RJ Cutler opens up on studying Billie Eilish in Apple TV+ documentary: It was a full meal from the start
'A 17-year-old girl entering adulthood doesn't need to be world-famous for the stakes to be high,' RJ Cutler opens up on directing Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry, in an exclusive interview.
In Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry, RJ Cutler's documentary on Apple TV+, the filmmaker chronicles the astronomical ascent of the prodigious singer-songwriter. He maps Eilish's overnight stardom at a meditative pace — in no rush to join the dots or tick the boxes. His treatment allows the documentary to double up as both a portrait of a budding pop star and a comment on early fame, the scrutiny that comes with stardom, and the indispensability of optics in a world dominated by social media and paparazzi culture.
Edited excerpts from an exclusive interaction with Cutler below:
Billie Eilish's arrival was announced when she swept the 2020 Grammy Awards with five major accolades. But you have been documenting her for years before that breakthrough. When did you realise that you were onto something big?
I thought I was onto something special from the moment one, to be honest. From the day I met Billie, which was even before I started shooting, I just felt like I'd walked into a situation where I could make a film about both an artist coming of age and a young woman coming of age. And those two narratives would resonate with each other in a really powerful way. To me, they're of equal curiosity. The stakes are equally high. As a 17-year-old girl, you don't need to be world-famous for the stakes to be high. Crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood, to me that's rich enough. I've spent entire years making movies just about kids whose names you'll never hear. Because I find that time of life so fascinating. I did whole series called American High and Freshman Diaries.
And then you add on to that — Billie Eilish. It's Billie Eilish making her first album. It's Billie Eilish going from a million Instagram followers to what are now 76.5 million. And Billie Eilish arriving as an artiste, and all the challenges, burdens, and opportunities of that. The day I met her, I thought this is interesting. And when we started filming, I never had a moment where I didn't have the same emotion that is consistent with the emotion I have now. I always felt what I'm feeling now — that we're onto something special.
What I really enjoyed about the documentary was its pace. It went so well with Billie's personality and music. A lot of reviews have mentioned the film as "generous." Why do you think the pace was crucial?
By "generous," do they mean it's long or that it gives you so much? I like the choice of the word "generous" because it's reflective of the time I spent making it. Different films needed different lengths. This film, in my opinion of two years of making it, this is the length it had to be. I've made plenty of short films. This one was a full meal from the start. It wanted to be a feast. It wanted to be an adventure, a journey. It wanted you to give.
People who complain about the length, they're stingy. Their time is so precious they can't spend two hours and 20 minutes of it? That's okay but then, too bad! It kind of startles me. I never see that in responses to feature films.
Some people write that it's too long since Billie is so young. What does that have got to do with anything? An older person deserves a long movie because they've lived longer? The more you live, you get another minute to your documentary?
It's so silly! You're on a journey, man! We get you on a boat and send you down the river. Off you go, to the delta to explore this subject. We give you a little break if you need to pee, make yourself a sandwich, and if you're at a theatre, grab your popcorn. To me, it's like The Sound of Music. I've never heard about The Sound of Music that it was too long. I just feel like this pace was exactly the pace we wanted. It's not a snack. It's a Thanksgiving dinner.
Your first cut was 17 hours long. How did you decide where to end the film?
When I saw the first cut, I knew I wanted the film to end where it does. Billie is in the car when the Grammy nominations are announced. She reflects on her journey, fame, family, career, body of work, the fact she doesn't have a boyfriend ("Thank the lords," as she says), and that she had donuts the previous night. Even if for a moment, she is at peace. That's where her two lives as a singer and as a young woman intersect. I told the editors then, "This is it. The story ends right there. We've reached our moment."
Do you believe the documentary is much centered on Billie's life as it is on her parents?
This is a story about parenting too. The balance in storytelling is achieved through Maggie and Patrick (Billie's parents). Maybe if I'm writing an essay on this film, that's the angle I'd look at it from. I look at Billie as a daughter stepping into adulthood. Her parents are invested in her career but they're not really invested in her career. The career may end tomorrow and they'll be okay with that. If Billie decides to take two years off, they'd support her. Billie knows she'd have their support if she ever made that decision because of the way they've guided her sense of success. As Billie says in the film, what they're invested in is for her and Finneas to be their truest selves.
You provide a very intimate look at Billie's life. How did you decide you would portray her when you began filming?
This is the way I film. All my films, to a degree, are very intimate portraits of the people I'm making the film about. Billie is very emotionally open. I don't make a decision on how to portray them beforehand. The objective is to see things as clearly as possible so that the Billie you get to know by watching is the Billie I got to know while filming. It's like what Billie says at Coachella, "We have to be in the moment."
There's a lot on how to direct from Billie in this movie. She literally tells you, "Don't do stupid things with the camera." The whole style of shooting her performances is me saying, "Let's not do stupid things with the camera." I want the audience to be with her on stage, to breathe with her. When you see these concert films, the camera always goes like this (moves his hand diagonally). I get that you've spent a lot of money on the camera and it's sweeping all over the place, but I'd like to see Billie Eilish please. And this is what this film offers. I want you to experience her performance like you won't do even when you're there.
You referred to the transition from childhood to adulthood as one that is very rich and fascinating. If fame is added to that mix like in the case of Billie, how does that spike up the situation?
Well, it's a big deal. It's a lot to take in this culture. It's a character in this film. You feel it in the car in London when Billie says, "Can't we just park and take a walk in the park?" And Maggie says, "That'd be nice." Maggie doesn't even say, "No, you can't." Everybody knows she can't. She's Billie Eilish. She's too famous. In New York, they can barely drive down the street. But more than that, you see the responsibility that comes with it — the anxiety, the opportunity, the benefits. You see her deep connection with the audience. When the audience grows, she grows with them. No matter what the size of the performance space is, she seems to fill it. She can match the size of any space she's put in, from Coachella to her bedroom at the start of the film. If you add fame to a young woman's life, it becomes complicated. And this film explores that complexity.
Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry is streaming on Apple TV+.
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