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The World's A Little Blurry For Billie Eilish. Director R.J. Cutler Found Clarity

The documentarian tells us what he learned filming Eilish and why he thinks she's 'the voice of a generation'

By Dani Blum

Billie Eilish loves The Office so much she sampled dialogue from the show on her debut album, bookending a song about desire with one of the sitcom’s in-jokes. When she first met with filmmaker R.J. Cutler, known for making profiling documentaries like the Anna Wintour-chronicling The September Issue and The World According to Dick Cheney, Eilish said she wanted any movie made about her to seem like the NBC mockumentary sitcom — with a constant, panning camera and the subtle awareness of an audience.

Subsequently, Cutler followed Eilish over a few years, across two global tours and the writing and release of her eventually Grammy-sweeping debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which she created with her brother, Finneas. The resulting film, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, premieres today on Apple TV+. Throughout its 140 minutes, Cutler captures both the mega-events and the minutiae of Billie’s life making and promoting the album: getting her driver’s license, icing her calves after jumping too hard onstage, hugging Orlando Bloom at Coachella and not recognizing him at first.

“She's the voice of a generation,” Cutler tells MTV News. We spoke to the director about the filming process and what he learned from spending so much time with the world’s biggest pop star.

MTV News: The film starts a while before she really hit the inflection point of becoming a major star. At what point did you decide you wanted to tell this story?

Cutler: I was invited to meet with Billie and her family, I think it was August of 2018, and the day I met her was the day I thought, let's do this. It was a really engaging, warm, open meeting and conversation. I think we both felt that it would be great to do a film together and that we enjoy each other's company. I think the question for me was more, is this something they are sure they want to do? But they were certainly in.

MTV News: What was the dynamic like between you and the family as you were filming? Were you ever worried about people feeling like they needed to perform for the camera?

Cutler: No. Our approach is a very organic approach, you know, I never really worry about people performing for the camera. Billie has only one mode, which is real.

MTV News: There's a lot of really intimate footage, including the process of Finneas and Billie writing songs. How did that come together? Was there a camera constantly in every room at all times?

Cutler: Billie took a slow burn in the early part of her career. It wasn't as though she went from “Ocean Eyes” to releasing her first album. They made this very wise decision to take their time. Clearly it worked out. But when it did come time to write the album, it’s clear to me that Billie and Finneas and [their parents] Maggie and Patrick had a sense that something special was going on and that at the very least having some sort of document of the writing process might be valuable. It might be something that they would enjoy reflecting on. They put a GoPro in Finneas’s bedroom, and if there was a moment where Finneas and Billie felt inspired, they would turn it on. I don't know how long that lasted to be honest, but it certainly lasted long enough for there to be the material that we then worked with and shaped into the material that you see in the film.

And also, we live in a time where everybody's life is very well-documented. My five-year-old daughter's entire life is sitting on my iPhone. We were also the beneficiaries of that. In addition to the years of filming that we did, they gave us a lot of material to work with, hundreds and hundreds of hours.

MTV News: There seems to be almost this tension in the film between all these tour shots and this wave of fan devotion, and then it cuts to her in a car somewhere worried about what people are commenting online. I'm curious about how you view the online nature of her fame and how that relates to her music and her persona in general.

Cutler: Well, clearly a part of her audience is the audience that is online, and it’s a big part of managing a career. The stakes are high. I mean, you see a moment in the film where she does an Instagram Live for a minute or two and 300,000 people tune in. What's Bravo's rating at three in the afternoon, unadvertised? I don't know if it's 300,000.

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But it's complicated. There are great benefits to that, and there are great burdens. I mean, listen, the first thing Billie says in the film is, “I don't think of them as my fans. I think of them as part of me.” That's a very intense thing for an artist. I think part of her growth and what the film is about is how she decides she's going to live with that.

MTV News: I was also really struck by these figures that pop up throughout the film, like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, who are offering her advice and guiding her through this. She seems like such a uniquely of-the-moment Gen Z pop star, and at the same time, there are these templates for people who have reached the same level of fame while super young. 

Cutler: In the narrative of the film, there is this moment where it's as if Coachella is her presentation to the world,  and those who have been presented before come to her. There's a reason why Justin embraces her. There's a reason why he welcomes her and he holds her as she cries in his arms. And he says, “Thank you,” to her. He says, “You remind me of why this matters to me,” and he imparts wisdom — “You are great, but you are not greater than anyone else.” It’s almost a crossing of another kind of threshold. In so much of this film, there are universals. Billie is a teenager coming of age. I did that, you did, the guy next door did it. And then there's the specifics of what it is to be Billie Eilish. She is passing the threshold to this kind of shamanistic stardom. She's the voice of a generation.

MTV News: There are only a few songs that she performs in full throughout the film, and one is “When the Party’s Over.” Why did you choose to show that song, and what emotional weight do you think it carries?

Cutler: First of all, it's the song that she calls her audience to be most present for. Second of all, it's the song that she chooses even above her mother's counsel [to direct the music video for], which is also a big part of her journey — to stand up and say, I want to be the director of the work that I bring to the world. And third of all, it's because of the specific nature of that song. It's similar with the opening song, “Ocean Eyes. It's so beautiful, it's almost hypnotic. And you go from that hypnotic state onto this journey, and then we're going to end at Radio City Music Hall. It's a small snippet, but it's very, the real, that final moment. She's climbed up the side of the wall at Radio City and she's singing “Ocean Eyes,” and it's like she's floating over this audience, singing that very song that brought her to everybody's attention.