‘September Issue’s’ Cutler Grilled on Wintour

On what surprised him most about infamous Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and how on earth he got her to say yes.

Last Updated: August 26, 2009 @ 2:26 PM

Fashion fanatics clamoring to get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes world run by Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour won’t have to wait much longer. In "The September Issue," out Friday in New York and nationwide on Sept. 11, R.J. Cutler gets up close to a woman who has been portrayed as a shrew in the media and by Meryl Streep in the film "Devil Wears Prada."

 
The documentarian won Wintour over through his own resume, which includes producing the Oscar-nominated "The War Room," about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for presidency, and directing and producing the Emmy-nominated "A Perfect Candidate," about the Virginia senators’ campaign between Oliver North and Charles Robb. He talked to TheWrap about Morely Safer’s "60 Minutes" profile of Wintour, what most surprised him about the editor and how on earth he got inside the Vogue offices.
Did you share in the "Devil Wears Prada" perception of Wintour that many hold of her — one of a nasty editrix?
I’m a thoughtful guy, but I try to be as naive as possible when I go into these situations. I knew that Anna was a very successful and powerful businessperson. There were caricatures of her throughout popular culture — I knew enough to assume that the caricatures were wrong, but I didn’t have any expectations. I was curious about how she does what she does.  
 
 
 
What’d you think of the recent "60 Minutes" profile of her?
Utter balderdash. I was shocked at the narrow scope of Morely Safer’s curiosity. I couldn’t believe the kind of reactionary response he had to the fashion industry and the need he seems to feel to scoff at such extraordinary figures and accomplished businesspeople like Karl Lagerfeld.
 
And his obsession with asking Anna whether she was a bitch, I thought was insulting and sexist and silly. It was the kind of line of inquiry he never, ever would pursue with a man. If there was a guy who had a reputation for being tough and exacting, he would have been the chummiest guy on earth.
 
What about her most surprised you?
The fact that her influence is so pervasive. In the movie, you see the influence she has over young designers’ careers and the influence she has over the most experienced and globally renown designers, as well as the role she plays with retailers and manufactures. It’s this extraordinary range of influence that goes far beyond the pages of her magazines.
 
The other thing that was really surprising was that you hear about Anna Wintour and Vogue, but it’s not just Anna Wintour and Vogue. Pretty much everybody on her staff is a future hall of famer in the world of fashion journalism.
 
So how long did it take you to get her OK for the project?
You could say that I had to spend 15 years making documentaries to get her say yes. At Sundance, someone asked her, "Why did you say yes?" She said she really liked my movies. I had one meeting with her head of communications and then I was invited to New York to meet with her in person. She knows her mind and makes it up quickly.
 
The idea for the film came after you read a story about the MET’s Costume Ball, which Anna runs, right?
With "The War Room," I was driving home from a family reunion and listening to NPR, and Cokie Roberts was laughing at Bill Clinton and it struck me as startling that a major national reporter would be laughing at the presumptive nominee. Something just sparks your curiosity.
 
What was your pitch?
In 17 years of making these films, my approach is always the same — to explain how we do what we do, and what we’re interested in. First and foremost, I believe that the story belongs to the subject and my job is to earn the trust of the subject so that they’ll share it with me.  My interest is in telling stories about people who care a tremendous amount about what they do under high-stakes circumstances.
 
It was actually she who had the conceptual idea around the September issue. This particular September issue was the single largest issue of any magazine that’s ever been made. The film is really about the relationship that we discovered when we got to Vogue and started filming — the relationship between Anna and her creative director, Grace Coddington, who’ve been working together for 20 years.
 
Was she worried at all about the impact the film crew would have around the office?
I want to impact the environment as minimally as possible, enter with questions and curiosity rather than an agenda and a point to prove. We don’t use big trucks with cables and lighting equipment. There are just a few of us and we go one step at a time. We hope that they trust us and then share their stories.
 
What’s it like in the office? Is it really that intense, or is it like any other workplace?
There is a tremendous sense that everybody is on top of their game. No one has the opportunity to rest on their laurels. Everybody there works incredibly hard around the clock.
 
Why do you think Vogue is so important to so many young women?
Vogue plays this kind of role in people’s histories. I can tell you specific issues of National Lampoon that had an impact on me. And people have a specific issue of September Vogue — they’d wait for the September issue to come out before going shopping for their fall clothes. 
 
Since you made the film in 2007, magazines are in a totally different position. Do you think you captured the last glory days at Vogue?
Verité documentaries are particularly adept at capturing a unique moment in time and the winter, spring and summer of 2007 is a unique moment in time. The day we stopped filming the world changed.