R.J. Cutler has based his career on observing the real and turning it into the reel.
The Yale-educated former theater director has made a name for himself in the worlds of both non-fictional film and television. He was the producer of the acclaimed 1993 documentary The War Room, an Oscar-nominated peek inside Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, and co-director and producer 1995’s A Perfect Candidate, a study of Iran-Contra figure Oliver North’s run for a Virginia senate seat in 1994. He’s also been involved as a producer in such “good” reality TV shows as Morgan Spurlock’s job-swapping TV series 30 Days, the high school verite show American High and the popular Discovery Channel series Flip This House.
Cutler’s latest project is The September Issue, a much-talked-about documentary on Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue Magazine, and how she and her staff put together the September 2007 issue of the fashion periodical, the biggest in its history. Wintour is the notoriously no-nonsense editor who has come to be known as the most powerful person in the fashion industry. And Cutler isn’t sure that his study of the foremost fashionista and the people around her—especially creative director and former model Grace Coddington—will make you like or dislike Anna Wintour more thanMeryl Streep’s Academy Award-nominated, thinly-veiled portrayal of her in The Devil Wears Prada.
Cutler sat down to discuss the film with MovieFanFare during a recent stop in Philadelphia.
Q: What made you decide to do this movie?
A: I felt that Anna Wintour has to speak for herself. She has said she was an admirer of my work, but she’ll have to speak on her own behalf. Anna Wintour is someone whose name everybody knows but about whom nobody knows. How she works, what she does, who she does it with…As much as we are familiar with caricatures of her which pervade the culture, there’s very little real knowledge of her. That sparked my curiosity.
Q: How familiar were you with Anna and Vogue Magazine?
A: Not at all. I maintain that the less you know going in, the clearer you see it. If you’re a blank slate and you can have curiosity, it opens things up for curiosity. The more you can discover, the more you can see.
Q: Can you tell us how long the film took to make?
A: I met with her in the fall of 2006. We agreed right away to make the film. I had financing the early part of 2006. We shot for 7 ½ months, from January 2007 to August 2007, began editing in October 2007 and I finished the mix hours before I flew to Sundance in the morning on a Thursday at 2 AM. I flew to Sundance on Friday and had the premiere Friday night in January 2009.
Q: How much footage did you shoot?
A: We shot 320 hours and the film runs 88 minutes. There will be a helluva DVD, but this is the final cut. I would not add another half-hour even if I could. You could give me a million dollars to work on editing some more, but I wouldn’t change a frame.
Q: What do you think The September Issue will do for her image as a cold, controlling woman who is difficult to deal with?
A: There’s a presumption that her image is a given, but with all respect I think what people see is a complex human being, a powerful woman who has dominated this industry for two decades…who has her supporters and detractors…who is demanding and exacting and decisive and economical in her communication but very clear in her communication…who is surrounded by other mighty personalities but is still clearly the leader… who works in a really high stakes job in a really high stakes industry who is also a mother and a daughter and a sister. And so, they will see a rich, complex human being with a mischievous sense of humor. Some will say, “Oh, my God, I could never work for her.” And others will say, like my sister did the other day after seeing her on David Letterman, “You know, I’m like that at work. I don’t know what the problem is.” Some will react to her that way and see a role model, diminutive—5’3”, 5’4”, but really a tiny physical presence with all this power that works like a dog and has all this power. Some will see those qualities. Or see she is not warm or cuddly. People project things on to her. That’s why the film shows you the rich complexity. I see a balance of all of these things in the movie.
Q: You said you didn’t know much going in regarding Grace Coddington, sort of the yin to Anna Wintour’s yang in the film.
A: You can’t miss it (the contrast). Grace’s office is three doors down from Anna’s office. Anna’s office is a freezer of efficiency. Meets are minutes long. They get more done in seven minutes in Vogue than meetings I’ve been to in Hollywood that go on for 90 minutes. They get it done, everyone comes prepared, they come early, they get it done and move on. They do not waste time. Anna is very decisive.
There is a great scene where Virginia (Smith, Vogue’s fashion editor) shows us her work. Anna goes, “Yes, no, yes, no.” That’s Anna Wintour. Grace Coddington has an office where everybody should be sitting around with a bong. It’s like, “Let’s be creative, sharing ideas, lounging about.” It’s an incubator of creativity you can’t miss. And then when they get together, the sparks fly and you can see the work Grace has done. You can’t miss the import of this relationship and how it defines what Vogue is. And that’s what I was looking for. Another filmmaker in that environment may have responded to something else and made a different film. Part of the great fun of this is that my 320 hours are going to be completely different from your 320 hours. Truth is the standard.
Q: How do people respond to the real Anna Wintour, as opposed to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her in The Devil Wears Prada?
A: There’s been such a wide range of things written about that subject, I can’t help but conclude if it’s the other side of the image to some, and to others, it’s an enhancement of the image. Some British critic said this movie makes The Devil Wears Prada look like an episode of The Care Bears.
Q: It seems like there’s a blurring of the line here between journalism and marketing in regard to the fashion industry. Department stores and designers seek Wintour’s input into issues while she’s editing the most powerful magazine covering their products.
A: They draw the line at quid pro quo. It’s not really a subject of the film, but there’s no question that her role extends beyond the objective observer. She’s an activist editor-in-chief. I believe her dad was too, and that was a quality she was aware of in her father, that you could have an influence in your community and you can use the bully pulpit of your publication to impact the community.
And she does. Look at what she does with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she is solely responsible for raising the $6-$7 million that the costume institute at the Met has in their budget. If Anna doesn’t throw that party, the budget is zero. She takes an interest in some designers, (and) other designers cry foul. That’s just the way it is with Anna.