"It's possible to think of the documentary filmmaking process as a series of riddles," says R.J. Cutler (The War Room).
His latest work, Belushi, which premieres November 22 on Showtime, presented a unique set of puzzlers.
The first: how to convince John Belushi's family, most notably his widow, to cooperate. Judith Belushi Pisano had rebuffed all filmmakers, including Cutler's friend and producing partner John Battsek (Searching for Sugar Man), who'd been cultivating her cooperation for nearly 10 years. Cutler says her resistance stemmed from Bob Woodward's scathing biography, Wired, published two years after the actor's 1982 death.
"The family had been so burned by their experience with Bob Woodward," Cutler says. "They just weren't interested in going there again."
But in 2015, Cutler and Battsek had a new ally: Marlon Brando. They had just produced Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary that relied heavily on personal audio recordings and home footage. Brando had been Belushi's performing hero.
"I thought it might be time to revisit it, because we now had Listen to Me Marlon as an example of the work we could do together," says Cutler, who'd long been a huge Belushi fan.
The gambit worked. A three-day visit with Belushi Pisano at her home in Massachusetts cemented the deal. She agreed to open her late husband's archives, stored in her Martha's Vineyard basement, which included his letters, poems and photos, as well as her own diaries.
Next riddle: how to get those closest to Belushi to speak with clarity and vibrancy about a man who died nearly 40 years ago? The solution lay in that same basement. Belushi Pisano had worked with journalist Tanner Colby to conduct hours of interviews in the years after the actor's death for her own book, Belushi: A Biography, a response to Wired. Cutler got access to those tapes, which he said formed "the spine of the film."
Yet another: how to tell a cinematic story about a private person? Belushi didn't give many interviews, and when he did, he seemed uncomfortable.
"You're building an entire movie on audio interviews, yet you're working in a visual medium," Cutler points out. "You're telling the story of somebody who is gifted in so many ways — but the hallmark of his work is his physical comedy. And not only his physical comedy, but also the surreal nature of his performance art and artistry and humor. You have to bring all of that to life without a lot of footage."
The solution? A blend of archival footage and visual effects that enliven the many letters Belushi wrote to his high-school sweetheart-turned-wife, plus old photos and family movies.
Oscar-nominated animator Robert Valley (Gorillaz, Tron: Uprising) filled in the visual gaps. "Seeing his work," Cutler says of Valley, "then collaborating with him, unlocked this very specific visualization of John and an animation style that is very, very John Belushi."
Cutler calls the film a love story at its heart, with Belushi's widow as the hero. "She was incredibly generous," he says, "willing to reflect on her journey, from meeting her soulmate and their life together, to her openness about the ups and downs, her insights into his art, who he was as a person, his family and the things she's had to deal with in the wake of his death. All those moments were incredibly rich and revealing."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2020