At Coachella 2019, superfan turned superstar Billie Eilish first meets Justin Bieber, her childhood idol. Months later, Bieber congratulates Eilish on her multiple Grammy wins by Facetime. Both moments reveal the adolescent awkwardness shared by millions and extreme fame known only by a few and are captured by Jenna Rosher in the documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry.
“It was just good timing and good luck,” says Rosher, who shot the film with director R.J. Cutler for Apple TV+. “I could have been at the back of the stage or gone to the restroom and missed the moment when he called her. To be there as she’s on the receiving end of compliments from Justin Bieber after so many years of being such a huge fan of his was unexpected. She knows what it feels like to adore someone and how they impact your life and now she knows what it feels like to have the adoration of fans.”
Cutler and Rosher, who previously worked together on a warts-and-all expose of Anna Wintour’s Vogue called The September Issue (2009), have captured that journey in a part fly-on-the-wall, part concert and part coming-of-age movie. It charts the home recording of her debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” tours with her to Australia and Europe en route to becoming the youngest ever Grammy album winner at just age 18. All the while, Eilish is living out the more mundane and relatable activities with her close-knit family such as learning to drive and teen angst over her boyfriend.
“R.J. and [producer] Trevor Smith approached me in late 2018 about this project with an up-and-coming artist,” Rosher explains. “R.J. said he wanted to make an observational film and for us to jump right in and capture every aspect of this metamorphosis. The momentum for her had only just begun. We had no idea what was going to happen. Our approach was to just hang out with the family and see how they felt about us filming.”
Eilish and her parents (Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell) weren’t strangers to film crew. Record labels had filmed occasional behind the scenes footage for promos at their home in Highland Park, LA. Rosher wanted to get up close and personal with her subject without getting under her skin.
“The approach from the get-go was to have a small crew and full sensitivity and awareness of what was going on. That reflected in the gear. Knowing it was a verité film I wanted to keep things lightweight so the Canon EOS C300 Mark II is ideal.
“I started out with a bigger 17-120mm lens and we immediately got feedback that it felt too big to Billie’s camp and her family. Until this point, they’d been familiar with a lot of DSLR cameras and here I come with something a bit bigger so I started to incorporate the L series lenses and Canon Primes which were the perfect size.
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“I was able to be fluid in and out of cars, following her in and out of green rooms, buildings, onto stages. I used a monopod system to support me so I could hang all day. That’s how we were able to capture a lot of intimate moments with Billie and her family.”
Like any teenager, interacting with video comes second nature to Eilish but the documentary portrays a young woman who seemingly doesn’t act up to the camera’s gaze or switch off when the recording stops.
“What is refreshing and unique about Billie is that she is truly who she is in the film,” Rosher says. “We were rolling most of the time. Nothing was off limits. If she was eating then that’s when we’d eat. At times we’d give everybody a break and not film but we’d still be in the room with her, often rolling audio. That requires a lot of trust. Her openness and willingness to let us be there especially during these difficult, emotional and vulnerable moments is just a testament that.”
These pressures increase as her celebrity skyrockets. Eilish shows the camera the journal in which she’s scribbled some lyric ideas, including, in capital letters, “I WANNA END ME.” Her confidence is knocked by a technical glitch during her performance at Coachella. After appearing in New York she is criticized for reluctance to engage in a meet and greet with fans who might well be eBay-ers only intent on flogging her signature.
At this moment, traveling in a van to another fan and paparazzi confrontation, the film records her imploring her Mum and entourage, “Can’t I have one moment where I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do this?’ All I hear is BILLIE BILLIE BILLIE BILLIE every second of my life.”
As a result of the recent Framing Britney Spears documentary the treatment of female music artists is in the spotlight. “I don’t think we were invasive,” Rosher defends. “By that point we’d started to develop a real strong trust with Billie and her family and I think that we bear witness to what happens to a person when they go through fame. Having seen the movie, she paid us the ultimate compliment that capturing this has helped her to process and understand what was going on around her in a way that she was unaware of at the time.”
As much a prodigy as Eilish is her elder brother Finneas, who co-wrote and produced the album in their home studio. “Musically they are intertwined. One doesn’t exist without the other,” Rosher says. “Their honesty with each other was fantastic to watch. He is like her ultimate cheerleader but he’s also her creative partner and it’s just how they play off of each other. They’re also as hilarious as you’d expect of a twenty-something young man and his teenage sister.”
The sibling relationship is caught in home videos shot on iPhone and shared with Cutler and his editors Lindsay Utz and Greg Finton to blend into the film. “Maggie just knew she needed to start filming her kids from early on!” says Rosher. “In the grade we really wanted to maintain an honesty, especially to the archival footage and, in terms of the contemporary footage, to maintain the energy and richness of scenes. Her life is very colorful — very green and blue — and we wanted to embrace that.”
Rosher set the key looks alongside Technicolor senior colorist Doug Delaney. Once it was pointed in the right direction, colorist Jeff Pantaleo continued with the HDR and SDR grades and ran future sessions with Rosher and Cutler.
It’s clear that after a year of being in close quarters, Rosher has developed a bond with the family. “I do feel a connection to them,” she says. “I’ve not seen them since COVID shut things down but we communicate and I’ve congratulated Billie on the film. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for them all. Raising kids throughout this whole process and keeping everything grounded in love and support is a whole other side of the music business that has never really been captured. It is very inspiring.”
Want more? Watch Jenna Rosher, DP of Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, discuss the making of the documentary on the ProVideo Coalition’s “Frame & Reference” podcast:
Editors Greg Finton, ACE and Lindsay Utz, ACE may not have worked together prior to Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, but they each had plenty of experience in the world of unscripted storytelling to bring to the table for director R.J. Cutler’s documentary feature.
Finton and Utz sat down with The Rough Cut to discuss the challenges of documentary editing, the deep reservoir of footage afforded by the cell phone era, lower thirds being a crucial decision in documentary filmmaking, and more: