When esteemed director and filmmaker R.J. Cutler first met Billie Eilish, he had some idea about the kind of pop phenomenon the then-16-year-old was quickly becoming. It was after Ocean Eyes (Eilish’s debut song and first major hit which reached SoundCloud virality overnight) had propelled her to mainstream fame, but a while before she became a household name with five Grammys under her belt.
The intrigue around her, however, was unmistakable from the get-go—even to someone who didn’t fall within the usual demographic of her fanbase. “I was engaged from the moment we met. In part, it was because I instantly felt that there was a certain amount of miracle going on that was beyond comprehension. Who is this young artist who seems so fully formed but is so clearly still becoming? Where does it come from? Is she from another planet?” says Cutler.
This came before he spent the better part of the following three years capturing parts of Eilish’s life for the newly premiered documentary on Apple TV+: Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry. The film lists Eilish in a starring credit as herself, followed immediately by her brother, once-manager and song-writing companion Finneas O’Connell. It’s for good reason that O’Connell’s name comes right after Eilish’s—the 23-year-old is an inextricable part of his younger sister’s success and artistry. In the film, this becomes immediately clear. The pair’s near-telepathic connection as they sit in songwriting sessions (early on, huddled up in a bedroom running through lyrics and melodies again and again till things sound just right) is a thing of beauty to witness, especially in the brief moments of vulnerability Eilish displays where it becomes clear that her brother’s approval means more to her than she usually lets on. “I’m not sure if this sounds good, it’s just an idea,” she says to him, even as she’s coming up with a riff that O’Connell instantly loves (and later on, so does her 50 million followers on Spotify.)
“For me, what’s extraordinary about her is her empathy. She feels the feelings of others deeply. And she’s able to turn those feelings, as well as her own pain and joy into great art”
This multi-faceted relationship that Eilish has with her family—O’Connell aside, Eilish’s closeness with mum Maggie Baird is equal parts adorable and eye-opening—is key in what makes her coming of age story so compelling, according to Cutler. It also meant that alongside the over thousand hours of footage that he captured over the documentary process, he had access to several hundred hours of home video Baird had accumulated over Eilish’s childhood. “Having been born in 2001, Billie’s entire life has been captured, to some degree, by a video camera. Some of Maggie’s footage is absolutely astounding: a point of view that only a mother could have,” Cutler says. “And then, of course, there were hard drives full of material that came off of Billie’s and Maggie’s phones. They trusted us to watch it all—to work and edit the film as we saw fit.”
When it comes to a film as intimate and personal as this one, trust has to be a non-negotiable part of the process. “I earned their trust by being who I said I was. When we met, and I said to them, Look, I want to see everything that happens this year, but I’m not a spy and I’m not gonna hide around corners. I’ll tell my crew to stop shooting 10 minutes before you want me to stop shooting because you’ve had enough for the day. And when I say, I’m never going to hang a light, and you’re never going to trip over a cable—because we don’t work with lights and cables—I do that. It’s just three of us, me and my camera person and my sound person.”
“What I wanted is for the audience to feel Billy breathing on stage—to connect with her on that level, even as you’re connecting emotionally to the character of Billie in the film”
Family aside, no one has had a better vantage point to witness Eilish’s astronomic rise in success over the past few years than Cutler. When asked what he thinks sets the teenager apart, he attributes it not to her musical talent or creative prowess—undeniable though they may be. “The key to Billie’s success is for experts in the music field to analyse. For me, what’s extraordinary about her is her empathy. She feels the feelings of others deeply. And she’s able to turn those feelings, as well as her own pain and joy into great art. And that great art is filled with empathy.”
It’s in the concert segments of the film that Eilish’s bone-deep connection with her adoring audience truly shines clear. To Cutler, filming these parts of the documentary in the right way was of utmost importance. And it shows—they feel exceptionally different from live performances in other documentaries. “I had a very specific vision—I wanted to film them as intimately as possible and make them as emotional as possible. I emulated it after classic music documentaries of the 1960s and early 70s. What I wanted is for the audience to feel Billie breathing on stage—to connect with her on that level, even as you’re connecting emotionally to the character of Billie in the film.”
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is streaming now on Apple TV+.