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Truth Be Told: James Vanderbilt talks about Truth

Trevor Hogg chats with James Vanderbilt about his directorial debut, collaborating with Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford as well as examining an infamous moment in the history of 60 Minutes…

After working as a screenwriter on Hollywood productions such as The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) andWhite House Down (2013), James Vanderbilt decided to sit in the director’s chair for a cinematic adaptation of a memoir by former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes.  In 2004, Mapes and CBS anchor Dan Rather became embroiled in a journalistic scandal when reporting that President George W. Bush was a draft-dodger during the Vietnam War.  The subject matter of Truth, which had its World Premiere at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival, is not foreign to Vanderbilt who explored the dynamics and ethics of the newsroom in his breakthrough script Zodiac (2007).


Zodiac was the best cinematic experience I had,” remarks James Vanderbilt who was intrigued by a cartoonist trying to catch a serial killer received a WGA Award nomination for his adapted screenplay.  “There’s a specificity to everything David Fincher [The Social Network] does. I had written a script, sent it to him and he shocked us by saying, ‘Yes.’  I thought there was no way he would want to do another serial killer movie.  David said, ‘Lets put the script in the drawer and I want to talk to everybody we can about this and get their take on what they thought happened.’ In terms of research and talking to people I certainly applied that to Truth.  You want to have as much information as possible before you make the decision on how you’re going to portray each scene.”  The native of Norwalk, Connecticut adds, “As a Hollywood screenwriter you’re always looking over your shoulder because the moment something goes wrong you can easily get replaced.  David was like, ‘I’m the director.  You’re the writer.  Brad Fischer [Shutter Island] is the producer.  We’re the people who are making this movie.  Let’s make it.’”

"Truth" - Fellowship Special Presentation Gala - BFI London Film Festival“The reason why I like having Truth as the title is that it’s the thing that everybody is trying to get to in the film and it’s elusive sometimes,” explains James Vanderbilt who talked to those involved with the infamous incident which in some cases led to him hearing conflicting opinions and recollections.  “There’s a he said she said aspect to a lot of stories and specifically, for this one.  When I was in high school I had to take a class calledApproaches to History which was amazing.  The first thing they did was to make us read What Happened on Lexington Green? which is a collection of real letters about the first battle of the Revolutionary War. The point of it was that nobody knows who fired the first shot.  Even when trying to piece together what happened in one of the most important moments in American History nobody can quite get to truth of that.”

“The wonderful thing about movies is that you can cut from one thing to other,” observes James Vanderbilt.  “The first third of the movie takes place over a few months so we can go through them relatively quickly.  Then we go micro in terms of the lead up to the story.  It was more about what was essential to honestly tell the story and from those characters points of view in regards to how they experienced it.  It’s trying to get as much in as possible.  Also with a movie like this there’s so much exposition you don’t want the audience feeling like they’re drinking from a fire hose.”  Vanderbilt did not shy away from using incorporating exposition into the dialogue. “I’m of the opinion that interesting smart people in rooms talking to each other is interesting cinema. That’s also what journalists do; they have to track down the story.”  Assisting with the production were the individuals being portrayed on the big screen.  “In the film, Dan Rather talks about where we are in the state of news and 70 to 80 per cent of the monologue is Dan and I sitting at table with him saying it to me.”


“Cate is so incredible, effortless, and brings so much humanity and pathos into everything that she does,” remarks James Vanderbilt who hoped to cast Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes.  “We sent the script to her the morning after she won the Oscar for Blue Jasmine [2013].  I thought there was no way she was going to want to work with a first time director on a politically charged film.  We got on the phone and I talked through how I saw the film.  Cate said, ‘I told my family I wasn’t going to work this fall.  Is there any way that you can figure out how to do this in Sydney?’  I said, ‘No problem.’ Then I hung up phone and said “Okay, guys, how are we going to do this movie in Sydney?’”  The other pivotal casting decision involved the role of Dan Rather.  “The idea in my head was to play an icon you should cast an icon.   When Robert Redford [The Sting] walks into a room people go, ‘Oh, my God.  That’s Robert Redford!’  When Dan Rather walks into a room the same thing happens.  Once we got Cate I called his agent, and sent him a letter and script.  I told him why I thought he would be great in this role, and here is what I hope to accomplish with the film. About two weeks later the phone rang and he said, ‘Hey, Jamie.  It’s Bob Redford.  I read your script.  I’d love to do it.’”


“There’s a great cinematic tradition of movies, like Truth,” states James Vanderbilt who watched and talked about investigative journalism stalwarts such as All the President’s Men (1976) and The Insider (1999) with his cinematographer Mandy Walker (Looking for Grace).  “There’s this amazing push in All the President’s Men where Robert Redford is at a desk trying to rundown leads.  It starts incredibly wide with a split dioptre so half of the shot is in deep focus and half is shallow.  It changes as you go in.  We have two and half minute take in our movie where we push in on Mary.”  A classical approach was taken with the cinematography which was shot with ARRI ALEXA with G series anamorphic lenses.   “We didn’t want to move the camera unless it’s dictated by character or narrative.  There’s a moment late in the film where we go handheld which makes the audience feel unmoored because they’ve just spent an hour and a half locked down.”

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“Sydney has a lot of cityscapes that work for New York City and the outskirts can be rural so the other part of our film takes place in Texas,” notes James Vanderbilt.  “In a weird way it keyed well in both of those kinds of locations.  We had an amazing Locations Department.  We weren’t a big budget movie so there was not a lot of money to build.  If we are going to shoot scenes in Mary’s house we have to go and find that house.  The exterior is of the same house we’re inside.  We were also able to work with an amazing crew in Sydney.”  The product design by Fiona Crombie (Macbeth) aided a particular colour pallet that was to have a subconscious impact upon the viewer.  “We wanted it to be a vibrant world in the beginning of the film so there’s a lot of colour and rich tones.  As the movie goes along we tried to subtly pull some of the colour out of that world as things start to go wrong.”


“For a dialogue movie you’re going to be listening a lot so we had the incredible David Lee who won the Oscar for The Matrix [1999],” states James Vanderbilt while discussing the importance of the sound design.  “I wanted the viewers to feel as if they are in these offices and different places and having a different feel for the office in New York as suppose to the office in Dallas.  In the sound mix I would drive them crazy because I would go, ‘That’s the wrong phone.’  Brian Tyler [Furious 7] did the music for it.  The first writing credit I have is the second move he ever scored. For years I told him that, “If I ever get to direct a movie you’re going to do the music.’ It was this idea of a classical score that touched on the feelings of journalism movies of the past but also lived in the present.”  A concerted effort was to mix in cars and clothing from different decades so to better reflect how culture evolves.  “We were cognitive that the Truthtakes place in 2004 but I didn’t want to make it feel like a period movie.”  The version of the script was written in 2007.  “People misinterpreted that it was going to be a movie about George W. Bush; he’s the way you get into the story.  The period of time passing was what we needed in order to get Truth made and I’m so excited that we get to do it now.”

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Many thanks to James Vanderbilt for taking the time to be interviewed.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.


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