It Might Get Loud Director Davis Guggenheim Cranks it Up at LAFF
After a break from the genre that earned him an Oscar in 2006, An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim has brought his new documentary It Might Get Loud to the Los Angeles Film Festival. (Loud opens Aug. 14 in New York and L.A.) The film sketches portraits of three generations of rock heroes -- Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White -- while composing a bigger picture of the art, sound and influence of the electric guitar in each of their lives. Calling Movieline from the set of his current production, Guggenheim took a break to discuss the rock film he didn't want to make, Jack White's two-hour songwriting clinic, and how a classic concert movie provided his breakthrough for An Inconvenient Truth.
You didn't originate this project, right? How did it come to you?
I knew [co-producer] Thomas Tull, we were friends, and I got a call asking if I'd come to his office for a meeting. I had no idea what it was about. And he was like, "Do you like the electric guitar?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "How would you like to make a documentary about the electric guitar?" And I thought "Sure, that sounds great!" We started talking, and we both realized we both shared a passion for the same music. We were both huge U2 and Zeppelin fans. And immediately the discussion turned to what we love about music and what do we not love? What kind of movie would we make? There are so many documentaries about music that I think fall short -- that don't really get underneath the creativity and the personality of musicians. And I was really thinking, "I don't want to make another movie that's about car wrecks and drug overdoses." You know? Or that has all these lengthy, profound statements about rock and roll and how it changed music forever. We really wanted to get underneath the story.
How did you settle on these three guitarists?
It was very organic. My feeling was that the big mistake of the film would be to cover everything. If we tried it make it about every single electric guitar player you wouldn't learn anything. You'd spend a minute on Jimi Hendrix, and wouldn't that be a tragedy? So why not pick three really fascinating people who can really describe their experience and focus on them? And when we started having discussions about who they should be, we said, "We'll never get Jimmy Page, so let's just move on." And one day I came back into the office and I thought, "Why? We've got to try." He's never done anything like this, and he's reluctant to do things like this, but why not? He was the first person we approached. So I flew to New York with [co-producer] Peter Afterman and we sat down with Jimmy's managers. I pitched the idea of the movie, and they were like, "Sure, sounds good." I went down and got in the cab with Peter and said, "How do you think that went?" And he said, "You have no idea! These guys never say yes!" I flew to London and waited for a day to have tea with Jimmy Page, then he said, "Yeah, sounds good." That was it. I got on a plane and came home.
And after that I guess everything just falls into place behind him?
I don't think it's easy to get anybody who's in this caliber to do the movie. But my pitch to all of them was, "I want to do a movie that never talks to a rock critic or a rock historian. I want to make a different kind of movie -- something that's very personal." And told through their eyes. There are no talking heads in this movie; it's narrated by them in a close, intimate, personal style.
But you're a pretty accomplished filmmaker yourself. Why would access be a problem?
U2 was recording an album. Jimmy Page was rehearsing for the Led Zeppelin shows. Jack was touring. Making movies is not what these guys do.
You could probably make an entire movie about The Edge's story, influence and the singularity of his sound. How did you pare that down to fit it with the others?
I did something with all of them that I'd never done before: Just these very intensive, sit-down interviews with no camera crew. In the case of Edge, we just sat in his studio where he was writing for a day and just talked with no real map. The idea being, "Let me see if I can get inside of his head and find out how he became an artist. What's his story?" And then I met him again in London for another round of interviews. So we had these deeply personal conversations about the meaning of his career and how he became a songwriter. It became clear to me that rather than try to tell the story of every song or album they've written, let's just follow the path. And if it led to one song, and we told that story really well, then maybe that's the best way to tell the story. With Jimmy it was "Stairway to Heaven." With Edge it was "Sunday Bloody Sunday." That was a revelation: Instead of being wide and shallow, let's go narrow and deep.
And of course Jack actually writes a new song on camera. How did that process unfold?
