Thom Zimny talks co-directing a film with Bruce Springsteen, genesis of Western Stars
There’s your boss, and then there’s The Boss. But imagine if your boss and The Boss were one and the same.
That’s the case for Thom Zimny, a long-time cinematic collaborator of Bruce Springsteen who has edited and directed numerous music videos and documentaries for the legendary rock star. Most recently, he won an Emmy for his work behind-the-camera on the Netflix special Springsteen on Broadway. But now Zimny is entering a new collaborative space with The Boss, taking on the role of co-director as Springsteen makes his directorial debut on Western Stars.
The film is both a concert presentation of Springsteen’s 19th studio album of the same name filmed inside a 100-year-old barn on Springsteen’s property and a narrative fusion of autobiographical musings set against a blend of home movie footage and new sequences shot against the backdrop of the California desert. Like the best of Springsteen’s output, it’s a head-on collision of two different forces that smashes in your guts.
For Zimny, the relationship is not so much Springsteen as boss, as it is Springsteen as artistic collaborator, even more so now that they’re sharing directorial duties. “The relationship I have with Bruce, and also my dialogue with [producer] Jon Landau, is that they expect me to step up and bring to the table the ideas that I have as a filmmaker,” Zimny tells EW. “It’s really not just serving the ideas of Bruce. It’s really bringing ideas to Bruce and collaborating with him in the space of, ‘How does this get the music across? Or how does it get the narrative across?'”
Ultimately, that comes down to finding a middle ground between fan and filmmaker. “I’m really lucky because I’m a fan of Bruce’s music, and I get to work with him directly. There are two hats that I wear constantly. I love this music. If I feel that feeling inside the edit room, I know I’m doing my job as a filmmaker,” he reflects.
Western Stars hits theaters Oct. 25, and it grants Springsteen’s fans an intimate view of the musician’s life and songwriting process, almost as if his annotated liner notes have come to glorious cinematic life. For more on the film, we called up Zimny to talk everything from the influence of classic Westerns to the joys of culling through Springsteen’s home movies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea to turn Western Stars into a film start? Was it something you and Bruce were talking about already when doing the Broadway show?
THOM ZIMNY: I got a call from Bruce right after the album was released that he wanted to film a concert of the full album Western Stars. He was not going to be touring with it, so he wanted to document the moment of performing this album with a 30-piece orchestra. That was the beginning of my conversations with him about making it into a movie. It was really important that we worked on making it different than Broadway. Right away we started discussing where could we place the audience, and how could we film this differently?That evolved to first looking at location. The barn, actually, is at Bruce’s house. So after we filmed the concert for two days with the 30-piece orchestra inside the barn, Bruce started to think about the idea of writing moments between the songs that would explain some of the themes of the album. The film then evolved to be something more than just a concert film.
So then how did you land on the format of interlacing these monologues? Because it does feel like a natural next step from the Broadway show.
One of the things of making the film with Bruce directly was a dialogue of “How can we step away from the experience of Broadway?” which was all contained on one stage. What happened in the cutting room was that we discovered that putting some of the imagery of the desert is really helpful in explaining the tone and visually conveying some of the feelings of the songs. We discovered in the process of cutting this hybrid of a genre — it wasn’t completely a concert film, it wasn’t a pure documentary. Also, it was something that was new for both of us and felt like it stepped away from Broadway, but also felt very close as a continuation of Bruce’s writing, very similar to the book or the Broadway show. It felt like the next natural next step in his dialogue with the audience.
Alongside you, this is Springsteen’s feature film directorial debut, so can you break down that process a little bit? I mean, how does co-directing on this differ from something like the Broadway show or a music video?
