Editors Lindsay Utz, ACE and Greg Finton, ACE came together for the first time and added to their Emmy credentials, recently nominated in the Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program category on the strength of Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (Apple TV+), directed, written and produced by R.J. Cutler.
Last year Utz earned an Emmy nomination for cutting the lauded documentary American Factory. Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry marks the second career editing nomination for Utz and Finton, his first coming in 2016 for He Named Me Malala (shared with editors Brian Johnson and Brad Fuller).
Cutler united the editors for the Eilish documentary, having seen Utz’s work on American Factory and having worked previously with Finton dating back to the docuseries American High.
Finton affirmed that Cutler was a prime reason behind his decision awhile back to work only on documentaries after starting out in scripted TV and films. Finton found the documentary experience so engaging and creatively fulfilling with Cutler that the editor made nonfiction fare his focus. Finton is know for his editing on such documentaries as Shenandoah, Waiting for Superman and Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. The latter two, along with He Named Me Malala earned Finton three ACE Eddie Award nominations. He shared the Eddie nod in 2011 for Waiting for Superman with Jay Cassidy and Kim Roberts; in 2016 for He Named Me Malala with Brian Johnson and Brad Fuller; and in 2019 for Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind which wound up winning the Eddie, which he shared with Poppy Das.
Utz first met Cutler a decade ago in New York at a film festival. The two became fast friends, then lost touch. They hadn’t worked together until Cutler reached out to her for Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry.
Utz and Finton felt simpatico from the outset, establishing a rapport over a first collaboration that has yielded a two-hour-and-20 minute documentary that in verite style delves deeply into singer-songwriter Eilish’s life, her home, her concerts, her fruitful creative process with brother Finneas O'Connell (writer, producer, performer, audio engineer), and even her diary covering the year in which she attained stardom. The film is raw, filled with music--so much music that it’s hard to believe that Eilish is an artist who in many respects has just started her career. More than 20 songs are played out over the course of the film. The music and the intimate moments are meshed in such a way that the audience feels as if it’s getting the opportunity to look at Eilish through an unfiltered lens. The editors explained that Eilish isn’t a subject who could be explored in a standard hourlong formulaic bio documentary. Like her music, which isn’t being belted out at a high decibel level--with the lyrics and meaning instead needing their space to be appreciated--so too does Eilish’s life, moods, sense of humor, humility and leap to fame need to be examined with plenty of room to reflect and observe.
When initially contacted by Cutler to work on the Eilish documentary, Finton did not know much about the singer-songwriter. Cutler showed him some footage already captured in the field and then invited the editor to a concert at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Finton recalled that “two songs into that show,” he knew he had to take on the project.
Utz meanwhile wasn’t convinced from the get-go that she wanted the Eilish gig. The editor was one of several who cut a recent film on Taylor Swift (Miss Americana directed by Lana Wilson) and thus was wary about being pigeonholed as the go-to person for female pop star documentaries. But when she saw the depth of Cutler’s access to Eilish, including being embedded with her on tour, Utz embraced what she regarded as a golden opportunity to explore the artist's life.
In addition to American Factory and Americana, Utz’s credits include Quest, Bully and the short film, Contaminated Memories.
Finton and Utz spent the first few weeks screening footage for the Eilish documentary. It was before the pandemic hit, meaning that the editors were in the same room together, sharing observations. Utz related, “It was clear to us how rich the material was...how authentic the characters were.”
Finton added that he and Utz were “responding to the material in the same way,” underscoring their like-mindedness as collaborators.
Among the prime challenges was trying to attain the right balance between performance and personal footage, music scenes versus intimate moments, enabling viewers to gain insights from both.
Utz noted that in finding that balance, the transition from one to the other and back again was important. She observed that when the action went to a concert, it was key to make sure that this didn’t represent “a detour from the narrative thread of the film.” They wanted to avoid doing this in a way that felt “on the nose,” not wanting a song directly talking about what you just saw or were about to see in real life. It was more about, she continued, the tone of the film, the emotional dynamic, staying on track in that respect when going from concert to personal moments and back. The concert material is vital, said Utz, noting that you “can’t understand Billie unless you watch her perform and see her connection to the fans.”
The first cut assembled by Finton and Utz was 25 hours long. Clearly, there was some great material that could not ultimately be included, meaning that Utz and Finton had to maintain a discerning artful eye as to what was really important to the story being told. And thankfully, noted Utz, they had a director in Cutler and a company in Apple that was willing to commit to greater length for the film. A whip-fast 90-minute cut wouldn’t have felt like Eilish, observed Utz. Letting the film be a little raw and loose felt right, maintaining “this kind of raw DIY feel” which reflects Eilish, her life, her family, her process and who she is.”
Finton said that he admires Eilish on different levels but perhaps most for how “amazing” she is “at knowing when she’s right about something.” She doesn’t let others talk her out of something she feels is right. That’s something that Finton wants to embrace more for himself, being more confident about what he feels is right. Both Eilish and O'Connell talked about not being quick to compromise. “You wind up compromising the art,” said Finton.
In that same vein, Utz affirmed, “We were uncompromising about how we wanted to make this film.” The editor shared, “We wanted it to feel honest, authentic, raw...all of the things that Billie is. We stuck to our guns.”
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry garnered a total of four Emmy nominations--the other three being for Outstanding Music Direction, Outstanding Sound Editing and Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Nonfiction or Reality Program (Single or Multi-Camera).
Editor’s note: This is the 11th installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features will explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.