Tommy Oliver on Chasing a Free Spirit in “Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss”

Whether on stage or off, the camera never strays from the side of its subject in “Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss,” defying all logic regarding space when you’re as close to the rapper when he is jumping out into a crowd of thousands at one of his shows as when he’s in the recording studio, working out lyrics, which he can pull out of the air at a moment’s notice when the thoughts run so deeply within him. At just 19, the artist born Jarad Anthony Higgins who had flirted with law school before coming to believe his words would have more power with the public when put to music recognized as he found early success simply putting tracks out online that he needed a videographer to accompany him at all times when what he would do in the future was bound to be meaningful in the wake of his breakthrough single “Lucid Dreams.”

Remarkably, it still is, even in spite of Juice WRLD passing just days after his 21st birthday in 2019, with all the footage he left behind to make “Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss” serving as an extension of who he was that can live in time forever. Famously open about his anxiety and depression in his music, even as he found the kind of success that few do in the music industry, the rapper is just as unguarded in front of the cameras as he would be alone spitting into a mic, with director Tommy Oliver piecing together a portrait that illuminates how someone who can be so perceptive to all the issues in front of them can still live within their insidious grip, sneaking away to take a Percocet a little too often or mixing alcohol into a Sprite bottle. The intimate access to Juice WRLD doesn’t only bring audiences closer to him, but becomes a reflection of how small his world has become even as his music is being enjoyed around the globe, with pressure mounting to keep up a relentless pace of touring and recording new material when the feeling is that the enormity of what he’s doing could finally catch up to him if he doesn’t stop moving.

Oliver is a particularly inspired choice to be entrusted with such material when he is a prolific artist in his own right as a producer and director who made his narrative feature debut with “1982,” dramatizing the experience of growing up as his mother battled drug addiction, and told almost entirely from the footage captured between 2019 and 2021, “Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss” is carefully crafted while coming across as the kind of free-flowing stream of consciousness with moments of wisdom and poignance that offer the ultimate tribute to its subject. Shortly before the documentary premieres on HBO, the filmmaker spoke of the responsibility he had to Juice WRLD’s legacy in putting “Into the Abyss” together, juggling a hectic production schedule during the pandemic and letting the film tell him what it wanted to be.

How did this come about?

I did a film called “40 Years a Prisoner” after “1982,” and it was at Toronto virtually last year and Noah Malale and Sean Fennessey, who are both at The Ringer, saw the film there and The Ringer reached out, so they came to me with the idea because they were already in conversation with the estate and it just organically took off from there. Chris Long and Steve Cannon were shooting [Juice WRLD] for about 18 months — Steve was shooting first and then Chris came in and shot after, and for Juice, he just wanted everything recorded. He was very much like, “This is what’s going on. This is who I am” [in] the same way he was with his music where he was just so vulnerable and so willing to put everything out there. That was what he wanted, so after he passed, there was this giant archive of footage, which I got at the top of this year.

I said yes prior [to seeing the footage], but I had no idea what the film would be. I had no idea if it would would use the archival completely or not at all. It was entirely up to me to do it however I wanted and there was a world in where it could have been all archive or all interviews or something more traditional where it’s interviews and then licensed footage, but I knew that I wanted to figure out the way to tell his story in an accurate, honest way and once I dug into the archival, I realized that there was a real opportunity to be able to tell the story from his perspective.

It was a hard, hard thing to put together because we had to understand what we had in a way that we could get in and out of it because there were so many clips. We had to take our time to catalog and to read and to hashtag and to do all of these things [simply to inventory everything]. Then the more time I sat with it, Joe Kehoe, who I also cut “40 Years a Prisoner” and and I understood how rare of an opportunity it was to have [Juice Wrld] going through his journey, [which] I knew that I wanted to. I just didn’t know if we could, so that was so much of what we tried to figure out. Then I remember there was this one afternoon that I cut the first 10 minutes of the film [which] is basically what you see now.

