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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 2:26
Today on the show, we have filmmaker RJ Cutler. And RJ is not only a narrative filmmaker, but he's also a very, very accomplished documentary and nonfiction director as well. He has worked on films like The Oscar nominated the War Room, a perfect candidate, the September issue the world according to Dick Cheney, if I stay Belushi and the brand new film, Billy Eilish, the world's a little blurry for Apple TV, and he's also one of the CO creators of the hit television series, Nashville, RJ and I had a fantastic conversation. It truly is a masterclass in storytelling. I love the way RJ tells his stories in documentary as well as narrative film. And his new documentary Billy is the world's a little blurry, his fan tastic. I knew very little about Billy Eilish, before I saw this, my, of course, my daughters knew a lot about them a lot about her, but I did not. And I was fascinated by this artist, his journey, and RJ was able to capture that in this documentary. So we're going to talk a bunch about that, as well as his process, and all the other films that he's worked on in his career. So without any further ado, please enjoy my conversation with RJ Cutler. I'd like to welcome to the show. RJ Cutler, how're you doing RJ?
RJ Cutler 3:52
All right. Thank you very much. Always good.
Alex Ferrari 3:54
Very cool. I love your mic. It's much more impressive than mine. So I I appreciate the audio.
RJ Cutler 4:01
You know, mic envy is a easily addressed issue.
Alex Ferrari 4:07
I won't feel too bad about it.
RJ Cutler 4:10
Amazon can, can take care that
Alex Ferrari 4:12
That's very true.
RJ Cutler 4:13
Alex Ferrari 4:14
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 4:24
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 to adaptations of Charlie Brown Books on the on the school, the baseball field outside of my elementary school, and then we'd invite 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 I also loved journalism and 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 directed I you know, I was I was James lupines assistant director on the original production of into the woods I did a the original productions of Secret Garden two productions before it went to Broadway and ran for several seasons I you know, I had 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 was, 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, they're long stories and short stories but the short story is I produced the war room that was my first film and it was not only a 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, Verity filmmaking from the at the feet of the Masters, you know, da Pennebaker and Chris editors who were so incredibly supportive of me and, and generous with their time. And I, 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, verite a, was always sharing lessons. And and that's how I got started, you know, since then I've been, you know, that's 1992. So we're nearing 30 years of doing this. Yeah.
Alex Ferrari 7:38
So 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, 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. Amy, there's this thing,
RJ Cutler 8:07
That we're 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 Pennebaker, 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 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 9:07
Yeah. And and Carvel and Carvel? I mean, he's, I mean, you couldn't see Central Casting couldn't have sent him. I mean,
RJ Cutler 9:14
They couldn't have and, and they did. And you know, we had to wreck it. You know, Penny, first thing, Penny said, James. I remember after the first day or two of filming, he were like, well, maybe we make a film about him. And he was like, I don't know. He's kind of like the drunken uncle that 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 a move 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 I believe. No, 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 Chris, that you know that I was like, I got access. I did. I pulled it off, I got to see him were in the campaign. And they said, well, when do we start shooting with Governor Clinton? I was like, Whoa, not Governor Clinton, but the guys who are running the campaign are the guys who are running the campaigns. What are we gonna do with them? I was like, I maybe, you know, we'll we'll Bill 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. In the whole film. We thought we were making a film about Bill Clinton and one day would you 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 were we couldn't. We we I remember sitting in a cloak room in the governor's mansion, waiting to get access to finally be with Clinton on election night, and just not getting it and into the cloakroom came outdoors, 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, but we didn't, but it you know, that was that was an as everything was on that film, that was a great lesson in the fact that, you know, you don't always know what you have until you look at what you have. And when we looked at what we have, when we looked at what we had we you know, especially in the hands of his brilliant editors, as Manny and Chris, 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 11:51
It 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. Sure. 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?
RJ Cutler 12:19
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 earn 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 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 good to 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, were in yours, 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 um, that's my approach and trust, you know, you'll see you'll trust us and we'll we'll that's that. That's how we'll make it. You can't say that and then show up with 30 people likes cables, trucks, and refuse to leave until you get it. You know, you can't you gotta 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 said
Alex Ferrari 15:11
Now in in this and what's remarkable about your career is the subject matters that you've taken on. And, you know, some have obviously been of great, you know, legendary people like Jim Belushi, who have passed. But a lot of John, John John sorry, John. Sorry, Jim. Jim. Jim, still, Jim is still with us.
RJ Cutler 15:31
Harvesting the cannabis. On behalf of us all.
