The first discovery actually goes back to a key lesson that my father taught me. He always said that people are interested in people, and when they go to a movie, no matter how interesting and how important the topic of your movie is, they stay and watch because they're invested in the stories of people that you've captured on film. The biggest mistake that most documentaries make is to forget this simple truth. For An Inconvenient Truth , we had to figure out a new way of introducing that quality of personal narrative into a scientific slide show...and in the process, we discovered an approach that ultimately shaped Waiting for "Superman."
The project that became An Inconvenient Truth originated when Laurie David and Lawrence Bender came to me and said, "We have this idea for a movie based on a slide show about global warming that Al Gore gives." My first reaction was that this was a terrible idea...in fact, I spent two hours trying to talk them out of it. But then I saw Al's slideshow, and it was amazing. It was just the unedited slideshow...twice as long as what you see in the movie, and very raw...but it was so powerfully compelling that I said, "We have to make this movie because it's too important not to get this information out there."
Three years later, I was celebrating having my new movie "green lit" by Participant Media, the same company that had financed An Inconvenient Truth. Jim Berk, the new CEO of Participant, had been a public school principal. He was passionate about public education and was hoping I could create another big success with this film. But my joy at getting my next gig turned dark rather quickly as I thought about the huge challenge of getting people to really pay attention to this complicated, seemingly insoluble social problem.
But I'd agreed to do the movie and I'd taken the money...so there was no turning back. Having promised Participant, and the world, that I knew where I was going, I had to figure what I actually wanted to do and how to do it.
Looking back, there are plenty of films that present intensely personal stories about students and teachers, including my father's films and my own film, The First Year. There are also movies that offer very thorough, intellectual, programmatic analyses of the educational system and why our schools are failing. But no one had done a movie that combines both approaches and uses that hybrid structure to take audiences to a really new place.
So I decided to do something rather radical, following the accidental plan of An Inconvenient Truth . I decided to make two different movies, oppositional in nature, looking at the school system from two very different angles, and then combine them.