You don’t have to wear Prada to recognize Anna Wintour—Vogue‘s legendary editor-in-chief, who is always centerstage (sunglasses firmly in place) in the front row at the world’s top fashion shows. But how many people actually know Wintour? That’s the question R.J. Cutler asks—and answers—in his new documentary, The September Issue.

Just before the film’s DVD release, the Emmy-winning documentarian took some time to speak with MM about his moviemaking philosophy and what it takes to gain the trust of your subjects.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Research can be a moviemaker’s best friend or worst enemy. While you want to get a general sense of who the person you’ll spend the next several months of your life with is, you also don’t want to be influenced by what others have said/written about her before. How much research did you do on Anna Wintour before you started shooting?

R.J. Cutler (RC): Actually, blissfully little. The advantage I had going into this film— as counterintuitive as this may sound—is that I knew next to nothing about the fashion industry and very little about Anna and the folks who worked at Vogue. I had a general sense of who they were and what they do, but that was more than enough for me. I did not want to enter with preconceived notions or expectations, because I wanted everything I saw and experienced to be new and fresh and I wanted to draw my own conclusions and have the benefit of my own observations and experiences. So, in this case, I really did close to no research and I have to be honest, I really believe it was to the benefit of the whole filmmaking experience.

MM: I know that it was Anna herself who suggested focusing the film on the September issue of Vogue. If your initial meeting with her had been an arm wrestling competition, who would have won?

RC: With all respect to the hypothetical posed by the question, it wasn’t an arm wrestling contest and we weren’t adversaries with conflicting objectives; it was a meeting of two people who thought they might want to work together on a project. I can only tell you my experience, Anna would have to tell you hers, but as I got to know her during that initial meeting I thought this is somebody I would like to make a film about, this is somebody who I’d like to spend the better part of a year filming and getting to know and answering very simple questions. Who is she? What does she do? How does she do what she does? Who does she do it with? I was compelled and there were a lot of things that compelled me about her. Of course her track record and reputation, but also her presence in the room and the fact that when I told her ‘I’m going to need to have final cut if we do this,’ the way she responded, her understanding of that. She said, “That’s not going to be an issue. My father was a journalist, I’m a journalist and it’s not going to be a problem.” I was certainly grateful to her for supporting me and supporting the fact that if we were going to make this film, I was going to have final cut. But i was also stuck by the fact that she was talking about her father. This reputedly impenetrable, sphinx-like figure was talking to me about her father. I saw in that a window in—a thread that I could pull on that might lead me somewhere. And as you know from seeing the film, it did lead me somewhere.

MM: I find it amazing that Anna agreed when you told her you’d have final cut—but I imagine it’s also difficult to balance the job of getting a subject to feel comfortable enough to open up to you and being the guy who could reveal their deepest, darkest secrets to the world. Do you have any sort of “unwritten rules” about what you will or will not shoot or include in a film?

RC: Well you’re putting your finger right on the key issue; your question is at the central issue of the process of making a film like The September Issue. That is that there must be trust between the subject and the filmmaker. The subject must trust the filmmaker, must trust the director, must trust the cameraman, must trust the sound guy. It’s an absolute requirement. Not only the main subject, Anna Wintour, but everybody that we were filming with must trust us. That was our experience. Even once you’re invited in, really the invitation—the access—is an invitation to earn trust, it’s an opportunity to earn trust. So I had to earn Anna’s trust, I had to earn Grace’s trust, I had to earn André’s trust, even Elissa Santisi, Sally Singer, Tom Florio… people that aren’t in the film that much, but that are part of the day-to-day bloodstream of what happens at Vogue. People had to trust us and our entire approach is based on that.

It becomes absolutely critical that we are who we say we are, that we act consistently with our commitment to them and our commitment is based on the foundation that the story doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to them. It’s my movie, but it’s not my story. It’s Anna’s story and it’s Grace’s story and I have to respect that, so everything we do kind of follows from that. We’re not there to get in the way of the fact that they have a magazine to produce, we’re not there to sort of sneak around the corner and steal shots or film when we say we’re not filming, we have to act in a trustworthy manner and be who we say we are. We find that if we’re consistently who we say we are and who we are is a filmmaking team that wants to see who these people are, what they do, how they do what they do and who they do it with, then we find if we keep to our word, then we will earn the trust of our subjects and they will share with us everything in their lives. It will no longer be about us saying ‘Can I see this?’ It will be about them saying to us, “Please, I want you to see this, I want you to know this about me” and that’s what happened over the process of making this film.

