This weekend, moviegoers will be able to relive one of the biggest journalism scandals of the 21st century.
In Truth, Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, the real-life 60 Minutes II producer whose flawed report alleging George W. Bush dodged National Guard service led to her dismissal; Mapes, in life and onscreen, stands by her story. (Truth is based on her 2005 memoir Truth and Duty.) Dan Rather, the longtime news anchor and the reporter of the National Guard story, retired less than a year after the report aired. Here, he’s played by an uncannily sound-alike Robert Redford.
Blanchett, Redford and high-drama journalism—that’s a lot for even an experienced director to take on. So it’s all the more surprising that Truth was made by James Vanderbilt, a first-time director. Though Vanderbilt has plenty of screenwriting credits (including 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and the 2007 cult-classic Zodiac), it was his first time behind the camera, with a film he financed himself. His experience may be limited, but his ambitions are bold; he got the screenplay to Blanchett the day after her 2014 Oscar win.
Vanderbilt spoke to TIME about working with legends in his first time at bat and about getting access to a woman who didn’t want her story told onscreen.
TIME: When did you become aware of Mary Mapes’s story, and what made it seem cinematic to you?
James Vanderbilt: She wrote it right after all of this happened. I was struck by how much I didn’t know about something I thought I knew a bunch about. When this first happened, it blew up so quickly and so publicly that you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about it. And that went on for two weeks, and Dan Rather apologized, and the election happened, and Dan, at the top of the next year, announced he was stepping down. That was the breadth and depth of it, as far as I knew.
But when I read her book, there was all of this really interesting stuff. At the same time, I had been looking for something to possibly direct. I’d always been fascinated with journalism—I was predisposed to be into a story like this, and I’d done a movie I wrote and produced called Zodiac, about the San Francisco Chronicle, so I’d done something like that already. It was the combination of all of those things that made me interested in pursuing this as a film.
How did you get the movie made—and how does a first-time director get Cate Blanchett in his movie?
The first thing was the thing they say never to do, which is spending your own money. I paid to option the book, and the first thing I had to do was convince Mary, because Mary Mapes did not want to option her book. She was very much still in what I would describe as a defensive crouch. All of this happened, and then, immediately, she wrote her book. And then the book came out and I called her. She sort of told her book agent, thank you but no thank you. I offered to come down to Dallas, where she lives, and meet face-to-face. My wife, my manager, and I went down—my wife is much more interesting than I am, so I brought the closer with me. We sat in Mary’s living room and talked about everything but the story. We talked about where we grew up, our favorite bands, everything but what had happened. At the end of that two-day process, she was like, “You seem like a decent enough person, and if you want to take a run at this, okay.” So that was the first step.
I knew that the only way to get the movie made, in my opinion, was to get actors people wanted to make a movie with. I thought I could set it up at a studio, because it’s an interesting story, but when push came to shove, if a studio owned it, they wouldn’t end up making it. There’s always something easier to market, easier to digest. That could be a trap; we could get it set up, but it’d never see the light of day. If I could get actors into it, that would be the best way. So I wrote the script on spec and finished the first draft in 2007. It became very apparent that people liked the script but it was still too close to the events. People would read it and say, “It’s a movie about George W. Bush.” Because we were still in the Bush presidency, people couldn’t see past that. I put it in the drawer and planned to come back to it another time. I’d seen other writers direct films; first-time directors often don’t get a second time. If I only get one shot at this, I want it to be something that I really care about. And that was this. We started trying to put this together again in 2013, and sent it to Cate Blanchett’s agent. The agent sent it to Cate the morning after she won the Academy Award. It was one of those things where I was like, “Dude, come on!” She’s a) never going to read it, and b) if she does read it, she is not going to say “You know what I’d love to do after winning my second Oscar? Work with a first-time director.” What’s amazing about her is if she wants to do something, she wants to do something. She called me on the phone, we talked for about a half-hour, and she committed to the film.
In the movie, Mapes argues that her reporting got at a larger and more important truth even as she concedes that the details that got her there may have been flawed at best. To her, this isn’t a substantial problem. Do you agree?
For me, it’s one of those things where everything you say, you say in the film. But I love the fact that there’s a debate. I think that’s a good and important thing. My favorite movies are the ones that ask questions as opposed to giving you answers. Our approach was always, “This is a movie about people trying really hard to do their jobs on every level. The last thing I wanted was for this to feel like a homework movie. But if there can be a conversation about our country, our culture, and where media comes from, all of that is gravy.
Getting them to sign on may have been easier than you anticipated, but is it intimidating working with Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford as a first-timer? On the one hand, they’re guaranteed to be better than average; on the other, their reputations precede them.
For me, it was going to be intimidating regardless. The first time, it’s sort of like you’re the least qualified person on set, and yet you’re the guy in charge. The guy who comes in for two days to work on craft services has done his job more than you’ve done your job, and you’re the boss. So, with Cate and Bob, what was great is that they’re such professionals, and have worked with first-time directors before. Bob has been a first-time director before—he won an Oscar doing it [for Ordinary People]. They were such accomplished stars that I couldn’t even think of it that way. If they were lesser icons, I might have really thought about it, but it was such a crazy situation that these were the people I was going to direct for my first movie that I said, “OK, you know what, I can’t think about that. We have to do our work.” We’re all just trying to help each other get through it, and hopefully I was helpful in the process.