Does the devil really wear Prada?

R.J. Cutler discusses his fascinating documentary "The September Issue," an unvarnished view of Vogue magazine and fashion's ice princess, Anna Wintour.

Published January 23, 2009 11:35AM (EST)

Actual Reality Pictures/Lori Hawkins

Listen to the interview with R.J. Cutler

PARK CITY, Utah -- R.J. Cutler is a cheerful, slightly disheveled fellow in his mid-40s, and when I meet him at Sundance he's wearing jeans and a chain-store shirt that hasn't seen an iron for some time. He looks the part of a documentary filmmaker. He does not look like a guy who would know anything about fashion. In fact Cutler, by his own admission, knew very little about Vogue magazine or its legendary editor, Anna Wintour, or the arena of international fashion she dominates as a semi-official tyrant. He only knew enough to want to know more.

Fortunately for Cutler and for us, his documentary method -- the technique known as cinéma-vérité, which involves direct observation and no narration, and strives to keep the filmmaker behind the camera -- is more about learning than about knowing. It's also about incredible patience. As Cutler explained in our conversation, Vogue creative director Grace Coddington told him to go away the first time she met him, and then several more times after that. Yet in Cutler's fascinating film "The September Issue," which follows the creation of the largest issue in Vogue's history, we see Coddington perfectly at ease with the camera in her office, discussing her spats with Wintour and confessing her career malaise.

Cutler made his early reputation with "The War Room," the now-legendary documentary about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, which he produced but did not direct. He also made a film about Oliver North's short-lived venture into politics, "The Perfect Candidate," and has produced or directed various efforts in what he calls "serious reality" television, including the groundbreaking 2000 series "American High" and the more recent series "Black. White." and "30 Days."

"The September Issue" will be Cutler's first theatrical film in more than a decade, and it's a subtle and highly addictive documentary, following the palpable, almost electrical tension that surrounds Wintour as she moves from Vogue's Times Square office to New York's Fashion Week, couture shows in Paris and Milan, breakfast meetings with advertisers and even into weekend conversations with her daughter (who wants to go to law school, while Mom wishes she'd do something sensible, like edit a fashion magazine). I interviewed R.J. Cutler in a Park City art gallery a day after the film's Sundance premiere.

Your new film, which is here at Sundance, is called "The September Issue." For those who haven't heard of it, can you explain the September issue of what?

The September issue of Vogue magazine, edited by Anna Wintour and creative-directed by Grace Coddington, the single largest issue of any magazine that's ever been published. It broke records when it came out in September of 2007, and that record, thanks to the global economy, remains to this day.

That issue ended up, what 800-some pages?

About 830 pages, it weighed about 4 1/3 pounds.

Obviously for people who are interested in the world of fashion or magazines this is going to be a fascinating film. But I found it really engrossing even if you don't care much about fashion and even if you don't really know who Anna Wintour is going in.

I hope that I've told a compelling, engaging, entertaining story about two extraordinary people -- Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington -- and their relationship, the dynamic between them. And the fashion world is the landscape for the storytelling.

How did you get access? Anna Wintour is sort of this legendary ice princess of the fashion world and she gave you incredible access during the eight- or nine-month process of putting this issue together.

She did. And I'll be honest, the secret to my success was asking. It was a remarkably smooth process to get Anna to agree to let us in. She has said that she was partially motivated as a fan of my work, which is very flattering, and I was grateful to learn that. But also, my sense was that the idea appealed to her as a way of telling the real story of what it's like. And quite honestly, the very specific idea of structuring the film around the September issue was hers. She brought it up to me, when we had already been discussing for some time what we might do together.

You really don't pull any punches. There are scenes that maybe don't make Anna look so great or that justify her reputation for ferocity. But over the course of the film I feel like she very much becomes a recognizable human character.

Yeah, she is. That's the great thing about the vérité process; if the subject will trust you and open up, even if they are very controlled as she is, then you get to see them as real people. And Anna is not only a ferocious and phenomenal businesswoman, editor, journalist and figure in American society and world culture, but she's also a mom, she's also a sister, she's also a daughter. And those things play into the narrative of the film, and our understanding of her. And I think people will be surprised. They will see what they've heard, certainly, but they will also see behind the curtain, if you will.

The scenes between her and her daughter and the scenes where she talks about her family background in London, I thought those were very revealing. She didn't seem to be holding back at all from you.

Listen, the whole process of making these films, every day you're earning your subject's trust. The day I met Grace Coddington, the first thing she said to me was, "Go away." And it was a couple of months into this nine-month process before Grace was willing to give us a chance and let us film her. Anna said just yesterday, "Grace threatened to quit." She didn't quit, but she did tell us to stay away -- often. And she was scary. But she really didn't like the idea. And having seen the film, you can understand why, because media and celebrity, that's anathema to her. She wants to do her work and work with beautiful clothes and brilliant photographers and create beautiful imagery, and she doesn't want a camera around getting in her way.

