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R.J. Cutler, “The September Issue”: Vogue, a Queen and Good Films

R.J. Cutler, "The September Issue": Vogue, a Queen and Good Films

In R.J. Cutler’s Sundance documentary competition feature, “The September Issue,” the spotlight turns to a behemoth of the fashion world. Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue for 20 years, is the most powerful and polarizing figure in fashion. Larger than life and more complex than fiction, Wintour embodies a fascinating contradiction of passion and perfectionism as she reigns over a dizzying array of designers, models, photographers, and editors. According to the Sundance catalog describing the film, “R.J. Cutler delivers a rare insider account of the nine months leading up to the printing of the highly anticipated September issue of the magazine, which promises to be the biggest one ever. He takes us behind the scenes at fashion week, to Europe and back, on shoots and reshoots, and into closed-door staff meetings, bearing witness to an arduous and sometimes emotionally demanding process.”

“At the eye of this annual fashion hurricane is the two-decade relationship between Wintour and Grace Coddington, incomparable creative director and genius stylist. They are perfectly matched for this age-old conflict between creator and curator. Through them, we see close up the delicate creative chemistry it takes to remain at the top of the ever-changing fashion field. Cutler cleverly deconstructs the creative process as it plays out in the hollowed halls of Vogue, lined with racks of couture. In “The September Issue,” his access and insight are impressive and make us aware that he is offering us a privileged glimpse into a world many dream about but few see.”

“The September Issue”
Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition
Director: R.J. Cutler
Executive Producers: Molly Thompson, Robert Sharenow, Robert DeBitetto, R.J. Cutler
Producers: R.J. Cutler, Eliza Hindmarch, Sadia Shepard
Cinematographer: Bob Richman
Editor: Azin Samari
Composer: Craig Richey
Sound Recordist: Edward L. O’Connor
U.S.A., 2008, 90 mins., color

What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?

I’ve been making documentary films since 1992. The first film I produced was The War Room, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. Prior to making documentaries I was a theater director, working on and off-Broadway for about eight years. I also spent a couple of years producing for National Public Radio. I grew up on Long Island and from as early as I can remember, as far back as first grade, I had two real passions – one of them was putting on plays, and the other was journalism. I was directing plays and editing school papers from first grade on, all the way through college. But something was missing for me in both of those pursuits. Directing plays lacked the immediacy and connection to real world events that journalism offered; journalism lacked the drama, theatricality and subjective storytelling of theater. It wasn’t until I had the idea of making a documentary film about the 1992 Presidential campaign that these two passions came together in The War Room.

My filmmaking education was really very hands on. I had the great good fortune of working with D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus on my first film, and I literally studied at the feet of the masters. Everyone knows that Penne and Chris are extraordinary filmmakers, but they’re also amazing teachers, and their library of films is a veritable treasure-trove of the history of documentary, particularly of cinema verite. In the year and-a-half of working on the film, I got to watch their process and ask them questions about everything they did, their philosophy and approach, the choices they made, the whole thing. And I also got to watch tons of awesome films with them. Penne would always say, “Have you seen this? Have you seen that? You gotta watch it!” And, of course, all of the things that happened on The War Room, from gaining access to making the film to securing distribution to releasing the film were all part of a fantastic education. When we were done working on the film, Penne said to me, “Now it’s time to direct your own film. You’re not really a filmmaker until you can’t sleep at night because you can’t figure out your movie.” I felt like that was my graduation.

What prompted the idea for “The September Issue” and how did it evolve?

I first thought about doing a project about Anna Wintour and Vogue when I read an article in New York Magazine about the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Ball, the annual fundraising gala that Anna oversees. It created such a fascinating portrait that I couldn’t help but be compelled. I knew who Anna was, of course, that she was a formidable and controversial figure in the fashion world, but I didn’t know much more about her than that. I’m always looking for subjects who care a tremendous amount about what they’re doing and are doing it as well as they possibly can under high stakes circumstances. Certainly this was the case with Anna Wintour.

