“What is really going on with all of these different projects are great stories about these extraordinary people who care a tremendous amount about what they do, or are doing it as well as they possibly can under high stakes circumstances,” says R.J. Cutler about his trio of nonfiction programs this year. He directed the documentaries “Belushi” (Showtime) and “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” (Apple TV+) and he created and executive produces the docuseries “Dear…” (Apple TV+). Watch our exclusive video interview with Cutler above.
“Dear…” explores a different public figure in each episode (ranging from Spike Lee to Gloria Steinem to Oprah Winfrey), with their stories told through the prism of letters written to them by people whose lives they’ve affected. “As [episode two subject Lin-Manuel Miranda] says, your work is like a pebble in a pond of water,” Cutler explains. “You put it out there and the ripple effects go on and on and on beyond what you ever imagined.”
You could say the same about “Belushi” and “Billie Eilish,” which are different ways of exploring artists’ relationships with their audience. “The interesting thing is that you’re kind of covering the entire history of celebrity culture in America” with these two films because comedian John Belushi rose to fame in the 1970s when celebrities were less exposed, while musician Billie Eilish has been cultivating a fan base on Instagram since she was a literal child. “That’s a lot to deal with,” Cutler observes. “It’s not for me to judge, but it is for me to describe and to show the impact.”
They’re also quite formally different films. “With John Belushi, you’re making an archival film about a life that you know the beginning, middle, and end,” and Cutler uses a blend of archival footage, audio recordings, and animation to assemble the tragic story of Belushi’s rapid rise to fame, his struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, and ultimately his death from a drug overdose at age 33.
“Billie Eilish,” on the other hand, “is pure cinema verite,” following the teenage singer-songwriter as her story unfolds in real time. The film covers the very beginning of her career, so the story could have gone in any number of directions. And “the way that production and post-production function is completely different … There’s a whole archival research process in the archival film where there’s a whole filming process with its own principles and approaches in verite.”
But no matter the subject, the form, or the stylistic approach, what you want the most is an honest portrayal of someone’s life experience. “It’s their story, not mine,” Cutler says. “It’s not for me to manipulate in the way that I want to … You’re looking for the truth.”
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