Genre-defying director, cinematographer and producer Davis Guggenheim is equally at home in multiple worlds: documentary filmmaking, feature films, network television and groundbreaking cable programs. An Oscar-winner for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, he has also directed a biopic about Barack Obama, the cable shows Deadwood and The Shield and television’s NYPD Blueand Alias, in addition to serving as executive producer on films like Training Day, which earned an Academy Award for Denzel Washington. His most recent project is It Might Get Loud, a documentary about the electric guitar featuring Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White. In this issue’s Art Forum, Guggenheim discusses filmmaking in general and this latest effort in particular.
Unlike many films about musicians, It Might Get Loud is neither a concert film nor a VH-1 Behind the Music style expose of road-related excess. It is instead an in-depth look at music itself, through the eyes of three highly acclaimed guitarists from three different generations. Rather than interviewing rock critics, Guggenheim allows the musicians and their music to speak for themselves. The film also features rare footage of a very early U2 and Jimmy Page’s first band, in which the startlingly clean-cut teenager plays the skiffle, an odd instrument popular in England at the time.
Scenes alternate between interviews with the musicians in their homes and local haunts, and an arranged meeting among the three of them. Prior to filming, they had never met, and another director might have provided them with pre-programmed questions or a set list. Instead, Guggenheim just let them go, and filmed the result.
SC: For this movie, you didn’t give the musicians any notes or have any agenda for what they should do when they got together. How was this experience different or similar to how you’ve approached previous films?
DG: Jack says the reason he said “Yes, Davis,” is because I didn’t know what I was going to do. He says it sincerely. Particularly with documentaries, but in general, the more I know, the more I realize that you should do as little as possible. With documentaries, people tell their own stories. My job is to help them tell their own story, and that’s more interesting.
Hundreds of people have written about Jimmy Page for forty years, but we’ve never heard from Jimmy. This is the movie where you hear from Jimmy – he tells his story. My job is to help him do that. We would have these very intensive interviews and then shoot around them.
Every story’s different. I just did the pilot to Melrose Place and there, you’ve got to get the hair and make-up right, you’ve got to get the proper purse. In documentaries, particularly when you’re talking about rock stars and former politicians, what they have in common is that people feel like they know them. The audience already has a relationship with them. The challenge is, how do you get them to let you in; how do you really get to know them?
SC: Where did the early footage of U2 and Jimmy Page come from? Did they give it to you?
DG: We found it. They didn’t even know. There was a U2 person who lives in L.A. who is an expert on all of their footage. She helped us find that first piece. But no one had ever seen that. If you dig hard enough, you’re going to find things that no one has ever seen. I just saw a huge Led Zeppelin historian who had never seen Jimmy Page’s business card. We found that business card that said “James Patrick Page/Session Guitarist.” That’s the fun part.
SC: These musicians share a common language with each other that might not translate to a general audience, yet the movie is very accessible. Was that a conscious decision on your part and if so, how did you go about it?
DG: I didn’t try to make it accessible to a general audience. I like that it is. I try to make it interesting to me, and the thing that I find so dumb about a lot of rock documentaries is that they end up being about who got in a car wreck, which guy overdosed, which girlfriend broke up the band – or they come out with lines like, “and when they came out of the studio, it changed music forever.” I didn’t want that. These guys wrote music that changed my life, and I wanted to figure out how they did it and why they did it. Why this kid from Dublin? Why the tenth kid in a family in Detroit? Jack was the tenth kid – why him? Why not number five or number one?
SC: With part of the footage, you almost get lulled into a sense that these are regular guys, kind of “Oh, they’re just like us.” Then you see some of this concert footage that is the antithesis of regular guys. How aware were you of creating that contrast? Was it deliberate or did it just unfold?
DG: I definitely was keyed into the idea of going from very, very small to very, very big. Going personal, like Edge talking about how he wrote a song, and then going to a concert full of 70,000 people listening to that song, and showing that there’s a personal intention behind this stuff that is so big.
SC: The film shows us how these three personalities are quite different, from Jack White who seems to see music as a struggle and something to be conquered, to Jimmy Page who talks as if his guitar is a woman, to the Edge, who is a bit more reserved. Was that portrayal deliberate on your part or did it unfold as you were filming?
DG: That’s why we talk about being organic. The process was just doing these interviews and letting them tell their own stories. Their true nature comes out. Any time I’ve tried to steer a story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, it doesn’t work. There are other directors who are the opposite. Michael Moore will steer the story exactly where he wants it to go, and it will be funny and glib; that’s a different type of movie. But if I try to steer a story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, I don’t like it. It’s not truthful. There’s no emotion there.
SC: Documentaries have radically changed in the past twenty years. What changes have you seen and how have you been part of that change?
DG: I’m the beneficiary of the fact that documentaries have changed so radically. Michael Moore changed everything because he proved that there’s a market for documentaries, and people will pay to go see them. He also said documentaries can be entertaining, they can be funny. So I owe him that. And Earl Morris changed everything because he made these documentaries that did these wildly different things. They had reenactments and cinematic music, they had tension and suspense. Those movies changed me. This documentary has animation in it. An Inconvenient Truth had a ninety foot screen with a thousand images, graphs and charts. Who makes a documentary about a slide show? I mean, you shouldn’t, but that’s the point. That’s what’s so exciting about documentaries – you can do anything you want and they’ll continue to surprise you. A lot of people make really bad documentaries, but the ones that work really work.
SC: What did you learn from this experience about music and musicians?
DG: What you realize is that everyone I meet is a guitarist, and everyone’s got a secret fantasy about playing guitar. There are very, very few who, when they pick up the guitar, you know it’s them. When Jimmy Page plays that guitar, it’s him. When Jack plays that guitar, it’s him. They found a voice. They found a signature for themselves. Edge says, “That is me. When I play, that is me coming through those speakers.” That’s powerful, and that’s true with movies. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’m hoping one day that my voice will come through my movies like they do on guitar.