shooting Rhee, who’s become a lightning rod for the education debate, Roland says he knew what he was in for. “It was early in the process,” he recounts, “and there was a lot of pressure because we had such limited time – she’s probably the busiest person I’ve ever met, let alone filmed.” In fact, Rhee had so many Blackberries (three) going at once, Roland had to plead to have her turn them all off to get some B-roll in the backseat of her limo. “She could not put down her devices, even with a camera crew in the car,” Roland says, “so it really feels like the weight of the world is just bearing down so hard in those scenes. As for us, we all knew what was at stake with those interviews, and it just felt like our time was always slipping away.”

With Waiting for Superman just one of four public education documentary films coming out in 2010, the timeframe to fix our nation’s schools appears to have been accelerated in the minds of all voting Americans, as well.

“The difference between this issue and something like global warning,” Chilcott concludes, “is that this feels imminently solvable. It doesn’t require international cooperation. As Jonathan Alter says in our movie, ‘We now know what works.’ All the studies show the quality of the teachers is what ultimately matters. And if education is ground zero for most of society’s problems, how can we have neglected the fact that teaching is one of the most important jobs you can have, and that school is one of the most important times of your life. It seems so intuitive, and yet I often sit and wonder: ‘How can we have missed this!’”

 By David Geffner / photos courtesy of Paramount Vantage