Nearly 40 years after his death in March of 1982, John Belushi still figures out a way to fascinate us all. And while we all know him for his work on Saturday Night Live, in movies such as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, as well as his reputation that has always seemingly followed him, there is clearly much more than this. There are multiple layers to John Belushi that have not really been fully discussed before.
That all changed with the new documentary, Belushi, which premiered this past Sunday night on Showtime. The documentary paints an image of John Belushi that you might not have known otherwise. You’ll get to hear his friends and family talk about his love story with Judy, his ambition, and how he is actually the one responsible for bringing the cast of the National Lampoon Radio Hour together, which later became the majority of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live. This documentary really goes out of its way to show you that there was so much more than just Bluto Blutarsky.
R.J. Cutler used an interesting technique to tell this story. While discussing the prospects of a documentary with Belushi’s widow, Judy, she showed him hundreds of hours of taped interviews with some of Belushi’s closest friends. Because they were conducted shortly after he died in the 80’s, there was still a freshness to it all that helps bring the man back to life. Accompanying the interviews are photographs, new animation, as well as even clips of the man himself. And by the end of it all, you’ll feel as if you knew him better than ever before.
We recently spoke with R.J. Cutler about his first exposure to John Belushi, how he got involved with the project, getting Belushi’s widow to trust him, what he learned on the project, and the response that he’s gotten from those who knew him best.
Can you tell me a little bit about what first drew you to John Belushi?
Well what drew me to John originally was John Belushi. And I was a teenager who had two magazine subscriptions. One was to MAD Magazine and the other was to National Lampoon. And through the Lampoon, I discovered the National Lampoon Radio Hour and through the Radio Hour, I discovered John Belushi. And then when he showed up as one of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players [on Saturday Night Live], like everybody else who was drawn to that show, my mind was blown.
So years later, when my producing partner on the movie Listen to Me Marlon John Battsek asked if I thought I might be interested in making a film about John which he had been pursuing with Judy Belushi [John Belushi’s widow], I leapt at the opportunity. And the two of us set out to make the film.
And speaking of Judy, because the family had been burned in the past with projects that didn’t perhaps paint him in the kindest of lights, did it take you a while to get the family to trust you?
Well, I met with Judy at Martha’s Vineyard. She was kind enough to invite us to spend some time visiting her there. And you’d of course have to ask her about what it was that led her to decide to trust me. But I enjoyed the time there, particularly because she and I got to take long walks and have long talks about her life with John and their life story. And it was then that the vision of the film really formed in my mind. Practically the vision for the film also formed when Judy invited us to look through the archive in the basement of her house in the vineyard. And it was there that we discovered John’s letters, and it was there that we discovered a treasure trove of audio tapes that she and Tanner Colby that they had kept when they were creating an oral history of John’s life.
And prior to this realization of the tapes, were you approaching the film via modern day interviews with the subject?
Well, the initial approach is always kind of discovery. You open up your eyes as wide as they’ll go and you ask really naive questions and then you venture out in search of the answers to those questions. “So who was John Belushi? And who were the people that I could speak to that knew him best? And what would they have to say?”
And so I started having conversations and coffees and phone calls with a few of the people who knew John back in the day and had been colleagues and friends. And what I discovered was the stories that they were telling were stories that felt to me like they were lost in the foggy haze of memory. They were the stories that these people always told when they told stories about John. They lacked immediacy. They lacked presence. They lacked the rawness that I knew instinctually that this movie would require.
So when Judy mentioned that she and Tanner had done this oral history… Of course I knew the book that had emerged from the oral history, but the fact that there were hundreds of hours of audio tapes that were not included in the book, and that these audio tapes had remained and they had been preserved, and we would have access to them, I was very excited. And I was very curious. And then when we brought them back to Los Angeles and listened to them, I knew we had the foundation for the film.
Was there a moment while listening to the tapes initially where you figured out “This is the way to go!”?
Well not in the initial process. In the initial process, I wanted to know “Can you hear the tapes? Have they been demagnetized? Did somebody pour apple juice on them? Is everyone here?” That’s what I wanted to know. And the answers kept coming back yes. Then we set out to listen to them.
