James Vanderbilt has been a prolific writer and producer in Hollywood for several years. His screenplay credits include Peter Berg’s “The Rundown” which remains one of Dwayne Johnson’s best action films, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” which was about the notorious serial killer who terrorized San Francisco back in the 1970’s and Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” which dealt with terrorists attacking the White House. In addition, he was a writer and producer on “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies and “Independence Day: Resurgence.”
Vanderbilt now makes his directorial debut with “Truth,” the political docudrama about the 2004 “60 Minutes” news report on George W. Bush’s military service and the subsequent controversy which came to engulf it and destroyed several careers in the process. It is based on the memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and The Privilege of Power” written by Mary Mapes, a noted American journalist who was the producer of Bush news story, and she is played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. The movie details meticulously the research Mapes and her team did on this story and of how many came to sharply criticize the veracity of the information given. What started out as an expose of Bush’s service, or lack thereof, in the Texas Air National Guard becomes focused solely on the reporters involved to where broadcast journalism would never be the same.
I got to sit in on a roundtable interview with Vanderbilt at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California while he was in town to promote “Truth.” His desire to adapt this memoir into a film came from his infinite curiosity about broadcast journalism and how people in a newsroom work and put a story together.
Ben Kenber: What made you decide that the time had come for you to step behind the camera to direct?
James Vanderbilt: I don’t know. Uh, foolishness? No, I was at a film school with all these people who really, really wanted to direct, and I always wanted to be a writer. It seemed like they were all looking at screenwriting as the stepping stone for the real job and so, being an angry young film student, I was totally resentful of them. Screenwriting is a craft and it’s got a great history, so I wasn’t the guy who was like “what I really want to do is direct.” I was lucky enough to have some films made and to produce some films and work with some really great directors, and watching them was actually the thing that made me go, I’d be curious to know if I could do that” Watching directors work with actors was actually the biggest thing which was fun for me to see and wanting to be a part of that, but as the writer and producer you want there always to be one voice to the actor. You never want the producer to come in and go, “You know what would also be great?” So, I always wondered if I could do that, carry the ball all the way down the field, and it came out of a very misguided desire to see if it would even be a possibility for me and if I would enjoy it.
BK: Did you enjoy it?
JV: I really loved it. I really loved every part of the process. It was just so exciting and fun.
BK: Doubt has become such a powerful tool over the years, and it really came down hard on this particular news story when it aired on television. Were you ever worried as a writer or as a director of getting caught up in that realm of doubt to where it was hard to distinguish between both sides of the argument?
JV: I don’t know about worried. We tried to present a bunch of different arguments in the film. It was important to us and important to me that the film was, although some might characterize it as trying to prove a point, not a film that’s trying to prove a point. What I love is seeing people come out of it discussing it and arguing about it, and that’s great to me. Seeing a married couple come out of it and one of them saying absolutely she should’ve been fired, and the other one going, “What are you crazy?” Apparently, I just enjoy discordant marriages (laughs). But the goal for me first and foremost was just to tell a really interesting story about this woman and what she went through and make it an emotional story. We didn’t want it to be homework. You want it to be a real tale and an emotional story. If audiences go on that journey and then maybe if they also think a little bit about media and where we are right now, all of that would-be gravy.
Enough time has passed since this “60 Minutes” news story premiered to where we should be able to view it more objectively, and “Truth” will give audiences a lot to think about as it is not so much about whether or Mapes got the story right or not, but of how much a casualty truth can be when it comes to presidential politics and personal bias.
“Truth” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.