Director R.J. Cutler knows a few things about landing tough interviews, like prickly Vogue editor Anna Wintour and some of Bill Clinton's campaign advisers. But nothing has compared to landing Dick Cheney, the former vice president and subject of Cutler's new documentary premiering Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.
For more than nine months, Cutler--whose credits include “The War Room,” about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign staff--pursued an interview with Cheney, who has never tried to conceal his disdain for the media. But early last year, well after Cutler had begun work on a documentary about Cheney’s 40-year political career, the ex-VP finally agreed to meet with Cutler to hear the director's pitch about why he should participate in the movie.
“It took a lot of patience and calming of nerves because up until that point, we didn’t really know if we were going to even have a chance to make the movie we really wanted to make,” Cutler said in a telephone interview with Yahoo News.
Over lunch, Cheney pressed Cutler on whether he would have a chance to tell his side of the story or if it the film was just going to be a hit job featuring Cheney's many critics. Cutler told the former VP that he wasn’t entering the process with any “pre-conceived notion or agenda”—in spite of the fact that Cheney has been considered one of the most polarizing political figures in recent memory.
“I just told him that I wanted to tell his story and that included making his voice as central in the film as anybody else’s,” Cutler recalled.
Not long after their two-hour meeting, Cheney agreed to cooperate with the project and ultimately sat down for four days and nearly 20 hours of interviews. Those interviews form the foundation of “The World According to Dick Cheney,” which is scheduled to air on Showtime in March after its debut at Sundance.
The nearly 2-hour film explores Cheney’s full biography, from his troubled youth— he was kicked out of Yale twice and arrested for drunk driving in his home state of Wyoming—to his rise as one of the most influential and controversial Republicans in Washington. The film includes interviews with Cheney, his wife Lynne, and a cadre of both critics and longtime allies of Cheney, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who first hired Cheney during a stint in the Nixon White House and worked closely with him in the Ford and Bush administrations.
“His vice presidency is as consequential and controversial as any vice presidency we’ve had in this country. He is, I believe, the most significant non-presidential political figure that America has ever known,” Cutler said.
For Cheney’s critics, the film is unlikely to change their opinions. From its opening moments, Cheney seems as defiant as ever about criticism that he went too far in the policies he pushed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
“The ones that spend all their time trying to be loved by everybody probably aren’t doing much. If you aren’t prepared to have critics, to be subject to criticism, you’re in the wrong line of work,” Cheney bluntly declares in the film. “ If you want to be loved, go be a movie star.”
The former vice president, whose office did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story, speaks at length about the controversies that embroiled his vice presidency. He continues to defend the Bush administration’s embrace of enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, which is widely considered a form of torture. President Barack Obama banned the use of waterboarding when he took office in 2009.
"Are you going to trade the lives of other people because you want to preserve your honor?" Cheney replies when asked about waterboarding and other controversial interrogation techniques. "You do what’s required. That’s not a close call for me."
And Cheney continues to deflect criticism that his office exaggerated intelligence findings that claimed Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s was pursuing weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaida—claims that later turned out to be false.
Cheney also speaks about his fractured relationship with his ex-boss, former President George W. Bush, who refused to grant a pardon to Scooter Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, who was indicted for lying to investigators looking into who leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to the press.
Cheney acknowledges the disagreement over Libby put a "a major strain" and "added considerable friction" to his relationship with Bush--a relationship that he and former staffers hint hasn't quite recovered. Bush did not participate in the film.
Cutler says Cheney answered every single question he was asked—save for one. The former vice president declined to speak about what his then-future wife Lynne said to him after he was arrested for drunk driving a second time in Wyoming when he was 21. The moment has been considered a turning point in Cheney’s life.
“She clearly threatened to leave him,” Cutler says. “But he wouldn’t talk about it. That’s the only thing he refused to answer. Everything else, he talked about.”
In 2007, Cutler convinced Vogue editor Anna Wintour to let him film her and her staff behind the scenes as they put together “The September Issue,” the magazine’s biggest edition of the year. The film was credited with humanizing Wintour, who at the time was struggling to live down her depiction as the boss from hell in “The Devil Wears Prada,” a Roman a clef written by Wintour's former assistant.
Cutler was wary of predicting whether his new film would do the same for Cheney, acknowledging that it is likely to spur more spirited discussions about Cheney’s vice presidency.
But Cheney’s decision to participate in the movie seems to contradict his insistence that he doesn’t pay mind to his critics—a point he makes again and again throughout the film.
“I don’t lie awake at night wondering, ‘Gee what are they going to say about me now?’” Cheney tells Cutler at one point. “(I did) what I thought was right. I did what I did, it’s all on the public record and I feel very good about it. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”
Cutler says Cheney has seen the film--though he declined to describe the former vice president's reaction. A big mystery heading into Friday's premiere is whether Cheney will show up--or whether he will do anything to promote the film ahead of its premiere on Showtime later this spring.