- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 22, 2015

James Vanderbilt refers to Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather as the “three wise men” of his childhood, with their omniscient, booming baritones informing his young mind of the world’s events on a nightly basis.

“They were the voice of God, and that’s how you got your news,” the jocular Mr. Vanderbilt recently told The Washington Times. “And now I have a device in my pocket where I can get 100,000 different people giving me news.”

Perhaps it is little wonder then that when it came time to cast the “character” of Mr. Rather in his new film “Truth,” Mr. Vanderbilt went to another legend to lend the role the necessary gravitas.

“I thought the idea of an icon playing an icon could be really cool,” Mr. Vanderbilt said of casting Robert Redford as Mr. Rather in “Truth,” which Mr. Vanderbilt wrote and directed.

Based on the book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power” by disgraced CBS producer Mary Mapes, “Truth,” which opens Friday in the District, tells the story behind the scandal that saw Mr. Rather forced to step down from his nightly newscast in the wake of a discredited report the network ran on then-President George W. Bush going AWOL during his time with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

Rather than perform due diligence, the network and Ms. Mapes, portrayed in the film by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, rushes the story, relying on dubious sources and documents of questionable authenticity to back up the story’s claims.

“Reading that book, I was struck by how much I didn’t know about something I thought I knew a lot about,” Mr. Vanderbilt, who also wrote both “Amazing Spider-Man” films, “White House Down” and “The Rundown,” said. “And so that sort of got me thinking about could this make a great film?”

Mr. Vanderbilt said he was also on the lookout for a story he could direct himself. His script for the 2007 film “Zodiac” followed the search for the notorious Bay Area serial killer, and based on that experience, Mr. Vanderbilt knew he wanted to return to the world of newswriting.

“I’ve always been drawn to journalism stories,” he said, listing such works as “All the President’s Men” as among his inspirations. “So I love the world. And this story kind of stuck with me, and I thought it was kind of an opportunity to tell a behind-the-scenes tale of how stories like this get put together.”

In the new film, Miss Blanchett portrays Ms. Mapes in all of her Texas swagger and take-no-prisoners attitude. So convinced she is correct that she and her team skirt basic ethical rules of journalism, briskly resulting in a scandal that cost many people their jobs — and their careers.

When Miss Blanchett was cast, the actress insisted the film shoot in her native Australia, requiring the entire production to hop the Pacific — with Melbourne cleverly dubbing in for New York and Dallas and the Outback subbing for remote Texas prairies. Most of the above-the-line cast was American, with Mr. Vanderbilt filling out the ranks with Australian actors, some at the recommendation of Miss Blanchett herself.

Not only would it be Mr. Vanderbilt’s first time behind the camera, but it would done in a foreign land. Fortunately, he had watched the best in Hollywood at work.

“I was really lucky because … I was able to sit behind [“Zodiac” director] David Fincher, I was able to sit behind [“White House Down” director] Roland Emmerich, so I got to see wonderful directors, very different styles of directors, so that was a great sort of film school in and of itself,” Mr. Vanderbilt, who earned his undergrad at the University of Southern California’s screenwriter program, said.

He also called up as many of his directing pals as he could for lunch, and helpfully brought along a pen.

“I pulled out the notepad and said, ‘All right, I have two hours, so if you could tell me how to direct a feature film in that time, I would really appreciate it,’” Mr. Vanderbilt said with a laugh.

Not only was he directing a bevy of Hollywood heavyweights, but also a seasoned fellow director in the legendary Mr. Redford. However, Mr. Vanderbilt said that if had been shy about giving notes to Mr. Redford, Miss Blanchett or any of the other longtime professionals, he would be “not doing them any favors.”

“Especially on the first day, with a first-time director, everybody is just constantly watching you,” Mr. Vanderbilt said. “Like Topher Grace was probably the least experienced of them, and he was on television for 10 years. Bob didn’t start until about three weeks in, which was great because at least I had time to get my sea legs with a two-time Oscar winner [Miss Blanchett] before him.”

Mr. Vanderbilt recalls how, on the shoot’s second day, he shared a drink with Dennis Quaid, who plays Lt. Colonel Roger Charles, a crucial part of Ms. Mapes‘ crew. The Texan playing a fellow Texan effectively patted Mr. Vanderbilt on the back.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re doing OK, you’re good at this,’” Mr. Vanderbilt said. “Not that I wasn’t doing well, just that I wasn’t screwing up. And just that [Mr. Quaid] felt safe with me was an amazing moment and gave me kind of that [feeling of] OK, I can do this.”

It could have been a brand-new ballgame when Mr. Redford arrived on set, but Mr. Vanderbilt kept his cool and approached the 79-year-old not as a living legend but as a fellow professional.

Casting him as Mr. Rather’s avatar, he said, was key to the film working.

“Even though Bob doesn’t look like Dan or sound like Dan, they both have this same kind of gravitas to them, and they both kind of occupy the same place in the American firmament a little bit of we’ve grown up with them,” Mr. Vanderbilt explained. “That voice has come from my living room as long as I can remember — for both of them.

“I also think that was going to be the big buy of the movie, like if you don’t buy the guy playing Dan Rather, the rest of it kind of falls apart.”

As important as the Tinseltown heavyweights were the lesser-known Aussies that rounded out the cast. A crucial scene sees Australian actress Noni Hazlehurst absolutely steal a scene from a roomful of famous performers.

“And by the way, that’s a lot of people in that room to steal from,” Mr. Vanderbilt said, recalling how his first assistant director told him Miss Hazlehurst would “peel the paint off the walls.”

“I wanted somebody that the rest of the world wasn’t familiar with,” Mr. Vanderbilt said of Miss Hazlehurst. “My whole idea for that is I wanted to cast somebody you’re not paying attention to, so that when she steps forward, you have that reaction of who the hell is that?”

Despite that Miss Blanchett’s Mary Mapes makes rather questionable — even unethical — decisions throughout the film, Mr. Vanderbilt believes that a film needs a protagonist for the audience’s empathy, even one as flawed as Ms. Mapes.

“By definition, you have to experience [a film] emotionally through somebody,” he said. “And her emotional experience was one of being put through the wringer, and that was something really important for me as a filmmaker to dramatize in the most effective way possible.

“Because otherwise it just becomes a history lesson,” Mr. Vanderbilt summarized. “At the end, if you’re wrung out and you feel for your main characters, I think that’s good storytelling.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide