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Davis Guggenheim - Filmmaker

Created by Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

Voiceover: So I'm here with famous filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. Davis: I'm smirking when you say this famous- Voiceover: You are! "Inconvenient Truth," "Waiting for Superman," a great teacher's project, amongst others. Just to rewind I'd like to talk frankly about all of the stuff that you've worked on, but how did you get started? I've always been fascinated when I see people who are filmmakers, there's not a traditional career, how did you get started? Davis: My father was a great documentarian. No one knew who he was. He rode his bike to work but he made all these great social justice documentaries and he was my hero. But after college I moved to L.A. to not make documentaries. Voiceover: What did you do in college? What did you think you were going to do? Davis: I was a history major and I wanted to get out of my father's shadow. And I moved up to Hollywood, I'm not going to make documentaries. Voiceover: But did you have an idea of what you were going to do? Davis: I was going to make Hollywood movies. I was going to be, he makes documentaries, I want to be a hot shot Hollywood director. Voiceover: But you had embraced this film-making aspect of your- Davis: Yes. Voiceover: That's not as big of a departure, for most people that seems still pretty close. Davis: So kids of doctors can become a lawyer, you know kids of lawyers can become an accountant, but no one is the kid of a documentarian and becomes a doctor. It's a degenerative skill that's passed down. You never go back. Voiceover: I don't understand that right. (Davis laughs) Is it because your father would have judged you if you would have become Davis: No. Davis: No, no. I don't think I could have, frankly. I think, very dyslexic, not good in school. And so I became tuned to other things. My brain was tuned to other things. Voiceover: So you saw your father and you saw film crews Davis: Right. Davis: It's like growing up in the circus. Voiceover: In a good way. Davis: Yeah, lights, cables, cameras, that's cool. Voiceover: What your father did did strongly influence this- Davis: Yes. Davis: And he was a hero to me. I just could never been as good as him. Imagine if your hero was Superman or Iron Man, you'll never be as good as that. Voiceover: So you thought that it would be amazing to be a great documentarian like my dad but I'm never going to be able to do that. Davis: He won 4 Academy Awards, was nominated 12 times. Voiceover: So you started off saying no one knows who he is and he rides his bike to work and now, he was a big- Davis: But no one knew who he was so he had the double threat of being totally anonymous but also remarkable in what he did. Voiceover: What were some of his most-? Davis: He made films about the Johnstown flood, the Ku Klux Klan, the Kennedys. Voiceover: Are those out there, can people- Davis: Yeah, I'll give you copies of it. Beautiful movies, beautiful movies. Voiceover: Can we include them on Khan Academy? Davis: Of course. Beautiful wonderful movies. Voiceover: And so you view that as like the high watermark and you could do that but you could do a big Hollywood blockbuster? Davis: Right, and it's more like... we talked about this earlier, the son finding his identity outside of his father. Like you know, just to follow in his footsteps would have been pathetic for me as an 18 year old. So I had to go off and make it on my own. Voiceover: But how did you think about it? Did you think what are my odds on being able to succeed here? Davis: Yes, I did the math. Impossible. Voiceover: And so you still decided to do it? Davis: Oh you mean to go to Hollywood? Voiceover: Well filmmaker generally, Hollywood in particular. Davis: Yeah but like the odds of me being a doctor or lawyer was worse. (laughs) So it was like it was not even possible. There were no odds. Voiceover: So you weren't naive. Davis: It's like the Mets winning the world series. Voiceover: You knew, so this was right after college Davis: Yeah. Voiceover: Where did you go to college? Davis: I went to NYU and then Brown. Voiceover: NYU and Brown and so history, what did you do at Brown? Davis: And I remember walking around the campus at Brown senior year going documentaries are kind of over, Ken Burns is Ken Burns, there's no place for me. Like it'll never... like the establishment is there and it's set. Things will never change. Voiceover: So you started at NYU, transferred to Brown. You were a history major the entire time but film was always in your mind? Davis: I went to NYU to study film. Voiceover: Right, they're famous for that. Davis: And after a year I said I don't like this, it's not for me. I'm going to study history. Because I think NYU at the time was very practically based, it was teaching a lot of skills a lot of my fellow students really dug and learned from but I knew and from what my father taught me that the key piece, which is the ultimate thing to learn, is storytelling. And I wasn't seeing anyone who taught storytelling