Academy Award-winning producer and director of An Inconvenient Truth reveals many truths to Kimberly Gadette while discussing It Might Get Loud, Guggenheim's new film starring rock legends Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White.
Davis Guggenheim may not be a musician himself, but to borrow from Stevie Wonder, he plays many songs in the key of life. He's a documentarian (An Inconvenient Truth and the Barack Obama biography, A Mother's Life), a feature film director (Gracie, based on the real-life experience of his wife, actress Elisabeth Shue), a television director (the pilot of the updated Melrose Place, plus episodes of such critically-acclaimed series as Deadwood, 24, The Shield) and producer (Training Day).
Guggenheim's latest film, It Might Get Loud, intertwines the reflections, backgrounds and career paths of three disparate guitar virtuosos: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs). At the epicenter of it all, Guggenheim orchestrates a musical meeting ("the Summit") between the rock stars and their guitars on a soundstage in Los Angeles, California. How does it all play out?
Davis Guggenheim has the answers:
IMO: Why the choice of these three musicians? You mentioned in a prior article that the choice was "organic." Could you expound?
DG: Isn't that pretentious? I'm trying so hard not to be pretentious in my answers! "Organic" … hmm, okay, this is the truth … some assistant handed me the Rolling Stone "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time." Jeff Beck is #14 and Eric Clapton is #4 – and I was looking at it and thought, you can't do that!
IMO: By the way, Jimmy Page is #9.
DG: (laughing) Right, this didn't make any sense to me. You're going to compare? I reject the idea of numerically putting one before the other. It's impossible. Instead, what you've got to do is pick the ones you love. But, truthfully, there are rock stars who can't talk about their art, just like there are great film directors who can't talk about what they do, either. There are rock stars who aren't artists but just happen to have great hair. There are rock stars who are virtuosos, they're technicians, but they're not artists. We wanted three guys who weren't just stars but were virtuosos and communicative as well. And these three had everything. They're fascinating individuals. In essence, searchers. I also wanted them to be of different generations, having different approaches. In many ways what The Edge does is in direct opposition to what Jimmy Page/Led Zeppelin did; he talks about it in the film. Having dramatic differences creates chemistry.
IMO: I read that Jack White was the last of the three to come on board. Who signed on first?
IMO: Were there any substantial objections from any of them that you had to overcome?
DG: It was a long process to get Jimmy. He'd never done anything like this. He'd never even done interviews; there's two or three pieces with him talking over a span of forty years. But the first obstacle was our own – we felt that we couldn't get him so we didn't even try. And then we thought, no, we have to try. It was a long process of courting his managers, and convincing them of our vision. Once they finally said yes, I flew to London to talk to Jimmy about what I wanted to do.
IMO: I read that you sequestered all three talents in separate trailers before their first face-to-face meeting on an L.A. soundstage, which the film refers to as "the Summit." Did the spark and the spontaneity that you hoped for happen?
DG: Yeah! In spades. It happened so much that there were too many scenes, and unfortunately I couldn't put everything in the movie. I've got footage of the three of them playing Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir;" I filmed them telling stories that are just incredible. When my friends come to the editing room I show them scenes that aren't in the movie.
IMO: You'll have to do a sequel --
DG: Or the DVD commentary. Though I'm not the one who ultimately decides whether or not my film works, to me, I'm very moved by them and what they talk about. I'm very taken by the energy that happens in this movie; when the three of them come together and play "In the Time of Dying," magic happens. Some unspoken connection that is unspoken for a reason, a kind of magic has nothing to do with words. Magic that is music. And again, I think I'm sounding pretentious …
IMO: No, you're not, you're sounding sincere! Since you're talking about things that move you … which bands did you personally love when you were growing up? Any records that you came close to wearing out?
DG: I wore out U2's first album, Boy. I felt that this was the music for my generation. Before, I'd always listened to my older brother's music, eg, Little Feat, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, but I was too young to be virtually in the front row for these bands. But when Boy came along, for me it was a shot across the bow of classic rock. It was a new generation. These were guys my age; it was punk and it was in your face and intense, fresh and new.
