It isnt surprising that winning last years Best Doc Oscar has changed Davis Guggenheims life and prospects.
Its a whole new world. People come to me now to make docs. Im working on a sort of follow up to An Inconvenient Truth– its about the oceans. And there are other projects in the works, but I cant 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.”
Im not eliminating fiction features and TV from my schedule, but Id have to admit Id give them both up to concentrate on docs– theyre my true passion. That might happen. The business has changed so much– people think docs are more entertaining and theres 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 whos determined to play on her schools boys soccer team (there were no girls soccer teams in 1978), the script was inspired by the real life experiences of Guggenheims wife, Elisabeth Shue, who is one of the films stars (actually shes 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. Its especially important for the girls to see it– in fact, I wrote a scene in the movie especially for them. Thats when Gracie asks, Dad, do you ever wish I was a boy?. I think thats a big thing with dads, who secretly want all their kids to be boys– and find girls challenging, mysterious and, then, wonderful. I think its an important issue in a sports-crazed family– like my wifes– 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 dont think youre 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 isnt just defined by what boys qualities are– its challenged my impression of girls.
MERIN: How closely does the script follow Elisabeths experiences, and those of her family?
GUGGENHEIM: Theres a lot thats the same and a lot thats different. We decided that it would be inspired by one familys true story. Those words were carefully chosen. We chose not to try to get all the facts right. Theyre very private people, and wanted to protect their own experiences.
Its 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. Thats what fascinated me– how their love for him sent them in a different direction.
Elisabeth quit soccer when she was 13– and thats 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 hadnt. 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 hes right because its 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 wasnt like I was abandoning the family.
MERIN: Directing Elisabeth, you wife, to play her mother sounds impossibly complicated .
GUGGENHEIM: Her mother wasnt 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. Thats a critical moment in that young girls life. We found that very beautiful, almost as if Elisabeth were an angel whod 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 arent 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, youre 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: Gracies 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 theres personal stuff in movies– and thats 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. Thats inspiring.
MERIN; How do you communicate with the protagonist Al Gore, whos 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. Thats everything, isnt 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, its really about getting great performances. Thats true in docs and fiction. And when I say great performances, I mean get them to express themselves. In Gracie, youre asking the actors to play characters different from themselves, As a director, youre trying to locate what in them actually connects to the character. Carly could identify with what Gracie felt, even though shes grown up in very different circumstances. Its about drilling past the intellect, past the defensive reserves and calluses and protecting emotions and deep into the vulnerable core. And in that, its the same thing. Theres an emotional rawness about it.
MERIN: Since Gracies about girls and soccer, its likely to be compared to Bend it Like Beckham. Do you think the films are similar?
GUGGGENHEIM: Bend it like Beckhams a very different movie. Beckham is a cultural conflict story, whereas Gracie isnt. And, Beckham is more comedic, while our films a drama. But Beckhams 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 movies 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 its for fathers who feel that friction with raising a girl. But some other people may not connect to this. Its a very simple movie. It doesnt redefine cinema, it doesnt have a lot of effects and it isnt 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 theyre good. They have the Shue genes, you know. Miles is an all star in California, and every week were out there at the soccer field with him. Stella likes it and is good. And well see about Agnes as she grows up– of course, I would like there to be the opportunity for her.