Writers-In-Contention: Truth Writer-Director James Vanderbilt

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To kickstart the Hollywood awards season, we will be speaking with writers from some of the most acclaimed films of the year every week to discuss their writing process.

Screenwriter James Vanderbilt made his directing debut in this year’s fact-based movie Truth, focusing on the controversial Killian Document story at 60 Minutes, which resulted in the firing of producer Mary Mapes and resignation of anchor Dan Rather (along with other CBS News staff). Cate Blanchett plays Mapes, whose book, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power, the screenplay is based on.

This isn’t Vanderbilt’s first look at journalism in film, having written David Fincher’s critically acclaimed Zodiac along with action films The Losers, The Rundown, and the Amazing Spider-Man movies. We spoke about Truth, which costars Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, David Llyons, John Benjamin Hickey, Stacey Keach, and Robert Redford as Dan Rather.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Regarding this specific event in recent history, what made you decide to focus on Mary Mapes’ side of the story?

James Vanderbilt: There were a few different reasons. My first exposure to the details of this story were through her book, and the film is actually based on her book, which was excerpted in Vanity Fair, which is where I read it. And that was when I initially thought of making a film about this story. I had of course heard about it when it happened, but her book really took us behind the scenes and explained how something like this could happen. And that approach was what got me excited. Which was the second reason to focus on Mary. I like behind the scenes stories, stories which take you behind the scenes. And the idea of doing this from the producer’s perspective was much more interesting than to look at it from say, Dan Rather’s. The producer is the one who comes up with the story, pitches it, and pulls the team together. They are really the reporters, in the way we think of reporters. Dan is a wonderful reporter himself and was a great anchor, but he isn’t the person knocking on doors. So I thought the most interesting point of entry would be Mary. And the third, and most important reason, is I think Mary is a great character. Her book is very caustic, it was written right after so it was a still a bit of an open wound, but what comes through in her writing is her sense of humor and strength. And I thought all those things made for an interesting character and the best point of entry.

TMS: When you started writing the film and developing her arc as the protagonist, did you consider how her actual character would fit into the cinematic structure of the story when adapting her book?

Vanderbilt: I knew I wanted the movie to be about this specific story, not about Mary’s life. Cate Blanchett said she liked the screenplay because it clearly can’t be described as a biopic. This isn’t about the career of Mary Mapes or Dan Rathers, this is about a specific story and how it came together and fell apart. Mary’s book was a memoir and so half of it was about all the other stories, and then tells the story of how this specific story went down. But I knew early on that I wanted the time to explore this story, so all that career stuff leading up to it had to get left out. But narratively, I wanted you to meet this incredibly successful woman at the top of her game, rather than when she was just getting started or even when she’s 10 years old. But I liked the idea of meeting this woman at the top of her profession, very respected and works for a man she deeply respects, in a loving marriage, and working mother. Everything is going well for her and she still is clearly tough and has layers of armor. And as the movie goes along, those layers start to get pulled away and we get to the core of her. She becomes this sort of raw nerve in the second act. And then there is the question, will she fight back? So, if you put the journalism aside, I had to ask what would be the emotional journey. And I loved the idea of learning more about her as we went along, rather than laying it all out for the audience at the beginning. And you want to see her a little bit warts and all, a terrible phrase by the way, but we need to show that she is human and that leads to her snapping at people or making mistakes.

TMS: Why introduce her with her accomplishments regarding breaking the Abu Ghraib Prison Torture story.

Vanderbilt: Well, that actually was the last story she worked on. And I found there was a pretty spectacular irony that she worked on a story which won her a Peabody and then she got fired. But I wanted to show her in action and see her success, kind of the way a Bond movie always starts with Bond finishing the last job before the real mission begins. But, Abu Ghraib was a fascinating story, and was a story they had a lot of trouble getting on the air, so it showed what the climax was like at 60 Minutes at the time. And, it gave us a chance to see Dan and Mary interact, because we wouldn’t see them together for a long time. And that also gave us a chance to take a breath right after and meet her family?

TMS: The interesting thing about journalism stories, with this and your previous film Zodiac, is the fact that part of the job includes false leads. And we often hear that a story can take a year or two to really get to the point where you can print an article, like in the other movie out Spotlight. Was Mary frustrated by how quickly she was asked to bring stories to air working in TV?