IMO: Speaking of being in the front row, how did you feel when Jimmy Page burst into playing his classics just in front of you and your crew? Such as the scene of him playing "Ramble On" in his home studio or strumming "The Battle of Evermore" on a mandolin in the backyard at Headley Grange?
DG: I was thinking, "Please, please, please, make sure the film goes through the camera properly and that everything's working, the exposure and the lab, and that the sound man doesn't screw something up." There were about twenty of those moments when my eyes would dart across to my crew, as if to say you better be fucking getting this!
IMO: In the film, we hear Edge's unscripted warning that "It might get loud" – and bingo, there's the perfect title. Was there another one prior?
DG: Do you like the title?
IMO: I love it.
DG: Good! That also happened with An Inconvenient Truth. Al [Gore] and I were just talking, and out of nowhere, there it was. I'd never heard him say anything like it before. We were arguing about why people don't get the global warming issue and he said, "It's inconvenient; it's an inconvenient truth." And that's what happened here. You hear something and you say, "That's it."
IMO: So it just had a generic name beforehand?
DG: Untitled Guitar Documentary. I'm now in the middle of Untitled Public Education Documentary, and I'm desperate for that title to come. I'm panicked that I won't get it in time. You can't conjure it; you can't say, "Today I'm going to find it."
IMO: Since you've previously directed documentaries with President Obama and Vice-President Gore, I would think working with three gods of rock and roll would be less intimidating for you than for others.
DG: I've never been more uncomfortable than with these guys, probably because of my own personal baggage, of being a fan, of being the kid in the nosebleed section. I'd be terrified to make a film about football players, too, since I'm a huge football fan. That's a dangerous thing, when you're too close to something …
IMO: You might drool all over the camera, it's embarrassing.
DG [laughing heartily]: Somehow I don't get intimidated with politicians or famous actors; I feel more comfortable, I'm just trying to do my job. But these guys are rock stars and when they start playing music, I can't help but melt.
IMO: Looking at all your prior documentaries, addressing such topics as global warming, President Obama's early life, teachers in the Los Angeles school system, which you just mentioned you're re-examining … as an outsider, it occurs to me that this film might be closest in spirit to your 1999 "The Art of Norton Simon."
DG: Wow! You're the first person to bring that one up! I think you're right in a way … though that movie's more about a collector than about artists. Yet it's still about a man finding a creative path. With this movie, I have a special connection because I'm trying, emphasize "trying," to live a creative life. It's hard, really hard … you have to ask yourself, are you truly passionate today? Are you truly serving this creative life? I deeply connect with this film because these guys inspire me; because they are living that creative life. And I know that's why their music is good.
As for my own lesson: I had a powerful experience that sent me backwards. I was a production assistant on the movie Sex, Lies & Videotape, and my job was to drive Steven Soderbergh around Los Angeles because he didn't have a car. We were both the same age – 26 – and he was already a fully-formed, brilliant filmmaker. Comparing myself against him, I felt like I couldn’t do anything like that.
IMO: That's so unfair, to compare yourself to others, using artificial parameters like age …
DG: Yeah, now I'm feeling more confident, but it's also twenty years later. At the time, it really stunted me. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when I watch this film, I think, "You aren't born with this kind of creative spark. These artists are creatively productive not out of some magic; they're creatively productive because they're open to their emotions and they're tenacious. They never settle. And it's work; it's work to be emotionally open and it's work to get it right." And that was true with Soderbergh, I just didn't know it at the time. And when I met him, he'd probably already been doing it for ten years.
IMO: What's also hard is not just the work itself, but the redoing, the rewriting, the revising of the work. The frustration, the impulse to say, "Isn't it perfect yet? Can't we get to 'perfect' sooner than later?"
DG: Exactly. We were filming The Edge, who's at the top of "Rock Star-ness," and he outlasted us. We'd shot until one o'clock in the morning. We were finally done, we took our lights down, we packed up the truck. I went back upstairs to say goodnight, and he was still working on this one track. He didn't even notice that we had stopped shooting. He didn't notice that we were filming! He's got that kind of intensity.
