Sunday, July 24, 2011

Interview with RJ Cutler, director of The September Issue - June 23rd, 2009

Promoting: The September Issue
Venue: The Scotsman Hotel, Edinburgh Film Festival
Interview type: One-on-one

ViewLondon (VL): How did the project come about?

RJ Cutler (RJC): Somebody had given me an article about Anna [Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue], and I read it and thought she would make a fascinating subject for film. I met with her, and it was actually she who suggested the September Issue as a kind of structure for the shoot and I embraced that because it meant we would have access to them for close to nine months. All you need to make these movies, other then story-telling ability is access and money. Anna was offering nine months of access and that is music to a filmmaker’s ears.

VL: I read that you originally approached her first, and then she came back.

RJC: Yeah, I really didn’t know. The article I had read was about a big party that she (Wintour) throws every year. A costume institute gala-ball that she hosts and you know it’s such a big deal, raising over 5 million dollars in one night. The guest list is really a who’s who in the worlds of entertainment, fashion, business, media and society. They say every year; it is the party of the year. I think now looking back it would have been a terrible idea for a movie, just a terrible idea. Parties are you know, there is no pay-off to a party. Everyone goes to the party and then they come home. Who cares? The September Issue is a great idea for a structuring device. Once again, Anna was right!

VL: That seems to be a reoccurring theme.

RJC: Maybe

VL: Obviously the most wonderful discovery in the film is the relationship between Anna and Grace [Coddington]. Can you talk about how that came about?

RJC: Well, it’s not a discovery. I didn’t have to dig very deep. If you are at Vogue you know that if you spend any time there, that you can’t help but recognize the most fiery relationship at the magazine is between Anna and Grace. Here you have two of the most significant figures in the fashion world in the last thirty years-if not the last century. As I say it is almost impossible not to recognize that this is the key relationship. The challenge was persuading Grace to let us film with her. That was the biggest challenge, because part of the conflict in their dynamic meant that once Anna invited us in, Grace hated the idea that we were there. We were just another battlefield, and over time we were able to win her over. This was shocking to almost everyone at Vogue. Andre couldn’t believe it, Tom Floreo couldn't believe it, Patrick who is Anna’s director of communications couldn’t believe it. Anna herself couldn’t even believe it. Anna would tease Grace, refer to her as the movie star.

VL: And she is the movie star!

RJC: And she is the movie star, she absolutely is.

VL: When did you kind of realize that she was going to let you in to that extent? Because, as you said, her first words to you were “go away” and she repeated those words several times.

RJC: Yes she did, several times with increasing forcefulness. Go away was the nice thing she said to me. About four months in, I kind of couldn’t take it anymore. I was trying to figure out what the film was about. I had been shooting for four months, which is a lot of time. I couldn’t see a way to make this movie that wasn’t about their relationship. That was the movie, that was the movie. The movie tells you what it is, you don’t tell it. So much media that I see, so many documentaries that I see, somebody has decided what they want to say. Once you decide what you want to say, I am so uninterested. I couldn’t care less, don’t make a movie if you decide what you want to say ahead of time. Write it down send it off to someone and blog it…put it online. If you know what you want to say upfront don’t waste your time, don’t waste your subject's time, don’t waste everybody’s money- and for god's sake don’t waste your audiences’ time because it is boring. The whole point in making these movies is to go into these foreign lands, and they reveal themselves to you, and then you get to relate to the world. Really in a way the movie is a conduit of like what it was and what it is at Vogue in 2007 – Anna and Grace. That is what it is and there is no way around it. I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to Grace, I didn’t fall to my knees but I might as well have. I just said I can’t make this film without you, and here we are and we are good people and you are going to be happy that you gave us a chance – but you have to start by giving us a chance, and she gave us a chance.

VL: Clearly she had a pretty great relationship with the crew and you by the end of the movie. She was joking with you all the time.

RJC: Of course, of course – but everybody does. Our relationship with Anna was wonderful by the end of the film. We are there for nine months, and all we want to do is see what they do. It’s like if someone followed you for nine months, and all they wanted to do was tell the story of what you do, and how you do it and why you do it and who you are. You’d think they were awesome, I think.

VL: So how did the day-to-day filming break down. You say nine months, but it’s not like it is 9-5 for nine months?

RJC: No, it is always different and there is no way to kind of even describe it. You are in the flow of the situation. At the beginning you kind of very consciously say you are going to be there this day, and then work out when we're going to come back tomorrow. Not going to be here the next day, but will be here for two days after that. Now were going to go off to Paris with you. Next weekend we’d like to come over to your house for the day. But, that is just at the beginning. 'Oh you have that meeting, can we come?' Within a month or two I went to Anna and said: 'Now what we need to do is come and go as we will.' You do come and go as you will, because you need to be able to see anything. Second of all, you want them to miss you when you are gone. You don’t just show up everyday. Some days you don’t come in. You know you are doing well when you take a few days off, and somebody gets in touch with you, asking where have you guys been? That is what you want. You want them to want to do what you are there to do, which is to open up, which is how you get them to do it.

VL: Speaking of opening up, were you ever worried that people would be very guarded around you because obviously if Anna sees them badmouthing her or a decision that has been made, then there'd be repercussions from that.

RJC: Yes, but not with any kind of urgency and certainly not after Grace got on board. Once Grace was on board, it was like, 'We can say anything we want because god knows Grace is saying anything she wants.'

VL: You said you shot over 320 hours of footage. Clearly within that you’ve had to lose an awful lot of material. Was there anything in particular that you hated to lose?

RJC: No, I didn’t hate to lose anything because everything we took out was making the movie not as good as the movie is. There are wonderful scenes that will be on the DVD. Wonderful scenes of Andre, great scenes of the party, the ball. They are great scenes but everything I took out that really didn’t service the film that we ended up with.

VL: Are you promising us 319 hours of deleted scenes?

RJC: Ha ha! We’ll see, we’ll see.

VL: What does Anna think of the film?

RJC: You know, she thinks its my movie. She thinks if she were the director it would be a completely different movie. She thinks, 'Wow it’s awesome that everybody loves it, and good for me'. As I say, she had plenty of notes, but I had final cut. I listened to her, but I made the movie I wanted to make.


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