By Davis Guggenheim, edited by Karl Weber
September 20, 2010
The Making of Waiting For "Superman"
I used to find it disturbing; now I just find it amusing...that stare I get when I tell people that my next film is about the public education system. Even the most decent people retreat to a polite smile and fumble for something nice to say that basically amounts to, "Oh, that's so noble." In reality, they're saying, "Good luck getting people to see that one."
The sad truth is this response is understandable. The story of public education has been told many times over the last forty years, and often very movingly. But on the whole, most people feel it's a static and hopeless story. The dark voices inside people's heads say, "Why open my heart to a problem which is confusing and never seems to get any better?" or, "We've heard all the sob stories before, and all we've accomplished is to get depressed and feel guilty."
That is why, when Diane Weyerman called from Participant Media asking if I wanted to make a movie on the current state of public education in America, I said I wasn't interested. I was flattered by the offer, but I told her I didn't think it could be done...at least not in a way that would make a real difference. The issue was so complex, it was a story-teller's quagmire.
That was in August of 2007. A month later, I heard the dark voices speaking...inside my own head. It was back-to-school week, and I was driving the familiar route past three public schools to my kids' private school. Years earlier my wife and I had researched our neighborhood public school and discovered it wasn't up to snuff. So we did what other who parents did who can afford it, we opened up our wallets and paid lots of money so that our kids could get a great education. But today the voice was strong and insistent: "You've found a great school for your kids...but is that enough? You've pulled your kids from the system and turned your back on the problem. Your kids will be okay, but what about other people's children?" That last question was the worst one of all...the one I couldn't seem to shake.
"Other peoples children"...that phrase kept echoing in my head like a challenge. How do I get people to care as much about other people's children as they do their own? Without making a decision, it was decided. And I had no choice. I was going to try again to tell this story, even though I had no clue how.
Everything I learned about film making came from my father, Charles Guggenheim, who made great documentaries from the 1960s through the 1990s. Dad directed a whole series of films with strong social justice contents...including two documentaries about American education, one called Children Without (1964), which dealt with kids growing up in the Detroit projects, and another called High Schools (1984), based on the famous report on the state of American schools by Dr. Ernest L. Boyer.
I grew up watching Dad work, literally waking up to the sound of his moviola grinding film as he edited it in our living room. I spent my youth learning from him about film making, and seeing the power of movies at work in promoting social change and the quest for justice.
It was fascinating for me to grow up in Washington, D.C., where my dad did most of his work, in a home filled with amazing people up to and including Robert F. Kennedy, whose campaign for president my father worked on...in fact, Dad's memorial film about Bobby earned a twenty-minute standing ovation at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and went on to win an Oscar. I got to meet so many people dedicated to world-changing missions like eradicating poverty, ending pollution, reversing racial discrimination, and providing every kid with a fine education. As a film-maker, my father was immersed in this work. And while he was admired in film-making circles for his accomplishments, he wasn't a celebrity. Few recognized the slender man riding his bike to work every day. But he won four Academy Awards, was nominated for twelve more...and he was my greatest teacher.
I helped my dad on some of his pictures, and after I graduated from Brown, he said, "Come work for me." It was a tempting offer, but after thinking it over, I realized that I couldn't accept. You don't inherit a film company. If you're going to be a film-maker, you have to break out on your own. So I moved to Hollywood with the goal of becoming a successful mainstream director rather than a specialist in documentaries. I guess that was my version of the step toward independence that every young person needs to take at some point.
I had several jobs in the movie business in 1990s, and I was working my way up the ladder as a producer when I finally hooked into a script that I really loved and had a special feeling for. I discovered and developed it and sold it to Warner Brothers, with me attached as director. It was called Training Day. I fought very hard to get Denzel Washington into it, and I finally convinced everyone to offer it to him. And he said Yes...but not with Davis directing. So I was fired from my own movie, without any fanfare and certainly with no recourse.
I never learned for sure why Denzel didn't want me on the picture. Maybe he wanted someone with more "street cred" to handle a gritty urban story like Training Day. (It was eventually directed by Antoine Fuqua, and won Denzel the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2001.) But whatever the reason for my dismissal, it left me brokenhearted and disillusioned with Hollywood.
