There’s already been a good deal written about Davis Guggenheim’s latest doc It Might Get Loud, his love letter to the electric guitar as told by three legendary ax men—Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s Edge and The White Stripes’ Jack White—and climaxing with an epic meeting of the guitarists. But there’s one curiosity that has not gotten nearly enough press: Jack White traipses around much of the movie in a farmhouse, seemingly untouched by modernity, teaching a nine-year-old version of himself about guitars, life and the best way to stomp out a ragged blues tune. It’s strange.
So when Oscar winner Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) agreed to sit down with MovieMaker to talk about his movie, which opens August 14, we tried to unpack exactly what was at work here. It didn’t go so well. We now present our interview, beginning with Guggenheim hiding behind a coy grin and skillfully deflecting inquiries on this subject that he clearly prefers left unexplained. Luckily, he then opens up about everything else.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): I have a note here that says “young Jack.”
Davis Guggenheim (DG): Jack is Jack. The way we made the movie was, we let each guitarist tell his story. What’s interesting about the movie is that there’s no one else; no ex-girlfriends, no rock critics, no historians.
MM: Just three people.
DG: They tell their own stories. And Jack was like, “To tell my story, I’d like to teach myself how to play guitar.” I’m like, ‘OK. I’ll go with it; I’ll do anything.’ The next day he showed up with Jack White as a nine-year-old. He got out of the car and said, “Davis, I’d like to introduce you to Jack White.” And I was like, ‘Cool.’
MM: Were there any follow-up questions?
DG: No. I’m a documentary filmmaker. It was great, he was teaching himself how to play guitar. I think when you watch the movie it says everything about his approach. That’s Jack White.
MM: So the movie’s focused around this one event, this meeting of the three guitarists.
DG: We call it ‘The Summit.’
MM: It looked like you shot it on a different camera than the interviews?
DG: The non-Summit stuff was on Super 16 film. For the Summit, the idea was: What would it be like if we weren’t there? Just three guys in a rehearsal space; three guys, three chairs, their guitars, amps… that’s it. The idea was to get really long lenses—let’s get way back—five cameras, all HD.
MM: Do you remember what kind?
DG: The latest and best Sony cameras. They’re beautiful. The idea was, they [the guitarists] never spoke to each other before. They met exactly at the moment we were filming. We just filmed and filmed and filmed; for two days the camera was on. Whatever they did we followed and were ready for.
MM: What was that first moment like when the first sat down?
DG: Tense. These guys are used to set lists. They kept saying, “What do you want me to do?” And I said, ‘I’m not going to tell you.’ If I told them what to do, it would just be by rote. It wouldn’t be very interesting. For the first couple hours, I’m like, ‘This is going to suck!’ It was, “Hi. How are you doing. How are your kids.” (laughs)
And then out of nowhere, Jimmy picks up his guitar and plays “Whole Lotta Love.” The room just filled with that guitar. Jack and Edge lean in and it’s kind of a throwdown! Like, “I’m playing my stuff, you play yours.”
MM: Don’t you get the impression that Jimmy Page does that whenever there’s tension in the room?
DG: Well that’s the interesting thing about the movie. These guys speak with their guitars. Usually the lead singer speaks with words, but if you go to these concerts, what you’re feeling—you may be hearing words—but what you’re feeling is that guitar and that’s what this movie is about. What is that thing that they do?
MM: I read that before you filmed anything you conducted extensive, one-on-one interviews with these guys?
DG: Well, the thing I’m after in the documentaries I make is to get as personal as I can. So what we started with were these interviews on sound only. Just sitting in a room with Jimmy for two days; no camera crew, just me and him talking, like this. He just started telling stories, what steps on his path were interesting to him. From that audio I’d go, ‘OK, this is where the movie’s going.’ From there I knew where to go. So he talks about “When the Levee Breaks” and recording in that house; that’s where we went. Edge talks about the four-track tapes, and we went there. They told me by their personal stories, through these interviews, where to go.
Then we’d be in the studio: ‘You talk about light and shade, Jimmy. What does that mean?’ He picks up his guitar and plays “Ramble On” and goes, “This is what I mean.” How cool would it be to answer a question with an electric guitar? But be Jimmy Page.
MM: And be more eloquent with the guitar.
DG: They’re more eloquent with the guitar. This is how they talk. Edge says, “What’s coming out of the speakers, that’s me. That’s my voice.”
MM: You worked with two different cinematographers.