“The September Issue” director R.J. Cutler. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

So I called Vogue and went to New York and I had a couple of meetings with Patrick O’Connell, Anna’s Director of Communications. Nothing quite panned out, but I had a sense that eventually something would. Sure enough, a few weeks later the phone rang and Patrick said Anna has an idea, can you come out here the day after tomorrow? It was like being summoned to see the Queen. I like to joke that I was able to convince her to do this film by making her think that it was her idea, but the truth is that focusing on the September issue as a structure was indeed her suggestion. She said it was something she had always thought would make a great subject for a film. We talked about my approach, the fact that we don’t come in with an agenda or a thesis, instead our process is observational. She got it and we agreed to work together. When I said that I would have to have final cut, she said, “My father was a journalist, I’m a journalist, I totally understand.” I was glad that she got it, that she knew I would have to have final cut, but I was also struck by the fact that she spoke so openly about her father. I thought there’s definitely something here, and I suspected that if I followed that thread it would lead me to a rich place.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences.

I knew from the beginning that this would be a verite film, the approach would be similar to the approach taken on my other films – “The War Room,” “A Perfect Candidate,” “Thin.” In terms of the style of the film, it was important to me to juxtapose the raw immediacy of verite inside the Vogue office with the extraordinary beauty and glamour of the fashion world. And also to make New York and Paris, at their most beautiful, characters in the film. I was fortunate that Bob Richman agreed to be our Director of Photography. In Bob, we had a great artist and a great photographer who was also a devotee of the verite approach. It was easy to decide to shoot in high-def and to use the Sony HDX-900, which is a great tool for verite shooting. Another important stylistic decision that we made was not to use body mics, except in really rare instances, and to capture our audio through the use of a boom mic. We were working in an environment in which people were extremely conscious of the way they dress and the way they look. Their clothes were frequently very delicate and expensive. Hooking microphones up to them and creating bulky lumps in their outfits was not really an option unless we wanted them to be really self-conscious. Again, we had great good fortune and were able to lure Eddie O’Connor, our sound recordist, to come onboard. This film is a good example of stylistic approach, technique and technology combining to enable us to achieve our artistic objectives.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

I think the biggest challenge we faced in making The September Issue was the fact that people in the fashion world are very suspicious of cameras. They’re used to a camera being the enemy, something that is prying and looking to catch you in a compromising position, something that’s judging you. And of course our presence is the opposite of that, our cameras are there not to judge but to observe. Convincing the people who worked there that we weren’t like other people with cameras was a huge challenge.

Eventually we were able to win over the entire team at Vogue. Which brings us from the specific challenges of this project to the fundamental challenge you face on every film: Earning the trust of your subjects. And the way you do that is by being who you say you are. You’re fortunate to be invited into a world, in this case the world of Vogue, but you have to remember that it’s their world not yours. And you must believe fundamentally that the story belongs not to you but to the subjects, and that they are sharing it with you. Philosophically, you believe that this is a collaboration, and that informs everything you do. And if you are truly there to see things as clearly as possible, rather than to satisfy an agenda of your own, and you act in accordance with these fundamental beliefs, then your subjects will come to recognize that in you and you will have earned their trust.

In terms of securing financing I was very fortunate in that very early on in the process I hooked up with Micah Green from CAA to rep the film, and then with my good friends at A&E IndieFilms – Molly Thompson, Bob DiBitetto and Rob Sharenow– who agreed to come on board, finance the film and serve as executive producers and partners. It’s an enormous risk to finance a project like this, it involves a year’s worth of shooting, a year’s worth of editing, it’s really a two-and-a-half year process from the time we made the deal to the time the film is completed. But they were willing to take the risk.

What are some of your favorite films and what are some of your creative influences?

Oh I have so many favorite films. But here are some films I watched while we were editing The September Issue: “Crisis,” the great Drew Associates film about Jack and Bobby Kennedy and George Wallace facing off over the admission of African American students to the University of Alabama, months before Kennedy’s assassination. “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles brothers masterpiece about the concert at Altamont and the end of the 1960s. Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” George Cukor’s “Philadelphia Story.” Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve.” I’ll also say that the work of George Seurat was extremely helpful to me in thinking about this film because I imagined it as Pointillism – many tiny moments, brushstrokes if you will, that create a far greater whole.

How do you define your successes as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

At the risk of oversimplifying, I want to say that my goal as a filmmaker is to make good films. I want to tell engaging stories, and in my own way to capture some truth. I want to entertain. I want to spin a good yarn.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?

I’m just starting work on two new films. One is based on Richard Zoglin’s awesome book, “Comedy At The Edge,” which tells the story of the group of stand-up comedians who sat atop American popular culture in the 1970s. The other is a film about the master chef Grant Achatz who is the owner of the Chicago restaurant, Alinea. It’s a remarkable story about one of the world’s greatest chefs who was, at the height of his accomplishments, diagnosed with tongue cancer. The film is called “Taste.”

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