Davis Guggenheim has a rare and enviable career. He has directed episodes of some of the best television shows in the last decade (i.e. The Shield, Alias, 24, NYPD Blue, ER, Deadwood,) but has also managed to forge an impressive identity as a serious documentarian. In fact, you may have heard of his Oscar winning 2007 documentary, a little sleeper hit called An Inconvenient Truth.
His new film, It Might Get Loud, might be described as a film about the electric guitar, but it is actually much more; it’s a treatise on the artist’s journey. But in the end, who really cares about the theme or raison d’être of the film. It’s Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White sitting around talking and playing guitar with one another. Enough said.
By Carolyn Cohagan
You career has been an extraordinary combination of television and documentaries. How do you pull it off?
I’m kind of like a junkie that has to pay for my habit. My habit is documentaries. I love them. I have to feed my habit by directing television, which I’m doing right now [the Melrose Place pilot]. I get a lot of creative satisfaction from doing television. And it’s fun and it’s lucrative, and in a week I’ll be done and be back to making documentaries.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
My father [Charles Guggenheim] made documentary films. He was pretty renowned. He made many seminal documentary films in the sixties and seventies [Robert Kennedy Remembered, The Johnstown Flood, A Time for Justice, etc.] and I grew up wandering around his office, watching these editing machines whirl, and being transfixed by it. Even as a five-year-old boy I used to go on shoots with my father. He did the media for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and I remember going with him on a plane to do that. And lot of other really exciting and intense documentary shoots- coalmines and shrimp boats and things like that.
I went to Brown, and afterwards my father said, “Come and work for me in D.C.,” and I was like, I don’t want to do that. I wanted to break out on my own. So I moved to LA to break into Hollywood. I thought I’d never make documentaries. I started directing television, and about ten years into it I got pulled back into making documentaries.
After you won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, the world was your oyster. You could have done most anything. What drew you to It Might Get Loud?
[Producer] Thomas Tull, whose idea it was, a few months before the Academy Awards, called me to his office in Burbank and said, “What do you think of the electric guitar?” and I said, “I love the electric guitar.” And he said, “Well, how would you like to make a documentary about it?”
I spoke to my producing partner, Lesley Chilcott, and we both said, “This is great,” because I have environmentalist instincts but I don’t want to be a filmmaker known just for making environmental documentaries. I want to tell stories about everything.
I like to jump around between different genres and I enjoy how they cross-pollinate. This summer Leslie and I did a film about Barak Obama for the Democratic Convention in Denver, and then we did parts of the infomercial that played before election night. Right now it’s really exciting because documentaries are changing and the opportunities are opening up. People are really hungry for well told documentaries.
When Thomas Tull brought you into his office, did he already have the three guitarists in mind?
That came later. It struck me that if you made this documentary about the electric guitar and you had 30 different guitarists in it, you would learn a little bit about a lot of people, but you wouldn’t learn that much. You would just skim the surface. But my theory was if you picked three really amazing artists (there are plenty of great guitarists, only a handful of them are artists), if we found three that were distinctly different and of different generations and told their personal stories, then you would come around and learn about the guitar through osmosis.
There are so many documentaries that are full of platitudes about how the guitar changed the world and how it was this metaphor for sexual expression or power. I didn’t want to do any of that. I just wanted to tell the story of three really interesting people and the guitar happened to be part of it.
Jack White said it best. After he saw the film he said the guitar is really “the McGuffin” in the film. It’s not really about the guitar, it’s about these three guys and their journey and you could easily be a singer or a writer or a painter and get just as much out of it, because their journeys in finding themselves and how to express themselves is universal.
How long did it take to get Jimmy, Jack and the Edge in the same room?
It was an interesting process picking the three. We were sitting around talking about who it could be. First thing everyone said was, “Jimmy Page won’t do it.” He’s famously resistant to this kind of stuff and he hasn’t done many interviews in the past twenty years. So we moved on. And the next day I called Thomas and said we have to try. So I wrote Jimmy a long letter and flew to New York with my music supervisor, Peter Afterman, and met with his managers and they said, “Sure, why not?” And Peter was like, “You don’t understand. These guys never say yes.” And that was just yes to meeting Jimmy. So then I few to London a month later and sat down with Jimmy and talked it through, and he said, “Okay, let’s do it.” And then Edge and Jack said yes, and we had a movie.
Both Jack and Edge had a lot of questions. They really wanted to make sure it was done right. A lot of documentaries about rock-n-roll are about car crashes and how a member of the band died. That story is so told and it’s sensationalistic. And the other ones are told from the point of view of the fan: this rocker is a God. That’s not very interesting either. Jack, Edge and Jimmy all understood this was about something different. This is about “How did you become an artist?” and “How did you go from being a kid wondering what was going to happen in your life in Dublin or Detroit or London to this person that we all think we know, but we don’t.”
What is it that the Edge says at the end, about what he might have ended up doing?
[Laugh] “Who knows what I might be doing. I might have ended up as a banker.”
