Our guest today, RJ Cutler opened up 2021 with his raw, emotional, and remarkable new documentary Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry. He’s a phenomenal documentary and TV director and producer with nearly thirty years of experience in the business.
The $2 million dollars documentary film which was directed, written, and produced by Cutler centered around singer-songwriter teen sensation and Grammy Award artist, Billie Eilish — Revealing the creation process of Eilish's debut studio album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’
The very intimate telling of Eillish’s solid support system and family, navigating the ropes of the music fame as a young artist depicted unconventionally and astoundingly.
From college, Cutler started off as a theater director in New York for nine years until he transitioned to filmmaking in 1993 with his debut film, The War Room. The film follows James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, at first during the New Hampshire primary, and then mostly in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the Clinton campaign headquarters. Producing the film, he was able to combine his journalism and theater directing backgrounds. The film went on to win an Oscar®.
He’s taken on great subject matters and big presences in his documentaries; the likes of legendary John Belushi, Anna Wintour, and Dick Cheney.
Belushi, released in 2020, examines the too-short life of comedian, actor and musician, John Belushi, original SNL cast member, using previously unheard audiotapes recorded shortly after John Belushi's death. Cutler credits his storytelling to the ability to connect the subject to the processes. People’s desire to have their stories told, especially in documentaries, transcends the technicalities of making a documentary.
Other well-known films or shows from Cutler are The September Issue (2009), Thin (2006), and Dear… (2020)
Dear… profiles game-changing icons and the people whose lives they’ve inspired.
Inspired by Apple’s groundbreaking “Dear Apple” ad for the Apple Watch, Dear… is an inventive approach to biographies of the influential people who are shaping culture and society today using letters that fans have written to them. Dear… focuses on key moments from subjects’ lives and their work that has profoundly impacted not only the individuals who have written letters but the world at large.
All episodes are available to watch now on the Apple TV app with an Apple TV+ subscription.
We talked a lot about Cutler's journey in the industry and how he landed the project to direct the first TELL ALL of the coolest 19-year-old in the US right now.
Enjoy my enlightening conversation with RJ Cutler.
Alex Ferrari 0:16
I'd like to welcome to the show RJ Cutler. How are you doing? RJ?
RJ Cutler 0:20
I'm alright. Thank you very much. I was good.
Alex Ferrari 0:22
Very cool. I love your mic. It's much more impressive than mine. So I I appreciate the audio.
RJ Cutler 0:29
You know, mic envy is easily addressed issue.
Alex Ferrari 0:34
I won't feel too bad about it.
RJ Cutler 0:37
like Amazon Can, can take care of that.
Alex Ferrari 0:40
That's very true.
RJ Cutler 0:41
Alex Ferrari 0:42
two clicks, and it's done. Exactly. So, I wanted to ask you, let's let's just jump into it. How did you get started in the business?
RJ Cutler 0:52
Hmm. I mean, it depends on how thorough and answer you want. But, you know, I started directing plays, I think I was in first grade and I was I was forcing my, my classmates to do adaptations of Charlie Brown books on the, on the school, the baseball field outside of my elementary school, and then we didn't fight the whole school to come join in. And, you know, I was always I always was a was somehow I was just a kid who liked to put on plays and also loved journalism and but I pursued a career had a career really as a, as a young theatre director. It's what I studied at school and, and, and for eight, nine years in New York, I had directed I you know, I was I was James lupines, assistant director on the original production of into the woods I did the original productions of Secret Garden two productions before it went to Broadway and ran for several seasons. You know, I had a I had this wonderful life in the, in the theater, but I always kind of, in the back of my mind somehow thought that I would combine that passion with my equal passion in, in in journalism, or, you know, curiosity about world events, which is it which is just something I always add, and then in the summer of 1992, I had this idea to make a documentary about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign which was which was heading towards the election and and I partnered with a dear friend of mine Wendy injure and we pursued that idea of found our ways to our way to the the brownstone of da Pennebaker and Chris Hedges and Fraser Pennebaker, the legendary document tree filmmakers and and pitch them this idea and you know, as I say, there's long stories and short stories but the short story is I produce the war room that was my first film and it was not only an fantastic experience and a great success you know, we were nominated for an Oscar and had an incredible time and witnessed the campaign from within it and, and introduce the world to James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. But I i along the way, receive this incredible education, and documentary filmmaking and cinema verite, a filmmaking from the at the feet of the Masters you know, D.A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, we were so incredibly supportive of me and, and generous with their time. And I've, you know, I literally would sit next to Chris as she was editing on the steam back and ask her questions. And, and Penny, who was a great teacher and philosopher Verity was always sharing lessons. And and that's how I got started, you know, and since then I've been, you know, that's 1992. So we're nearing 30 years of doing this. Yeah.
