How do you capture the story of one of the world’s most popular music stars?
Jenna Rosher is a filmmaker with over 20 years of experience producing, directing, and DPing social, political, and music documentaries. She worked on the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp and produced for MTV: All Access.
Most recently, she served as director of photography on the extraordinary AppleTV+ music documentary, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. The doc provides an intimate look at Eilish’s career just before she skyrocketed to fame with a hit album, multiple Grammy wins, and huge concert performances. The film is also a portrait of a family and a young woman coming of age.
Shot in cinéma vérité style, the camera is often close to Eilish in cars, in her childhood bedroom, backstage, at her shoulder during uncomfortable meet-and-greets.
Rosher was kind enough to speak with No Film School via Zoom about the process of making the documentary. You won’t want to miss this insight.
Editor’s note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I was reading in another interview that you’re a third-generation filmmaker and your grandfather actually won the first Academy Award for cinematography, which is wild. I’m sure that contributed to your own passion for film, but I wanted to get an idea of what you love about filmmaking and documentaries.
Jenna Rosher: Yeah, my grandfather and my father were both cinematographers. I was exposed to the film world. My mom is also an actor, so I was very much surrounded by storytelling and filmmaking. And it was funny, by the time I was about to go to college, I said, “Okay, I’m going to be a journalist.” I got almost like this journalism thing. “Oh, I’m going to go to journalism school. And I want to become a journalist.” And I was very serious about it. And I speak in that way because I was very adamant. I was sort of thinking like, “This is going to be what I’m going to do.” And it’s just so funny how you do it, and then you come back, you find your way back around to film, but still in a non-fiction sort of sense. So that was where I took the journalism and gave it another application in storytelling.
And I think with non-fiction storytelling, I, from the very beginning, [have] been intrigued by real life and real people. I always tell fun stories, just to connect my grandfather, but he worked on a film about Pancho Villa back in the early 1900s, with Pancho Villa. And while they shot much of the A-roll in the studio with Pancho Villa, who starred in his own movie, they would shoot the B-roll during the revolution in Mexico.
So he was actually a documentarian in his own right, unbeknownst to him. I don’t think he would have said, “Oh, I’m a documentarian.” I think he just thought that he was filming B-roll, but he was filming real-life revolution happening, in a horse-drawn carriage with the camera rolling. Can’t even imagine. And so I always call to that a little bit and think about that, and that there was definitely a storyteller, a visual storyteller, in him and my dad, but just a general curiosity for life.
My dad is the biggest people watcher on the planet, and I think I took away a lot of that, as my mom just appreciates and loves, fascinated by human beings. So documentaries seem to make sense for me.
And when I first started working, I was working for MTV News and docs in New York. And part of being a producer for them was to have a camera and shoot. It was required. It was probably the job requirement. “Here. Go shoot.” And so I started to embrace filming with cameras and it just was comfortable to me right off the bat. Holding a camera was really not a big deal. And I started to sort out all the technical sides of it, but I felt that I could still kind of even direct a little bit behind the camera or make decisions behind the camera. And it’s for projects that I choose to direct and shoot on. It always makes sense for me to have a camera in my hand while I’m directing. And then obviously I also just do projects where I’m strictly a cinematographer, which is also great, because then I can just live behind the camera and that’s refreshing in its own way.
So yeah, that’s my history in terms of where my appreciation came from.
NFS: So for this one, it’s very obviously raw, real, in the moment. What’s your prep process for a project like this, where you are going in, maybe with an unfamiliar subject, and you don’t know how you’re going to be capturing them, or how long?
Rosher: Yeah. We knew we were going to spend some time with Billie. We were sort of willing to take whatever time we could get, and that amount of time amounted to over a year. I didn’t have the chance to meet Billie ahead of time, which often I like to do first to meet in person to have some time without the camera, just to get to know each other. We didn’t have that luxury. She’s a rising star on tour. So we met her on tour in Europe, and I think the first night I spent with her, I was not filming, but getting familiar with just her world.
So, this is one of those scenarios where you kind of just jump in and you have to constantly be gauging things. And R.J. [Cutler] and I, and Jae [Kim], our sound operator, it was really just primarily the three of us there with Billie. And it was always assessing, “How’s the family doing today? Do we need to kind of back off a little bit? What’s today going to hold for us?” You’re in a constant state of adaptation when you’re making an observational film. And you’re just having to be really sensitive to what’s going on with whoever you’re filming. And I started to get really against saying the word “subject,” because she’s not subject—a person. So I was just saying, “the person you’re filming.”
We were just kind of constantly adapting to it, and we are all curious people, and so curiosity was always something that was the driving force. “What’s happening with Billie now? What is she having to negotiate or deal with?”
And it was just mind-blowing that someone as young as her is able to manage so many different things at once. It’s pretty mesmerizing actually, and then to watch, just to also sit and be with her, with her music and during her shows, and see the reaction that she gets from her audience. These young, incredible faces looking at her like she’s literally a goddess.
I really enjoyed it. There was never a dull moment, and it was always exciting to film with her because you just never knew what was going to happen next. It, in the timeframe that we were with her, was this unbelievable rise. So it just started to feel like every week there was something exciting happening. And then, of course, we’re Coachella, and then she ends up at the Grammys, and she meets Justin Bieber, and it all started to kind of come full circle for her in these beautiful ways. We felt very, very, very fortunate to spend that time with her.
NFS: Did her personality or her music influence how you were shooting? Did you find yourself adapting to her?
Rosher: Definitely. I would say the story, it really informed the way that I was going to shoot, but when I meet a person that I’m going to film, I tend to stay a little bit further away, especially if life is happening and they’re whatever they’re doing. And she right from the beginning wanted me closer, wanted to feel my presence more. She wanted to use a camera as something that she could just make a nod to or look to, or in the vein of like, The Office. She loves The Office. So, that was something right from the beginning I found really exciting, like, “Oh, that’s not my go-to, but that’s what she wants me to do. Okay, cool.”
NFS: I imagine that you’re shooting for extended periods of time. What’s your go-to gear for a project like this?
Rosher: For that film, we shot on the Canon C300 Mark II, which is the workhorse of all workhorse documentary cameras. And I shot primarily on Canon lenses, primes and zooms. And I use a monopod with a vest. So the camera’s part of me, it doesn’t really come off unless I’m eating or something. But I outfit myself in a way that I can just go in there, very portable, and hunker down. And I’m able to be in this rig for many hours at a time, as, especially with someone like Billie, you never know what’s going to happen. There’s so many exciting things that happen when you least expect it to, so you just have to be ready. And we would literally be rolling for hours and hours and hours. You know, we’d have breaks. There was time to be a human being, but for the most part, it was really about, “Okay, we have access to her family and her home. Let’s capture everything we possibly can,” because there was a lot going on.
NFS: I was going to ask specifically about how the industry and how especially below-the-line roles tend to be very male-dominated. I know it’s kind of a big question, but how do you think, or what would you say, to get more women in those roles?
Rosher: I think one way is for women to see other women doing the job. I think it just starts with representation. Opportunity—a lot of the people that I’ve mentored are women, women of color especially, I think seeing someone that looks like you doing that job immediately presents an opportunity of, “Oh.” Or [a] thought of, “Wow, I could do that job.”
It’s changed a lot. I was on a crew not too long ago, where it was so amazing that half the crew was people of color and half of the crew was women. And I was so delighted and they were all incredibly talented and skilled at what they do. Wasn’t just like, “Oh, we’re just hiring, getting diversity.” Oh no, we’re getting diversity knows what they’re doing. This is amazing.
I had a crew, my AC was a woman, my gaffer was an African American man. I love that. And I think the more people that we’re seeing doing these jobs, the more people are going to feel like, “Oh, I can do that too.” That’s my hope. So for me, it’s all about bringing on the most talented folks out there. Also, if given the opportunity to mentor, women [in] particular.
And there were a lot more, I had a great dolly grip, not too long ago, who was a woman. And I was like, “Yes, I want more women to see you doing this job because it’s so male-dominated. It’s such a great job.” You don’t have to have a man’s body to push a dolly. You just have to have grace, you have to be graceful. And she was amazing.
There’s all these different, for lack of a better word, programs or initiatives in different organizations, like the Academy and Directors Guild and the American Society of Cinematographers to bring in more diversity in general. There’s more and more, I can’t tell you, it’s so many things that newsletters I get, and it’s really pushing for that. So I really see it going that way. And it’s refreshing and exciting. And it’s about time.
NFS: Another kind of big question to finish on, but what are your key tips for someone that wants to shoot vérité style?
Rosher: Well, going in, if you’re going to shoot, I think self-care, which I’m not great at—I’m trying. Self-care is really important because it’s a very physically demanding job. So literally getting good rest, going to a chiropractor, taking care of yourself because it is very physically demanding.
I think also it’s one of these things—yes, you need to practice a camera where you know it in and out. It’s a must, you have a muscle memory with a camera. Because when you don’t and you’re constantly adapting to new environments, you’re going from room to room. One room has windows open, the other room doesn’t. You have to adjust to that white balance immediately. You have to adjust your exposure, your focus. Things have to become very automatic. I would say practicing as much as possible. Film your family members, film whoever you’re inspired to film, make your own movie, because then there’s no pressure. It’s your project.
And that’s where I really learned a lot of my skill was I made a film, my first feature back 12 years ago called Junior. And I made it over a course of six years. And I think I really learned how to shoot on my own film because I was less aware of my shooting on that film because it was me having to watch the dailies rather [than] someone else.
So my self-esteem really developed, and I think confidence in a cinematographer is probably the most important thing of all. Because your director’s looking to you for confidence. You cannot second-guess your decisions, and you have to just live with them sometimes, even if they weren’t the right one. And you have to know that whatever framing you chose is going to be the one that’s the right one for the moment and live with it.
So a lot of it’s confidence. Particularly in documentary films, patience, and curiosity, and compassion, empathy, having a good bedside manner is important. Those are things just think they’re really important for documentary, because you’re going into these intimate environments and going into someone’s world and filming it. So you want to have all of those qualities going in.