MM: It’s clear that one of Anna’s greatest talents is her ability to intimidate all those around her. As much as the film is about Anna, audiences really “discover” her through the people around her—her daughter, Vogue‘s publisher, her staff (most notably Grace). Did it take a while for people to open up to you in this way?
RC: You always learn about people from other people. You always do. I began my career as a theater director and I once had a very wise teacher who asked the following question: “How do you know the King has just walked on stage?” All the students in the class said things like, he’s wearing a crown or he’s wearing a robe or trumpets blare. “None of this is necessarily true,” said the teacher. “What happens if the man is on a pogo stick wearing a jock strap, how do you know he’s the King?” Nobody could come up with an answer and finally he said, “You know he’s the king because everyone bows.” That’s how I think about these things. Any character that I have in the film I am coming to learn through the actions of other people. We learn through the reactions of others who everyone is. I think it’s an astute observation on your part to see that in this film we learn about Anna in particular through the effect she has on other people, but I think you would find that to be the case in almost any story, quite honestly.

MM: Unless you’re a reality television star, it’s hard to feel comfortable with a camera following you around. And those who work in the fashion industry are a particularly camera-conscious lot. How did this impact your decision on the type of equipment to use? Do you have a go-to camera or does each project require its own specific considerations?

RC: Certainly every film you make is a different set of challenges. In a way you think of it as a different puzzle that needs to be solved. In this case I knew that the film had to look a certain way, I wanted it to be beautiful, but I also wanted to catch the raw verite and intimacy of the office scenes. We shot with the Panasonic AJ-HDX900, which is a High Definition camera; it’s not a tiny camera, but it’s not unwieldy. But again, the comfort level of the subject is coming not from the fact that we’re using a big camera or a small camera, the comfort level of the subject is coming from the fact that the subject trusts the filmmaker. We earn their trust on this level or we help them achieve a comfort level by being people first. We get to know them as people, they get to know us as people. We don’t enter filming, we enter saying hello. For the first several months of shooting, most of what you’re doing is getting to know each other. You’re filming, but you’re also getting to know each other.

There are a couple of misnomers in this type of filmmaking: One is that you become a fly on the wall and another is that you fade into the woodwork. We’re neither flies on the wall nor are we woodwork; we’re people, we’re human beings, we’re in a room. We don’t want our subjects to forget that we’re there, what we want is for them to be as comfortable with us as they would be with anyone with whom they are comfortable being themselves. We want them to be themselves with us. We want them to be fully comfortable being themselves, so we get to know them as people, they get to know us as people, they’re comfortable being themselves and that’s when the significance of the presence of the camera fades away. In addition, we’re filming for seven and a half months, after a while everybody is themselves. Nobody is a good enough actor not to be themselves and so that’s what you see in the film.

MM: One of my favorite scenes in the film is when your cameraman, Bob Richman, is asked to take part in a Vogue photo shoot. And when Anna gets a look at the shots, advises him to go the gym—much to Grace’s chagrin. So the big question is: Did Bob get Photoshopped or what?

RC: As you see in the film Grace has the final word on that when she instructs Charlie not to airbrush Bob. He did not get Photoshopped, but he did go to the gym and—I dare say—he’s been to the gym more or less every day since.

MM: I think a lot of people go into the film expecting one thing and it turns out to be something else entirely. It’s not just a film for “fashion” people—in fact, you don’t even need to know who Anna is to enjoy the film. What do you hope audiences take away from it?

RC: I totally agree with you, but for me it’s not a movie about fashion, it’s a movie about people and all movies are. It’s a story of two women, a working relationship that spans two decades. A relationship that seems on first appearance to be built in conflict, two women who appear to be polar opposites representing mythic conflicts; art and commerce, fire and ice, you name it. You think that it’s all about the conflict, but as you get to know them and understand what they do and see the extraordinary work that comes from their relationship, you see that theirs is not a relationship of conflict but a relationship of symbiosis. That in fact they not only drive each other to greater and greater heights, they need each other to accomplish what they’ve accomplished. Together they have done some remarkable things and really lead the fashion industry to become what it has become. That’s what I want people to experience and see and they can relate in that story to stories that have nothing to do with fashion. This happens to take place in the fashion world, it’s a great rich landscape for story telling, but the story itself transcends the specifics of the world in which it occurs.

The September Issue is now available on DVD.