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R.J. Cutler, Spending 'September' With Anna Wintour

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R.J. Cutler, Spending 'September' With Anna Wintour

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R.J. Cutler, Spending 'September' With Anna Wintour

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In an industry built on extreme skinniness, the September fashion magazines are fat, 584 pages in this September's issue of Vogue magazine, and that's with ad pages down 36 percent from last year. For the last two decades, Vogue has been shaped, sculpted and pruned by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The September Issue")

Ms. ANNA WINTOUR (Editor-In-Chief, Vogue): This, I don't think we need. This is - we'll just wait for whatever is they're making, and that's it. This, I don't think we should do. This, I don't think we should do.

BLOCK: Anna Wintour, with her trademark sunglasses worn indoors, her twig-thin figure, her bangs and highlighted brown bob, Anna Wintour is the central character in a new documentary about Vogue magazine. It's called "The September Issue." And director R.J. Cutler joins us to talk about his movie.

Welcome to the program, R.J.

Mr. R.J. CUTLER (Director, "The September Issue"): Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Anna Wintour is famously inscrutable, sphinx-like. Why do you think she agreed to bring you inside the magazine, because this was largely her doing, that you were there to capture these moments?

Mr. CUTLER: Well, you know, one never knows why a subject agrees to make a film. You know, we look for people who's - who have a need to tell their stories. In the case of Anna, I had this idea to make a film about her. Here's somebody who everybody's heard of, who's caricatured throughout our popular culture, in movies, novels. Even in "The Incredibles," there's an Anna Wintour-esque figure.

BLOCK: Movies like "The Devil Wears Prada," starring Meryl Streep.

Mr. CUTLER: And, yes, and entire films are based on her. And yet, nobody really knows who she is. And I approached her - and to be honest, it was a very easy sell. We met, we started talking. This is very Anna. She's probably not going to meet with you unless she's interested in working with you. And by the end of maybe a 20-minute meeting, we were off and running.

BLOCK: And the frame is the September 2007 issue that they're putting together.

Mr. CUTLER: Yes, that's right. And it turns out to have been the single largest issue of any magazine that's ever been published. It's almost as if the day we stopped filming, the whole world changed. But at that moment, for that year, we really captured a kind of a very particular period of time.

BLOCK: You said you're interested in people who need to tell their stories. Anna Wintour looks so completely uncomfortable. Let's take a listen to one scene from the movie that I think is probably what I felt to be the most revelatory moment that she gives you in this movie.

She's talking about her brothers and sister and the good works they do. She has a brother who finds low-income housing in London, a sister who's involved with farmers' rights in Latin America, another brother who's a political editor. And here's how she describes what they think about what she does.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The September Issue")

Ms. WINTOUR: And my, like, two brothers and my sister, I think they're very amused by what I do. They - they're amused. So…

BLOCK: R.J. Cutler, what were you thinking when you saw her face and heard her voice as she opened up to you there?

Mr. CUTLER: Well, you see in the film, and I saw for many, many months, a woman who, everywhere she goes, you know, the waters part. The entire industry kind of responds to Anna's taste, her likes, her dislikes. And yet, this is a person who, like so many other powerful, successful people, has doubts. She's human.

BLOCK: The counterpoint in the film to Anna Wintour and, to some extent, the comic relief here is Grace Coddington, the creative director of Vogue, joined the magazine at the same time as Anna Wintour did. She's a dramatic presence onscreen. She's a former model. She's got this big mane of flame-red hair. She's acerbic. She stands up to Anna. Tell me about Grace Coddington and how she became part of this film, such a big part of this film.

Mr. CUTLER: Well, she's quite amazing. And, you know, within the fashion world, Grace is every bit the legend that Anna is. So the idea that these two women would be working, you know, a few doors down from each other, it's quite amazing. Anna's office, as you see in the film, is kind of freezer of efficiency. And yet then, there's Grace Coddington's office, just a little bit down the hall, where there might as well be a hookah pipe in the middle of this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUTLER: Everybody's lounging around, relaxing, being creative, being thoughtful. It's like - you know, it's an incubator of creativity. Grace is forever wanting to push certain boundaries. Anna is forever supportive, but in her way - being an editor, cutting things. Grace says early on in the movie, a lot of people have come and a lot of people have gone under Anna Wintour's reign at Vogue. And the reason people go is because they can't take the heartbreak. On one hand, when you see the movie, you see the heartbreak that Grace is talking about. But on the other hand, you see a woman, Grace Coddington, who's willing to have her heart broken. I mean, she's willing to fall in love, month after month, with this extraordinary work she's doing.

BLOCK: Well, by the end of the film, Grace Coddington turns the tables on your film crew, and she actually works your cameraman, Bob, into a fashion shoot. They photograph him with his camera. And there's a scene when Anna Wintour comes in and she sees this picture. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The September Issue")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINTOUR: A little bit of retouching, need to go to the gym.

BLOCK: So, R.J., we should explain. She's pointing at your cameraman, at Bob, pointing to the picture of his stomach and suggesting he get, you know, a digital tummy tuck.

Mr. CUTLER: Yes, she is. She is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUTLER: This is Anna giving notes to poor Bob Richman, who has - who served as a model in a photo shoot at the last second for the September 2007 issue because Anna threw out a shoot at the last second and wanted it redone. Grace can't figure out how to possibly do it. And she has this kind of stroke of genius where she's going to build the shoot, of course, with a model, but around our crew. And we're all in it. But there's one photo in particular where Bob and the model are leaping in the air. Bob's got this 40-pound camera on his shoulders and, you know, the guy's working like a dog. And it's a beautiful photo. And then Anna takes a look at it and decides it's going to - he's going to need to be modeled up.

BLOCK: Sticks a skewer in right there, patting her own bony ribcage as she does that.

Mr. CUTLER: Well, yes, she's - it's not a problem Anna would have. And then, of course, in comes Grace Coddington after Anna to rescue the day.

BLOCK: Yeah, let's take a listen to what she says.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The September Issue")

Ms. GRACE CODDINGTON (Creative Director, Vogue): Personally, I think it's better that you're not, like, skinny-skinny. I really - to me, it's much more makes the point that you're real people and not models. Everybody isn't perfect in this world. I mean, it's enough that the models are perfect. You don't need to go to the gym.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOB RICHMAN (Cinematographer): Thank you, Grace.

BLOCK: So she's telling your photographer, you don't need to go to the gym.

Mr. CUTLER: Oh, and then you hear that tiny, little voice, again as if it's the audience: Thank you, Grace.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUTLER: I can be human. It's okay to be human. How wonderful. How wonderful.

BLOCK: Well, who won that battle? Grace Coddington gets on the phone and tells the photographer, don't retouch this photo.

Mr. CUTLER: Absolutely. And that's the end of it. That's the end of it. And the magazine gets printed and the photo was printed exactly as it was shot.

BLOCK: R.J. Cutler is the director of "The September Issue." R.J., thank you very much.

Mr. CUTLER: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can watch scenes from the movie and read a review at the new

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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