R.J. Cutler Reflects On Crafting Showtime's "Belushi"
R.J. Cutler (photo by Matt Sayles)
Writer-director-producer discusses challenges that the feature documentary posed, his decision to deploy animation sequences, and benefiting from additional test screenings
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Emmy-winning documentarian R.J. Cutler was a fan of John Belushi well before his high-profile antics on Saturday Night Live. Cutler was first won over by Belushi’s work on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, sowing the seeds for what would become a deep lifelong appreciation, watching him blossom over the years in TV, film (Animal House) and music (the Blues Brothers) only to tragically end with the comedy legend’s death in 1982 at the age of 33 due to a drug overdose. 

So when presented with the opportunity to delve into and do justice to Belushi’s life, Cutler was all in. The result is Belushi which recently debuted on Showtime. The documentary is an intimate portrait of Belushi, showcasing the many talents which he harnessed to become a bright light that brought joy to so many. Cutler shares with us Belushi’s complexities, his inner pain yet joyful exuberance, the deep love he had for his girlfriend turned wife, his vulnerability, and the fear he had of his addiction reaching a point beyond return.

While Cutler jumped at the chance to explore Belushi’s life, he had a reservation or two once he jumped headlong into the project. The filmmaker’s initial conversations with Belushi’s friends and colleagues proved unfulfilling, far from what he needed in order to gain substantive insights into Belushi. Connecting with a number of those who knew Belushi best, Cutler found their remembrances to be “a little stale” and “more about them than him.” The nearly 40 years that had elapsed since Belushi’s death also cast a fog over those memories. 

Additionally there was a lack of intimate footage when it came to Belushi himself who was a private person and had an aversion to behind-the-scenes filming and chronicling of his personal life. “I wanted to make a movie about what it was like for John Belushi to live,” said Cutler. “I needed an immediacy, a presence. I needed footage.”

To the latter dilemma, writer-director-producer Cutler devised a solution. As for the former problem of lackluster, lacking, at times slightly self-centered remembrances, the solution fell into his lap. 

The serendipitous, dropped-into-his-lap discovery came when Cutler and producer John Battsek visited Belushi’s widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, at her home in Martha’s Vineyard. She took them to a basement room which was akin to a John Belushi museum with a treasure trove of letters--including deeply personal messages Belushi had sent her over the years--typed out ideas and skits for SNL, and numerous audiotapes from friends and colleagues back when memories were fresh and fully intact. These audio interviews were conducted in part to push back against the 1984 Bob Woodward book about Belushi, “Wired,” which Judy, family and friends regarded as a distorted view of the performer’s life. Those interviews didn’t coalesce for two decades, though, until Judy enlisted a friend, writer Tanner Colby, to collaborate on an oral biography. Colby then added new interviews with others in John Belushi’s orbit, yielding a book published in 2005.

Judy entrusted Cutler with all this material, a leap of faith for which he is most grateful.

As for the aforementioned scarcity of personal film footage, Cutler addressed that through graphics and animation which served as fertile ground in which to depict aspects of Belushi’s life. Joe Beshenkovsky--who teamed with Maris Berzins to edit Belushi--had earlier worked with graphics designer Stefan Nadelman on the Brett Morgen-directed documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck. Nadelman’s work helped advance Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s narrative and Beshenkovsky turned Cutler onto the designer. In addition to Nadelman, Cutler brought in animation director/animator Robert Valley who’s affiliated with Passion Pictures. Passion and Cutler’s This Machine are the production companies on Belushi. Cutler became aware of Valley, watched the animation director’s short film--Pear Cider and Cigarettes, which earned a Best Animated Short Oscar nomination in 2017--and enlisted him to help tell Belushi’s story.

Belushi opens with Belushi’s SNL audition tape in which he arches one eyebrow, a mannerism which went on to become a comically physical expression only rivaled, if not exceeded in eyebrow annals by the late, great Groucho Marx. The audition footage also featured Belushi’s impeccable Marlon Brando impression. 

It’s somehow fitting that Brando kicks off the documentary, helping to showcase Belushi’s charm and charisma right out of the gate. Prior to embarking on Belushi, Cutler had produced the Stevan Riley-directed Listen to Me, Marlon, a documentary based on Brando’s personal tapes. 

Battsek, who was Cutler’s producing colleague on Listen to Me, Marlon, had long been pursuing a documentary about Belushi. 

Over lunch one day, Cutler and Battsek discussed what they might do next after the Brando documentary. “I knew I wanted to direct the next project we worked on,” recalled Cutler. Battsek told him of his quest to bring a Belushi documentary to pass. Cutler was immediately interested. And then after years of trying, Battsek finally gained Judy Belushi Pisano’s consent. Showtime, fresh off of successfully teaming with Cutler and Battsek on Listen to Me, Marlon, greenlit Belushi.

Listen to Me, Marlon, incidentally, earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special in 2016. It marked the third primetime Emmy nod earned by Cutler whose first two were for American High, which yielded an Emmy win back in 2001 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Reality Program.

Precious time
Cutler shared that Belushi benefited from extra time not only for test screenings but also to reflect on the work and hone it.

He explained that “the time we were required to shut down in order for Robert (Valley) to do his work on the animation” provided a prolonged stretch during which feedback from different audiences provided insights into what was and wasn’t working.

“With time, you get a little more wisdom, you get to look at things when you want to, you get to show it to more people.” 

Multiple screenings for small groups of friends, colleagues and others yielded valuable insights. While such screenings aren’t unusual, the extra time gave Cutler the opportunity to conduct more of them with select small audiences. Seeing how different audiences responded gave Cutler and his compatriots a handle on what revisions or tweaks could make for a better film. Rather than review feedback on questionnaires, Cutler would often sit in the back row of the screening room and gauge audience reactions.

Asked for an example of what he changed as a result of the additional screenings, Cutler shared that he restructured the first five minutes of Belushi. The opening which included the SNL audition and more, he said, became stronger in terms of being able to properly draw viewers into the story.

Belushi adds to a Cutler filmography which also includes his directing and producing such documentaries as The September Issue, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, and The World According to Dick Cheney, serving as a producer on The War Room which was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar, helming the feature film If I Stay and episodes of the TV series Nashville, and producing Television Academy Honor winners 30 Days and One Nation Under Dog.

As for what’s next, Cutler at press time was wrapping Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, a feature documentary slated to premiere in theaters and on Apple TV+ in February 2021.


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