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Director explains how he came to 'Superman' project

Jane Sumner

For years, he was too ashamed to talk about it. Now, 10 years later, Davis Guggenheim, director of 2006's "An Inconvenient Truth," says getting fired by Warner Bros. was "a good thing that happened." It launched his filmmaking career.

In Austin recently to promote his tough new film "Waiting for 'Superman,' " about America's shocking public school crisis, Guggenheim said what kick-started his making documentaries.

"I was going to direct the movie 'Training Day'," he says. "Then I got fired before I even started. Denzel Washington wanted someone else [Antoine Fuqua], who happened to be one of his friends."

Guggenheim, the film's executive producer, was so bitter, he says, "I decided to go make my own movie about people I liked." The people he liked were teachers, and the movie he made was "The First Year" (2001).

Narrated by actress Elizabeth Shue, the filmmaker's wife, the TV documentary follows five chalkboard rookies into the Los Angeles school system. But the vérité plea for qualified teachers, which aired Sept. 6, 2001, failed to ignite any fires.

As a student, Guggenheim, a graduate of Sidwell Friends School and Brown University, says he was "listless," made Cs and "did terribly on every test ever." He didn't find his way until his 30s. But, he says, "I had some great teachers. My father was a great teacher."

"Waiting for 'Superman' " is dedicated to his legendary dad.

When Charles Guggenheim died in 2002, he had the most Oscar nominations for documentaries in film history. His three Oscars for documentary short subjects included one for the moving film tribute, "Robert Kennedy Remembered."

"I have his Oscar for that," his son says. "It was the one thing of his I got to keep. It's sort of beat-up and tarnished, but I love it. He made that for the 1968 Democratic convention. And I got to make the Obama film ("A Mother's Promise") for the 2008 convention exactly 40 years later. That was pretty meaningful for me."

The director of "Deadwood," "NYPD Blue," "ER" and "24" episodes and maker of the electric guitar documentary "It Might Get Loud," about rock musicians Jack White, the Edge and Jimmy Page, didn't plan to make another education documentary.

Then the public school defender realized one day that he was driving past three public schools while taking his kids to a private school. And he decided to try to find out the reasons for the failing public school system. "I had no idea what I was doing, and if I did, I wouldn't have done it," the filmmaker says.

But he did, opting to narrate his alarming but still entertaining documentary, which argues that while the world and the economy have changed, U.S. public schools haven't — and what we can do about it.

"The schools aren't built to educate everyone, and they're built around that agricultural calendar. They're off in the summer so kids could do farming. In all the industrial countries, the kids are in school much longer than ours."

"Waiting for 'Superman' " owes its title to charismatic educator Geoffrey Canada. Growing up poor in the decaying South Bronx, N.Y., he was crushed to learn it was no use waiting for the caped superhero to rescue him. The man from Krypton wasn't coming.

If anything was to change, Canada, who has a master's degree in education from Harvard, knew he had to step into a phone booth. With help from like-minded friends, he set up a holistic safety net of charter schools and innovative programs to prove that all inner-city kids can learn and dubbed its now 97 blocks the Harlem Children's Zone.

"I only interviewed him for an hour, and he ended up being the star of the movie," Guggenheim says. "It's the best interview I ever did. Everything he said was interesting."

Along with daring but effective reformers like Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee (who announced her reisignation earlier this week), Canada offers shards of hope amid revelations of union rules that grant teachers tenure after two or three years, the startling number of drop-out factories and New York City's Rubber Room.

While New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and teachers' union have agreed to end the practice of putting teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence in a room to await hearings, sometimes for years, at full salary, Guggenheim says, there are "versions of it" all over the country.

"In LA County, they just send them home. They stay at home all day. They receive a call in the morning and a call at the end of the day. With the system we have, every district has to find some screwy way of dealing with teachers they have to keep."

A high school becomes a drop-out factory when less than 60 percent of the kids graduate. "There are 206 drop-out factories in Texas," Guggenheim says. "For every drop-out factory, there are middle schools, elementary schools that are feeding that school, and by the time they get to ninth grade, these kids are only at a second- or third-grade reading level."

But if he was to change the education reform conversation that's been going on for decades, he knew he had to make people care. "Going back to my father, who did a lot of political movies, a lot of social justice movies, he said, 'Don't get confused by the issues. People watch movies because they're interested in people.'"

That's where five kids from L.A.; Washington, D.C.; and the Bronx and Harlem, N.Y., come in. Because their families can't afford private school, they try to get into charter schools through a lottery. As Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco watch the numbered balls drop, deciding their futures, we care.

After a spirited post-screening Q&A, moderated recently in Austin by movie webmaster Harry Knowles, Guggenheim exclaimed, "I knew Austin was cool. I didn't know it was deep."

Then he urged the audience to visit one of the free KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Austin Public Schools and walk around for an hour. "It's the difference between night and day," he says of the independently run schools accountable for academic results and fiscal practices to the Texas Education Agency. "It's a different planet."

Accused of making a charter school infomercial, he insists his film is pro-child, not pro-charter. "Charters aren't the silver bullet, but charters have freedoms that are holding down other schools. They don't have the burden of teacher contracts. They're not told what to do by a central office." Some charters will thrive, he says, while some will fail and can be closed. "Charters are an experiment that will offer good ideas and bad ideas. The question isn't whether charters are good or bad. The question is what are the good ideas coming out of charters?"

Since Paramount Vantage's pre-release screenings began, Guggenheim has been fielding brickbats from the American Federation of Teachers. Slamming union policies that make it hard to flunk a poor teacher and pay a good one more was tough for the filmmaker.

"It was a very hard decision," he says. "I believe unions are essential. I'm a member of a great union — the Directors Guild of America. But the last thing a union should be is on the side of keeping kids from being educated."

Those are fighting words, as the filmmaker knows. But if "Waiting for 'Superman' " helps Americans summon the will to fix a broken system the way "An Inconvenient Truth" opened eyes to global warming, we can all thank Denzel Washington.