"Gracie," Davis Guggenheim's Tribute to His Wife's Family
(from brinkzine.com 5/31/07)
- David Guggenheim
SO WHAT will you do this weekend if the last seat in the last row has been snapped up for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Unneeded Sequel?” I would guess you might be in the right mood (angry as hell) to seek out the best antiblockbuster films around the city before they disappear. You’re bound to find seats and rewards at: “Once,” “Away from Her,” “Waitress,” “Angel-A,” “Lives of Others,” “The Namesake,” “Severance,” “The Hoax,” “Bug” (if just for another remarkable performance by Ashley Judd), “Paris, Je T’Aime,” “Black Book,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Year of the Dog,” “After the Wedding,” “Killer of Sheep,” “I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal,” and, debuting, the deliciously bizarre documentary, “Crazy Love.”
Of the new narrative films, I most recommend “Gracie,” about a lost teenager who is determined to overcome obstacles, including her father’s lack of interest in his only daughter, to win a spot on the all-boys soccer team after the tragic death of her brother. Director Davis Guggenheim’s last film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was for the sake of the world. This time around, it’s for the sake of his family. Who knew that Guggenheim’s wife, Elisabeth Shue, played soccer with boys while growing up in New Jersey? Or that her brother, the film’s producer and a costar, Andrew Shue (a one-time “Melrose Place” heartthrob) was good enough to play professionally? Indeed, the title character of “Gracie” is based on Shue, and the film itself was inspired by the entire soccer-obsessed Shue family, circa 1978. It is a tribute to older brother Will Shue, who was killed ten years later (although his film counterpart, Johnny Bowen, is killed as a teenager). The movie’s plot may sound familiar but it will surprise you, thanks to Guggenheim’s heartfelt but unsentimental direction, a fine supporting cast led by Elisabeth Shue (one of my favorite actresses) and Dermot Mulroney as Gracie’s parents, and a fierce, gutsy, star-making performance by Carly Schroeder (best known for supporting Hilary Duff on Dinsey Channel's “Lizzie McGuire”). And it definitely breaks away from formula: I love how Gracie’s rebellious spirit is never tempered, she is never apologetic, and she talks back to authority figures to the very end. Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you’ll be rooting for this kid.
Q: “Gracie” is much different from “An Inconvenient Truth” but both movies offer an inspirational message.
Davis Guggenheim: I have a secret. I think the two films are very similar. Because in each you have a lead character--Gore and Gracie—who is a hero, in a thematic sense (not in a Tom Cruise-sense). Joseph Campbell wrote about an Everyman who confronts obstacles and achieves great things. I find Al Gore’s decision after losing the 2000 election to go back to his roots and fight for something he believed in but was unpopular as being heroic, just is what Gracie does, committing herself to play on all-boys soccer team despite everyone doubting her chances. They don’t blow up airplanes like heroes in action movies, but they’re both Everymen who overcome great obstacles to achieve great things.
Q: The title character of “Gracie” is based on your wife Elisabeth Shue, who had three brothers and played on boys soccer teams when she was young. Do you consider her a hero?
DG: Oh, yeah. What I focus on is someone’s spirit. It’s that thing you can’t describe, but Lisa has it. Sometimes it does not present itself until you hit bottom, until life knocks you on your ass, as it did with her when her brother Will was killed in 1988. And out of that came her spirit.
Q: Did you feel pressure making this film because your wife and brother-in-law Andrew Shue were expecting you to direct a story relating to their family, including their dead brother?
DG: I felt a burden to get it right. I met Elisabeth a year after Will had died in an accident. His death destroyed her. She was lost and hurt. And I met Andrew and their other brother John and they were broken, too—the whole family was. Will was a spectacular, heroic guy who had been the glue to the family. He was Lisa’s protector, the only one who really looked out for her. I feel like I knew him through osmosis. In approaching Lisa and saying we were going ahead with the movie that was about Will and about her as a teenager, I had to be sensitive and careful. Lisa still wasn’t sure about the movie until a couple of weeks ago, really that late. Something flipped when she saw girls watch the movie, and she said, “I’m proud of this film.”
Q: What was the one thing you wanted to do to protect yourself from going wrong?