For me, having access to Lorne Michaels to John Landis to Penny Marshall to Bruce McGill to Tino Insana to Mitch Glaser to Carrie Fisher to Jim Belushi to Dan Aykroyd, I mean you can make that movie. Even Chevy Chase. And then when Carrie talked about the nature of John’s addiction, I mean that probably goes to the heart and the soul of the film. But having all those voices… Harold [Ramis] kind of became the wise godfather voice of the film… all of them, it was thrilling.
Did you find that, because these were not your standard talking heads interviews, people were less guarded and there was a bit more intimacy that came from it as well?
Well yes. And they were not just less guarded. They were describing a friend that they had recently loss.
Oh so these were all right in the aftermath of his death?
Yes. They were in the years immediately passing John’s passing.
And so while doing this project, what is something that was the most surprising that you had discovered?
Well listen, so much about John that has been told has been told and told again. Circumstances surrounding his death, the tragic nature surrounding his death, the sadness that ensued. But so little that has been told about John has focused on his life, not his death. And everything we discovered was revelatory about his life. The love story at the center of it. These two kids from outside of Chicago meet each other in their teen years and spend their lives together and discover who they are together and stick together through thick and thin. And they are challenged at all times but build not only a family for themselves but a community of other artists who changed the world together. That is a story that isn’t often told.
Also the story of John Belushi as a visionary who first assembled so many people that we understand who had been the revolutionary early seasons cast members of Saturday Night Live. That story isn’t often told. We don’t often understand that it was John that brought together so many of those people the very first time. The story of this artist who was forever reinventing himself, who was pushing the boundaries, who didn’t let form limit him, but in fact pushed through form to the point where he created The Blues Brothers which let’s face it was performance art at its highest form at least a decade before performance art was even understood to be anything. And there he was doing this mind blowing performance onstage with his partner Dan Aykroyd in a way that thrilled audiences into a state of delirium.
All of this is surprising. But we love to remember it because we lived it. But we just didn’t have the perspective that this film can provide. And by the way there’s, needless to say, generations of people who didn’t live it and who get to discover John anew now through this film.
And one of the things I love that you incorporated to help explore the John Belushi audiences didn’t get to know about was through utilizing his letters and having Bill Hader read them.
Which is another great surprise that the film relies on for its success. Which is that John Belushi was a mad letter writer. As private a man as he was, as much as guarded his privacy, as much as he considered his private life to be his own, between him and Judy there were no boundaries. And he wrote to her frequently and beautifully and hilariously and movingly and emotionally and honestly and confessionally. Really it was from the day he met her until the end of his life.
And those letters are brought to life by Bill Hader, who isn’t performing John, but is capturing his soul. And what a contribution to the film that is. We’re so fortunate to have Bill’s work in there.
And one of the challenges I’ve heard you talk about was the fact that he didn’t do a ton of interviews during his life.
Yeah. And when he did do them, they were very performative. But it was in a different time and people forget this. Saturday Night Live premieres in 1975. People Magazine premieres in 1974. We didn’t live in this culture where there were hours long interviews with every person of note. It wasn’t a confessional culture. It wasn’t a celebrity culture. It was very, very different. And John was of the mind that his business belonged to him. And he was happy to talk about his work. He was happy to talk about his art. He was happy to talk about what he’s trying to accomplish. But he didn’t want to talk to you or me or strangers about his private life. And you see that. It’s very clear.
And I want to say how much I admire how you handled the ending and his death, where it’s not as if you’re in the room watching it happen, but watching from the perspective of his friends and family from afar. Was that a conscious decision I imagine?
Absolutely. That’s all by design. And it’s by design and it’s the resulting of beautiful editing by Joe Beshenkovsky and Maris Berzins. And by the great good fortune that we have those voices to include. And also by the fact that Judy was willing to visit me. The only interviews in the film that are contemporary are several interviews that I did with Judy over the years of making the film. And she was willing to go there. So all of that contributes to the moments you’re describing. But they absolutely were by design.
I think you handled it so beautifully. And the last thing I want to ask is how has the response been from the people who knew him?
So far it’s been terrific. Honestly it’s been deeply gratifying and beautiful. The conversations I’ve had with folks in his life and notes we’ve received and the stories that Judy has told me, the tweets that have been posted from family members as I said have all been deeply gratifying. Nobody saw the film until we were done. This was a final cut film where we retained final cut on it. But once we shared it with the family and those who knew John best, their response so far has been very gratifying.