R.J. Cutler’s latest documentary, Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, provides an incredibly immersive and intimate look at Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter Billie Eilish. The film, which premiered in IMAX theatres and on Apple TV+ in late February, feels inspired by the work of cinéma vérité legend D.A. Pennebaker (who made the monumental Monterey Pop and Don’t Look Back) to craft its intimate feel and aesthetic, which is in part achieved by its incredible cinematography.
The film’s cinematographer, Jenna Rosher, has already directed and photographed a wide variety of documentaries for television and film and is well-versed in the language and intimacy of cinéma vérité. During our interview, we spoke on the many challenges it took to shoot a movie with such a small crew and looking to build a trust through her lens with Billie Eilish. We also briefly touched upon the film’s vérité influences and her documentary inspirations for creating the look of the film. You can read the interview in its entirety below.
Maxance Vincent: Well, first of all, Jenna, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. I absolutely loved this movie.
Jenna Rosher: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
MV: One of the main reasons why I love this movie so much is that it humanizes the artist above its “mythic” figure we usually see from concert performances or appearances in award shows for example. In award shows, for example, that’s partly achieved, I believe, through its cinematography and stunning camera work, which puts us at really close proximity with the artist and her family. I’m really wondering, what was the most important element you wanted to capture in the documentary to reflect the human side of Billie Eilish and her family?
JR: Prior to an agenda, if you have one, is forming a trust with your subject and with the person that you’re filming. So for us, that was primary going in. We knew that Billie and her family were a very close family, from just what we knew about Billie’s story in life, and we also felt like, okay, we know, this is a close-knit family, we know we’re going into an intimate home. And so it was very important for us to have a very small footprint. So we kept the crew really small–it was just R.J., myself, and our sound person, Jae Kim. And so that was like, okay, we were a small group, there are a lot fewer people to worry about and to focus on, which gave us time to kind of really get to know Billie and her family and build that trust and comfort. Billie is already very comfortable in her own skin. And so it wasn’t hard, since she’d had cameras around her before, but not to the extent that we were filming her, obviously.
And so the number of days that we put in really was almost 100 days of shooting really lent itself to what would evolve that relationship in a beautiful way, and for us, with a small crew and trying to just be respectful, and be patient by knowing when to back off. As a result, it gave us these moments that were very intimate, some really difficult ones, and some that were really incredible and celebratory. Knowing we wanted that, it had a lot to do with how we were going to present ourselves as a documentary crew. For any film that I work on, these are just people; I’m a person, they’re a person, we have needs. I try to get the most of my needs met when I go and immerse myself into someone else’s world. It’s not about me at all. I come prepared, RJ comes prepared, Jae comes prepared and we just kind of allow ourselves to just witness what’s unfolding in front of us and it was very lucky for us. It was a lot of incredible moments during a really unbelievable time of Billie’s life and career.
MV: Since you talked about some difficult challenging moments during the shoot, what were some of the most difficult sequences to shoot with such a tight-knit crew and an intimate setting?
JR: I mean, her house is very cozy and lovely. It’s not some big expensive space. It’s a closed family and they live in an intimate home. It’s the most lovely home ever. It’s got the best vibes. It’s filled with dogs, cats with lots of things going on. And, of course, when she’s doing fittings or has people, her creative team, coming over, that makes it even more challenging. So, for us, we would just have to find our little spots, where we could be kinda backed up in a corner. I felt that Billie was very much on board with being filmed. So I felt there were no restrictions, with the exception of bathroom time, changing, and things like that. But I really would kind of just tiptoe around everyone, respectfully, because they were all doing a job; whether they were coming to fit her for outfits, or they were coming to do an interview, or our team was coming to meet with her, it was always something that we just had to find a way to navigate. And a good bedside manner is always helpful in these instances and respecting the folks that are coming here have a job to do.
And, you know, of course, we do, too, but we never wanted it to feel like “Oh, we’re here making a movie. Everyone should just cater to us.” Heck, no, we’re there to cater to everybody else because we feel, again, just honored to be able to capture what was going on. Difficult moments were just watching Billie go through difficult times in her life, such as the end of the Coachella performance. She was really hard on herself and was going through some things personally, as you know. To be there witnessing it, part of me wants to put the camera down and just give her a hug, And, you know, it was part of me wants to like, put the camera down and just give her a hug, but I need to just sort of capture and she knew that and was allowing us to be there in those darker or harder moments. But we were also there to capture the victories, you know, the Grammys, and even just her own victories as an artist, as a person and owning her power and knowing what she wants, and witnessing that. There’s, of course, the physical and spatial challenges, but I think that when you’re dealing with a documentary, you’re dealing with people who are going through life and you have to be there and just kind of support them in a very subtle way. Maybe your presence alone is supportive, because it’s making this permanent kind of documentation of what’s happening for them.
