Grace under pressure

Actual Reality Pictures founder R.J. Cutler has produced and directed non-fiction series for cable, and verité documentary. With the release of The September Issue, the spotlight's growing brighter.
September 1, 2009

Last year, when realscreen interviewed Morgan Spurlock, he shared a piece of advice he’d received just before embarking on his first documentary, Super Size Me. ‘If you end up with the same movie at the end that you envisioned when you started,’ he recounted, ‘then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way.’

Spurlock couldn’t remember who gave him this advice, but it was something that stuck with him through all of his projects. Speaking to R.J. Cutler – who worked with Spurlock on the FX series 30 Days – it seems this advice could have very easily come from him.

The difference is Cutler doesn’t simply approach his projects with a readiness to smash expectations; he goes in with no expectations. Instead of preconceived notions, the producer/director and president of LA-based prodco Actual Reality Pictures comes armed with questions. He believes starting a project with simple questions about his subject’s life and relationships – ‘Who are you?’, ‘What do you do?’, ‘How do you do it?’ – is the best way to learn. And that was his approach with his latest film, The September Issue.

The documentary, focusing on the life and work of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, takes an unflinchingly honest look at what the notorious media maven is like, how she interacts with her staff and how she gets the job (or rather, so many jobs) done. If one were to conduct a quick search for articles on The September Issue, it would call up headlines such as ‘Humanizing the Devil,’ ‘The Ice Queen Melteth’ and ‘Does the Devil Really Wear Prada?’, alluding to The Devil Wears Prada, the fiction novel and feature film said to have been loosely based on Wintour’s reign at Vogue. All these titles indicate that journalists and viewers alike believe that Wintour is ‘icy’ at best, evil at worst.

Speaking to Cutler about this popular perception of Wintour, he says that not only did he not think about The Devil Wears Prada when he was working on his film, but he also finds the media’s tendency to dwell on this ‘cold’ persona ridiculous. ‘If a guy were doing Anna Wintour’s job with Anna Wintour’s success… people wouldn’t spend any time talking about whether he was ‘icy’ or not,’ he says. ‘No one gives a shit whether David Geffen’s nice or not. I’ve never heard anybody talk about it.’ He cites Wintour’s interview for 60 Minutes in which, as Cutler describes it, Morley Safer spent half of the interview asking her whether she was a bitch. ‘It’s a lot of bullshit as far as I’m concerned, and not a subject that was particularly interesting to me.’

What is interesting to Cutler is finding subjects who care a tremendous amount about what they do and are doing it well under high stakes. Wintour fits squarely into this category along with many of his other doc subjects, such as Bill Clinton’s political consultant James Carville (The War Room). But Cutler himself also seems to fit into this mold. After all, he works in the high stakes world of television production.

Cutler has produced and/or directed a number of non-fiction television series for cable including Freshman Diaries for Showtime, Military Diaries for VH1 and The Residents for TLC. While he acknowledges that he has had a lot of wonderful experiences working on television projects and has come away with many he’s proud of, he feels that television is a Darwinian business and, right now, the reality and documentary-style television landscape is tough.

‘I wish that 10 million people had watched episode one of American High,’ he says of the show he produced and directed for Fox in 2000. ‘The world would be a different place and we’d be in season 14 right now.’ However, that’s not how things worked out for High. Although it went on to receive the first Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2001, the series was cancelled by Fox before all 14 episodes aired. It was later picked up and aired in its entirety by PBS. Though the series never received a second season, it remains a project that is dear to Cutler.

‘Most of what I see on TV makes me feel a mild illness,’ states Cutler, ‘because most of it is crap.’ He says this candidly, but without a hint of bitterness. Although he thinks the scales measuring the quality of television viewing choices are unbalanced, he believes there are great shows in all genres. But the high stakes and pressure of producing hits for television sometimes gets in the way.

‘At the end of the day I’ll probably end up making fewer TV shows [and ones] that I really love rather than more, because I want to feel about them the way I feel about The September Issue,’ he reasons.

Prior to breaking into film with an idea to document Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, Cutler had been working as an off-Broadway theater director for eight years and produced the nightly National Pubic Radio series Heat, for which he won the Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting in 1991. The War Room was an impressive first step into film both in the final product (which was nominated for an Academy Award) and the talent he managed to snag to direct his debut project.

At the time, Cutler and casting director Wendy Ettinger were both first-time producers when they approached D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus to direct the project. In a New York Times article from 1993, Pennebaker said Cutler and Ettinger’s enthusiasm convinced him and his wife to take on the documentary, despite the pair’s inexperience. Working with Pennebaker and Hegedus on The War Room, Cutler learned a lot about becoming a director and the way he wanted to make documentaries. ‘Penny and Chris are not only great filmmakers who are maestros at verité, but they’re also incredibly generous teachers,’ says Cutler. It was Pennebaker who taught him to appreciate the drive and tenacity of characters like Wintour. And when he watched the verité pioneer in action, he instantly knew that approach to filmmaking was for him. ‘Of course, we’re very different filmmakers, but fundamentally, the foundation of everything I know I learned from Penny and Chris.’

When production was done on The War Room and the film had hit theaters, Cutler took an idea for a new doc to Pennebaker and Hegedus. Pennebaker said he liked the idea and it was probably something that he and his wife would be interested in, but first, he had a question for Cutler. ”I thought you wanted to be a director and filmmaker?” Cutler recalls Pennebaker asking him. In the end Pennebaker encouraged Cutler to take a proper step in that direction by making a movie himself.

‘He said, ‘You’re not a filmmaker until you’ve made a film. Until you’ve risked your savings, until you’ve woken up with your heart pounding in the middle of the night because you’re having trouble figuring something out,” remembers Cutler. Roughly three weeks later Cutler ran into former classmate David Van Taylor at their 10th reunion at Harvard College. They talked about making a film documenting Oliver North’s bid for the Virginia Senate seat and went on to co-direct A Perfect Candidate. ‘Of course [Pennebaker] was right,’ says Cutler. ‘I learned what it was like to wake up screaming.’

Since the release of A Perfect Candidate, Cutler has produced roughly three times as many non-fiction programs and documentaries as he has directed, but, post-September, he feels himself settling deeper into the director’s chair. In fact, he says he can see himself shift towards directing almost exclusively because he loves it so much.

Cutler is currently at work on a directorial project called Taste about acclaimed chef Grant Achatz who runs the restaurant Alinea in Chicago. Aside from his talents in the culinary arts, Achatz’s story is exceptionally interesting because he developed tongue cancer and lost his sense of taste at the height of his career. It’s another study of a person determined to excel against strong odds, which will clearly make for more sleepless nights in Cutler’s future.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.