RJ Cutler on his new Billie Eilish film: 'This is a generational artist emerging, as significant as Bob Dylan at this age'
Documentary Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry follows the teenage phenomenon on a dramatic year of her life. Laura Harding chats to director RJ Cutler
THERE is an unexpected moment of hilarity in the new documentary about music phenomenon Billie Eilish. The teenage singer is backstage at Coachella, where she is told Katy Perry wants to meet her.
The pair embrace and chat before Perry’s fiance, the actor Orlando Bloom, joins them to tell Eilish how much he loves singing her hit song Bad Guy in the car.
The next scene shows Eilish’s brother and collaborator Finneas explain that the man she just met was Bloom, the star of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films.
Eilish looks stunned. “That guy? That was him? No way! Bring him back! I want to meet him again! I thought that was just some dude Katy Perry met!”
It’s a truly funny moment in the film, entitled Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, which offers a deeply intimate look at the star’s sky-rocketing fame as she releases her debut album, sweeps the Grammys and records the title song for the upcoming James Bond film.
“Life is funny,” says the film’s director RJ Cutler, as he remembers the Bloom incident. “It’s amazing. If you’re looking in the right places, you will see very funny things.”
Cutler shot around a thousand hours of footage to make sure he was looking in the right places for the documentary, as he followed then 17-year-old Eilish over a dramatic year of her life.
It features more than 20 songs, some of them in full performance, and offers a personal look at her intimate relationships, including with a previously unknown ex-boyfriend, as well as her family.
“It is a generational artist emerging,” Cutler says. “Possibly a generational artist as significant as… imagine Bob Dylan at this age. I did. That is what I thought.
“And then there is not only the opportunity to tell the story of this emerging generational artist but a young woman coming of age and a young woman who has this extraordinary relationship with her family, including her brother Finneas and parents Maggie and Patrick.
“She creates with her brother, she is educated by her parents who are these awesome devoted figures who struggle exactly the same as every parent struggles, and we all do it in our own way.
“I am able to tell an artist’s story but also a coming-of-age story and I love both of those things.
“One of the great gifts of my job is I get to explore greatness but another one is I get to explore human beings and here is a story that is about both and what a thrilling opportunity it was, that is how I felt when I met Billie.
“She needs to be an artist who speaks truth and she needs her truth to be genuine to her.
“You see her say I have to write a song that is meaningful to me not a song that is meaningful to everyone, and then she goes and writes Listen Before I Go which is maybe tied for the most deeply personal pop song ever written, but there isn’t a more [universal] pop song ever written.”
Over the course of a year Cutler and his crew spent around 130 days with Eilish, resulting in mountains of footage, not to mention the video captured by the key players themselves.
“We had a lot of home footage, a lot of footage that they shot,” says Cutler whose previous films include the Vogue documentary The September Issue and The World According To Dick Cheney, a profile of the former US vice-president.
“And Billie is of that age where a lot of her life is already on camera and then there was footage from when they were writing the album – there was just a lot of footage.
“The movie came together and it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t a short process but it was a very organic process.
“The structure of the 17-hour cut of the film [the final film is two hours 20 minutes] is not all that different than the film you watched.”
The film maps both Eilish’s professional journey, to release her album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and dominate the Grammys, and also typical teenage journeys, to pass a driving test and navigate through heartbreak.
Cutler was very conscious of the dual narrative as he was piecing together the film, making it as much about a teenage girl as it is about a superstar.
“What is more important? Driver’s licence or Grammys? If you ask Billie she would say driver’s licence.
"And what has a more profound effect on Maggie and Patrick’s understanding of life? Patrick gives this incredible monologue, this profoundly existential monologue as he watches his daughter drive off into the future and every father can relate to that, every parent can relate to that.”
The film is shot in the cinema verité style, without interviews and talking heads; Cutler wanted it to be purely observational.
“Who wants to see someone sitting in a chair talking about stuff – yuck!" he says. "I don’t think of interviews as traditional, I think of them as a way of making a kind of documentary.
“But the way I am working is in a very rich tradition. I’m working in the tradition of Don’t Look Back [about Bob Dylan], and Gimme Shelter [about the Rolling Stones] and the great cinema verité films of the 1960s and 70s that explored these great artists and these great moments in music history and there are no talking heads.
“I don’t need somebody to explain it to me and I don’t want someone to explain it to you. I want you to experience it, I want you on the journey with Billie.”
:: Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is available now on Apple TV+.