Ep. 102 - Davis Guggenheim

Update: 2016-12-05


Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim chats with David about the growing negativity of political media, working with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth, and the shared pathology between D.C. and Hollywood.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod The The The The Davis Guggenheim is one of America's most brilliant and impactful document area inns you may know him through his work on An inconvenient Truth the Academy Award film about Al Gore's campaign against climate change or waiting for Superman about the state of public education as it impacts on families in the inner city boy comes by that honestly his father Charles Guggenheim was also an Academy Award document area producers of political media I met Davis when we collaborated on films about Barack Obama for the two thousand and two thousand and twelve Democratic conventions and came to appreciate his talent his wisdom set down in L A with him a few weeks ago to talk about his life and career the uh the the the the Davis Guggenheim my friend so good to see you um you know I when we first met during the Obama campaign in two thousand and eight but your name was obviously from the familiar to me not just through your own work but because I was a media console making TV ads for candidates and your dad's name was familiar to me Tell me about about him and about growing up around document area and one of the first media consultants in in modern politics when my first memories was nineteen sixty eight father waking me up and said You're going to work with me today and reversing its dark gallon why why why would you go to work in the dark days he said Come with me and we went and we boarded Bobby Kennedy's campaign presidential campaign plane and we flew to West Virginia in some West Virginia mine town my father a duty to put regular people in a circle and Bobby Kennedy be sitting in a chair with this you've seen the pictures with his sleeves unrolled his tie loosened and talking to people and those days was pretty romantic but so different that I was a different job back then it was a different job but in a sense we've kind of come full circle in the sense of people are hungry for authenticity and the thing about that was it was he really took a documentary approach to television advertising he did he did the ads for Bobby Kennedy in that race you are obviously a kid years later did you get a chance to talk to him about that campaign is sort of them a legendary campaign eighty two days of the country was falling apart and Bobby Kennedy was really sort of viewed as kind of a last hope by a lot of people to save the country from the abyss and many skill with your dad there that night when he was I was in I was sleeping but I was five I was sleeping between my parents when I remember the phone ringing Kenny was obviously here in L A The investor tell we were in DC and a member of the first time ever saw my father cry because he loved Bobby Kennedy had done his Senatorial campaign and to give you a sense what he made as a political piece of quote advertising was thirty minute film played all three networks uninterrupted that sounds quaint but imagine what you can get across in thirty minutes yeah I mean you as a communicator you can get into depth you can get into detail you can be superficial and so I think over time my father who worked for at least even seen before but also Mondale didn't add in a fifty six when the first ads for at least Stevenson York for Al Gore Senior basically we had bumper stickers from floor to ceiling of all the campaigns my father worked on as kids we just love the buttons and that going to the conventions McGovern which is a famous campaign for being poorly run them with Gary Hart Gary was a campaign manager and Warren Beatty three of them were sort of the media advisers for others that they were the team that advised McGovern that was a very criticized campaign but the evolution my father was that he loved doing it his passion about issues but as the system changed woman as it became very quickly from a system where became thirty second ads he became disenchanted because Moore became about thirty second ads more this has become expensive is much easier to be negative and much more effective you know to be negative and he hated that he would make a negative ad never did Yana be tough to be tough to get by day with that policy but did he did do a thirty second maybe was a sixty that will go down as one of the great political ads that in a losing cause and media by the way many of them of the best political ads are done for candidates who can lose because the ad maker has more control long yeah but you know you'll know immediately that on top which is at for Al Gore Senior when he and Al Gore Junior are riding horses Al Gore Junior Having come just come back from Vietnam and Al Gore Senior was going about to lose his race in Tennessee because he opposed the war in Vietnam and this was an ad in the voice over was it was something beautiful about having to chart your own course and the two of them riding off into the sunset on a white horse yeah yeah yeah did you a job you are you still a kid when that happened did you ever talk to Dad about that oh yeah Annie Annie the you know Gore Senior was the first Southern Democrat to come out against the Vietnam War he would've won if he hadn't had the same time an Alto me this later when meeting commissioners he loses the election in November obviously Christmas Eve al Gore Junior who enlisted and certainly could have