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Interview: RJ Cutler

Bringing vérité to Vogue
By SHAULA CLARK  |  September 8, 2009

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Review: The September Issue. By Shaula Clark.
An ardent disciple of cinéma-vérité, filmmaker (and Harvard alum) RJ Cutler has taken us behind the scenes of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign in The War Room and into the turbulent lives of 14 Illinois teens in American High. Now he and his crew train their lenses on the luminaries of Vogue — only to find Vogue's own cameras pointed back at them. Here's what he has to say when we chat via phone.

It was striking to see Anna Wintour so vulnerable on camera.
Listen, it's not a secret that Anna is more closed-off as a person. We're all different people. And some people are the granddaughters of Victorian women who never spoke to their sons. It's one of the very first things Anna tells us about herself — her grandmother never spoke to her father. And we know how important her father was to her, and how she even modeled her career at his direction. It's something that she tells us with lightness, but one doesn't say things like that unless they have real meaning.

The public has so willingly embraced this idea of Anna as a complete over-the-top bitch. In the film, you see she has a strong personality, but I'd say she's mostly just doing her job. Why does she have such a fearsome reputation? The "strong women are bitches" explanation seems too facile.
I know, doesn't it? And yet here we go again. . . . For me personally, as much as I do think Anna is scrutinized in this way and caricatured in this way because she is a woman, part of her extraordinary success comes from the fact that she is a woman. I don't know how many men growing up aspire to be the editor of Vogue. It's very complicated, but I do know this: we don't tend to sit around wondering if our demanding male bosses are too demanding.

How does it make you feel when, as your movie is discussed, someone inevitably invokes The Devil Wears Prada?
The bottom line is: it only helps. If you are coming to this movie because you've had an experience with The Devil Wears Prada and you want to see the real Anna Wintour, come on in. We've got a great yarn to share with you.

There's this great dramatic part in the film where [creative director] Grace Coddington has to do a reshoot of her fashion spread and she's suddenly inspired to photograph your cameraman [Bob Richman]. Did she really come up with that on the spot?
You see it happen before your very eyes. The moment Grace approached me is the moment you see her say, "I have an idea." It was great. Not just because it's fun to be in a photo shoot, but far more important because it gave me an opportunity as a filmmaker to break the fourth wall. . . . The cameraman is always standing in for the viewer, especially in vérité film. But here, the cameraman gets pulled into the action, and so the viewer gets pulled into the action too. And then what's extraordinary is Anna's reaction [to Bob's pot belly]. . . . It touches right upon the kind of dirty little secret that the viewer has had throughout the entire film: "What if Anna Wintour doesn't think I dress well? What if Anna Wintour thinks I'm too fat?" Which is part of the experience you bring to viewing something like this, even if you're not that aware of it. It's like that's part of Anna's mystique. We project our own insecurities onto her.

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