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Documentary Goes Behind the Scenes at Vogue Magazine

Above: Anna Wintour (Editor-in-Chief, Vogue) in "The September Issue," a film by RJ Cutler. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Audio

Aired 9/10/09

"The September Issue" is a documentary and behind-the-scenes look at producing the fat, 2007 September issue of Vogue magazine, which weighed in at 4 pounds. The film also focuses on the magazine's legendary editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. We talk with the film's director, filmmaker R.J. Cutler.

"The September Issue" opens on Friday, September 11th in area theaters.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Anyone who's seen Meryl Streep's performance in "The Devil Wears Prada," that of an imperious fashion editor who is a witch to work for, may have a certain fascination with the woman on whom that character was based. Vogue's editor-in-chief Anna Wintour is certainly one of the main attractions of the new documentary "The September Issue." The film gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the production of Vogue's largest magazine of the year. And in the process, it reveals the work and creativity that goes into making this four-pound issue of the magazine. And it shows us that Ms. Wintour is not the only woman with starpower at Vogue. Joining me to discuss his documentary, "The September Issue," is the film's director, R.J. Cutler. And welcome to These Days.

R.J. CUTLER (Director, "The September Issue"): Thanks so much for having me. I'm delighted to be there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I'll tell you, a lot of people have seen "The Devil Wears Prada" and have seen Meryl Streep's thinly veiled portrayal of Anna Wintour. After you met the real Anna, did you think Streep got it right?

CUTLER: Well, I don't want to say that she didn't get it right. Of course, her performance is terrific in "The Devil Wears Prada," but it's a very different character and a very different person. What I want to say is that the character who Meryl Streep portrays is not nearly as powerful as the real Anna Wintour and in some ways she's not nearly as dangerous in – when – so when she expresses her displeasure, you know, it's very – the effect is very different. When Anna – when the real Anna Wintour expresses displeasure, it's almost as if the – it ripples through the whole world.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, you can see the expression on the faces of the designers when she expresses her opinions, which are very curt, very efficient, and somewhat biting. How else would you describe her power?

CUTLER: Well, it's – it's shocking in a way. You know, early on I realized you can make a movie in Hollywood without Stephen Spielberg's blessing and you can publish software up in Silicon Valley without Bill Gates' blessing, but it's almost impossible to succeed in the fashion industry without Anna Wintour's blessing. And that, if you think about it, is just an unbelievable thing. The fashion industry is a $300 billion global industry that impacts all other industries, you know, publishing, retail, textiles, shipping, so much, and yet there's one person who sits atop this entire industry, a relatively diminutive woman who is, as you say, very curt, very specific, communicates in gestures and glances, and when she frowns, it ripples through this entire industry and through these different worlds. And it's an amazing thing to witness.

CAVANAUGH: Now, okay, you – so you have this incredibly powerful woman, Anna Wintour, and her realm in Vogue, and I'm wondering, how in the world did you, a documentary director, get this unprecedented access to her and Vogue's offices for the documentary "The September Issue?"

CUTLER: Well, we filmed over seven and a half months and the truth is that all I had to do was ask. In our very first meeting, when I sat down with Anna and said I wanted to do this, she agreed to it. She was familiar with other films that I had made and liked the idea of doing something, I think, that would show the way that she really worked. But I told her I couldn't do it unless I had complete creative control and final cut and I think she responded to the strength of my, you know, my plans. She's a – she's all business, Anna, but she's also – she responds to strong ideas and she's response to – As you see in the movie, she responds to people who know their own mind. I think I'm often asked what, kind of, the key to her success in terms of her management style is, and, for me, it's her decisiveness on one hand, and you see that in the movie. I mean, she will – she will decide, make decisions in a moment where tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars are at stake and never look back, never question a decision that she's made. On the other hand, she surrounds herself with extraordinarily talented people and she knows the importance of that. And she – That combination, I think, is largely the key to her success.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about some of the other very powerful people in this movie, these very strong and creative people. But just one more question about Anna Wintour, if you don't mind, at least in this segment.

CUTLER: No, we can talk about Anna. I've been making a movie about Anna for two years, we can talk about her for a little more time.

CAVANAUGH: All right, then…

CUTLER: No problem.

CAVANAUGH: So, I'm wondering, though, when I started off in this introduction about Meryl Streep's performance and so forth, did you get a feeling that there was part of the reason that she allowed the access is to let people know that she was not this character in "Devil Wears Prada?"

