How Audio Helped Edit “It Might Get Loud”

Cannes Film Festival

Sony Pictures Classics

Former Vice President Al Gore taught Davis Guggenheim a lesson in editing.

While directing the Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," Guggenheim wanted to capture a very personal, introspective discussion from Al Gore.  However, he noticed the quantity of crew and equipment brought into Gore’s house lead to a formulaic, dry narrative.  Guggenheim had to find a solution that would completely shift the tone and disolve the formality of the setting. 

"In the evolution of the production, I conducted these sound-only interviews,” said Guggenheim. "I found it interesting that we could go deeper, we could talk for longer.  He felt more at ease.  We got the more introspective, personal information.   It’s also very inexpensive to sit there with a microphone and a tape player, and so with ‘It Might Get Loud’ I thought, ‘let’s start that way.’"  

Roughly two years ago, producer Thomas Tull approached Guggenheim with a documentary concept that focused on the electric guitar.  Tull’s idea was to allow famous rock musicians to speak about their love for the instrument. 

"I had wanted to do a movie where I would interview and connect three stories of a painter, an actor, and a director or another creative type.  I wanted to combine these really interesting portraits.  Even though I hadn’t been thinking of the electric guitar, I thought I could implement that into the outline I’d been contemplating."

Although Guggenheim wasn’t certain on how to craft the movie initially, he knew what he wanted to avoid. 

"I told Thomas I DIDN’T want to make the encyclopedia of the electric guitar," said Guggenheim.  "You may think a movie is made by what you put into it, but sometimes it’s made by what you don’t put in.  Let’s say you cover a band.  You take x number of albums they made, then spend five percent on this album and ten percent on that album.  Then you cover every song, and every live concert.  You’re going to present a lot of material but you’ll be saying very little.  My thought was, if you have a really specific angle to follow, you’ve narrowed your scope, but you can go much more deeply.  Let’s pick three characters, and let’s get really personal."

Tull and Guggenheim agreed on three musicians they wanted to feature: Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge.  They were chosen for their exceptional mastery of the instrument, and the variations their individual styles bring to the sound of the electric guitar.

"We were tossing around a lot of names to brainstorm, but they were the only three we went after," said Guggenheim.  "For a while we thought we’d have to move on from Jimmy because he’s famously private, but we said  ‘No, we have to have Page.  We have to try.’   Before he said yes, I flew to London to sit down with him.  I told him the kind of movie I was interested in making; I didn’t want it to be about all the high drama, all the car wrecks, drug overdoses and the controversy.  I wanted it to be a ‘what is the life and contribution and the process of an artist, and what was his journey as a songwriter.’  I think that was appealing to him."

After Guggenheim secured the involvement of the three musicians, he began the process of collecting each artist’s interviews through the tape recorder method.

"I went to The Edge’s studio first," said Guggenheim.  "We just sat there for a couple of hours and talked.  I came back with all this material, and as you listen to it, you know, ‘Boy, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is a really important moment in his life, let’s follow that!’ and it gave me all the different narrative and emotional threads to follow."
Guggenheim allowed the three different personalities to open up and express themselves freely during the interview process.

"Al Gore described my interview style as rolfing, which is a very intense type of massage," said Guggenheim.  "I have this process where I drilled the questions down to very complex ideas.  I really wanted to push these guys on what it was like to write a song, or to be in a moment of life where things weren’t easy.  Every filmmaker has a different approach.  There are some who are trying to get people to say something they don’t want to say.  I’m not that way. I don’t think manipulating somebody into discussing something they don’t want to talk about ever yields anything interesting or truthful."

As Guggenheim continued interviewing his subjects, he had have his office staff transcribe the tapes so he could observe the patterns emerging and follow the interesting threads.  What he avoided was connecting the stories of the three artists.

"I wanted to make each story work on its own," said Guggenheim.  "I would say 80 percent of the editing time was just building The Edge’s story on its own, and then the Jimmy story and the Jack story.  There was some pressure put on me to cut everything together.  I felt, ‘If you make them work separately, we’ll find a way to put them together.’  Once you inter-cut stuff, you’ve lost that ability to see each narrative through.  I didn’t try to find the connections between the three stories until very late."

Once Guggenheim finished each audio interview, he sorted through the narrative threads and developed the editorial skeleton of the movie.

"I had roughly 20 hours of just audio to cull through.  I would say that makes up maybe sixty percent of the movie," said Guggenheim.  "That became the DNA; the map of the stories that were interesting.   We followed up the key points with on-camera interviews.  I might bring up a subject or say ‘Tell me about this part.’  I didn’t go back and ask them to retell a story; you loose the emotion and honesty."  "We added the performance to the movie because I wanted to give a reason to tell the story. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have them come and talk to each other and tell each other stories?’   We looked into shooting the performance at famous music halls, but it can end up seeming like the rock and roll hall of fame when you try to make an event out of it.  I wanted to do the opposite of that, I wanted to do something really simple."

A few threads in the story didn’t have archival or b roll that worked to tie them together.  Working with co-producer Leslie Chilcott, an animator was found whose style matched the film’s tone.

"Jack tells the story about being so obsessed with playing drums that there was no room in his bedroom for a bed.  It was such a great story, yet I didn’t have a picture of his bedroom," said Guggenheim.  "That story said a lot about him at that moment where he started to become an artist, so we animated it.  Twenty years ago you’d say ‘We can’t animate something because it’s not real, it’s not truthful, it’s not a documentary.’  But now, documentaries have changed so much that if what you’re using is accurate and genuine, and it aids the story, the audience will accept it."

Although Guggenheim was immersed in the editing of the film, he relied on the discussion made by lead editor Greg Finton.

"I spent 80 percent of my day in the editing room.  It’s where documentaries are made," said Guggenheim.  "But, I also had shooting to complete.  Greg is such a great editor.  I helped frame the idea of where we’re going, and then said ‘Greg, make it work.’  The best thing I can do at that point is walk out, and see what he comes up with, and then give him notes."

Despite directing documentaries like "An Inconvenient Truth" and "It Might Get Loud," Guggenheim has also directed TV series episodes for "The Wire," "24," "Deadwood," and many others.  He enjoys taking the different set of story telling rules to make a piece the audience will respond to.

"I love jumping across a genre," said Guggenheim.  "I think some people spend their careers inside one genre because they love it.  I love throwing myself in and discovering what I can take away from it.  Obviously there are certain things you can and can’t do in each discipline.  But, as I make a TV show or a documentary or a movie, I always have the same thing in mind: ‘where is the audience right now?’  They want to know ‘Who am I following, what do I care about, what’s at stake?  Am I excited, scared, bored?’  If they’re scared in a documentary, well that’s not bad, but you’ve got to make sure that you’re not being manipulative.  You ask the same questions, but the rules are different, the boundaries are different.  But in essence, you’re still doing the same thing."