Interview: Writer/Director James Vanderbilt on Truth

Former CBS News anchor and host of a show on HDNET Dan Rather speaks during a ceremony for recipients of the FAXIE Awards, wh
Former CBS News anchor and host of a show on HDNET Dan Rather speaks during a ceremony for recipients of the FAXIE Awards, which honor the year's best communications initiatives in the cable television industry, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on May 6, 2008. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

James Vanderbilt is the in-demand writer behind some of the most high-profile releases in Hollywood for more than a decade now, having penned such memorably diverse films as The Losers, Zodiac, and The Rundown. For his directing debut, Truth, the veteran screenwriter chose to dramatize 60 Minutes II's 2004 investigation into President Bush's National Guard service, a story whose aftermath proved so explosive that it led to the resignation/retirement of longtime CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who reported the story.

The film stars Cate Blanchett as 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (upon whose memoir the script is based), and movie legend Robert Redford as news legend Rather, and it's imminently watchable thanks to the investigative format and the sterling cast that's been assembled. I recently had a chance to talk Truth with the game Vanderbilt, as well as his work on the two Amazing Spider-Man films and my fondness for White House Down. In addition, we also discussed the state of TV news in the aftermath of the events of Truth. What follows are some highlights from that conversation:

Before we get to Truth, I just wanted to say that White House Down is one of these movies that I love, and I wish more people would've seen it.

Thank you very much!

I tell people all the time. There's a great joke in it where the bad guys are after the president, and he gets away, and James Woods tells Jason Clarke, "We'll find him. Here, have some cake," and he says, "I don't want cake! I have diabetes!" And I was laughing for 30 seconds straight.

[laughs] It's the diabetes jokes!

Just the pure incongruousness of it all. Jason Clarke is so passionate about it.

He's very passionate about it. Even the strongest villains have a flaw.

That's his kryptonite.

That's his kryptonite, yeah.

So now, we compare something like White House Down, which is politics from a more escapist angle...

Sure, a little bit.

And this is very different. It's very deep. And I wanted to start with the title. You call it Truth. Capital T -- Truth. And this is a story that -- you're seeing it already, the conversation -- is inherently, arguable subjective. So, explain the choice of title.

First of all, I think we could've called it "Dan and Mary Put on a TV Show" and it still would've been controversial. But we called it Truth because it's the thing in the movie that everybody is after. And it's very elusive. It's not an easy thing to get your hands around, especially with the story, and the people sort of end up going down a big, dark rabbit hole going after it, but it's still something that's important to search for, and it's sort of what these characters have dedicated their lives to trying to find. So, it's really more about that than anything else.

It's the search for truth.

Yeah. It's not a documentary. It's a feature film with wonderful actors in it, but takes place within a two-hour run time. So, no, it's not the statement of it. It's: this is the thing that everybody's trying to get to. It's sort of their Holy Grail is trying to find the truth every day, whether this story or the many others they worked on.

What was it about this story that made you say, "This is my entree into directing"?

It was a bunch of different things, actually. I had been looking for something to direct for a little while when I came across the book, and I really wanted to do something that I cared about and that mattered to me because I had friends and other people -- you just sort of see screenwriters who direct don't always get to direct a second movie.

And so, I sort of went: if I'm going to direct one thing, what do I want it to be? And so, I started looking for that thing, and I've always been fascinated with journalism, and I made a movie before this called Zodiac, which is about a journalist, a couple journalists in San Francisco. If I hadn't gone into the movie business, I would've gone into journalism. So, I've always sort of been fascinated by it, and I read Mary's book, and I read an excerpt of Mary's book first in Vanity Fair, was how I found it, and then I read the book proper.

And I was so amazed by how much I didn't know about a story I thought I knew so much about, and it was just this sort of...I went, "Oh, my god! Really? Oh, my god! Really?" And that experience of reading her book, and then also looking at it and having the opportunity to tell a story...a process movie, and a process story about how television news is made at a news magazine was really fascinating to me, sort of how the sausage is made and served to us, and given to us, and what that process is like, and what the practicalities of it are.

With your perspective of having lived in this story, what did you come away with, as far as parts of the story where you're like, "Oh man, if only this had happened, things would have been different"?

Well, I mean, hindsight is always 20/20, so it's very easy to go, "Well, they should've done X and they should've done Y." I think what was really interesting for me as a writer structuring it was I couldn't rely that everybody knew the story. Some people are going to know where this is going, but then other people are going to have no idea, so it was sort of: how do you build the movie to work for both types of people?

