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Behind the Mic and in Front of the Camera, Billie Eilish Became a Movie Star in 2021

Billie Eilish on writing a killer Bond song, starring in a documentary she had no control over, and seeing herself on screen more clearly than ever.

MGM

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It was the fall of 2019, and 17-year-old Billie Eilish was at one of the lowest moments of her very enchanted life so far. Six months earlier, the Soundcloud supernova had exploded into a major recording artist with the release of the double platinum debut album that she and her older brother Finneas had recorded together in his childhood bedroom. Six months later, that same LP would see her become the youngest artist to ever sweep the Grammys. But for a minute in the middle there, she was just another teenager who felt betrayed and ashamed by a world that had been waiting to slip through the slightest crack in her armor.

For starters, Eilish had just suffered her first major breakup. And while touring allowed her to sublimate that hurt into serrated electro ballads while thousands of other teenagers sang along in full-throated support — the crowds helping to diffuse Eilish’s overcharged emotions — a recent ankle injury during a show in Milan had taken that outlet away from her when she needed it most. It was almost as if her sawtoothed vulnerability had been twisted into her ultimate weakness.

Odds are, Eilish would have felt painfully exposed even if an Oscar-nominated filmmaker hadn’t been embedded in her house and documenting her every doldrum, but that’s exactly what she and her family signed up for when they invited “The War Room” producer R.J. Cutler into their lives and gave him final cut. And that’s exactly what allowed Cutler to craft “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” a raw but ecstatic vérité portrait of an artist coming of age in the eye of a hurricane.

At a time when pop star bio docs have been weaponized into feature-length commercials, Cutler’s film shimmers with great sensitivity and ecstatic purpose; it’s an 140-minute epic about a girl with great parents trying to figure out who she is while simultaneously becoming one of the most recognizable people on Earth. But it’s not until after Eilish’s heart breaks — her whirlwind existence slowing into a perfect storm of teenage angst as the opening piano chords of a special new song creep over the soundtrack — that we truly get to see her grow through her music.

On a Zoom call in November 2021, just a few weeks shy of her twenties, I asked Eilish why someone in her position would ever want to be the subject of a documentary, let alone one that was never intended to be sponsored content. “It’s tough,” she said, scurrying around her new Los Angeles house in a futile bid to escape the clatter of construction noise outside. “I have a ridiculous, very conflicting complex about this kind of thing because I’m so strongly terrified of what people are going to think, and I don’t want them to know anything ever. But I also feel really strongly that I love to be on camera and to be on stage and to put things into the world and hear what people think, so it’s a constant battle in my head.”

Anyone who’s ever posted on social media can probably relate to that. As Cutler put it to me during a recent Q&A: “The desire to be seen and heard is profoundly human. You may not want to be in a film, but you want your story to be told.” Eilish wanted to be in a film. “One of the first things she said to me was that she wanted the movie to be like ‘The Office,’” Cutler remembered, “and I was like… ‘does she know that “The Office” was scripted?’ She did, but I soon realized what she meant is that she wanted to be able to have a relationship with the camera.”

She wanted her awareness of being watched to be as critical to her documentary as it is to her life. And she wanted her life to seem as honest in her documentary as it does in her music. “We don’t want people to see us struggling or in pain or in a bad situation because it’s fucking embarrassing,” Eilish said, “especially when you’re a powerful, successful woman. You don’t want people to know you have all these fucking problems and there are people being shitty to you all the time.”

Boys being shitty backstage at Coachella, grown men being shitty at a post-show meet-and-greet during a hard moment, people on the internet being shitty all the time. “I really had to fight myself when I saw the first cut of the film and be like, ‘I just have to forget about my annoying feelings of wanting to be more private and ask myself instead if the movie is good on its own.’ As if I wasn’t even in it. I had to put away my pride and look at it from another person’s point of view. It was really hard.”

And yet it must have helped that Eilish already had some unique experience to draw from when it came to seeing herself through someone else’s eyes. In fact, the climactic sequence of Cutler’s documentary finds her doing just that. It sees her putting away her pride, stepping back from her body, and refracting her most personal frustrations through the prism of a wildly unexpected avatar: James Bond.

“The World’s a Little Blurry” is almost two hours deep before we hear any trace of “No Time to Die,” the silky but self-questioning piano track that Billie and Finneas contributed to the spy blockbuster that borrowed its title. Cutler — who had access to the stems of every song that Billie and her brother had ever written — delays the cue until his subject is at her most fragile. Stuck at home doing physical therapy in the kitchen of the Highland Park house where she grew up and still lived with her parents, Eilish barely has the confidence to walk, let alone to belt like Shirley Bassey or Adele. (“Why do people belt?!?!” Eilish fumes in the scene where she and Finneas curl up in the back of their tour bus to record the demo, her voice pitching up to a reedy mock whine as the devil on her shoulder whispers “I’ll be made fun of by the internet when I do it.”)