Again, we were just talking to Jack. And he's someone who is very much still in process. He's very accomplished, but he's still at sort of the sweet spot of his career. And he talked very passionately about how most music now is overproduced. He's like, "I hate the fact that you spend four days just putting down the backing track of the song; it kills the song." So we were talking to Jack one day -- we were literally having coffee on the morning of our second day of shooting -- and we said, "OK, Jack. Since you feel this way, would you ever consider writing a song on camera from beginning to end?" And he said, "Sure." So we put a camera in the attic of his old farmhouse, then put the rest of the crew as far away as possible on the other side. And I just said, "Pretend we're not there." And he actually wrote the song -- from pencil and paper to recording it on a two-track player.
When you got the three of them together on the soundstage, it's presented as kind of a massive event. But as a documentarian, what were your apprehensions about turning the cameras on -- and simply not getting anything from these guys as a group?
I was panicked! I just thought it would be cool to get them together and that it would be much better if I don't give them any notes. When the day came, though... I mean, these guys have never met each other. What if they have nothing to say? What if they don't get along? Or what if someone walks off in a huff? We really didn't know. And they were apprehensive, too: "Don't you want to tell us what we should do, or give us some questions to ask, or songs to play?" And I didn't want to do that. One of the premises was that it would be more interesting to see the questions that Jack had for Jimmy than the questions I had for Jimmy. The first half-hour, we were wondering, "What's happening? Is this going to be any good?" Then, out of nowhere, Jimmy picks up his guitar and plays "Whole Lotta Love." The energy in the room just... Everybody in the room -- even Jack and Edge -- was in rapture.
You mentioned earlier the type of film that you didn't want It Might Get Loud to be. What are some music films that did inform or influence you here?
I love the Scorsese movie about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. That's such a beautiful movie, and one of the great things about it is that it doesn't try to unlock the mystery of creativity. It doesn't try to answer the question that should never be asked: "Why do you write songs?" It's a question that, even if people give an answer to it, doesn't have a satisfying answer. But it does sort of circle around the mystery of what made Bob Dylan so fascinating. That was a good lesson. And I love The Last Waltz. Weirdly, that was one of our road maps for An Inconvenient Truth.
Yeah. We were kind of scratching our heads; we knew we had Al Gore's slideshow, which was a stage show, like a concert film. But how could we intercut these personal stories? How could we make that work? And I actually went and looked at The Last Waltz and I realized, "Oh. You can do this. You don't have to tell one story. You can intercut two very different types of stories and two different senses of time, and it'll still work." And that also kind of liberated us for this film. It's three guys sitting around playing electric guitar, and then you go back to their personal lives. It doesn't make sense on paper, but I don't know. I think it kind of works.
Yet The Last Waltz is kind of famously artificial. Band keyboardist Garth Hudson makes that brilliant observation about jazz musicians -- the "greatest priests on 52nd Street" -- but Scorsese doesn't hide the splices or cuts that help make the comment especially profound. How hands-on do you have to be with a film like this to make sure everyone's visions -- including your own -- are fully realized?
I think that when you make documentaries, you have to do two things that are diametrically opposed to each other. On one hand, you have to have a strong sense of a story and where it's going. Without that you're lost. There's a junkyard full of broken documentaries that never had a sense of story. At the same time, if you are telling your subjects what to do and writing that story too carefully -- if you're trying to step on every moment to make it the way you want it -- you're going to have no life in it. And it's not going to be truthful; it's your conception of what the story is rather than someone else's. So you have this weird thing of having an overarching sense of where you want the story to go, but this loose, organic trust that if you sort of steer it in a general direction that will allow characters in the movie to tell their own story, it'll all turn out right. It's sort of a leap of faith, but by design.
And then working with artists must complicate things further.
See, if I was making a movie with three directors it would have been much more problematic. If someone were making a film about me, then I'd be telling them where to put the camera. Or if they're asking me a question, I'd be thinking what's behind that question. But musicians by nature are very improvisational and intuitive. They listen and they respond. Musicians know that you have to take that leap and follow the flow of where an idea is going. That process is very natural, and I think it's one of the reasons they did the movie: "We're going to sit down and have these interviews and see where this story goes." ♦