James Vanderbilt has been primarily known as a screenwriter for many years, having written everything from superhero movies (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN), to serial killer thrillers (ZODIAC), to action-adventures (WHITE HOUSE DOWN). Now, he makes his directorial debut with TRUTH, an incredibly engaging drama based on the book by 60 MINUTES segment producer Mary Mapes. In 2004, Mapes, her research team – including journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) – and messenger/ reporter Dan Rather (Robert Redford) dared to ask the difficult questions about President George W. Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard. They trusted their instincts, running with a slanderous story that quickly became picked apart, leading to an epic downfall. The true life tale makes for a solidly entertaining, deeply engrossing and, at times, table-flipping picture.
Vanderbilt chose this story to springboard into directing.
For me, it was sort of a ‘if you only get one cut at the plate, what do you want to swing at?’ I really wanted to do something that matters to me and tell a story that I think is a really great story.
On forming Moss’ true-life character, Moss looked at both the script and the book to inform her performance.
Mary’s book is so interesting – so entertaining. It’s a fascinating personal journey but it’s also chock full of facts. For me, that was everything. It was hard just keeping track of that and being part of that story. I read the script first before I read the book. I got so much out of the script and then the book just helped illuminate so much for my own head and background.
My job was to do all that research; get the book and dig into it. Spend all that time with Mary and Dan and talk to other people so I can build that script. It’s so hard just for an actor to play a character, let alone a true life one. To be able to say to Elisabeth, ‘You play what’s on the page.’ To let her be able to focus on that. That was my job to give the actors the space to create those relationships for themselves.
TRUTH is aptly named because it’s the specific thing everyone in the film is striving to figure out. Vanderbilt says,
It’s the thing everybody is trying to get to, but the thing they may not actually get to. For some reason, stories like that fascinate me as a writer and now as I director.
On being a part of yet another phenomenal ensemble cast (the first being THE WEST WING, second being MAD MEN now this being the third), Moss states,
I’ve learned the value of working with great actors – and how much better it makes you look. The people you’re working with are everything. They can bring everything up. When I heard it was Cate and Robert Redford – two of the greatest actors alive – you jump at that opportunity. I find out about Dennis [Quaid] and Topher [Grace] later and I thought, ‘Well, that’s amazing!’ It’s the gift. This felt very Sorkin-y and WEST WING-like at times with all the information, talking and making what could be something boring interesting.
Vanderbilt is quick to point out the WEST WING connection,
There was one scene Elisabeth was walking and talking. On the third or fourth take, I was like, [smacks his head], ‘I’m an idiot! It’s THE WEST WING!’ She was like, ‘Oh, yes! I got this.’
It was Blanchett’s dedication to her craft that most impressed Moss.
She would care more about that scene than anyone else in the room. She would want to do it again if she didn’t feel right. Sometimes we would leave a scene and she wasn’t like, ‘F**k! Let’s get out of here’ like a ‘I wanna go to lunch’ or ‘go to the next scene’ or even ‘I want to get home to my children.’ She was so detail-oriented. That was really inspiring.
There are definitely parallels in TRUTH to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, mostly given the casting of Redford.
I do think it’s interesting that that movie ends with them messing up, which is really interesting. People do mess up. I do know talking to Redford about it, part of my pitch was about ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and what an amazing film it was – a movie that he put together. When I wrote him a letter about why he should do this movie, I did talk about how we’ve come a long way from that time and I think [Redford] playing another journalist in this period of time carries extra added baggage for the film.
TRUTH opens in limited release on October 16 with a slow roll out nationwide. To find where it’s playing, go here.