And yet, the 24-year-old Finneas knows just how to push his kid sister past her doubts. “It’s not a sad Sam Smith ballad,” he tells her. “It’s a fucking angry-ass song.” It’s a bitter, slow-burn lament about the world’s most bulletproof man raging at himself for letting someone get under his skin, and vowing to be impenetrable from here on out. It’s Daniel Craig’s 007 ruefully genuflecting on the death of Vesper Lynd and the “betrayal” of Madeline Swann and steeling himself — with just the slightest hint of uncertainty — to never lower his guard like that again.

And it’s 17-year-old Billie Eilish harnessing power from her pain with a song that confronts her struggle as an artist and a person to open up without leaving herself defenseless. “Do you want to stop?” Finneas asks. “No,” Billie sighs. “Should you stop?” “No.” And that’s when she squares up to her brother’s laptop and breathes enough fire into her microphone to leave it smoldering:

Was I stupid to love you

Was I reckless to help? 

Was it obvious to everybody else 

That I’d fallen for a lie? 

You were never on my side

Fool me once, fool me twice

Are you death or paradise?
Now you’ll never see me cry 

There’s just no time to die

Bummer for Bond, but the timing couldn’t have been any better for Eilish, as the opportunity knocked at a pivotal moment in between the major phases of her life. “We hadn’t really written and recorded anything in a year-ish, which is big for me,” Eilish explained. “It was during a period when my voice was really changing, and had already changed so much since my first album, and so it was exciting to do things with it that I hadn’t tried before. I definitely think it was a transition song for us. It’s not like we were one thing and then we became something else — it was just growth.”

Still, what seems “exciting” to Eilish in hindsight was understandably terrifying at the time. “Oh, my God,” she winced like she could still feel the gut-punch, “it was incredibly nerve-wracking because it’s an iconic franchise that isn’t necessarily my audience, you know? And that audience is very passionate about their Bond movies, which I totally get as a fan of things myself.” (Her diehard devotion to Justin Bieber is a major sub-plot of Cutler’s documentary._ Billie and Finneas are both long-standing Bond fans themselves, and “literally dreamed about” contributing to the franchise since they were little kids (“‘Skyfall’ is just the coolest fucking song ever and the movie is so good,” Eilish correctly observed), but she was all too aware that Bond still belongs to the Boomers.

Not only did Eilish feel pressure to satisfy her fans and silence her haters, she also wanted to do right by millions of older movie-goers who might have been confused as to why the “bad guy” singer had been invited to represent the last old-fashioned movie hero they had left. And with the way her mind works, she naturally assumed that anyone who didn’t already love her would go into the film with their knives out, unwilling to offer even a quantum of solace.

“It was like, ‘let’s please those people,’” Eilish said. “‘Let’s prove that just because it’s me and not somebody they might like doesn’t mean we can’t still make a song they think will fit.’ We wanted to create an ode to all the classic Bond songs. We didn’t want to stray away from them and make people go, ‘Oh, this sounds like what she usually makes.’ We wanted to become part of the franchise, not make it our own.”

Of course, the franchise belongs to Barbara Broccoli, and it’s safe to assume she wasn’t interested in giving any part of it away — least of all at the climax of Daniel Craig’s Bond-redefining run. While Billie and her brother were basically the biggest music stars on the planet by the time Broccoli invited them to give it a shot, they still had to pitch for the gig like everyone else.

“It definitely felt like an audition,” Finneas said, Zooming in from a Montreal hotel room on a break from his current tour. “It didn’t just feel like an audition, it was an audition. They were very generous and communicative with us. They never lied and said we had the job when we didn’t. It was always like, ‘We’d love to hear what you come up with.’ That was the refrain.”

This is business as usual for a franchise that once rejected an incredible song from Radiohead (RADIOHEAD!), a rare case in which an also-ran didn’t remain secret. “I get it,” the ever-calm Finneas said of the process, while also acknowledging how the whole thing came preloaded with a kind of anxiety that he and Billie had never felt before when faced with a blank page. “Just putting pen to paper was like, ‘Oh, my God, is it gonna be good enough?’ They poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the budget of this movie, so they’re not just going to say, ‘whatever you turn in, it’s yours.’ It has to be the right piece to fit the film.”

It’s hard to imagine that the siblings could have been presented with a more evocative prompt. “We wrote the entire song based 100 percent on the opening sequence of the script we were given,” Eilish explained. They didn’t even know that Bond was going to die. “The only thing Barbara told us about what happens after that sequence is that Bond is wrong to think Madeleine is betraying him,” Finneas elaborated. “So the whole chorus of ‘I’ve fallen for a lie,’ I wanted to make sense at that early point in the movie but also to resonate later. … Bond fell for a different lie and was tricked into thinking that Madeleine was betraying him even though she wasn’t.”