Alex Ferrari 15:34
Oh, yes, yes. Oh, no, no. So that mean, so you do subject matters, like 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 in very heavy presence, their shadows, especially like Dick Cheney, and, and I forgot her name, the head of Anna Wintour. And yes, having you know, they the shadow that walks in with them on 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, you didn't want an Oscar, whoever you've worked with, at a certain point is just you and me. I'm here, it's 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 do 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 16:45
I mean, it's a, there are a number of ways of answering that. One is that what what connects the subject to the process is their desire to have their story told, and that transcends that's a very say it's one we're sitting there, it's two human beings. Well, one of the most 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, 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, that's on you. And, 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 you know, by da Pennebaker, grid sagittis, and all my experiences, I'm trustworthy, because I know that, you know, I want it 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, and 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? I 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 Baluchi 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 who 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 you gave up your time to be there. And I want to have earned that gratitude. 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 20:06
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, this is the thing I'm taking away one of the big things I'm taking away from this process,
RJ Cutler 20:29
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 Penny 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's 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, you gotta 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 too. 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's there to connect with you on a human level. There's so many of those lessons. One of the one of the kind 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, never gave interviews and and but one day, I remember watching an interview with him between periods, somehow they got a hold of him in the and 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 quite simple. I just followed the puck. 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 puck 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 23:13
Oh, that's yeah, that's one of the most amazing quotes in sports history. But I think is this tree general. I think it was like, follow, he follows the puck, and he also likes to be where the puck is going to be. And I think I just
RJ Cutler 23:25
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 just me remembering different things kind of Baker said to me at different times. But one of the things he said was that directing is what happens to 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 for him. And I'm doing 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, Penny said I remember wrapping the War Room. And, and I had I had been out at some event and I had I had met a Riley, Pat Riley that who at the time was the Knicks coach, and and I he had seen the War Room. He Yeah, it 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 it'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 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 there. He's like, 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 then I was like, wow, I was, you know, it was and it was the it was generous, truthful. And a month or so later, I was at my college reunion. And I ran into my old friend, David Van Taylor, who's 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 our brand 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. And 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 its dark underbelly just filthy nasty, just been 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 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 27:28
And now you wake up in a cold sweat. You don't scream but there's there might be a cold sweat.
RJ Cutler 27:32
Fortunately, my wife here, isn't it my wife isn't here to to refute your observation. Let's let it stand.
Alex Ferrari 27:40
It Fair enough. Now, you did this a 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 28:11
Yeah, it you know, it was a it was actually a big riddle. 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 the early 1980s It's, I'm making this film in 2016 1718, whatever, I've lost track of time. And then post COVID Did 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, Sean battsek My dear friend and producing partner on the Belushi film and 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 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 jumble as she delivered all these decades later.
Alex Ferrari 30:08
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.
RJ Cutler 30:18
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 telling 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 raw 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 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 that we the 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 32:07
Yeah, remarkable, absolutely remarkable film. And anybody
RJ Cutler 32:10
And incredible people, you know, we're talking about Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd 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 his one of his dearest friends, your, you know, your, your, you're getting into the guts of it all. And we got into the guts of it all. And that film does, you know, it definitely does
Alex Ferrari 32:35
In the family was very happy with the way it came out from what
RJ Cutler 32:38
I just spoke to Judy, this morning. She we were just you're just reminiscing, and and, you know, expressing our, you know, our mutual gratitude. 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 was very meaningful to us. That's awesome.
Alex Ferrari 33:08
Now, you, you, you are one of those rare documentarians, I get the jump in from narrative to documentary and 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 what you're feeling? Or how, like, how did you like with 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 33:46
Well, once again, remember that I am I'm a theatre, a theatre director by training. I mean, I spent 20 I, 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 there were theaters all over campus. And we that's what we did, and we were so passionate about it and and and 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 my 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 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, you know, Making sure that the audience's time was, was well spent to be 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, and and 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 where a lot of time you lie, you have time in 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 you hear is somebody were losing the light, they are 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 denying to follow the path. We're making a movie,
Alex Ferrari 36:38
You're creating the puck, you're creating the puck at that point.
RJ Cutler 36:40
And maybe and by the way, maybe 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 Meretz and I got to adapt the Scaleform and brilliant Californian 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 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 I'm I'm grateful to all who made it possible. My work with Kelly query was just like, incredibly, incredibly rich and satisfying. And she 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 Gigi. So that was a an incredible honor and and you know I get to direct Connie Britton it's just like 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 happens here 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 I 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 was a lot the differences are are just massive. And then the similarities are thrilling. It's your still cinema, it's still cinema. It's to me these documentaries. They are not I'm not interested in 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. 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 an end to engage you and to move you emotionally and to tell you stories about the human condition. Those are my 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 it. They're there to as there is great theater the tagit prop as the rose Great Cinema that's after Prop. Not really my thing. My thing is, you know, I'm, I'm, I'm telling stories about people.
Alex Ferrari 40:29
Yeah, very, very well, might I add. Now, I have to ask you about two subjects that you had an 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, in, regardless of your own beliefs, either political beliefs or anything like that, I know you have to be kind of you 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?
