With his new film, The September Issue, celebrated documentarian R.J. Cutler boldly goes where no filmmaker has gone before: inside Anna Wintour's closet.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In the opening minutes of The September Issue, a deliciously intriguing documentary about the inner workings of Vogue that's now playing in limited release, Anna Wintour, Vogue's longtime editor-in-chief and the film's chief subject, observes that many people are “frightened of fashion.”
More pointedly, many people are frightened of Wintour, the fashion industry's most formidable figure who famously inspired Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated turn in The Devil Wears Prada, and whose familiar armor – the bob haircut, the signature sunglasses, the aloof demeanor – supposedly served as the blueprint for Johnny Depp's take on Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Producer/director R.J. Cutler, whose impressive body of non-fiction work is as rich as the wealth of acclaim he's received (including an Oscar nomination for his 1993 Clinton campaign doc., The War Room), saw beyond the apprehension and the caricature to the reputably diligent sovereign who rules over an empire, seemingly without breaking a sweat, let alone a stiletto.
Taking us behind the glossy pages of Vogue's September 2007 issue (which, at nearly five pounds and 840 pages, was and remains the magazine's largest ever), Cutler's watch-and-watch-again film is imbued with the blithe spirit and foot-tapping rhythm of a runway show, as well as the headlines-and-deadlines fascination of a juicy journalistic drama. Affectionate, yet still largely objective, it legitimizes a world so often regarded as trivial, while also giving a voice to its detractors. And since virtually no magazine is quite the same as it was two years ago, all the ad-laden affluence of the issue in question is given a certain bittersweet, romantic quality.
With his cordial disposition (and markedly casual dress), Cutler doesn't seem like an obvious Wintour playmate, but, then, neither does Grace Coddington, Vogue's passionate creative director who's been lovingly locking horns with Wintour for over two decades, and who emerges as the movie's unlikely heroine. In an interview at Philadelphia's Sofitel Hotel, the filmmaker and I discuss what ended up on the cutting room floor, how Coddington originally scoffed at the project, and how Wintour isn't exactly the devil she's made out to be.
R. Kurt Osenlund: Let's start by discussing your genre of choice. What would you say is your fascination with documentary?
R.J. Cutler: As far back as I can remember, I had two passions: one was directing plays and one was writing a newspaper. These dual passions continued from first grade through college, and even when I became a theater director – which was my career before I was a filmmaker – I still dabbled in journalism. But I knew that journalism wasn't really for me because I didn't like the remove – I didn't like the distance. I didn't want to have to tell the whole story, I wanted to tell the story that I saw, that was subjective, but truthful. And I loved directing plays, but I felt that the work I was doing wasn't plugged into the world in the way that I wanted it to be. Then, I was 30 years old and I came up with the idea for The War Room. And when we made The War Room, it was everything I loved about the theater and about journalism without any of the things that I didn't love. I finally figured out what I really wanted to do, and it was making documentary films. I love when people say, “you can't make this shit up,” because you can't. People are amazing, they're fascinating, they're rich, they're complicated. Life has a poetry and a theatricality to it and I love finding that and bringing it out.
R.K.O.: You've covered a number of weighty topics in your work, and your last film, Thin, dealt with eating disorders. How'd you go from that to Vogue?
R.J.C.: I've made films in the worlds of politics, American history, basketball, the military, young physicians working in a hospital, college and high school. The worlds are different, but what's always similar is that there are fascinating characters. For some reason, whatever it is, the characters spark my curiosity. In this case, it was Anna. I've always been fascinated with characters like Anna – these people who rule an industry. It's so rare: you can make a movie without Steven Spielberg's blessing, you can publish software without Bill Gates's blessing, you cannot succeed as a fashion designer – except in rare cases – without Anna Wintour's blessing. It's so interesting. Who are these people? What are they really like? What's she really like? That's where it starts.
R.K.O.: Were you intimidated by her initially?
R.J.C.: I don't think so. I think those who are intimidated come to be intimidated. I came to talk to her about filmmaking, about making a movie. I found that she's clearly somebody who responds to people who know their mind, and she wants to get down to business. She's very straightforward, she's easy to talk to, she's very approachable. I'm not saying she isn't a tough, demanding boss – she is – but I wasn't working for her: I was going to talk to her about collaborating on something. In our first meeting, when we decided to work together, I explained to her my approach, and she supported it. I said, “All I want to do is make a film about how you do what you do.” She said, “Great.” She got it.
R.K.O.: At one point in the film, Anna is referred to as “the most powerful woman in America.” Do you think there's any validity to that statement?
R.J.C.: It's certainly how she's perceived by many. If you were making a list of the 10 most powerful women, you'd consider Anna, and I suspect you'd put her on it. She's pretty powerful. But you'd have to show me the tournament grid before I told you if she was the favorite to win the competition.
R.K.O.: Did you hope to get more personal information out of her?