And as it turned out, this became the impetus for me to go back to my father's roots in the world of documentaries. At the same time I was developing Training Day, I'd been thinking about making a documentary about a group of teachers that I'd read about who inspired me deeply. Education was just becoming a personal issue for me; I had a newborn child, just five or six months old, several years away from going to school himself. But the story of these teachers, working in Los Angeles public schools with the support of a brand-new, very ambitious educational program called Teach for America, was one that gripped me.
These young teachers going into inner-city schools reminded me of my dad's era. When I heard Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, speak about her idea for revitalizing public schools through a new kind of "domestic Peace Corps" program and infusing them with the energy of bright young people, it felt as if the spirit of the sixties was being reborn...that feeling of idealism, hope, and commitment to making the world a better place. So this concept touched me in a lot of ways, and made me say, "This is a story that needs to be told."
I spent a year following those five young teachers through their first year in the classroom, and the result was my first documentary, The First Year.
As you can imagine, I was pretty nervous when my dad attended an early screening of The First Year in Washington, D.C. There was no critic in the world whose opinion of the movie was more important to me. In the middle of the show, I ducked out of the theater to take a walk...something I often do during screenings because, as the director, I've seen the footage so many times before. On my way out, I caught a glimpse of my father in the back of the room, pacing and looking at the screen, a little nervous but totally absorbed, maybe the way Archie Manning watches Peyton or Eli quarterbacking an NFL game. He was watching his son and what he'd done with his first documentary. Dad didn't see me, but I could see him. I don't know exactly what he was thinking, but his eyes were bright with energy, and he was engaged. I think he was proud.
That was one of the great moments of my life.
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.
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.
I mean this very literally. In fact, three weeks before we were to show our cut of Waiting for "Superman" to the Sundance Film Festival, I had two movies that were in two different rooms on two different editing machines...completely separate movies. One captured five kids' stories in a movie that might be called Other People's Children, since it focuses on the plight of these kids who I hoped the audience would grow to care about as much as their own and who have to rely on the luck of the bouncing ball to determine whether or not they are going to be able to attend a decent school. The other film was the story of why our educational system has stopped working...the bureaucracy, the dysfunctional incentives, the entrenched power of the unions, and so on. For tone purpose, I labeled this film with the working title The Folly of the Adults.
I worked for a year and a half filming those two separate movies and editing them so they would work in isolation...beginning, middle, and end. And then finally, three weeks before submitting to Sundance, we cut them together.
During much of this process, many of my most trusted friends and advisors were saying, "You're out of your mind." Even Lesley Chilcott, my producer and business partner, who understood exactly what I was trying to do, was getting nervous as the months passed, saying, "It's time to cut the movies together." But I kept saying, "They're not ready yet. They have to work in isolation, each as its own story, before we cut them together," and I refused to think about combining until that first stage of the process was really completed.
Understand, I even refused to consider how and where we might combine the two separate pictures. Sometimes one of the editors would say, "Well, don't you think you should cut from this scene about one of the kids to this scene from the other film? Wouldn't that make a great juxtaposition?" I would always reply, "I don't even want to think about where the two pictures will meet. I just want to make them work as separate movies."
This was based on my experience with An Inconvenient Truth. When editor Jay Cassidy and I cut the slide show and the little movies about Al Gore together, I would say things like, "Well, we'll cut to Roger Revelle when Al's talking about such and such a topic," looking for logical, natural connections among ideas and themes. That's the traditional way of planning cuts. But the funny thing is that, in the final movie, those weren't the most powerful links. Jay and I discovered that most powerful links were places where we intercut scenes that appeared to have very little to do with each other.
Now working on Waiting for "Superman," Jay and his fellow editors Greg Finton and Kimberly Roberts began to experiment with these strong "collision" cuts. We deliberately chose to create "random" cuts between the two independent movies. Now, when we jump from the problems of young Anthony and his grandmother trying to find a decent school in Washington, D.C., to President Bush giving a speech about his No Child Left Behind legislation, the big collision of ideas that results has an effect that I'd never seen before. In storytelling terms, I found that, surprisingly often, one plus one equals three...the unexpected connections between two unrelated ideas produce an amazing resonance that deepens the audience's experience in a way that's hard to describe.
By contrast, going back to The First Year, which is a much more traditional documentary, what's powerful about that movie is the experience of spending a year immersed in the lives of a group of young teachers and the tremendous challenges they face. It works very well in its own terms. But what you lose is the larger social, historical, and political context. Why is teaching so hard? Why are these kids coming in to the classroom with such enormous deficits? Why is the educational system so blind to the needs of teachers? I came to realize that a film has to start to answer those questions, yet somehow shouldn't avoid losing the intimacy of a personal experience. So why not address both goals, and let the two collide in the finished film?
As we cut the two films together, the strategy started to pay off. The emotional story of Other People's Children became more heartbreaking and real in contrast to the frustrating and ridiculous story of The Folly of the Adults...and vice versa.
This "illumination by collision" is at work throughout Waiting For "Superman." For example, there's a scene early in the film where we see Anthony walking by John Philip Sousa High School, the school that he's scheduled to go to the following year. We have already learned that, if Anthony goes there and performs like most of his classmates, by the time he finishes he will be three years below grade level in all his major subjects. And then the film cuts right to Michelle Rhee, the District of Columbia's superintendent of schools, saying, "Most of the kids in my city are getting a crappy education." Through that juxtaposition, the personal story of Anthony is immediately amplified into a picture of an entire system, and even an entire society, that's in crisis.
In other cases, we do the opposite...we start with the big picture and then cut to the personal story. For example, we have a scene in which we discuss how teacher tenure is making it harder for schools to improve the quality of their faculty and how teachers' unions are standing in the way of reform. And then we cut to Daisy, talking in her bright-eyed, idealistic way about her aspiration to someday be a doctor, and you suddenly understand not only how dysfunctional the system is but also how it affects these real-life kids whom you've come to care so much about.
As film makers, we're working both the brain and the heart. And this system of having two very different movies colliding in a single film feels to me like a powerful way to achieve that. Ultimately, of course, these two worlds come together at the charter-school lottery, which is almost the final scene of the movie. We follow a kid showing up at the gymnasium with his grandmother to see his educational future determined by the bounce of a ball in a cage. It's the ultimate, surrealistic expression of the folly of the adults...that we allow a child's future to be a matter of sheer chance. And in that lottery sequence we see how the folly of the adults and the heartbreak of the kids comes together in this very painful way.
It's not an effect I planned in advance...but it's there, and to me, when I watch it, it's devastating...another example of the power of film ...o help you see things that might otherwise be invisible.
There was a moment when I was tempted to give up on the movie due to a crisis of conscience over how to handle the teachers' unions. The problem was that everything I was learning from reformers and educators on the ground was flying in the face of some core beliefs of mine that I'd thought were unassailable.
My commitment to the idea of protecting workers' rights traces back to my childhood awareness of the progressive movement, when I learned that unions have played a vital role in defending the rights of working people and making sure that everyone in our society has an opportunity to prosper, not just the wealthy and not just heads of corporations. I still believe in that idea.
And yet wherever I would go in the American school system, even back when I was making The First Year, I ran into a conflicting idea, which is that teachers' unions have played a big role in perpetuating the problems that plague our schools. When I was filming scenes in schools, as soon as the cameras were turned off, people would quietly tell me, "You know, we just can't fix these things until we change the unions," or, "The only reason why our school is succeeding is because we don't have a union contract." I was amazed to hear these sentiments from everybody: administrators, principals, school board members, and even teachers.
And so at a certain point in the middle of making the movie, I had to decide whether to bring out this really uncomfortable truth or to back away from it and hedge it. I was worried that maybe I was betraying the ideals I shared with so many friends and family members, and I was afraid people I admire would turn on me. But I started to realize that this kind of thinking keeps things from getting any better, and that protecting the status quo so as not to offend anyone does nothing to help kids.