RJ Cutler 41:21
Well, your question is in the context of it, there's a there's a present, not a presumption, your there's an assertion in your question that there polarizing figures. And I and I understand why. All all politicians, I think are, especially in this climate. You know, it they, I remember when I can't remember. But I remember when Ellen Powell, was, was, was flirting with running for president. And everyone knew he was starting with running for president, but nobody knew if he was a Democrat, or a 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, and fats weren't gonna support him anymore. And that's, you know, so of course, the Vice President Vice President Cheney, is 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. The next time I met with him, he you know is Liz called 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, 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. And will we do this? And again, human beings want their stories told Yeah. So my my ice I said all this to him. When I met him, there was no mystery. I was introduced to him by a Mary matalin who of course, I knew through James and through her we filmed with her on the war room. She knows my politics, but I wasn't I didn't keep it secret. But I 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 working 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 threw him in the tank. And and his girlfriend, Lynch Lin, I'm sorry not to remember her name. But the woman who would become limp Janie 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 a 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, uh, you know, he played this instrumental role during the, 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, you know, I want people to watch this movie 50 years from now I want them to watch it. 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. But, you know, he, he he he put duty versus honor. And he he said your you know, he dismissed honor as a value in this film. Well, that's a really interesting thing. In 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 a 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 question a little 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 approached that, you know, with and I'm just telling the story about a Greg Dino, one of the world's great editors and what is you know, this this bird like little cumin, who also has her father's daughter, you know, that's a big part of it. The the great you know, a 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 cord now and they man they got to, you know, I'm starting to 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, ended the day people are fascinating. People, you know, they're able to remarkable, there's some extraordinary folks out there and 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 the number a number of, you know, fascinating, certainly, you know, complex people's stories.
Alex Ferrari 49:20
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 49:27
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 engaged as I'm sure that's no surprise. She's an incredibly magnetic person who's gifted artist and this, you know, incredible young woman and and, and they saw in that first meeting, an opportunity to see 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. You know, then we just followed the puck, and the puck went to some amazing.
Alex Ferrari 50:23
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 he 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 with 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 51:11
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 her 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 her boyfriend and, 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 the and it all, and she met and she's made a music, you know that she sets the fridge. She says her family was one big fucking song. It's true. It's true. And and, yes, one of the questions I had, upon 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, I 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? Not enough to be like, yeah, da da, da da, is 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, the 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 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 or 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?
Alex Ferrari 53:51
How in there's no explanation for it. There's no explanation for that kind of,
RJ Cutler 53:55
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 up 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 just stating 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 lots of explanations. And then some things are just can't be explained can
Alex Ferrari 55:26
There's just this thing is that thing that is it, you know it when you see it, but you just can't articulate well, with it, you know, by Jim Belushi, John Belushi, John Belushi all this life's, you know,
RJ Cutler 55:37
Again, this is a, 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 live in 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 why do you? You know, why do you do it all your way? Why don't you Why 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 gonna, I'm gonna live I'm gonna die. You all you're 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 wouldn't I have spent my time here? There's a child talking. I was gonna say the wisdom your 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 and 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 hers, and it resonates the world over through her through her, her art and just her persona.
Alex Ferrari 57:20
And where and where can people watch this film?
RJ Cutler 57:24
The world economy according to I'm sorry, we're according to Billy Eilish. 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 58:05
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 58:13
Make a movie
Alex Ferrari 58:16
RJ Cutler 58:21
Please don't go to film school. Film School is an old paradigm that allow that provided for equipment. And that's it. It'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 steamed dead processing you couldn't afford now. Guess what? Here's a camera. Here's a camera. There's some holding up a telephone. Here's a camera, the new iPhone. It's got an editing equipment on it. Does that trap. 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 at 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 59:41
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?
Unknown Speaker 59:51
Oh goodness. I hesitate because the left and that took me the longest to learn is when I'm sure I'm still learning. Sure, but But uh, but you know, it's I think it's all going to be it's all going to be alright. It's all going to 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 going to be great. All gonna be great. And I was like, Oh, shit, that is you say that all the time. Like, that's because part of my job, it's all gonna be great. So how can it be great. So, you know, I say that's a lesson that's that's worth remembering. You know? And so there you go.
Alex Ferrari 1:00:51
And three of your favorite films of all time.
Unknown Speaker 1:00:54
Oh, my goodness. Uh, the Lady Eve. Mm. Preston Sturges film? Mm hmm. Um Let's just leave it at the get. Here we go. Give me shelter. Allen David Maysles. film about the Rolling Stone Maze it out DeMont. And let's see and I'll put on this list. Don't Look Back da Pennebaker, his masterpiece about Bob Dylan.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:30
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 1:01:38
Likewise, really, really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:42
I want to thank RJ for coming on the show and dropping his knowledge bombs on the tribe today. Thank you so much, RJ. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, including how to watch Billy Eilish, the world's a little blurry on Apple TV, head over to the show notes at indiefilmhustle.com/478. And if you haven't already, please head over to filmmakingpodcast.com Leave a good review and subscribe. It really helps the show out a lot. Thank you again so much for listening, guys. As always keep that also going. keep that dream alive. Stay safe out there, and I'll talk to you soon.
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- RJ Cutler – IMDB
- Watch: Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry – Apple
- Watch: Dear… – Apple
- Watch: Belushi – Amazon
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