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‘Truth’ Director James Vanderbilt on Why Cate Blanchett Was the Key to His Searing Debut

'Truth' Director James Vanderbilt on Why Cate Blanchett Was the Key to His Searing Debut

The Hamptons International Film Festival kicked off last night with a warmly-recieved screening of James Vanderbilt’s “Truth.” The drama unfolds the story of “Rathergate,” in which CBS news anchor Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes reported about George W. Bush’s service in the Alabama National Guard. The story became a national scandal in 2004 after some of the evidence used to prove the President had gone AWOL was reported as fabricated, resulting in Rather and Mapes’ departure from CBS after years of Emmy Award-winning reporting. 

READ MORE: Toronto Review: Robert Redford is Dan Rather in ‘Truth,’ But Cate Blanchett Runs the Show

Joining producer Brad Fischer and co-star Dennis Quaid, writer-director Vanderbilt spoke to the audience at the Opening Night screening about his interest in the project. The movie is based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir, which the filmmaker had read an excerpt of in Vanity Fair. Looking for a story he could direct himself after years of only screenwriting (Vanderbilt’s credits include everything from “Zodiac” to “The Amazing Spider-Man” franchise), Vanderbilt was instantly hooked by this true story of journalism.

“When I read the book, the first thing that struck me was how much I didn’t know about something I thought I knew a lot about,” he said. “I’ve always loved process stories and movies that can take you behind the curtain of how something works and make you learn what it’s like to walk a mile in these people’s shoes. This story had all of that, plus this really fascinating woman at the center of it.”

Casting this “fascinating woman” ended up being the most integral part of the production process. “Truth” may feature Dan Rather, but Mary Mapes is undoubtedly the film’s blazing driver of the action. “It started with Cate Blanchett,” said Fischer, who reached out to the actress after her big Oscar win for “Blue Jasmine.” “Jamie had not directed a film before, but if she responded to the screenplay then she was responding to Jamie’s vision as a storyteller. We were incredibly lucky.”

Blanchett brings a searing and vulnerable intensity to the film, which is why she’s back in the Best Actress Oscar race this year opposite her equally-acclaimed performance in “Carol.” Once the team got Blanchett on board, the rest of the pieces fell into place, including Robert Redford. Vanderbilt always wanted a “legend to play a legend,” and while he had known Redford from a failed project he wrote that the actor was going to direct, it was Blanchett’s casting that ultimately sealed the deal. 

“I knew [Redford’s] first question would be, ‘Well, who’s playing Mary?'” Vanderbilt shared. “I wrote him this long letter about what ‘All the President’s Men’ meant to me and why I thought this would be a great film and why him playing a journalist again could mean a lot. I wrote the word ‘please’ like 10 times in there as well. I also mentioned, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re screen partner will be Cate Blanchett.’ He then called me up, which never happens, it’s always an agent, and I fell out of my chair.”

Assembling such a start-studdest cast — Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace also co-star — proved to be quite a surreal and second-guessing experience for a debut director, and it took validation from cast members like Quaid to convince Vanderbilt that he could really take charge. 

“On my first day I’m staring down the barrel of Cate Blanchett, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace all in one scene, so I’m trying to do my best, but I’ve got these legendary actors doing this,” he remembered. “You try and be a good director and the captain of the ship, but inside, I am peeing myself. Hopefully only on the inside! At the end of the second day as we were leaving, Dennis came and said, ‘You’re okay. It’s going well. It’s good.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Dennis Quaid just said I’m doing a good job directing.’ It was such a moment of like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ It was such a gift for him to say that.”

The finished result is a crackerjack exploration of the foundations and consequences of 21st century journalism. Vanderbilt wisely keeps every character in the grey space between hero and villain, which is exactly what Quaid responded to in the script. “[The movie] is as close as you could get to [the story] without politicizing it, without really taking sides. In a way, it was real journalism,” he said.

“These are real people who have families who are walking around and a movie getting made with their characters in it is going to affect them in some way,” Vanderbilt continued. “I think there’s no reason to demonize someone just because you can…We talked about how everybody in the film is just trying to do their jobs and do it the best way they can in the circumstances they find themselves. You have to play it in an honest place as a human being, and I always thought that was the most important part.”

“Truth” opens in select theaters on October 16.

READ MORE: Toronto: Dan Rather Gets Emotional at World Premiere of Fact-Based ‘Truth’

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