I was very happy with The First Year, and all of us who worked on it were very excited when it premiered on PBS in the fall of 2001. Meryl Streep introduced the broadcast, and we got a lot of great comments and compliments about it. (It ultimately won a Peabody award,) But then, four days after the premiere, 9/11 came. And suddenly nobody seemed to be talking or thinking about the problems of public education.
At the time, of course, we were all overwhelmed by the trauma of the terrorist attacks. So the sense of disappointment about our film didn't hit until later. But the disappointment was very real. When you make a film about a social problem, you hope to have an impact on the national conversation. Thanks to this accident of timing, that wasn't possible.
But timing wasn't the only problem. In reflecting on The First Year afterward, I realized that it wasn't doing what a documentary film should do. It captured the personal challenges of teaching and the tremendous challenges faced by students and teachers in a troubled school district. But those are things that have been shown before in movies made over the past few decades. We weren't really breaking new ground. The film needed to have a stronger voice and a stronger point of view.
I spent the next few years working on a range of dramatic projects, including episodes of 24 and Deadwood. But the insights into nonfiction movie-making that I'd gleaned from The First Year were percolating in the back of my mind.
So when the opportunity arose to work on An Inconvenient Truth with former vice president Al Gore, I was ready for an artistic breakthrough...which came from an unlikely place.
That breakthrough came through two different discoveries.