DG: More than a failed movie, because we always risk movies going wrong, I was concerned that we wouldn’t remember Will properly, that we didn’t honor his memory. If we made a film that exploited or cheapened his memory, that would have been bad.
Q: Was Gracie’s relationship with her two younger brothers like Elizabeth’s with Andrew and John?
DG: When I met Lisa, after Will’s death, all the Shue kids were grown up, unlike how it is in the movie. The three of them were just clinging to each other emotionally, and so supportive of each other. And they would talk about Will as if he were still alive. In the movie, Johnny tells his younger sister Gracie, “You can do anything.” Well, that’s what they really were saying to each other when I met them.
Q: You’re dealing with portraying your wife--because people will recognize that Gracie is based on her—as a teenage hellion who gets pawed by loser guys. That must have been weird filming that.
DG: That wasn’t the weird part because Lisa was actually more of a hellion than Gracie. She actually did worse stuff. Her mother remarried, and Lisa’s stepfather was an Episcopal priest. The church had a blue station wagon and she and her friend would cut school all the time and put on bonnets and drive two hours to the Jersey shore. They were fourteen! She’d get in trouble and her father didn’t drive down to the shore to get her, as does Gracie’s father.
Q: What was the weird part?
DG: The scene everyone seems to talk about is when Carly’s mother tells her not to give up her dream of playing soccer, even though personally she worries Carly will fail and be heartbroken or get hurt playing with the boys. And when you think about it, that’s Lisa playing her own mother giving her encouragement. She’s like her own angel, which is kind of weird. It was like therapy for her.
Q: Lisa says that she had trouble when you directed her in a short a few years ago, but while making this film she didn’t question your direction. So, from your point of view, was directing your wife as easy as she says?
DG: Samuel Goldwyn had a theory of relativity, which was: Never Work with Your Relatives. I worked with my filmmaker father, David Guggenheim, and realized that when you work with someone you’re close to, all the boundaries get confused. So when you’re giving an actor you’re close to direction, he or she might say, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. You’re crazy, you’re absolutely wrong!” That’s part of my wife’s spirit that I love, but when she disagrees in front of everyone she’s not showing me the respect she should be giving a director. And it could be the same with Andrew. I don’t want to portray it like we were fighting all the time, but it got really intense.
Q: Did she only argue about her own character, Carly’s mother, or was it about Carly’s character, too?
DG: The boundaries would shift. She’d be talking to Carly, telling her what Gracie was supposed to be like, and I’d say, “No, that’s not the direction I’m giving her.” So we had to figure it out, and we did. We wanted to take things that were based on what really happened and do them justice. And having everyone there who had experienced those past moments made it cook.
Q: Was it difficult as a male director to make a film scripted by two women that deals with struggles only a female might understand?
DG: The only thing I know is that as a director you have to put yourself into the shoes of the characters. But it was hard with Gracie because obviously I’d never been a girl. However, I love my wife and if any male knows that girl who is based on her, it would be me.
Q: Your 2000 film “Gossip” was a springboard for several actors to achieve stardom—James Marsden, Kate Hudson, Lena Headey. Do you think Carly Schroeder, who is so believable in this film will blow up and become a huge actress after “Gracie?”
DG: I hope so. She does a great job in the movie. She’s only sixteen. In fact, she turned sixteen on the set and I took her and her mother to Outback, her favorite restaurant, to have a steak. (We got lost for over an hour.) She is a really good actress, and tough. Andrew and I looked for a lead actress, together. Credit him for the film—it was his idea, he fought for ten years to get it made—but in looking for Gracie, we had a friendly disagreement. He felt that the girl who played Gracie should be a soccer player who we’d teach to act. I felt that she should be an actress who we’d teach to play soccer. We had a huge contest and two thousand girls sent in tapes and we held auditions. In the end, it didn’t matter if she was a soccer player or actress. We both agreed that there was only one girl who could do it--Carly. It was her eyes. There was a spirit in her eyes that you see in the movie. This girl is a fighter. She found Gracie.
Q: My guess is that Jess Lee Soffer found Gracie’s older brother Johnny, who is the “Will” character. Johnny’s a sweet guy and he’s such a great older brother to Gracie that viewers can’t help but share the family’s grief when he’s killed. Plus he can play soccer!
DG: Jess was a real soccer player. He came in for an audition and we were talking and he asked, “What was Will like?” And he learned about him. He was touched by Will and played him with great care and consideration.
Q: You also had to get the right guy for the father, an actor with soccer experience, like Dermot Mulroney.
DG: It was weird. We went around in circles thinking about it. Dermot had done “The Trigger Effect” with Lisa about ten years ago. He had known about Will from Lisa, so when he read the script he knew that it was about him rather than just about soccer. Good sports movies aren’t about the sports, and it really made no difference the film was about soccer than any other sport. Dermot knew it was about Will and the family. He loves soccer and had played it, so he came right in and became part of our movie.
Q: When watching the movie, I was thinking you were showing an alternative universe where football doesn’t exist and soccer is the only sport at Johnny and Gracie’s high school. Was that true at Elisabeth and Will’s high school?
DG: In South Orange, New Jersey in 1978, with the Shue family, soccer was the only game. It was an alternative universe. Soccer wasn’t a sport, it was a religion. Football didn’t matter. They were in their own universe.
Q: That’s why I disagree with you about one thing you said. The movie may be more about a family overcoming tragedy than a movie about soccer, but I think that it is very important that the sport they are obsessed with is soccer. As many recent and upcoming documentaries illustrate, soccer has a grip on people around the world like nothing else, and has the rare ability to unite people, even those who literally are in opposing armies. .
DG: You’re right, I went too far. I’m glad you disagreed. I was saying that from a storytelling standpoint. Soccer did matter to this family—they loved soccer and it was their world.
Q: I like the almost surreal atmosphere in the filming of the soccer scenes, and the tension in that stadium.
DG: Andrew felt nobody had ever captured on film what soccer is really like. So that was a tough problem to overcome because soccer is really hard to shoot, the reason being that it doesn’t stop. I figured that out half way through, and wished I’d figured it out earlier. In other sports like football and baseball, there are moments between the action when you can make cuts in order to build tension and you get to examine what’s in a character’s head. But we couldn’t do that. We solved the problem by making it about the free kicks. In that way we could cut from Gracie to her mother and father in the stands and get into her head. Action is about stretching out time and compressing time.
Q: Did your prior movie and television work help you make this film.
DG: When you’re making “Alias” or “24” or even “Gossip,” you’re cooking stuff up, trying to make things sexier or more exciting. For this film, I wanted to keep it real, keep it really simple, keep their house the way it really was without making it fancy and make the back yard where they practice soccer just be any back yard.
Q: I think people will embrace “Gracie.” However, do you find it hard to believe at this late date that there is still resistance to “An Inconvenient Truth” and the idea that Al Gore has been speaking the truth about global warming?
DG: There are going to be fringe people who will never accept it. Last night at a screening of “Gracie,” I met a security guy who said, “My relatives in Missouri are arch-conservatives but they all bought Priuses because they believe in global warming after seeing your movie.” It obviously played to the comfortable left, but it’s seeping into the right, too. People are realizing that it’s a fair-minded movie.
Q: When it’s attacked by the right or by others, they say there is some factual misinformation. Looking back, do you wish you hadn’t said certain things?
DG: I really believe the film’s information holds water. In fact, since we finished the film, new studies have only supported it. Ice melt has gotten worse, polar bears are dying at a more alarming rate, sea level rise is worse. A lot of it is predictions, so there’s going to be, as Winston Churchill might say, “dithering.” People will take certain parts and take issue with them. But when the European summit of scientists came out and said we’re causing global warming, that was total confirmation. And the only resistance came from governments who demanded their scientists hold the line, but the scientists said no. We expected much controversy, but for a film like this it has been relatively very small. The resistance is breaking down before our eyes. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, originally opposed progressive legislature curbing CO2, but now he’s taking the lead to support it because he’s a smart politician who sees which way the wind is blowing. Fox is even following Schwarzenegger. Others are guarded. But overall, it’s changing quickly.
Q: Would you consider doing a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth?”
DG: Global warming will be with us for a very long time, and that to solve it, it’s going to take a mobilization of huge proportions. It’s going to take a war. So there will be men-men movies about global warming. Next I am going to be doing a movie about the oceans, but I would love to do a sequel if I figured out how. The issue of global warming is not going to go away.