Speaking “Truth” with writer and director James Vanderbilt

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In the fall of 2004, one of the biggest scandals in broadcast journalism history began. 60 Minutes II aired an investigative report organized by CBS News producer Mary Mapes, which alledgedly revealed evidence that President George W. Bush dodged his duties as a Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. This controversial segment—which claimed that Bush had never showed up on base and avoided the Vietnam war—was reported by none other than news anchor legend Dan Rather. 

Needless to say, it backfired. The entire CBS News staff became the target of extreme public scrutiny, especially when it was revealed that the entire expose was based on forged documentation. Mary Mapes was vilified not only by the right-wing media, but by her colleagues and the corporation she worked for. The fallout of this scandal not only culminated in her public dismissal but Rather’s infamous resignation. It’s safe to say the world of news reporting has never been the same since.

Truth, a new film starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, gives us an insider look at what went on behind the scenes of this media circus. We spoke with writer and filmmaker James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man) about how he adapted this film from Mapes’ book Truth and Duty, and how he approached such an ambitious project as a first-time director. 

dot429: This film starts out with a lot of exposition-heavy scenes. As a screenwriter, what’s your advice about exposition?

James Vanderbilt: I like exposition. It actually gives me an opportunity to show off character in a lot of ways. There’s a great opportunity to show who people are by how they give out information. I’m a big believer in making the audience like your characters and making your characters funny in some way. Especially when you’re reading it, and you don’t have an actor in front of you, you think, “Oh that differentiates this person from this person.”

dot429: Did you have to combine characters from the book for this adaptation?

JV: No, not really. Actually, there was one more person who worked with [the team of journalists]once they got to CBS who we just didn’t include, just because it would have felt like too much. And it felt like it would take time away from Elizabeth Moss’s character, who’s not in the film that much anyway. It was amazing that she came down and did it. It feels like somebody that good should be in the movie more. She had to be there the whole run of the picture, just because how everybody was blocked out. But she was awesome. She said, no. I really want to do this. 

dot429: Everybody in Truth brings their A-game. Since this is your directorial debut, I’m sure this is a big passion project for you as well.

JV: Yeah, I’ve always loved journalism. 

dot429: Do you have a background in it?

JV: I was really interested in going into it. I read a lot about it. I did a movie a few years ago called Zodiac, which is about the San Francisco Chronicle. So I’ve talked to journalists over the years about that craft.

I always wanted to write, so there was a period of time where I did not know what form that was going to take. And I definitely considered it. Because the idea of going into movies—I grew up in Connecticut—was like running away and joining the circus. Not something that one did, y’know.

Everyone I grew up with is an iBanker now. They ride Metro North train into NYC and commute back out. So going into Hollywood to make movies was a pretty far away idea. But going into journalism was something tangible and understandable, so I liked flirting with that idea. I went down this path instead of that one, but I read Mary’s book when I was looking around for something to direct. I was just floored by it. I was like, this is such a fascinating story. I was struck by how much I didn’t know about a story I thought I knew a lot about.

dot429: Did you follow this saga while it happened back in 2004?

JV: I followed the fallout more than the initial story. I definitely was paying attention to the presidential election at the time. And this was a big part of that in that September. I didn’t see the initial story on 60 Minutes. But all that sort of happened later, which was interesting. Rather apologized in September and Mapes was fired in January [2005], like four or five months later. It was sort of after the storm had passed in a weird way. 

dot429: Speaking of which, your use of rain was very expressive in the film. 

JV: Yeah. The crew made fun of me because they built the set on a stage. And I said, y’know, it’s gotta be raining inside. And they said, “We’re on a stage. We just built a set and we want to put rain outside of it? On a blue screen?!” And I said, “Yes, there has to be!” And I remember they brought me the cost report. “This is how much money the rain is going to cost. Are you sure with that and Dan’s balcony you need to do this?”

dot429: Wow. So Dan’s balcony was on a set?

JV: Yeah. “Couldn’t Dan just have this phone call in his living room? Do we have to see all the way down 5th Avenue?” There’s a Shakespearian aspect to the idea of the fall of the king, and the king never knows he’s going to fall.

