Interview: R.J. Cutler discusses Showtime's 'The World According to Dick Cheney'
Sundance doc really shouldn't be compared to 'Fog of War'
When I reviewed "The World According to Dick Cheney" at the Sundance Film Festival after my second viewing of the Showtime documentary, I mentioned the conversation I'd had at the TCA Press Tour with director R.J. Cutler and how out-of-synch our perceptions of the movie -- a film I really like -- seemed.
At Sundance, I bumped into Cutler and while he was [mostly] pleased with my [mostly] positive review, he didn't remember our chat as being so fueled by disagreement.
Going back over the interview transcript in advance of the Friday, March 15 premiere of the very intriguing "The World According To Dick Cheney," I take the blame for most of the head-butting. I had two pages full of questions and the one I led with was built around a personal assumption and, perhaps as a result, I didn't get past that first question on my sheet.
In setting me straight, Cutler discusses what drew him to Cheney and what fascinated him about the exhaustive interviews the former Vice President sat for. He also discusses why "The World According To Dick Cheney" is absolutely, positively not "Fog of War."
Click through for the full Q&A...
HitFix: My first question, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, is that it feels like there's a gap or a difference -- not a qualitative gap, but storytelling gap -- between the film that you started out to do and then the film that you realized you were doing after you sat down with Dick Cheney.
R.J. Cutler: Not at all. [Long pause.]
HitFix: It felt to me that the story you were telling was being steered to some degree by the volubility or reticence with which Cheney approaches certain subjects and that was playing a role in how much or how little you were using him.
R.J. Cutler: Uh, no. I spent nine months developing the film and he spoke to me openly on every subject I asked him about. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "reticence." The only subject he didn't want to discuss is in the film, which is the question of what Lynne said to him when she told him to get his life together or she wouldn't marry him.
HitFix: My read was that there was an alternate version of this that could have almost been a "Fog of War" version of the story...
R.J. Cutler: Why? Where does that come from? You just watched a movie about a man who clearly is not apologetic about the decisions he made. Why would I... This is exactly the film I wanted to make. I wanted to make a movie in which we figured out who this guy is, who, having never been elected to the presidency, is as impactful, influential and controversial a political figure as any we've had in our country's history, including our country's presidents. And I did. So the idea that I would a... What is "Fog of War"? A film where the subject regrets his previous decisions? Why would I have wanted to make... That's not who Dick Cheney is. There's no evidence on Earth that that's who Dick Cheney is, including this now kinda comprehensive film about him.
HitFix: I definitely wasn't saying that you *wanted* to make that film. I was just saying that that could have been the film that this ended up being...
R.J. Cutler: It could have, you know... He could have a lot of things. But that's not who he is. I wanted to make a film about who he is. I wanted to make a film about who he is, so we can understand it not only now, six years after he left office, but in 20 years and 50 years and 100 years after he's out of office and we really want to understand who he is, how he became who he is, why he was able to become who he is and how he feels about who he is and that's what I did. I understand that there have been other films about other key figures, governmental figures, even other Secretaries of Defense, but so what? [I laugh nervously.] I mean, really! So what? McNamara had written a book about the fact that he regretted all of his decisions and Errol went and sat down with him to talk about it. Dick Cheney wrote a book about how he not only doesn't regret all of his decisions, but he's even more certain in the wake of the kind of common difference with his opinion, he's even more certain that he was right. He's more certain today than ever that he was right about enhanced interrogation. He's more certain today than ever that he was right about warrantless surveillance. He's more certain today than ever that he was right about weapons of mass destruction. And that is a fundamental part of this narrative, because as the entire world changes around him, as his relationships change, as he has to tell Donald Rumsfeld that he's going to be fired, as George Bush determines that he doesn't even want to talk to him anymore, Dick Cheney doesn't change. And that's, to me, a fascinating subject for discussion.
So I'm delighted to chat about it, but your presumption of my intentions, I don't know what I would have done to indicate that my intentions were different.
HitFix: I suspect I put it wrong if I implied that your intentions might have been "Fog of War." Like you say, that's a movie about a completely different person and by a completely different director. I guess it's just my own presumption that people change their opinions about things and shift.
R.J. Cutler: Yeah. It's fascinating, isn't it? Yeah. They change and it's a fascinating thing.
HitFix: So that's all I'm saying. You might have gone into this and seen like, "OK. What has changed? What has been learned?" Etc. And the answer is "Nothing" in this case.
R.J. Cutler: Well... I'm not willing, with respect, to share the conclusion that he hasn't learned anything. I don't believe that that's true. Again, as you know from the film and as I will attest from my experience, this is a fiercely intelligent man who has achieved a tremendous amount, whether you agree with his politics or not. I'm not saying that he has necessarily achieved that for good or not. That's for others and history to determined. I think he has learned for himself a lot, but what he has learned, and he expresses it in the film, is that he was right. This is a really interesting movie, because you're always seeing a movie through the prism of your own experience, your own political convictions, your own beliefs about the world. In this case, perhaps even more-so, for instance, than if you're seeing a film about Anna Wintour. So there's just a lot of how one feels about it and responds on the level we're talking is, I think, going to be very individual and that's exciting for me and I like that. For me, there is something very powerful, very moving about this person who, in spite of the fact that the world seems to have changed entirely around him, hasn't changed at all and who maintains his certainty.