R.J.C.: No. The personal information included in the film was the personal information I wanted to include in the film: the information that illuminates either her work life or her work relationships. It's a work story in the way that The War Room is a work story. Of course there's plenty of other stuff, but this is exactly what I wanted. If you open up the can of worms of private lives and other personal stuff, it gets very wormy. I wasn't interested, really. That's for gossip columnists.
R.K.O.: You spoke before about fascinating characters. From Grace Coddington to (American editor-at-large) Andre Leon Talley, The September Issue has a very colorful cast of characters, each with very strong personalities. Were you expecting that?
R.J.C.: It's part of the discipline to not expect, and just to enter with a kind of innocence. Simple questions, curiosity. So, without preconceived notions, or an agenda, or expectations, you can discover so much more. You're in this kind of very wide-eyed state, just...curious. That's the beauty of it all.
R.K.O.: The unprecedented access that you and your crew were given is one of the film's key selling points. Was anything off limits?
R.J.C.: Not that I'm aware of. We saw it all.
R.K.O.: Was the film always intended to be about the production of the September 2007 issue?
R.J.C.: That was always what the structure of the shoot was going to be, but you never know. There could have been one day that was so remarkable that we might have made a movie about one day. But the access we were given was for the September issue and for everything else that was going on during the eight months when the September issue was being made. And that was the intention, but the September issue turned out to be the right structure because the September issue is the MacGuffin here. The real story is about the relationship between these two women (Anna and Grace); these polar opposite, symbiotic collaborators.
Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour
R.K.O.: Eventually, the movie is indeed as much – if not more – about Grace as it is about Anna. How did that happen?
R.J.C.: Well, when we met Grace, the first thing she said was, “Go away! Anna said people were coming; it's ridiculous! All you're going to do is get in the way!” We thought, “Who is this angry person?” It's like, you're scared of her because she just yelled at you, but your curiosity is certainly sparked: “Who's the mad one with the red hair? She's awesome!” So, we tried again the next week. “Get out of here!” she said.
R.K.O.: How long did it take for her to warm up to you?
R.J.C.: Four months.
R.J.C.: Because four months in, I knew the movie we needed to make, and it was a movie about Anna and Grace. Those first four months were critical in learning about the world and the people and how they communicate with glances and nuances and gestures, but I still hadn't nailed the story in terms of what we were shooting. And one night, I was home looking through this beautiful, dazzling book about Grace [in her modeling days] published by Karl Lagerfeld. It's her whole body of work for 30 years, and it's organized by photographer – every great photographer of her lifetime. And I thought, “this woman's entire life has been about collaborating with photographers and working with storytellers. She's a storyteller. Well, we're storytellers. This isn't a question of convincing someone who's going to hate it to do it, this is a question of convincing someone who's going to love it to do it.” It was a eureka moment. And then I went to her, and I said, “I cannot make this movie without you. I don't know how to do it, and I don't want to do it. So give me one hour.” And we spent that hour talking about photography, and then we spent more time together, and then we were making a movie together.
R.K.O.: In the film, there's a beautiful segment in Paris where Grace talks about inspiration. What inspires you?
R.J.C.: Beauty. Human complexity. Baseball. Preston Sturges. Great music. Beautiful art. The two movies that inspired me while I was making this film were A Philadelphia Story and Crimes and Misdemeanors. A Philadelphia Story because it's a beautifully shot comedy of manners that's really about the lightness of tone in this rarefied world that becomes accessible, and Crimes and Misdemeanors because it makes the city a character and there's a great interplay of music and city. In our film, we tried to make New York a character and Paris a character.
R.K.O.: How have your views of the fashion industry changed since making the film?
R.J.C.: Well, they changed entirely because I now have a deep appreciation for the vital role that the fashion industry plays in culture, society, industry, history, art and commerce. And I also recognize that it's frivolous and vain and excessive and indulgent. But I recognize that it all goes on at the same exact moment and that's awesome.
R.K.O.: Is there anything that we didn't see that will end up on the DVD?
R.J.C.: There are 320 hours (of footage). There's great stuff. There's nothing I would put in the film. I had complete creative control, I had final cut – this is the film I wanted to make. But there are a lot of awesome scenes that will be on the DVD that just don't fit into this narrative. There's a lot of great stuff with Andre [such as a visit to the high-end French boutique, Charvet], there's great stuff with Grace, with Anna, with (fashion designer) Thakoon, and with characters who aren't more prominent in the film like (fashion news and features director) Sally Singer and (European editor-at-large) Hamish Bowles. There's a lot of yummy stuff.
R.K.O.: I'm going to end with Anna's last line in the film and ask, “What else?” What's next?
R.J.C.: Ah, very good. There's one project that I might start shooting this fall, but I can't talk about it on the record because we haven't nailed it down and I'm both superstitious and too respectful of the subject to make it public at this point.
R.K.O.: Is there anything that you can tell me?
R.J.C.: It's something I'm very, very excited about.
*A version of this article was published in the October 2009 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.