September 2009

Buff or Polish?

Prepping to pitch Anna Wintour requires a hands-on approach


r.j. cutler, manicure, anna wintour, the september issue Photo by Scott Council

A few weeks after reaching out to Vogue with the idea of making a documentary of Anna Wintour, my phone rang. It was Patrick O’Connell, Vogue’s director of communications. “Anna’s interested,” he said. “Can you come to New York to meet her?” I told him I was looking forward to it. “Anna likes the idea,” I told my head of development, Mary Lisio. “She wants to meet.”

Mary’s face screwed up as if something smelled bad. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You have to get a manicure,” she said. “You cannot meet Anna Wintour with those nails.”

I love documentaries because I get to float into the worlds of fascinating people for months at a time, experiencing things I’d otherwise never see. When making The War Room and A Perfect Candidate, I witnessed historic political campaigns through the eyes of their chief strategists. During The Residents, I scrubbed in for cutting-edge organ-transplant surgeries. While filming American High and Freshman Diaries, I saw what it was like to be 18 at the turn of the millennium.

As much as these worlds were unfamiliar to me, I’ve always felt somewhat at home with my subjects. After all, I’ve been a political junkie my whole life; I grew up in a family of physicians; and I was, in fact, once a teenager. So I entered each of those projects with a certain level of familiarity. But now I was considering making a film set in a world about which I knew absolutely nothing: high fashion. What would it be like to work inside this universe? How would I fit in?

The morning of my meeting at Vogue, I followed Mary’s advice and found my way to a salon. As this was my first manicure, I didn’t know what to expect, but I definitely hadn’t imagined ripping, cutting and tearing. It was a festival of violence. And the blood! Suddenly my fingers and I were starring in our very own slasher film. Plus, the manicurist seemed so angry at me. Why? What had I done? Apparently a lifetime of biting my nails was more than enough to release her rage.

Then, just at the height of the bloodbath, something fantastic happened. There was a whirl of activity, lotions were employed—and the gore was gone. My cuticles were pristine, my fingernails long and firm. My hands looked like they belonged to someone with, well, beautiful hands.

I sat there, admiring the new me from the wrists down, when I realized that the manicurist was saying something. I had a hard time understanding her Korean accent, but I was too afraid to do anything but smile and nod— it sounded like she was offering me butter almonds. I kept nodding. There was another flurry of activity, and then, voilà, we were done.

Bursting with pride, I headed to Vogue feeling confident, attractive. I hadn’t even met Anna Wintour, and I was already becoming a fashionista. Fitting in was gonna be easy.

I arrived at 4 Times Square, where Mary was waiting. “Look!” I said, wiggling my new fingers. “Aren’t they great?!” To my astonishment, she didn’t seem happy at all. “My God,” she said, “what have you done?”

“I got a manicure,” I boasted.

“But why did you let them polish your nails?” she asked. I then realized what the manicurist was saying when I thought she was offering me butter almonds. “Buff or polish?” And I chose polish. Clearly, I had made the wrong choice.

“Hide them!” Mary scolded, as we made our way to the 12th floor of the Condé Nast building. “Whatever you do, don’t let Anna see those nails.” I was devastated but followed along, scooching my hands under my sweater sleeves.

As the meeting began, I was convinced Wintour could see what had happened and was staring disapprovingly at my hands. Certain I had already blown it, I began my pitch. I explained my approach to making movies: that I am there to observe, not judge; that I enter with curiosity, not an agenda; that all I really wanted to do was show what she does and how she does it. We talked about other documentaries we both admired. Wintour suggested the September issue of Vogue as a structuring device for the film and explained that it’s the major pursuit of her team over the course of any given year. I loved the idea and told her so.

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 thrilled. In a single meeting, we had discussed the approach, agreed on a concept and navigated the sometimes choppy waters of final cut. 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.

The most critical thing when I start to make a film is that the subject fascinates me and promises a world of discovery. Wintour did all of that and more.

“It’s a good thing she didn’t see those nails,” Mary teased. But we both knew the truth: The nails didn’t matter. Anna Wintour didn’t care if I had a manicure or not—she cared what kind of a filmmaker I was. Entering the unfamiliar world of Vogue didn’t mean I had to change who I was—in fact, quite the opposite.

The lesson was clear: The more unfamiliar the world you’re entering, the more important it is to remain exactly who you are. I didn’t need to become a fash­ionista—I needed to be myself.

R.J. CUTLER is the award-winning director and producer of The War Room. His latest, The September Issue, hits theaters on Sept. 11.