Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim and co-writer Billy Kimball dissect America’s flawed educational system with humor, compassion and a true sense of storytelling in the activist documentary Waiting for Superman.
Written by Denis Faye
When documentarian Davis Guggenheim decided to make America’s flawed educational system the topic of his latest film, he knew he’d need some help cutting through the doom and gloom, so he looked to comedy writer Billy Kimball.
“At first, we hired him because he’s funny, and he’s written some political, satirical things,” explains Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for his film An Inconvenient Truth. But as it turns out, there wasn’t much call for gag writing in Waiting for Superman. As Kimball puts it, “There wasn’t a lot of need for comedic moments. As Davis would say, the film rejected that.”
Instead, Guggenheim discovered that there was a lot more to the veteran scribe, whose past work includes The Simpsons and Seinfeld, than a source for good jokes. “I can’t overstate Billy’s role in the movie,” says director/co-writer Guggenheim. “He brought this overall sense of theme and architecture. And, of course, the key moments when the audience needs to laugh, he brought that to the table.”
Guggenheim and Kimball took some time to talk to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the freewheeling nature of their collaboration. Apparently, writing non-fiction can actually be more liberating than writing fiction, especially when you have neither actors nor a development process to contend with.
Quite a downer topic you guys had to tackle.
Davis Guggenheim: You have to figure out a special way to tell the story, especially with something like public education. It’s like, “That’s going to be boring, and why should I care about that?”
Billy Kimball: That’s a little bit of the challenge of writing it. I’ve seen comments that it’s so depressing, but in order to make the case that something has to be done, you have to emphasize the crisis and the drama of these kids’ situations. That said, that’s only half of it. You also have to emphasize that change can happen.
How deep into the project were you before you were confident you had a story that would engage audiences?
Davis Guggenheim: We had many, many moments where we thought we were lost in the weeds. The breakthrough for me was finding an article Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times about the lottery in Baltimore. Reading that made me think it was a great metaphor for the movie. It was a great way to structure the movie, to build it into a suspenseful ending. It’s a great metaphor that people have to play bingo for their kids’ education.
Photo: © 2010 Public Education Pictures
Anthony in Waiting For Superman.
So you knew you’d be using this lottery as the drama along with the various hard-fact asides before you started filming?
Davis Guggenheim: Yeah, An Inconvenient Truth was this sort of accident that made me believe that you could actually do this two-story system. We had this slide show with all these charts and graphs, but I knew for the film to be successful, I’d have to make it personal, to keep people engaged by rethinking this man who you thought you knew. So we had to inject these personal stories into this slide show. How are you going to inject that personal stuff? I realized in doing it that it didn’t only just work, but it was incredibly effective, like one plus one equals three. You could go from something really heady that was stimulating your brain to something really emotional.
So the thing we did by accident on that film we did by design on this one. We actually built two separate movies that we didn’t cut together until the very end. We built one movie called Other People’s Children that was about the kids wanting to go to a good school so they end up in the lottery. The other film I called the Folly of the Adults and that was about the system the adults use to educate these kids and how dysfunctional that is. I felt that if you built them separately and made them work separately, beginning, middle and end and then intercut them at the end of the editing process that you’d have this really powerful interplay between the right brain and the left brain. I never would have done it if it weren’t for An Inconvenient Truth.
How did the script come into this?
Billy Kimball: There was stuff that had to be written, voice-over – and the aim of voice-over was always to keep it to a minimum and still give the best possible information. The analogy I make is that it’s a little like editing. You take the existing material and try to decide what parts to cut out. Similarly with the voice-over, you overwrite it and, say, I don’t think we need this sentence, and I don’t think we need this word, and you try to cut it down to make it as bare as we could.
Davis Guggenheim: I’m not a writer. I’ve never written anything. I sort of had to. The first thing I wrote was the Obama piece that I did last year. I never considered myself a writer, but I wrote because I had to, so having Billy there as a real writer, he would often say, “This is good, but you’ve used three different tenses in the same sentence.” He’s much more of a formalistic writer.
Sometimes I would just scribble it onto a pad or read into a microphone and just riff or talk about what I was thinking, then the editor and I would cut that down. I’d read for 10 minutes, and we’d cut that down to a minute. It was very improvisational, actually, because we’d write something, then I’d record it, then we’d build a picture around it, then we’d go shoot it, and then we’d edit it, then we’d rewrite because we had new picture. Billy would write things from scratch, and I would write things from scratch.
