The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Truth.
What compelled you to make this film?
James Vanderbilt: I’ve always been fascinated with journalism and I always sort of looked at it as the road not taken. If I hadn’t gone into our silly business, I would’ve gone into that silly business. I just always loved journalism films, and grew up with All the President’s Men. When I was looking around for something to direct, I read the Vanity Fair excerpt of Mary [Mape’s] book, and I was really taken by the story. One of the things that fascinated me about it was how much I didn’t know about a subject I thought I knew a lot about.
“Journalism seems to always be under threat.”
What was the draw for you to work with this first-time director?
Cate Blanchett: It’s interesting that Jamie said he was looking around for something to direct, because there was such a clear directorial hand already, a vision, you could feel in the script. Bob and I talked a lot about this together. Often when you work with someone in the theater or in film who is directing for the first time, the thing that gets jettisoned first is atmosphere and tension, but Jamie’s script had oodles of that already. You could feel the film. It leapt off the page.
How did you prepare for the role and what influence did Dan Rather have?
Robert Redford: I met Dan many years ago in the early 70s, when he was working at 60 Minutes on an environmental issue out west. We didn’t know each other that well, but we’ve had interactions over the years. Thematically, journalism is a big interest for me, as I think some of my work in the past indicates. I think journalism is essential for society, just like art. I cannot imagine a society without journalism, without journalism representing the checks-and-balances that we so need. Journalism seems to always be under threat. What Jamie did was, he took a story that we sort of thought we knew—it was never given full exposure for obvious political reasons—and he dug down deep, deep, deep, to get to the story beneath the story. He dug down to the bones, and he put the narrative on the shoulders of the characters. It was a joy to work for him. The intriguing part of the story is beneath the story that you think you know. That was attractive for Cate and I because we’re actors playing characters. I think that’s what I appreciated. And my relationship with Dan, because I thought Dan and Mary deserved their day in court, and they weren’t given that. I’m sorry it took so long to get there, but I’m happy to be a part of it.
Dan Rather: I have faults and weaknesses and have made a lot of mistakes, but I tried throughout my career to be a play-no-favorites, drive-hard reporter who was loyal to his people and supportive of his people. Bob catches the essence of that, and I have great gratitude for him doing it.
The environment of the film is of a very specific world—the newsroom. Can you talk about the research process and attention to detail?
Vanderbilt: The great thing about what I do is I get to ask people what they do for a living and just sit there and listen. I got to do that with Dan, who was so kind to open his life up to me. I spoke to Dan, I spoke to Mary. I spoke to a lot of different people who worked at CBS, and also some who didn’t work at CBS but were around newsrooms to try and get the flavor of it as much as possible. All the factual stuff was pretty clear-cut. We knew what happened on what day and when they got the documents, but I needed to make sure it felt authentic and real to people who actually do that job. That was really important to me and that was also the fun part. We get to portray that and put on that show. Dan and Mary did come down to set about halfway through shooting. It was funny because you sort of get into this deep dive of making a film and then you go, “Oh wait, the real people are actually coming.” I panicked a little. What if they walk in and go, “Oh no no no!” But they were wonderful. When you’re directing a movie and somebody comes to set, the unfortunate thing is you have but five minutes with them and then you have to keep directing the movie. But the producers were able to spend time with them and the actors got to go around with them.
Rather: I was amazed at the accuracy of detail. I had no idea. This was my first experience with a full-scale movie set. The effort that went into the accuracy of detail made it clear to me the accuracy of the film. This is a really accurate film. My opinion—and my opinions are frequently wrong—is that I think this is the best thing that’s ever been on the big screen about the craft of reporting.
Redford: I think details were very, very important because sometimes the tiniest detail contains a big story. With All the Presidents Men, the attention to detail was so strong that we were going to film in the Washington bureau of the Washington post. We went in there with the production designer, and it was a disaster because the regular newsroom people couldn’t focus on their work. We got in the way. So we couldn’t film there. We had to go all the way out to California and duplicate the newsroom on a stage at Warner Bros. There’s a likeness between All the President’s Men and Truth, in that two reporters are working against the odds to uncover a truth that the powers that be attempted to block. It’s their struggle, about their work, their relationship, and their loyalty to one another that I think carries the frame. The difference is that in All the President’s Men, these two reporters were slaving away against all odds to get to the truth, and they were supported by their editor and their newspaper. They had support of their bosses. In Truth, the two ended up not having the support of their bosses, and that’s the sort of the story that Jamie is trying to tell. I think it’s a worthy story.
Blanchett: I found it a very interesting detail that when Mary and Dan were in Afghanistan together, Mary took her curling irons with her and somehow, even though there’s no running water, she was still able to have her curling irons. I know this sounds like a very shallow detail but when I first met Mary, I was awestruck by the organizational skills that her handbag represented. She’s meticulous. You see the moment with the folder that Mary presented. Of course I read Mary’s memoir and after meeting with her, we Skyped. I asked her a lot of very stupid questions, which she was very gracious in answering. Inconsequential details will help you to get as much of the flavor of the person as possible.