Emmy-award-winning documentarian R.J. Cutler knew exactly the type of film he wanted to make when he met with global superstar Billie Eilish and her family at their home in Highland Park, California. He wanted to direct a documentary on Billie’s rise to stardom and adulthood in the style of vérité, a candid realism technique used in his award-winning docu-series American High.
In Apple TV+’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, Cutler and his crew filmed Billie and her family in 2018 and 2019 as Billie and her brother Finneas O’Connell recorded, released, and performed her first album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
It’s an intimate and immense window into the machinations behind Billie’s creativity and tenacity. Whether she’s bouncing song ideas off Finneas in his bedroom or showcasing her music video ideations through home movie footage, Cutler deftly balances the changes in Billie’s life as she comes of age.
The September Issue director and his team sifted through hundreds of hours of archival footage while also capturing Billie reacting to her Grammy nominations in her bedroom and singing on a floating mattress to an audience of thousands. At two hours and twenty minutes, Cutler maintains a steady and assured vision of the sincerity behind Billie Eilish, balancing between teenage crushes and becoming a superstar.
“It was clear to me that the year in front of us was going to be a year where not only did Billie come of age as an artist, but she also came of age as a young woman,” Cutler recalls. “So I thought that it was an extraordinary opportunity to make a vérité film that follows those two narrative strands in one subject, in one character and where the art can be a metaphor for the coming-of-age and the coming-of-age can be a metaphor for the art.”
Cutler spoke with Awards Focus about understanding Billie’s recording habits with Finneas, earning the trust of the O’Connell family, and why he made sure to have the final cut.
Awards Focus: You’ve worked with subjects who have passed away and those that were alive as you’ve made the film. Does the access you have to a subject affect the style of the documentary itself?
R.J. Cutler: Every film is its own riddle, puzzle, and work of art. Of course, my roots are in cinema vérité.
My first film and the film on which I learned non-fiction storytelling was The War Room (1993), a vérité film set in the campaign headquarters of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
I learned how to make documentaries from the masters, directors D.A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. I’ve ventured into archival films like Listen to Me Marlon (2015), which is Marlon Brando’s story entirely in his voice.
There was also the John Belushi story Belushi (2020), told entirely in the voices of those who knew him in a series of recordings that were done shortly after he passed away but had never been heard before.
Each subject requires a different approach based on your access and what raw materials are available. With Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, it was instantly apparent to me upon meeting Billie and her folks that this wanted to be a vérité film.
AF: At what stage in the writing process of Billie’s first album did you meet her and discuss the possibility of making a documentary?
Cutler: They had not yet completed writing their first album, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It was clear to me that the year in front of us was going to be a year where not only did Billie come of age as an artist, but she also came of age as a young woman.
So I thought that it was an extraordinary opportunity to make a vérité film that follows those two narrative strands in one subject, in one character and where the art can be a metaphor for the coming-of-age and the coming-of-age can be a metaphor for the art. Indeed, that’s what it turned out to be.
AF: Can you talk a bit about watching the album come together from a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective? Was it surprising that the songs were being fleshed out in their bedrooms before skyrocketing across the world?
Cutler: That’s who they are. That’s the home they grew up in. One of the things that we show rather clearly in the film is that Billie says while describing her family that the family is just one big song. It was not just one big song, but it was a daily creative undertaking.
Throughout their childhood, the kids were asked what they wanted to make. What were they curious about learning? What were they eager to create? To make? To pursue? These two young artists were hatched in this home and were nurtured to be artists with the freedom to express themselves as artists.
It was interesting that every time they tried to go into a studio, they hated it. When they tried to take on the accouterment of professional musicians, it just bugged them. What they like is working together. Even when they tried collaborating with other artists, it wasn’t satisfying. Billie once described it as very frustrating because if Finneas pitches an idea and she doesn’t like it, she can say that sucks. He can also tell her she’s wrong, and they can talk about it, and within three minutes, they’ve resolved which way they’re going to go.
They have a rule between them that one person has to win, that compromise is not the path forward. The path they take is one is right, and one is wrong. Otherwise, she would hear a pitch in the studio and spend the next half hour pretending to like it, knowing she couldn’t stand it because she didn’t want to upset the person or for the collaboration to fall apart. She doesn’t have to do that with Finneas, so it’s fascinating. They are who they are, and they’re true to themselves.
AF: You’ve said in interviews that a guiding principle you work by is that you must earn your subjects’ trust. How did you approach Billie, and at what point did you know you’d gained her trust to do this documentary?
Cutler: [laughs] You know, it’s like any other relationship. You earn someone’s trust by being trustworthy. It sounds relatively simple, but it was being who we say we are. When I say it’s going to be this person with a mike, our footprint will be small, that we’ll never hang a light and there will be no cables or trucks, and that when you ask us to stop shooting, we’re going to stop?
If we’re good at our jobs, the second you ask us, we’ll try to stop 10 minutes before. You do those things, and it’s amazing. It builds the relationship. When you hear what they need, and you earn that trust, it makes them want to give themselves over to the project more fully. It’s like the deepening of any relationship, the romance at the beginning is one thing, and then there are bumps in the road. Then it starts to develop the kind of muscularity of a long-term relationship. That’s the kind of dynamic we pursue.
AF: Can you talk about that first meeting with Billie and her family and what you could do with the hours of archival footage you received?
Cutler: We probably had about 200 hours of home footage and 800 hours of our own footage that our story producer Jonathan Ruane went through. There was one conversation, and that conversation was the day we met. It was a conversation I have with all people, and one I actually had this morning with somebody I’m talking to about making a film with, and that is that I need to have final cut.
The reason is that we’re about to spend a year shooting and a year editing, and a year getting the film out into the world. I want that film to be a film that people take seriously, and I don’t want to ask you to spend three years doing something that isn’t taken seriously. I’ve been down that path before.
I said that to Billie and her family, and they embraced it. There was no more discussion. For all of Billie’s control over every aspect of her business, art, life, image, and product line, she never endeavored to take control of the film. You see her showing us things that she wouldn’t have shown us initially, most specifically the contents of her notebook wall in her bedroom. They’re deeply personal things to Billie that she chose to reveal late in the process.
AF: The film is so intimate in stages and becomes grandiose along with Billie’s success. How did you decide what to include and what would remain in the editing room?
Cutler: The film is epic, very specific, and intimate by design. We didn’t talk about things like what would people think? Every movie tells you how long it wants to be. You get to the point where there’s this film that’s two hours and twenty minutes long, and there’s a two-hour and sixteen-minute version that starts to fall apart.
I don’t believe that the film would benefit at any moment from less. I think of it as a full meal. A gratifying comment I’ve gotten frequently through the process has been that people watch it, and when it’s over, they’re surprised that two hours and twenty minutes have flown by. Time is subjective, and I think viewers get caught up in the story, and they’re on the ride.