Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that this year is no 2007 than in the new documentary “The September Issue,” directed by R.J. Cutler, which goes behind the scenes for the production of the massive 840-page issue of Vogue magazine for September 2007. By focusing on the magazine’s longtime editor, the enigmatically imperious Anna Wintour, and her less well-known but no less headstrong creative director, Grace Coddington, the film charts the intersection of art and commerce with a perhaps inadvertent eye for an excess that wasn’t to last.
Opening in Los Angeles on Friday, the film has been a buzz item even before its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for its promise of an unguarded glimpse of Wintour at work. Cutler and his crew followed Wintour and her staff from January to mid-August in 2007, capturing cavalierly discarded photo shoots, the complex communication system of nervous glances among staffers and the blend of business savvy, showmanship and sheer will that has made Wintour such a powerfully galvanizing figure in the fashion world.
“I have to be honest, as an outsider to this world, the depths of this startled me while we were filming,” Cutler said by phone regarding the intensity of the curiosity over Wintour.
“I had no idea. I don’t want to be naive, of course I was aware of her power and her position and that she was the reputed inspiration for the Miranda Priestly character in ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ but I neither had a full appreciation of the depth of this interest nor, to be honest, the magnitude of her influence.”
If the American edition of Vogue is the most influential fashion magazine in the world, that would make Wintour arguably the single most influential person in the fashion industry, someone who sits at the exact nexus of the fantasy, glamour and aspiration sold by the magazine and the manufacturers, retailers and advertisers that drive it.
Creative director Coddington, on the other hand, is a former model turned top fashion stylist, who creates elegant storybook layouts. If Coddington is concerned with the aesthetic, narrative possibilities of fashion, Wintour is passionate about the bottom line.
“The film isn’t really a movie about how a magazine gets made,” Cutler said. “This is a movie about two women. By no means is this the comprehensive story of the September issue of Vogue in 2007.”
There are, naturally, those who wish the film had gone deeper.
“I think it’s clear that it was made by filmmakers who had an outsider’s perspective,” said Jenna Sauers, a contributor to the fashion and culture website Jezebel.com and a former model.
A self-described “Vogue-watcher,” Sauers compares understanding the institutional culture at the magazine to deciphering the mysteriously mixed signals that came from the governments of China and Russia in the 1970s.
“Sometimes, the most basic questions are the best ones,” continued Sauers, “but it also limits you in the upper registers. It’s an extremely charming film, but there are moments you wish they had done more, especially considering their access.”
Cutler is a veteran documentary director and producer with credits that include the political campaign pictures “The War Room” and “A Perfect Candidate” as well as the television series “American High.” Wintour agreed to participate in the project after her first meeting with Cutler -- “I think she wouldn’t have bothered to meet with me if she had not already decided she was inclined to do it,” he said. It was Coddington who took months of prodding to participate once shooting was already underway.
As for the reasons his subjects ultimately agreed to take part, Cutler said he learned from filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker to never ask why.
“It is such a personal decision,” said Cutler, “we can always guess as to why somebody would want to do it, but we’re just speculating. I like to respect that it is a personal decision and really it’s none of my business.”
Wintour is reportedly amid a contract negotiation with her employers at the publishing house Conde Nast, one possibility for why the notoriously tight-lipped editor has of late been on what Sauers referred to as a “charm offensive.” She has made appearances on behalf of the film -- she attended the Sundance premiere -- was profiled on “60 Minutes” and, perhaps most surprisingly, recently appeared on “Late Show With David Letterman.” She entered, of course, wearing her trademark sunglasses.
“My take on the movie was as a portrait of a time in publishing, which I think has now passed,” said Sauers, noting that the September 2009 issue of Vogue was down to 584 pages. “Vogue is still Vogue, but I wonder if they’re still throwing out $50,000 worth of work. I found the film extremely insightful in places, and I do think there is value in it just being a portrait of a time and place. That might not make it a great film, but it is fascinating.”
For people like Wintour and Coddington, whose industry is image and illusion, it is difficult to imagine that they would not remain hyper-aware of what they are projecting to the camera at all times, a sophisticated, created sense of self. Coddington admits in the film to using the camera crew to unnerve Wintour and spy on editorial decisions, ultimately even including the crew in a photo spread.
Nevertheless, Cutler insists that Wintour, like some rare bird, revealed herself to his cameras.
“Certainly, anybody who agrees to be a subject in one of my films is entitled to their own objectives for why they’re doing it,” Cutler said, “but it is extremely difficult for anybody to not be themselves for seven, eight, nine months. I would say it’s not possible.
“This is Anna Wintour. It’s not like she’s doing something else when the cameras aren’t on. She really let herself be seen.”