Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to discuss with Robert Gordon the effect of the Buckley-Vidal debates on television punditry as the first indications of the devolution of news coverage into infotainment. With Vanderbilt's debut feature Truth (2015), we witness investigative journalism under attack during the Killian documents controversy, nicknamed "Rathergate", that resulted in American journalist and television news producer Mary Mapes being fired from CBS and the constructive resignation of CBS national news anchor Dan Rather.
With James Vanderbilt's permission, this transcript is cobbled together from the public discussion after the screening of Truth (2015) at the 38th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival. I've rephrased the questions for conversational flow. I post this transcript in tandem with my one-on-one conversation with Vanderbilt regarding the craft of screenwriting, published at Fandor's Keyframe.
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Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power as the basis for your first feature film Truth, I'm aware your script took some significant departures. How did you decide to complicate Mary Mapes' back story by profiling her damaged relationship with her father?
James Vanderbilt: That developed through talking with Mary. It wasn't something that was actually in her book. I ended up spending a lot of time with Mary. She was reticent initially to option the book. She wrote it right after what had happened. I called her up and went down to Texas to spend time with her and to try to convince her that this would be a positive thing. In spending the time with her, she started to tell me about how she grew up, she told me about these experiences, and—as Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) says in the film (but I also said it to Mary)—"You would get hit for asking questions and you grew up to do this as a profession." She looked at me and said, "I never thought of that. I never looked at it that way." For me, that was immediately the key to the lock to her character. This amazing woman had built this incredible life for herself where she had the perfect job, she was working with the best people, she was at the peak of her game. She had built all these layers upon layers to protect herself, as we all do, to not feel like the scared little kid that we all have inside ourselves. By virtue of the experience that she went through, all those layers got stripped away and she had to deal with it. Once I got that from her, and we talked about it, and we figured it out, I realized it was the structure of the story.
Q: Shortly after being fired from CBS for "Rathergate", Mary Mapes received the Peabody Award for her journalism exposing human rights violations at Abu Graib. The timing couldn't have been more haunting. What effect did that have on those involved with Rathergate? Where was Mapes when she received it?
Vanderbilt: She received it at home because she didn't have a job anymore. She was informed by phone, as she had been out of work for about three months: "Guess what? You've just won the most prestigious award you could win, but you're still fired." It's a fact I wanted to include in the film because it revolves around the idea that everything you've done before is wiped out because of an error in judgment. Mary had been to the Middle East many times. She even went to Afghanistan with Dan Rather. She said she was the first person to bring a curling iron to Afghanistan, and Rather made fun of her for it.
Q: Do you know what Mapes has done with her time since being fired?
Vanderbilt: For a long time, nothing. To hear her tell it, she drank a lot of glasses of chardonnay. Then she did a lot of work on death penalty cases. We didn't have time to put this in the film, but she had done a lot of journalism about the number of people executed in Texas compared to the rest of the country. That's a big passion for her. So she worked on several cases there. She worked on Maggie Davis's campaign doing opposition research. Her husband Mark Wrolstad worked with the Dallas Morning News for years and got a buyout in 2009.
Cate Blanchett your first choice to portray Mapes? How did you approach her to get her involved?
Vanderbilt: When we tried to put the movie together in 2007, Cate was in a different place. But it was amazing and interesting watching her come to the fore over the following six years. When we finally put it together two years ago, she was absolutely our first choice but I never thought we would get her. Her agent read the script and liked it and said, "I would love to send it to her." She was doing the rounds with Blue Jasmine. It worked out that they sent the script to her the morning after she won the Academy Award® and I thought, "We're screwed." Who wins an Oscar® and then says, "You know what I would love to do next? Work with a first-time director on a politically-charged thing? That's a great career move!"
But, thank goodness, she responded to it and I got a phone call saying, "Cate would love to get on the phone with you. She's in Sydney now with her family." We talked for half an hour. She asked me what I thought my approach would be and other general stuff. She was lovely." I got off the phone and my agent called me and said, "How'd it go?" I said, "It went well." Then she called me back about 45 minutes later and said, "Oh, yes, she's going to do the movie."
