R.J. Cutler's big issue

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R.J. Cutler's first documentary project as a producer, The War Room, was more than a critical success (the film earned an Oscar nomination in 1993). With its candid look at the machinery behind Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, the film captured a major cultural moment.

Cutler's new feature doc, which he directs, is an equally timely look at another huge, often political operation, with equally idiosyncratic (if better groomed) characters. The September Issue offers viewers a behind the scenes look at the making of Vogue's record breaking fall 2007 tome.

The film, which screened at Sundance, debuts September 11 nationwide and the timing is on Cutler's side, if not on Vogue's. The magazine business is sinking faster than it's bailing. The once unassailable Vogue has faltered—forced to shut Men's Vogue at the end of 2008 and bested in ad pages for the first time by more populist Elle in the first half of 2009. Wintour looms larger than ever over culture after The Devil Wears Prada, though she likely finds the film's storyline more true to life than is comfortable, as speculation continues that she may be overthrown by one or another "foxlike" challenger from the provinces. But all that delicious context aside, The September Issue proves simply to be a highly entertaining study of two fascinating women. Yes two. Because while the film offers a riveting peek behind Wintour's bob-and-shades froideur, Vogue creative director Grace Coddington emerges as the second key player, in the film and on the magazine. Coddington, who labors over the magazine's every creative detail, down to dressing models on shoots, is the artistic soul to Wintour's ruthlessly decisive business head, and the relationship between the two women becomes the heart of the film.

Cutler, who came from a theater directing background, has a long and varied feature and TV credit list. After The War Room, he directed and produced A Perfect Candidate, tracking the Oliver North senate campaign in 1996. His TV credits include series American High (which he created, directed and produced in 2000), Freshman Diaries, FX's Black.White, and, more recently, Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days (which he executive produced). He directed the 2006 History Channel series The 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America and has produced a number of other reality-based shows. Cutler signed to Nonfiction Unlimited for spots post Sundance and Creativity caught up with him at a sneak peak of The September Issue in New York.

Creativity: How did you get access to Anna and this process—she doesn't seem like the welcoming type.
Cutler: It was surprisingly easy to get her on board. I had a meeting with her communications person who said she'd love to meet with me. And it was in that first meeting with her that she suggested the September issue as a structuring device for the movie.

Anna is a pretty strong presence in culture – someone that many people have a lot of assumptions about. What was your approach to this film in terms of allowing her to come through (or not) as a more human character?
Well, she is a human! You always have to recognize that you're dealing with a complex human being; as a friend of mine says 'many things are true at once.' She's not just one thing. The filmmaking process that I employ really is designed to illuminate that. I'm not going in with an agenda, I'm going in with curiosity and questions and naivete. I don't go after things. We're there to discern the truth to see it as clearly as possible and relate what we saw in as entertaining an compelling way as possible.

Grace Coddington obviously emerges as a compelling character and the dynamic between her and Anna is fascinating. Did you realize right away that she – and the relationship- would be such a central part of the film?
I didn't know this would be about Grace and Anna when I went in. It's what I discovered when I was asking simple questions—how do things get done, who does what? She was adamantly opposed to being involved. Sometime that's an indication that you should stay away and sometimes it's an indication that you should bide your time and earn their trust. My instinct was that it was the latter because her relationship with Anna was the central relationship of the magazine and they had a unique dynamic between them. I waited for months before finally saying to her, look how can we make this work what can we do? I asked her to look at a film I had made and then asked if she would allow us to film with her one hour of one day. And so one day she said, 'OK, one hour.'

What do you think the appeal of this film will be for those outside of the media and fashion worlds?
I don't see it really as fashion movie or as a move about the magazine industry. It's a movie about two extraordinary women, people who have changed the world and who are at a certain moment in their careers where maybe the end is closer than the beginning, yet they are still kind of going at it with the same passion and vigor and commitment. They are creating beauty and defining beauty and brawling over beauty. I love that people who love fashion will have a wonderful time delving into this landscape, I love what it has to say about the magazine industry. But it transcends all of that. I've shown the film all over world and while it plays really well in New York and L.A. I find that the further away we get from those kinds of centers the better it plays. The less insider publishing, etc. the audience is, the more they enjoy it. We all go to work in the morning. We all have bosses and passions. We all know what it's all about.
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