Davis Guggenheim
Photo by Maarten de Boer

Davis Guggenheim: “I want to keep breaking the rules”

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Short Profile

Name: Philip Davis Guggenheim
DOB: 3 November 1963
Place of birth: St. Louis, Missouri, United States
Occupation: Film director, writer, producer

Davis Guggenheim's new documentary, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is out now via Apple TV+.

Mr. Guggenheim, is it important for you to be moved by the stories you tell in your documentaries?

What I really love is when I can connect. You talk to journalists or some filmmakers who say you want to be dispassionate, you don't want to have that attachment, you want to be objective. And that's not me. I remember with An Inconvenient Truth, when they first told me about Al Gore’s campaign, I was like, “This is not a good idea for a movie.” But then I saw him give his slideshow at a hotel and by the end, I was thinking, “I don't know how to do this. But this is so moving and so important that I just have to; I'm drawn to it.” And so when I have that intense feeling, there's something good that comes from that.

Do you think those big emotions lead to a better documentary, compared to something like a true crime series with a shocking twist?

I mean, I would make a true crime movie! I'm not against it! I loved The Jinx, that was an incredible series. And it's unfair to call that true crime in a sense, because it's so good. In terms of what makes a good documentary, I think a lot about the overarching story, I think a lot about the ending of movies. Sometimes those endings are shocking, sometimes they're emotional, or sometimes they're shocking and emotional. I'm very wary of a story that doesn't have a strong ending. Good or bad! For me, it’s really about finding something special, something that defies logic, that defies cliché.

“I have to be patient. I can get a lot of jobs, but I want the right one.”

Apparently your method of choosing the subject of your films is just by gravitating towards what you like and who you admire.

Yeah, I remember when I was dating when I was in my twenties, I always felt like I was always looking for the right person that never came. But then when I met my wife, I wasn't even really looking, it was just like a lightning bolt hit me. So I’m keeping that mentality: kind of looking, but not looking too hard. It's about jut staying open, being sensitive to the things that are interesting, or the things that pull my attention without me even thinking about it. So I have to be patient. I can get a lot of jobs, but I want the right one.

I would imagine that sometimes waiting for the right job can take years.

Oh, the special stories come along very rarely — it took me a couple of years to find the story for my new film, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie. I was in a rut, personally and professionally, I wasn't even thinking about a movie at the time. But I read an interview with him and started listening to his audiobooks, and he was saying something that I needed in my life. You asked me about those big emotions, right? I'll go to screenings of Still, and I'll cry sometimes, just because I'm moved by Michael. He has a sense of humor and a wisdom that I like. And he lifted me out of my depression.

You’ve talked about how Michael is a very disarming and personable person to interview. Would you say you also possess those qualities as a storyteller and an interviewer?

I like to think I'm a very empathetic and sympathetic person. Some interviewers, like Piers Morgan or whoever else, they go after people, they want to trick you to bring you down. That’s not me. With He Named Me Malala, for instance, I wanted to help Malala Yousafzai tell her own story. I wanted to help Al Gore tell his story. In some ways, I'm like a midwife. I'm helping deliver their baby.

You’re a fan, not a critic.

(Laughs) Yeah, but it is still important to ask really tough questions. You want to be tough, but open as opposed to trying to trap the person. And that involves a certain timing. During Still, I asked Michael J. Fox, “Were you an alcoholic?” And if I’d asked that as my first question, the relationship would have been much more antagonistic, right? Whereas by the time I asked him, we'd known each other. He knew why I was asking tough questions. And he was ready to be open with me. So there's a trust building that happens when you make a film.

Is that more difficult with figures like Barack Obama or Bill Gates, who are in positions of power or influence?

With people who are in fancy important jobs and still hold tremendous power, they aren't used to being challenged. It was harder to ask Bill Gates tough questions, it was harder to ask President Obama tough questions. But I think it's my job to ask the question that is on people's mind. I think you also have a responsibility to ask those things.

“With documentaries, the form is just exploding, and that’s incredibly exciting for me creatively. I want to keep breaking the rules.”

What is it like for you when you’re asking those questions and your subject is giving an answer you like or telling a story in just the way you hoped for? The journalist Ira Glass says he finds it hard not to fall in love with the person when an interview is going well.

Yeah, it's an interesting tension, because I think part of my job is to fall in love with my subjects, in the most platonic way. But you can't do it in a way which clouds your impression of them. I try not to lose sight of where the audience is in the moment of making the film. If I was such a fan, and so in love with this person, I would have lost sight of those important and tough questions.

It sounds like it’s more of a collaborative process, with each of you giving and taking.

Sort of, yeah, I mean, the interviewee is telling one part of the story, and I'm telling the other part of the story, so you can definitely look at it as a collaboration. But with Still, we also had a third storytelling element which was that we manipulated footage from his movies to show certain moments in his life. And that’s something really different. The fun part of making documentaries right now is that the rules have changed completely. My father made documentaries, and I think in the sixties and seventies, you couldn't do any of these things. Even the music we're using: Guns ‘n Roses, and Beastie Boys, and a big Hollywood score. That’s what I want to be doing with my work right now, pushing the boundaries really hard, seeing how far I can go.

As you move forward in your career, is it getting harder to push those boundaries every time?

I love that question, and if you'd asked me three years ago, I would have said, “Yeah, I feel like I'm in a rut. I've been using the same techniques that I always used.” But now I feel like we broke all the rules, and I want to do another one like this. I think with movies, a scripted movies, the form is kind of stuck in place: you know what you're gonna get with a Marvel movie, with a Ryan Reynolds movie, with a Tom Cruise movie. With documentaries, the form is just exploding, and that's incredibly exciting for me creatively. I want to keep breaking the rules.