A Chat With Filmmaker R.J. Cutler

Famed filmmaker R.J. Cutler, who created The War Room and A Perfect Candidate, comes forth with a new film. It’s The World According to Dick Cheney and it airs on Showtime on March 15 at 9 p.m.. We caught up with R.J. by phone this morning. Though he lives in Los Angeles, this morning he was in Manhattan when he took the call. The film, a culmination of 17 months worth of work, examines Cheney’s role in the George W. Bush’s administration and in the formation of domestic and foreign policy in a post-September 11th world. The doc takes a close look at Cheney’s relationships with Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and key advisors such as David Addington and Scooter Libby. Cutler spent several days with Cheney in Wyoming. He found the experience warm and inviting as he gained access to his family, his family archives and his colleagues. He’s a documentary filmmaker, not a journalist. Don’t expect him to walk away from an experience with warm and fuzzy feelings. He didn’t walk into it with preconceived notions and he doesn’t come out of it thinking he should tell you what to think.

FBDC: What’s your main takeaway on Cheney after making this film?

R.J.: Well, you’ll forgive me for saying it, but that is kind of what the film is. It was hard enough to get it down to an hour 45 [minutes]. I don’t want to be too reductive. History will come to know him as significant a non presidential figure as this country has ever known.

FBDC: Is there anything that surprised you about Cheney in the making of this film?

R.J.: Well, you know, as a filmmaker my approach is to come in not with preconceived notions, but with curiosity, and in that way, whether my subjects are James Carville or Anna Wintour or Dick Cheney, I am always surprised. I was struck by a number of things Vice President Cheney said. Perhaps the most striking of all was his comparison of duty to honor when discussing enhanced interrogation, his dismissal of honor in the face of duty.

Find out how Cutler got inside Cheney’s head, if Cheney is ever funny and more…FBDC: What is your technique in getting a subject to feel comfortable with you? Is it important to have one?

R.J.: As a filmmaker, the only thing you really have with your subject is your trust. Whether your filming in a high school in the Midwest or in a  hospital in Los Angeles or the offices of Vogue in Manhattan or sitting in Wyoming with Vice President Dick Cheney. What one does to earn a person’s trust varies. You have to be a person of your word. You have to do that everyday. I had to be very patient in terms of the fact that there was a seventh-month gap to my initial approach to him and our meeting. Over the course of the interviews, because of the nature of the dynamic, you’re consistently … the relationship is deepening and that’s just the nature of the way we make these films. It’s a different approach than the journalist takes. There’s a wide range of approaches a journalism takes. [This film was] 17 months in the making. That’s a lot of time. Over that period, perhaps the most significant thing you are doing is earning the trust of your subject.

FBDC: Do you think the public’s perception of Cheney — cold and mean as depicted by late-night comedians — differs from the man you got to know while making this film?

R.J.: I can’t really comment on that. I don’t know. I don’t know how to characterize the public’s perception of him. He has a great number of passionate supporters. He has a great number of passionate detractors. To say he is a divisive figure is an understatement.

FBDC: Does he care about what the public thinks of him?

R.J.: He says many times in the film that it’s not something he cares about. He says if you want to be loved you should go be a movie star. At the same time, he is talking about someone who is making a film about him so you can take that however you want to take that.

FBDC: What do you hope people will take from this film?

R.J.: I’m big into not drawing conclusions for people. I think that what makes for the most exciting, compelling films. I get bored when the politics of the filmmaker are the subject of the film that I see. I am far more interested in extraordinary figures, love them or hate them, who are on the great stage of American politics. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that The War Room and A Perfect Candidate are films that have been consistently shown and available for rental for 20 years. These are films that are more about the moment in which they were filmed, they also have a great deal to say about larger issues about who we are as a country.

FBDC: Is he ever funny?

R.J.: In my experience, he certainly demonstrated a sense of humor. He is known in his time in Congress to be somewhat of a prankster even. But we didn’t focus tremendous amounts of time on that. I believe that if you asked his nearest and dearest if he was a man with a sense of humor they would say that was one of his defining [attributes]. I’ll leave that for you to determine.

FBDC: Did he ever ask you to stop filming or to leave anything out?

R.J.: No. There’s one moment in the film. It’s the only time he said he didn’t want to answer a question. He had been arrested for the second time for drunk driving. His then-girlfriend [now wife] went to him and it seems gave him an ultimatum. The details are private. I asked him specifically what his then-girlfriend said to him.

FBDC: Does he discuss his heart condition?

R.J.: Yes, his heart is a big part of the film. If you’ll forgive me, it’s hard for me to describe moments from the film. Those moments need to speak from the film. It would take me way too long to describe it the way I want to describe it. His heart is certainly part of the film.

FBDC: Hopefully this isn’t too broad, but what are your most memorable moments in making this film?

R.J.: The whole experience is very memorable. Certainly a fascinating very rich experience. Interviewing Dick Cheney for four to five hours a day for six days, his relationship to power, the way in which his policies became American policy, the way in which he impacted history, it was a deeply fascinating rich experience.

FBDC: Did you come away from this film liking him or feeling any affection for him?

R.J.: I’m certainly grateful to Vice President Dick Cheney for trusting me to make this film, for giving it his time, for access to his family, his family’s archives which made it much easier for us to gain access to Donald Rumsfeld and David Addington. I greatly enjoyed our time together. He was friendly and cordial, and I really couldn’t have made the film without him. I enjoyed talking to him. You’re a little bit asking, you’re supposing an emotional connection. It’s a simple question, but it’s not. He was very welcoming to me and my crew. His politics are extremely divisive. His impact on the world is significant. I have respect for him as someone who moved the needle of history. I am grateful for him for trusting us and the warm way the people who work for him supported our filming.

FBDC: Most importantly, will viewers come away with a different impression than they might have?

R.J.: Well, it depends what their impression of them is going in. We’ve screened it all over the country. People have very, very strong opinions about Dick Cheney long before they come to see this movie. I have found that people have a wide array of reactions to this film. It’s part of what is going to make it a film that lasts a long time. There’s a richness and a complexity to the subject. You can’t characterize what people think of Dick Cheney. He has a lot of supporters and a lot of detractors and they are all very passionate. We were seeking to tell a story that was truthful and the way that history will recall as people look back on his life and career and the way he utilized power.

Watch a trailer for the film here.