So there was this idea of seeing him… when you meet him, he’s this titan. The first shot of him in the film is this big Redford profile, a silhouette. He looks like Abraham Lincoln on a penny! This last shot of him on the balcony later in the movie is up very high. He’s so small compared to everything else. I wanted to kind of go from a bigger, larger than life icon to this small man with his head down. 

dot429: Are there any other expressive touches in the film that nobody’s noticed yet?

JV: I think it’s like with any film. You shoot it with a specific intent in mind and a visual kind of journey. Mandy Walker, the DP, was incredible and… helpful is a silly word. But, y’know, I had never directed a film before. I hired her, and even in the interview process, I said, “I’m a writer, I wrote this script and I know what I want it to feel like. But I don’t know lenses. I’m not going to walk on the set and be like, let’s throw a 60 on this.” I knew nothing about that stuff. And she was like, that’s fine. She said by the time the movie’s over, you will, but don’t worry about that. And so she walked me through it. 

One of the visual things I like about the movie is… well, I’m claustrophobic. It was really easy for me as the movie goes on and it gets tenser and tenser, I would go, let’s put something on this, let’s block her in. I was always thinking: how do you escape? If I’m in a room… how do I get out? I liked the idea of kind of trapping her more and more as the movie goes on and on.

dot429: This seems like an anti-corporate movie. How cooperative was CBS in the process of making it?

JV: We have a wonderful thing called fair use in this country. We never contacted them, we never dealt with them. I knew that certain people were not going to be thrilled. I mean, you can’t make this movie and make everybody happy. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not make a movie.

dot429: So you didn’t get to visit the news headquarters there?

JV: No, not at CBS. I don’t think we would’ve been welcome with open arms.The movie’s based on Mary’s book so there was a lot of insider knowledge. I spoke to a lot to Dan Rather as well and interviewed a lot of different people that were involved in the story both on and off the record, so we did a lot of work to make it as accurate as possible.

dot429: In other interviews, you’ve likened this movie to a submarine film.

JV: I can explain that! (Laughs) I love movies that are about how things are done. I just think that’s really interesting. The thing about submarine films is, instead of it explaining everything they’re doing, they just talk how you talk on a submarine and the audience is expected to catch up. And you start to go, okay, I may not know what an EAM is, but I know they know what it is, so I’m going to trust them and follow along. I love the idea that you’re thrust into this world, you’re thrown into that editing room. You don’t know how editing works. We don’t explain to you how editing works. You just have to go with it. 

dot429: What films were most influential to you during the making of Truth

JV: Mandy and I looked at a lot of different movies. The obvious ones. All the President’s Men, The Insider, and Network. But we also looked at Margin Call, which I think is a beautiful movie. And The Candidate, just because it’s a good Redford movie.

dot429: How did the narrative tie into Mary’s personal struggle with her father? Was that more overt in the book?

JV: It’s not very much in the book, actually. I haven’t re-read the book in a while… I think it’s touched on but it’s not a central thing. When I was interviewing her, early in the script, she told me that thing about her upbringing, and I remember—and I put it in the movie, Elisabeth Moss says it, but [in real life]I said it to Mary. “So you used to get hit for asking questions and you grew up to be a reporter.”

And she looked at me and she said, “Oh, I’ve never thought of it that way.” For me, that was sort of the key in the lock moment. There’s something at the bottom if you dig into that, something really powerful. And then pairing that with the relationship she had with Dan, which, when you’re standing on the outside, looks like a father/daughter relationship. She found the good father, who she took care of and who took care of her.

That journey, from someone to go from [an abusive]upbringing to working with a surrogate father, and for this to happen to the surrogate father possibly because of her, is a huge emotional crutch. For me, as a filmmaker, I was like “that’s a compelling story.”

dot429: That aspect of the film just sort of sneaks up on you when you watch it.