MV: It’s really interesting in the movie when there’s this sort of contrast when Eilish performs, for example, in Coachella versus her quieter moments at home with her family. I noticed during the concert sequences that the camera almost never loses sight of her performing. It reminded me of D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop. Sometimes you would cut back to the audience to show their reactions, but we were mostly focused on the artists. And so I’m wondering if Pennebaker was one of your inspirations or maybe other cinéma vérité filmmakers or, if not, what were some of your documentary filmmaking inspirations for the concert sequences or just for the film itself?
JR: As evidenced in this film, myself and R.J. are just lovers of the cinéma vérité and of observational filmmaking. When R.J. contacted me about the film, he was like, “just look at these links and you’ll see who Billie is.” I had no idea who Billie Eilish was, back in 2018. She had a bit of a fan base, but not to the extent that she does now. She was kinda on the verge, let’s say, of blowing up and so, I watched all of this footage and was immediately intrigued. I was like, “I’m on board. Absolutely. Count me in. I’m down.” And he said, ” Okay, well the next thing you need to do is go watch Penny’s films” He calls D.A. Pennebaker Penny because they were very good friends before he passed away. And he said, “Watch Don’t Look Back.” which was Bob Dylan’s movie that D.A. Pennebaker made. I’ve seen it before and love it so much. I got to revisit that movie and look at it from a different perspective. I’m very much inspired by movies like, Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter by the Maysles and I’m always inspired by these filmmakers, because they’re the pioneers of cinema vérité. And so they were very much in our thoughts, our focus and our minds in making this film. I would say that when you’re making a verité film, it’s really about finding your way into this world in a way that’s not going to affect it. I’m not saying that our presence isn’t affecting, because it is. I’m not going to be ridiculous and be like “Oh, just pretend we’re not here yet.” They know we’re there.
I think that, through trust, which is very much what Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers would do, the relationship starts to invest and the comfort is there. Since you’re there so much, the subject kinda forgets you’re there. You’re just part of their world all of a sudden, and you’re just on this ride with them. Funny enough, when I make a vérité film, I often, very early on, when I don’t know the people I’m filming, I tend to kinda stay back a little bit, because I just don’t want to be in their face too much. So I usually use a longer lens, like a telephoto, for example.
And I stand back in a corner if it’s a small room and I would say maybe even a week into filming with Billie her team contacted us and said, “You know, I just want to let you know things are going great. Actually, Billie would just really love it if Jenna could hang out closer to her.” And I was like “Oh! That’s a first.” And it’s just such a testament to Billie because she’s, first of all, so comfortable in her own body. And unlike this idea of being filmed for a documentary, with her also being a lover of The Office, she kind of wanted the camera near her so that she could make contact with it. Either with her eyes or her gesturing, she wanted to use the cameras away to be acknowledging this moment that was going on for her whether she kind of broke the fourth wall, which she does, very subtly, in a few moments of the film, she’ll look at the lens. That’s her looking at me being like, “Can you believe this is happening?” And it’s used sparingly, even if she did it quite a bit. But the moments that they chose to edit into the film that R.J. decided to use, along with two amazing editors, Lindsey Utes, and Greg Finn, I think that was very important for her. So that was sort of an adjustment for me because, normally, I take a little bit more of a voyeuristic stance sometimes. And she was like, “No, no, no, no. Come closer. Come closer.” So I really enjoyed that, which was kind of refreshing for me.
MV: So working with Billie Eilish was very easy for you to kind of lure her into the world of the film, if you will?
JR: Yeah, that’s the thing. She’s got so much going on that I don’t think she knew we were there half the time. He’s meeting with journalists, doing photo shoots, she’s on Jimmy Fallon (laughs), she’s going to the release of her record and we were just along for the ride. And then in the moments where she’s just truly being a teenager was a gift to just be there. It was a gift to be during the moments where she’s expressing her love for her boyfriend and she’s having phone calls with him. And she’s feeling the eventual loss of this relationship. The fact that she gave us this permission to be there was really extraordinary. But she was so open to that. And we didn’t really know the ride we were gonna go on with her. I don’t think she knew that it was going to go really well because the talent that she and her brother have is unbelievable. But I think that she’s such an honest, raw and true person that she’s never gonna say to us “Oh, don’t come in the room right now.” She’s more of the “No, no, you guys just stay here. This is happening. This is my life, you know?” It was like, what more could you really want as a filmmaker?
MV: Yeah, that’s what’s really great about the movie is that it doesn’t feel like there’s a camera presence, like all great vérité films. It just feels like it’s us just observing Billie Eilish’s life, like we’re the invisible person, if you will, kind of going through all of her events in her life. And I think it’s a really wonderful movie, so thank you so much.
JR: Thank you! Nice to meet you!
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is now available to stream on Apple TV+
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]