Interview: R.J. Cutler on Showing a Different Side of “Belushi”

When the enduring image of John Belushi is as the life of the party, it came as no surprise that R.J. Cutler thought he might enlist the services of an animator in making a film about the iconic entertainer, but after drafting the Oscar-nominated Robert Valley to set the scene for stories that had no imagery to go with them, the director stumbled on a poignant truth about his subject.

“Robert is such a brilliant animator and his work has such a provocative edge to it, not unlike John himself, and when he showed me the early frames of young John, I knew immediately that I wanted that little boy to be present throughout the film,” says Cutler, who urged Valley to show the adult Belushi throughout reverting to the excitement he felt as a child. “In fact, I believe one of the final images we see of John [in the film] is that little boy.”

The use of animation may have been a necessity for Cutler, who had never before made a documentary that relied heavily on archival material, usually having unprecedented access to his subjects whether they were Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign team for “The War Room” or Vogue editor Anna Wintour for “The September Issue.” But after producing “Listen to Me Marlon,” Stevan Riley’s remarkably intimate documentary that drew on a treasure trove of publicly unheard interviews with Marlon Brando, the filmmaker felt there was a similar opportunity to do something fresh when presented with boxes of interviews conducted with those closest to Belushi that had been set in motion by his wife Judith Pisano Belushi, following the publication of “Wired,” Bob Woodward’s controversial book that had upset the family.

While Pisano Belushi’s blessing wasn’t easy to get, it yields an extraordinarily revealing look at Belushi’s life in the more-than-capable hands of Cutler, from his childhood in which he would try his damnedest to bring a smile to his hard-working parents who had emigrated from Albania to honing his skills at summer stock in Indiana and cultivating a community of comedians that found success at Second City in Chicago and ultimately form the backbone of “Saturday Night Live” in its early days. Depicting him as much of a force of nature behind the scenes as much as on screen, Belushi’s ability to let people’s guard down really comes through, as does the deep bonds he formed with the two great loves of his life – Judy and Dan Aykroyd, with whom the “Blues Brothers” routine went well beyond the “SNL” skit, extending to the after show parties they’d throw when no other bar was to their liking.

When any biography is inevitably tinged with the knowledge of Belushi’s tragic end as a result of an insidious drug addiction, Cutler brings the context of his insatiable appetite for life in general, known around Chicago for being able to walk into anyone’s house and raid their fridge being both so beloved and so curious. The film has the same spring in its step as he did, bouncing around from one part of his life to another in rollicking fashion reflecting the power of his personality and the weight of recollections that recall him as far more fragile than he appeared. Shortly before “Belushi” premieres on Showtime, Cutler spoke about the privilege of exploring a side of one of his heroes he hadn’t seen before and the creativity that was inspired by making a primarily archival doc.

How did this come about?

My producing partner John Battsek and I were finishing up producing “Listen to Me Marlon,” the film that we made about Marlon Brando and John mentioned that he had been, for the better part of a decade, pursuing the rights to make a film about John Belushi with Judy Belushi. Judy had said no a number of times, but John was undeterred and he thought if we sent “Listen to Me Marlon” to Judy, given its success, and if I were interested in directing, we might have success. I, of course, had been a lifelong fan of John’s since discovering his work on the National Lampoon Radio Hour as a teenager and then followed his career to “Saturday Night Live” and beyond, and in fact, Judy watched “Listen to Me, Marlon,” which she enjoyed a great deal and invited us up to Martha’s Vineyard.

And this is what we do —we’re always asking what’s the unopened box? Where’s the unopened cassette tape? And when we went to Martha’s Vineyard to talk to Judy about doing the film, she invited us into her basement, which was basically a John Belushi archive. We were very hopeful and sure enough, we found in there John’s letters to Judy and boxes of audio interviews and some video interviews that Judy and Tanner Colby had conducted for what they hoped would be an oral history about John. We were the grateful beneficiaries of it.

Was it a different experience relying on interviews that had already taken place when so often your films have been about capturing your subjects in their element?

One of the things that I also pursued was [talking to] people contemporaneously and while I never got to the interview stage, I got pre-interview conversations — lunch meetings, phone calls and the like — and I was pretty consistently disappointed in the results. I didn’t feel they had the immediacy that the audio interviews from Judy had and I found people were telling me stories about something that felt like it happened a long time ago in a far away land as opposed to the immediacy I felt listening to the audio tapes.

Were there any of those interviews that immediately stood out?

Carrie Fisher talking about the nature of addiction was pretty significant to me and the fact that she understood it in almost a counterintuitive way. The most challenging part of John’s life was likely the year he spent sober because in that time period, the tools for confronting the causes of addiction were not readily accessible. John and Judy did not have the knowledge and the culture didn’t really embrace the idea that addiction could be confronted and as she says, that year of sobriety must’ve been a screaming hell. It was very profound and powerful moment for the film.

Growing up as a fan of John Belushi, was there anything that surprised you?

What was most exciting to me was the idea that John was far more than just the explosively brilliant performer we knew him to be. He was a writer, he was a director, he was really a visionary who was pushing himself to new challenges, new areas of performance — “The Blues Brothers” was performance art a full decade before performance art even existed.

You also show how tender he was — there’s a lovely sequence where he’s writing letters from summer stock to Judy and you get to see the pictures he took of the community, which are quite accomplished. What was that like to put together?

The amazing thing is John was a deeply private man whose star rose during a period when celebrities were actually for the most part entitled to their privacy and People Magazine was only a year old when “Saturday Night Live” premiered and like many people in his position, John guarded his private life seriously. But in that private life, he was an extremely communicative letter writer and he wrote to Judy throughout their years together. Even from a young age, he wrote poetry to her and of course, he was as a young man, a prolific photographer and you see those photographs in the film. We had the great good fortune in this movie to have Bill Hader lend his voice to the film, reading John’s letters and writings and while Bill didn’t perform a kind of imitation of John, he nevertheless captured his essence and his heart and soul.

The torrid pace of the film also really reflects his personality. Was that a foundational idea?

We very much wanted the film to have the kinetic density that one associates with John Belushi and every element of it, from Stefan Nadelman’s graphic design to Robert Valley’s animation, was meant to reflect John. We wanted it all to be pure Belushi in every possible way, even Tree Adams’ music and the needle drops that we selected. I had the great fortune to collaborate with many brilliant artists on this film and on top of all of it, Joe Beshenkovsky and Maris Berzin’s editing really brought all that density to life — it made it sing. Sing and dance.

What was it like showing it to the family?

It’s been very gratifying. The response has been very powerful and emotional. Jim Belushi has been very supportive and generous and Judy, of course, has been supportive from day one. She trusted us and gave us final cut and once she gave us access to the archive, she then agreed to sit for a number of interviews I did conduct with her over the making of the film, but other than that, she didn’t see a frame of it until we were done and has been an amazing support.

“Belushi” will premiere on Showtime on November 22nd.

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