Alex Ferrari 4:06
So yeah, you've done a couple things since then. Without question. Now, the war room specifically, there is a visceral energy in that film. I mean, you can sense it coming off. I mean, that must have been insane. Just being in that room that energy. I mean, I mean, I was, I mean, it's been 30 years. So I was a young I was a younger man. Back then, to say the least. But I remember the excitement around Bill Clinton, and around was crazy at
Unknown Speaker 4:34
this thing. Yeah, they were rock stars. He and Al Gore they were young man. They were they 40 if they were they were barely 40. And, and, and they had these young wives and all these young people around them and panabaker who had done a great deal of filming with Bobby and jack kennedy in their prime in their, you know, in their, during their rise to power and and until both of their deaths. He He said that it hadn't been since then, that he, he had experienced anything like this. He recognized immediately in the Clinton campaign, that kind of youthful energy and vigor and vitality and passion and certainty that that that this group could change the world and, and you felt it? You sure did feel it, man. It was. You really you really felt it? You know, and when you when you when you talk about that it's something that the film was able to capture so beautifully, so beautifully,
Alex Ferrari 5:35
and carve out and carve Alby. I mean, he's, I mean, you couldn't see Central Casting couldn't have sent him. I mean, it's,
Unknown Speaker 5:42
they couldn't have. And, and they did and, you know, we had to rekka you know, Penny, first thing, penny Said, James. I remember after the first day or two of filming, he were like, well, maybe we'll make a film about him. And he was like, I don't know, he's kind of like the drunken uncle and won't leave the party. But then then we got the film processed, and we put it up. And I remember clear as day, Penny, watching it and saying that guy's a movie star. That's, we can make a movie about him. And and he was right. And he was right, because we thought, you know, I didn't know what we know. I didn't, I didn't know what I was doing. And I was like, well, we'll follow these two guys, because the first time I mentioned depending and Chris, that, you know, that I was like, I got access. I did it. I pulled it off. I got to see him. We're in the campaign. And they said, well, when do we start shooting with Governor Clinton? I was like, wow, not governor Clinton. But the guys who are running the campaign are the guys who are running the campaign. What are we gonna do with them? I was like, maybe, you know, we'll we'll they'll take us to Bill Clinton. And when they leave, we'll stay. And I didn't quite know that that's not the way it works. The whole film, we thought we were making a film about Bill Clinton in one day, we'd like that. And it just I remember being disappointed. I remember on election night, we we never quite got to be with Clinton. We filmed his speech to the world. And we were with James and George and and he hugged them and we filmed that. But then the camera ran out of film, and we couldn't go and we rent we couldn't we week, I remember sitting in a cloakroom, in the governor's matched, waiting to get access to finally be with Clinton on election night, and just not getting it and into the cloakroom came by Al Gore, his daughters, and they were waiting, and we were all just kind of waiting, you know? And they got brought into the party, of course, but what, but we didn't but it you know, it was that was an everything was on that film. That was a great lesson in the fact that, you know, you don't always know what you have till you look at what you have. And when we looked at what we have, what we looked at what we had we you know, especially in the hands of his brilliant editors as many incresed who could bring it to life and bring the humor to life and bring the characters to life. I mean, man, they used every frame, we shot on that film every frame, but they they made a masterful film
Alex Ferrari 8:19
is absolutely a masterful film. Now as a documentarian, how do you bring out the truth of your subject, the subject that you shouldn't, because I mean, human beings generally have a veneer, a wall, sometimes sometimes a wall with arm guns aimed to protect the rights. So as a documentarian, sometimes they'll agree to do a piece. But that doesn't mean that they're allowing you in yet. So how do you kind of bring the truth out of a subject?
Unknown Speaker 8:46
Your I mean, what a What a great question. And really, to be honest, the only question there is about the work that we do. And the answer is you're in their trust, you earn their trust, and you earn their trust by you know, being trustworthy. You know, there's a, there's a common misnomer, which is that we're flies on the wall. And that's our goal is to be a fly on the wall and to vanish into the woodwork, that's another one and to disappear. So you don't even know were there. None of those things are our actual objective. I can't be a fly on the wall. I mean, I'm, I'm six one, I got some, I got some, some presents to me. My, my camera person has a camera with them. My sound person has a boom, where people were people in a room, there are only few of us and we're not hanging lights and we're gonna get out of your way. But we're human beings. And the key is for us as human beings to have a relationship with you as a human being you the subject, and if we have a relationship with you, wherein you're as comfortable being yourself with us, as you are with anybody with whom you trust and are fully comfortable being yourself, then we can capture that on film. And that's all we aim for. We want to earn your trust. You know, on Monday, and if we do, we know that we still have to earn it on Tuesday. And we still have to earn it on Wednesday. And as I say, the way to earn people's trust is to be trustworthy the way you earn their trust in any relationship, you have to be who you say you are, you have to, you can't say, Hey, there are only three of us. And we never use lights or heavy equipment or any cables. And you and I always like to leave 10 minutes before you ask me to leave. And, and that's, that's my approach and trust, you know, you'll see you'll trust us. And we'll we'll that's that's how we'll make it. You can't say that, and then show up with 30 people LED lights, cables, trucks, and refuse to leave until you get it. You know, you can't you got to be who you say you are. And you know, what we who we say we are people who are there to observe, we just want to see life. We want to see how it happens. How if you're Billy Eilish, how you how you're handling all the things that are going on, and how you're living your life, and how you're writing your album with your brother, and what that's all about, and simply there to see that we I don't want anything else, you know, people ask me, what would would the film have not worked? If she didn't win the Grammys? I don't care if she wins the Grammys, I don't care if she sells a single album, I'm there to tell the story of a remarkable young artist coming of age, and a remarkable young woman coming of age. And that story, however, that story unfolds is the story I want to tell I don't want anything else. I just want to see clearly. And then I want to be able to tell the story truthfully, as you say
Alex Ferrari 11:39
know, in in this and what's remarkable about your career is the subject matters that you've taken on. You know, some have obviously been of great, you know, legendary people like Jim Belushi, who have passed. But a lot of
RJ Cutler 11:52
Alex Ferrari 11:52
John john shouldn't sorry, john. Sorry, Jim.
RJ Cutler 11:55
Jim is still with us.
Alex Ferrari 11:56
Jim, still, Jim is still with us
RJ Cutler 11:59
harvesting the cannabis. On behalf of us.
Alex Ferrari 12:02
Oh, yes, heis. Oh,no, no. So they mean, so you do subject matters like that. And that's a different kind of documentary and work as opposed to, you know, Dick Cheney, or the head of Vogue, or Billy, these are these are very big presence. You know, these are big people present very heavy presence there shadows, especially like dick cheney. And, and I forgot her name, the head of
RJ Cutler 12:29
Alex Ferrari 12:30
Anna yes, having, you know, they, the shadow that walks in with them. And the tour is massive, the trust that they must have to open themselves up, because I've seen those films, and they're just, I mean, they open themselves up. And you're right, there needs to be a trust. And obviously, your track record does open some doors as well. But at a certain point, I don't care if you want an Oscar, or you didn't want an Oscar or whoever you've worked with, at a certain point, it's just you and me. I'm here as a camera, I don't care who you are, what you are, but I have to trust you. And that's the human aspect of it, regardless of how you cut through all the celebrity and all of the other stuff that is thrown upon these the souls if you will, and just get to them.
RJ Cutler 13:13
I mean, it's a, there are a number of ways of answering that. One is that what what connects the subject to the processes, their desire to have their story told, and that transcends that's a very say, it's a very when we're sitting there, it's two human beings. Well, one of those human beings wants to have their story told, and the other human being wants to tell their story. So we're actually very much in harmony. And I'm, I'm, I'm there, I'm there with you, man. I get it. I know, I don't know why you want to have your story told? I don't mean to say I don't think you should, I mean to say, I don't ask why. That's all that's on you. And I, I trust you that you want to have your story told it's a very human desire, and I'm connecting with you on that level. And, and, you know, to be honest, that's really fundamentally it. It's, it's, that's what, that's what draws me to you. And, and then, you know, there are other things that I you know, I'm an empathic person, I'm a curious person. I, you know, I, I'm present I'm well trained by the, you know, by da Pennebaker, grid sagittis, and all my experiences, I'm trustworthy, because I know that, you know, I want to these days, I can say to somebody, you know, feel free to call anyone I've worked with and you'll, you'll see, but, you know, fortunately, the work, you know, is there and N stands for itself, but that's really what connects us and that, you know, I know that we're all you know, we're all our parents. Children, we're all the little boys and girls that we were one day long ago. I know that it hasn't been all that long since then, no matter how old we are, and I know that one day is, you know, that we're all dust in the wind. And I'm, you know, so celebrity, doesn't it? Honestly, you know, I've made plenty of projects that aren't about celebrities. I mean, I made films about high school kids and college kids and, and young physicians and young men and women in the military and, and those projects are every bit as rich as the celebrity driven projects. But it's not celebrity that is as interesting, even though it of course, has been a subject. It's a subject in the in the Billy film, it's a subject in the Belushi film, there's no question. But what what what drives my curiosity are people who are, you know, who are great at what they do and care a tremendous amount about it and are doing it as well as they possibly can under high stakes circumstances. I'm, you know, I've, as I mentioned, I come from the theater, I want to put on a good show, and I want to spend a great yarn, and I want you to laugh and cry and stomp your feet and share when it's over. I you know, and leave the theater, grateful that you devoted, you know that you gave up your time to be there. And I want to have earned that granted, you know, I want to have spent your time Well, you're putting your trust in Me too. So. So those, those are my goals.
Alex Ferrari 16:34
Now, with those first few projects, like the war room, and the projects that a few projects after that, what were the biggest lessons you learned, because you were brand new to this medium? You know, what was the biggest lesson you took away from, let's say, the war room? Because that was such a, I mean, you were surrounded by such amazing, you know, collaborators, what was that one lesson, you're like, Oh,
RJ Cutler 16:53
this is the thing I'm taking away, one of the big things I'm taking away from this process, it really is that you have to trust in the process, that the principles reveal themselves, or that they work out and that the things the characters reveal themselves. The, if you stick very early on, I mean, the different things Pennebaker said to me that I think about every day, you know, one of the very first things he said to me was, you know, if you want to do this kind of work, you better have a bank robbers mentality, travel light and be ready to make a break for it at any moment. And, you know, I didn't know what he meant, but I know now and, and that, that you gotta you know, you got to be light on your feet, you got to be, you got to be able to, to adjust. It's you got to you got to make a if necessary, you got to make a break for you know, but but he also said, you know, the first thing he does when he used to do when he walked into a room into a shooting environment, was find a table to sit down next to and take his camera apart and clean it. Because his he wanted the people who he was filming to know that he was a guy with a job to he's no different than them he doesn't he's not, he's not a body with a camera on its head. You know, he's a human being who is there to connect with you on a human level. There's so many of those lessons. One of the one of the kinds of lessons that I share with others that to me is the is the in a way, the kind of Earth lesson of how to approach this kind of filmmaking came to me from from Wayne Gretzky, the great hockey player who never gave a never gave interviews and and But one day, I remember watching an interview with him between period somehow they got a hold of them. In the end the the announcer the interviewer said, Well, tell us great one, what how do you what is your secret? How do you do it? Tell us please tell us and and and Gretzky said, well, it's it's quite simple. I just followed the clock. And I remember thinking, oh my god, everybody else on the hockey rink is trying to get the puck to do what they want it to do. But there's Gretzky somehow communing with the puck and letting it lead him. Well, that sounds odd. But it's the key was the key to his success. And I think it's the key to, to the success that I have in doing this in that in that I'm following life. I'm not asking life to do something. I'm not trying to force it. I'm not trying to force the puck into the net. I'm just following the Pac Man because it's on a beautiful journey. And if it ends up in that goal, even even, you know so much the better.
Alex Ferrari 19:40
That's Yeah, that's one of the most amazing quotes in sports history. But I think is this three general I think it was like follow, he follows the puck and he also likes to be where the puck is going to be.
RJ Cutler 19:52
And I think as he tried, that's right. All of those things. Yeah, all of those things. You know, Penny. Another thing I wish you know, we could talk for an hour or two Just me remembering different things. Pennebaker said to me at different times. But one of the things he said was that directing is what happens? Do you don't direct while you're in the field? You're not telling. I'm not saying put it over there, put the camera over there framing up, Devin, that's not directing. Directing, he said, is what happens in the bar at the end of the day. And what he meant by that was that after the shoot you you sit around, and you and you and you say to each other, what did you see? What did you hear? What was your experience of the day? What moved you what questions Did you have, and as long as everybody is communicating about those things, you're ready for the next day. And you move along? Another thing? He said, I remember wrapping the war room. And, and I had, I had been out at some event, and I had I had met Riley, Pat Riley that who at the time was the Knicks coach, and, and I, he had seen the war room, he was out the film was out. So we were in our kind of like, you know, we were, we were going to parties. And you know, people knew that I produced the film and someone introduced me to Pat Riley. And we had this great chat. And I said, you know, we should make a film about you. And he's like, Oh, you know, he was he was not uninterested. And that was enough for me. And the next day, I saw a penny and I said to him, what I think I think I found our next film, ah, I'll produce and you guys will direct and will tell the story, Pat Riley, the New York the greatest one of the greatest coaches to ever be in all of sports. And he's right here in town down the road at Madison Square Garden. And penny Said I thought you wanted to be a director. And I was like I do. But look, another project fell into our lap and I love producing and this has been great. And you guys are the day he's like, No, no, no. You want to be a director you find a film to direct because you're not a director until you wake up in the middle of the night screaming. And you don't you don't wake up in the middle of the night screaming when you're producing a film only when you're directing it. And I was like, wow, I you know it was and it was the it was generous, truthful. And a month or so later I was at college reunion and I ran into my old friend, David van Taylor was one of the brilliant documentarian. And he and I started kibitzing about, you know, different stories that people would tell and he said to me, you know, if you really want to tell a story about America and American politics, Oliver North is going to run I ran contra Ali is going to run for Senate. And we should tell that story. And I said I'll do it if you'll do it. And off we went. We directed a film together. And and I love that film. It's called a perfect candidate. It's really I'm so proud of it. It's it's if the war room is a celebration of the kind of joy of American politics that the perfect candidate is it's dark underbelly just filthy, nasty, just unbelievably, like, I can't believe it. And we got it. We were there. We were inside it. And man did I wake up screaming in the middle of the night, like, more times than I wish to remember. But I learned I learned what directing was what directing one of these films was and you know, you're dealing with powerful stuff. It's, you're harnessing the, you know, you're in that you're, you're you're you're being given an opportunity by the gods to harvest that power and tell the stories of human life and it's it's it's intense stuff. So you know, now sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night I don't have to scream because I've a I've been through it before but but Penny was right. You're you haven't directed one of these films until you've until you've woken up in the middle of the night screaming
Alex Ferrari 23:55
and now you wake up in a cold sweat. You don't scream but there's there might be a cold sweat.
RJ Cutler 24:00
Fortunately, my wife here, isn't it my wife isn't here to to refute your observation.
Alex Ferrari 24:08
Fair enough. Now, you did this great documentary on. I mean, I'm one of my favorite comedians of all time, john Belushi. And, I mean, his story's remarkable when you go down the rabbit hole of john Belushi. I mean, what was that like? Because, I mean, obviously, he's not around to interview so you had to do this from perspectives of everyone who was close to them. What was it like going down that rabbit hole because it was I'm assuming somewhat scary and, and hilarious and everything?
RJ Cutler 24:39
Yeah, it you know, it was a it was actually a big rental. You're, again, you're asking the exact right question, because, you know, how do you tell the story, john Belushi, you know, dies of an overdose early 1980s. It's, I'm making this film in 2016 1718, whatever. I've lost track all track of time and the end post COVID did it Who knows what, but right in the late 20 teens, that's 30 years later I'm making this I'm making this this film and and how do you capture it? How do you capture the rawness? How do you capture and my objective with this film is to tell the story of not of what it was like for john Belushi to die, which is one of the most oft told stories in in entertainment history. But the story of what it was like for john Belushi to live and that's a very that's a rarely told story and a story that Judy Belushi and John's family had not granted anybody the opportunity to do since they felt so burned by Bob Woodward when he wrote wired, so they just shut it down. Well, Shawn, bad sick, my dear friend and producing partner on the Baluchi film and they had had one Judy over and had persuaded her in part because he is such a persuasive, charming man, in part because he spent a decade doing it in part because he brought me in to direct it and in part because Judy saw our film, listen to me, Marlon, which, which john and i produced and, and, and, and, and shared it with her. And so she was ready to give us the opportunity to tell the story. But we still had the I had the huge riddle of how are we going to bring to the audience what it was like for john Belushi to live all these decades later. And as I started to do kind of preparatory interviews, talk to people on the phone, have lunch with people who knew john, those kinds of things. I was like, Huh, everyone's tally, everyone's either talking about themselves as people do. Or they're telling that they're telling the story that they tell about john when they tell stories about john. So they've told this story so many times, and it things felt lost in the foggy haze of memory. They weren't present. They weren't raw, they weren't edgy. And again, if you're going to make a movie about john Belushi, you need Rob present edge you need you need to capture the man and the man was an exposed wire. Well, these conversations I was having was not we're not exposed wire. And and I was concerned. And fortunately, when I went to Martha's Vineyard and spent time with my team digging through the archive there, we discovered that in the wake of the the Woodward book, Judy, and a couple of her friends, including the journalist, Tanner Colby had set out to collect an oral history of john, they didn't know what they would do with it. They knew one day these tapes would come in handy. They did a book that was kind of the tip of the iceberg. But it came and went. And there were these dozens, hundreds of hours of conversations they had had with people in the years, immediately following his death. And boom, there was the there was the solution. Because Well, you hear it in the film, those caught that we our ability to capture that was a function of the great gift from the gods. And from Judy and Tanner of these of these interviews.
Alex Ferrari 28:24
Yeah, remarkable. absolutely remarkable film. And anybody,
RJ Cutler 28:27
any credible people, you know, we're talking about Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd and Lorne Michaels, and, you know, on and on and on, and you're, you're hearing from Carrie Fisher, who's who was kind of John's soulmate and addiction as well as one of his dearest friends, you're, you know, you're you're, you're getting into the guts of it all. And we got into the guts of it on and that film does, you know, it definitely does
Alex Ferrari 28:52
in the family was very happy with the way it came out from what
RJ Cutler 28:55
I just spoke to duty this morning. So we were just we were just reminiscing and and, you know, expressing our, you know, our mutual gratitude. And and yeah, and Jim has been great about it. And, you know, he's, I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you, he's no easy customer. So. So his response to the film is very meaningful to us.
Alex Ferrari 29:22
That's awesome. Now, you, you are one of those rare documentaries, I get the jump in from narrative to documentary, you are able to go back and forth. How do you transit for how did you transition from documentary to narrative? And was there a little bit of because I've spoken to other documentaries who have that, and it's always a little bit like, Well, yeah, you're you can tell people you don't know how to tell you don't have to work with actors. You don't know how to tell a story. That's a narrative. You just tell these documentary stories. Is that your feeling or how, like, how did you like with it with if I stay? How did that project come along? And did you have any any Issues breaking through to get to be able to make that moment that movie.
RJ Cutler 30:03
Well, once again, remember that I am I'm a theatre, a theatre director by training. I mean, I spent 20 I get, you know, I started working with actors. When I was in first grade, I was directing my I was directing my fellow first graders and and I, and I studied theater and I directed plays in college, I was I was a graduated undergraduate from, from Harvard, and in those days, there was no theatre department, but we all did plays constantly, we just produced them ourselves. And they were theaters all over campus. And we that's what we did. And we were so passionate about it. And, and, and the and the teachers who did pass through for the kind of special classes now and then in theater practice, or, or theater, drama, history, or any of the dramatic, I had a constant mice, my major was dramatic theory and literature, but I had to kind of apply through the special concentration thing. We We We studied, we were we were imbued with kind of, you know, the the importance of, of the of the message, the importance of the of the of the themes, the importance of, you know, making sure that the audience's time was, was well spent via they've, you know, I can't tell you the number of teachers who, who said to me, you know, you're asking people to come out and spend two and a half hours sitting in a dark room with you, you better have, you better have something important to say you better know what it is, and you better damn well be entertaining. And I mean, so many people, they I was drilled into my head, but so was the importance of how you communicate with your collaborators, actors, designers, everybody, writers, everybody with whom you're working. So those are things that I personally am trained in, I then as I said, spent many years directing in theater. So working with actors is a great joy to me and I am working with designers is a great joy to me, I'm working with writers is a great joy to me. So it's not new in that way. But it's very different than documentary work. documentary work is, in a way documentary work is more like the theater than film work. Because Because you have time. In documentary work, a lot of times, you have time in the theater, you spend weeks and weeks rehearsing and weeks and weeks in previews. And you take your time and I love that in the in the in film, you show up on set. And the first thing here is somebody we're losing the light, you're running out of time, you know, it's all day long, you're in a frickin panic. That's, that's, that happens not to be my preferred way of going through a day I like to chill. And I like to you know, I like to follow the puck, there's no time to follow the path, we're making a movie,
Alex Ferrari 32:55
you're creating the book, you're creating the puck at that point.
RJ Cutler 32:57
And maybe and by the way, you may be in the hands of someone who's more masterful at it than I it's different. And they know how to I'm sure that I am certain that Scorsese doesn't feel all day long. Like he's being rushed. I'm certain of it. But I don't know, man, I got on set. You know, I it's, I'm telling you, the first thing you hear is you're losing the light. So but I did love I did love making that film because I got to work with Chloe Morales and I got to adapt this scale foreman, brilliant kale foreman book and I got to buy my I love my produce. I loved everybody. And we had a wonderful time and it was a great experience. And equally equally rich was the process of of creating with Kelly curry, the Nashville the television series. Yeah, and directing the first two episodes of that. I mean, the pilot of Nashville is one of the one of the all time great creative experiences I've ever had. And I am I am grateful to all who made it possible. My work with Kelly query was just like, incredibly, incredibly rich and satisfying. And she's so she created these characters and it was and she was so brilliant. And they kind of arrived fully formed and, and and she understood the language and the music and the air and she's, you know, she she said that was an incredible honor and, and you know, I got to direct Connie Britton it's just like at what a thrill what it's so many things and, and, and and the kids who were in that the younger actors, the whole Hayden having to hear the whole experience and the music, you know, to be on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and work with T bone Burnett. on and on. It couldn't have been richer, couldn't have been more joyful in you know, my soul was and my heart were were full with those experiences. Again, the process Like I, I you know your right to describe it as going back and forth because I went there for a little bit and really these days I'm super focused on my nonfiction work and and and and it's it couldn't be richer in terms of you know what I'm what I'm trying to do with it and the different the different projects so it's it's it's very exciting but it's different you know we like to say well documentary is scripted stuff is documentary backwards because you do the you do the script before in the in the in the narrative and you do the script in the Edit room and it's kind of that but there are a lot the differences are, are
Alex Ferrari 35:41
RJ Cutler 35:43
massive, and then the similarities are thrilling. It's you're still center, it's still cinema. To me these documentaries, they are not I'm not interested in in in the end, I'm not actually interested in the politics of it. I'm not interested in the message. I'm not here to give you facts and information Google does that far better than any film I could ever make. I'm here to tell you a story about the human experience to spin a yarn to make great cinema as or to aspire to make great cinema you know, as and to and to engage you and to move you emotionally and to tell you stories about the human condition. Those are, those are my only interest. Others make documentaries for other reasons. They're great documentaries that are kind of, you know agit Prop, they want to they're there to as there is great theater that's as your prop as there is great cinema. That's not really my thing. My thing is, you know, I'm I'm telling stories about people.
