R.J. Cutler is one of our most accomplished documentarians. He's also one of the most unpredictable.
Thirty years after breaking through with "The War Room," which examined how Bill Clinton's campaign team shocked the political world, the 61-year-old Emmy winner has come out with "Murf the Surf," a four-part series about Jack Roland Murphy, a jewel thief who tried to redeem his sordid reputation by embracing evangelism. It premieres 9 p.m. Sunday on MGM Plus (formerly known as Epix).
In between the two projects, Cutler has profiled Oliver North ("A Perfect Candidate"), John Belushi ("Belushi"), Anna Wintour ("The September Issue") and Billie Eilish ("The World's a Little Blurry"), as well as directed episodes of the prime-time soap, "Nashville."
After chatting with Cutler by Zoom, the choices make a lot more sense.
Q: What does Murphy have in common with the other people you have focused on?
A: I'm often exploring issues of American identity through larger-than-life characters, whether it's a ragtag team leading an underdog to victory like in "The War Room" or "The September Issue" with an extraordinary woman who has risen to the top of a multi-million dollar industry where the only woman who isn't afraid of her is in the office next door. Murphy takes us back to a day when we celebrated criminals to the point that they almost felt emboldened to commit crimes. Why are we attracted to certain people who we suspect aren't telling the truth, but somehow we don't care? It may remind you of a certain recent president of the United States.
Q: I can watch a filmmaker like Ken Burns and know instantly that it's one of his films. I can't do that with your work. How do you decide what style to adapt?
A: I'm grateful you're saying that. My training is in theater, where your service is to the work. The greatest compliment you can get is that when the lights come on, the audience feels like they are in a different narrative and a different world every time.
That approach leads to some sleepless nights. Sometimes I wish there was a formula, so I could just apply it and get some rest.
I'm always looking for the form that will illuminate the character. For "Belushi," it was told almost exclusively through the voices of the people who knew him best. For Billie, it's pure cinema verite with no other voices than Billie and her family. For "Murf," we wanted the beginning to feel like "To Catch a Thief" but it gets darker and darker until you feel like you're watching "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
Q: You captured Eilish at such a pivotal moment in her career, between her 17th and 18th birthday. Was that just luck?
A: That was such a gift. I received a phone call that she wanted to meet me. She and her family had seen "The September Issue" and she had also watched "Nashville." So we met and really clicked. Spending that year together was one of the great joys of my life.
Q: What did you learn from directing a scripted series like "Nashville" that affected your approach to making documentaries?
A: It might be the other way around. "Nashville" gave me the opportunity to apply lessons I learned from directing non-fiction films. Those early episodes are very grounded. We took the time to get the details exactly right, whether we were replicating the Bluebird Cafe or shooting at the Grand Ole Opry. Authenticity was at a premium.