Acclaimed documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler, who premiered his latest, The World According to Dick Cheney, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, dishes on what it’s like to hang out with the imposing former vice president.
In The World According to Dick Cheney, filmmaker R.J. Cutler chronicles Cheney’s rise from a two-time Yale dropout popped for two DUIs to the youngest White House chief of staff in history under President Gerald Ford, and then, the most influential vice president in history under George W. Bush. The documentary includes hours of exclusive sit-down interviews with Cheney, where the unapologetic, irascible politician shares his thoughts on everything from CIA torture to the Iraq War.
After the film made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, director R.J. Cutler spoke to The Daily Beast about what it’s like spending time with one of the scariest men in politics.
Who’s the more imposing subject: Anna Wintour or Dick Cheney?
Come on! They’re so different. I spent nine months filming Anna almost every day and I interviewed Vice President Cheney over four days for five hours a day. Both certainly remarkable people who have left indelible marks on their industry. [Laughs]
How did you get Dick Cheney to agree to this documentary?
I was advised early on that patience would be my best friend in seeking access to vice president Cheney. I wrote him a letter in August of 2011 inviting him to participate, and it wasn’t until March of 2012, seven months later, that he invited me to have lunch with him and discuss the film. Soon thereafter, he agreed to be interviewed. But the pitch was that I wanted to tell his story, wanted his voice to be at the center of it, and I wanted it to be a dialogue and an active conversation about key moments that defined his life, career, and worldview.
Were there any subjects where Cheney completely stonewalled you and went, “Next question?”
There’s one moment in the film, and it’s in the film, where I ask him to tell me the details of a conversation his then-girlfriend and future wife, Lynn, had with him [to kick his ass into shape after his second DUI], and he said he’d prefer to keep that private. Otherwise, there was nothing he refused to answer or discuss.
Some things that people would expect to be very controversial he knows what he thinks about them and is very clear. I found it startling and truly Cheney-esque when we talk about what he calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” and he pits duty vs. honor, and there’s no question to him that duty trumps honor. I’m not sure that’s true. And he does not believe waterboarding is torture, and does not believe captured terrorists should be protected under the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, he believes that it works as a technique. And, even if it works, is that who we want to be as a nation? That’s where Cheney in the film says, “You don’t want to be known as a mean and nasty fellow? You don’t want your honor to be questioned? Why would those things matter when compared to protecting America?” And audience members will have their own answers to those questions.
Did you try to get George W. Bush to participate? Or are he and Cheney no longer on speaking terms?
We did not. Well, that relationship broke over Scooter Libby. I think it’s extremely revealing of Cheney the man that his loyalty to Libby led him to end his relationship with Bush when Bush refused to pardon Libby. At the same time, it’s very revealing of where Bush had come to in terms of his own sense of his relationship with Cheney, that he too was willing to have the relationship break over that.
There are a few personal incidents that didn’t make the film, like Cheney shooting his friend, his lesbian daughter and, until recently, his stance against gay rights, etc.
This is a 40-year career and a 70-plus-year life. This movie is complete and whole unto itself. It’s about Dick Cheney’s life and career in the context of his work as a politician, and his work as someone in the executive branch of our government. This man is, I dare say, the single most impactful nonpresidential figure that America has ever known, and probably will ever know, and I wanted to understand not only the key questions in his career, but about leadership and who we want our leaders to be. I believe a successful democracy requires leaders of conviction—men and women who believe in things, will go to Washington, and fight it out. The weight of leaders who don’t believe in anything is so burdensome it can drown a democracy. Whereas we have learned that men and women who believe in things are the engine that moves us forward. But there is a point at which conviction can become destructive to a democracy as well, and I think vice president Cheney’s career raises questions about that.
People have formulated their own perceptions of the man, but what’s it like to actually sit across from Dick Cheney?
He’s very engaging. It was very satisfying to talk to him. He knows his mind, clearly, and knows his life story and what he believes and is not afraid to say so. If your readers want to know what it’s like to sit across from Dick Cheney and talk to him, they should see the film.
Did you try to go hunting with him, or were you too scared?
[Laughs] I went fly-fishing with him! And to his credit, when I went fly-fishing with him he caught a 20-pounder, and we did not include it in the film. So he deserved better when it comes to catching fish.
The World According to Dick Cheney will air on Showtime on March 15.