UPDATED with video: Director R.J. Cutler was in the early stages of working on his Showtime documentary Belushi, about the late comedian John Belushi, when he experienced a breakthrough. It came courtesy of Judy Belushi-Pisano, John’s widow, who kept an archive of material at her home on Martha’s Vineyard.
“It was there we found these remarkable letters that John had written throughout his life…And we found these boxes in which were kept audiotapes and videotapes that comprised an oral history that Judy had put together,” Cutler says during Deadline’s Contenders Documentary event. “From that treasure trove…I realized we have the foundations of a film.”
The tapes contained interviews with Belushi’s closest friends and co-workers, recorded in the 1980s to counter Bob Woodward’s depiction of Belushi in his book Wired, which the family had felt misrepresented the star.
“These tapes…had that immediacy, they had that rawness,” Cutler says, “and they had…the voice of so many people who are no longer with us—Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, so many others.”
The film celebrates Belushi’s comic genius but doesn’t shy away from his challenges.
“We tried to tell the complete life and part of that life story of course is an almost lifelong battle with addiction,” Cutler affirms. “Carrie Fisher…and John recognized each other as addicts in addition to being dear friends and she speaks about this in the film in a very powerful and emotional way.”
The documentary has met with Belushi-Pisano’s approval, the director says.
“She responded in a way that a filmmaker can only hope,” Cuter says. “We’ve been very, very gratified by the family’s response.”
Check out the panel video above.