Exclusive: The Makers of Waiting for “Superman”


When director Davis Guggenheim and producer Lesley Chilcott helped bring former Vice President Al Gore’s traveling slide show An Inconvenient Truth to movie theaters back in 2006, they knew how important it was to make the masses aware of the growing problem of global warming. Even so, they may not have realized what a huge impact the film would have, creating an immediate change in awareness about the issue as well as winning an Oscar and becoming one of the Top 5 grossing docs of all time. It also led other filmmakers to explore the subject matter from different angles, which turned “global warming” into a huge topic of conversation among people of all ages, genders and nationalities. (Granted, Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow came out first and was more successful at the box office, but no one really took global warming seriously until the Al Gore movie.)

Davis Guggenheim’s new movie Waiting for “Superman” attempts to achieve a similar awareness about the public school system and why it has continued to fail the kids in our country, leading to a growing number of drop-outs and kids never attending college. The movie features interviews with those who have tried making changes to that flawed system, including Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit school program that accepts a certain number of underprivileged kids from the Harlem area with a pledge to help them overcome the community’s problems so they can attend college, and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system who has tried a number of unconventional methods of improving the schools in her area.

More importantly, the film follows five students, ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade in five major cities, who are dealing with financial difficulties or single parents who desperately want to get the best education possible for their kids within a system that’s flawed. These are powerfully moving stories as the film follows these kids in the time leading up to the lottery for them to get into the better public charter schools that only offer a limited number of slots for new students per year.

ComingSoon.net sat down last week at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk to Guggenheim and Chilcott about their latest sociopolitical cinematic endeavor and how they hope it can have a similar impact as An Inconvenient Truth.

ComingSoon.net: I know you had dealt with this topic earlier in your career and had done a couple of short films, so was making this movie something that had been brewing in your mind and building over the years since doing “The First Year”?
Davis Guggenheim: Well, the first film I made was a full length feature about first year teachers, so that was my primer. I spent a full year in these public schools watching these teachers. It was such a pure focus with just teachers every day, what their lives were like. You felt like, “Oh, these guys are passionate. They want to change the world. They care so much.” But there was this feeling that just outside the walls of the classroom there was this looming system, this broken system, that just weighed on everybody. You know, when you walk through the hallways and that system was grinding down good people, it was grinding down everyone’s good intentions and grinding down even the new money we put in the schools. So having made that film, I had the sense of like, “Okay, this film has to attack the sort of hidden problems and the sort of uncomfortable truths. If we don’t deal with those things we’ll never fix our schools.” That’s the other thing, a lot of people talk about our schools as if they know what’s going on, but they haven’t walked in them. It’s a pretty amazing experience when you walk into a failing school and you walk into a really wonderful school and you go, “Oh,” you get it. There’s a visceral experience and you go, “All these kids in this neighborhood are getting screwed.” People who are slicing and dicing these little policy points are missing the fact that—like, Bill Strickland says, “We’re shuffling the chairs on the deck of the Titanic because the ship is going down.” So, having made that first film you’re like, “Oh, let’s not forget what’s at stake here.”

CS: One thing I always marveled about with “An Inconvenient Truth” is that it was one of those few documentaries that actually made change by changing the mindset of those who saw it about global warming. I was curious how difficult that is with this movie, because I assume you made this movie to make a change, but it’s hard to gauge how much a movie can affect those who see it. So how did you go into this movie with that in mind?
Guggenheim: Well, I don’t think you can make a movie and say, “How do you design a movie that’s gonna…”
Lesley Chilcott: Affect change.
Guggenheim: You have to really start by making a movie that’s about a great experience and connect people in a way that you feel connected to the subject. Lesley and I talk about this. It’s not just making a movie it’s to campaign to change our schools.
Chilcott: It’s not just a movie, it’s a movement, but it has to be a movie first and with Bianca and Anthony and Francisco and Daisy and Emily, each one of those kids represents a different risk and a different problem. By putting that personal face on a very large problem, there’s 650,000 other Daisies in LA USD. There’s 1.1 million Francisco’s. I think that you can’t just make this great dissertation and put it up on screen, it’s not a movie. People want to be moved and you want to go for the experience, and it has to be entertaining and compelling. I think David just did an amazing job with that.

