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Unmasking Anna Wintour: R.J. Cutler On His "September" Subject

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire August 27, 2009 at 6:8AM

"I had no relationship to this world before the film," "The September Issue" director R.J. Cutler told indieWIRE earlier this week. "I'll be honest with you. To me Vogue was a magazine that my Mom read when I was a kid that I just couldn't find my way through. I couldn't even find the table of contents. There were just too many damn ads in there. And it smelled funny because of all those perfume samplings. I read Sports Illustrated and National Lampoon. You went through a couple of ad pages and there was the table of contents and you were on your way. I could not understand Vogue for the life of me."
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"I had no relationship to this world before the film," "The September Issue" director R.J. Cutler told indieWIRE earlier this week. "I'll be honest with you. To me Vogue was a magazine that my Mom read when I was a kid that I just couldn't find my way through. I couldn't even find the table of contents. There were just too many damn ads in there. And it smelled funny because of all those perfume samplings. I read Sports Illustrated and National Lampoon. You went through a couple of ad pages and there was the table of contents and you were on your way. I could not understand Vogue for the life of me."

Obviously, things have changed. Cutler is now in the midst of a six-week, worldwide promotional tour for "Issue," a documentary chronicling Vogue editor Anna Wintour, her relationship with her colleague and "the world's greatest stylist" Grace Coddington, and the creation of said issue of the magazine. The film opens in New York this Friday, and then rolls out in both North America and an impressive slew of territories around the world - each eager to have "Issue" debut in its titular month. Cutler took a moment out of his schedule to talk to indieWIRE about the film, which is coming off an extensive run in the festival circuit that began at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.

Cutler quickly made it clear that his childhood stance on Vogue and the industry it represents has changed. "As I started to learn," he said, "I started to get more and more curious, more and more excited, and more and more aware that this world is so central to so many things. We all buy clothes. We all put on clothes in the morning. The choices we make when we put those clothes on has a great deal to say to the world about who we are. This industry is not only in and of itself a $300 billion global industry, but it drives other industries, from textiles to shipping to advertising to publishing... There's so much that is driven by fashion."

A scene from R.J. Cutler's "The September Issue." Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

And so much in fashion is driven by Anna Wintour. Famous for her pageboy bob haircut and frequently-worn sunglasses, and infamous for her demanding, "ice-queen" reputation, Wintour has become a fashion icon in her own right. And while Cutler's film doesn't exactly refute that infamy, it certainly sheds light on the more hidden aspects of Wintour's personality - most predominately the incomparable passion she exudes for her work, and the complexity of her long-standing - and in it's own way, loving - relationship with Coddington.

"Anna is absolutely a unique figure in popular culture," Cutler said. "It's certainly a great thing for the film that there's so much excitement and curiosity about her. And then, people come to the movie and their curiosity is sated, but they also have this whole cinematic experience of watching a movie about Anna and Grace. To me, it's a great buddy film and people are really, really responding to that. They come in hoping to see Anna at work, and learn about Anna, and see the glasses come off, as we have said. But what they get, in addition to all of that, is this very rich movie experience about the relationship between these two women."

The origins of that experience came when Sadia Shepard, one of the film's producers, sent Cutler an article she had read in New York magazine and said to him, "I wonder if Anna Wintour would be interesting to you as a subject." Cutler read the article and certainly came to find Wintour quite fascinating, but didn't think that meant he was going to make a movie about her. And then he met her.

"She was many of the things that'd I heard, and not many of the things that I'd heard, and so many things I hadn't even thought she would be," he said. "And I was just very struck. She was clearly brilliant and focused, and knew her mind. And the people around her were focused in a way that was really exciting. You could feel an intensity in the Vogue environment."

The conversation Cutler had with Wintour that day, which he describes as about both the filmmaking process, and about the idea of structuring the film around the September issue, proved a productive and surprisingly undemanding beginning for the project.

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"There weren't niceties or small talk," he explained. "And then towards the end of the meeting, I said to her 'you know, if we're going to do this, I'm going to have to have final cut.' Obviously it's no secret that Anna has a reputation for being in control of things she gets involved in. I wanted to be really upfront about that because I didn't want to waste either of our time. If I don't have final cut, no one's going to take it seriously. There's no point in our spending two years making a film together that no one's going to take seriously. And she said, 'I totally get it. My father was a journalist. I'm a journalist. And that's not going to be an issue.' And indeed it wasn't."

What struck Cutler most about that discussion wasn't simply Wintour's understanding of his need for final cut, but the fact that - in a way - she was opening up to him. "This famously closed person was telling me in our very first meeting that her father was important to her," he said. "And perhaps if I pulled on that thread, I would be able to learn really important things about her. And that turned out to be true."

Neither Cutler nor Wintour have been secretive about the fact that when Wintour first saw a cut of the movie, she had some "feedback" for him. "As she likes to say, she made many suggestions," he laughed. "She feels that I ignored all of them. And it's not that I ignored them. We talked about them at great length. I wanted her to understand choices that I'd made and the reasons that I'd made them. I had a very specific take on it, and it was very important to me to make this about her relationship with Grace. And, listen, it's never easy to see a film about yourself. With time, as she got to see it again and again, she's been completely supportive. And she never wained from her commitment to me - that it was my film. She likes to tease me about how I didn't make changes based on her feedback, but I think she, of all people, respects the determination it takes to do something like make a documentary."

"The September Issue" director R.J. Cutler enjoys some bubbly with London Film Festival Artistic Director Sandra Hebron outside the reception for his Anna Wintour doc's European premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Photo by Peter Knegt.

It was actually Coddington, not Wintour, that expressed any issue with having "Issue" made in the first place.

"Anna is a particular kind of person," Cutler said. "It's no secret that she's a more restrained person than most people. So things that we learn about her, they come in smaller moments, and in glances and gestures. But we still learn. Whereas Grace is more loquacious and emotional and where's her heart somewhat more on her sleeve. So you learn about her in that way. But Anna said yes the first time I met her, and Grace didn't say yes for four months. In fact, the first time I met her she told me to go away. She didn't want anything to do with the movie. She felt that this was some thing that Anna was doing that would get in the way of her work."

Eventually, Cutler went to her and said he'd try making the film without her, but it just wasn't proving possible. She gave him one hour, and they spent it filming a little, and getting to know each other, which led to another hour.

Two Septembers later - the film focuses on the September 2007 issue of Vogue - Coddington's resistence is history. She has joined both Cutler and Wintour on the film's promotional tour, which continues through the end of the film's famed month. Wintour - not generally one to do much press - even went on David Letterman, which certainly suggests her satisfaction for Cutler's finished product. As for Cutler, the film's high buzz level - and $15,000-per-theater debut in Australia last week - hasn't made him overconfident.

"We've been building from Sundance to the various premieres of the film," he said, "but I also know there's a long life to a movie and we're working hard. I say at every screening we have for the film that it's an unusual documentary in that its gotten such enormous attention - and of course, we're so grateful for that. But its not an unusual documentary in that we still have limited resources to get the film out into the world, and Roadside Attractions has been doing an amazing job. But what this film is going to rely on - and has relied on - is word of mouth. So you can't do enough getting the word out on a movie like this. So we're really all very focused on that, and everyone's being really supportive."

"The September Issue" opens in New York this Friday, August 28th, and expands to Los Angeles and other select cities September 11th.

This article is related to: Documentary, Interviews, The September Issue