In the end I made a pact with myself that I wasn't going to pull any punches. I would be fair and honest...not sensationalistic...but I was going to speak the truth that reasonable people who were in the trenches were telling me. And it wasn't just about the teachers' unions. I decided to be tough on all of the adults whenever they put their own interests ahead of those of the kids...starting with my own hypocrisy in driving past three public schools with my own children. In the film, I reveal the very uncomfortable truth about the role of the Democratic Party, which receives more campaign contributions from the teachers' unions than from any other source, as well as the parade of politicians who give lip-service to education reform but refuse to take the hard steps necessary to make it happen.
I also have to say that the picture of unions and their role in education is not a black-and-white one. I've gotten to know union leaders who I think understand that the reforms we need will mean some serious adjustments on the part of their members, and that we need to rethink the rigid systems that we've gotten locked in to since the New Deal era. At the same time, these progressive union leaders can't get too far ahead of their members. And they understandably don't want to give aid and comfort to some politicians who are in fact anti-worker and are at least as interested in undermining the power of labor as they are in improving our schools.
So these union leaders are walking a political tightrope. I hope that more and more of them will find the courage to do the right things in support of true reform, and that they'll be able to bring the vast majority of union members along with them.
As far as the film is concerned, I hope the fairness and honesty I've tried to bring to this issue will be obvious to audiences, and I hope people will try to take what I'm offering and use it to help illuminate ways to improve our schools for the benefit of kids, rather than to bash teachers or unions or anyone else. But in the end that depends on the good will of people I have no control over. All I can do is try to serve the truth as I've found it, and that's what I've tried to do in Waiting For "Superman."
At the same time, I hope the overriding impression that people take away from the movie is a hopeful one. I didn't want to make a second film about education unless I could direct it in such a way that it would have a powerful impact and hold out some promise that it is possible to fix our schools.
In the ten years since I made The First Year and experienced my own "first year" immersion in five tough urban schools, I've witnessed the emergence of a new generation of educators who are doing amazing things. Toward the end of Waiting For "Superman," I talk about test pilot Chuck Yeager's attempt to break the sound barrier, despite the skeptics who considered it impossible. Yeager did it. I believe we're now experiencing that same kind of breakthrough of belief on education reform.
Ten years ago, I would hear even the most ambitious and idealistic educators say that it was impossible to get great results in tough neighborhoods. Dedicated teachers would say, "I make great strides with the kids during the day, but after a night at home, with all the social problems that plague poor families, the progress has been wiped out." But that's not what happens at schools like the KIPP schools and Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ). It's no exaggeration to compare educators like David Levin, Mike Feinberg, and Geoffrey Canada to an American hero like Chuck Yeager.
Many members of this new generation are products of Teach for America who are not just infused with the idealism of the New Frontier/ Peace Corps mentality but also bring with them a powerful sort of pragmatism, a toughness that says things like "No Excuses" (the KIPP Schools) and "Whatever It Takes" (HCZ).
In the film, the breaking-the-sound-barrier sequence is meant to address the most stubborn of the darker voices in people's heads???the nay-saying voices that not only deny the possibility of meaningful change but also carry a subtle bigotry about what poor kids can...or cannot...accomplish. Showing Yeager's X-1 blasting through the stratosphere, and hearing the amazing statistics of success achieved by those great educators, I hope to shatter another kind of barrier, still present and dangerously invisible...the stubborn belief that "it just can't be done."
How tragic would it be if no one in America knew about these incredible breakthroughs? What if it could be done...but no one knew it?
Do I like to dream about Waiting For "Superman" becoming a catalyst for fixing our nation's schools? Of course. But I'm also very aware of the fact that I'm "just a film maker," and that there are severe limits to the impact that I can have on the public debate. I'm very mindful of how quickly attitudes can change, and that a movie, no matter how successful, will usually have only a limited effect.
But I'm still optimistic...not because of my movie, but because of the people I've gotten to meet who are working on the front lines of the battle for reform. I've seen amazing teachers fighting against all odds, incredible schools shining brightly in very tough neighborhoods, and determined parents who are demanding great educations for their kids. In only ten years, something very profound has changed...something that can't be counted or measured: the emergence of the belief that it's possible.