February 2011

Lesson Plans

The Academy Award winner and director of Waiting for “Superman” reflects on how life’s path has a strange and wonderful way of catching up with us—regardless of where we gophotograph by ANDREW MACPHERSON / styling by BRANDON PALAS


I had a plan. The best plan a 24-year-old could have: driving cross-country with everything he owned in a VW Jetta. I was driving from Washington, D.C., to Hollywood, and though some of the wrinkles had not been ironed out, I knew one thing for certain: I was not going to make documentaries.

You see, my father made documentaries, and with four Oscars and a career spanning 40 years, he was revered by everyone—especially me. He had coaxed me to move to D.C. after college to work with him. But after a few weeks, I knew it wouldn’t pan out. The shadow of his success was long, and it became clear to me very quickly you can’t inherit your father’s career (or talent) and that if I was going to make it as a filmmaker, I had to strike out on my own.

This choice wasn’t easy. My dad was my first and greatest teacher, and though he would never tell me what to do, I knew there were big expectations: It wasn’t enough to be successful; work had to mean something—it had to have relevance. So I liked the 3,000 miles I was clocking between his success and my new life.

Twelve years later, I was on the brink of “making it” on my own terms. I had paid my dues in various jobs. I had had some small success, and I had taken some hits. But this was going to be my moment—my big break. I had found a script and, after developing it for three years, finally sold it to a major studio. It was a high-profile Hollywood movie with an A-list actor, and I would be the director. It was the product of all my hard work since I moved to L.A.

And then I got fired.

The details of the story are sordid and not worth retelling unless you have two hours and I have a couple of beers. When I do tell it, I get knowing nods from Hollywood people, who’ve grown callous, and disgusted reactions from everyone else. All you need to know is it was an arbitrary and dumb event. No one could point to anything I had done. It came down to the whim of an actor who refused to hear my vision for the movie.

Most heartbreaking was the behavior of those with whom I had worked on the project—some of them my friends: In self-preservation, they just stepped back and let it happen.

I was devastated—and jobless. And I found myself ostracized by the business, tainted by implication. I guess in everyone’s eyes, I must have done something wrong. So one day, I drove to a store in the Valley that sold discount cameras, and I paid 800 bucks for a Hi8 video model. This was not a “career move” or a romantic tale you might hear someone recounting at Sundance. It’s not like I had some flash of brilliance or revelation. I don’t even think I was thinking. If anything, I was blinded by rage.

With the help of California State University, the J. Paul Getty Trust and a small crew, I started following five teachers. I had my little camera in the car as they pulled into their school parking lots for the first time and met their very first students. I was in Watts, Compton, East L.A., Santa Monica and Venice. And I stayed with them for most of the 180 days of that school year.

In retrospect, I was drawn to these teachers, three of whom were from Teach for America. All had made a life choice to put the lives of children before their own. In Hollywood script meetings, people were always trying to conjure “heroes”—but these teachers were the real deal. They drove to some of L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods every day because they loved the kids and would sacrifice anything to help them succeed. And I loved being around them. They had a modesty and quiet sense of purpose I must have been craving.

The documentary I shot, The First Year, premiered on PBS in 2001. In the last scene, the camera lingers on 22-year-old Maurice Rabb, watching his student Tyquan and thinking about what they’ve accomplished. The movie ends as Rabb says, “Please don’t let me forget this feeling.” He could easily have been speaking for me.

Five days after The First Year premiered, 9-11 happened. The film was largely missed or forgotten, but the feeling I had making that movie, meeting those people and living in a world where the human stakes were so real and so high never went away. Ten years later, with a second documentary about our public schools-Waiting for “Superman”—under my belt, I still love the feeling I have making documentaries. I live for it.

My other mentor, David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), says, “The best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.” I had a lot of plans, driving that Jetta west to Hollywood 23 years ago. And if I had a way to tell that scared but certain kid what happened to his plans, I think he would laugh, too. And then perhaps smile at where life had taken him.

DAVIS GUGGENHEIMs work includes the rock doc It Might Get Loud and An Inconvenient Truth, which won Best Documentary at the 2007 Academy Awards.