“Write and Re-Write.” Screenwriter James Vanderbilt Discusses ‘Truth,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Zodiac’

[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]

Based on the memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes, James Vanderbilt’s Truth is a behind-the-curtain retelling of the happenings that occurred at 60 Minutes II in 2004. Essentially, Mapes ran a team of reporters to uncover a story regarding George W. Bush’s time in the National Guard. The heated segment immediately caused Americans to pick sides and the controversial reporting led to Mapes and Dan Rather being asked to leave CBS.

At the film’s heart are the consequences of the relationship between Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett).With the film’s release, present-day CBS is choosing not to air advertising space for the Sony Pictures Film due to the content. Despite your opinion on the news story, Vanderbilt insists that his Truth is a film rather than a documentary. Ironically, CBS’ attempts to hide or discredit the film are producing a contrary result.

Robert Redford as Dan Rather, Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes and Bruce Greenwood as Andrew Heyward in Truth

Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you into screenwriting?

I had always wanted to be a writer. Since I was about five and I knew that there was a job where you just tell stories, I wanted to write. I grew up in the 80s, when movies were the coin of the realm, so the idea of writing movies progressed naturally.

I’m from Connecticut originally and I got into USC, but not their film school. I remember telling my father that I wanted to take a year off to apply to other schools and he laughed and said, ‘You’re going to college in the fall.’

So when I came to USC, I met a guy named Chris Fedak, who was an undergraduate in the film-writing program. I actually didn’t know there was a writing program since it was so much smaller than the other parts of the film school. Chris and I became friends and the following year he wrote me a recommendation so I could get into the program. Chris actually went on to create the show Chuck. He’s a wonderful writer in his own right and he was my ticket into the film school at USC.

You mentioned 80s films, what were some of your influences growing up?

I was about 6 or 7 when the VCR came out. We would go the video store on weekends and I would rent Raiders of the Lost Ark every weekend. As I got a little older, my parents started showing me films from the 70s. All the President’s Men was enormous in my household. Jaws… The Godfather films… Lethal Weapon… Die Hard… Anything from James Cameron: Terminator, Aliens, T2. All of the staples. Star Wars was enormous.

There were several different things and genres, which is what I believe has led me to write such diversity in my films. It’s that video store feeling where sometimes you’re into comedy, sometimes you’re into drama, or sometimes you’re into adventure. There’s room for everything.

Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark

What brought you on board for Truth?

I’ve always been fascinated with journalism. A few years ago I wrote and produced Zodiac (Dir. David Fincher). Around that time, I started to consider directing. I’ve always been a big journalism buff and it’s the only other occupation I’ve ever considered for myself. I saw it as another form of storytelling and I’m fascinated by that other world.

Mary was the producer of this 60 Minutes story that aired in September 2004 about George W. Bush’s National Guard service. The story created this enormous firestorm. Ultimately, Mary, Dan Rather and CBS were accused of airing forged documents as part of their story and that forgery is actually still in dispute. I was taken by the story behind the story. I followed the controversy during it’s time but I never thought about it as a film until I read Mary’s book and was struck by how much I didn’t know about a story I thought a knew a lot about.

I love movies that take you behind the curtain and teach you something. The reason heist movies are so exciting is because you’re learning to rob a bank, or break into a vault or rob the Bellagio. So I thought it would be fascinating to learn how these news stories are put together. It says a lot about where we are in journalism and where we’re going.

And, of course, at the center of this, there is this incredible woman — incredible character — that can make for this amazing role. This led me to contact Mary Mapes and eventually option her book.

Similar to Zodiac, there are still very strong opinions on both sides of this controversial story. How much research was involved outside of Mapes’ book and how much pressure does the controversy add when writing and directing a film like this?

I did a lot of research outside of the book. Like Zodiac, I tried to speak to as many people as possible that were involved to get as many different viewpoints as possible. I’m drawn to stories where there is this unknowable thing at the center of the story. With Zodiac, we are unsure of the killer and with Truth, we question the documents and the actions that swirl around those documents.

So there is a ton of research and conversations both on and off the record. Some people were understandably nervous about talking to me. I’m fine speaking to people off the record but it’s important to take all of that information and put it together to tell the best story as honestly as you can through the eyes of your protagonist.

In terms of added pressure, I didn’t feel pressure making the film, but I did feel pressure writing the film. Once we had the screenplay vetted the way we wanted to and we were confident about it, the job was then just to make it as best we could. We tried to make it as emotional, interesting, and moving as possible.

With the story, I was very conscious that this had to be a movie first. It’s not a documentary. You’ve got to care about these characters. You’ve got to take this journey with them. I purposely structured the film where you are on the ground, taking this journey with them. There are always a dozen ways to skin a cat. You could start with Mary being ten years old, like a biopic. You could start the movie the day after the story runs and have it all fall apart. I wanted the audience to participate along this journey, through the character’s eyes, step-by-step.

With that in mind, it’s important that the audience see the team come together in the first scene of the film. Watch them come together… watch them run down these leads, so when things do come together the audience has participated in that journey, to understand why the characters have the reactions that they do as the wheels come off the wagon.

Robert Redford, James Vanderbilt and Stacy Keach on set of Truth

What was the timeline like for the writing process?

I optioned the book in 2006 and finished the first draft in 2007. Most of that year was researching and writing the first draft. Once I start writing, I try to finish the draft very quickly. The first draft is always terrible and I forget that all of the time. I’m always shocked at how bad the first draft can be no matter how many times I’ve done it. The unfortunate truth is that writing is re-writing.

