Interview: James Vanderbilt on “Truth,” With Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford

Posted on October 22, 2015 at 3:06 pm

James Vanderbilt wrote and directed Truth, based on journalist Mary Mapes’ book about the controversial story that ended her career at CBS News. Working with Dan Rather, she produced a news story with explosive allegations about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service in a story broadcast on “60 Minutes Wednesday” shortly before election day 2004. The allegations were based in part on two memos purported to be from the personal files of Bush’s late supervisor. After the broadcast, bloggers claimed they were forgeries. CBS organized a commission led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi, which produced a 224-page report, finding that the story was biased and inadequately supported.

The movie is based on the book by Mapes, with her side of the story. It stars Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. Vanderbilt talked to me about his film, journalism, and legal standards of evidence and how all three relate to the challenges of truth and storytelling. “There are no rules and regulations in terms of how you put story on the air. It’s always a judgment call which is not obviously how things are done in the legal profession. So felt, I think, that they were in very new territory speaking to people who were Lawyers about how news is built and delivered and what their process was.”

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Throughout most of the film, Mapes is exceptionally strong and decisive. But when her father publicly accuses her of having a left-wing agenda, she is painfully vulnerable. “I think it was the moment that broke her a little bit. One of the things that drew me to the story was her as a person and her as a character. You meet this woman who is at the height of her powers in many ways. She is extraordinarily bright and funny, she has the best job in her field, the perfect job, she works with the face of CBS news and she’s the one behind that putting those stories together for him. She’s just done the story of her career with , she has a great husband, she has a great kid. And so when we meet her it seems like it’s perfect, everything is perfect. As all of this goes down those pieces of armor that we all sort of have starts to get stripped away. We all have that scared kid inside us and those pieces of armor of protecting that kid, but they can disappear. And that moment with her father near the end was finally exposing her as a raw nerve. You think that scene is going to go one way and it goes another. And she just can’t do it. And when she told me that story I was floored that that really happened. And also seeing the relationship that she and Dan had first-hand from watching them interact I started to kind of go, ‘Oh this is what this is about, about this relationship, and fathers and daughters,’ and that’s really the emotion behind the piece. And that’s really why that whole storyline matters.”

Eleven years after the events of the film, Vanderbilt says that “Investigative journalism is in a very dangerous please right now. And I think investigative journalism is incredibly important and longer lead stories don’t get done. In the film there’s a moment where they go ‘Oh my God we only have five days to put this together’ and journalists I talk now go ‘God, I’ve got five days?'” He does not confuse his role with journalism, though. “My job first and foremost as a filmmaker is just to make an interesting film. I have to tell a compelling story. It’s up to you to decide whether we succeeded or not, but that’s the most important part of it for me. The subject matter in the story we are telling obviously is about investigative journalism so I wanted to do as much of that for ourselves as possible to try and put as many different ideas and point of view in the film as possible, too.”

Vanderbilt said that he especially loved talking to Dan Rather as a part of his research for the film. “The great thing about what I get to do is I get to sort of step into everybody’s job. I sit down and say, ‘Okay so what’s your day like? When do you wake up? Do you read papers in the morning, do you go online?’ And I love that process. Journalism is the only other thing besides what I do I ever considered going into because they are both storytelling. So I’ve always been fascinated with that world. Getting to sit with Dan Rather, just to sit with him, forget about the movie,0 was a great experience and getting to pick his brain, getting the details, not in terms of the factual like ‘Did this happen and this happen and this happen,’ because that is recorded other places and of course we went through that with him as well, but the feeling of the newsroom: ‘How did you feel when this happened? What was your experience like when this happened?’ And getting to watch him — you get to go to dinner with him and you can ask him questions — but then you observe, how is he treating the waiter. How is he having a conversation? My wife was at the dinner and at one point, like we all do, he used a curse word and he immediately apologized to her and immediately for me as a writer I go, ‘Oh, that’s great! That’s such a personality telling detail.’ And so there’s a moment in the film where he says ‘bullshit’ and then he apologizes to the makeup artist. But that’s the stuff that makes him human. And so with Dan a lot of what I was trying to do is to portray him as he really is in life and take this, the human quality of him, the stuff that you don’t always see through the television and bring that into the character. He was absolutely and extraordinarily gracious to all of us. And there were many opportunities for him to say during this whole process, ‘I’m anchoring the news five nights a week and doing all of these other stuff. I got that information from my producers.’ He could have thrown that team under the bus like that and that never happened and I felt that was a very telling interesting facet of him as a character.”

Cate Blanchett was so committed to the role that she actually learned to knit and practiced for hours for the few seconds her character was knitting on screen. “It is maybe five seconds in the finished film and Cate Blanchett was the type of person who goes and learns to knit for that moment. So that’s the level of actor you are dealing with.” And Vanderbilt encouraged Robert Redford to play Dan Rather by reminding him of the commitment to journalism he showed in producing and starring in “All the President’s Men.”

The title of the film is a bold choice. “The name of the movie is ‘Truth’ not because I know what the truth is. It is because it is the thing that everybody’s trying to get to in the movie. And it’s difficult to find. It’s elusive and tricky and you go down the rabbit hole looking for it sometimes. And clearly people lose careers over it but it still that thing that we all should be pulling for and we should want our journalists and media pulling for at the end of the day because that’s what keeps our society free.”

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3 Replies to “Interview: James Vanderbilt on “Truth,” With Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford”

  1. With Mapes stating in Truth and Duty that she knew the story in 1999 Mapes and Rather could have run the story in 2000 with Marion Carr Knox gathering a bevy of GWB’s classmates to tell what they all knew. Hang the “memos”. This story has all the earmarks of a PR intentional botch job to present, diffuse and mold and remold the storyline with prongs and forceps. Mapes makes a killing on the story and book, Rather takes one for the team we think he isn’t on and Bush used the botch-job like a political piñata. Obviously the film doesn’t tell us that Mapes and Rather just got canonized by the Peabody family for “breaking” the Abu Ghraib story in 2004 when Amnesty International broke it in 2003…..oh, and Rather and Don Rumsfeld were co-owners of the Tecolote Ranch in Las Vegas, New Mexico at the time? What? Yes! So who knows just why this film is coming out now. The motives are as mysterious as Cornelius Vanderbilt and William Walker battling over Central America. Take that story on, James, but not as Brando and Harris did it. Do a DNA study to tell us if William Walker was park of the Walker-Bush clan.

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