Alex Ferrari 36:46
Yeah, very and very well might I add? Now, I have to ask you about two subjects that you had in two of your films, who are both very polarizing in their own way. Anna and Dick Cheney have very different human beings, obviously. Sure, from very different walks of life, but both polarizing in their worlds. How, like an regardless of your own beliefs, political beliefs or anything like that. I know you have to be kind of just got to let happen. Whatever happens. What is it like? Just juggling, you know? I mean, obviously dick cheney very, very polarizing political figure. And then Anna, to a lesser extent, but very polarizing in the world of fashion. How do you approach these two kind of juggernauts in their space? Well,
RJ Cutler 37:38
your question is in the context of it, there's a there's a present not a presumption, you're there's an assertion in your question that they're polarizing figures. And I and I understand why all politicians I think are, especially in this climate. You know, they I remember when I came, I remember when Marlin Powell was, was, was cute flirting with running for president. And everyone knew he was starting with running for president, but nobody knew if he was a Democrat or Republican, and his numbers were in the 90s. And then he declared that he was a Republican, and boom, his numbers went down to 49%. Because that's the country we live in Kratz weren't gonna support him anymore. And that's, you know, so of course, the Vice President Vice President Cheney is is polarizing. And he and I don't I do not I, you know, I think he's, I would never pull the switch for him, I would never pull the switch for any any of his policies. I think he led us into a war that has been a catastrophe and 70 different ways. And, and I wish he hadn't done it. But I do know that he is as impactful, a non presidential politician as this country has ever seen. And, and, and when I started pursuing him, he was his heart was in failure. He had a battery in his heart, for what for for a heart, as some would say he had a block of ice for a heart, but he literally had a battery for a heart. And he was frail. When I first met with him. He was weak. He was he told me in our first meeting, that he would look in the mirror and see the ghost of his father. And he knew that he was that his time was coming. And pretty much he was sitting around waiting for one of two things to happen. Either transplant would be available because he was on a list like everybody else, or he would pass and he was at peace with that. This is what he told me the day I met him for lunch in his in his home, by the way at an address that I couldn't find on Google because they they there was a Google Maps doesn't have Jamie's address. Next time I met with him he you know his list me his daughter called me right? Um, right.
After he awoke from surgery, it was literally like the day he got surgery from the heart transplant. And she said to me, I just want you to know that the Vice President is doing well. And one of the things he said to us before he went in was that if he survived, he wanted to make sure that making this movie was one of the was one of the things that he did this year. So we're ready to go. I mean, it was crazy. It was it was the day and I'd spent a lot of time waiting for them to say yes or no, when will we do this? And, again, human beings want their stories told Yeah. So my my, I said all this to him. When I met him, they there was no mystery. I was introduced to him by Mary Madeline, who, of course, I knew through James and through her, we filmed with her on the war room, she knows my politics. Well, I wasn't I didn't keep it secret. But my interest wasn't in debating politics, it was in discussing politics. But my interest was in this human, this guy, this guy who, you know, flunked out of Yale multiple times, and and was a was a drunkard work in the lines and hanging electrical lines in Wyoming with no future, but was in love with a woman who said to him, you won't get it together, man, you're too good for this stop drinking. I mean, he was on the sleeping on the floor of a of a jail cell because he had been picked up too many times for drunk driving. And they finally throw him in the tank. And and his girlfriend, Lynch Lin, I'm sorry not to remember her name. But the woman who would become Lim Jane, he said, if you want this relationship to go anywhere, if you want to spend the rest of your life with me, you're going to sober on up and get it together. And he did. He did. He got it together. He changed his life. He went to you know, he went to graduate school, he was incredibly brilliant man. He was he was respected by all of his colleagues in Congress. He, he he was admired in the administration, he was setting. You know, he played this instrumental role during the first george bush administration, George HW and in the Gulf War, and they were reasonable. And they they drew the line, you know, they didn't turn it into a long war, they got in, they got out. And they and and they recognize that certain balances, you know, they did, there was a lot to talk about with him, then something happened on 911. And something you know, and we tell that story, but this is a movie that I think for for you know, I want people to watch this movie 50 years from now, I want them to watch it 100 I want them to know who this man was, where he came from, what he did, how he did it, how he defends himself. And he had to defend himself in this film. And, you know, he, he he put duty versus honor. And he he said your you know, he he dismissed honor as a value in this film. Well, that's a really interesting thing. And a person who's leaving a country to war, he had to defend torture in this film, that's a really intense thing that someone has to do. And as I say, I think he's the single most impactful, non presidential politician who's ever I mean, you know, it's no mystery George George W. Bush gave him gave him a lot of rope. He was he had a lot of power in the administration, and he wielded it, and he did some, he did some questionable things. I as a voter would say some bad things, I as a filmmaker, left them as questionable so that he could defend them and you could hear them and we could be on the record with it. You know, and so that's how I approach that, you know, with and I'm just telling the story about a great little Dino, one of the world's great editors and what is you know, this this bird like little human who also is her father's daughter, you know, that's a big part of it. The the great, you know, Charles Wintour, chili Charles Wintour, the, you know, legendary Fleet Street editor who, who, you know, who, who, for 20 years ran ran the most important paper in England and, and, and who was for her very much a role model and someone who she always wanted to please but but she single handedly when we were with her she was single handedly running this global industry, this multi billion dollar global industry and and and how does she do it? How does she do it? powerful women are very interesting, fascinating. They tend to be by the way, they tend to be controversial just because they're women in power. Of course now and they man they got to, you know, I'm starting a film now about Martha Stewart talk about talk about A person in power who was kind of punished for being in power, you know, for being successful.
So, and there's more to say about it, but but you know, look, end of the day, people are fascinating. People, you know, here people are remarkable. There are some extraordinary folks out there. And it's, it's, they've got great stories to tell. And you know, as you point out, I've had the great good fortune of being able to, to tell a number, a number of, you know, fascinating, certainly, you know, complex people's stories.
Alex Ferrari 45:38
Now, your latest project with Billy Eilish, can you tell me a little bit about that film and how that came to be.
RJ Cutler 45:44
I was invited to meet with Billy. And it came to be because I accepted the invitation. And I sat with her and Phineas and her folks, and some people from her team. And I, I mean, I instantly was in engaged as, I'm sure that's no surprise, she's an incredibly magnetic person who's incredibly gifted artist and this, you know, incredible young woman. And, and, and I saw in that first meeting, an opportunity to simultaneously tell the story of a of a young artist coming of age and coming into her own, and a young woman coming of age and coming into her own. And I loved that I loved how real it could all be. And that's, you know, that's the film, it's really very simple.
Alex Ferrari 46:35
You know, then we just followed the path, and the puck went to some amazing. I love that. I love that analogy. so wonderful. Yeah. But the isn't a true and you've been in rooms with with these kinds of people, there is an energy to people especially like to celebrities, or artists like that. There's this thing that you can't explain, like, there's this energy that that they suck the energy out of the room, like all the attention goes to them. It's like you can feel when someone like this walks into the room, and I've spoken to many, many people of that magnitude have been in the room with many people have done the magnitude. And when you could just see their back turn and they walk into the other side of the room. And you just go someone just walked in and you could just feel that energy. Was that what it was like being with it? It doesn't matter what age it is, by the way, it could be. It could be Michael Jackson at seven years old. It doesn't matter.
RJ Cutler 47:27
Yeah. I mean, Bill is a very magnetic personality, there's no question and she, she, as I understand it, she's she has been her whole life. There's and hurt her, her talent, her brilliance, her poetry, her, her her vision are all exceptional. And, but but she's also this very real kid, you know, that's around, you know, making fart jokes and eating burritos and wanting to slip that slip out the back door with a boyfriend and well, you know, watch porn and whatever, you know, and she's just a kid, and who's got the curiosity of the kid and the outrage of the kid and the, and the and, and the ambitions and, and if at all. And she met and she's made of music, you know, that she sets the phrase, she says our family was one big fucking song. It's true. It's true. And and, yes, one of the questions I had, upon first meeting her was what planet does this person come from? And I and I certainly, and what planet does Phineas come from? And I certainly, you know, remember thinking and feeling that this is, you know, on some level, she's part human part deity, you know, and she really is she's a shaman, you know, she has a power. She stands before hundreds of 1000s. And, and, and literally on a daily basis. She's on the telephone of 75 million followers on 80 million followers on Instagram, and she she leads she is a she is a modern day, you know? I don't know what the what the what the best way of describing it is. Like, yeah, it is. It's very powerful. And it's a it's shamanistic. It's very, you know, it's all of those things and and you feel it, you feel the power and she Pierce's her of her audience's hearts. She connects with them. They all feel like she's singing directly to them. I've been in tiny rooms with her singing. I've been in enormous rooms with her singing, there's no difference. She She can be in an arena in in Miami that seats 22,000 people and the kid in the top, the top bowl of that arena in the back row is connected to Billy Eilish the same way the kid in the front Row is, are the kid in the club, it's just amazing. The space is feel tiny, she has a power. And you see that you see that in the film? How
Alex Ferrari 50:09
in there's no explanation for it. There's no explanation for that kind of, well, I don't want to say there's no explanation. I just want to say, you know, those who explain those I'm not. I'm, that's not my business. It's my business to show it. And to tell the story about it. Sure, and others can explain it. But I think the film is, you know, certainly reveals the power. I mean, it's a lot of in there a lot of things involved. Let's talk about the fact that, first of all, she's not a, she's not an only child prodigy, she's one of two prodigies in that same house, they and they need each other, they make each other even greater than either, you know, she and Phineas, they, they, they are a partnership. So when I say what planet do they come from, on some level? The answer is, you know, planet Maggie's womb, that where they both spent nine years, just nine months gestating to the same heartbeat. And then they were raised by the same parents, and you see all the complex, and they were raised in a particular way, which as Billy says, In the film, you know, first and foremost, they were encouraged to be themselves. And first and foremost, their family was one big fucking song, as she says, In the film, you know, those that by the way, those two lines I just quoted are pretty much the first line in the film and the last line in the film. So the whole film is about how those things come together. But there are lots of explanations and then some things are just can't be explained. Can they? There's just this that thing is that they that is it, you know it when you see it, but you just can't articulate well. The, you know, by Jim Belushi, john,
RJ Cutler 51:52
john Belushi all this life's you know, again, this is, this is my, you know, I, I have a lot of gratitude, because I'm able to tell these stories, and these stories kind of living the landscape of people are just, you know, fascinating. And there are so many remarkable people doing these incredible things. And, you know, I'm not kidding when I say it's dust in the wind, we're all here for a blip. Listen, Billy is nothing if not an existentialist, and raised by Patrick, who is nothing, if not an existentialist, as we see in the film. And she's like, you know, I remember early on her being interviewed, and somebody was like, why do you what do you know? Why do you do it all your way? Why don't you don't you think you'd have even more success if you conform? And she's like, Well, why would I do anything that I don't believe in? Like, I'm going to, I'm going to live I'm going to die. Y'all are gonna forget I was ever here. Why would I bother with doing anything? That wasn't true to myself? What's the point? none of it matters. It's like songs that are going to come and then one day no one will even know I was here. And why would I have spent my time here? There's a child talking.
