Art, commerce, Anna Wintour and "The September Issue"

Director R.J. Cutler on Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington and the backstage fashion dramas of "The September Issue"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 27, 2009 10:27AM (EDT)

R.J. Cutler, director of "The September Issue."
R.J. Cutler, director of "The September Issue."

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

R.J. Cutler, director of "The September Issue."

When filmmaker R.J. Cutler first met Grace Coddington, the striking, red-haired former London hippie who is now the creative director of Vogue magazine, Coddington told Cutler to go away. But as a leading practitioner of the documentary technique known as cinéma vérité, which involves direct observation and no narration, and strives to keep the filmmaker behind the camera, Cutler didn't go away. He just hung around and hung around -- he had permission from Vogue's legendary editor, Anna Wintour, to document the process of creating the magazine's September 2007 issue, a fashion-industry bible -- and finally Coddington got used to him. If anything, she's the central figure in Cutler's remarkable film The September Issue," or at least a central countervailing force to the inscrutable, seemingly capricious and notoriously hard-to-please Wintour.

When I met Cutler last January at the Sundance Film Festival, he did not look like a guy overly concerned with fashion. He's a cheerful, slightly disheveled fellow in his mid-40s, who was wearing jeans and a chain-store button-down shirt that hadn't seen an iron for some time. By his own admission, in fact, Cutler began working on the film knowing very little about Vogue or Anna Wintour, or the arena of international fashion she dominates as a semi-official tyrant. He only knew enough to want to know more.

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" is Cutler's first theatrical film in more than a decade, and it's a deliciously subtle, highly addictive documentary that follows 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 conversations with her daughter at their weekend Hamptons retreat. (Wintour's daughter wants to go to law school, while Mom wishes she'd do something practical and sensible, like edit a fashion magazine.)

Of course one can make a case that the fashion world, and the internal dramas of a fashion magazine, are trivial and superficial matters, totally undeserving of Cutler's attention or ours. But speaking as someone with almost no interest in the field myself, the more I watched "The September Issue" the more I was drawn in -- and the more the movie seemed to be about fundamental aspects of life under capitalism, such as the collision (and collusion) of art and commerce, the role of individual taste and judgment, and the buying and selling of beauty.

What follows, just below the YouTube trailer for "The September Issue,"is an edited version of my January conversation with Cutler, conducted over coffee in the back room of a Park City, Utah, art gallery. You can read the full transcript, as originally published, here, and listen to the entire interview here.

OK, R.J., so your film is called "The September Issue." The September issue of what? And why is it important?

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 being 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 don't really know who Anna Wintour is.

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.

I'm amazed that you got such free access. Anna Wintour has this sort of ice-princess mystique, 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. 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 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 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 Anna and her daughter, and the scenes where she talks about her family background in London, those are very revealing. She didn't seem to be holding back at all.

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." 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 told me yesterday that Grace threatened to quit over the film. She didn't quit, but she did tell us to stay away -- often. And she was scary. 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 getting in her way.

But we got 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," 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're gonna have to take the lead on this, 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.

The portrait you paint of Grace is very compelling. 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. What you see between them in the film 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.

I learned a lot about how the fashion business works. Like when you see that breakfast scene 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, "The handful of people in that room are deciding what's going to be sold 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.

And even if, like the vast majority of people, you buy your clothes for $10 or $20 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 high and low fashion. She made the luxury marketplace something that everybody could get ahold of. And that's why you've got A-list designers now at Target, and you've got Thakoon [designer Thakoon Panichgul] at the Gap.

Yeah, that's another amazing sequence, when Anna essentially picks Thakoon for this very lucrative, high-profile job at the Gap. That was a moment that I really helps 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.

Yeah, 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. As Vogue publisher Tom Florio says, "When Anna supports you, your career moves forward."

Did you have any personal interest 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. 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 September Issue" opens Aug. 28 in New York and Sept. 11 in Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

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Beyond The Multiplex Documentaries Fashion Movies The September Issue