CS: I assume this must’ve been more difficult than “An Inconvenient Truth,” where you had Al Gore as your figurehead and even with “It Might Get Loud,” where you had these musical personalities, so this one you’re working from a real person standpoint.
Guggenheim: Well, Al had built the slideshow. He’d been working on it for 30 years, so there was so much to start with. In this, we sort of had to go through a subject matter, which is equally complicated, maybe more, and to detangle it and simplify it. For me, it’s about attacking a psychology. When you think about climate change, there were a lot of movies, even that year, that were about climate change that had a lotta that same stuff in it. (Laughs) In fact, environmentalists said, “Okay, you didn’t go far enough.” But for us, it’s about kinda really thinking about why people have turned the other way on our schools, like how they do what I do which is drive by them and just stiff arm the idea. So what are the barriers? You’re thinking about the mentalities like, “Well, I guess people feel like it’s hopeless, and we’ve tried and it doesn’t work. So I’m gonna take care of my kids.” So it’s impossible. So as the movie starts to detangle that and change that mentality, then people have this big response. You could put all the great, interesting people and facts in there, and if you don’t deal with that psychology, you’re back at square one because the psychology, the conversation that’s in people’s subconscious is the thing that’s holding them from really…
Chilcott: Well, what you’re saying is essential to communicate because then people have to feel like it is possible, which is in the end credits of the film. Even when we sat down, there were like, scattered index cards all over the edit bay with major, major thought points with like, “Rubber rooms, “Dance of the Lemons,” Geoffrey Canada. I think that when you start to think about it, the average person is like, “Well, there’s this, this, this policy thing, this rule, this union, this, that. What do I do?” When you boil it down to get rid of all the issues that the adults are arguing over and you boil it down to, how do we create a future for our kids? You boil that down to great teachers, great leaders, more classroom time, high expectations, 360 degree accountability. Then you’re like, “Wow, there’s about five essential ingredients.” If we could cut through all of the dogma and show how it affects these kids’ lives, then we might be onto something and then we can maybe show some steps, it’s been building. We’ve known what’s wrong since the 80’s, but maybe now we’re at that moment where we can finally tip over and create some systemic change.

CS: Did you start this movie before “It Might Get Loud” premiered here?
Chilcott: “It Might Get Loud” was finishing, and when we were here for “It Might Get Loud,” we had just started editing, but we hadn’t shot anything yet because we were editing with soft footage.
Guggenheim: No, it was a year ago. No…
Chilcott: Two years ago.
Guggenheim: “It Might Get Loud” was two years ago?
Chilcott: I know, I thought it was last year, too. The other thing was, Davis was directing and I was producing “A Mother’s Promise,” the Obama film. So that took us through the end of August and we worked on an infomercial as well in September, came here and were prepping this movie.

CS: I should have prefaced this interview by saying that a.) I don’t have kids myself and b.) I may have been one of the worst students in the world.
Davis Guggenheim: Me too. I think I was worse than you.
Lesley Chilcott: Do you know what you are? You’re an “other” like me. Yeah, I’m an other.

CS: Even if I ever had kids, I would not even know about this stuff. I think a lot of parents don’t really know half this stuff and then they go, “Okay, here’s the closest school, so that’s where I’ll send my kids.”
Chilcott: But you see how it affects you, you see how it affects the future of our country.

CS: Everyone, exactly.
Chilcott: Who didn’t go to school, I mean, at least a little bit. (Laughs)

CS: Sure. All the kids going to school now will be leading this country in 30 years.
Chilcott: Well, think about this. Who’s gonna be your doctor in 30 years? (Laughs)
Guggenheim: But, I was the bottom of my class, very bottom of my class, so why do I care about education? Actually, you think I’d be the one who would be giving schools the finger. But I had a system in place that caught me when I fell. My parents were dedicated parents and they made sure that I got by and that I got help. Maybe that’s what schools are for, is to help everybody, but they’re not built for everybody, you know?

ComingSoon.net: I absolutely agree. I just think having this kind of information is huge, because not knowing all the options, you’re just throwing your kids out there. But let’s talk about how you went about finding the kids in the different locations. One thing I really liked about the movie is that you didn’t cheat, which is what I consider it when documentary filmmakers are trying to find that big happy ending for everyone, so they reverse engineer the movie to know which kids to follow to have that ending.
Chilcott: In that sense, we’re a European film, because everybody doesn’t win at the end. (laughs)

