'Malala' Director Davis Guggenheim on Making the Film: I Thought About My Own Daughters

John Salangsang/Courtesy of 42West
Davis Guggenheim

The L.A. premiere, held on Sept. 29 at the Microsoft Theater, featured a video message from First Lady Michelle Obama.

When Davis Guggenheim sets out to make a new movie — like his documentaries An Inconvenient Truth and the upcoming He Named Me Malala — he thinks of family first. 

"I always make a movie with a certain audience in mind," the director tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When I made An Inconvenient Truth, I imagined my cousins who live in Ohio who are Republicans. I imagined them watching the movie and hoping to convince them that climate change was real. But with [Malala], I thought a lot about my own daughters, and [convincing] them that Malala [Yousafzai's] story is inspirational and that her cause is broad."

THR caught up with Guggenheim on Sept. 29 at the L.A. premiere of the film at AEG's Microsoft Theater, which hosted nearly 7,000 female students from surrounding schools as part of the Girls Build LA Challenge. Arranged by the LA Fund, the project aims to empower high school girls from around the city to highlight and solve problems in their communities.

Girls Build LA has been endorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama, who both contributed a special video message to the premiere and also started the hashtag #66milliongirls in support of the Fox Searchlight film, referring to the number of girls worldwide who are unable to attend school. The premiere also featured appearances from Guggenheim, activist Dolores Huerta, Los Angeles County District Two Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and LA Fund for Public Education CEO Megan Chernin. (Yousafzai herself could not be at the premiere as the 18-year-old was at school in London.)

The West Coast event comes on the heels of screenings at film festivals in Telluride, Toronto and New York, and Guggenhiem notes that the showings were met with standing ovations. In New York, the film benefited from celebrity traction courtesy of attendees like Scarlett Johansson, Alicia Keys and soccer player Hope Solo.

Guggenheim says Yousafzai's story is being embraced because it's not unlike the story of girls around the world. "You look at Syria, you see many girls that are going through exactly what Malala went through," he says. "People being pushed out of their schools, girls being pushed out of schools. These girls are refugees; Malala was a refugee. So she connects very deeply to these other girls."

The doc is set for a limited theatrical release on Oct. 2, followed by a wider release Oct. 9. Guggenheim made the movie with Fox Searchlight, along with producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald

"My hope is that we have a strong box office," Guggenheim says. "There's girls everywhere that identify with her story and love this movie ... and the reception's been very good. It's really exciting because the phenomenon I see is girls asking their parents to go see this movie, as opposed to the other way around, which is nice."

Hours after the Girls Build LA event, Guggenheim dashed off to another screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a different audience, he acknowledges, without the thousands of school-aged girls. Overall, he's hoping the story will become a broader movement, as with his earlier Inconvenient Truth.

"There's an audience out there who wants a story like this," he says. "The first way to do it is you start to engage groups that are already focused on this issue, [like] local girls' groups — make them feel like it's their movie, which it is."

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