Davis Guggenheim chats with Jennifer Merin re “Gracie”

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It isn’t surprising that winning last year’s Best Doc Oscar has changed Davis Guggenheim’s life and prospects.

“It’s a whole new world. People come to me now to make docs. I’m working on a sort of follow up to “An Inconvenient Truth“– it‘s about the oceans. And there are other projects in the works, but I can’t talk about them yet,” says Guggenheim, who keeps his golden statuette in his bedroom, next to the one won by his father, Charles Guggenheim, for a film, “Robert Kennedy Remembered.”

“I’m not eliminating fiction features and TV from my schedule, but I’d have to admit I’d give them both up to concentrate on docs– they’re my true passion. That might happen. The business has changed so much– people think docs are more entertaining and there‘s a bigger audience for them. And, I think docs are getting better, too, because more dramatic elements are being brought into them. I think they actually can make a difference.”

So, perhaps, can “Gracie,” the fiction feature Guggenheim began working on before he made “Inconvenient Truth.” About a young girl who’s determined to play on her school’s boys’ soccer team (there were no girls’ soccer teams in 1978), the script was inspired by the real life experiences of Guggenheim’s wife, Elisabeth Shue, who is one of the film’s stars (actually she‘s playing the character based on her own mother).

“My main goal in making this film is that my three children, Miles (age 9), Stella (6) and Agnes (11 months), will get to know what their mother was like,” says Guggenheim. “It’s especially important for the girls to see it– in fact, I wrote a scene in the movie especially for them. That’s when Gracie asks, ‘Dad, do you ever wish I was a boy?’.” I think that’s a big thing with dads, who secretly want all their kids to be boys– and find girls challenging, mysterious and, then, wonderful. I think it’s an important issue in a sports-crazed family– like my wife’s– that a girl will think maybe her father wanted her to be a boy. I face that with my own girls– tensions and all. And working on this film has made me as a father see my daughters differently. You don’t think you’re a biased person, but then you see how you treat your boy and girl children differently. The film has tested my attitude and made me see that success isn’t just defined by what boy’s qualities are– it’s challenged my impression of girls.”

MERIN: How closely does the script follow Elisabeth’s experiences, and those of her family?

GUGGENHEIM: There’s a lot that’s the same and a lot that’s different. We decided that it would be “inspired by one family’s true story.” Those words were carefully chosen. We chose not to try to get all the facts right. They’re very private people, and wanted to protect their own experiences.

It’s true, however, that my wife was the only girl on an all boys team, but that was at a different time period. The father is very different. We wanted Carly Schroeder to find her own character as Gracie, but to be inspired by the time, place and family.

Elisabeth was the only girl in family of three boys. They were soccer crazed. In many respects, she was discounted because she was a girl. Her brother will was the family hero, and he was killed in an accident, but was actually a bit older when that happened. He was 22 and she was 25. I met her about a year after that happened, and felt the family was broken, just devastated. But through the tragedy, they all became incredible people. That’s what fascinated me– how their love for him sent them in a different direction.

Elisabeth quit soccer when she was 13– and that‘s different from what happens in the film. She was the only girl, and when her body started to develop, the coach made an embarrassing comment. She was humiliated, and worried about what her friends would think. So she quit. But she wishes she hadn’t. So “Gracie” is wish fulfillment in a way. Elisabeth still has this fierce fighting spirit. She now plays three hours of tennis everyday and wants to compete professionally.

MERIN: Elisabeth stars, Andrew Shue co-wrote and produced. How was it working with family members– especially about a subject so close to home?

GUGGENHEIM: Samuel Goldwyn had a theory of relativilty– that you should never work with your relatives. And he’s right because it’s really hard to keep the boundaries in place. Mostly it was good– and no doubt it was special. It was a better movie because we were all doing it together. And at 6 AM, when I had to go to work, Elizabeth had to come with me. So it wasn’t like I was abandoning the family.