That intro freestyle is fucking incredible. It really is. And every time I watch it, I think the same thing – that’s something that he just did [in the moment]. There was no planning. It was just there. And it’s an example of his brilliance of him being a musical prodigy, but it also does more than that if you listen to the lyrics and to what he’s saying, he actually tells you everything you need to know about the film at that point. He tells you about his life, he tells you about his struggles and you also get a sense of his personality. You see his goofiness. You get all of those things, and it’s meant to help the audience get grounded in what they’re about to see, so the idea of an unbroken three-plus minutes of somebody freestyling is what you’re in for. And that set us off on our rhythm for what it was to be.

Rhythm is likely the best way to describe because you’ll have a lot of unbroken shots in this where you really get to settle in and see what he was like, but was that difficult to navigate in editing, figuring out how much context there needed to be to hold onto or when it might exhaust what’s interesting?

It was so hard because there are very few natural cut points. There’s no coverage ever, and to figure out how to transition from scene to scene was hard. you have these moments that were important and worked, but the transition was clunky, or there was no transition. And there’s probably still two or three of them that frustrate the hell out of me to this day that I just couldn’t get them to be any more elegant, but it was what it was, so I just lean into the feel of it and you don’t fight it, but you still want to make sure that it doesn’t take people out of it at any point, and it’s not distracting. I wanted it to feel like you were just there, and it’s not me telling you what to feel or where to look. It’s being with him on his journey and it was all part of the opportunity that was this footage, so it doesn’t matter that it was hard. It was the right version. My job is to make it look like it wasn’t hard and to make it look like it’s the only version that it should have been and that it was inevitable.

And this is the way that we get to understand him because it’s in his own voice. I keep saying that it mattered to me that we got to see somebody who otherwise couldn’t speak for himself, so you can see what’s going on without judgment from the filmmaker side. And as a viewer, we are always judging. We’re always making our decisions. But I wanted to remove my judgment on top of that so we can all go in and be active participants in the process as a viewer.

Still, I thought your own experience might have come through in how sensitive this is when it comes to portraying addiction, given the story you previously told about your own mother in “1982.” Was it something to be conscious of?

It’s something that most certainly mattered, and his mother was a champion throughout the whole process. I think one of the reasons she probably felt as comfortable with me as she did was because of that experience, because I had gone through having a mother who did crack for six years of my life, and I don’t know that it’s because of that, but I was never going to glamorize the drug usage. It was never going to be sensationalized. It was never going to be used for shock value. It was never going to be any of that and I wanted to ensure that we understood him, what was going on and that we took our time to set things up, so you could see all of who he was and not just one piece.

I don’t want to spoil how you structure this, but could you actually put together a lot of the material before setting out to do the interviews?

I’d like to say yes, but it wasn’t because I got the hard drive in January. HBO wanted to drop this in December [of this year], so there wasn’t a lot of time for anything. So here I go through 8,000 clips, 250 hours [of footage], and in the middle of this, I was the lead producer on “The Perfect Find,” a Netflix movie which we shot in New Jersey and New York, and I built a tiny edit suite in my producer’s office because I’m lead producing that movie, so I’d be cutting after hours or on weekends. And if we were shooting at night, I would cut during the day and if we’re shooting during the day, I would cut at night. And I finished the first cut of this while we were in the very last week of production in July.

And here I thought you had outsmarted the lockdowns by making archival docs…

Oh, no. We also made another movie as well, which I can’t wait for you to see called “Die Like a Man” from this incredible filmmaker named Eric Nazarian. It’s been a crazy ass year, and it’s a lot. But I’m eternally appreciative to the team and to our partners, and to Keith [Gionet], my head of docs at Confluential Content. But it was a lot and I can’t wait for more people to see [“Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss”]. We premiered at AFI last month, which was awesome, and [Juice] is a special person and he continues to give a lot to people, so for them to be able to see him and to see more of him is an exciting prospect.

“Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss” will premiere on December 16th at 8 pm on HBO and will stream thereafter on HBO Max.