CS: Well, usually the ones who fail don’t end up in the movie, they’re the ones who get cut out.
Guggenheim: There’s no reverse engineering, and there’s no engineering. In fact, we were in the same position as the audience was when the lotteries were happening. They were calling each other on the phone saying, “This happened, this happened. This kid got in. This kid didn’t get in.” We didn’t know until the very end what the end of our movie would be.
Chilcott: Yeah, the very nature of the lottery, it’s in the charter, in the rules that you have to have a public lottery and it has to be audited with three independent people verifying the results. So there was no way to know, no way to influence, no way to do anything. We literally got in the car that afternoon or the subway or the taxi, or whatever it is depending on the city, and rode there with the family having no idea what was gonna happen. You see a lot of the lotteries, there’s cameras, there’s balloons, I won, I this, I that. I’ve never been through such an intense experience. On the one hand, you’re really happy for the people that get in, but for the people that don’t you’re like, “This is the exact opposite of what America is supposed to represent.” Then when you have Bianca, who was in kindergarten at the time, who’s already upset because she didn’t get to go to her own graduation because of some rule, and then she’s in this room with 2,500 people and she has no idea really what’s going on. Well, she figured it out pretty quickly.

CS: But how did you go about finding the kids?
Chilcott: Oh, sorry.
Guggenheim: Answer the f*cking question. I’m getting frustrated.
Chilcott: Yeah, here’s the thing. You think it would be hard to find…
Guggenheim: She spends time with Al Gore and now she doesn’t answer questions.
Chilcott: It’s neither this nor that.
Guggenheim: (Laughs)
Chilcott: No, we looked all over the country. We had help from administrators from some of these key schools, “Did someone come in and fill out an application? Do you think we could call them? Could we learn about these people?” The main thing we did is we went to all of the parent info nights. What’s so great about the charters in our school, they had parent info nights every Wednesday or every Saturday. Harlem had a fair with 29 charter schools and we went to the fair with our still camera and a bunch of people trying to recruit people. We’re like, “Hey, come over here. We got a camera…” (Laughs) The sad thing is our families are amazing and you see how much the parents care and how amazing the kids are, but it was not hard to find families, because there are simply too many of them that don’t have a choice of a good school for their kids.

CS: How did that work as a filmmaker, because you had to be everywhere and I’m assuming you had to have people filming stuff while you weren’t present in some cases.
Guggenheim: Yeah, Lesley shot a bunch of them because we were in different places at different times.

CS: How was it to balance all the different things?
Guggenheim: It’s like a circus, like filming a circus, although much less entertaining and much more heavy and emotional and the stakes are very high.
Chilcott: We had some crews – if you don’t mind me interjecting.
Guggenheim: Yeah, please.
Chilcott: Erich Roland, one of the DPs on the film and Bob Richman. We had a lotta talented DPs, and they shot the majority of the film. They were on call a lotta times if something was gonna happen, if there was gonna be an event, or if something was gonna change, or if Anthony’s school was going to visit SEED, and they would scramble the night before and send ’em out there. The majority of the time, one of us was there, but sometimes, they’re such phenomenal DPs that we really relied on them here and there to cover some timely… it was like trying to make a feature film but also being a news crew.

CS: Did you have any problems getting anyone to talk on camera or did any of the schools just not want you guys in there at all?
Chilcott: A lot of the public schools, and partly for good reason, they want to protect their school from having cameras coming in and running all over the place. But, even when we went through all of the proper channels, a lot of the public schools that we asked to shoot at just said no, mainstream public schools.
Guggenheim: Yeah, there was a great lottery that was in our city, a district school. We wanted it not to be like all the charters, all the lotteries were charter. But, it’s just a systematic thing of a district school. There were bureaucrats in downtown that said, “You can’t shoot.” It was like, that’s a shame that that part of the story didn’t get to be told.
Chilcott: Right.

CS: Like you said, this is a huge subject and there are so many different things you could’ve covered, so I’m going to play devil’s advocate here.
Guggenheim: Yeah, please.

CS: I try to do it once in a while. One thing it doesn’t cover in terms of why kids drop out, it focuses on the bad teachers, but there are other factors like neighborhoods and other things in life that cause students to drop out. I was curious about deciding which aspects to deal with and which to leave out, because obviously this would’ve been a five hour movie if you covered every aspect of this subject.
Guggenheim: The other thing looming during “The First Year” was this sense that the teachers were making great progress in the day and then they’d go home and there’d be all these social problem and family problems. So that was looming there, but that’s still there. Geoffrey Canada’s school and the KIPP School are still based on, “How do you educate kids that may not have had a great breakfast or they didn’t get to study or they didn’t get enough sleep?” What’s great is that they say, “Well, those problems are still there, but now, 10 years later we’re saying, ‘It doesn’t matter.'” Wait, that’s not right.
Chilcott: It’s no longer an excuse.
Guggenheim: It’s no longer an excuse, thank you, because all these things are there, but the only way we’re gonna reverse this thing, which has been going on for generations and is a downward spiral, the only way we’re gonna reverse this thing is to fix it through our schools. Geoffrey said this really poignant thing last night. I never heard him say it. He said he was the first generation in his family to go to college. Now his kids go to college and his grandkids will go to college, so you reverse that downwards thing, and suddenly the positive spiral happens.