so why not learn history where the great... And my father sort of influenced me and said if you learn to write, if you read a lot, if you sort of figure that part out, then you can figure out stories. But the path to becoming a good filmmaker is not about the equipment or the technique, it's about stories. Voiceover: And so when you were sitting in a history class in Brown and one of your friends says hey, I'm going to apply for grad school in history or I'm applying for a job in Wall Street or whatever, you would say oh well, I'm going to go to Hollywood. Davis: Yeah. Voiceover: Even though you were studying history that film was your thing? Davis: Yep. Voiceover: And when you say the odds I think you're being a little bit faux-humble that you couldn't have been a doctor, right? Davis: I couldn't have been- Davis: Very dyslexic, very dyslexic. Voiceover: But you transferred to... well I won't push something. Davis: I couldn't have done, what's the big chem course, I guess- Voiceover: Organic chemistry. Davis: I mean not even close. Davis: Not even close, not even close. I in fact wiggled my way through passing the key things and Brown had no core curriculum. So I wiggle my way through high school and I worked really hard to get sort of a C minus average. I'm not boasting. I'm not boasting in my lack of intelligence. Voiceover: But then you happened to get in one of the most selective universities? Davis: NYU was very easy to get into in 1982. Davis: Very easy. Davis: And then I transferred to Brown after I did really well Voiceover: I see. Davis: I was ambitious but not a good student. Voiceover: So anyway, (Davis laughs) so you get to Hollywood... I'm suspicious of all of this. Davis: It's absolutely true. I really could not have been a doctor or a lawyer. Voiceover: And then you go to Hollywood, what are you telling yourself? It sounds like you knew the odds. Davis: So I'll give you a quick arc. The assistant to somebody, working small jobs 10 years. Then I finally get my break and I sold a script that a friend of mine wrote to Warner Brothers, I was going to direct it, my big break. It was Training Day with Denzel Washington and I got fired. (laughs) I got fired. I don't even get to meet him. I don't get to meet Denzel Washington, I get fired. This is my dream, this is what I've worked towards for 10 years. And it was for all the wrong reasons. And I bought into this Hollywood system. I thought if I was a good soldier it would pay off to me and if I did everything right and it was going to be a great movie and it was a great movie and I was the only one who wanted him in the role. And I got fired. And I was so disillusioned, I hit rock bottom as a person and as a director that I said screw it and I bought a little 800 dollar HI-8 camera and I said I'm going to make a movie about people I like. And I made this film about first year teachers called The First Year, the first thing I ever did. And I drove to all these public schools all around Los Angeles and Compton and Watts and east L.A. and I made my first movie. A documentary. Voiceover: And it just felt right, you were able to do it, and- Davis: It was mine and the great thing about documentaries is you can control the means of production. And that was the beginning of it. Now, all the means of production that we use to make a documentary can be done in my office in a way that they couldn't have been done, even in documentaries only a few years earlier. But I sort of... it was such a devastatingly apocalyptic moment in my life that I had no choice but to do the thing that I had to do. Which was tell a story about someone I loved and admired. Voiceover: And it was, you're saying the documentary was an important medium for you because you could be in control of the story but all of what you've done, starting with that first documentary until now, there's been a social justice piece of it. In fact there's always been this narrative of maybe just through this documentary you might be able to move the dial in some way. Is that...? Davis: Well my father had some part of that because he did a lot of social justice documentaries and there is a part, I direct a lot of television too, which is very gratifying. Shows like 24 and ER and Deadwood and really gratifying. But there's a bit of factory work to it. My wife is on the show CSI and there's a bit of hard work, routine work, that the quality of the job is so good, the people who do it are so good, but there's something that when I got the taste of it, and I wanted to be a big Hollywood director, when I got a taste of it having told stories, made documentaries that had some little fragment of this film is going to not even do good but actually have some kind of influence on a conversation that might do good was addictive. And after Inconvenient Truth which should never have been made and I never thought would do any good- Voiceover: Why should it never have been made? Davis: But after that movie I became a junkie for it. I'm a junkie for it. Voiceover: Why shouldn't it have been made? Davis: So it was pitched to me like they said, these people came to me who I knew and said here's a documentary, what do you think? It's a documentary about climate change. I'm like, okay. I'm in, I like that, I believe that that's an important issue. It's based on a slideshow that Al Gore gives. I'm like no. Slideshow? You can't make a movie about a slideshow. And I have great fondness and respect for Al Gore but I don't think you should make a film about a politician because it comes with its own baggage no matter how much you like that politician. Can't be done and I said no, terrible idea. Voiceover: So you weren't at all enamored, I mean obviously national, international figure, it was a hot topic. Davis: I told them it was a terrible idea. Voiceover: So you'd kind of given up on any of the, oh this might be a super hit or anything like that? Davis: Even when we had finished it we didn't think it was going to do anything. Voiceover: But what convinced you then to do it, to do this terrible idea? Davis: So the producers, Laurie David and Lawrence Bender said don't say no yet, go to the Hilton where he's going to do this thing at a luncheon. And Al Gore walks on stage and I remember this, they were serving cold, supposed to be hot but cold chicken, mashed potatoes and bad gravy, and you're like sawing into your chicken. Al Gore's like, "history of the planet," and I'm like lecture, slideshow, Al Gore, terrible idea. Really. And the graphics were kind of rudimentary and then by the end of it, there was this feeling that I think people have at the end of the movie, which is like holy shit. This is deep and this is urgent and I was physically shaken. And it's a really good lesson I think in film-making which is when your body feels something, when you feel something that you're not convincing yourself to feel, there's something you have to listen to and that clever is often misleading. I'm going to do this movie because it's clever or I'm going to make that choice because it was clever, instead of following a feeling like a response that you have. Trust that more than trust clever. Voiceover: And so you were- Davis: My chicken was like, the gravy had dried up. Chicken was half eaten, the fork and the knife were left there but I was like oh my gosh. And even if I make this movie and 10 people see it, that's a good thing. And I want other people to understand what I just figured out. So the power of it was already there and I don't know how to do this, it's a great thing, I don't know how to do this, this slideshow with a politician, it makes no sense, but I have to do it. So I'm driven by that overwhelming desire that the clever side of me said do not do. Voiceover: There wasn't a pattern here that you could? Davis: Oh like look up all the very profitable documentaries about slideshows with politicians in them. You can't find it. Voiceover: Do you think about profitability when you, even for a documentary? Davis: No but I think about who's going to watch it. It's a terrible feeling and I've had this experience where you make a movie and no one sees it. It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking when you work really hard and you tell a story and no one sees it. Voiceover: But then you do it and it goes where frankly, documentaries have never gone before. It turns into a mainstream movie. Does that change how you perceive yourself, what you do, what your next project was going to be? Davis: It puts more pressure on you when you've had a successful film and there's sort of a expectation on the next film. Voiceover: That film, regardless where someone is on the political spectrum, that changed the discussion. Davis: A lot of it, a huge portion of it was Al Gore's work in building that slideshow. Huge part of it. And lightning did strike, it landed right when President George W. Bush was starting to fall from grace in the public's mind. So that was helpful and people were starting to reconsider Gore in history. Everything that sort of... and Katrina had just happened. So all these things sort of fit. The success of that movie was not necessarily about any of the film-making, I think it actually had very little to do with it. Voiceover: Well we can debate that. Davis: The film-making worked so the experience worked. I'm not saying the film-making was poor. The film-making worked. The audience experienced what I hoped they would experience but its success had very little to do with the film-making. Voiceover: And now do you feel pressure that you kind of have to do something of that magnitude again or? Davis: Not so I feel like I have to, I'll probably never do it again but I'm a junkie for that feeling. Voiceover: But you kind of did it again with Waiting for Superman. That was another movie that really entered the national conversation. Davis: In a different way. It's a more complicated experience because it had more controversy involved in it but it's not about box office, it's about feeling like if I tell a story maybe the conversation will change. That's exciting. Maybe people with this movie will think maybe we changed their minds about what a teacher is, that'd be cool. Voiceover: It's true. It's funny I could ask