It's: how do you build Apollo 13 for the people who don't know they didn't make it to the moon. But as a filmmaker, there was a great kind of tension to that that I could use, which was, I really wanted to start the movie with them putting the story together, and I wanted you to kind of experience that with them and go through that.

The pressure.

The pressure, and the excitement, because the people who work at 60 Minutes, they love it. It's a noble profession to do this, to try and uncover the truth, and it's exciting, and you get a jolt out of it, and I really wanted the audience, hopefully, to experience that as well, so that by the time the worm turns, you've been with them through this. You can sort of go: "But wait, they did this, and they did that!" You're sort of emotionally invested in it. That was the dramatic gift the story gave to us.

I feel like, in a lot of ways, certainly by the end of it, this is the statement now about Dan Rather. That no matter all the stuff that got piled on him after this, he was a damn good journalist. Was that a part of your intent a little bit, the chance to make a historical statement about Dan Rather's place in the...?

In sort of the pantheon?

Yeah, of journalists.

I mean, I have an amazing amount of respect for Dan, and I think that he is a damn good journalist, and did a lot of incredible things. At the same time, we joke about it as the good news/bad news. The good news is: we want to make a movie about you. The bad news is: we don't want to make a movie about all the amazing things you've done. We want to make a movie about the worst thing that's ever happened to you, and for Mary as well.

So, for me at least, it wasn't about making a statement about him, but it was about portraying him accurately, and what happened in these events. But when you look at his career, and you dig into it -- and there's a scene at the beginning of the movie where we're introducing him, and he's being introduced at an event, but it's also we're introducing him to the audience and introducing Robert Redford to the audience as Dan Rather, and I, on purpose, wanted to keep Bob off-screen as you're hearing about Dan.

So, you start to hear about the man first and all these things he's done, some of which are amazing, and he's done so many things that people forget. People forget he was the guy in Dealey Plaza on the day Kennedy was shot, reporting from there, because he was the local guy in Texas. And so, I wanted to sort of introduce who Dan Rather is, and then introduce Robert Redford in that part, and so that was all kind of designed to hopefully get the audience going, "Hey, Robert Redford's a good Dan Rather!"

But it was more about that, and that's what we talked about, was just playing the character in the film. Obviously, we have an enormous amount of respect for Dan, and he was an amazing newsman -- still is an amazing newsman! He's still doing it. Still doing it!

One of my favorite movies is The Insider, and this feels like a companion piece to that, almost. The events they depict are roughly ten years apart.

Yeah, I know. It's interesting.

We've got Mike Wallace there; Dan Rather in this one. Is the era of the journalists who we look to to tell us what to think -- and not in a partisan sense -- is that finished? Because it almost feels like the events in this film are the fissure point at which we sort of decided "multiple choice" for news.

I think that's one of the things that attracted me to it. We talked about it being a fulcrum point in terms of the swing, and it was something that I think none of us knew at the time. You can't, at the time, go, "Everything will be different." But looking back, this was a real swing point. I mean, I think we're in a very different place now. It's very easy for people to go, "Oh, it was so much better back then!" Well, I don't know if it was better back then or not. I do know it was different. I do know when I was growing up, it was sort of the voice of God -- you know, journalism kind of thing -- there were these...

Cronkite and...

Cronkite and Rather, and then...


For our generation, it was like the Three Wise Men.

Peter Jennings, Brokaw.

Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather. Those were the gods.

And they all went away at kind of the same time.

They did. Jennings passed away, then Dan [retired], and then Brokaw was 2004, I think, retired, right?

Right around then, yeah.

That same kind of era, yeah.

It was like a nine-month period where the deck was cleared.

Yeah, absolutely. What's been amazing to watch, too, is how different things are now from even ten years ago when that was happening and the decks were kind of clearing. So, yeah, I definitely think that we're in a different place, and what's interesting now is news is so a la carte, that people have now started to get the news that's almost catered to their point of view, which -- that's very new, I think, in the last 10, 15 years -- is if I'm a conservative, there's a place for me to hear my news from. If I'm a liberal, there's a place for me to hear my news from, and that's the nature of the world we live in right now.

Do you find that problematic?