Vanderbilt: I think with this specific story that was one of the biggest challenges. But that was also something she was prepared for because she was a professional and knows that is the challenge of TV new journalism. But I found that to be fascinating, but also understandable because CBS is a network and have to schedule things like specials and sports. So I loved the idea of showing people that that is part of the reality of television news. She’d been working in TV for so long, as she said 15 good years at CBS and 5 bad months, so that was not a surprise. But everyone always wants more time, especially when working on a story with stakes like that. But it was a question of “go on this date or don’t go at all.” And they were also very conscious of not going on air with this in October and potentially tipping the Presidential Election. And that is something which got lost, that they had to run this story in September because they wanted people to have the information, but not run it too close and tip the election. So they said, we have to get it done by then and if they didn’t feel they had it by that time, they weren’t going to run it. But even in print, that time frame is much less than it once was, and deadlines are much stricter. I feel if you said to a journalist, you have five days to finish that piece, they would think it was luxurious. News moves so fast now.

TMS: In the scene on the plane, there was the comment that during President Bush’s initial run, there were whispers about this story that Mary couldn’t get done because of her mother’s death. Why didn’t she run the story during his first four years in office, instead of pick it back up so close to the second election?

Vanderbilt: I think that in Mary’s case, she was making significant progress on the story in 2000 until her mother died, and that took her out of everything regarding work. But the story itself was around for years, before 2000, when George W. Bush was running for Governor for the first time. It was always kind of out there but they couldn’t get anyone to go on the record and the National Guard file had all these missing pieces. So people would talk around it, but without source. And by 2004, a lot of reporters were working on this story again. The Boston Globe ran a story on the same day Mary’s story aired, and Vanity Fair was working on a story about it too. So part of the reason the story got reignited during the 2004 election was that the idea of military service was at the forefront with the swift boat controversy. So if one campaign is saying, we have to look at John Kerry’s service record, journalists thought we have to re-examine George W. Bush’s service record. And the other reason for this renewed interest was, in 2000 George W. Bush inherited peace time, but in 2004, we were in two wars. I can’t say why no one ran with the story in 2002 or 2003, but the story really broke for Mary when she got Ben Barnes on the record. Documents were a part of the story, but the most important thing was that the guy who did it said he did it.

TMS: Mary starts the film by describing herself as hated for being a liberal feminist. Did Mary ever talk to you about how her political beliefs or gender affected how she was treated during those 5 months when she was under the microscope?

Vanderbilt: Up until she wrote the book, she never really discussed her political beliefs, so it was never part of the conversation. The reason Mary was on the story was because she lived in Dallas and had access to politicians there. It had nothing to do with her political beliefs. And she didn’t exclusively do stories about politics, she did a lot of stories. She did a profile of George Clooney with Dan. In terms of the response, we have that scene when she goes online and Googles herself, which we now know is a terrible idea, and all those comments in the film were real comments. There is no way to pretend that her being a woman didn’t come out in the attacks. Everything seems to go to her looks or implying she’s a lesbian or sexually frustrated, and implied violence which should be done to her. And if she had been a man, the comments might have still be vicious, but the tenor wouldn’t have gone down the same road.

TMS: And even in that scene, there is a certain similarity to what we’ve seen in things more recently like Gamergate.

Vanderbilt: And the scary thing about that is, when those attacks are aimed at women, they always go to a sexual or gender place. And that was true of the attacks Mary faced as well.

TMS: In 2004, the internet just starting to have a direct impact on journalism and journalistic investigations. What effect do you think the rise of the internet as a news source had on the profession?

Vanderbilt: I think it was total. This was sort of the first time the internet kind of rose up and significantly altered a mainstream media story. And Mary and Dan and everyone at CBS were completely unprepared for that impact. The story ran from 6 to 8 across the country, and the first story online suggesting documents weren’t real was posted before the piece was over. And that is something we now live with every day. And in the film they start doing research on superscript TH, and they go back on the air with their research within 48 hours, which is a pretty fast turn around. And yet it was still considered too great a lag. And I think the thing which shocked CBS was simply the speed of it and how quickly they became the story. And what was interesting was that once Dan Rather apologized about the memos, it was almost as if the playbook had been established and people keep doing the same thing with stories they don’t like.

TMS: Mary is constantly being placed in the position to defend her story, while acknowledging they had been a mistakes. Were you at all surprised in your research that one mistake can completely invalidate an entire story for the public?

Vanderbilt: I was struck by the idea that journalists are never allowed to make any mistakes, which is a fairly new concept. When we were making the film, one of the great things was getting to speak with Robert Redford. And he reminded me that All the Presidents Men ends with Woodward and Bernstein making a mistake. They truly screwed up and Ben Bradley had to tell them to go back out there. So these things happen, they happened with one of the biggest journalism stories of all time. And that isn’t an excuse for those mistakes, but it is a fact. The thing that I was also struck by is the amount of misinformation regarding the story the public still has. Even in reviews some people have said “they were proved to have been forgeries.” And if you believe they are forgeries, that’s within your rights. But nobody knows if these were forgeries because there is no way to test the copies. So there are still a lot of assumptions regarding this story which are out there.

TMS: Do you think the results of this story had a larger impact on how TV news covers stories?

Vanderbilt: I think TV news has absolutely changed. And the power of those anchor chairs has diminished, not necessarily as a result of this one story, but with the rise of internet and cable news. But there was certainly a moment of, “if Dan Rather can go down, anyone can go down.” Nobody reported on the story after this. Nobody did a follow up. Joe Hagen wrote a really good article a few years later in Texas Monthly, but nobody at the networks followed up. If you see a guy walk into a propeller, you probably won’t follow him. So that was the immediate impact. And over the years, things have changed and Dan was part of one era, and we are just in a different era now.

TMS: You gave Topher Grace a big speech towards the end, when he’s talking about CBS being a conglomerate and affect that has on the news. I’m assuming that was a piece of fiction, but where did the ideas for that speech come from.

Vanderbilt: I spoke with a lot of different journalists, both on and off the record. And I spoke with Mike Smith, who Topher plays. And that was a point of view a lot of journalists seemed to have, and point of view I wanted to have in the film. But equally valid is the point Josh Howard (David Lyons) makes at the end of that scene when he says “we’re all evil and you’re the plucky misunderstood guy. It isn’t just that you made a mistake.” I wanted to put many viewpoints in and let audiences watch it, decide for themselves and hopefully spawn a conversation. The fact that news organizations are part of these larger conglomerations is a fact of life that we shouldn’t ignore. In the old days you turned on the news at 6:30 and just got “the news.” And in the modern age, people pay as much attention to who is giving the news, the outlet, as they do to what the news is. And we can’t pretend that isn’t a fact of our modern age.

TMS: Regarding Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, and Elisabeth Moss’s characters, besides the real-life characters they were playing, what role in the larger narrative do they play?

Vanderbilt: I think their different backgrounds play a major role. As Mary said, we need a person with a military background, who can call his contacts, and tell us how things were or were not done. That is the role Col. Roger Charles played in this team. When you think of Americana, you would think of someone like him. And Mike Smith is just this scruffy guy from Austin who was just a professional researcher and just loved to dig and dig, and had all these wild theories. We joked that Topher and Dennis were like characters from a buddy cop movie. And more or less, they really are those guys. Mike Smith came up through Molly Ivens and is this amazingly creative, wide-eyed guy, and Col. Charles is very buttoned down. And Lucy Scott, Elisabeth’s character, was the academic who primarily taught journalism. So it was important to emphasize that all these people came from very different backgrounds, which was important for Mary’s team because it allowed them to test things and talk about things very openly. There is a line that Elisabeth says very early in the movie, “who didn’t try to avoid Vietnam, why is this a big deal.” And I said the same thing to Col. Charles and he said “me, I went to Vietnam.” And I thought “that is a great answer.” So having those different backgrounds allowed them to express different points of view openly and ask different questions. I love process movies, and I love the haggling over what is or isn’t important. So rather than ignore that part of the job, I thought it was dramatically interesting to explore it. So let Josh Howard have a response to Topher’s monologue. Then it feels like real people.

TMS: I love the actor you got to play Mary’s husband, John Benjamin Hickey, and his scenes with Cate Blanchett are great. But considering the focus on the news and procedural elements of the film, why did you feel it was important to have those scenes at home and talk about Mary’s father.

Vanderbilt: First, I love John too, every time I see him in something I think “I love that guy.” So when our casting director suggested him I thought “that would be great.” I think the home stuff brought a few things to the film. First and foremost, Mary is a working mother and that is a fact of her life, so I wanted to show that without making it a big deal. I didn’t want to make that part of her life a big deal. There is always a conflict in movies about working mothers that I don’t think always exists, so I loved that naturalism in that part of her life. But when everything goes wrong, your home becomes this safe place you need to be able to retreat to. And when that gets pierced, when her father goes on the news and says these things about you, that is when you feel your safety truly is gone. So I felt it was very important to show that, but I couldn’t only do that by showing what her home life was like before all this happened.

TMS: Was Mary comfortable with you including details about her upbringing and relationship with her father?

Vanderbilt: I don’t know if she was every comfortable with it. She was so great about letting me into her life and being totally honest and upfront about everything, not just the stuff that looked good. And she did that knowing she would never have editorial control over any of this. I would listen to her and hear her concerns, but I would do my own research and then go away and make my movie. And she’s never shied away from that part of her history, but at the same time, she doesn’t stress it. She never begged me to take it out, but I remember watching the last half of the film with her, and it was an incredibly intense experience for her.

TMS: Why did you feel that aspect of Mary’s childhood, the abuse she experienced from her father, so important to her character?

