More inconvenient truths from Davis Guggenheim in 'Superman'

Ed Symkus

The subject of public education, which is the focus of the new documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” was not on the mind of filmmaker Davis Guggenheim when he got into the business. Neither was the idea of making documentaries. He broke in with episodic TV – directing an “ER” here, an “NYPD Blue” there – then went for the big time: He bought the script for the feature film “Training Day” and sold it to Warner Bros. But he was fired from the project when its star, Denzel Washington, didn’t want him as the director.

“I was heartbroken,” Guggenheim said. “Everyone turned their back on me. So I bought a little camera and said I’m gonna make a film about people I like.” That turned into the documentary “The First Year,” which followed five teachers through their first year at different Los Angeles schools.

Guggenheim explored very different subjects in later documentaries, hanging out with electric guitar legends in “It Might Get Loud” and earning Oscar gold for the climate-change film “An Inconvenient Truth.” So he was surprised to find himself returning to the topic of education this time around.

“I was driving my kids to school, and I started counting the public schools I passed on the way,” he said. “And I thought, ‘What happened to me? My parents sent me to a private school, my kids go to a private school. We believe in the idea of public schools. What happened?’”

Those questions eventually formed the basis for “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” in which Guggenheim presents the lives of five families across the country, over the length of a school year, as they wait to find out if their kids are going to get a good education in a charter school or possibly become lost in what’s become a quagmire of American public schools.

“At its core, the film is about five kids and their families that just want a great school. But to get a great school, they have to play bingo,” says Guggenheim of the lottery method of choosing students. “That is cast against the backdrop of how did the system we built get to where it is.”

In the beginning, Guggenheim made two stand-alone movies.

“We built two separate movies in the editing room,” he said. “We edited for more than a year and a half. I kept the story of the kids and the lottery as one story. It was an hour long, had a beginning and an end, and you could watch it. Then I made the other movie, about what we’ve done to develop this system. The plan was always to cut them together, but first they had to work as separate movies.”

The gist of the final film is that the quality of public schools in America has fallen far below everyone’s expectations. In interviews with kids, parents, public school officials, charter school administrators, and union representatives, Guggenheim tries to get at the root of the problem, but there are now many roots and they’re going in multiple directions.

Though the film looks only at inner-city families, Guggenheim insists that the education crisis is widespread.

“I live in Venice, California,” he says. “It’s an expensive neighborhood, yet the schools aren’t working. The big reveal in this movie is that the problem isn’t just on the other side of the tracks. It’s everywhere. A lot of people will pull a geographic to solve their problem. They will move to another neighborhood and think the schools will be better, but that’s not true anymore. That’s what’s changed in a generation.”

Yet he said he believes there might be some hope on the horizon.

“I have three kids,” he said. “The youngest is in preschool. The two older ones go to a private school in L.A. But because of making this movie, we’ve sort of reinvested into our local school. There’s a new principal, the scores are going up, and we’ve been talking to the teachers. I think we’re having a big moment in education right now.”

Guggenheim is married to the actress Elizabeth Shue, who long ago narrated “The First Year” for him. But he does his own narration in “Waiting for Superman.’” “I don’t like the sound of my voice,” he said, laughing. “I shudder when I hear it. But I felt like a personal narrative was the way to make this film. If I call myself out, I can call others out. I’m going to reveal some uncomfortable truths. Let’s start with me.”