you a question that I've always wondered, why was it called Waiting for Superman? Where did that, was it you, was it someone else? Davis: So Geoffrey Canada had this great thing... Geoffrey Canada started this incredible school in Harlem and he talked about when he was a kid, the heartbreaking moment in his life was when he realized Superman wasn't real, and he was this kid in the projects. And he thought that Superman could come and help him and give him some power and save him and the day he realized that Superman wasn't real... And so he sort of had that metaphor already and I didn't come up with the title, Lesley Chilcott the producer did. But it was like wow, we're waiting in the same way he was waiting for Superman. Voiceover: And now that you've done I mean, frankly several of these, whether or not you admit it, especially in certain circles you're a household name, is there a temptation to- Davis: In a couple, in like three households. Voiceover: No, no. Davis: You have six million households, I got three. Voiceover: I don't know, well make that assumption. Is there any temptation to go back? There must have been a little bit of the Hollywood movie, the computer graphics and the real... There's no temptation to do Transformers 4? Davis: I would love to do another Hollywood movie. I've done a couple and it'd have to be something really special. I wouldn't want to do Transformers 4. It is so much work and Michael Bay is so good at it. Voiceover: Yeah it's not that Michael Bay needs to be replaced or anything. Davis: No no no but I'm saying that's a different skill. But I'm a junkie for that, I much prefer to make documentaries. Much prefer. Voiceover: What would have to be true about a commercial film to have you do it? Davis: You know I watch my kids this weekend watch the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson. And that did something very different, but did something that I love in storytelling that they got to see a moment. It's a true story but it's fictionalized. But they just saw a great story and they learned... Learning is not the word. They're connecting to the world. They're connecting to the human experience in a way in which sometimes movies can do and when that happens that's pretty great. If I'm part of that, that's cool. Voiceover: You started off wanting to do Hollywood movies, do you think you're inherently better at one of the two types? Davis: I made two feature movies and I would call one a C minus and the other a D plus. Voiceover: Would you mind saying what those movies are? Davis: One was a movie called Gossip. You know, it's sort of a genre movie, it's okay. I did a pretty good job. The other was a movie called Gracie. Which was, you know, it was pretty good. Voiceover: So you weren't really happy with how they turned out? Davis: I think I did a pretty good job, I think I would have like a workman's job. I would say I'm unexceptional as a feature director. Voiceover: Interesting and I know... how much time do we have? 10 minutes. So the one thing I am fascinated and I think I'm personally fascinated and I hope people listening to this would be too, you kind of glazed over that 10 year period between college and your first almost break that ended up being this thing that changed your view of yourself and the world. That 10 years sounds like you were just taking whatever job you can near a studio just to get closer to being a principal. Did you ever think about giving up on that? Davis: Yeah. I directed a lot of episodic television, guest directors which means you're one of 20 directors on a given show. When I hear about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours that rings really true to me. There was a lot of learning the form and repeating the form and doing a pretty good job at the form to then one day be better at it. Like the Beatles playing genre tunes that they didn't write over and over again, three nights a week. I learned a lot in that era. Voiceover: So you were getting work, so to speak. There was a sense of progress. Right out of college you were able to get... When did you get even your first guest director? Davis: I'm so bad at this, dates and stuff. So I land in L.A. in '88 and I start directing in '93. So five years. Voiceover: So not too bad, you're 26 or 27 years old. Davis: But then you hit a certain- Voiceover: How does that happen? How do you even get that job? Davis: You get your first job paying it out, making short films and apprenticing. Voiceover: So you had a portfolio of short films that you would send to people? Davis: Yeah, kind of. And then I would observe on other TV shows. Unpaid jobs standing next to directors, pretending I knew what I was doing and then one day someone took a- Voiceover: How do you even get that? You just ask? I don't think if I called up some random director for CSI or something, that is like yeah, hang out with me. How do you get there? Davis: That took a while. I mean part of it is getting the low paying job on another show and then, you know. Voiceover: And the low paying job is anything from- Davis: A PA, production assistant. Voiceover: I see