Billy Kimball: That’s true. That’s great for my process. I liked it. There was no script, which I think is not unusual for documentary. That was only positive for me. It was the kind of thing where I’d get a call, and they’d say, “I think we might need a line for this,” which is a little bit unusual.
It sounds way more complicated than a conventional narrative!
Davis Guggenheim: Yeah, except everyone left us alone. From the Hollywood screenwriter point of view, we didn’t have series and series and series of notes. We just did whatever we wanted until we showed the film to Participant much later on.
But the great thing is, in the old-school documentaries, people would raise money, write a treatment, and then go shoot the treatment, come back and edit, write narration, and you’re done. This is much more back and forth, meaning you’d shoot, write, and edit, then shoot again, write again, and edit again. You’re constantly writing, so if you were to say, “Who were the writers?” It’d be me and Billy but also the editors, Greg [Finton], Kim [Roberts], and Jay [Cassidy].
Billy Kimball: Davis employed a kind of Socratic process where the people involved, Leslie Chilcott, the producer, the editors, sometimes me, and sometimes other people would sit around and talk about the movie, sometimes defend it, and sometimes argue about it.
Is that common in documentary nowadays?
Davis Guggenheim: I don’t know. It just makes sense. You write something, and then you go, “Oh, wouldn’t that be great if I put the kids in the car and drove them to school?” So we put the kids in the car, and I drove them to school. And the next day, you’re cutting it into the movie, as opposed to a normal Hollywood feature, where you’re rewriting and rewriting before you’ve even shot anything. And you’re rewriting against nothing, against a shared expectation. In this case, you write it, and you put it in the movie right away and see if it works.
I guess in a normal Hollywood movie, you can’t really get Johnny Depp to drive his kids to school on your whim.
Davis Guggenheim: Exactly. We didn’t have that problem – or opportunity. Writing started at the beginning and went to the last day. We were constantly rewriting and changing the pictures with the script and changing the script with the pictures in a very fluid, improvisational way.
Were you ever tempted to cheat reality a little bit in order to dial up the drama?
Billy Kimball: Did we make up the facts? No, but the structure of the film, without giving anything away, is set up for heightened drama – but that’s part of the task of a documentarian. They’re truthful and they’re honest, but everything doesn’t have to roll out in real time.
But this isn’t intended to be a full survey of the entire state of American education. That would take hours and hours. You have to be selective about what you’re going to represent.
Davis Guggenheim: There were opportunities to cheat, but the audience can smell it when you cheat, especially with the advent of reality television, the audience has become acutely aware when you’re bullshitting.
If you lose that sense, for a minute, that this is real, you lose them. With a dramatic movie, they know you’re doing it, and they want to take that leap of faith, but with documentaries, they want to know that this is real. They reject the movie if it’s not.
When you wrote the script, you had three jobs to do. You had to provide information, you had to be entertaining and, given this was an activist documentary, you had to sway people. How did that work?
Billy Kimball: With the data, we always felt that less is more. If you give people one statistic too many, they’ll forget all the statistics you’ve given them up to that point. We knew we needed just the most telling statistics that people would understand and if it didn’t pass that test then it was out.
Davis Guggenheim: One of the things that we worked to fight against was this “Here comes another film about public education” issue. It’s like eating your spinach. It’s good for you, but you won’t like it. We really thought about the experience the audience would have. Where’s the audience at this moment? Boy, they need a laugh, or boy, your brain is getting tired, and you need a moment with the kids. It was very much that kind of conversation going on. We barely use the term “documentary.” This is a movie. We want the audience to have an experience. Now, you have to play by the rules, you cannot cheat the truth, but you can shape the experience the audience is having, so in the end, they arrive at that moment, at this lottery, and they cannot believe this thing is happening.
Billy Kimball: Not surprisingly, the entertaining task underlies the other two. For the film to be persuasive and, more importantly, effective, it has to reach a broad audience. It can’t simply be polemical. And by the same token, it can’t be relentlessly evenhanded. Cable news tends to present a talking head from one side and then someone with the exact opposite opinion. They give them equal time to fight it out and the audience is left to make whatever decision they can. Here there was a specific case to be made. Simply put, we know these kids can learn, so why would we do anything else? That’s the big message from the movie. Change is necessary and change is possible. But we are not going to get that message across by having a two hour-long harangue of the audience.