“Inconvenient Truth” director recalls Derbies, house parties

Friday, February 16, 2007

As an undergraduate, Davis Guggenheim ’86 said he could “out-sleep” anyone at the Rockefeller Library. A self-described “total geek,” Guggenheim said he would go to the Rock every night and would sleep at his carrel for three hours instead of working on his senior thesis. Twenty years later, Guggenheim enjoys slightly more auspicious evening plans. On Feb. 25, he will don a tuxedo and walk the red carpet with former Vice President Al Gore in hopes of collecting an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his directorial work on “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“It’s thrilling,” Guggenheim told The Herald. “It’s not just a golden statue – it means that our message will reach out that much more.”

Guggenheim admitted he did not always have such faith in “An Inconvenient Truth,” which tells the story of Gore’s crusade to fight global warming and is the third-highest-grossing documentary in the United States to date. When producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender first approached him about directing the documentary, he voiced apprehension. Guggenheim said he initially thought a film on a slide show and an out-of-work politician would be “a terrible idea.”

But after viewing the first 15 minutes of Gore’s presentation, Guggenheim realized he had to find a way to make the film work.

Filming “An Inconvenient Truth” proved to be a “race against time,” Guggenheim said. Gore, Guggenheim and the film’s producers wanted to complete it before the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006. They finished it in six months, during a time when news was breaking about the realities of global climate change, according to Guggenheim.

Hurricane Katrina, the strength of which some scientists attribute to climate change, struck one day before Guggenheim was set to film in New Orleans.

“It really felt like global warming was in the zeitgeist at the moment,” Guggenheim said. “It felt extremely urgent. We felt like were onto something and like we had to make it right away.”

Working with Gore also helped to bolster Guggenheim’s commitment to the documentary’s message.

“Al is really driven,” he said. “When you’re in a room with him, you feel like you are working next to one of those great figures who is trying to change the world. That sounds cliche, but it’s the way that great leaders are.”

Though Guggenheim does not describe himself as an environmentalist, he acknowledged early stirrings of activism while at Brown. During his senior year, he and a friend built a shanty on the Main Green to urge the University to divest from companies operating in South Africa.

In addition to sleeping at the Rock and constructing crude huts on the Main Green, Guggenheim also sang a cappella in the then-fledgling Brown Derbies – but he could not remember any of the group’s songs. According to the Derbies’ Web site, Guggenheim soloed on “Cadillac Heaven” and “Take the A Train,” both featured on the 1986 album “Derby Laundry.”

“We were sometimes pretty good and sometimes pretty awful,” Guggenheim said. “It’s kind of embarrassing to look back on. … I would imagine the Brown Derbies are much more accomplished now.”

Guggenheim said he originally intended to concentrate in semiotics but was “completely lost,” so he switched to American Civilization.

When not at work on his senior thesis – in which he argued that Jewish filmmakers had abandoned their ethnic roots in order to find success in Hollywood – Guggenheim and his friends spent their time like many college students do: throwing parties.

“The Providence Police used to come to our apartment to shut down our parties,” he said. “We didn’t have the best parties on campus, but we tried.”

After graduating, Guggenheim struck out for Hollywood, joining the independent company Outlaw Productions and working on such films as Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” Guggenheim also directed two documentaries about the Los Angeles public school system. He was the executive producer on “Training Day,” directed the feature film “Gossip” and has accumulated numerous television directing credits, including episodes of “Alias,” “24,” “NYPD Blue” and “ER.”

Up next for Guggenheim is “Gracie,” a film based on the teenage years of his wife, actress Elisabeth Shue.

“Imagine the movie ‘Rocky,’ but with the lead as a teenage girl,” Guggenheim said. “It’s one of these impossible stories of a girl who wants to play soccer on an all-boys team. It’s very inspirational.”

After “Gracie” is released in early June this year, Guggenheim said he intends to return to documentaries. He has a number of films lined up, including a potential follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth” and perhaps a film on the current perjury trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr.

“I’d love to keep making documentaries,” Guggenheim said. “There’s no better feeling than making something that works as a movie and works as a force of good. I’d love to keep doing that.”