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.
DG: At least two. We have two credited cinematographers. Guillermo Navarro did the Summit, which was a very complicated lighting thing and he did a beautiful job. And Erich Roland did most of the other stuff. We had other guys in London and Dublin who were great; they’re credited further down. With a documentary you shoot with the people you have. But Erich Roland did a great job. So did Guillermo.
And it is two wildly different types of storytelling. One is a 16mm portraiture, quiet, personal. And the other is this big Summit of big people coming together; multi-camera.
MM: You can really feel the difference because of the different cameras; the HD look really makes the Summit feel like an event. It’s not really a concert doc, but definitely an event doc.
DG: I didn’t use the word “documentary” that much because I think this is a different kind of movie. It’s a music movie; a movie about what it means to write songs. How these three guys from three different places and times became musicians, how they found their voice.
MM: There’s a clip that plays during the credit where Edge is about to play “Glad to See You Go” at his old school and makes a joke about how convenient it is that someone posted the lyrics on one of the lockers. It’s a great comment on the nature of documentaries; no matter how natural you try to make them, it’s hard to get away from staging things.
DG: We try not to stage things, we try to follow things in an organic way. Sometimes I put my question in it; I’ll ask Jimmy a question and to hear my voice—or to show that the lyrics are on the locker—is to tell the audience, “This is a documentary.” We’re not trying to pretend that we’re not there. And when Edge acknowledges us, I think the audience thinks, “OK, they’re just being truthful.” It makes it even more intimate and truthful.
MM: Right. It’s like, “Yeah, we set up some stuff, but it’s also real.”
DG: We don’t really set up stuff. It’s amazing how you’re really mobile in documentaries. You’ve got these lightweight cameras. You say, “Let’s go see Edge in his studio.” After a few minutes he’s just working, so we just start shooting. I don’t stage stuff, I follow stuff. Sometimes I’ll just sit, I’ll just be there and I won’t be filming. I let them do what they would normally be doing and when that happens, I start filming. The audience needs to feel like it’s real, like it’s actually happening.
MM: Is there any advice you can give to people making docs about resisting the urge to stage things; resisting the urge to ask a subject to repeat something for the camera?
DG: In the movie Jimmy Page, while playing one of his albums, starts to air guitar. Now if you’re making a documentary, you’d say, “I’d like to get Jimmy Page to air guitar.” But I’d never asked him to do it. If I’d asked him do do it, he never would have done it. What I find, as I do more and more documentaries, is that those things come out naturally. So the idea of scripting anything, or being predetermined, doesn’t really help. You can try, but the secret is to spend time with the people you’re making the film with. If they start to trust you, over time their natural instinct to tell you a story comes out. So it won’t be staged then, it will be natural. Even if you got them to do what you wanted them to do, it still wouldn’t feel real because they’re being asked to do it.
Jimmy Page picks up a guitar and plays “Ramble On.” He decided to do that and that’s why it’s so good. If you’re a documentary filmmaker, it’s about learning to trust that if you spend enough time with your subject, just hanging out, that those moments will come out and that you can’t force them.
MM: I wonder if any of that, of having time to wait is a luxury, though, of being a successful moviemaker as opposed to someone who works nine to five and is looking to make a doc on the side.
DG: My first documentary was about public school teachers.I’d never done it before and I had a little consumer video camera. The mistakes I made were just having never done it before. It’s called The First Year. I made it 10 years ago this summer. The greatest moments in the movie just came out the way they came out. Over time I’ve learned to trust that they’ll come out. You just have to be open and listen and make your subjects feel comfortable. But all the things I tried to contrive in advance, all the things I thought I was doing, never worked.
MM: Back then, when you were starting out you definitely tried that more?
DG: Yeah, because you want it to be good. I think it’s about trusting that the real moments will come out on their own. If you start to push that yourself, they won’t feel real.
MM: Is a lot of that about picking the right subject?
DG: It’s about picking the right subject and getting a rapport with the subject, getting them to trust you. That personal connection is much more important than the equipment or the shots or anything.The great stuff will always come out over time.
MM: How long did it take to make this movie?
DG: We were shooting on and off for over a year. With [narrative] features you shoot everything, the crew goes away and you edit. In the editing room, you’re like, “Oh shit, I wish I had that.” With this, we shoot a little bit, we edit, we shoot a little bit more, we edit… The last week of editing, right before we finished the movie, I was out shooting some more, getting pieces that I needed. Documentaries are so great because it’s an organic process where you build the movie as you go.
MM: I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a louder movie at a press screening.
DG: I have instructions to play it as aloud as possible. The movie’s called It Might Get Loud and it does get loud. Music sounds better loud. These guys talked about how they have to take that amp and push it right to the level of stress. That’s where you get that great distortion and that great pressure on your ears. You feel the music more; it vibrates.
MM: When it goes out to theaters there’s that instruction to play it louder?
DG: A personal note from me: “Play this loud.”
MM: Finally, how much fun was this to make?
DG: So much fun. These are rock legends. The biggest thing for me is seeing how these guys became musicians, how they found their voice. As a director, I’m trying to find my voice, trying to figure out, ‘What kind of movies do I want to make?’ When you’re in a Starbucks and you hear Led Zeppelin, you know it’s Led Zeppelin. You know it’s The White Stripes. That’s the sign of a good artist, when their voice is so distinct. You know a Martin Scorsese film; that’s him. You know a Jonathan Demme film; and that’s him. So I was inspired to make this movie to find out how they did that. I am a different filmmaker having watched them.