R.J. Cutler knows a thing or two about dealing with formidable, some might say prickly, personalities. In his 2009 documentary The September Issue, he trailed Anna Wintour for nine months, offering viewers a rare glimpse into the editor’s world. Now, in his upcoming documentary The World According to Dick Cheney, he sits down with Cheney to discuss everything from the veep’s early days in Washington to WMDs in Iraq and a second-term rift with President Bush.
Gaining access to Cheney was no small feat. Throughout the film, you can’t help but wonder how Cutler convinced Cheney to be interviewed for 20 hours at a time when most interviewers would be pining to pounce on his record. We asked Cutler how he built a rapport with one of the most controversial politicians in 21st-century America. The documentary premieres March 15 on Showtime.
Cutler made it clear that he planned to cover Cheney’s entire life, not just the controversies. “He seemed less interested in the kind of thing that would rehash old arguments in the same old way. What I presented to him was my interest in a dialogue, a dialectic in which opposing viewpoints would be presented. That the story of his career and his life and his body of work, if you will, would be examined in its entirety.”
I was advised wisely that the most important thing would be to be patient, that he would only come around slowly. And in fact that was the right advice because it took him seven months [to reply]. I sent him a letter and I heard back from his camp about seven months later. He invited me to come have lunch at his home in the Washington D.C. area. He thought it over for several days, but then I heard back that he was open to participating.
I wrote that I was looking to make a film about him and to tell his story and to tell it in such a way that his voice would be at the center of it. As far as I was concerned, he was one of the most significant, non-presidential political figures this country has ever known, and yet there hasn’t been a major film done about him. Certainly there’s been volumes written about him, but something that includes his voice–as well as the voice of his critics–has never been done. And that was my proposal.
The only thing documentary filmmakers have to work with, at least the way I make films, is trust. That’s been true of everyone from James Carville and George Stephanopoulos to the kids in American High to the soldiers in Military Diaries to Anna Wintour to Dick Cheney. If they’re not willing to trust you with their story, there’s no story to be told. And once you’ve earned it, you still have to re-earn it on a daily basis.
I believe he was familiar with The War Room when I met him and became familiar with The Perfect Candidate, which is a film I made about Oliver North and his campaign back in 1994. We sent him a copy so he would have that. I think his daughter is a fan of The September Issue. So there was some familiarity with my work.
My goal was not to change his mind. My goal was to hear his mind. The whole idea behind the film is that Dick Cheney’s voice is worthy of being heard. It doesn’t mean that it’s the only voice in the argument–there are many other voices presented that argue with his voice. But the idea behind the film is not to change his mind or to elicit some sort of post-administration reversal.
When the film was done, I called the vice president and said I’d like to come to Wyoming and screen it for you and your family. It’s your story: You may love it; you may not love it. But whatever it is, you’ve trusted me and out of respect I want to come and screen it for you. I kept him abreast of what we were doing. He had no editorial control. He had no review rights. He had no involvement in the film other than as a subject, but we worked very hard to be trustworthy.