“No Time to Die” communes with the spirit of its film as well or better than any Bond theme has before it, which is crucial, because it’s asked to carry more water than all of those songs combined. Resonating with the same intimate disquiet that kisses off the film’s epic prologue, the track braids a palpable knot of insecurity and disquiet around the bombast at its core; those coiled opening chords waltz around each other like a slow-moving poison as it creeps towards the heart, only for Eilish’ voice to breathe in with the wounded force of someone three times her age and the urgency of a young person whose scars are still bleeding fresh.

Finneas knew they nailed it. “Listening back to that initial recording,” he said, “I just remember thinking, ‘This is exactly what I hoped we would make. Maybe they’ll choose another artist, but in terms of what I wanted to create, we did it.’” They did it. The song is so good it has a halo effect on the movie around it, making a $300 million blockbuster feel almost personal and bespoke.

Eilish insisted that she wasn’t consciously using James Bond as a conduit to process her own emotions (“We were just playing in the characters and looking at things from that point-of-view”), but she was also quick to acknowledge that the song is a reflection of the headspace she was in when they created it. “There’s a lot in there that actually made sense with some things in my life,” she said in her typical unguarded fashion, “it’s just funny because I didn’t even think about it until after we wrote it. I was like, ‘Oh, this actually kinda works!’” It was tempting to ask her to elaborate on that — to push this peerlessly unguarded superstar on the terms of her breakup and poke at what might have been on her mind at the time — but the fact of the matter is that all of the answers are writ large in Cutler’s documentary.

Even if the finer points have been finessed for the sake of a good story, “The World’s a Little Blurry” is the rare portrait so vivid and insightful that its own subject is able to look at herself through someone else’s eyes and still recognize who she’s watching. “Watching the movie for the first time was very emotional for Billie,” Cutler told me. “She said the film saw her in a way that she didn’t think she could be seen, and that… that’s as good as it gets. It meant the world.”

“Watching it for the first time was quite something!” Eilish confirmed. “I had no clue what the doc was going to be. I had no idea what the plot was going to be. I had no idea what they were going to focus on. I didn’t think that half the shit that was in there would’ve been in there. I was terrified. They were like, ‘Let’s do a shoot for the doc promo,’ which I was excited to do, but I was also like, ‘I haven’t even seen it!’ It was so fucking weird.” Especially because — in spite of what people who haven’t seen the film might assume about someone so famous — all of Billie Eilish™ is under her direct control.

Per Cutler: “Every aspect is in the context of her vision.” Every aspect, except for this one ultra-intimate portrait that she had no control over whatsoever and the whole world would get to see. Not even the director could have imagined how much access he would have to his subject’s private life: During production, trust between Eilish’s family and Cutler’s team gradually deepened to the point that Billie’s mom started handing the crew hard drives full of unedited video from the GoPros in Finneas’ home studio (one watchable, post-assembly cut of the movie was 23 hours long). When Eilish finally saw “The World’s a Little Blurry” three months ahead of its streaming premiere on Apple TV+, she loved it so much that she promised to buy a car for each of the editors.

Then again, the documentary makes it vividly clear that Eilish might be interested in deepening her relationship with the camera. Not only is she aware of the camera, she’s also unafraid of getting behind it; an early scene at a music video shoot ends with Eilish grousing that she’s going to start directing these things herself, and she’s since followed through on that several times over. Her fierce visual imagination is obvious in everything from her stage shows to her outfits to the agonized doodles she drew in her tweenage diary, and it’s easy to imagine Eilish pursuing a parallel career as a filmmaker.

“I would absolutely love to,” she said. “I used to really want to — it used to be a thing that was very present for me, but now that I’ve had more experience directing music videos I can see how very difficult it is, and what an insane amount of work it would be. But I’ve been interested in cinematography since I was a little kid, and all of my favorite movies are pretty much the ones that are most beautifully shot. I judge movies based on the angles and the colors way more than on acting and plot; the plot and the acting can suck but if the shots are beautiful I’m like ‘Fuck, it’s fine with me!’”

Eilish has been a bit too busy to keep up with new releases, but she was still buzzing about “Promising Young Woman.” “It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen,” she beamed. “I watched it three times.” Her other highlight was more out of left field: “Finneas showed me a movie that came out a million years ago called ‘I Origins,’ and that was fucking incredible” (Finneas is more of a movie buff, and was raving about “Spencer,” “Dune,” and “The French Dispatch” among the other films he’s snuck out to see while on tour).

Whatever form Eilish’s art takes from here, and however her voice continues to grow, her year in movies has proved that she’ll be unafraid of expressing whatever it is that she has to say. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that she’ll be every bit as afraid as anyone else would be to make themselves vulnerable in front of the entire world, she just won’t let that keep her from putting her heart on the line.

Does she want to stop? No. Should she stop? No. Billie Eilish is just getting started, and now that she can see herself on screen with a clarity that makes it less embarrassing that everyone else can too, she has all the time in the world to figure out what she wants to show us next.

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