And it goes to the core of, I think, a very important fundamental thing about how a democracy successfully functions. I believe a democracy needs men and women of conviction in its positions of leadership in order for us to succeed. That's the subject of "A Perfect Candidate," a film I made 20 years ago about Oliver North and Charles Robb. Don Baker, the reporter in there, is the textbook liberal who starts out thinking Ollie's the Devil, eventually is compelled by him, because at least he believes in something compared to Charles Robb, the son-in-law of Lyndon Johnson, who doesn't seem to believe in anything. And I agree with Don. I think you need conviction for this thing to work. I think it was all designed for people who have strong beliefs to go and fight it out and see where they can find common ground, or see who can win or who can't. I think, in large part, our system has broken down because the conviction has to do with other things -- getting reelected, satisfying big-money interests, stopping the other side. Cheney is, in a way, the last of a breed. But, at the same time, this conviction and, for me, his disinterest in even questioning -- The movie begins with him unable to identify a single flaw of his own -- raises questions about how much conviction is too much? And at what point does that very thing that is the engine of our successful democracy become something that is destructive to it? And that's what I'm trying to get at in the film, on one hand, but on the other hand, I fully recognize that others are going to bring their own history, perspective, beliefs to it and see other things. But to me, there's something very powerful and moving about seeing him out on the river at the end of the film exactly the way one imagines he was as he was getting ready to lead America to war and to hear, all these years later, the fact that his conviction is only confirmed by his experiences is, to me, powerful. Perhaps even harrowing.
HitFix: So then for you, the process of interviewing was, at least to some degree, confirming your own sense of the man?
R.J. Cutler: No, no, no, no. You know from my other films, it's always curiosity. I'm not agenda-driven. My sense of the man was... I didn't have... I had a sense of the man based on things I had seen on TV and things I had read, but you don't know the man until you spend time with him. And I always -- whether it's James [Carville] and George [Stephanopoulos] or Senator Robb and Colonel North or the kids in "American High" or Anna Wintour -- it's always for me coming from a place of curiosity. And, in the case of Dick Cheney, the question is, "Who is this man?" What I knew about him was that for 40 years, he had been at the center of the Executive branch, with the exception of the decade he spent as a leading Congressman and the five years he spent as the CEO of Halliburton, but really you're talking about 35 years at the heartbeat of American government and, by his own accounting, the most impactful or consequential and controversial vice president in American history. I knew those things about him. I knew he had been the youngest Chief of Staff in American history. I had learned about this relationship with Rumsfeld, which was incredibly interesting, to realize that these two men found each other, one barely over 30 and one not-yet-30, and that they formed this team that you could fairly say dominated American politics for decades and yet that's not a commonly known thing. So I knew those things about him, but I did not have... I had my own political beliefs in the context of his, but in terms of my understanding of the man, I went in purely with curiosity and questions.
HitFix: And how much was that fact central to the pitch that you made in the first place?
R.J. Cutler: Well, the pitch I made to him is the pitch that I would make to any subject, which was that I was eager to tell his story.
HitFix: And what was the initial response from his camp? How much wooing had to go on?
R.J. Cutler: I had to be very patient. I had to wait until he had the time to consider it and until he felt ready to engage with me on the subject that this was something that he wanted to do. His book had not come out when I first started working on the film and I think that was his priority. And I knew, and was wisely advised by people who I trust who knew him, that patience would be a virtue in this case and that saying even that I needed an answer within any set amount of time would not serve my purposes. Fortunately, my dear friends at Showtime were fully on-board with that and willing to wait as we began our research and our early editing of the archival material of the film, they were willing to kind of support the film while we waited to find out. Eventually, after about seven months of waiting, the Vice President invited me to have lunch with him and discuss the film and then soon-thereafter agreed to sit for interviews.
Then he had a heart-transplant, which none of us knew was coming, so that put it off a couple of months, but then I went down to Wyoming and he sat with me for four days, five hours a day, and invited us to film him fly-fishing on the fifth day.
HitFix: When it came to selecting the non-Cheney talking heads, were there any people who you approached who wouldn't do it for any number of reasons?
R.J. Cutler: I'm sure there are. I'd have to have the whole list in front of me. And then there were a lot of people who were available to us who we either interviewed and didn't include or chose not to interview. Ultimately we filmed with everybody. The film that I wanted to make, we got everybody we wanted. You could have made another film that was strictly about the Vice Presidency and I think you would have told different stories and interviewed different people, but for me, the key figures that were absolutely crucial for us to interview were, of course, Vice President Cheney, Mrs. Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld and David Addington and we got all four of them.
"The World According to Dick Cheney" airs on Showtime on Friday, March 15 at 9 p.m. ET.