CS: Right, you want your kids to do better than you did.
Guggenheim: Education has been that thing in America for many, many years.
Chilcott: In the film, you see it with Anthony. The father didn’t care about schools. His grandmother Gloria didn’t used to care. Now she realizes, now she cares. He’s the first generation in that family’s line that’s gonna grow up and go to college.

CS: To hear Anthony at his age to say that he wants his kids to do better than him, that’s just an amazing thing to hear from someone that young because it’s not something you normally think about until you’re much older.
Chilcott: It’s bittersweet.
Guggenheim: It’s beautiful, but it’s always a trap for us. We’d always talk about policy and stuff, but you talk about Geoffrey Canada and the kid at that moment of the movie, the last thing Geoffrey Canada says is, “So kids believe again that school is a way out.” If the film just does that, attack a sense of belief, than in a lot of these neighborhoods, people just don’t believe anymore that the schools are not working and they haven’t been working for their parents and maybe their grandparents. If this film can attack that sense of belief that it is possible, and I believe stronger than ever that it is possible, then the film will do its job. That was a very soft devil’s advocate, just so you know. I don’t mind the devil, but that was okay.
Chilcott: You gotta lean forward a little more. (And she puts her pinky by the side of her mouth like Dr. Evil in the “Austin Powers” movies.)

CS: Okay, I’ll remember that for next time. I don’t know if you saw the movie “Freakonomics” or read the book.
Guggenheim: I read it. Haven’t seen it.
Chilcott: Is it good?

CS: I loved it. I’m actually reading the book based on seeing the movie. They have this whole segment on trying to use money incentives to convince kids to get better grades, but in your movie, it asks “Shouldn’t we be focusing on giving the incentives to good teachers?” Michelle Rhee (chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system) was trying to do that, but was hindered by the union, so is that the only thing stopping the city or state giving teachers the incentive to do the best job teaching they can?
Guggenheim: I’m learning that in education, people always want the simple answer – charters are good or bad. Well, pay teachers more but don’t pay the teachers more. The answer’s always more complicated. You can’t just pay teachers more. You have to say, “Let’s evaluate teachers. Let’s develop teachers. Let’s find out the successful teachers and then let’s pay teachers more at the same time.” If you just blindly pay teachers more, you’re just feeding a system that’s already broken. We don’t evaluate our teachers. So, that’s why people say, “Well, we pay teachers more, but there’s no improvement,” because we then treat every teacher equally and we’re not doing a good job evaluating them, so, everything goes hand in hand.
Chilcott: I was just gonna say that if teachers are willing to be evaluated – and the unions are already showing signs of progress. If you want to look it up, there’s a new contract in Denver that’s absolutely amazing and it’s not just evaluations, but they can sort of trade off tenure for being evaluated. If they don’t perform well for a couple years, then they don’t have tenure anymore. Since the movie ended, you should know that there is now a contract in D.C. and it’s partially based on evaluation. In this morning’s paper, they announced what the pay raises would be for teachers, so it is starting to happen, but if we’re gonna say, “Our children are our future,” then we need the best person in the front of the classroom teaching them.

CS: You really need to reach both the parents and the kids with a movie like this for it to be successful, so how do you see that happening? Which group do you feel you need to reach first in order for this movie to achieve its goals, the kids or their parents?
Chilcott: I think it’s both. The kids are the next generation, and we’re finding that kids as young as nine and 10, the film is resonating with them. There were just a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds that saw it at a screening we did last week, they came out of the theater with talking points. They’re like, “There’s this, there’s that, I have to volunteer. I have to tutor. I have to consider being a teacher,” and all of those things. I think the parents and the adults need to see it because we’re the ones who’ve been screwing everything up, but the next generation needs to know what’s in peril and what the emergency is, because we can inspire–not us the film–but we need to inspire a whole new generation of teachers and we need to get rid of this sort of prestige deficit we have in America in teaching. It’s not the top job. It’s not the coolest job. It’s not the best paying job. We need to change that.

Waiting for “Superman” opens in select cities on Friday, September 24, and then should expand throughout October.