Like most biopics, "Truth" is not without its share of controversy. CBS executives have refused to run advertisements for the movie, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month and chronicles the scandal surrounding the 2004 "60 Minutes" story that questioned George W. Bush's military record during the Vietnam War. CBS president Leslie Moonves has reportedly called the movie a "half-truth."
But unlike many biopics, the film's subjects approve of the story that James Vanderbilt has told in his directorial debut. "Truth," which opens in wide release this weekend, is framed from the perspective of Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the venerable producer who spearheaded the reporting efforts that met vast criticism. (Dan Rather, who is played by Robert Redford, retracted the story and resigned from the primetime anchor desk.) The CBS controversy hadn't happened yet when The Huffington Post sat down with Vanderbilt, who previously wrote the scripts for "Zodiac" and both "Amazing Spider-Man" installments, but we did chat about his approach to the story, some critics' claims that the movie is one-sided and whether he'd ever make another comic-book project.
I saw the movie in Toronto, where it drew a lot of comparisons to “Spotlight,” fall's other journalism movie.
I haven’t seen “Spotlight,” but I’m dying to see “Spotlight.”
Have you heard the comparisons?
I’ve heard that. I’m assuming it’s great. I think Tom McCarthy is an amazing director, and Marky Mark Ruffalo is one of my favorite human beings on the face of the planet. I did a movie called “Zodiac” with him, and he was the most talented and nicest. He’s just one of those guys you root for, like, “Oh, yay, Mark is doing well!” I’m super psyched to see it.
I like that you say “a movie called ‘Zodiac’” like it’s this obscure thing and not a David Fincher movie.
Yeah, this young up-and-comer David Fincher. No, you never want to be like, [launches into pretentious voice] “Well, when I made ‘Zodiac!'"
How much of the “60 Minutes” team did you have in your court before writing the script?
We talked to a number of people. The film is based on Mary Mapes’ book, so getting Mary’s book was always the cornerstone of it, which was a difficult thing to do only because Mary was very reticent to have a movie made. Understandably, after going through this entire affair, it’s a tricky thing to call somebody up and go, ”So we want to make a movie about you. We want to extend this story and we want to cast really talented people to dramatize the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.”
That was the start of it, just getting her to agree to option the book to me. And then the next step was spending a lot of time with her, and I spent a lot of time with Dan Rather and some other people on the team as well. I talked to people on the record and off the record who worked on the story and people who just worked in the business, too, just to get the lay of the land. The great thing about my job is that I get to go interview other people about their job. That’s what I love about being a writer and doing stuff like this: getting to sit there and go, “OK, how does this work? What is your day like? You come in at 8 o'clock in the morning. Do you read the newspaper?” There’s the factual stuff, but equally important is just the feel of it.
Because it's told from Mary's perspective, some critics have called the movie one-sided or preachy. It obviously teeters toward the liberal side of the political debate behind the "60 Minutes" story. Does that criticism bother you?
The movies I like are the ones that ask the audience questions rather than give the audience answers, so my whole idea with this was that I want to put as much information into it as possible. The second half of the movie dramatizes, in a slow-motion car-crash way, how the wheels come off this thing. Everything is thrown at them with everything that was negatively said, so I felt it was more important to tell the story soup to nuts, and Mary was always our way into that, being the producer. I just find that fascinating, how stories are put together, in general. I think my impression when I was younger, which is going to sound silly now, is that people like Dan Rather were the ones knocking on doors, and it's just not the way that it’s done. So I think telling the story through Mary’s eyes immediately is controversial, which is absolutely fine. Listen, everyone is going to have their opinion. There’s something about this story that riles people up. That fascinates me. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I actually think discussion and disagreement is kind of a good thing.
Do you understand what people are getting at by calling it one-sided, though?
Oh, sure. I don’t agree with it necessarily, but look, we knew there was no version of making this film that was going to make everybody happy, no matter whose eyes you told it through. I don’t think that’s a reason not to make a film. I’ve been working in Hollywood awhile and I’ve worked on reboots and remakes and stuff like that, and every time you do that the accusation is, “Why don’t you guys make something that’s about something? Why don’t you make something of substance?” And then you make a film like this and it’s like, “Why are you making something about something?!” One of the things that’s exciting to me is that there’s a conversation going on about journalism. I’ve seen husbands and wives walk out of this movie arguing. One will say, "Absolutely she should have been fired,” and the other will say, “How could you say that?” My goal was always to make a film that did that, as opposed to making a film that tries to convince you of a point of view. Now, is everybody going to agree with me? No, of course not, but that’s OK.