CUTLER: Well, you know, I don't really think so. I mean, I – First of all, we – I met Anna and we talked about making the film a year before the movie was released, so I know it had nothing to do with that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

CUTLER: At that time, "The Devil Wears Prada" was a book that certainly had made a lot of noise when it came out but it was – it was out of everybody's mind. I think that Anna – You know, she's had an extraordinary life. She's been in this position for 20 years. She has this remarkable power. Of course, she has her detractors and she has her supporters but I think she knows – she knows what she's done. She knows the position she's been in. And people, there's a tendency, and it's part of what allows me to do the work that I do of these, you know, fairly remarkable people, they want their story told. And you understand this. It's very human. People want – they want to talk about their work, they want it to be witnessed, they want a record. They – People want to be seen, even someone like Anna Wintour. I'll give you an example. In our – In this meeting we had, our very first meeting, as I mentioned to you, I told her that we couldn't do the film unless I had final cut. I had no idea what her reaction would be. But what she said to me was, I totally understand; I'm a journalist, my father was a journalist, that's not going to be an issue. And I was grateful to her for getting it and for saying so right away because sometimes final cut can be a thorny issue. But in my mind I thought, how interesting. Anna Wintour, this (audio dropout) sphinx-like figure, this impenetrable woman who sits behind her big, Chanel glasses without a gesture coming across her face during fashion shows, nobody knows anything about her, is talking to me, a guy she's just met an hour ago, about her father. How interesting. She brought up her dad to me. And she talk – she compared herself to him, and her father, of course, is a very famous British newspaper editor. And in a way, she was giving me that first clue. We were already starting to work on the movie even in that moment, that meeting where we had just first met. And I left there thinking this is somebody I can make a movie about because she has a need to be known even though she's so famously secretive. And I found that, throughout the process, as you know because you've seen the film, as your audience will find out when they, hopefully, go see the film starting this weekend, she is (audio dropout) in a way she's never been seen before. And this is – You can't do it unless somebody wants it to be done.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with R.J. Cutler who is the director of the new documentary "The September Issue." And, R.J., it would be wrong, I think, to let people think that this is all about Anna Wintour because there's so much more that's interesting in this documentary, including Grace Coddington. She emerged as a central character in the movie. She's Vogue's creative director. Tell us about Grace.

CUTLER: Well, you're absolutely right. This is a movie about a relationship. Like all great movies, I think, there's a relationship at the core of this film, and it's a relationship between Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington, an equally remarkable figure, a woman with whom Anna has been working for 20 years, the creative director of Vogue, the person who's really responsible so much for what Vogue is known for, those beautiful, beautiful photo shoots, dazzling photography, work that appears in museums of modern art around the world. Grace Coddington is the mastermind of that work, and she has been every bit as seminal a figure in the fashion industry as Anna. She appears to be Anna's polar opposite. If Anna is – operates in an office that's a freezer of efficiency, Grace operates in an office that's a kind of incubator of creativity. I mean, in Anna's office, if a thing lasts more than six minutes, it's epically long. Anna's just making decisions, sending people on their way. Whereas in Grace's office, you pretty much expect somebody's going to come in with a hookah pipe because everybody's sitting around, lounging around, being creative, coming up with ideas. And it's amazing, it's like right brain, left brain, three doors away from each other. And when they get together, the sparks fly. Many people have said Grace is the one person in the world, it seems, who isn't afraid of Anna. And imagine, for me what it was like to discover that when I got to Vogue, that there is, in fact, somebody who challenges Anna on all of her decisions and who Anna loves to challenge her because the truth is these two women drive each other to greater and greater heights of achievement. And it's an amazing thing to see. You know, there's – it's almost – it's one of those examples of life can't be written, you know, you can't make this stuff up. Of course there's somebody like Grace Coddington down the hall from Anna Wintour, of course they started working together on the same exact day 20 years ago, of course they appear to be polar opposites and are always fighting, but they need each other and they rely on each other and it's really a symbiosis. It's really an extraordinary story.

CAVANAUGH: Well, part of that creativity you're talking about when it comes to Grace Coddington is that she uses things available to make these photo shoots. In fact, there's a problem with a photo shoot while she's under deadline and she solves it by recruiting you and your film crew. Tell us about that.

CUTLER: Well, I don't want to give away too much because…

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

CUTLER: …what – you're talking about my favorite moment in the film and you're talking about something that's really great and I don't want to give away too much. I'll just say that at the last minute, of course, again, in a way that you, you know, you – the best writer would want to put in a Hollywood script but you don't need to because it actually happened…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

CUTLER: …in real life. It's five days before the magazine, the single largest issue of any magazine that's ever been published, is being put to bed, there's tens of millions of dollars in profits riding on this magazine, and Anna's in the office all night and everybody comes in the next morning to find out that she's thrown out one of the biggest stories. And now what are they going to do? And, of course, it falls to Grace to figure out what to do. And I'll say no more except to say that what happens is surprising, to say the least. It surprised us because the fourth wall of, you know, is broken, somehow the crew ends up getting involved. I don't want to give it all away but it's in those final 15, 20 minutes of the film that everybody is really fully revealed in ways you've never seen them before. It's, you know, it's funny and exciting stuff and, again, imagine, for me, how thrilling it must've been when it all happened and I realized, my God, you know, it's – like I say, you can't write this stuff.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I wonder, after having completed this and taking all that time and concentrating on these fashion icons, at the end do you think that this film is about fashion?

CUTLER: Well, at its core it's about, I think, creativity and passion. And it's why so many people who have seen the film who aren't in the fashion world have told me that they love it. I mean, there's been a really exciting response to the film. We opened it at Sundance in January and Bob Richman, the cinematographer, won the cinematography prize. And since then we've had the opportunity to screen it all over the world. It's a – it's – it's doing incredibly well in the places that it's already opened. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that it transcends fashion as a story. Now for people who love fashion, it's a, you know, it's full of all the things you'd want to see and all the larger than life characters and it's – it's so beautiful. I'm really proud of the way that it looks and it's very, very intimate. But people are responding to it because it's about a workplace relationship. You know, somebody said to me the other day if you don't care about fashion, will you care about this movie?

CAVANAUGH: Right.

CUTLER: And I said if you've got a boss, you're going to care about this movie. If you're a boss or you've got a boss, the film is about you. But it's – And it's about this great relationship even as it's also a movie about the fashion world.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I think one thing people may find a little disturbing about the movie is the incredible amounts of money that are spent on these shoots and photo spreads and, as you mentioned, one of which Anna Wintour just tosses aside and says we're not going to use this. Now, was…

CUTLER: Yeah, well…

CAVANAUGH: …was that money…

CUTLER: …I guess – Yeah, I guess so. Listen – Look, the stakes are very high. I understand when people say that and I – I put it in the movie so I know…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

CUTLER: …I knew it was going to be startling to hear the expenses involved. But the stakes are very high. The – There's a lot of money to be made and, you know, you're really a single issue, a single September issue of Vogue is grossing tens of millions of dollars in income, and the profits are millions and millions and millions of dollars. And Vogue itself, in the September issue, can make more than other magazines make all year long. So it's – The fact that they spend a lot of money to make a lot of money, it's, you know, you have to compare these things. They're – They don't exist in a vacuum. Hollywood movies cost a lot of money. People might be shocked to find that out but they also know that Hollywood movies make a lot of money. And it's, you know, it goes throughout. It costs a lot of money to build a big house but then you sell it for a lot of money. So it's, you know, people get – have a particular reaction to it because it's fashion and it's just clothes, but we have to remember that as much as there can be a tendency to dismiss the fashion industry as indulgent and frivolous and excessive, which I – to some extent it is, at the same time, it's an essential part of our world and our lives and our culture and our society and our industry. I mean, the fashion industry is a $300 billion global industry but it also impacts all these other industries, textiles and shipping and retail and publishing, and it's a place where great artists have always worked. And we all put on clothes in the morning…

CAVANAUGH: We sure…

CUTLER: …and we all buy clothes.

CAVANAUGH: That’s true.

CUTLER: And all of those things matter so much.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I have…

CUTLER: So…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead. I'm sorry.

CUTLER: Yeah, well, I'm – I just say, so you – it's – again, there – As much as people might want to dismiss it, you have to recognize how fundamental it is at the same time.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone that if they want to see about the – more about the money, the creativity and the people behind fashion, "The September Issue" opens this weekend at area theaters in San Diego. And I want to thank film director R.J. Cutler so much for joining us today. Thank you.

CUTLER: It's such a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. Everybody, come out to the theater this weekend. First weekend's the most important one for us.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, R.J. And keep listening to These Days. We'll be back in just a few minutes.

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