I tend to put off the draft as much as possible, especially when there is this much information. I spend the bulk of the time talking to people, making outlines, and adding notes for myself on different structural ideas. In a true story, you can’t really play with the sequence of events unless you’re adding flashbacks. There is one scene in the beginning that is somewhat of a flash-forward and then we jump back and the remainder of the film is told chronologically.

So I fill up notebooks and conduct interviews and then transcribe those interviews where I may even take dialogue from the interviews. I went through Mapes’ book with a pen and folded over pages until the book ended up looking like this raggedy manuscript, similar to the J.J. Abrams novel, S. Then I speed up and the actual draft probably only took two months. Then you show it to people you trust and have them drill into you. It’s like any screenplay — you have to keep working it and working it.

During those two months of writing, what are your writing rituals?

When I first started, I would write a lot at night. I don’t really do that anymore because I have kids now and there was a woman nice enough to marry me so I can’t really sit up until three in the morning. I usually get up and have some coffee, take the kids to school and then do a little writing in the morning, break for lunch, and then try to get in a second session in the afternoon. I quit by five or six and have a normal night. I wouldn’t call it a nine to five because I can take off and hit the beach but it’s more like the way you see Mad Men where you can take a break and go to a movie.

But I do approach it in a more methodical way. I’m not up all night drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes anymore. I spend a lot of time outlining and I try to dedicate a notebook to each project so I have a bunch of white pages to write down ideas and make connections between these ideas. That helps me tie together those random thoughts in my head and I didn’t realize I should write those down until about five years ago. Those notes have been really helpful.

What do you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?

Probably whatever step I’m on. Whenever I’m writing the first draft, I’m usually struggling, and then on the version of the draft right before filming, I’m ready to work on something new. So the grass is always a little greener…

I write very long drafts — way too long to shoot. I’m envious of my friends who write a first draft that’s only 95 pages. My first drafts are usually 170 pages so most of my work comes from shortening the drafts. Truth is only a two-hour movie, so by hook or by crook, you have to narrow it down. The shooting script for Zodiac was 200-pages, but it was what it was. So the part of cutting down is perhaps the most difficult for me. Everyone has seen a movie where they enjoyed it, but they know it could have been fifteen minutes shorter.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith and Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery in Zodiac

When you write such a diverse of collection of films — Truth, Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man — is there one thing that makes a great story?

Isn’t that the ultimate question? I think as long as you are emotional involved. Forget about my work, but as a filmgoer, if I’m on the edge of my seat, wanting to know what’s next, then that’s what I’m looking for.

Take the great romantic comedies where you hope the couple ends up together. I’m sitting there, a 39-year old man who works in Hollywood and who knows they will end up together, but the movie has a way of making me feel unsure because of what he said to her at dinner, then I’m invested in something. When you know all of the magic tricks and they still make you feel emotion and investment into the character, that is a great story.

We are a film-literate audience and we know the tricks and we know what’s cliché, but if we care about the characters, there is something extra in a great film that makes you want to take the ride. If you care about these characters, it can become the most influential thing in the world.

Truth was your first shot at directing — what was that like?

It was incredible. The crew and the cast were very supportive. We had the Murderer’s Row of great actors, who were amazing to work with. People say that directing is an extension of screenwriting and I agree with that in theory. More realistically, however, those people are liars because writing is sitting in a room alone, making stuff up, while directing is having hundreds of people looking at you for answers. Both tasks are truly different skillsets, but I loved the experience.

Directing is almost a mathematical level of problem solving where you are required to get X number of pages done within a certain time. No matter how hard you work as screenwriter, it’s really in that moment with the actors and cameras when you find out what can be captured and whether it’s real or whether it’s false. There’s something truly wonderful about that.

Elisabeth Moss as Lucy Scott, Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, Topher Grace as Mike Smith and Dennis Quaid as Lt. Colonel Roger Charles in Truth

What advice do you have for upcoming writers?

Write as much as you can. Re-write as much as you can. Be brutal on your work. Be your own harshest critic. Read a lot of screenplays. Read a lot of good screenplays. Don’t just read your friend’s work. Read produced screenplays. Read Shane Black, William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky — just go online and learn the craft of screenwriting. There is so much to learn. Read how Shane Black writes a script or how Aaron Sorkin constructs a scene. Learn how they use descriptions.

There is so much you don’t see in a film that you can read on a page. See how these brilliant writers use their words to convey emotion. Someone once told me you have to write seven bad screenplays before you can write a good screenplay and I said ‘whatever’ like any young punk would. Seven bad screenplays later, I realized that guy was right.

Go out and make stuff. Take an acting class. Take a psychology class. Take a directing class. Work on short films. Try directing. Try acting. Walk in the shoes of other people that you may be working with on set. Get on a movie set if you can. Immerse yourself in the business as much as possible.

My professor, John Furia, said he was always asked the question, ‘How do I break into the business?’ His answer always stuck with me. He said, ‘The question is not how to break into the business. If you work hard enough then you’ll get your shot. Your question should be, how do I stay in the business?’ It’s not about the big break. It’s about that point where they ask you, ‘What else do you have?’ It’s about building a career. Don’t focus on that one perfect idea you have. Write a bunch of different things. Experiment. Try everything.

Anything else you would like to add about Truth?

Cate Blanchett is the actress of a generation and Redford is certainly the actor of his. Just watching the two of them spar in the ring together is amazing. It’s a really emotional story first and foremost. I know it can be divisive for many people, but at its core, it’s a story about their relationship and what they went through together. It’s a fascinating, unique story that most people will enjoy.

Did you get a positive response from the depicted, such as Dan Rather and Mary Mapes?

Absolutely. We really did. They felt we got it. Not just the factual moments, but also the actual tone and the feeling of journalism. That was high-praise.

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