I’ve worked with Bruce for the past 20 years, and the difference between working on this film and other projects was the level of involvement he had with shaping and structuring the cut. The biggest thing was that he wrote a voiceover script that gave the film such a body and soul. It was an organic process that just happened in the cutting room. Starting off first with the concert, then filming these scenes with his voiceover, and then really, the building of it and cutting it together and then scoring it. He scripted, scored and co-directed this, which was really a different experience from all the other film work that we had done. One of the things that came about in working with Bruce was having the editing room right next to the studio, which was key. I was able to listen to the music that he was scoring and also share with him the edits as I was making it. So he was very, very much part of the process in the cutting room, and also, part of the color correct and the mixing. It was really a journey together in film.
So you shot those western, desert sequences in Joshua Tree, yes? How did you land on that space specifically?
We shot it in the desert area [around there]. The beauty of working with Bruce in that landscape was we both have a love and an interest in that cinematic landscape. He created a soundtrack with this album that fit perfectly with those emotional tones that the desert, the light and the color bring. His sonic palette matches the beauty of that desert and sky. It was great fun to work with him and my cinematographer, Joe DeSalvo, capturing Bruce in that environment. Which took you out of the barn and brought you into a little bit of a dream world of a character, while he reflected upon things that had happened in his life that influenced the songs and his writing and themes that he was exploring.
The album references classic Hollywood Westerns so was there ever a discussion of filming somewhere more akin to that? Something more John Ford-esque like Monument Valley? What were the options on the table?
The options on the table of what location to pick were What feels right? That location we ended up using was the album cover’s photography locations. It just held the beautiful balance of being very real, not feeling like a set, the wonderful landscape, wonderful sky and the character of this beautiful car. It just seemed fitting to return to the space where the album cover was shot and capture that landscape beyond stills.
The older footage — the archival stuff and the home movie footage — where did that idea come from? And then how did you go about culling the pieces you would use?
I was working with Bruce on a Saturday afternoon, and it was raining and it was completely quiet and we were working on the end sequence of “Moonlight Motel.” We were working on the section that discussed his relationship with [wife] Patti [Scialfa] in the past. He suggested to me that we take a look at a DVD, and [it] had this magical moment of home movie footage that showed not only their relationship, but showed the beauty of this moment of them early in their relationship. We put it into the cut, and it worked perfectly. You’re constantly preparing, you’re shooting, you’re capturing a concert in the barn, and you’re going through the desert, and at the same time, we’re both open to stumbling across a home movie that totally captures the moment. Who would’ve thought that a honeymoon home video would say exactly what the film needs at that point? But it works. Bruce is really exciting that way, by bringing these new challenges and surprises to the editing room. [It’s] my favorite part of the film where he’s literally just goofing around with a home video camera.
It’s so intimate. He is always an intimate artist, but it’s a window into something we haven’t seen before.
The beauty of looking in the archives is trying to find these moments that reveal a Bruce that a viewer might not have experienced before. With Western Stars, I went deep into the vault to find studio moments, to find moments of super 8 where he’s with his sister Pam early in [the] 1970s — things that just have not been out there before. [We dug] deep into his home movies to give that feeling of stepping into this world where Bruce is talking about his life, his music, but also giving this view that you just haven’t seen.
Was all of that footage from his personal collections and and things that were shot in relation to him and his life? Or were you also drawing from other archives?
You know the beauty with working with Bruce’s music is it covers the world. It’s not a singular message from just a point of view of his life or New Jersey. So it was really important for me to find archival [footage] that represented the world that we live in…We poured over all kinds of home movies and poured over stills that just really tried to nail the thought behind the voice-over. It wasn’t just random B-roll ever.
The album is very character-driven, and he’s talked about how he was really drawing on a lot of cinematic imagery in the song writing. Was there any discussion of trying to include footage from Westerns or some of those specific films that inspired him?
There was no discussion of including clips from movies. But when you’re making a film with Bruce, and with Jon Landau around too, there’s always the discussion of references and movies. That’s a shorthand in the cutting room. We might not have ever talked about putting a film in the actual edit, but movies were discussed at all times.
What were some of your primary reference points?