JV: Yeah, we wanted it to feel like a surprise. I wanted people to be surprised by how emotional the film gets. I think it’s a very emotional story.

dot429: How closely did Cate and Mary interact during production, by the way?

JV: They met at the beginning when Cate signed onto the movie. Mary and I went to New York to meet Cate, and saw her in the play The Maids on Broadway. The first time I met her was preceded by her on stage for two and a half hours being amazing. The most intimidating way to meet someone you’re going to direct is to watch them just kick ass as an actor and then go backstage and be like, “Hello!”

Anyway, they met and started Skyping during pre-production. I wasn’t involved in that but I was just excited they were talking to each other. Cate really liked to build on the reality of who Mary is. So if you’ve actually spent time with Mary and you watch the movie, it’s pretty amazing. Cate plays Mary extremely well. 

dot429: What’s the difference between working on Truth and something more commercial like The Amazing Spider-Man films? 

JV: It’s exactly the same. (Laughs) I joke, but they’re the same in the sense of you’re just trying to tell the story in the best possible and most interesting way. So as a writer, the job is the same.

There were certainly less cooks in the kitchen on this than there were on Spider-Man, but that [project]was something that came to me. I was invited into the sandbox. It was wonderful, but you also know that you only have so much time with it. You get the keys to the Ferrari for a while and then you give the keys to somebody else. You’re responsible for the care and feeding of the character that means so much to so many people. If you go to Africa, there are two-year-olds that know Spider-Man. I never worked on something that had that much fan interest before. There’s a lot of responsibility to that.

dot429: Let’s talk about your writing process. What was it like every day writing Truth?

JV: My process changed over the years. I work at home, usually. I have friends that love to go to coffee shops and write in public. But for me, I have an office in my house. I just go there and close the door and talk to myself and walk around. I mutter to myself a lot. I end up saying the dialogue aloud without realizing I’m doing it.

dot429: Do you have any signature writing quirks or rituals?

JV: I outline a lot more than I used to. I spend more time prepping before I write now. It’s almost like I try and trick myself into thinking that I’m not writing. Usually I end up writing the whole script longhand. I didn’t used to do that.

After John Hughes died, I read an article in Vanity Fair about his office. He had all of these notebooks everywhere. So I started buying composition books. I would take one composition book for every project and that would turn into a couple. So I’d end up writing the whole script in some form or fashion long hand and then typing it in. So I have the first Amazing Spider-Man in like five different notebooks.

dot429: Are they Spider-Man notebooks?

JV: (Laughs) No, they’re just your average Mead black and white composition notebooks.

dot429: What’s one truth you’ve learned from making Truth?

JV: As a director—do your homework. The best decision I made was to treat this like I knew nothing about the job. Because I didn’t. You know nothing about it until you do it.

People would say, “Oh, directing is just an extension of screenwriting.” No it’s not. Only in the sense that you’re telling a story. Screenwriting is sitting in a room alone. TV writing is sitting in a room with other writers. When you’re directing, hundreds of people are staring at you. That’s not the natural habitat of a writer. So I did a ton of research. I read all the books I could on directing.  I spoke to lots of directors whom I admire, even those who had worked with the actors I had cast.

dot429: Did you have one mentor as a director or was it spread out?

JV: It was spread out. I took a bunch from David Fincher, who I love. I had a wonderful experience with Roland Emmerich too. Very different types of films those two make, but I love both of them and their approaches. 

dot429: Did Redford give you any advice while filming?

JV: No. He was really amazing. After I cast him was the moment I realized that the first time he directed a movie, he won an Academy Award. So he’s very conscious of his Redford-ness. He’s been a famous man forever and he knows what he does to people…

But he said, “listen: I’m here as an actor. I’m never going to look at the monitor. I’m never going to check how I look. I’m never going to be over your shoulder. That’s your job. I’m here to serve the story and serve you.”

I had to sort of… put aside [thinking]“that’s Bob Redford.” I was home in LA after a few weeks after and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came on. The end was on (which is my favorite scene)… and I had this moment where I went, “Oh my god. I directed that guy in a movie!” It all kinda crashed in on me.

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