IMO: Speaking of The Edge, in a recent article he describes himself as "the sideman who has to make everyone else look good." In the film, he points to the stage-right area of his high school's outdoor stage, saying that's where he stood then, and that's where he's still standing today. How difficult was it to move this self-described sideman front and center during his particular segments?
DG [exhaling, taking a long pause before answering]: I think Edge is born with a certain kind of modesty. What makes U2 great is that Bono … is not. Bono is charismatic and expressive, but that band also needs the Edge's quiet brilliance. When you watch U2 in person, you feel that guitar. The unspoken thing is the guitarist who's front and center.
True story: Long before this movie happened, eight years ago, I was at a U2 concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and I was in ecstasy. My wife looked over at me and said, "You want to be Bono, don't you?" And I said, "No. I want to be Edge." Because when you're in a concert, and the speakers are blasting, and you feel the pressure of that sound coming at you, you're feeling the guitar. The guitar is ruling that day. So even in that quote you just brought up, Edge is being modest.
IMO: Many guitar aficionados are familiar with the true story of how Les Paul invented his version of the electric guitar in 1939 with "The Log," which was a length of a 4″x4″ fence post with strings and a pickup attached. Does the film's opening – showing Jack White constructing a rudimentary instrument by nailing a string and a pickup to a plank of wood – does that hearken back to this legendary Les Paul story purposely?
DG: Not purposely. And you're the first person to bring it up! I'd researched Les Paul, but I'd forgotten about that story. But I'm sure Jack White had that instinct. Our scene spoke more to him saying, "I don't believe that buying a $5,000 guitar is going to make you a great guitar player. Look, I can play an amazing song on a piece of wood with some nails." I think that's what he was saying. I didn't want the movie to be about history, or the encyclopedia; I didn't want to be profound about this instrument. In fact, Jack got it right when he said, "The guitar is the MacGuffin* in this movie."
(*IMO Note: "MacGuffin" is a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, referring to a cinematic plot device that drives the movie. The device is ultimately not that important; rather, the importance lies with the characters—how they feel about the device, as well as the decisions they make in pursing it.)
You think Hitchcock's Notorious is about finding the uranium. It's not. That's the MacGuffin. It's a story about a love triangle and trust. Hitchcock knows that the audience isn't going to invest in the idea of trust; they're going to first get strung along by the uranium, until they're hooked in by the characters. Instead of the guitar, this film could have been about the flute – except the flute isn't as sexy.
IMO: I just got an image of the three of them at the Summit rocking out with flutes!
DG: Weirdly, Edge told me that in their original band Feedback, which predated U2, they had a flutist. And that they played a Moody Blues cover. You're the only person I've told that to.
IMO: Cool, an exclusive! Talk to me about the three of them and their conflicting musical beliefs. For example, Edge loves his sound effects, while Jack White prefers a stripped-down purity. As the director, were you concerned about how to impartially honor all of their different views?
DG: That's a good question – but I was more concerned about getting their stories right. That's the hard part; you build scenes and many of those building stones don't feel right, they don't feel authentic. My intent was that at any given time in the movie, are we with the musician in a really truthful way? Does it feel emotionally true? And so that was the challenge. To do that, I built three separate movies; I made an Edge movie, a Jack movie and a Jimmy movie. And then, only when I did that, could I cut them together.
By the way, some people say, "Oh, I love this person more than that one." Or they'll say, "This one person steals the movie," or "One person is more guarded than the others." And it's always different. This movie is a kind of Rorschach test … which of the three stories connects to the individual viewer more.
IMO: It seemed that Jack White's segments had a particularly wacky flavor. Such as when Jack White the adult gives a music lesson to Jack White the nine-year-old. I assume that was his idea?
DG: Yes, that was his idea! Maybe the documentaries of ten years ago wouldn't have allowed that, but now you can.
IMO: And there was an animation portion, illustrating his boyhood bedroom …
DG: The real discovery for me doing this film started with sound-only interviews. I would spend two days in a room with Jimmy talking, just with a microphone. And that would become the connective tissue of his story. So when Jack talked about being a kid in a room with two drum kits and no place to put his bed, so he had to sleep on a pad in the middle, that said everything about him. But since we had no photographs of that, we decided to animate it. I was worried people would complain about it. That they'd say, "You can't do that, it's not a documentary."
