Learning to tell the truth
When Davis Guggenheim slipped into the back of a conference room at the Beverly Hills Hilton to see Al Gore deliver what he describes as his “slideshow” on the perils facing the planet because of global warming, the director was sceptical that the former vice-president’s wake-up call for mankind could be turned into a riveting film.
About two hours later he emerged convinced that he was entirely wrong. And just weeks later the two men embarked on a six-month journey that would result in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
“When the producers, Lawrence Bender and Laurie David, asked me to do this I tried to talk them out of making it,” says Guggenheim.
“First of all, I’m not an environmentalist and they told me there was this slideshow, and I didn’t think you could make a movie out of a slideshow.
Also, I was worried that Gore had so much political baggage.
“And they said, ‘Look, you have to see it ... ’ and when I saw it I realised that the message in the movie is not political. It immediately struck me that it could cross over and I do believe that it is crossing over.”
Guggenheim’s instincts told him that the key to making a successful film was in documenting Gore’s personal journey as a way to illuminate his political beliefs and moral stand on the environment.
Although Gore has been a fervent campaigner on environmental issues for more than 30 years, several events in his life—his sister’s death from lung cancer, the car accident that nearly took the life of his son—reinforced his commitment to placing global warming at the top of the world’s agenda. His message is chilling and simple—we must act now to save our planet from irreparable damage. For Guggenheim, the message and the man delivering it became a fascinating study.
“What I was interested in was the story of this man who has had this truth for 30 years and no one would listen to him. And there he is going out there in the world saying, ‘This is urgent, the planet is in danger and no one is listening … ’ and you see his journey to tell that truth and to wake people up.”
But Gore continued to be convinced that it was the right approach. “He did not want to do the personal stories,” says Guggenheim.
“The problem with global warming is that it’s so abstract and, forgive the word, cosmic. It’s so about how we live and it’s everywhere, but it’s not in front of us. I knew you needed to invest in somebody to be invested in the movie and there was something in his quest to tell us that was very interesting and that if I told that story that maybe people would invest in the movie.”
The massive personal setback of losing the 2000 presidential election in such a controversial way is also addressed in the film. Guggenheim has admiration for the way that Gore picked himself up, dusted himself down and carried on fighting for a cause he so passionately believes in.
“He talks very beautifully about what a blow that was and the choice he had. As he says, ‘What do you do?’ And I think that is the movie. Because, what do you do? Well, you go out and you talk about what you believe in, no matter what.”
Guggenheim joined Gore on the road, as he took his “slideshow” out to Americans. He was impressed by his ceaseless energy and commitment.
“He’s unbelievable,” he says. “He works two days for every day I work. And he never stops. If a small group in Detroit calls and say that they want him to give the slide show, he’ll go.”
The result is a documentary that is accessible, at times funny, touching, illuminating and a dire warning on the perilous state of our planet.
When this interview was conducted, during the Cannes Film Festival, where An Inconvenient Truth received rave notices, Gore used the opportunity to get the message across by giving countless interviews.
Guggenheim (42) cut his creative teeth directing television shows including episodes of NYPD Blue, The Shield, ER, Alias and 24. He was producer and director of the Emmy Award-winning HBO series Deadwood and directed the movie Gossip for Warner Bros and executive produced Training Day.
His documentary work includes The First Year and Teach, both films chronicling the lives of teachers working in the often challenging, tough public school system in Los Angeles.
Working with Gore, however, would prove to be a unique, life-changing experience for the filmmaker. “Oh yes. I have a hybrid car now, I’m installing solar panels on my roof. And you know, I really believe that I was asleep to this issue and he woke me up.”
Guggenheim is married to the actress Elizabeth Shue and they have two children.
An Inconvenient Truth opens nationwide on October 20