Vanderbilt: I don’t want to be reductive, because lives are messy and never come down to one thing or event or person. But I really feel that one thing was the key to her. When I was researching and speaking with her about her family, I remember saying “you got hit because you asked questions” and she said yes, and I said “and you grew up to be a reporter?” And she looked at me and said “I never thought about that.” And I thought there was something fascinating about that part of her character, and the story she tells about not crying and never asking him to stop was verbatim. And the fact that the most powerful man when you’re a kid is your father, and she went on to report a story about the most powerful man in the country, and was beating down for doing that, I thought there was something dramatically interesting about that. Especially when she told me about getting on the phone with her father and asked him to stop talking to the press, which was tantamount to her finally saying “daddy please stop.” It was heartbreaking. And that an emotional key to unlocking her character and understanding her relationship with Dan. I feel sometimes that if we don’t get certain things when you’re a kid, you grow up to create them in your adult life, to replicate the positives you felt was missing.

TMS: How stringent did you feel you had to be to the facts of the story?

Vanderbilt: Very, but that is also my process as a write. People have been asking me a lot about other true life movies, and I always say “every filmmaker is making their own movie.” But personally, it was really important to get the facts of it right because I knew going into it that we would be attacked…and I was not wrong. And of course there are things you have to alter or condense when you are telling a narrative in two hours. But I tried to double source every conversation or event we depict in the movie. There was one case when the two people involved remembered events differently so I ended up dramatizing the scene they argue about, rather than dramatizing one side over the other. So it was very important to get as much information as possible before writing the screenplay, but remembering that this is a story being told through Mary’s eyes.

TMS: When you optioned Mary’s book, did you make it clear to her that you wouldn’t give her editorial control?

Vanderbilt: I did, but I was really lucky to have written Zodiac already, which wasn’t even out yet. And I asked Robert Graysmith to write her a letter and kind of vouch for me. I said, “I’m not here to destroy your life, I come here from a place of research. And yes I’ll speak to you, but I also want to speak with other people involved.” And she was cautious about giving me that kind of access, for no other reason than the fact that she was put through the ringer when this story came out, and again when her book came out. So when someone knocks from Hollywood, she was like “I’m good.” And my manager reached out to her book agent who said she wasn’t interested, and I said “would she be willing to get on the phone?” And when she said yes, I said “let me just meet with you in person so you can see why I think this could be a great movie.” And she was nice enough to invite me to Dallas with my manager and wife Amber, who is amazing and funny and cooler than I am. And we spent two days with Mary and her husband Mark, discussing what had happened and she said “I don’t think there a movie here, but if you think there is, you seem okay.” But she was definitely concerned. But part of what made her and Dan less concerned about editorial control was that as journalist they knew the process of telling someone else’s story and came from a fair minded place.

TMS: I’m still confused about CBS’s response to the film and their refusal to air ads for it. Were you surprised by that reaction?

Vanderbilt: I was pretty certain they wouldn’t be cooperative, because I remember their response to The Insider. And I don’t remember if they didn’t air ads for that film, but I know they pitched a fit. So I was certain they wouldn’t be cooperative with us, even though I tried to be very even handed with everyone in it. The characters who work as CBS are all trying to do their jobs and there are no mustache twirling villains. But I was pretty sure that CBS wouldn’t be thrilled or thank us for bringing it up again. Robert Redford said, “we weren’t expecting to get flowers.” But I wasn’t expecting them to reject ads for the film, because that is a corporation turning down money. It’s a free country, people can make movies about controversial subjects and a network can decide not to advertise it. But it is interesting.

TMS: Did you get to speak to the other three individuals who were asked to resign when Mary was fired?

Vanderbilt: What I will say about that is I spoke with a lot of people on and off the record.

TMS: Most people haven’t had the public dismissal that Mary Mapes went through, but a lot of people get fired and have gone through similar experiences, regarding taking blame or making mistakes at work. Going through the press for the film and talking with audience, have people said they connect with Mary’s story?

Vanderbilt: It seems to be a very emotional story, which a lot of audiences seems surprised by. And I’m getting a lot of questions about Mary, the type of person she is and where she is now, along with conversations about the news and media. And I’ve been getting into a lot of debates too, which is also great. I love the fact that people are maybe spending 5 minutes thinking about modern journalism, I would be happy. But I’ve seen husbands and wives walk out of screenings fighting. My favorite movies are the ones which ask a lot of questions, not the ones which answer them. I haven’t had anyone outside journalism relate stories about their own professional life, but doing press, I’ve had some journalist talk to me after interviews. People who had come up through hard news and gotten into entertainment journalism, and one woman, after we were done with the interview but before she left, took my hand and said “you got it all right.” It was one of those wow moments, and gratifying to hear it from a journalist, because I’m not a journalist, it’s always been the road not taken for me. But to hear a journalist say I got it right was a great compliment.

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