As for working with her, she's such a gift. She and I often talked about that scene of Mary on the phone with her father as the lynchpin of the movie and the key to her character. On the day of shooting, she came out and did it a bunch of times and we did it all in one shot. Almost the entire movie is locked down from a camera perspective—it's very classical—but that was the one scene we wanted to film hand-held so that you felt off-kilter in it. She went out, parked it, and there were a lot of wet eyes on set.
Q: Is it a coincidence that so many people from Australia were involved in this film?
Vanderbilt: No, we shot the film in Australia, which was one of the conversations we had after Cate committed to the film. She said, "Listen, I told my family that I wasn't going to work this Fall." She has three boys of varying ages, 12 to 6. She said, "I don't know if I can do that to them. Can you make the movie in Australia?" So when you're talking to Cate Blanchett on the phone, you say, "Absolutely!" You hang up the phone and go, "How the Hell do we make this movie in Australia? It's supposed to be in New York and Texas." We started scouting down in Sydney, which is an amazing city that lends itself. We did the bulk of the movie in Australia, shot one day in New York, shot some stuff in Texas, and weirdly one day in Los Angeles, even though the movie doesn't take place there either. It was a double for New York. So there was a lot of Australian crew, a great Australian crew.
Vanderbilt: I did. The first thing I did after I spoke to Mary and got the rights to the book, I called Dan up and went to New York with Mary to meet him. I wanted to see them together in a room and see what that relationship was. They could each say how much they liked each other but that was no substitute for being in a room with both of them. After the second hour they forgot they were being observed and started behaving naturally with each other, which was great for me. It was grist for the mill.
Then I spoke to him a lot on his own because I wanted to see what he would say about this situation when Mary wasn't around. He was incredibly open and honest about his career and cognizant that he was telling me his experience, but that I would have to then go away and make the film how I had to make it. For a public figure, he could have been very guarded and nervous; but, for some reason, he was the exact opposite. He was trusting. Both he and Mary knew that neither had editorial say over the film and that they had no control over how they would be portrayed; but, they were both welcoming and honest in talking about their experience.
Q: Had you met Robert Redford before casting him as Dan Rather?
Vanderbilt: I knew him a little bit. I had written a movie that he was going to direct and so—when I wrote this—I always had him in mind, but I knew I couldn't go to him until I knew who would be playing Mary. I wrote the script, we got Cate involved, and then I wrote Robert a nice note and said all the reasons why he should do this, going back all the way to All the President's Men, where journalism was then and where journalism is now, and how Truth in a way could be bookends in saying something about that; but, I always felt that the big buy of the movie would be Dan Rather. We all know Dan. He's been in our living rooms for 40 years. We know his face and his voice. I had a lot of conversations with producers about who to cast, and I always wanted Bob to do it. There was the concern that we know him so well, how would he meld into Dan Rather? My thinking was always that Bob has the same baggage Dan has. He occupies a place in Americana, as Dan does. I figured if we could get him to do it and be down for it, he would do an amazing job.
The conversation Bob and I had was, "I don't want to put you in prosthetics. I don't want to put you behind a bunch of make-up. I don't think this should be an impression. I'd like to grey your hair a little bit and play with a little vocal intonation and just play the character. Hopefully, that will be it." He came, did it, and couldn't have been more amazing.
Vanderbilt: Topher and I actually grew up together. We did drama camp together as kids, because clearly we were very popular, as most drama camp kids are. So we've known each other forever. Topher read the script independent of me. I hadn't spoken to him in several years. He auditioned and worked really hard to get into the movie, which is great. But I realized during the first week of production that he was actually dressed like me completely. I went to the costume designer and said, "He's dressed exactly like me in the movie." He had a thumb ring and I have a thumb ring. She said, "Yes, I know, I dressed him completely like you. I stole everything from what you wear.
Q: It's Topher's character Mike Smith who—in the scene where he is barred from returning to his desk—gives voice to the conspiracy theory that Karl Rove had something to do with discrediting the media's effort to expose Bush's National Guard service and switching the conversation away from the subject at hand.