IMO: Is it difficult for you to leap from directing documentaries to features to episodic television and then back again?
DG: It was not by any design; in the middle of this movie I did Melrose Place. In the middle of An Inconvenient Truth I did a doctor drama and a soccer movie. I seem to like it. I get new ideas from different places; it's like cross-pollination in my brain.
IMO: Your earlier concern about staying true to your art—isn't it possible that all this leaping is sparking you, keeping you very much artistically alive?
DG: Yes, never settling, always being challenged. To me the most creative time has been when I've been the most desperate.
IMO: What do you mean?
DG: When I did HBO's Deadwood, I didn't have a career. I had quit the business because I couldn't get a good job. And then I got that job, it was an amazing job, and I felt like I had nothing to lose, so I put all of me into that project. There was also a desperation in making An Inconvenient Truth; when you do that, you're not over-thinking, you're not saying, well, here's my reputation that I've got to uphold. Maybe the leaping is a way of keeping that desperation alive. Leaping genres means that I now have to learn this whole new thing. Try to do a keen soap opera …
IMO: Like doing Melrose Place at the same time that you're working with Jimmy Page …
DG: It's harder than you think!
IMO: In the film, Jack White jokes about meeting up with the other two players, suggesting it might end up in "a fist fight." Though we talked earlier about how amazing it was when all of them first walked onto the soundstage, how well did these three personalities mix? And also, how long did it take to shoot those scenes at the Summit?
DG: Two days. I like to imagine a band that has a rehearsal space that's just perfect. That they alone walk into, where no one else is allowed, and that's where they're creative, that's where they're "the band." That's what I wanted out of that stage, for them, their time, as if we weren't even there.
But it did take them time to warm up to each other. There was an uncomfortable period – and then Jimmy picked up the guitar and started to play. And that changed everything.
At the end of the second day, I said thank you so much, sorry for running late, and they didn't want to leave. They just kept talking. They speak each other's language.
IMO: Would you say that there was an epiphany for you, your feelings about rock music, or artistry in general, that took you from the start of this project to now?
DG: Just what I addressed earlier: never settling. Never settling. Seeing Edge by himself, late at night working on just one riff over and over and over again … and I thought, yeah, that's the same thing as making a movie. People think it's some kind of glamorous thing where you're wearing the right clothes. It's not. It's about staying creatively open, and the commitment to doing the hard, hard emotional work.
An overview of the film
For anyone even slightly interested in rock music, It Might Get Loud packs a high-decibel punch. Documentarian Davis Guggenheim takes us on a magical mystery tour through the minds, music and memories of three rock legends, namely Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2 and Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs.
Particularly since Jimmy Page has been fairly reclusive for forty years, the vision of this now white-haired rock legend grinning and hanging with new, younger friends, tearing into the main riff of "Whole Lotta Love" is a rare treat.
This film isn't about the history of rock but, rather, bits of individual history volunteered from the three rockers. Because Page was inspired by '50s legends Link Wray and Lonnie Donnegan, we experience their rare performance footage. Because White speaks of his early Delta blues leanings, influenced by '30s singer/guitarist Son House, we hear an early vocal recording of House's "Grinnin' in Your Face."
As for The Edge, we view a more personal history as he takes us back to his high school classroom where he first met and played with his mates, forming a modest little group called U2.
Rather than dueling guitarists, we hear dueling guitar theories. Such as Jack White believing in the struggle of man over material, forcing great sound from low-end plastic guitars he finds in thrift stores. In direct opposition, we see The Edge working around the clock to reproduce a specific sound in his head – a sound he can't achieve without hours of experimentation, playing his guitar through endless banks of effects units.
Kudos to director Guggenheim, who balances and weaves the three stories around and through each other in perfect counterpoint. Even more credit goes to this documentarian who we neither see nor hear, who virtually disappears into the eye of the camera. Allowing us, perennial fans of both the music and the music makers, to take it all in from the best seats in the house.
So what are they planning to do for an encore?
Release date: US: August 14, 2009
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Jimmy Page, The Edge, Jack White
Rating: US = PG
Running time: 97 minutes