gotten out of it Christmas Eve Al Gore ships off to Vietnam to serve in a war this father came out against and lost and it is his political career coming out against so that the irony is incredible just returned to Bobby for second because he was one of my political heroes your father did a film about about him and won an Academy Award what was it about Bobby Kennedy that he communicated to you and that you think his film communicated because I think Bobby Kennedy was the most intriguing political figure of my lifetime agreed well you have to include Brock Obama yeah but I think you know I'll tell you Davis said this before on this podcast but when we were talking about the two thousand and eight campaign I said Look you're too young to remember but I live through the lobby campaign of sixty I was a kid but really inspired by it because it gave those of us who supported him a sense that we could change the world that there were big things at stake and they were worth fighting for and we had to try and recreate that I think we did recreate that sense in that two thousand a camp in forty years forty years later but Bobby Kennedy was a was was a really complicated interesting guy who inspired like all the reporters who covered that sixty eight campaign you know we're emotionally attached to amuse us to John Harwood his father was the covering the race for the post I think he may have been the guy who was holding Bobby after been shot him in L A and all of them had this real attachment to him because there was something very real about him well um yeah my father felt that way very deeply loved him he became not just a name of a politician but he became that the idea of of a kind of poetic purity in politics not to be literate is on purpose or not but um he was deeply felt I mean what we would quote his speeches at the around the kitchen table and there was a feeling like he was above politics in politics and above politics and I think that's the feel of how we all feel about Barack Obama that he understood it managed it but he had a poetic vision for the country and the ability to speak to disparate segments of our society and particularly people who felt dispossessed so he was as comfortable an apple each as he was in the inner city and felt this burning sense of advocacy for everyone who we thought was getting screwed in the deal makes me sad to today's politics makes me think about that because of you know it's we have these harden lines that are hard to cross we just saw in the election is past he was a guy who could who would manage to knit together minorities and white working class Appalachians and liberals and news is interesting yet they are a dynasty their wealthy American Irish American family in yet and you might say today all Bobby don't go to the Appalachians don't go in a white shirt with a tie you know or don't do it all because people are going to suspect were you know where your roots are that footage is in my father's films of him putting his arm never forget putting his head on this very poor young black boys head and you feel Bobby's compassion you know Jack was gifted an a great president but Bobby had felt like Bobby had an open heart well his heart was opened by tragedy and loss I mean those who speak about him in his earlier years of the suggested user List tender before he lost his brother and the trashy caused them to become very introspective and emerged a different person so Bobby was assassinated in May June to know the conventions in August and in that time Ethel calls my father and George Stevens Junior who we met yes said remake a film can you make a film for the convention or my father made that film in coming weeks as you know eight or ten weeks that not a lot of time and um it's for those who are on the convention for many couldn't get in my mother couldn't get in to the sixty eight Chicago they played that film on a sixteen millimeter projector projected and apparently from all accounts the convention stopped people stood up in a saying for three hours of arm in arm in just to put this in context that was the most calamitous convention maybe that is true the Democratic Party so this was a respite in the midst of what was out in out warfare between the party regulars in the antiwar forces and so on in the one thing that held them together was affection for for Robert Kennedy who passed away a couple of months earlier so let's talk about you and your path I read somewhere and it's natural that you know you have an aversion to going into the work that your father had done not just in television not just as the ad maker for politicians were filming parts but he was a great document area and you know what was your concern we made great documentaries made films but the Cox clan made films about the Johnstown flood of social justice films he won four Academy for eleven or twelve I can remember and out of college I was thinking I'll never how can I get outside of his shadow and I can never be as good as him and I remember Mady of nineteen eighty six graduating and thinking there's no room for another documentary and Ken Burns has it all wrapped up and then felt like the genre or the documentaries were with the way they're going to be forever and there's no room for me so I got my Volkswagen Jetta into that L A thinking I'll do anything I want to be Hollywood director I'm never going to make document so you knew you wanted to be in film and it was as always the case I don't see a lot of filmmakers who sons want to become lawyers or doctors or the degenerative DNA sequencing thing but um yeah and um I lived in my