Alex Ferrari 53:02
I was gonna say the wisdom here.
RJ Cutler 53:04
Why wouldn't I spend my time being true to myself, and that's our whole thing. That is the whole Billy Eilish thing. Be true to yourself in the way you work. Be true to yourself in the way you treat others. Be true to yourself in the in the art that you put out in the world, Be true to yourself in the way you dress, Be true to yourself, be yourself. That's, you know, that's might be considered a kind of radical philosophical approach but writers and it resonates the world over through her through her, her art and just her persona.
Alex Ferrari 53:38
And we're working people watch this film.
RJ Cutler 53:41
The world economy according to I'm sorry, coordinator, Billy. Billy Eilish the world's a little blurry is on Apple TV. Plus there's another series we have on Apple called dear which is a which is a wonderful project that we did about also about how work impacts people and and then on Showtime is the is the john Belushi film called Belushi. And we talked a lot in this conversation about the war room that's available on criterion. And of course, all these phones You know, they're all they're all on a streaming service. And and what a pleasure to chat about it all with you.
Alex Ferrari 54:23
And I can ask you last few questions. I always ask all my guests. What advice would you give a filmmaker trying to break into the business today?
RJ Cutler 54:31
Make a movie that said movie best advice please don't go to film school. Film School is an old paradigm that allow that provided for equipment. And that's it. That's provided for equipment. It gave you access to equipment you couldn't afford. You couldn't afford a camera when it was a film camera or steam deck processing. You couldn't for afford now. Guess what? Here's a camera Here's the camera this I'm holding up a telephone. Here's the camera, the new iPhone, it's got an editing equipment on it, that does the trick. It's an upgrade. But you got it all, or buy a thing, buy a camera from Amazon and return it in 29 days there. It's not illegal. It's their policy. It's how they became the biggest company on the planet. And Jeff Bezos became one of the richest men to ever have lived. He's a pharaoh. And he says, Please buy stuff from me make a movie and return it 29 days later, and I'll give you your money back. I'll pay for your film. That's what Jeff Bezos says he does. He says it's so so that's what my advice to young filmmakers don't talk about agents. Don't talk about showbiz. Don't talk about film school. Don't just make a movie. And guess what? It may suck. Then make another movie, it's going to be better than the first one. And that is absolutely my advice. Carry on, man. tell stories with your friends.
Alex Ferrari 55:59
A men preach my friend preach. Now what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?
RJ Cutler 56:09
Oh, goodness. I hesitate. Because the lesson that took me the longest to learn is one I'm sure I'm still learning. Sure. But But uh, but you know, it's all I think it's all going to be it's all going to be all right. It's all gonna be fine. is a good lesson. You know, I listen. I mentioned that I was James Lupines. Assistant on into the woods, the Broadway musical, the legendary lupine Sondheim musical, that, I think it was 1987 or 88 that we did it. And I remember one night James saying to me, you know, the biggest part of my job, you know what the biggest part of my job is? And it's like what he said, just saying, everybody, it's all gonna be great. It's all gonna be great. And I was like, Oh, shit. That is you say that all the time. Like, that's the biggest part of my job. It's all gonna be great. It's all gonna be great. So, you know, I say that's a lesson that's that's worth remembering. You know? and stuff. There you go.
Alex Ferrari 57:09
And three of your favorite films of all time. Oh, my goodness. The lady Eve. Preston Sturges film. Let's just leave it at that. Oh,
RJ Cutler 57:31
here we go. Give me shelter. Allen David maysles. film about the Rolling Stone lays it out the month. And let's see and I'll put on this list. Don't look back da Pennebaker, his masterpiece about Bob Dylan.
Alex Ferrari 57:47
Fantastic. RJ. It has been a pleasure talking shop with you today. My friend. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it. My friend.
RJ Cutler 57:56
Likewise, really, really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.
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- RJ Cutler – IMDB
- Watch: Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry – Apple
- Watch: Dear… – Apple
- Watch: Belushi – Amazon
Where Hollywood Comes to Talk
Oscar® Winning Writer/Director
(Platoon, Wall Street, JFK)
(Brothers McMullin, She's the One)
Oscar® Nominated Writer/Director
(Boyhood, School of Rock)
Emmy® Winning Writer/Director/Actor
(City Slickers, Analyze This)
(Smokin' Aces, The Grey, Narc)