and that's something that you kind of submitted a resume for? Davis: Yeah and producer's assistant and you sort of like... The nice thing about Hollywood is it is entrepreneurial. You don't have to go to graduate school or pass the bar, you can worm your way through the system and find a place. Voiceover: Do you think Hollywood eventually finds the real talent that's out there or do you think a lot of people get lost in this? Davis: That's interesting. I think talent is so rare in Hollywood. Let me put it differently. Scratch that. I think there's extraordinarily great talent in all the crafts. Cinematographers, sound people, art direction, wardrobe. Incredible people. You can find incredible people and the depth of those people is incredible. And the way Hollywood keeps getting them better is incredible. Technology, digital stuff. But I think the part that's really hardest, and I think that anyone intuitively gets this, is the lack of great scripts and storytelling. That's the hardest part. There's so few great scripts. That they end up making more than they have good scripts for. Voiceover: One thing that I'm curious, does everyone who shows up in Hollywood and has talent, do they eventually get found, recognized? Davis: I think there's a certain persistence factor, so I'm sure there's very talented people come and they try and fail and then they walk away. So that probably happens. But if you're good and you stay for a while and you keep banging on the door and you're good, and you've got something to say, I think you'll be found. Voiceover: How do you know you're that and not someone who's on kind of a fool's errand? Davis: Well that happens too. I know a lot of people who have written a hundred scripts and nothing gets made and for some reason it doesn't work. Voiceover: Is there a clue, is there anything you told yourself in that 10 year period where you were doing that? You were being persistent? That's a data point, that shows that I have some talent that I persist something good's going to happen? Davis: That question is the ultimate question. You don't know it until you see it. And there was many many years where I really wondered whether I had anything at all to say. And I for a long time felt there was nothing to say and I think if you said to Davis when he was even 30 or 35, "you think you'll ever tell a story of any significance?" In my heart of hearts I would have said no. Voiceover: Is that question the same as do you think I'll be successful? Davis: It's a different question. Voiceover: Because in that early period you were still going after commercial Hollywood production where success is very different then. Davis: Yes I was a sought after television director. But I wasn't my own storyteller I was in service of someone else's story. Voiceover: I see. So in that 10 year period you did have a momentum to your career that you were getting more responsibility, more prestigious responsibilities to direct things. Davis: I had a chair with my name on it and I was a member of a guild and I made a good living. But I wasn't doing what I came to Hollywood to do which is somehow tell a story. Voiceover: How long did it take you to get to that point where you said well I can pay the bills with this? Davis: Eight years. It felt like the longest eight years of my life. Voiceover: So that eight years there wasn't a period where you felt like gee, I'm just going to stop this, some of my friends went and became accountants and they can buy a nice car and they have a down payment on their house? Davis: Yeah, absolutely. So I do think there's a persistence factor. There's sort of like showing up and doing the work and knocking on 100 doors for one to open. Voiceover: So this whole eight year period you're just kind of getting by but they were film related jobs that you were doing? Davis: Little jobs and some of them were not paying well and some of them were dead ends. Voiceover: But you didn't have to wait tables and that type of traditional story? Davis: I took some bad jobs. I edited a conference for the CIA. Voiceover: That seems interesting. Davis: They had all the old spies come out and talk about the Cuban missile crisis but they're all in their 70's and 80's and they were at a Hilton and the sound was bad and they were standing at a podium and they said here's 30 hours of footage can you cut it down to one. And I did that. On paper it was a terrible job because it was never going to go anywhere, it wasn't going to do anything. But on a fascination level it was great. Voiceover: The good thing is even in those early days you were able to pay your bills doing something in your craft? It wasn't the most glamorous thing. Davis: Barely Voiceover: Barely, you were able to get by. Davis: I was a producer's assistant for a long time. Picking up dry cleaning, making phone calls, so there was a lot of grunt work. Voiceover: And this portfolio of stuff, this was just like you and your friends with a camcorder that you would produce? How were you able to do that? Davis: I had a little bit of a break because I worked on this film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Voiceover: I remember that. Davis: And my boss couldn't pay me so he gave me a tenth of a point, so a thousandth of a piece of a movie. No, a hundredth... no a thousandth of a movie. A thousandth of a movie and I was like this is a low budget movie, no one's ever going to see it and it turned out to be worth 30,000 dollars in '90 something. So I had 30,000 dollars and I made a short film with that. So that was like a little gift from heaven. Voiceover: I remember that movie distinctly because my uncles wanted to see it and they were babysitting me so they took me and my cousin and they gave us 20 dollars in arcade tokens in the movie theatre and said we're going to go watch this movie now. Davis: And you didn't go? Voiceover: No, I think it was barely rated R. Davis: Did you ever see it? Voiceover: No I've never (Davis laughs) I have this distinct memory of not being allowed to see it but I got 20 dollars in tokens to spend the next two hours at the arcade because my uncles wanted to see it. Davis: They were probably very disappointed, it was a very deep art film with very little fun gratuitous sex. Voiceover: Would you pinpoint that as kind of a break that allowed you- Davis: That was one of the breaks, there were a lot of... I think luck is a part of it. I think being ready when luck happens is a big part of it. Like sometimes if your luck breaks and you're not ready, you got to be ready when the luck happens. The door will open but then you've got to walk through it and do something. Voiceover: Do you know people in Hollywood who you just think are the most amazing talent and they just got squandered? Davis: Mm-hmm. Yeah, or sometimes they're stuck. They're stuck working on a show that's paying them enough money to put their family through but they're not doing exactly what they want to do. It's really lucky to be able to find something where you can tell your own stories and have the independence, have it all. Sometimes it's like money and security or doing your own thing and having your independence. There's always some combination of, very few people have both. Very few people have both. Voiceover: And you do now though. Davis: Probably more... documentaries don't make... I make a good living but not the kind of living you'd make if you were a big Hollywood dude. So there's a little bit of a compromise but I picked independence and my own stuff over big name success and big money success. There's always sort of a choice between those two doors. Voiceover: Do you ever regret the choice you made? Davis: I think everyone always thinks about that, the turn of reworking it in their brain and I do. I think what if I'd done that and what if, could I? But I think I've won the jackpot because I love this job. I like being where you are which is meeting people and asking questions and learning, the job keeps filling you up. And the independence to sort of choose my stuff and the stuff I do is pretty great. Voiceover: Your dad's passed away now? Davis: He saw my very first film, that first year, the first film that we talked about. Voiceover: And what did he think of it? Davis: So that was one of the great memories I have is we were at a screening in Washington and I left to go to the bathroom. It was dark and I saw him watch the movie and he didn't see me watching him watch the movie so I got to see him sort of watch my movie. And he was smiling and enjoying it and I could tell that he liked it. Voiceover: Did he tell that to you later on? Davis: No I just saw it and he was very effusive with praise but kids start to hear that praise and start to not believe it. So I got to see it, I got to see it without him trying to praise me. I got to feel his praise without him having to give it to me. Voiceover: And he was supportive of this the whole time that you were pursuing this? Davis: The movie I made was not the kind of movie he would make. It was the opposite of what he would make, and yet he still appreciated it. That was the best part. It wasn't making his movies. Voiceover: This wasn't a documentary this was- Davis: It was a documentary, it was The First Year. It was my first- Voiceover: This was The First Year, the first one you had made. You made the commercial films after that? Davis: I made one of the commercial... most of my television career was before that. Voiceover: And he'd seen that stuff as well? Davis: He thought it was okay. (laughs) Voiceover: What do your siblings do, out of curiosity? Davis: My brother's a filmmaker and my sister produced his documentaries. Voiceover: So you're right, you're right about the whole doctor thing? Davis: Oh, it's a degenerative thing. There's nowhere... you can't undo. Voiceover: Not degenerate like being a doctor's bad, it's just that once your parent is a filmmaker- Davis: Right, doctors, teachers, great. But it's hard to go back. Maybe I'm using the wrong word. Voiceover: Right. Voiceover: Yeah it's limited you to that universe. It's not a bad universe. Thank you, this was really fun. Davis: It's an honor to be in your office, sitting in your office. Voiceover: It's an honor to hear you say that.