From the mid to late 1970s, John Belushi was a multimedia meteor that would be an inevitable part of the zeitgeist for years to come. The oversized and ubiquitous talent – original cast on Late Night TV's SNL, big screen star (National Lampoon's Animal House, The Blues Brothers), and hit record maker (again with The Blues Brothers) – was so inevitable that when his life at the Chateau Marmont in LA came to a drug-induced end in 1982, at the age of only 33 and the height of his career, the shock to the world was seismic.
How does a documentary filmmaker even begin to put his arms around such a larger than life character? If you are a seasoned director and producer, R.J. Cutler (The War Room, A Perfect Candidate, The September Edition) They get intimate and small. Rather than dismantling the “Belushi” legend, Cutler cleverly zooms in on John, the Wheaton, Illinois boy who grew up in his Albanian father's diner (the inspiration for the SNL classic “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger!” Sketch) and his high school married sweetheart . Cutler not only shows archive footage and delightful TV and film clips, but also treats us to a wealth of personal letters and tapes, as well as revealing memories of close friends and colleagues (everyone from Dan Akroyd and Ivan Reitman to Penny Marshall and Carrie Fisher). What comes out is a portrait that is as unexpected and artistic as the man himself – a brilliant mind with no “off” button, but with a heart of gold.
The Emmy Award-winning Cutler was kind enough to take the time to edit his latest edition (Billie Eilish: The World Is A Little Blurry) to give the filmmaker the insight into Belushi that is this year's Chicago International Film Festival (home of The Second City) opened and is currently playing in the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" area of the NYC virtual DOC.
Filmmakers: Can you talk a little about how the document came about? How did you get the tapes and personal letters in the first place?
Cutler: When John Battsek and I finished producing Listen to Me Marlon, the film we made together about Marlon Brando, we talked about possible next projects we could do. And of course, John Belushi came because he had been such an influential figure in both of our lives. John told me that he had been pursuing the right to direct the film with Judy Belushi for almost a decade. I was immediately enthusiastic about the idea because Belushi was still such an important figure to me.
Judy saw Listen To Me Marlon and said the timing was just right now. So we came together. And one of the very first things we did was visit Judy in Martha's vineyard. While we were there, she encouraged us to search the archives she'd kept on John's life. His materials and his letters and all these things just sat in boxes in the basement of their house.
So we started searching them. And then, for the first time, we came across these incredible letters he had written her all his life. Also that box of tapes that was the oral tradition she and Tanner Colby had begun in the years immediately after John's death. In these two elements – the personal letters and the tapes – we found the basis for the film.
Needless to say, it was exciting. And while we were in the vineyard, I also had the opportunity to spend days just walking and talking to Judy, getting to know her and learning about her life story.
Filmmakers: An incredible amount of material – archive footage, film clips, photos and letters, tapes, animation, and so on – went into making this film. How was the editing process? And how did you clear all rights?
Cutler: I work with an extraordinary group of artists and filmmakers who make these films. I worked with two brilliant editors on this documentary, Joe Beshenkovsky and Maris Berzins. We shared a vision of density – the film wanted to be as dense as John's life, as rich as John's life, as complex as John's life.
So, as you point out, there are many different elements. There are layers of images and artifacts from John's life, all of which were really produced and designed for us by Stefan Nadelman who did such a brilliant job. And then there's the animation, which deals with the fact that we didn't really have home videos or a lot of photos from John's childhood. First of all, he was a very private man. But second, there were no iPhones. People weren't recording themselves all the time. So we had to fill in the gaps there.
I also wanted John from childhood to stay with us throughout the film. All of this information informed and contributed to the animation vision for the brilliant work of Robert Valli. And so the process really was. There was this vision of density and a series of riddles and riddles that needed to be figured out. They all came together to form the unified vision realized through the editing process by Joe and Maris, through the animation process by Robert, and through the graphics process by Stefan. And we all worked together so these were complementary visions.
The rights clearing is truly the triumph of Ryan Gallagher, who was our lead researcher, and Austin Wilkin, who shared the burden. And also Trevor Smith, one of our producers. It was a mixture of hard work, skillful negotiation, and skillful business acumen. And believe me, it wasn't easy. This film took so much to clear the rights to the music, the rights to the images, and the rights to the footage. Interestingly enough, it was also an indication of the love the world has for John Belushi. Because there was no way we could have made this film at full price. We couldn't have afforded the music or the movie clips or the TV clips. All gave generously. Lorne Michaels was so generous, and the people at Universal, Lennon and McCartney – all so generous. We got the music at rock bottom prices just because of the love for John Belushi.
Filmmakers: One of the movie's many surprises (at least for me) was Belushi's famous "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger" sketch on SNL. To learn that he played his father in his father's diner gives him an amazing edge that was probably lost to the audience at the time. So have you had any major revelations that influenced the overall design of the film?
Cutler: For me, the most important discovery we made was the tape recording for the oral tradition of Carrie Fisher. She spoke about the nature of addiction and related the story of an evening she spent with John while he was recovering. She talked about his recognition of his addiction and the burden of addiction – just so many profound things she had to say about the nature of the disease and the addict's struggle. And that really became a central element of the film. At some level, both forwards and up to this point, we created the document with the understanding that it was a core part of the film.
Filmmakers: Belushi's friends and colleagues can be heard in the film, as well as his brother Jim. So has everyone seen the document? How were the reactions?
Cutler: I have to say the response has been incredibly gratifying and very moving, from Ivan Reitman to Jim Belushi, Judy to other friends and colleagues of John. Those who shared his life with him. It was just very special. People should speak for themselves, of course, but as a filmmaker sharing the film with those who lived with John when he was still was a very significant experience.
Filmmakers: You are a seasoned director and producer in the world of documentaries and non-fiction television, narrative films and even podcasts. I am curious whether you approach the work differently depending on the format. Or do you see everything as one and the same?
Cutler: That's such an interesting question. You know, I think all my work has in common that I am trained as a theater director. That is the foundation of my work. This is how I see storytelling and creating art, storytelling.
Whether you're working on a podcast, a scripted podcast – like we did at Oval Office Tapes – or a documentary like Belushi, I think the first question you need to ask is, why did we all gather together? What is the purpose of this event? Why did we bring everyone together? What do we hope to say? What do these stories mean that we tell? And that's what instills you when you learn how to conduct plays.
There are also many basic things that my work has in common. There are many aspects that overlap. The process can be a little different – you tend to script a documentary after filming, while for a storytelling project, of course, you write the script before filming. And the storytelling process for a documentary is very long. We spent two years working on Belushi. You spend days and weeks editing script material. However, the basics and principles remain the same.