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.