Waiting for Superman

About the Production

“No matter who we are or what neighborhood we live in, each morning, wanting to believe in our schools, we take a leap of faith … ”
— Davis Guggenheim, WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN”

It was a morning like any other — as Academy Award winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim was taking his young children to school — that he was moved to act. Like many parents in America who are lucky enough to have the means, Guggenheim’s children were headed that morning to an expensive private school, where he was assured they would find themselves in an invigorating environment with talented teachers devoted to bringing out the best in them.

But as he drove past the teeming, troubled, poorly performing public schools his family was able to bypass, Guggenheim was struck with questions he could not shake: What about the kids who had no other choice? What kind of education were they getting? Where were the assurances that they would have the chance to live out their dreams, to fulfill their vast potential? How heartsick and worried did their parents feel as they dropped their kids off this morning? And how could this be right in 21st Century America?

In that moment of emotional questioning began the intensive process of making WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN“, a film that starts with a deeply human and engaging story of families waiting in suspense for a lottery, but whose impact Guggenheim hopes will echo his widely acclaimed AN INCONVENTIENT TRUTH — sparking conversation, debate and, ultimately, personal action on perhaps the most essential issue of our times.

The contrasting power and tragedy of American school has long been a focus for Guggenheim. His debut documentary, 1999’s THE FIRST YEAR, chronicled the tales of five first year teachers in some of America’s toughest schools and went on to garner international accolades and a Peabody Award. Now, a decade later, with his own kids in private schools, Guggenheim was spurred to see what had changed in the battered public system. What he found both shocked and exhilarated him — as he discovered both outrageous, unconscionable behavior and real signs of hope, signs for which American families are hungry.

“When people ask me what inspired WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN” says Guggenheim, “it was really that feeling I had every morning driving past my public school — the feeling that I’m so lucky to have found another way for my kids, and the feeling that this is not enough, it’s not enough that I take care of my kids and move on. Unless each one of us fights for change, our schools won’t get any better.”

Guggenheim continues: “My father made documentaries and he taught me that films should always be stories about people and if you’re going to make movies they’ve got to say something. I think that every kid, no matter where they are born or what they have been given in life, deserves a great education and a piece of the American dream. That’s what drove me to tell this story and to make this movie.”

What also drove the film was the discovery that, fueled by passionate teachers and courageous visionaries, our education system is on the cusp of remarkable new approaches that might finally shake things up. “In 1999, when I made THE FIRST YEAR, the problems in our public schools felt hopeless. But now there are reformers out there who are defying the odds and proving it’s entirely possible to create outstanding schools even in the most troubled neighborhoods,” Guggenheim notes.

To tell that story, Guggenheim knew he would need to strip away the distracting partisan politics and divisive power struggles that, too often, have made American schools seem beyond all likelihood of repair. He wanted to bust completely out of that despairing mold, and instead take an invigorating, entertaining approach to telling the thrilling story of how a few fiery reformers are finding creative ways to save a failing system, and the kids trapped inside it, right in front of our eyes.

Most of all, Guggenheim wanted to get across on the screen these reformers’ relentless belief not in bureaucracies or theories but in people, in the idea that caring, imaginative teachers are out there and that, through these teachers, all kids, whether rich or poor, rural or urban, troubled or advantaged, can realize their innate ability to learn, succeed and contribute to the world. Because, in the end, it is not going to come down to the relative pros and cons of charter schools or standardized tests or tenture rules but about good people doing one of the most noble things humans have always done: teaching one another the things that count.

Guggenheim himself knows first-hand how the power of a single teacher can turn a kid’s life around. The director recalls: “In the 10th grade. I had a teacher who changed my life — he was hilarious and fun and, even though I was a C-Minus student at the time, he saw great tings in me. If I didn’t have a teacher like that, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker now, I wouldn’t be a storyteller, I wouldn’t be invested in the world or care so much about our public schools.” Still, for Guggenheim, there was only one way into the emotional core of his film — and it wasn’t through anyone over the age of 14. It had to be through the children whose entire, unwritten adult lives are at stake, whose fates teeter on the brink as schools continue to break down and others operate by the random chance of lotteries. In Guggenheim’s eyes, the only way to tell this story would be through a group of resilient, funny, honest kids who are in the position of waiting for “Superman” — or anyone — to save them.

“We wanted to show the human face of system,” explains Guggenheim. “By getting to know these children — and the mothers and fathers who are fighting for them — then maybe people will be outraged enough to demand real change in their own neighborhoods. The idea of education reform becomes a lot less abstract and a lot more compelling when you see these beautiful kids and realize all their potential.”

Guggenheim filled his film not only with surprises and suspense but with facts and figures that build a compelling case for why reform must and can happen. After collecting and synthesizing reams of research, the filmmakers vetted every statistic through a group of educators and experts to assure accuracy. Then, they approached the Brooklyn-based animation house Awesome + Modest to illustrate the data in engaging and entertaining ways. Using a high-energy blend of ink drawings, stop motion and 3D animation, the result was a series of sequences that bring style and whimsy to a touch reality that needs exposure.

For all of its ambition, once it was in motion, WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN” came together relatively quickly. Guggenheim and Participant Media had previously forged a strong partnership on AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, and now it seemed natural to re-team on another project about which they were equally passionate. The filmmakers wrote a treatment in early 2008, began shooting later that year, and by January of 2010 were winning the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award after rousing screenings.



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