'Cuts right into your chest'

After putting global warming at the forefront of American mass consciousness with 2006's Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, director Davis Guggenheim took an entirely different tack for his follow-up, training his cameras on three iconic rock guitarists — Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, U2's the Edge, and the White Stripes' Jack White — for the new It Might Get Loud, a documentary that combines interviews, biographical material, and an Unplugged-style guitar-pull to try to get at what makes these men able to — and driven to — do what they do with these hunks of wood with strings strapped to them. Reached by phone at his office in California, Guggenheim discussed geeking out and freaking out over trying to get his subject(s) on film.

Metro Times:
So how did you work up the unusual premise and form of the movie?

Davis Guggenheim: I got this call — can you meet [producer] Thomas [Tull]? We've known each other for a little while. And months before [the 2007 Oscars] he was like, "You're going to win an Academy Award." And I was like, "No I'm not, no way." And he was like, "You are, and I wanna produce your next film, and I wanna make it on electric guitar." And I said, "Cool," 'cause I'm a huge music fan.

What happened over the next couple of months was a series of discussions with Thomas, me, and Lesley Chilcott, my producing partner, and the question was how do you make a documentary that's different from the so-called rock documentary? How do you get underneath to what makes the music, and this instrument, so special? And so all the films we talked about, it was like, yeah, this one's about car wrecks and this one's about overdoses and this one's about worshipping these people from afar, and none of it was about their artistic path. How do these people become who they are? How do they become songwriters and artists?

So it was like let's throw out the rule book. Instead of doing one person or a hundred people  ... one person would be too few, and a hundred people, it would be like a minute on Jimi Hendrix, and it would suck. So why don't we pick three people from three different generations, and if we told their stories really well, they would say something about the rest of this world. And then we just started throwing around names.

Everybody brings up Jimmy Page, and for a while we were like, we'll never get him so who else should we go for? But we had to [try]. I flew to New York and met with his managers, then I flew to London and had tea with him.

MT: I'm curious — did you geek out making this movie?

Guggenheim: I geeked out a lot, and I didn't expect myself to. I've directed a lot of television and I've met a lot of famous movie stars and politicians, and I didn't expect to feel so differently, like a 12-year-old pimply face boy. But when Jimmy Page is answering your question and picking up a guitar and playing "Ramble On" and the music is really super loud  ...you hear that music, and I would just sort of like melt and be like, That's so cool  ... and what's my next question?

I felt like that guy — I forget his name — on Saturday Night Live who had a talk show and didn't have a question. "That was so cool when you did that." [Editor's note: Chris Farley]

MT: I was really struck by the moment when Page picks up his guitar and starts playing "Whole Lotta Love," and the Edge stands up, almost unconsciously, as someone who loves rock music would when the man who wrote "Whole Lotta Love" starts playing it for you.

Guggenheim: They did what I do, which is [react] when music sort of pierces through your intellectual defenses. It cuts right into your chest. And that happened to me time and time again.

MT: Do you play guitar?

Guggenheim: I play when no one's around. I secretly play, but I suck.

MT: You're in your mid-40s, which means that you were a teenager as Led Zep was winding down and U2 was starting up. Was there one you identified with more at the time?

Guggenheim: I was a U2 guy. It took me a decade before I realized how great Led Zeppelin was. When I was a teenager it had been played a lot, and I only caught the  ... you saw the flotsam and jetsam around the mess that was the huge stadium bands, and it was easy to ridicule, and when U2 came and I was 17, it was like, "This music is mine. It's not like the music I've been hearing on the radio in my brother's car." I heard U2's Boy, and it was hard, it was political, it was intense. It wasn't the indulgence of these big '70s stadium white-boy blues bands.

MT: I'm curious about the different approaches you took to filming the musicians' individual stories, most especially Jack White's, where he spends time with a stand-in for his 9-year-old self.

Guggenheim: That's Jack being Jack. I kinda let them  ... there's an extremely different style of storytelling in this movie. There are no sit-down interviews. There are no interviews with bandmates. There are no ex-girlfriends. It's just them telling their stories, based on these sound interviews I did with them. They really tell the story the way they  ... this is how they express themselves. It wasn't like me saying I'm going to tell Jack's story differently.

That's sort of how I convinced them to do it. The only ambition was to get them to open up. I didn't care if they talked about the second album or the fourth album, I just wanted to get inside their heads about the path of their creativity, so if Jack wanted to bring a 9-year-old version of himself to the set, cool.

He came to me the day before and said, "I think it'd be really cool to teach myself how to play guitar." And I was scratching my head going, "OK, weird," to myself. And the next morning he showed up in this car with a kid dressed exactly like him, and he said, "Davis, I'd like to introduce you to Jack." And I was like, "Cool."

MT: The Edge, on the other hand, comes off like the mensch-iest rock star ever. He brings a dry wit and a light quality . . .

Guggenheim: Self-deprecation. He said that to me at the beginning — "God, if I'm too self-serious  ... the problem with these films is they're too self-serious." And I think he's right. So many of these documentaries end up saying things like [adopts melodramatic rock-doc voice-over voice] "Having come out of the studio, having finished their third album, music was changed forever." Because somehow you need to tell the audience how profound what they did is, and it gets self-serious.

MT: That sounds very Behind the Music.

Guggenheim: I used to watch Behind the Music, and invariably the segment before the last commercial was a car wreck or, you know, someone shooting Jack Daniels in their veins, and that's fun to watch, but it doesn't tell me about the music. You don't learn anything about what these guys did. I wanna know how this kid from Dublin found a way to make this piece of wood make this sound that was the soundtrack to my life.

MT: A big part of the film is taken up with the "summit" where the three guitarists sit around and talk and play. What was that like to put together? Had they met before that meeting?

Guggenheim: Jack and Jimmy had done a photo shoot together and said hello. Edge and Jack had not met, and Edge and Jimmy had not met. A big premise was, don't let them talk or meet before they get in the room, because whatever they come up with together, whatever they say to each other, we want that on camera. I just had that feeling that if they met in the parking lot, they would say something to each other that they would never say in front in the cameras, and I didn't want to give them that opportunity.

But I got panicked, because they kept saying, "What do you want us to talk about?" and I said, "I'm not going to tell you," and they kept saying, "What do you want us to play?" and I said, "I'm not going to say." And then when they sat down, I was like, "Oh fuck. This is gonna suck." There was all this buildup and we were spending all this money, and for the first hour and a half or two hours it was, uh-oh. "Hello." "Hello, how are you this morning." I was like, "This is not a good movie." When Jimmy picked up the guitar and played "Whole Lotta Love," it changed. It was like a throwdown. At that point Edge had to stand up and play, and Jack had to stand up and play.

Chatting is not what these guys do. The lead singers chat. These guys play, they speak with their guitars.

Lee Gardner is the editor of City Paper in Baltimore. Send comments to [email protected]