Lil Peep Film Directors Talk Doc’s Toughest Moments and Interviews as ‘Therapy Sessions’
For those who were close to Gustav Elijah Åhr, the release of documentary film Everybody’s Everything next week may be as difficult as it is cathartic. Åhr, who performed as Lil Peep, died of a drug overdose on tour in 2017 shortly after celebrating his 21st birthday; the film spotlights dozens of friends, family members, and colleagues sharing beloved memories of the young rapper, who’d amassed millions of fans with his uniquely vulnerable songs and harbored a personal ambition to “revolutionize music.”
Directors Sebastian Jones and Ramez Silyan whittled down hundreds of hours of footage to a two-hour film accompanied by Peep’s music and an instrumental score composed by Patrick Stump, one of Peep’s musical inspirations. Executive produced by Terrence Malick, Peep’s mother Liza Womack, and Sarah Stennett — head of First Access Entertainment, the company that’d signed Peep to a multi-year record deal before his death — Everybody’s Everything premieres in select theaters on November 15th, with special fan screenings taking place across the U.S. on November 12th. Rolling Stone spoke to Jones and Silyan ahead of the release about the film’s difficult subject, its release in the midst of a lawsuit involving two of the executive producers, and the purpose of its narrative.
How did this documentary come about and how’d you both get involved?
SEBASTIAN JONES: After Gus died, First Access and Liza were talking about doing a documentary, and Liza wanted to bring Terrence Malick in to make sure things were done right and went smoothly. He’s a family friend of the Womack family and has known Jack, Gus’s grandfather, for many years. I worked with Terry for six years before working on this film and he brought me on to direct.
RAMEZ SILYAN: I had done music videos with Gus, and I was also just filming for him on tour. It’s very rare to become friends with the artist you work with — you usually stay at arm’s length — but we became closer and when he passed [and] I heard they wanted to do a doc, I felt a calling to it. I felt attached. I wanted to help spread his legacy. The film was financed by Liza as the Peep estate and FAE in co-production and they brought us on.
The unexpected death of a young artist is a tough subject. What was it like to delve into that?
RS: I did over 145 interviews and it was incredibly difficult because the interviews, being such fresh wounds, were like therapy sessions — for myself as well, because I’d learn new things and start to form this patchwork about this person who the subjects knew intimately. Someone said — and I don’t think it made this into the film — [that] Gus had a way of making everybody feel like they were a hero in their own story. That was the most affecting thing I found. The goal of the film was to try to show that feeling.
How’d you get people to open up for interviews?
RS: It was extremely conversational in nature. Some people were worried about discussing the drug use, but we made it very clear that this was being done with his family and everything was okay to talk about. And that’s not to say that there weren’t things Liza didn’t end up disliking — there’s one sequence — well, not everybody loves the whole film, basically, but it was done with respect. The toughest interview was probably Liza. You’re speaking to this incredible woman who just lost her son. You’ll never quite understand it; you’ll never relate. She told me, ‘It’s the club that nobody wants to be a part of.’ That broke my heart.
How much of the project didn’t make it into the final film?
SJ: It being a documentary, the world was our oyster in terms of the material we had. There was an endless amount of social media material, videos that Liza had personally gathered from VHS tapes of him as a kid, all the tour footage from all the videographers. The initial assembly was around six hours, probably. The guiding principle as I was cutting it down was: What strengthens the film’s thesis? You have to make hard decisions like that. If there are things that don’t really fit into that, they kind of fall away. The things that tell that story float to the top.
How much input did the three people listed as executive producers — Terrence, Liza, and FAE’s Sarah Stennent — have in the film?
SJ: Everybody had input, and in a film like this, you’re telling a person’s story and it’s a really serious responsibility. I had creative control and made decisions about what I thought felt the most true. But they were all very involved, Liza especially. She was a researcher on the film as well and gave us access to all kinds of stuff from Gus’s computer [and] messages on his phone.
Was it ever tense, because of the particular circumstances over Lil Peep’s death?
SJ: I never dealt with First Access all that much, to be honest. They didn’t really micromanage; they weren’t in the editing room over our shoulder. But yeah, people had strong opinions. There were times where things were tense because that’s just the nature of the thing.
RS: The interviews were very therapeutic and Liza was present for a handful of those interviews. But to clarify, they were executive producers but they weren’t involved in the day-to-day. It was mostly our producer above us, Ben Soley, who was the day-to-day manager. I think he came to First Access and this was the first project they put in front of him.
What was the SXSW premiere of the film like?
SJ: The opening night, there were a lot of people from Long Island, friends of Gus’s, Liza and the family. It was a pretty emotional evening.
RS: My favorite reaction was from people who had known who Gus was but he didn’t interest them; they wrote him off, thought he was just another one of those guys with face tattoos, and said this film made them look at it in a different way. That, to me, was the goal: to turn someone from actively disliking to thinking, ‘Wow, I understand now. I get who this person is now and I shouldn’t have made a flash judgment.’
Did you guys have any part in the Lil Peep album coming out in the next few weeks?
SJ: That album came together after the doc was already done. It’s something Liza organized with Columbia.
RS: Film moves so slow. Music, from what I’ve learned, is lightning fast. The go button gets pressed and they’re like, okay, we’re putting this out next month. They’d planned to do some sort of release, so they said, ‘Why don’t we tie it to the movie?’ We didn’t know it was going to be called the same thing until like a week ago.
Do you think of Everybody’s Everything as more of a documentary or a film?
SJ: It is a documentary, but, I mean — it’s a character study. There’s a mixture of those elements. I came from Terry’s work, where I was used to doing narrative features that have documentary elements to them. I don’t keep those things in separate boxes.
RS: I think of it as a documentary film. There are narrative devices that are employed but it’s all from people who are around, and it’s all true.
“My favorite reaction was from people who had known who Gus was, but he didn’t interest them … and said this film made them look at it in a different way” – Ramez Silyan
Liza recently filed a lawsuit against First Access Entertainment alleging that the company played a role in her son’s death. Did you guys know that was happening while you were putting the film together?
RS: I learned about it the day everyone else did. But I can’t say it was a huge surprise — there was always tension between them. Liza was very much involved in the film, helping as a historian [and] champion. First Access wasn’t very involved. Part of me feels like that’s because Liza was so involved. But it was pretty obvious that they didn’t get along very well. I see how it becomes this sort of thing, even though that’s not part of the narrative of the film. Sarah and Liza didn’t really interact on this.
How long did the film take to make? And did the narrative change at all during the process?
SJ: We started in January 2018 and the mix and color and all that was February 2019. The order of things didn’t change too much throughout, but in January, we had a rough list of maybe 30 people to interview, and it was way more than that by the end. Many of the interviews were three- to four-hour sessions.
RS: We’d go to Liza’s house in Huntington and she’d show us things that she found. She became a historian finding things and turning over documents and doodles and VHS tapes of Gus dancing when he was young. She devoted a lot of time to finding specific clips, some of which were lost in Hurricane Sandy, and it was wonderful to get those.
Did you find there were parts of people’s narratives that didn’t overlap?
RS: I think any time there’s conflict, there’s going to be varying accounts. I’m a firm believer that the truth lies in the middle. When two sides say different things — the reality is, you’re going to realize it was a bit of both. It ends up being easy to cut past all that because you’re speaking with so many people in such detail and you’ve got the tapestry and they don’t. You start to know that they might be stretching the truth to make themselves look like a better person.
Nobody wants to come out and say “We got in an argument, I threw his shit on the lawn and told him to get out.” They want to massage themselves to make it look like they did the okay thing — but the film isn’t really about trying to parse that. The film doesn’t try to throw anybody under the bus in any way. We were trying to get to the heart of this person’s life, not rehash the issues of people who got into an argument with him or anything like that.
The interviews comprise a lot of different voices.
SJ: There’s so many different people from all walks of life in the film.
RS: There’s a section where an artist, Slug Christ, is explaining what punk is and how Peep fits into that lineage from a mattress on the floor, and that’s intercut with Rob Cavallo, a pretty well-known music producer, in his house, with a framed picture of Mozart behind him. I love that egalitarian nature — we trust both guys the same. They’re both part of the same story, even though there’s a class difference. That’s very Peep to me, mixing raw and grimy with the elegance of something else. We kind of ignored class, because this film was more about character.