August 27, 2009

See You in 'September': R. J. Cutler Aims His Camera at 'Vogue' Magazine

Anna Wintour (Editor-in-Chief, Vogue) in <em>The September Issue</em>, a film by R. J. Cutler. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Anna Wintour is famously private, but when R. J. Cutler approached her with the idea of making a documentary series on the production of Vogue's September issue, she was promptly supportive. This aside, it was not so easy for him to get the project rolling.

While fiction films have touched on the candy-colored universe of Wintour's Vogue magazine, Cutler asserts that the project, which evolved in concept from a series to a feature-length doc, is no reaction piece. "It's a narrative reflection of something that I witnessed over nine months, melded together with something I experienced when I was witnessing it--and that's it."

The September Issue, which rolls out to theaters in September through Roadside Attractions and A&E Indie Films, documents the editors of Vogue planning the largest issue the magazine has ever published, and they begin nine months before the issue goes to print. While all the editors are involved, one editor, the most famously inaccessible among them, gets center stage.

 

Anna Wintour is known for being fiercely private. Was that an obstacle to reaching her or representing her?

R. J. Cutler: Whether they're famously private or not, you have to earn your subjects' trust and maintain it through the duration of filming. If you do your job properly and protect that trust, the subjects become more committed to sharing their stories with you. You have to fundamentally believe throughout the process that the story belongs to them, and not to you. Therefore, the only thing you can do is endeavor to earn their trust.

You ask if it was difficult to get Anna to open up--Grace Coddington [Vogue's creative director] wouldn't let me film a frame with her for four months. I would show up and if Grace was there, she would ask me not to film, yell at me or walk out of the room. She was really unhappy that a camera was present at Vogue, and it was only when I could not imagine making the film without her--and I confessed that to her and basically got down on my knees--that she agreed to give us a chance. And then, she was involved.

Earning trust is always a challenge, but once you've done it, regardless of the person's reputation, you get to make a movie.

 

When did you begin to have the support of A&E Indie Films?

It's kind of a beautiful story. When I first started talking to Anna about this, I thought of making a series about it consistent with the other documentary series I've done [American High; The Residents]. I was very frustrated at the time. People who buy television series get very, very excited about it, and then they get cold feet. I went to Sundance, and while I was there I was having dinner with Stephanie Davis, who's a wise friend of mine, and I was bitching and moaning about two things: I was frustrated that I hadn't made the time in my life to make another film, and I was missing the fact I hadn't made a doc for a while. I said, "I have access to Anna Wintour and I can't even set this series up!" And she said, "I don't understand why you don't do this as a documentary." And all of a sudden the clouds in the sky cleared and it made complete sense to me. We went off to a party, where I ran into Micah Green from CAA, who is the maestro of arranging financing and sales for documentary films. I mentioned it to him and he said, "I'll call A&E the day I get home," and the next day he called me. It was really that kind of sudden transformation in the life of this film being made. It came after I had agreements with Anna, but a full year before we started shooting.

 

Did the deal with A&E affect the final cut?

No, I had final cut on this film. That's a critical part of making the movie, for me. It was something A&E and Anna both agreed to. When I met Anna and we started talking about doing a project together, her response to my desire for final cut was, "I totally understand. I'm a journalist, my father was a journalist and this isn't going to be a problem." I was grateful she totally got it but also struck that we had just met and she was talking about her dad. It was a clue to me that her father and how she sees herself were big issues to her. It was like she couldn't hold herself back from giving me that indication, almost immediately after meeting.

This is an aside to the issue of editorial control, but one of the reasons you have final cut is because you want the film to be exactly what you want it to be. It's an incredible privilege when you can have that, but in a way you're also protecting the subjects from themselves. It's always hard to look at a movie, and the first impression is not always going to have the perspective a filmmaker has. You want to avoid a situation where you're sharing any editorial control with your subject.

 

Part of the reason I ask this is that I thought A&E might have had an opinion on the inclusion--or in this case exclusion--of any mention of the death of the magazine industry in this doc.

This movie doesn't have anything to do with that. That's the kind of thing you would never ask a scripted filmmaker; you'd only ask a documentary filmmaker because there's this kind of misunderstanding--because documentaries deal with real life, that they're somehow obliged to cover subject matter.

We're telling stories about human beings. This is a movie about these two women who've been working together for 20 years and were in a certain moment in their careers: They know the end is near, they know how much they've accomplished but they still come to work every day and fight about what works and what doesn't, and they do it in the midst of this extraordinary world and this $300 billion industry they kind of run. Though they appear to be polar opposites, they have this deep symbiosis and what they create is quite extraordinary. In fact, they create the single largest magazine issue that's ever been published. That's the story. Commenting on the death of the magazine industry is something you write news articles about; it's not what you make movies about.

 

There was a lot of commentary from the people in the film about how hard it is to be a designer. Do you feel there's any parallel there to the difficulty of being a filmmaker?

Well, it's hard to do anything that's creative and driven by passion and part of an industry. One of the central themes of the film is how art and commerce have to find a way to live together, and what happens when they do. One of the by-products of that situation is that it's tough on the artists. That's one of the easier observations the film makes. Sure it's tough, but what Grace and Anna are able to accomplish and what you see in the film is an argument why it's all worth it.

 

Following its opening August 28 in New York, The September Issue expands nationwide September 11,

Sara Vizcarrondo is a film journalist writing and editing in San Francisco, California.

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