I don't know. Again, I don't know if it's problematic. I think it's different, and I think, again, it's going to take another ten years for us to know. You have to, unfortunately...I do think we're now trying to play catch-up to our own technology in a way that we weren't before, and we don't quite know what we're trying to...I mean, the idea of having -- in the movie, it's once they're put on deadline, they have five days to put the story together. Now, that's an amazing luxury for how fast news cycles are.

Now it's like, hours.

Yeah. It's the 24-second news cycle, as a friend of mine puts it, and it's very, very hard to keep up with it.

You mentioned previous journalism films. What are some of the ones that you think of? What are other ones that you think of as seminal films in this particular genre?

All the President's Men, we talked about all the time, especially when Robert Redford showed up. It was amazing. When he came to set, we had dinner when he got there, and he took me to dinner. Well, I mean, I took him to dinner, but since he's Robert Redford, I assume he took me because it's just amazing to be with him. But he said, "Now I suppose it would be instructive or helpful for me to tell you about the making of All the President's Men," and I was like...

And you just sit back.

Yes, I did. I was like, "Tell me more, Robert Redford." [laughs] And he took me through the entire process of the script and his friendship with Ben Bradlee, and Ben Bradlee had actually just passed away when we were shooting the film.

And he produced the film, too.

He did. He produced the film and has second billing on it, so that's an actor/producer going, "No problem, Dusty, you get top billing." [laughs] But that was absolutely a film that we talked about. There's a scene in Truth where we did what we called the "Redford Push," but we did it on Cate.

There's a great scene in All the President's Men. It's like, a two and a half minute take of him on the phone confirming something in the newsroom, and so, we had this whole long scene where Cate had to be on the phone confirming something -- in the script. It was already scripted, and then we went, "We should do the Redford push on her."

And so, it's a two and a half minute take in Truth where she's at her desk, and she's on the phone with William Devane. We did push on Cate which is just one take. And you can do it. You can keep a camera on Cate Blanchett for two-and-a-half minutes, and have it be really interesting, because she's Cate Blanchett.

Real briefly, I wanted to ask you about the two Amazing Spider-Man films. Now that they've sort of shifted the deck with that series, what's your take on why they didn't catch on the way the previous trilogy did?

It's a good question. I was really involved in the first film. It was sort of a crazy thing because there were other writers on it, and I kept getting fired and then brought back. Not in a bad way, but it was still like, "I am fired. You did fire me, right?" And they're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you need to come back." And I worked with Alvin Sargent, who's one of the great writers of all time, and I actually got to write drafts with him, which was amazing.

He was married to Laura Ziskin, the late Laura Ziskin, who was wonderful, and she would always drag Alvin into it, basically. On all of them, they'd get to a certain point where she'd go, "I'm just going to bring in Alvin, and he'll fix it." And then Alvin, sort of kicking and screaming, would go, "Alright, fine, I'll help out." But just a brilliant, brilliant guy, and so I got to work with him, and it was a really wonderful experience.

And then, the second film, I wrote the first draft for, and then they decided to go in a different direction with it, and they brought in some other writers who are great writers, and they made that film. So, some of that movie is me, and a lot of that movie is them, and I don't know. I thought Andrew [Garfield] was a wonderful Spider-Man. I think he was great.

I met him a couple weeks ago for 99 Homes, and he's so passionate, even now, about the character.

Yeah, I know, and that was real, too. That was what was wonderful about it. He really wanted to be Spider-Man when he was a kid, and so, getting to see him do that was great. But I don't know. I will say, though, as a huge fan of the character, I am so excited to see how he fits into the Marvel Universe. I think it's going to be really interesting to see it, and more power to them.

The thing about working on those films is it's sort of like you get to drive the Ferrari only for a little while. And it's a wonderful thing. You're given the care and feeding of a character who exists before you were around, and will exist after you're around, and you get to take care of him for a little while, and that's great. And then you get to hand him off, and so, I had a wonderful time getting to do that, and I'm so happy to let other people do that now.

They get their turn at bat.

They get their turn at the bat, and that's, I think, great for the character, too. It's different interpretations and's like when Christian Bale took over Batman. People go, "No one's ever going to beat Michael Keaton." You watch him, and then people go, "Well, no one's going to ever beat Christian Bale." So, new blood is a good thing.


Big thanks to James Vanderbilt for his time. You can catch Truth in select theaters now. To hear the audio from this conversation, check out episode 80 of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: