Plenty of documentary filmmakers would love to grill Vice President Dick Cheney on his political career. R.J. Cutler, best known for producing The War Room and directing The September Issue, got the chance after convincing the reticent politician to speak to him on the record.
The World According to Dick Cheney, debuting at 9 p.m. tonight (March 15) on Showtime, shows Cheney fly fishing, ruminating on the dawn of his Beltway career and defending his actions during President George W. Bush's two terms.
It's no Michael Moore affair, although the project often takes its cues from media's memes regarding his actions throughout the course of his career. Cutler agreed to answer questions from Big Hollywood regarding the film.
Big Hollywood: You met with the Vice President to pitch your interview request in person … what eventually sealed the deal, do you think?
R.J. Cutler: It’s hard to know. I generally don’t ask subjects why they have agreed to be in my films, because it’s a very personal decision, but what I offered the vice president was an opportunity to participate in a film that told his story with his voice at the center. It was very important to me not only to tell Vice President Cheney’s story, because he is as significant a non-presidential political figure as this country has ever known, but to do so with his voice at the center of the film, even though, of course, we would also include other voices.
BH: Is it possible to make a movie on a subject like Vice President Cheney and maintain a fair and balanced assessment? Did you have any checks and balances along the way in the filmmaking process to achieve that?
RJC: The phrase “fair and balanced” is so loaded, because it’s a marketing term that’s used by Fox News, so I’m not entirely sure what the question means -- but if the question is: Can you tell the story in a way that is truthful and maintains objectivity, I think absolutely. That’s the work that I do. My politics are not relevant when it comes to the filmmaking that I do, and in fact, I’m not a fan of films that are about the filmmaker’s politics. I think those films are limited in their scope and limited in their long term viability. I’m making my films from a perspective of how they’ll be seen five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road. If you take a look back for instance at “The War Room” or “A Perfect Candidate,” I think you see movies that are objectively presented and have resonance to this day, decades later. I am driven by character and story, and that’s what compels me and I’m asking questions that have to do with who my subjects are as people. In the case of Dick Cheney, we’re working to figure out who he is, how he did what he did, what his relationship was to power, how he acquired the power that he acquired, and what he did with it once he had it -- and that’s what was important to me. My personal politics are very easy to put aside.
BH: What are your thoughts on the Obama admin keeping some Bush/Cheney era policies alive regarding the war on terror and about drone strikes on suspected terrorists?
RJC: Again in the context of this film I want to say my opinions about Obama administration policy is not relevant. I’m going to pass on answering that question because what I was seeking to do was tell Dick Cheney’s story and that’s what our film does and I’m really proud of the way it came out.
BH: We’ve been through four years of Obama … yet we've only had a small amount of documentaries focusing on his first term (like 2016: Obama's America), and essentially none from the biggest names in the documentary field (yourself, Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, etc). Will that change in the second term?
RJC: I don’t know. I’d love to make a film about the Obama administration. I’d love to spend 72 hours in the Oval Office making an observational documentary in the style of “The War Room.” I’d love to film 72 hours at a time, three times a year, for the next four years and make a film called “12 Weeks” or something like that. Nothing would make me happier. I don’t believe there’s a concerted effort on the part of the documentary community to avoid the Obama administration as a subject and I don’t want to speak for Michael or Alex – They’d have to speak for themselves in terms of their plans and what’s compelling them at the moment -- but y’know, I’d be eager to make an observational documentary not only about this president, but honestly about any president. What a great honor that would be.
BH: I suspect both sides of the aisle could feel bruised by your movie. The left will think you didn’t go for the jugular, that you showed your subject as a real person, while the right will see it as one critique after another without an emphasis on the impact of a democratic Iraq or a how the US wasn’t hit again on our soil? Thoughts?
RJC: I made “The World According to Dick Cheney” in a way that I believe [that] history will see the Cheney vice presidency and will see Cheney’s political career, from his early days as a young member of the Nixon administration to his time as the youngest chief of staff in American history to President Ford through to his ascendancy as vice president under George W. Bush and, in particular, to the role he played as vice president in the wake of September 11th. I’m sure that those with more of an immediate political agenda, whether they be on the left or the right, would have themselves made different films. Some would have made the film called “The Trial of Dick Cheney.” That was not my objective. Others would have made a film called “How Dick Cheney Saved America.” That was not my objective. My objective was to make a film from the perspective that I believe history will take as time passes, and that’s what we set out to do, and that’s what we did.
BH: Would you feel comfortable personally screening the film for the Vice President?
RJC: I would feel comfortable and I have screened it for him. I was extremely grateful to him for his generosity of time and spirit, his willingness to cooperate with the making of the film. He gave 20 hours of his time over a four day period. He was kind enough to invite us to join him fly fishing on another day. It was important to me that he had the opportunity to see the film before the public and that he see the film in an environment where he and I could discuss it afterwards so that if he had questions as to certain decisions that I made or choices I made, he could ask them and so we could engage in a conversation about the film consistent with the conversations we had had about his life and career when I was making the film. One would have to ask him to characterize his own reaction to the film, because it’s not my place to speak for him, but I will say that I found the conversation about the film afterwards to be very enlightening and valuable and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I enjoyed the conversations we had when I was conducting the interviews for the film.