But we were able to get her to look at other films that I had worked on, other films that Bob Richman, our director of photography had worked on, including "My Architect," which is such a beautiful film that Bob shot. I had a sense that Grace would connect with Bob as a photographer. And I said to him, "You know you're gonna have to take the lead on this a little bit in terms of making a connection with her because this is a woman who loves photographers and loves photography." Sometimes directing is about knowing or guessing, figuring out how to best earn the subject's trust. And if it's going to be a connection with your D.P., so be it.

The portrait you paint of her is very compelling. What struck me about the film is that with Grace and Anna you get this conflict that's really archetypal. The world of fashion, like the world of filmmaking, involves business and art and craft, all those things. And the collisions that you see in the film between them are the collisions between the person who's passionate about it as an art and a craft and the person who has the vision of it as a business.

Exactly, exactly. And yet, I think what's so awesome is that they both acknowledge -- and it takes Anna until the last possible second -- but before the film is over they both acknowledge that they couldn't do it without the other.

There are some things that I learned from the movie about how the fashion business works. Like when you see that breakfast in Paris, where Anna and other people from Vogue are meeting with the CEO of Neiman Marcus ...

That's Neiman Marcus/Bergdorf Goodman, the largest luxury goods retailer in the country. And yes, they're fundamentally telling Burt Tansky, the CEO, what to put on his shelves.

I was sitting there thinking, these people in this room are deciding what's going to be on sale, throughout the fall season.

Right there, they're deciding what people will wear. That's what they do. You know, when the minister of finance for Louis XIV convinced him that France should become a major exporter of fashion, that it should be one of the leading industries, he appointed a minister of fashion. And that minister of fashion would decide where the hemlines were and what the fashion in the court would be, every year. That decision affected the world's fashion because it was exported from France to the rest of the world. This is what [Anna] is doing! She's sitting there as minister of fashion of the world, with her associates, and declaring what we shall wear.

Even if you buy your clothes for $2 rather than $2,000, those decisions are going to trickle down to the Target level.

Exactly. You not only see her advising Neiman Marcus on what to buy, you see her selecting the designers who will design for the Gap and the clothes that they will design. Of course, that is part of the genius of Anna Wintour -- she contributed so much by putting the Gap on the cover of Vogue all those years ago, by combining the high and low fashion ... She made the luxury marketplace something that everybody could get a hold of. And that's why you've got A-list designers now at Target, and you've got Thakoon [Panichgul, fashion designer] at the Gap.

The thing you were talking about with the designer Thakoon -- she essentially picks him for this very lucrative job at the Gap. That was a moment that I thought really helped to humanize her, in the sense that you really feel her being generous towards this Asian-American kid, who I believe is the child of immigrants, with no real foothold in the industry ... until she gives him this tremendous break.

Omaha -- he grew up in Omaha. Of course, this is something that Anna does in her work with the CFDA Fashion Fund, which identifies young designers. It was her conviction that the American design industry needed to do more to support the work of young designers. Even if a designer as prominent as Isaac Mizrahi, you know, his line went away. It's very, very hard to keep it going. But they identify these young designers, and they support them. And as Tom Florio [Vogue publisher] says, "When Anna supports you, your career moves forward."

Were you personally interested in the world of fashion or did you come to this as an outsider?

Everything I've said to you about fashion in this interview, I didn't know until we made the film. But that's what's awesome about my job. I get to float into these worlds -- and I get to float out of them when I'm done. And while I'm there, I get to be curious and fascinated and kind of live in a state of wonder.

The main thing you were looking for, clearly, was the story of how Grace and Anna make this issue happen. Was there anything you didn't use because it would make somebody look bad?

Uh, I, I'm having a hard time answering your question because that's not the way I make my decisions. I'm telling a story, I build a story.

Fair enough.

The choices are all about how to tell that story more clearly, and it's about proportion. You start with this gigantic lump of clay and you look at it and you're like, what is that? And eventually, you know that that 300-hour lump of clay, if you carve it away ... it's going to be the 89-minute story that you really want to tell. We edited for a year. Six months in, you've been watching this footage for six months! Imagine eight months, nine months, 10 months, and it goes on, but that's what you work to do.

That makes a lot of sense. What's next?

I'm starting work on a couple of films.  One is  about Grant Achatz, the great chef, whose restaurant, Alinea, is in Chicago, and his book is the No. 1 cookbook in America right now. But his personal story is really what's extraordinary. He's considered by many to be one of the greatest chefs in the world, and he's had tongue cancer, and in battling the cancer, he lost the use of his taste buds on his tongue.  I'm also making another film based on "Comedy at the Edge," Richard Zoglin's terrific book about those great comedians in the 1970s -- Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin. It's that moment when Steve Martin sold out Madison Square Garden for a week, when he was like the Beatles. And so were all comedians. They were the cultural force at that moment.

Do you have any news for us yet, about where "The September Issue" is going?

[It is] a partnership with A&E Indie Films, so we're going to be on A&E for certain, and the great thing about partnering with A&E Indie Films is also that they're very flexible, so if other opportunities come our way, we'll be thrilled. But our goal is for the world to see the movie.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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