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THE BLACK SHEEP INTERVIEW: JAMES VANDERBILT (TRUTH)

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An interview with TRUTH writer/director, James Vanderbilt

Over the past decade, James Vanderbilt has penned screenplays for films as diverse as ZODIAC and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. His latest film, TRUTH, also marks a directorial debut for the writer – and rather than start small, he went all out in terms of both cast and subject matter.

Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid and Bruce Greenwood, TRUTH relays the story of the backlash CBS experienced in 2004 when 60 Minutes ran a piece that called into question then-President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service. Following the broadcast, the authenticity of the documents they based the story on was disputed and the team was unable to prove their legitimacy – and so the careers and reputations of those involved (including Dan Rather, played by Redford) suffered the consequences. Told from the perspective of the show’s producer, Mary Mapes (Blanchett), the film offers her side of the story as an alternative to what many believe was the case: that it was a dirty move by unprofessional journalists to criticize the president in the Fall of what just happened to be an election year.

TRUTH premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. I sat down with Vanderbilt to discuss the film, why he wanted to become involved with this story, and whether he had any apprehension when it came to tackling such controversial subject matter for his first directorial effort.

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Was it Mary’s memoir (Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power) that first sparked interest in this project for you, or was it the events themselves?

It was actually her memoir. I knew about the events, I think like most people did – which is to say that I had a sort of passing knowledge of them. Or what I thought was a passing knowledge of them, which was: CBS had run this story (I hadn’t seen the story when it aired)…there were some fake documents…and because of that, Dan Rather got fired. That was kind of the breadth and depth of my knowledge of it. And then Mary’s memoir was excerpted in Vanity Fair and I read that and thought “Oh man, if even half of this stuff is true…this is fascinating”. So that’s what got me into it. I read the book when it came out and called Mary up and said “Look, I’m a Hollywood idiot, but I would love to talk to you about this”. She was very reticent to option the book or do anything – it was 2005, so she was still really in the fetal position in a lot of ways about what had happened.

So I said “How about this – I’ll come down to Texas, we’ll meet and just spend some time together, and at the end, if you don’t want to do it, totally cool, no harm no foul.” She said ok and my wife and I went down there – my wife is much more interesting than I am, so she was my secret weapon. We spent about three days together and we talked about everything but the story. We talked about our favourite actors, my wife and she talked about cooking and recipes…anything and everything and just got to know each other. At the end of it, she sort of went “ok – I think you’re a good person and I trust you, so maybe we’ll take a shot at this”.

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This is now Mary’s opportunity to tell her version of the truth – what kind of pressure does that put on you as a director and a screenwriter? To have her story on your shoulders?

It’s interesting – we had talked about it and both she and Dan were great. I said “Listen, I want to make this film because I think your story is really important and an interesting one to tell, but at the end of the day, I have to be able to make the film I’m going to make and you don’t have editorial control over it” and they got that. And they were wonderful about that. I had a great writing professor who once said “if you want to write a message, call Western Union…but you write movies”. So the movie wasn’t conceived to prove a point or to right wrongs…I wasn’t interested in making that version of the film. I’m sure there’s a great version of that film to be made. I was more interested in presenting “Here is what happened through our character’s eyes; here’s the journey she went on emotionally”. There was some stuff in the film that was very uncomfortable for Mary. And if you were to have a glass of wine with her, she’d probably say “I wish that wasn’t 40 feet high on a big screen” but she understood that that was part of it.

It’s sort of this weird thing where you go to someone and you say “I have good news and bad news – the good news is, I want to make a movie about your life. The bad news is, I want to make a movie about the worst thing that ever happened to you!” I don’t want to make a movie about your best day, I don’t want to make a movie about that time you did that amazing thing and everybody loved you – I want to make a movie about the single worst professional and personal experience of your life. And put an Academy Award winner in as you, so we can really feel how much it hurt you.”

But more good news is that Cate Blanchett is going to play you.

Yes, and nobody was upset about that, by the way!

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How did you find your cast? How did you prepare them to enact such recent events and portray current public figures? I would imagine that Robert’s portrayal in particular was extremely important.

Yes, absolutely. Well Cate…is Cate. I can’t claim any sort of “what an amazing thought, to cast the actor of our generation in your movie”. I was convinced she was going to say no. We sent her the script I think the morning after she won the Oscar for BLUE JASMINE. My producer was like “we’ve got to do it” and I thought there’s no way that after BLUE JASMINE she’s going to say “You know what I want to do? I want to work with a first-time director on a politically charged film. That would be great.” But she read it and liked it and we had a conversation on the phone. It lasted about 30 minutes and then she hung up, called her agent and said “I’ll do the movie”. I was floored.

As to her process, we spent a lot of time talking about life and shared experiences and thoughts about what happened – sort of like with Mary. I gave her all the research and she would Skype with Mary a lot, just to hear her vocal intonations. To pick her brain certainly, but also just to watch her and observe her as an actor. She worked on the accent which is very tricky and specific, because it’s a woman who grew up in the Pacific Northwest but lives in Texas and has lived in Texas for 20 years. And she loves that stuff. That’s what’s great about working with somebody as good as Cate.

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Bob was someone who I knew a little bit because I’d written something years before that he was going to direct. So we’d spent a little bit of time together. And so when I wrote the script, I knew I wanted him to play Dan. I just felt “cast a legend to play a legend”. But I also knew – and we would talk about it – that the movie’s big buy is “do you believe Robert Redford is Dan Rather…can you divorce that?” And Bob’s amazing because he’ll say stuff like “Well, I know Dan” and I’d say “of course you know Dan…you know everybody”. So he knew Dan and could draw off that and he also spoke to him, obviously. He was very aware of the story. He’s very politically involved and interested and active and he reads seven newspapers a day. It’s incredible, just how nimble and perfect and smart he is as a human being. In the conversation we had, I said “I’d like to grey your hair a little bit…I don’t want to do prosthetics…I don’t want you to be in the makeup chair for a long time…I don’t want you to do an impression…I don’t want to try and make you look like Dan Rather…I just want to get it in the performance a little bit. A little bit with the voice, but not too much.” And he said “I totally agree and am happy to attack it that way”. And that’s how we did it. People will decide whether it works or not! But I think he did a really good job and I hope you stop seeing Redford and start seeing Rather. That was definitely our goal – but we were nervous about it. Luckily he’s Robert Redford and he’s that damn good.

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As a screenwriter, how did you enjoy your additional role of Director on this film?

I enjoyed it a lot, I really did. But I tried to be very cognizant and careful about the fact that they’re very different jobs. I’ve seen people do it and not realize that or think it through. I was lucky enough to have worked with a bunch of different directors along the way who are great and amazing – so I called a lot of them up and said “Look, I’m going to direct this movie…I want to take you to lunch and I want to pick your brain.” And literally, I would have three-hour lunches with these people and I would have a notebook out and would copy down everything they said. I sort of put myself into directing school with directors I really admire and said “what’s the thing you wish you’d known” or “how do you do this, how do you do that”…I got so much out of that process that by the time I got on the floor, I felt ready to go. And it was just like “there is no room for you to fail”. And also “you’ve been given such a gift of these actors, it’s really on you to screw it up!” So I figured I had to really work hard and not screw it up.

TRUTH is playing in select cities now. It comes to Canada Friday, October 30.

To win passes to see TRUTH in cities across Canada, click this link.

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