November 14, 2009

Doc U Recap: An Evening With R.J. Cutler

As part of the IDA's 2009 Doc U Seminar series IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt sat down with director-producer R.J. Cutler for a fun and educational chat about docs, cinema verite storytelling, his career and more.

The evening began with a 30 minute career overview reel that ran through a selection of Cutler's work such as The War Room, A Perfect Candidate, TV series American High and his latest directorial effort, The September Issue. While setting it up, Schmidt told the audience he was looking forward to an entertaining evening, and quoting Fat Albert, added, "and you might learn something.

IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt, R.J. Cutler, IDA Executive Director Michael Lumpkin
IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt, R.J. Cutler, IDA Executive Director Michael Lumpkin

Another quote served as a kind of mantra for the evening when Cutler shared a story about hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: An interviewer once asked Gretzky "Tell us, Great One, how do you do it?" Gretzky replied, "I just follow the puck."

Cutler shared with the audience how he just "follows the puck" when creating his projects, even his first film, 1993's The War Room, a doc which was conceived to be about then-presidential nominee Bill Clinton, but benefited from focusing on spin doctor James Carville. "It was a clinic in process, everything was just discovery," he said. "We just filmed what struck us and that's what you should film."

"I like to watch," Cutler added, who prefers to not do any interviews with his subjects. If he must, he tries to conduct them after shooting because they can get in the way of the real story. "You're in danger of saying to the subject, 'This is what I want from you.' ... Life tells you what the movie should be, the movie tells you what the movie should be."

His tips for documentarians: Ask silly questions. Go in with a childlike wonder and be as curious as possible. But also take time to sit back, especially if the subject is feeling tense or simply having a bad day. Culter has even benefited from completely stopping down production.

"Go away for a couple of days," he advised. "Because they'll miss you. If it's a bad day, leave. You're building trust. Your goal isn't to get the juice. Your goal is to build a relationship."

He shared how those tactics helped him get through the production of The September Issue. By building a relationship with main subject Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, he was eventually invited to her house for filming. Vogue creative director, Grace Coddington, another central part of the finished product, was originally completely against being in the movie at all. But Cutler took the time to build a relationship with her and initially connected with her over the art of photography.

After the moderated chat, Cutler took questions from the audience, giving advice and direction to the filmmakers in the room. Another handy tip: just call. His first film came together because he simply called Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker and said he wanted to work with them. When he wanted to make a film about Anna Wintour, he rang her up and asked her.

Culter also shared why he is moving away from running his successful TV production company to focus on directing. "You expand and contract at different times," he said and explained that even though he thought he was in a period of contraction, more doors than ever are opening for him. In other words, he's just following the puck.