We looked at the films of John Ford and the beauty of those landscapes. A lot of the classic Hollywood cinematography for Westerns in the ’50s and early ’60s and how they portrayed the land. And the use of light. We take references from all different decades. Jon Landau will turn to me at times and reference a silent film, so we’re not stuck in one genre. We’re not stuck in one era. It’s really a combination of all references.
The score features a 30-piece orchestra that played live onstage with Bruce. Can you walk me through assembling that and deciding how you were going to shoot it?
I really love this album — it felt like such a cinematic and sonic landscape for movies. Just putting it on the turntable, visually, I could sense so many things listening to the songs and the narrative in the record. When it came to shooting the orchestra, I knew that I wanted to stay in the dream of the music, make things happen within camera so we didn’t require a lot of edits. But also [to] give you a point of view that went beyond just the audience point of view and changed up the shot sizes. This is something I discussed at length with Bruce, which is bringing you behind him, but also never getting lost with seeing the cameras too much or audience members. We wanted to stay in the dream of the music, and being caught up in the lush sound of Western Stars.
You said you filmed the performances in the barn over two days. Was it similar to the Broadway show where, as much as possible, you just tried to run straight through?
Exactly. It was a filming that took place for two days, and we ran through as many songs as possible and then the second day we would do the same thing and cover the full narrative of the record. And Bruce pulled out the great surprise of “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
Do you know why he chose that? Was it specifically the Jimmy Webb connection and his impact on the sound of the record or something else?
I didn’t talk to [Bruce] directly. But I hear in “Rhinestone Cowboy” an amazing reference to the album Western Stars and its use of strings, but also that California pop sound. I can only assume that’s why he drew upon that song.
Who was the janitor sweeping at the end? Because their sweeping was, let’s say, unusual.
In the world of Bruce, he has friends for many, many years and he always brings people to the set. I always end up putting them into the movie. So every film I look forward to who Bruce is going to bring. This time he brought his good friend Ricky, who became the bartender and the guy who sweeps at the end. Every time I see the end credits or see Ricky in a shot, it reminds me of the beauty of the day we shot. But also Bruce has these relationships, in both his private and public life, where he brings them into the work.
This feels like a major new step in Bruce’s career in that it feels like a definitively cinematic chapter, with the Broadway show going to Netflix, this release, and, indirectly, Blinded by the Light. Why do you think this is coming at this moment? Is it just a natural evolution? Is there something about the form that is better for his storytelling at this time?
Bruce recently talked about this as being a trilogy. That this film was an extension of the book, an extension of the Broadway run. This type of writing gave him a chance to explore the themes of this new music in a unique way. In some ways, it all makes sense when you look at the book and Broadway and this film. He’s pushed it to the next level in the filmmaking process. I’ve seen this happen again and again from the music videos to the docs. We really start from a place of, “What’s the music telling us?” With this album, the music told us that we didn’t want to be on stage. The music told us that we needed an explanation from Bruce himself that wasn’t a documentary interview. That gave him the space to write, very much like he did in the book and the Broadway show, in this personal tone.
Do you think, based on your experience with this process, that it is something he will want to keep doing and pushing forward? Whether that’s writing a new musical for Broadway or turning his book into a more narrative film, or anything along those lines?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to speak for Bruce. But working with him for the past 20 years, I’m always surprised with what he comes up with. I always look forward to the challenges that he throws at me. I don’t know what his role would be with the future in film, but I also know that I could have never predicted that Western Stars would have happened after Springsteen on Broadway.
The film has a lot to say and is very introspective, but as a director, what do you hope is the number one message or theme that the audience takes away?
I always hope that the viewer comes away with the feeling that they recognize the Bruce that they have in their collection at home and have grown up with and gone to the concerts with. But also, they recognize something new that Bruce shared with them. [I hope they] felt like the film honored both the sonic and the lyrical qualities of Bruce Springsteen’s music. My number one goal is to work with Bruce in a way that doesn’t detract from the beauty of his music. It’s a tricky balance. I always hope that I ended up in the space that enhances the experience of the album and also gives an understanding of the artist in a different way.