There are a lot of second sides to this story anyway, so it's hard to open it up to the other perspectives without losing focus. What are you going to do, get the Bush administration's take?
The response would be, “Unavailable, unavailable.” Listen, you could make this movie 100 different ways. When people say that, I go, “OK, yeah, but we worked really hard to try and be fair in terms of the people we portrayed.” We always talked about how everyone in the movie is just trying to do their jobs. And by the way, that’s really hard in this movie. If you’re an executive at CBS and this lands on your desk and it’s a time bomb exploding, you’re doing your best to protect CBS and protect the news division. That’s not a villainous thing. That’s someone trying to do their job, and that was really important to us. There are other versions of the movie that wouldn’t have done that.
Did you shoot in Australia specifically to get Cate Blanchett?
Yes, absolutely. Sydney was a wonderful place to make the movie, but she agreed to do the film, which was incredible.
Was she your first pick?
She was. It’s sort of like you send it to Cate, and when she turns you down, then you figure out who’s going to play it, but she said yes. That was mind-blowing. But she said very honestly, “I told my family I wasn’t going to work this fall.” This is fall of 2014. We actually started shooting a week ago last year. She had done “The Maids” here in New York and she’d shot “Carol” before. Then this came up and she said, “Is there any way you can shoot this in Sydney so I can be at home?” You say, “Absolutely, no problem,” and then you hang up the phone and you say, “Guys, how the hell are we going to shoot this movie in Sydney, Australia?” Robert Redford had never been to Australia, which blew my mind because you think Robert Redford has been everywhere. Everybody came down and we had a Sydney crew that was incredible. It really worked out.
Is this the lowest-budget film you’ve written?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. Certainly close. It certainly cost less than any “Spider-Man” film -- probably less than the catering on any “Spider-Man” film.
Is writing a behemoth movie like "The Amazing Spider-Man" different from writing a character drama like "Truth"?
The initial writing of it, for me, is the same because it’s me in a room. No matter how flashy stuff is, at the end of the day, it’s just you and the page for a while. Later on, it’s a very different experience because when you’re making a movie that has a nine-figure budget, there are different considerations. There are automatically going to be more people involved in terms of studios or producers. This film we made independently, so we didn’t have a studio attached. I knew the only way this was going to get done was to option the book with my own money. Rule 1 is don’t spend your own money, so of course I optioned the book like an idiot and knew the only way this was going to get done was to write a script that got the kind of actors interested to where people would have to make the movie. It had to be financially feasible to do that, so we got Cate and Bob on board. Then it's just working with the financiers and producers, as opposed to when you make a big studio picture and you’re working with the studio from Day 1 and you’re pitching, “What if this is what happens to this character?” On the “Spider-Man” movies, that was me dealing with a character I hadn’t created. I was just given the keys to the Ferrari for a little while and got to drive it around.
And get a lot of notes along the way, I’m sure.
Yeah, and understandably because there’s so much wrapped up in that character and in those films.
After the “Spider-Man” trilogy -- well, I guess we can't call it a trilogy anymore.
Yeah, it’s a duology now! The once and not-future trilogy.
Since the third movie was dropped, why subject yourself to more franchise scrutiny by writing “Independence Day 2”?
I wish I could say I had some kind of career master plan, but I don’t. I go with what’s an interesting story and what’s a great experience. I’d worked with Roland Emmerich on this movie “White House Down,” and I love Roland. He’s just a great dude, so after “White House Down,” he called me up and said [Dean Devlin, his writing partner] had written a sequel to “Independence Day,” and would I be interested in coming on and helping out for a bit? I love Roland, and Dean is great, so I said, “Yeah, sure.” It was a different situation because it was two guys and this was their script and these were their characters and this was a friend asking me for a favor. That environment was a different environment, too. I’m just into it for the story, even if it’s huge budget or small budget. As I get older, working with interesting people is better than just doing it because it’s a big thing. I got to work with my friend Roland, and it was great.
Would you go back down the comic-book route?
I would never say never. I’m not looking to. I feel like I did my time in the trenches with it, but you never want to say never.
"Truth" is now in theaters. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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