It’s as he’s walking out the hallway of his school where he first met Bono, Larry and Adam. And we took him there for the first time since. We were blown away, but I think he was even more blown away, to be in the classroom where they used to practice. It was amazing how moving the experience was for these guys.
How many hours were Jimmy, Jack and the Edge together?
One premise of the movie was to tell their individual stories very deeply and then the other was, “Wouldn’t be interesting to see what kind of questions they would ask each other?” I wanted to know what Jack White would ask Jimmy Page. And then, what is the Edge’s reaction? The big premise they all loved was “Let’s just sit down together.”
So we got this big stage at Warner Brothers and put three chairs facing each other with their guitars and amps behind them. We didn’t introduce them until then. We all picked separate doors, so they entered without seeing each other, so we see them meet for the first time. I gave them absolutely no agenda. I said, “If you want to talk, talk, if you want to play, play.” We did that for two full days. I put a record player on the side. I knew there were a bunch of albums that were important to each of them. They put albums on and listened to them, and if they wanted to stand up and demonstrate something, they did. All of us watching behind the monitors were in total disbelief about some of the things that happened.
Can you tell me a bit about their dynamic in the room? Was there a lot of ego?
There really wasn’t ego, and I think a big part of it was who these guys are, their nature. They’re about their work, which was part of my instinct to have them ask each other questions.
What was your favorite music growing up?
I had deep connections to U2 as a teenager. I remember when my brother brought home Boy. I’d never heard anything like it. I felt, “This is new music. This is my music.” I was a dopey fan. I’m also a big fan of Led Zeppelin and Jack White. I love them all.
When they were done with the shoot did you feel like there had been some relationships forged, that they would stay in touch?
I think there is a real bond between them now. We went to the Toronto Film Festival and they all three showed up and there was a lot of affection. I think they learned a lot about each other. They’re separated by generations but also by fundamental music ambitions. By making the movie, they started to see past that and see how really similar their experiences are. There’s this moment- they were talking for three or four hours before anything happened- and suddenly Jimmy was talking about a certain guitar. He just stood up, plugged in his guitar and started playing “Whole Lotta Love.” And both Edge and Jack stand up and sort of look at how he’s playing. And you see their faces transform into these 13 year old boys –
They have those massive grins…
Yeah! Because for them it’s seeing behind the curtain. It’s interesting to see a rock star turn into an adoring fan. And it happened the other way around too – Jimmy learning about Edge. Edge’s guitar playing is so different from Jimmy’s, and Jimmy started to really appreciate what Edge does. It’s not necessarily about virtuosity of guitar playing. It’s about landscapes and sounds that he does through these machines that he has. And then there’s Jack, who has these plastic toy guitars, and Jimmy and Edge have guitars worth millions of dollars, and there is Jack getting this incredible, monster sound from a little guitar sold at Montgomery Ward through a little amp bought at Sears. And Jimmy and Edge were profoundly impressed.
To me the picture speaks to the universality of artists, and how the good ones are always searching, always growing. Do you feel that way about your own career?
It’s interesting. I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but a case of “necessity is the mother of invention.” When we were making An Inconvenient Truth, I found that interviews with Al [Gore] when we had a big crew around were hard. It was hard to get the intimacy that I was after. I learned over time that if we had a very small crew or no crew at all, we would get these very, very personal, powerful moments. And so the best interviews were just him and me with a microphone, no crew, no camera. And we used those as the spine of the emotional story of Inconvenient Truth.
So the way I started It Might Get Loud, I just started with interviews. I met Edge in a recording studio with just a microphone and a sound recording machine. And we just talked for three hours. Same with Jack and Jimmy in a hotel in London
I went back to the editing room and started cutting the sound, almost like a radio show. And out of that came the core of what the story would be. It was amazing because you get these things you would never get if the cameras were rolling, because everything becomes so formalized. People tend to think very carefully about their answers or they’re not emotionally spoken.
And that’s why I think this film is very different. The nature of the interviews was very intimate and very deep. It was a total discovery as a process.
That comes across watching the film. I felt like it was just me and the Edge walking around his old school.
I would hope with this film that people would watch and think, “I never knew Jimmy Page was like that. That’s a side of him I never understood.” After Jimmy saw the finished film in Toronto, he came up to me and said, “I learned something about myself,” and that was the most gratifying thing, that he learned something about himself watching the movie.
Were there other documentaries out this year that you particularly enjoyed?
The exciting thing is that it is a golden era of documentary. There are so many good documentaries right now. Food, Inc is amazing. Every Little Step, about A Chorus Line is amazing. Anvil, The Story of Anvil! and King of Kong. Those wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.
An Inconvenient Truth still holds the record for the biggest audience ever at the LA Film Festival.
It was so weird. There I was back stage with Bon Jovi, and Al and Tipper are clapping along. I made a film about the environment and here I am with these rockers.
So maybe now that you made a film about rockers, you’ll end up backstage with Arianna Huffington.
[laughs] Exactly. That would be awesome.
Join us at the LA Film Festival for a screening of It Might Get Loud, Friday, June 19 at 7 pm at the Mann Festival Theater in Westwood. Tickets available at LAFilmFest.com