Vanderbilt: Which is exactly what Mike Smith believed happened. I felt we had to honor that and be true to that in the film. Mike feels that way, but obviously other people feel differently about how that went. We wanted to be honest that everyone comes at it from a different place and a different point of view. When Dan filed his lawsuit and sued for breach of contract, in discovery it came out that people had talked to Republican strategists about who to put on the panel to make it look like it was a strong panel who was really going to dig in. But other than for that, no, there was no revolution. Dan lost his lawsuit. It was thrown out in Appeals Court.
Q: With regard to that panel, how did you reconstruct those proceedings when—as indicated in the film—there were no transcripts?
Vanderbilt: I spoke to Mary Mapes and Dick Hibey (Andrew McFarlane) who were both there. They verified each others' recollections. For probably obvious reasons, I did not talk to anyone who was on the panel. Certain lawyers told us not to make those phone calls and their recollections would have differed anyway.
I don't know anything more about the Rove conspiracy theory. I tried to put into the film as much as I could humanly verify. And I don't mean to denigrate Mike Smith's beliefs by calling them a conspiracy theory. With regard to these things, my mind always goes to a certain place where—for certain things to happen, so many people have to cooperate and so many people have to keep a secret and I find, time and time again, when you're talking about government, if three people know something, it leaks. I don't know how they could get away with certain things like that. What is interesting to me about it, though, is that we don't know, and we will never know. Maybe I shouldn't say that? Maybe tomorrow it'll come out one way or the other? It's tricky. I did this other movie Zodiac about the Zodiac killer where we never really find out who the Zodiac killer is. For some reason, I like movies about handwriting analysis.
Vanderbilt: I don't know. Hindsight is 20/20. You talk to Dan and Mary and certainly they wished that certain things had been different, they felt mistakes were made in vetting the story before putting it on the air and, looking back, they would have done things differently. But the thing that I don't think people realize is that they weren't the only ones on the story. They were rushing to beat The Boston Globe and NBC News at the time. They felt that they had the guy who got George W. Bush into the National Guard. They had him on camera saying, "Hey guys, guess what? I got this guy into the National Guard." They thought that was a great story. They also had these memos that they also felt were a great story. But when it all started to unravel, they were very surprised and were completely taken by shock—CBS was as well—with the speed with which this thing unraveled. No one had ever dealt with the internet working this quickly in this way. The first blog post about the memos being fake actually popped up online before the 60 Minutes episode was done airing. The episode aired from 8:00 to 9:00 on Wednesday night and around 8:42, the first entries saying these memos were fake were already on the internet. It was the speed of it that was so amazing. So, listen, you can never say whether they could have done this or they could have done that. It sadly is what it is.
Q: You're already getting swift boated for making this film (The New York Post calls your film "hogwash" and The Hollywood Reporter "a crackerjack journalism yarn"). You imply in the film what a lot of people think—that CBS was set up by Karl Rove or somebody like that—to undermine the story. Are you going to defend yourself adequately or is this film going to be destroyed by that?
Vanderbilt: I will defend myself inadequately.
Q: You implied in the film that they were set up by somebody on the inside, but you don't identify who it is. Who do you think set them up and are you prepared to say that in public?
Vanderbilt: I don't think that the film implies that one person or another inside set them up. That's not my read of the situation. There is the conspiracy theory that Karl Rove wrote the memos and put them out there in order to discredit anyone who reported this story and make it a non-story. I don't necessarily subscribe to that.
Q: Why not?
Vanderbilt: I don't necessarily think that it's true. I don't have any kind of evidence to point to them. One of the things that we tried to do with the movie was to nail down all the facts that we could as humanly possible and I don't want to necessarily imply something that I can't prove. In terms of reaction to the film, there's no version of making this movie that was going to make everyone happy. Of course, I'm absolutely aware that people are going to take issue with certain facts or portrayals. All I can do is say that—just because you're not going to make everybody happy—is not a good reason not to make a film.