Pop superstar Billie Eilish has never shied away from sharing her life with her fans, from her massive Instagram account (75.4 million followers and rising), her often quite honest interviews, and her eagerness to share the decidedly homespun elements of her creative process (usually alongside her brother Finneas O’Connell) with the world. And yet, even as Eilish continues to climb the charts, rack up accolades (five Grammys, no sweat), and evolve her work, her desire to put her fans first has never waned.
It seems only right that the star is now getting her very own documentary in the form of R.J. Cutler’s “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” but what might surprise you is just how much more Eilish — and her family, including Finneas and mom Maggie and dad Patrick — happily share in the intimate film. For Cutler, who has long excelled at getting his subjects, from the teenage stars of “American High” to political heavy-hitters in “The World According to Dick Cheney,” Eilish and her family provided another thrilling chance to look inside a world so many want to know more about.
The doc follows every big change in Eilish’s life from 2018 and 2019, from getting her driver’s license to picking up a slew of Grammy nods, bonding with her family to playing sold out shows, meeting Justin Bieber (and being beyond thrilled) to meeting Orlando Bloom (and having no idea who he is). You know, regular teenager stuff. But that’s really the trick of it: the film places the same weight on both the common and the outsized, offering up a full look at Eilish, a superstar who has always been driven by authenticity and remains eager to let people into her life.
Over the course of a year — “a proper year-long shoot,” Cutler noted in a recent interview with IndieWire, during which they’d shoot 10 to 15 days per month — the team gathered hundreds of hours of footage, including archival footage, material shot by both the crew and the O’Connell family, and recordings of around 40 of the star’s live shows. In short, they had plenty to work with, enough that the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film even includes an intermission.
“The first assembly cut was 27 hours,” Cutler said with a laugh. “The first cut was, I think, 17 hours. There’s certainly deleted scenes, but this is the director’s cut. At that first meeting, one of the things we talked about was that I’d have to have final cut, and Billie and everybody got it. They understood. This is the film, in every way, that I wanted to make and to finish. You’ve got to cut some scenes, but that’s because they don’t belong. But it’s a full feast, as you say, with intermission, and I love that. It’s a full journey.”
Cutler first met the O’Connell family in the summer of 2018, when they invited the “September Issue” and “Belushi” filmmaker to stop by their Highland Park home and hang out in the backyard to chat about a possible project. “We talked about what we might do together and how we might do it, what my approach is, and different things, and just kind of clicked. It was awesome,” he said. “I left thinking, ‘Man, if they want to do it, I’d love to do this.'”
By the time all the production details were ironed out, the O’Connell clan had already started filming material that would make its way into the final film. “Fortunately, for me, for us, and for the world, Billie and Finneas and Maggie and Patrick had this clear sense that something magical was happening in that bedroom [where the Eilish kids were making the album],” he said. “A GoPro got hung, and … they turned it on often enough that we had the raw material to be able to tell that part of the story where they’re creating the album.”
Cutler has long been comfortable with using subject-shot footage in his works. His 1999 documentary “American High” similarly used material shot by his — just like Billie — disarmingly open teenage subjects. The filmmaker estimates that nearly 15 percent of the “The World’s a Little Blurry” is composed from family-shot material, much of it care of that GoPro.
“That proportion and that ratio [of footage] is very exciting, because as much as we pride ourselves on the organic process in which the subject is, I believe as comfortable with us as they are with anybody with whom they’re fully comfortable being themselves, there’s still nothing like when they’re alone,” Cutler said. Or as is the case with Eilish, “When they’re with their brother, writing ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,'” he said. “It is a unique window and opportunity.”
It certainly helped that Eilish isn’t just used to sharing things on camera, but is perhaps uniquely suited to doing just that. “Billie’s comfortable on camera,” Cutler said. “I think she would have been comfortable on camera in 1990, but she wasn’t born until 2001. I suspect she was pretty comfortable on camera the moment she arrived. It’s just a thing. We work with subjects who, through the entire process, are comfortable on camera, but this is a subject who’s been comfortable on camera her whole life and has gravitated towards it. She loved being filmed.”
That she’s an eager, open subject doesn’t just make “The World’s a Little Blurry” compelling to watch, it was also fundamental to Cutler even being able to make the film. That’s typically the case for the filmmaker.
“You don’t make films about just anybody. People have to want to tell their story. That’s the key thing. There has to be a desire on the subject’s part to tell their story,” Cutler said. “Now, they may not know they desire it until you show up in their conference room or in their backyard. In this case, they called me. So there’s a sense from the beginning that there’s a desire to chronicle what’s going on. The way I really would describe it is, we created a work of art together that is a movie made in a collaboration between Billie’s life and my filmmaking.”
Why, though, would anyone want to put their life on film, even a major superstar like Billie Eilish?
“I don’t ask why,” Cutler said. “It’s fundamental to my work that I know they want it, but the why is up to them. When we were doing ‘The War Room,’ we went down to Little Rock and we had done some shooting with the Clinton campaign. We sat with James Carville, me and [directors] D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and Carville said to Penny, ‘Why on earth would I allow you to do this? I’m trying to get a man elected president. I’m just going to be sitting here worrying that my mother’s going to think I’m cussing on camera and I don’t want to have to think about that. So why should I let you in?’ And Penny was like, ‘You know what? James, that’s up to you.'”
Cutler, who produced that film, said that Pennebaker “proceeded to talk about why he loves to do what he did so brilliantly for so many decades,” before telling Carville, “As far as why you’re doing it, that’s personal to you.” Carville, then the lead strategist for Bill Clinton’s election campaign, took some time to think about it, before coming back to the trio and agreeing to participate. It was a formative moment for Cutler, and one he still thinks about to this day.
“It was like lesson one for me in a way, because it is very personal and it is complicated,” he said. “It’s like sometimes people say, ‘Why did they invite you to the backyard?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. When someone invites you to party, you don’t ask them why. You go to the party.'”
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” is now in select IMAX theaters and is streaming on Apple TV+.
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