father's production office I sat next to editing machines I was on all the shoots them loading film and stringing lights I just thought it was a great singer I just didn't think I could ever come close to what he did I Revere him I never thought he was the most gifted writer director storyteller historian that I'd ever met and how could I even come close I want to leap ahead to say I want to pick up your storyline but I'm curious did you ever have this conversation with Gore about following a famous father and to the same feel a little bit a little bit his is his he was in a similar situation very different and I think I am famous for his father which condition was worse father on camera network television prime time saying you know before Gore was running for president say I I've been coaching him to be pro be president one day like that was so that was the opposite my father wanted me to do whatever I wanted to make me happy think how was his father was pushing him very hard not to be in politics but to be president which his father wanted to be a never achieve that goal of He also I mean he read rather than following his father into the business his first foray was into journalism and we went to Vietnam he was as a journalist and for Stars and stripes that rate but also he was shooting and some Tennessee paper he was and who is a Nashville Tennessean but the but the point here is it's tough it's tough to come to have a famous parent in the field in which you choose in politics is its most difficult because you are so exposed their dad was famous in his field behind the camera right and no one it wasn't like he was famous to anybody else he was just a dream is to me but I was also lucky that my father was famous to me too I mean anybody who follows this stuff knew his name because he was a pioneer in this field and also because he I'm I love the sort of cross pollination between politics and documentary work because I think it's the most authentic way to communicate so you went out to Hollywood and you you went into show biz side of Hollywood and I just got regular everyday starting jobs I was basically a p a production assistant on the film Sex lies videotape dry and I was your son it was that it was you know Steven Soderbergh was my age and moved to L A from Baton Rouge Louisiana directing his first married in the car so my job was to drive him to the production office and I was just you know wide eyed kid and and work my way up became a TV director directed shows like NYPD Blue N E R It Up directed and produced the first season of Deadwood really fun great work that so so how do you you know first of all there's a there's a lesson in this day it was kinda slick have kids who I become you relate to what you do and it almost always begins with me my pass was slightly different but although it almost always begins with take whatever lousy job you can get and then learn as much as you can do everything that needs to be done and you'll If You've Got Talent you be your cue way a father was my first grade teacher my second grade teacher is David Nolte who wrote and when he was a Yale professor was brought to eight episodes of Hill Street Blues and then became the genius by NYPD Blue and asked me to do Deadwood with him and he always say I think this is true for its part of what you said is the best way to make God laugh tell Him your plans and you know to get to how I got into documentaries I was my dream was to do a feature and I had found and developed the script for Training Day the movie with Denzel Washington and I'd sold to Warner Brothers make a really long story short and we fought over who should lead actor should be and I wanted as a wash and no one wanted him black actors don't sell overseas could be Clint Eastwood could it be Kurt Russell no I insisted it has to be Denzel Washington finally offer two Monday Friday on Monday he says yes on Tuesday he fires me well that's cold cold never met them at Denzel Washington but the point was the basis so she did I mean I can only it's all hearsay I mean I was certainly not a A list director at that point I'd done one film in that lot of good TV but he hired his wife's best friend's husband who is them who went one for Corps director and he won the Academy Award I remember sitting in bed with my wife say here comes go when wanted them that was a gripping movie every movie I will say they screwed up that's not them maybe that there may be the better I I committed there I don't know if I don't doubt that I'll tell you so I am when two huge depression all my work I'd made making it work in Hollywood for so long working my way from P A to a director to feature director all my plans a crash in fact weirdly the people I was working with executives at Warner Brothers to turn their backs on me rather saying hey let's help this guy got screwed over it's like well let's pretend it doesn't exist and about six months in them I sort of morass and I was doing nothing I was spinning the day in my pajamas I was reading about friends of in teach for America and this is like a second year teacher American they're driving in the East L A and walks are becoming teachers I said I'm on make a movie about them so I bought I can remember hundred dollars to pro sue Merck and a half consumer have to have pro and spend the year following five first year teaching yourself and suddenly I was a documentary and willing to pursue this will take a short break be right back with Davis Guggenheim rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender is important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision to give the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty so you go from big cinematic movie productions to you by your own camera your own sort of makeshift as it were Cameron which by the way probably the leading edge of how documentary work has changed over time because you can be much more portable but you start shooting these folks who are teaching what what what what evolved from that one some respects nothing has changed I'm still telling stories I'm still trying to figure out character but tell me about that story that this was the first one that you did yeah I mean there is I guess what I'm interested in is take me from what you are doing to this and because it all seems like a piece which is telling a story except now you telling real life story and so that's where documentaries I think it changed which is it and this is talking about the people came before me that particular Michael Moore and R Morris in that interim document are changing really fast Michael Moore showed the documentaries could be entertaining and funny Errol Morris prove that you could bring in traditional narrative elements into documentary some people have done it before but basically documentaries have been sort of a piece of journalism and stuff you would see on PBS and stuff my father done very worthy cause now it's like the genre was was turned upside down and you could do anything and so a journalistic my father made several films about public education but this is very different this was taking people inside of the experience and the right with mobile cameras you could just I could put a wire on a teacher and settle on the floor and film them all day yeah so um suddenly I was back in the game but was my game and overtime I realized I'm completely left alone I have all my independence and I am in charge which Pelosi is a very rare even if you're very successful you still have a bureaucracy a studio notes all this huge machine which is saying okay yeah you're you're you do it you want until we decide that you're not allowed to anymore and um what what soon became as I I I started loving making documentaries I was telling stories I loved and they were mine David they were like you do you know and I was in heaven and the the film it was called the first year right if that fat film of So what did you info and in following these teachers would you what was the story that you ended up telling the style that movie is very different from my style now because it was very undeveloped in a lot of people carried me there were other caring people and a great editor who ended up working with a lot in G Cassidy who cut the first that it went to the state convention time he's met great editor has since added American hustle and other great movies but it wasn't me at so my style and my sense of voice or see him but what was the story itself so the streets of was how what's it like to be a ambitious teacher with big ideals throwing yourself into some of the toughest schools in America to me I knew that that was that was interesting and how to make it through what happens to them do they get better today if you could easily been like to go rack it some more kin to war that was to what you imagine school to be these are really tough schools and in two weeks of training thrown in and I think there's a theme that comes through it all in my movie since which was not by any design which is that finding heroes in unlikely places I was so moved by these teachers by their dedication by having an idea and following through with it by believing that every kid in America can be educated you know I was so moved that I had to tell the stories but they're heroes I mean they the hero's journey unlike those in ninety them still teaching some summer principles couple of dropped out of the latest update but several are now leaders like they run charter schools they run principals of schools some of them are out but there you know I wanted what they had which is a sense of purpose and I hadn't had it yet but now I'm making documentaries and I do feel a sense of purpose and you know I'm now going around my guy I wanted her because I got to make sure I will move on I don't put directors on your show do what they want to steer in ways world the world came to know through your new movie The In An inconvenient Truth which was in certain ways the most improbable film ever yes because Al Gore now not vice president anymore but on a crusade really to try and do something about climate change would travel with his slide show and make a presentation that that doesn't on the surface a great cinema a man with a slideshow so were the same way yeah so what what what and when did it occur to you that this could be a great movie well it was pitched to me we've got Al Gore giving a slide show and I said this is to Lawrence Lawrence Bender famous producer and Laurie David wife of Larry David but a pretty smart and environmentalists use of arms and political insider and ISIS a terrible idea climate change I get any politician not so much Al Gore particularly not because you know he wasn't popular at the time I didn't know him in a slideshow and Laurie tour credits that come to the Beverly Hilton where he's going to give his slideshow and it was like Thursday in the middle the day it was like chicken and hot and wait he's giving all the waiters are bringing the food it was sort of like what am I doing here and he starts a slideshow and the cyclists is interesting by the end
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Ep. 102 - Davis Guggenheim

The Axe Files with David Axelrod