R.J. Cutler has compiled an impressive resume of documentaries, led by “The War Room” (1993), “The September Issue” (2009) and “The World According to Dick Cheney” (2013). He landed his first dramatic directing gig two years ago with the MGM-New Line romance “If I Stay,” starring Chloe Moretz as a teen separated from her body and forced to watch the aftermath of the accident that kills her parents. Warner Bros. releases the pic Aug. 22.
Why did you choose this story for your first narrative feature?
When I read the Gail Forman book, I was moved in a way that I didn’t understand — it is the darkest of fairy tales in losing our parents.
Why did these themes touch you so deeply?
My father passed away six months ago, so the film was a great gift (to help me deal with that). Before he had his last operation, I asked him if he really wanted to do that at 90, and he said, “But I’m a young 90.”
Did being a documentarian help?
Yes, because I have a very sensitive barometer for truthful behavior. In “The War Room,” there’s a scene where (James) Carville and (George) Stephanopoulous are in the room, and it’s all cleared out on election day, so they’re trying to figure out what to call Clinton — Mr. Governor, Mr. President, Mr. President Elect — and that’s where they begin to recognize what they’ve accomplished.
When did you realize you wanted to make feature films?
I was watching “The September Issue” in the back of a theater in New York, and I thought, “I know I really can do this with actors.”
What lesson did you take away from two decades of filmmaking?
I agree with what David Mamet said: “Always tell the truth — it’s the easiest to remember.”