R. J. Cutler Interview

Back when we were Screenrush interns, we were delighted to have the opportunity to sit down for a chat with the director of The September Issue to find out about the process of getting behind the dark glasses of Vogue’s Editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.

The War Room, American High, Black. White, The September Issue. With all of your films there seems to be a theme running through them of American life and culture. Would you say that showing slices of the American society is something you’re trying to do?

I would certainly say that that’s what the work does. There’s also the movie Thin which is about an eating disorder clinic in South Florida and many other TV series.

Is it just a coincidence that the focus is American?

No, I’m very proud that the body of work represents America in different slices but it’s not my intention. My intention is to tell stories about people. It’s the people who spark my curiosity and motivate me. I don’t see myself as a sociologist or a chronicler of my nation, though I’m glad my work does that. I just see myself as someone who tells stories about people who strike me as fascinating, and Anna Wintour is the most recent among them.

From politics to teenage angst and now to fashion, what inspired this film?

Again, it’s more that here’s someone about whom I was curious. The landscape is very rich, certainly, but it’s not that I thought, “Oh fashion is such an important subject, I want to explore it”. It is a fascinating landscape, but it’s the person. What struck me about Anna was here’s somebody who the entire world has heard of, but so little is known about her and, certainly, nothing is known about her work. If you were to look in the books, and the few things that have been written about her, there’s very little information about her work style. There’s maybe a bit on her conflicts with other people, but I was curious. She’s great at what she does, and while you can disagree with the way she does it, you can’t argue with her success. I like telling stories about people who care a tremendous amount about what they do, and do it incredibly well under high-stake circumstances. That’s very interesting to me.

Did your opinion of her change throughout the making of the documentary, if you had a certain perception of her initially?

I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about her going in; I really was just curious about her. But a number of things stuck with me in making the film, all of which are evident in the film – in the way that the film is my answer to the question. That’s the movie. That’s all the movie really is. Among things that are striking about her is the scope of her influence, which is enormous, the way in which she works, the decisiveness, this complete faith in her instincts and a complete lack of self-doubt once she’s made a decision; she doesn’t think “Did I do the right thing?”, not once, not for a moment. Yet at the same time she surrounds herself with really talented people; she’s not afraid to surround herself with wilful, strong-minded, opinionated people. In fact, she knows she needs them, and that’s a good combo-platter as we say.

And it’s fascinating to see the relationship between Grace Coddingwood (creative director) and Anna as they started at Vogue at the same time. 

Of course. The movie is about their relationship.

We hear it was difficult to get Grace on board the project, although she goes on to become an integral part of the story. How did you convince her?

First I had to realise that this was the film I needed to make, because generally if somebody says I don’t want to have anything to do with you, I say ok, goodbye. But Grace didn’t mean it. Grace didn’t want anything to do with who she thought I was, but she really wanted to have something to do with me, she just didn’t know.

For me, the breakthrough moment was when I realised her entire life’s work is about collaborating with photographers and storytellers. That’s what she does and that’s who we are, and even though for many months she was adamantly opposed to being in the film, I realised there is no other movie I want to make, except a movie about Anna and Grace. I tried to think of something else but this was the film I needed to make, so I went to her and I told her that, and I also explained that if you do spend time with us, you’d see that you’re going to really enjoy it. I asked her for just one hour and we filmed that and it went well.

Was it Anna’s idea to make the documentary about the September issue?

I said to Anna, “look, I what to see how you do what you do”, and she said if you want to see how I do what I do, you should make a movie about the making of the September issue, because everything I do, I do while making the September issue. I asked her how long it took and she said 7-8 months, and I said good, that’s a lot of time.

So the September issue is the catalyst for what’s to come throughout the rest of the year?

Well it is and it takes so long. For me, access over a lengthy period of time and money are all I need to make a movie. It’s a lot but it’s really all I need, and here was access.

Do you think The Devil Wears Prada is a factor for the film’s success, because we started to see the funnier side of her behaviour as a result of Meryl Streep’s supposed impersonation?

Yeah I accept that but there are so many caricatures of Anna Wintour in popular culture. The show Ugly Betty has two, there’s one in The Devil Wears Prada, in the Pixar film The Incredibles there’s one, I’m told that Johnny Depp based his performance of Willy Wonka on Anna Wintour, and if you go and look at a picture you’ll see the hair and the glasses, and those are the ones that come to mind. So there is a cultural familiarity with this caricature of Anna.

Do you think that has enabled people to appreciate her demeanour a lot more?

Maybe, and if so, very good; if it raises awareness, good. I love this movie so I want people to come see it regardless of what sparked their interest. If it’s the fact they like Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada, fantastic. Sometimes what confuses me is if somebody says to me “well, she’s nothing like Meryl Streep”, and I say ok, that makes sense. Why would you expect her to be anything like Meryl Streep? Meryl Streep’s playing a fictional character in a fictional movie, and Anna’s a real person; this is in fact what she’s like. But other than that, I think it’s wonderful.

Could part of the reason also be that people in society aren’t generally as frank, so on the one hand we’re in disbelief but on the other, we’re able to live vicariously through her?

Sure, but I do think those who know Anna well would tell you although she’s a straight shooter, she presents here opinions graciously, respectfully and diplomatically. There’s no question for me that people project things onto Anna Wintour. I won’t make this movie, but while I was filming I thought I’d like to make a movie called ‘Tell Me Your Dream About Anna Wintour’, because in the fashion world I think almost everybody has had a dream about Anna Wintour because they think about her so much. She just sits there with her arms and her legs folded with her sunglasses on, staring straight ahead, and everyone thinks, “oh, she’s staring at me, she thinks my clothes are bad, she thinks I’m too fat”. That’s why it is so wonderful when Bob (cinematographer Robert Richman) is in the movie.

But you weren’t in it?

Oh, we’re in it. The whole shoot is about the crew but I was relieved it was him and not me because then I could put it in the film. Are you kidding? If it were me you’d never see it; I wouldn’t do that to myself! But it was a perfect opportunity for me as a filmmaker to break the fourth wall in a way that would accomplish what I really wanted to accomplish, which was for you the viewer to experience what it’s really like when Anna turns to you and says “You better get to the gym”, because Bob is really a stand-in for us, and she’s looking right into the camera; she’s talking to you as well as to him.

How did he feel?

He’s a sport. He’s been to the gym a lot, but he is generally a very fit man who had been working very hard on a movie for very long and, you know, you eat poorly, you don’t get a lot of rest, you don’t get a lot of time at the gym, you don’t spend your Saturday in the park with your daughter. You spend it running around shooting and eating crappy food, and so this is almost 8-months into shooting a film and so he’d grown a bit of a belly. But he looks very good today.

As the film is getting positive reviews, some are saying it should have been a TV show because the 90-minute running time is too short. Did you toy with that idea?

I did think of doing it as a TV series and, as you know, I have a lot of experience in TV. I have wonderful relationships throughout the TV world. I’ve done a lot of work, these are people I know and I have a big company that produces a lot TV series, so originally that’s how I thought of it. It wasn’t until I thought, “oh, I want to do a movie” that I realised what the full potential is. This subject deserves cinema and the movie is very cinematic: for Paris to be a character the way it is in the film, for New York to be character, for fashion to be a character the way it is. It’s cinema. If you’re doing television it’s different; we don’t really watch television, we just co-exist with it.

And for a big personality such as Anna Wintour…

Yes. Listen, this movie is wonderful for television, and when it’s on TV I’m confident it will do very well, but I’m so grateful to have made a 90-minute, uninterrupted piece of cinema, and I thought a great deal about that while I was making it.