MERIN: Directing Elisabeth, you wife, to play her mother sounds impossibly complicated….

GUGGENHEIM: Her mother wasn’t interested in sports and I think the most talked-about scene is when Elisabeth, playing her own mother, comes to Carly, playing her daughter, and tells her not to give up. That was a beautiful scene to work on– because imagine being able to be your own parent and steering yourself along through a critical moment. That’s a critical moment in that young girl’s life. We found that very beautiful, almost as if Elisabeth were an angel who’d come into her own life– if that makes sense.

MERIN: It does. And it also underscores the complexity of the relationships on your set. I think that complex relationships on set aren’t new to you. When you made “An Inconvenient Truth,” you were basically staging a slide show for film, and you developed a close and trusting relationship with Al Gore to get him to reveal personal beliefs and background information that became interwoven with the slide show– and that became the structure of the film. In “Gracie,” you’re working with close family members whose backgrounds and beliefs are familiar to you, and playing with events that occurred and changed their lives. Did that make the structuring and realization of this film different from that of “An Inconvenient Truth?”

GUGGENHEIM: “Gracie’s” a simple story– like “Rocky” or “Rudy.” And those stories are comfortable, they have a familiar resonance. “An Inconvenient Truth” was more out of the box. I knew the film needed those personal elements from Al Gore. I shot them separately and then figured out how to put them into the movie. But there’s personal stuff in movies– and that’s the common theme. And, that way of looking at filmmaking, of structuring films, comes from my father, who made documentaries. To him, every film was personal. People go to see movies to identify with characters and connect with their hardships. So, in that sense, the personal stories of “Gracie” and “An Inconvenient Truth” are similar. Both of their spirits, although different, when things got really rotten and terrible, they both fought to overcome adversity. That’s inspiring.

MERIN; How do you communicate with the protagonist Al Gore, who’s not trained as an actor, differently than you do with trained actors to get them to do what you want them to do?

GUGGENHEIM: Wow. That’s everything, isn’t it? I used to think directing was about lenses and shots and color and mise en scene and all that film school stuff. But in the end, it’s really about getting great performances. That’s true in docs and fiction. And when I say great performances, I mean get them to express themselves. In “Gracie,” you’re asking the actors to play characters different from themselves, As a director, you’re trying to locate what in them actually connects to the character. Carly could identify with what Gracie felt, even though she’s grown up in very different circumstances. It’s about drilling past the intellect, past the defensive reserves and calluses and protecting emotions and deep into the vulnerable core. And in that, it’s the same thing. There’s an emotional rawness about it.

MERIN: Since “Gracie’s” about girls and soccer, it’s likely to be compared to “Bend it Like Beckham.” Do you think the films are similar?

GUGGGENHEIM: “Bend it like Beckham’s” a very different movie. “Beckham” is a cultural conflict story, whereas “Gracie” isn’t. And, “Beckham” is more comedic, while our film’s a drama. But “Beckham’s” success gave us confidence that people are interested in movies about girls playing sports, and that that audiences will identify with a girl playing soccer. But the story is very different.

I hope girls will watch “Gracie” the way I watched “Rocky“ when I was a boy. The movie’s about an underdog who succeeds and is a hero. I hope it will inspire girls today.

I think “Gracie” plays to specific audiences– including any girl who wants to do anything that breaks boundaries of gender. I think it‘s for fathers who feel that friction with raising a girl. But some other people may not connect to this. It’s a very simple movie. It doesn’t redefine cinema, it doesn’t have a lot of effects and it isn’t showy in that way. But it does deal with deep emotional things, and soccer is really a metaphor for overcoming adversity.

MERIN: Do your children play soccer?

GUGGENHEIM: Yes, and they’re good. They have the Shue genes, you know. Miles is an all star in California, and every week we’re out there at the soccer field with him. Stella likes it and is good. And we’ll see about Agnes as she grows up– of course, I would like there to be the opportunity for her.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).