Davis Guggenheim directed and produced An Inconvenient Truth, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. He also directed Barack Obama's biographical film, which aired during the Democratic National Convention as well as Obama's infomercial, which was broadcast on 29 October 2008. His other credits as producer and director include Training Day, The Shield, Alias, 24, NYPD Blue, ER, Deadwood, Party of Five and the documentaries The First Year and Teach. He recently completed It Might Get Loud, a documentary that glimpses into the lives of guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White.
by Matthew-Lee Erlbach
and Carmelo Larose
Talk to the symbolism, or the iconography that is the guitar in American music, and really in America overall.
There's a reason why we don't worship the acoustic guitar or the flute. There's something about the guitar when it's plugged in and has electricity going through it. It speaks to every generation. It speaks to rebelliousness. There's something about this rebelliousness and electricity that the movie tries to answer. Each of the musicians takes this piece of wood and he makes it speak to the next generation...
I think Jack says, "You gotta pick a fight with your guitar and win the fight". I just saw him on stage in LA at the Roxy and he is still fighting that guitar, trying to beat it into submission. That music is not easy listening. At a concert his attitude is like I'm gonna play this music. This is the music I like. Go fuck yourself. It's challenging and new.
What is the story of rock music today? With the industry and culture changing so much, do you think rock is dead? Do you think the guitar in music lost in over-production?
That's the question the music asks. U2s approach is so different from Jack White's approach, but they're still selling out venues and people are still hungry for their music and the venues are changing but in a way these guys don't care. They're still doing something meaningful. Every time you count out the guitar it comes back in different ways. Before Jack White you would have imagined, "Who's this brother and sister band, with just drums and guitar?" That's why it's interesting. And culture's always changing. Before Zeppelin there were just pretty boy pop bands. He made it much more live and aggressive. U2 came in and made it more affected with sonic landscapes and Jack White went back to its roots. The next generation will do something else.
The relationship between the guitar, music, and American culture in particular is quite deep. Do you think we've lost the appreciation of it today?
The guitar will never go away. It is rebellion. The sound that comes out of it is rebellion. It might pop up in a different way, but it will always be relevant. You can't be at a concert and hear electric guitar going and not have a visceral reaction to it.
What were some challenges going from An Inconvenient Truth to It Might Get Loud? How does the storytelling change--or does it?
The key approach I learned form Inconvenient Truth was to do these intensive, sound only interviews, personal, just sitting together and talking for hours at a time. It almost feels like internal monologues or personal journals. I liked the way we did that. Without filming, I just sat down with Page and recorded him for two days. That became the glue that kept the film together. It wasn't like other documentaries There's no ex-girlfriend, no rock band mates, just the musician; that's why the film feels so personal.
What compelled you to make a documentary about these three guitarists in particular?
I think most documentaries about music are about dumb things like car wrecks and drug overdoses and I wanted to make a movie about how these guys became song writers, about how they became great musicians: these guys wrote the soundtrack to my life. How did they do it? I was interested in that question.
And it was hard work. Sometimes you think Jimmy Page was born Jimmy Page, like he was fabulous and born like this, but before he learned to play his own music he played jingles and movie trailers. Being so technically proficient took a long time. He did it by learning the opposite. Picasso needed to learn the form before becoming abstract.
Why not BB King--as his influence and older blues guitarists have had such an impact on these guys--or even John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
There were so many amazing artists to choose from. I didn't want to make a film with three minutes about one guy. I wanted to go very personal and very deep and pick three guys from very different generations.
Every generation reinvents itself and wants to destroy the generation before it. U2, for example, wanted to destroy the blues white boy band before them. Jack White came from a very different background and took a very different approach and that tension makes all the difference. When you're casting a movie you want people that have energy, like they could have a fist fight or go away and have sex. There's that tension that anything could happen.
At first in the car with Jack I ask him what do you think's gonna happen and he says probably a fist fight. They were kind of mysteries to each other. For a couple of hours I was sitting there thinking this is not gonna be good and suddenly Jimmy was the first-- he picks up the guitar and plays "Whole Lotta Love" and then things started going. Jack started to play his music and they had a sort of concert of the wills.
What do you want audiences to take from the film?
I follow stories that I'm passionate about. If I don't care. If I'm really doing a job that I'm loving it comes out in my work. I've made the mistake of making films I didn't love. There's a through line for me, which is following things that I'm most passionate about. I've learned not to stick with things if I feel I don't really want to spend time in that world, or I don't like that world or that person. It's more about what I choose not to do.
The next film I directed, which will hopefully come to Sundance is about public school systems, the conditions about our public schools. It's about how we're failing a lot of families in a big way. It's a bit more like an Inconvenient Truth in examining a system.