His classmates were readying for their week of freedom — for the aimless bike rides, ice cream cones, sunburns. But R.J. Cutler would not waste his spring break. Just before the bell rang at New York's Great Neck North Junior High, he marched up to his English teacher and declared that, just like Cameron Crowe, he was going to become a professional journalist.
Sure, he had only a week. But in 1976, Crowe was just five years Cutler's senior and already writing for Rolling Stone; he had to play catch-up. So he called Time and Newsweek begging for an assignment. But the only outlet that was willing to give the 14-year-old a shot was the Yipster Times, the alternative publication released by the radical, anti-conformist Youth International Party.
FOR THE RECORD:
R.J. Cutler: An article in the Aug. 21 Calendar section about filmmaker R.J. Cutler said he had co-written the pilot of the ABC drama "Nashville." Cutler developed and directed the episode.
He'd always been interested in politics, watching the nightly "Huntley-Brinkley Report" with his parents. But covering the Yippies' marijuana-infused national convention proved to be a seminal moment for Cutler — the point at which a vague blueprint of his adult life began to take shape.
"It's a time of life that fascinates me," said Cutler, now 52. "I always find myself gravitating toward stories of transformation, and one of those periods is teenage life. When teenagers are figuring out who they are and have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood — I think that's a really mythic moment to tell stories about."
So, yes, it makes sense that after years of making heralded documentaries, Cutler's first foray into feature filmmaking focuses on young adults. On Friday, his feature directing debut, "If I Stay" — an adaptation of Gayle Forman's bestselling tear-jerker of a novel — gets released nationwide.
Starring Chloe Moretz, the film tells the story of Mia, a gifted cellist whose family is killed in a car accident. Mia's the sole survivor of the crash and is still clinging to life in a hospital when she takes form in spirit, reflecting on her relationship with her first love (British newcomer Jamie Blackley) as she weighs whether she wants to live or die.
But the film is also a surprising change of direction for Cutler. Although he has trained his lens on teens before — his 2001 series "American High" won the first Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program — he's made his name on investigating some of the country's most challenging figures. He convinced notoriously chilly Vogue editrix Anna Wintour to allow cameras inside the magazine's office for nine months while filming "The September Issue." In "The World According to Dick Cheney," he got the former vice president and unrepentant Iraq war advocate to expand on his stance on the conflict and weapons of mass destruction.
"R.J. didn't seem like the typical candidate," admitted "If I Stay" author Forman. But then Forman figured that anyone "who can face down Anna Wintour and Dick Cheney" would be up to the job.
Cutler is a reddish bear of a man — big and soft with a coarse, ginger beard. At home earlier this month — a 1920s Spanish Colonial in the shadow of the Hollywood sign — he wore a cotton polo T-shirt as he lounged in a leather armchair. He had chosen to sit in his library, perhaps because it reflected different parts of his personality: The framed Nixon contact sheets by White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, an expensive-looking entertainment system for screenings, his Emmy.
It seemed important to him that his home and its belongings have meaning. He and his wife, Jane, an executive producer on "Project Runway," got married in the backyard here nearly four years ago. On this August day, a team of gardeners passed to and fro outside the library window, tending to the landscaping.
He looked to the photographs that line his walls for inspiration on "If I Stay." Before he landed the directing gig, he put together a presentation filled with images by artists like Mona Kuhn and William Eggleston to convey his aesthetic — soft focus, muted colors — with potential collaborators. The thoughtful preparation proved reassuring to Jonathan Glickman, president of the motion picture group at MGM, which produced the $10-million production.
"A lot of times when you work with first-time filmmakers, you worry, 'What if they completely crumble?'" the executive said. "But we never had that concern with him. He was very prepared and never panicked, which I think has to do with his background as a documentarian — those movies evolved as he made them."
Cutler had been mulling over the idea of making a feature film since "The September Issue" wrapped in 2009. Before he began making documentaries more than two decades ago — his first major gig was producing 1993's "The War Room" — he'd been a theater director in New York. Back in the city for the opening weekend of the Wintour film, he found himself fantasizing about returning to narrative storytelling.
Within the year, he had sold his television production company and co-written the pilot for "Nashville," the ABC drama on which he served as executive producer for two seasons.
When "If I Stay" came across his desk, he found himself embarrassingly moved by it.
"I think there's something wrong with me," he scrawled in the margin of the book.
After all, on the surface, it's a story that appears treacly — one filled with bedside hospital pleas and the longing glances of new love. But Cutler's background in fact-based storytelling gave "If I Stay" the kind of grounding it needed to avoid becoming saccharine, said its star, Moretz.
"He doesn't have a melodramatic bone in his body," said the 17-year-old, one of the most sought-after young actresses in Hollywood who will appear in two more films before the end of the year. "Without him, this movie would have become really crazy and campy. But his style was a lot more naturalistic."
Because it's a tear-jerker starring young adults, "If I Stay" is already drawing comparisons to "The Fault in Our Stars," the John Green adaptation about two teens with cancer that grossed $124 million at the domestic box office in June. Forman's book is currently the No. 1 bestseller in America, but it has sold at least 10 million fewer copies worldwide than Green's novel. Accordingly, the new film — which Warner Bros.' New Line is releasing for MGM — is expected to open with about $20 million at the box office; "Fault" debuted with $48 million.
"If we're compared in terms of box office — er, I don't know about that," Cutler said, shifting in his seat. "But it's clear there's an audience for this kind of material, and that young audience has box office might and presence."
Cutler still has a first-look deal at Showtime to make documentaries — his next is on Marlon Brando — and another at CBS Studios for scripted television. But after making "If I Stay," he says it might be a while before he hunts down another politician.
"Feature filmmaking is a very powerful medium," he said. "It has a hold on me now."