R. J. Cutler

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Cutler at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of The Union

R.J. Cutler is an American filmmaker, documentarian, television producer and theater director.

His work includes the documentary films The War Room, A Perfect Candidate, Thin, The September Issue and The World According to Dick Cheney; the non-fiction television series American High, Freshman Diaries and 30 Days; the prime time drama series Nashville; and the upcoming feature film If I Stay.[1]

Cutler’s first film, The War Room, was nominated for an Academy Award and he is the recipient of numerous awards including an Emmy, a Peabody Award, a GLAAD Award, two Cinema Eye Awards, and two Television Academy Honor Awards.[2][3]

In 2009, the Museum of Television and Radio held a five-day retrospective of his work.[4]

Childhood[edit]

R.J. Cutler was born in 1961 and grew up in a Jewish home in Great Neck, New York. He attended Great Neck North Senior High School and graduated in 1979.

Education/ Early Career/ Theater & Radio[edit]

Cutler graduated from Harvard University in 1984.[5] He received his AB degree magna cum laude with a Special Concentration in Dramatic Theory and Literature.[6] He was the recipient of the prestigious Hoopes Prize.[7][8]

Cutler began his career as a theater director and was the first director selected to participate in the New York Drama League’s Director’s Apprenticeship Program.[9] He worked as a director and producer at the American Repertory Theater [10] and was director James Lapine’s assistant on the original Broadway production of the Sondheim/Lapine musical Into the Woods.[11] He also served as Resident Director at New Dramatists.[12]

In 1988, Cutler directed the workshop production of Jonathan Larson’s musical Superbia at Playwrights Horizons. That workshop became one of the subjects of Larson’s next musical Tick, Tick, Boom… [13]

Productions directed by Cutler between 1988 and 1990 include the world premiere of Right Behind the Flag by Kevin Heelan at Playwrights Horizons (starring Kevin Spacey),[14] the American premiere of Emerald City by David Williamson at the New York Theatre Workshop,[15] and the world premiere of The Secret Garden by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon at the Virginia Stage Company.[16] The Secret Garden went on to run on Broadway for 709 performances.[17]

In 1990, Cutler produced the National Public Radio show Heat with John Hockenberry.[18][19] Other producers included future This American Life creator Ira Glass and future Radio Diaries creator Joe Richman.[20] The show aired live five nights a week on NPR stations across the country and received a Peabody Award.[21]

In 1991, Cutler became a faculty member of the University of Southern California School of Theatre and a student at the USC School of Cinema-Television.[22]

Documentary Filmmaking[edit]

Cutler has been producing and directing documentary films since 1992.[23][24]

The War Room[edit]

In 1992, Cutler and his producing partner Wendy Ettinger approached filmmakers DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus with the idea to produce a film about the Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.[25] That film became The War Room, which told the story of the campaign through the eyes of Communications Director George Stephanopoulos and Chief Strategist James Carville.[26]

Cutler had met then-candidate Clinton at a taping of CBS This Morning. “I felt he was extremely human and would make a fascinating subject,” he said. “At that point, no one thought Clinton was going to be elected. [Wendy and I] agreed that someone should make a movie documenting what was going on. Then we said, ‘Why not us?’” [27] At first, Pennebaker and Hegedus resisted the idea. “But R.J. and Wendy came in and kind of talked us up,” recalls Pennebaker. “We got carried away with their enthusiasm and said, ‘If you can get us access and funding up front, we’ll try it.’” [28] “We sent them out the door thinking we’d never see them again,” says Hegedus.[29] Cutler lobbied for access, finally securing an agreement from Stephanopoulos to film with the campaign. Says Pennebaker, “We did the film not knowing whether Clinton would win or lose. If he lost, he would have been unsalable. But that he won is vindication of sorts. We knew there was a fish in the river and, by God, we got it." [30]

Filmed in classic cinema verite style, The War Room premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1993 and went on to be screened at the New York Film Festival that same year and the Berlin Film Festival the following February. It was released theatrically by October Films on November 3, 1993.[31] It received a 95% “Fresh” rating on rottentomatoes.com.[32]

Writing in The Washington Post, critic Rita Kemply said, The War Room fairly bristles with the frenetic energy, flat-out fun and Southern-fried cunning that won the White House.” [33] Janet Maslin of the New York Times said, “The War Room finds new facets of the story and manages to coax cliffhanging suspense out of a fait accompli.” [34] Terrance Rafferty of The New Yorker called the film, “Exhilarating.” [35]

The War Room was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1993.[36] That same year, the film won the National Board of Review Award for Best Documentary.[37][38]

In 2008, the filmmaking team behind The War Room reunited to catch up with their subjects 16 years later. The resulting film was called The Return of the War Room and it aired on Sundance Channel.[39] It is also included as a special feature of the Criterion Collection edition of The War Room.[40]

In 2013, The Cinema Eye Honors awarded The War Room with it’s Legacy Award, “Intended to honor classic films that inspire a new generation of filmmakers.” [41]

A Perfect Candidate[edit]

In 1994, Cutler and co-director/producer David Van Taylor spent eleven months following the U.S. Senate campaign of Lt. Col. Oliver North who was running as a Republican to take the seat occupied by Democrat Charles S. Robb.[42] North had risen to prominence as the key figure in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal.[43] Robb was the son-in-law of President Lyndon Johnson who had held his Senate seat since 1989.[44] The cinema verite film they made, A Perfect Candidate, featured access to both the North and Robb campaigns and told stories about non-candidates as well, including North strategist Mark Goodin, Washington Post reporters Don Baker and Peter Baker and Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Mike Allen.[45][46]

A Perfect Candidate premiered at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival in April 1996 and was released theatrically by Seventh Art Releasing on June 19, 1996.[47][48] It received an 88% “Fresh” rating on rottentomatoes.com.[49]

Writing in the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin said, “It would be hard to find a more chilling view of the American electoral process than what A Perfect Candidate captures on screen.” [50] Washington Post writer Marc Fisher said, A Perfect Candidate manages to turn the chronicle of a classic lesser-of-evils campaign into a movie about the need to believe, about the persistence of hope and trust in democracy, even amid a plot dominated by cynical back-room manipulators and deeply flawed candidates.” [51] The New Yorker called the film, “Part horrifying expose, part blistering black comedy.” [52]

In 1996, Cutler and Van Taylor were nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Craft: Directing for their work on A Perfect Candidate.[53]

In 2010, the Washington Post included A Perfect Candidate and The War Room on its list of Best Political Movies Ever.[54]

Edgewise Shorts/ Monte Hellman: American Auteur[edit]

In 1996, Cutler became the Supervising Producer of a weekly television show on then-nascent MSNBC called, Edgewise.[55][56] Hosted by John Hockenberry, the show featured interviews, essays, and short documentary films produced by Cutler.[57] In July 1997, the Nantucket Film Festival screened a program of ten of Cutler’s Edgewise shorts.[58] The following January, the Edgewise short Monte Hellman: American Auteur (directed by George Hickenlooper) was screened in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.[59][60]

American High[edit]

In 1999, Cutler set out to create the first network “nonfiction drama,” a form of documentary serial storytelling that was new to American commercial prime time television.[61] Cutler conceived of, developed and sold a television series called American High to Fox Television’s drama division. Then he and two cinema verite crews spent an entire school year filming 14 students at Highland Park High School, a public high school 40 miles northwest of Chicago. Over the course of the year, they collected more than 2800 hours of footage, 70 percent of which was shot by Cutler’s crews, and the rest of which was filmed by the students themselves with digital cameras provided by the filmmakers. This footage was then edited into 14 half-hour episodes.[62]

Speaking to Jesse Moss of Indiewire, Cutler said, “The genesis was partially content-driven and partially form-driven. I was really interested in spending a year with high school kids, because it's twenty years since I got out of school. And I was very curious about that unique moment in life when you're a child on the cusp of adulthood and you're an adult who still wants to be a kid…. I've been convinced for a while that if you took cinema verite and produced it in a way that satisfied the needs of prime-time story-telling -- that was entertaining and engaging, and dramatic in the way that a prime-time drama is -- that it could potentially be very popular…. The whole idea behind verite is that real life can function in storytelling and be as satisfying and engaging to an audience as scripted drama is.” [63]

American High premiered on Fox Television on August 2, 2000. In his New York Daily News review, Eric Mink wrote, American High is the name of this remarkable new Fox series, which comprises 14 tight, quick and absolutely riveting half-hours. It is, as you may have realized, a documentary…. What’s going on here is a delicate but insistent probing of contemporary, middle-class American adolescence, a subject that usually gets only lip service—particularly from television.” [64] In The Nation Paul Bravmann wrote, “Each story is, in and of itself, a vivid and affecting slice of life-on-the-verge. Shuffled together, they form a discursive epic of both the inner and outer struggle of the Misunderstood American Teen.” [65]

American High was cancelled by Fox after four episodes.[66] The series was picked-up by PBS which aired all fourteen episodes in their entirety.[67][68][69] In 2001, American High received the first Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program. It was nominated for the same award in 2002.[70]

Freshman Diaries[edit]

As a follow-up to American High, Showtime commissioned Cutler to spend the 2002-2003 school year with a group of freshmen at the University of Texas in Austin.[71] As with American High Cutler and his team assembled a group of students, filmed them cinema verite style for the full school year and provided them with digital cameras so that they could contribute their own footage to the project as well.[72]

When Freshman Diaries premiered on Showtime in August, 2003, Steve Johnson wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "Yes, the new 'reality' genre has dominated television, too often with simple-minded tributes to hormones and humiliation. But it has also made room for some compelling new documentary work that networks likely would have never had the courage to put on TV. Case in point: Sunday's new Freshman Diaries". [73] David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun wrote, "This is the place where the immediacy, and edge, of reality TV meets the power of the documentary film to show us the world as seen through the eyes of others". [74]

The Residents[edit]

In 2003, as he was filming Freshman Diaries, Cutler created and directed the third in his trilogy of video diaries-driven documentary series, The Residents.[75] Set among young physicians at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, it told the stories of what it was like to make the transition from medical student to full-blown physician.[76] The Residents premiered on Discovery Health Channel on October 12, 2003 and subsequently aired on The Learning Channel.[77]

30 Days[edit]

In 2005, Cutler partnered with filmmaker Morgan Spurlock to make the tv series 30 Days. A follow-up to Spurlock’s feature documentary Super Size Me, 30 Days explored hot-button topics of the day by having Spurlock or another subject spend 30 days immersed in a specific world. Topics included anti-aging, illegal immigration, life in prison, disability access, same sex parenting and gun control.[78]

30 Days premiered on FX on June 15, 2005.[79] It subsequently aired for three seasons and a total of 18 episodes.[80] Alessandra Stanley praised the show in an essay in The New York Times called, A New Golden Age of News, writing, 30 Days is television news done differently.” [81] When the episode about illegal immigration aired, The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page called it, “gripping television,” and said, “It’s too much to ask of a television show that it solve a seeming intractable dispute. But by showing the humanity on both sides of the issue, 30 Days provides a valuable and timely service.” [82]

In 2006, 30 Days won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Program and was nominated for a Producers Guild Award for Outstanding Producer of Reality television|Non-Fiction Television.[83] In 2009, 30 Days won a Television Academy Honor Award for “creating television with a conscience.” [84]

Making 'Dazed'[edit]

In 2005, Cutler joined forces with director/producer Kahane Corn and served as the Executive Producer of the AMC documentary Making ‘Dazed’ which told the story of the making of Richard Linklater’s seminal 1993 film Dazed and Confused. The film premiered on AMC on September 18, 2005.[85] It is included as a special feature on the Criterion Collection edition of Dazed and Confused.[86]

Shays’ Rebellion: America’s First Civil War[edit]

Also in 2005, Cutler was invited by executive producer Joe Berlinger to contribute a film to the History Channel’s documentary series, Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. Cutler produced and directed Shays Rebellion: The First American Civil War, which he conceived of as an animated documentary to be illustrated by Academy Award-winning animator Bill Plympton.[87] Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America received the 2006 Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series.[88]

Thin[edit]

In 2006, Cutler produced the documentary film, Thin, directed by Lauren Greenfield and distributed by HBO.[89] Thin is a cinéma vérité exploration of The Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Florida, a 40-bed residential facility for the treatment of women with eating disorders. It focuses on four specific women with anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia and their struggles for recovery.[90]

Thin premiered in competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival before airing on HBO in November 2006.[91] It won the John Grierson Award for best documentary at the London Film Festival and was nominated for an International Documentary Association Award.[92] In 2007, Greenfield was nominated for an Emmy AwarD for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.[93]

The September Issue[edit]

In 2007, Cutler spent seven months filming legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour and her staff as they produced what was at the time the single largest single issue of a magazine that had ever been published: the September, 2007 Vogue, which weighed in at 840 pages and 4.1 pounds.[94] The film that resulted was The September Issue, directed and produced by Cutler, and financed by A&E IndieFilms.[95]

While The September Issue features a host of Vogue personalities, designers, models, photographers, and others, its principal subject is the conflict-laden but deeply symbiotic relationship between the powerful, influential and notoriously frosty Wintour and her passionate fire-haired Creative Director Grace Coddington.[96][97]

Cutler wrote about first meeting Wintour in the LA Times Magazine:[98] “I brought up the sensitive topic of final cut. I explained that I would need to have complete editorial control—without it, I didn’t think the film would be taken seriously, and she of all people deserved that a film about her be taken seriously. She looked me in the eye. ‘I totally understand,’ she said. ‘My father was a journalist. I am a journalist. That won’t be a problem.’ …I was grateful for her response but equally intrigued that she had brought up her father. Here was a famously inaccessible person talking about her family in our very first sit-down. We hardly knew each other, and yet she had already provided me with a window into how she saw herself in the world.”

Gaining access to Coddington was another matter. According to the New York Times, Ms. Coddington’s first words to Cutler were “Go away.” [99] “I said the rudest things to R.J. Cutler” writes Coddington in her memoir.[100] Says Cutler, “Go away was the nice thing she said to me. About four months in, I kind of couldn’t take it anymore. I was trying to figure out what the film was about. I had been shooting for four months, which is a lot of time. I couldn’t see a way to make this movie that wasn’t about their relationship…. I went to Grace, I didn’t fall to my knees but I might as well have. I just said I can’t make this film without you… we are good people and you are going to be happy that you gave us a chance – but you have to start by giving us a chance. And she gave us a chance.” [101]

The September Issue received its World Premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it screened in competition and won the Grand Jury Prize for Cinematography.[102] Roadside Attractions acquired the film shortly after Sundance and released it theatrically on August 28, 2009.[103][104]

The film received an 84% “Fresh” rating on rottentomatoes.com.[105] Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleberman said, “The singular fascination of The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s lusciously revealing fly-on-the-wall portrait of Anna Wintour… doesn’t hinge on clothes, or glamour, or the sprinkle of stars on display. It begins with the electromagnetic pull of power.”

The September Issue received the 2010 Cinema Eye Honors Audience Choice Award.[106]

After completing The September Issue, Cutler returned to outtakes from the footage he shot with Wintour and edited a short film called The Met Ball, which told the story of the 2007 Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Ball.[107] The Met Ball was included as a bonus feature on the DVD release of The September Issue.[108]

Hick Town[edit]

In 2009, Cutler produced the feature documentary Hick Town, directed by George Hickenlooper.[109] It was their second collaboration, after 1997’s Monte Hellman: American Auteur.[110] Hick Town tells the story of then-Denver Mayor (later Colorado Governor) John Hickenlooper, who was the director’s cousin, as the city of Denver was gearing up to host the 2008 Democratic National Convention.[111] The film received its World Premiere at the 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival. Hickenlooper’s intention was to turn the film into a non-fiction series, but the director passed away while shooting additional footage in 2010.[112]

rag & bone[edit]

In 2010, Cutler made rag & bone, a short documentary that told the story of Marcus Wainwright and David Neville, the designers behind the design house rag & bone, as they prepared for 2010 Fall Fashion Week in New York City.[113] The cinema verite film was funded by Starbucks.[114]

Fish[edit]

In 2011, Cutler directed and produced Fish a twenty-minute film that told the story of Los Angeles chef Jon Shook, who with his partner Vinnie Dotolo had recently opened the Los Angles-based restaurant Son of A Gun. The film was made as part of the USA Character Project and was presented by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott.[115][116] In Fish, Cutler follows Shook as he goes fishing for a day and then turns the day’s catch into a dish at Son of a Gun.[117]

The World According to Dick Cheney[edit]

In 2012 Cutler signed a deal to make documentary films for Showtime. The first film in their partnership was 2013’s The World According to Dick Cheney, which Cutler produced and co-directed with Greg Finton.[118][119]

Centered around twenty hours of exclusive interviews with the former Vice President, The World According to Dick Cheney begins with Cheney’s childhood in Wyoming and chronicles the story of his rise to power over his four decades at the center of American politics. “I made The World According to Dick Cheney in a way that I believe history will see the Cheney vice presidency,” said Cutler.[120] “From his early days as a young member of the Nixon administration to his time as the youngest Chief of Staff in American history to President Ford through to his ascendancy as Vice President under George W. Bush and, in particular, to the role he played as Vice President in the wake of September 11th[121]

The World According to Dick Cheney received its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013.[122]

When it aired on Showtime on March 15, 2013,[123] Howard Fineman wrote, “The capital's dysfunction is leading some thinkers here to conclude that ‘power’ no longer exists. In a tribal and digital world, the theory goes, top-down authority is dead. Anyone who believes that—and every other voter in America—needs to see R.J. Cutler's calmly voiced yet disturbing new feature documentary called The World According to Dick Cheney. It's a cautionary tale of unchecked zealotry in action….Watch the movie and see the risks.” [124]

Writing about the film in the New York Times a year after it first aired, Fred Kaplan observed, “There is a narrative flow and drama. It tells the story of a man who acquired more and more power until his errors and arrogance left him isolated and ignored, even in his last two years as George W. Bush’s Vice President… and still more since. Near the beginning, we see Mr. Cheney fly-fishing on a lake, and it seems like a scene of bucolic retirement. By the end, when we watch it again, it looks more like bitter exile.” [125]

Marlon Brando Documentary[edit]

On April 26, 2013 Showtime announced that they had renewed their deal with Cutler to make documentary films for the pay cable network. The next film under the agreement was reported to be about legendary actor Marlon Brando, which Cutler would executive produce along with John Battsek (Searching for Sugarman) and which was to be directed by Stevan Riley (Fire in Babylon.) [126]

Actual Reality Pictures[edit]

In 2000, Cutler launched Actual Reality Pictures, a non-fiction television production company.[127] Actual Reality was the production company behind all of Cutler’s documentary projects between 2000 and 2009. In addition, the company produced several other non-fiction television programs including:

In 2009 Cutler decided to focus exclusively on creative producing and directing. “For me, the real satisfaction of the work is in the creative,” he told Variety reporter Cynthia Littleton.[128] Cutler made a deal to merge his production company’s projects with Evolution Film and Tape, effectively shutting down Actual Reality Pictures.[129]

Scripted Television[edit]

Spring/Fall[edit]

In 2010, HBO ordered a pilot of Spring/Fall, a show set in the fashion industry and executive produced by Cutler, Jimmy Miller, and writer Kate Robin.[130] The pilot was directed by Jake Kasdan and starred Tea Leoni and Hope Davis.[131] It was not ordered to series.[132]

Nashville[edit]

In 2011, ABC ordered a pilot for Nashville, executive produced by Cutler, Callie Khouri and Steve Buchanan, president of Gaylord Entertainment (owner of the Grand Ole Opry.) [133] Cutler and Khouri had developed the show together over several months under a deal at Lionsgate Studios.[134] The pilot, written by Khouri and directed by Cutler, starred Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes and Hayden Panettiere as Juliette Barnes.[135] Nashville was ordered to series on May 11, 2012.[136]

Nashville premiered on ABC on October 9, 2012. The show received a 92% “Fresh” rating on rottentomatoes.com.[137] Reviewing it in Entertainment Weekly, critic Ken Tucker wrote, “Rarely does a pilot present a world as completely as Nashville does in its first hour… [138] One of the great pleasures of Nashville is that it arrived fully formed, with a sure sense of what it wants to accomplish dramatically, and with a masterful command of atmosphere and setting. No other new show this season projects such effortless assurance, hits so many notes of emotion.” [139]

Cutler also directed the second episode of the series.[140]

Nashville won the 2012 Critics Choice Television Award for Most Exciting New Series. It was also nominated for a 2013 WGA Award for Best New Series. Britton was nominated for a 2013 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Drama and a 2013 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Panettiere was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2013 and 2014 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series.[141] Editor Keith Henderson was nominated for an American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for his work on the pilot.[142]

On May 10, 2013 Nashville was renewed for a second season by ABC.[143]

On May 9, 2014 Nashville was renewed for a third season by ABC.[144]

Lionsgate Television Deal[edit]

In 2012 Lionsgate Television announced that it had entered into a two year first-look television deal with Cutler to develop and produce scripted programming for broadcast and cable tv.[145]

The Ordained[edit]

In 2013, CBS signed Cutler to direct the pilot of The Ordained, executive produced by Frank Marshall and written by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen.[146] The show about a Kennedy-like political family starred Charlie Cox, Sam Neill, Audra McDonald, Jorge Garcia and Hope Davis.[147] It was not ordered to series.

CBS Studios Deal[edit]

In 2014, CBS announced that it had entered into a two year first-look television deal with Cutler to develop, produce and direct scripted projects.[148]

Feature Filmmaking[edit]

If I Stay[edit]

In 2013, MGM announced that it would finance Cutler’s feature film directing debut, If I Stay.[149]

Based on Gayle Forman’s Young Adult novel of the same name and with a script adapted by Shauna Cross, If I Stay stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a teenage cello prodigy whose family suffers a tragic car accident. Also featured in the film are Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Josh Leonard and Stacey Keach. If I Stay is produced by Alison Greenspan. Denise DiNovi is executive producer.[150]

Warner Bros. and New Line will release If I Stay in theaters on August 22, 2014.[151]

Influences[edit]

Cutler has cited Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four as an early influence on his story-telling and interest in non-fiction.[152]

He listed his Best Movies Ever for Newsweek as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Preston SturgesThe Lady Eve, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon.[153]

While making The September Issue Cutler was influenced by Robert Drew’s Crisis, the Maysles BrothersGimme Shelter, George Cukor’s Philadelphia Story and Preston SturgesThe Lady Eve.[154]

Bibliography[edit]

References[edit]

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