"It ended up a great surprise for both of us": Inside Bruce Spingsteen's Western Stars film with co-director Thom Zimney

Four months on from the release of Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album, arrives Western Stars the film, featuring a full live performance of the album (plus a cover of Rhinestone Cowboy), interwoven with Springsteen’s meditations on life, love and loss.

The movie, released in cinemas today (28 October 2019), marks Springsteen’s first time directing, albeit jointly with Thom Zimney who has overseen putting Bruce’s music on film for the past twenty years, including directing the film of Springsteen on Broadway for which Zimney won an Emmy Award. The live concert for Western Stars was filmed this summer in Springsteen’s own family barn where he’s hosted weddings and parties, with the audience comprised of a small group of friends. The songs are performed with a full orchestra and the live album Western Stars - Songs From The Film, accompanies the movie’s release. Springsteen and Zimney were both in attendance to premiere Western Stars at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and London Film Festival.

Here, Springsteen’s long-time film collaborator Thom Zimney, spoke to Music Week about having the Boss co-direct for the very first time…

You’ve worked with Springsteen for two decades now, how do you feel about the responsibility of capturing live music, and with this project in particular, is there an extra weight of legacy that starts to creep in?

I look at the responsibility of capturing the music as a very serious quest. Each time Bruce comes out with new music I really spend time doing what I feel like I need to, which is as a fan, listen. What am I responding to? What am I hearing? And with Western Stars, it was very obvious on top, how cinematic this was. I knew the beauty of Bruce's sonic landscapes and songs like Jungleland and Born to Run, but this was taking it to a new level, and I'm very sensitive on how to approach capturing this music live. I really want to be invisible. I don't want to get in the way of the listening experience, and with Bruce, you just want to be part of the band in some ways, where you're not interfering with the sonic qualities and the lyric writing and the beauty of Bruce Springsteen’s music, but you're capturing it with cameras that enhance the experience, but don't get in the way.

What was the co-directing dynamic like between yourself and Bruce Springsteen?

You know, co-directing with Bruce Springsteen was a dream come true that I wouldn't even give myself permission to think about, because we made this film at his studio. I set up an editing room directly next door to him, so the idea that I'd be collaborating with Bruce Springsteen where he would sit in the edit, look at images, and then jump up and pick up a guitar and come up with a musical idea in front of me that would end up as score later in the film - that was a fantastic experience and very different than the 20 years I've worked with him.

Would you say there is an equal push and pull between you both as co-directors?

Over these 20 years, I've been able to develop a shorthand and a dialogue, and the biggest thing that Bruce has been able to give me in creating films, both with him, and as a director solely, is a trust. So with Western Stars, we really pushed each other to try to find a way to tell the story of this new music, try to use imagery that was not expected and we dipped into home movies and stills (photos) that have not been seen, and also get beyond just the formulaic approach of concert film, and find this balance between documentary and live concert. Western Stars ended up being a great surprise for both of us. 

Bruce Springsteen said that years ago he asked you to archive those home movies as a Christmas present to wife Patti Scialfa – so that’s how you knew the footage?

In working with Bruce for many years, you're always trying to figure out what's the great Christmas gift to give him, and I realised that they had home movies that they had talked to me about and I archived them for them. That was ten years ago. And I remembered one moment of them together on their honeymoon and celebrating, and I referenced it to Bruce while making Western Stars, and he took me to a shot and a scene that to me as a filmmaker, just captured the beauty of their relationship and what he was trying to get across. So, it's ironic that after all the work (on the concert footage) with nine cameras and editing and all that, Bruce's home movie to me is the favourite piece of the story.

Springsteen only performed the songs live twice in his barn where the concert is recorded, and it was mostly the second version of the songs that ended up in the film, so what was it that you spotted in that second run through?

The beauty of capturing new music with Bruce is seeing how great the first take is, and what's amazing as a film director is that sometimes you just are so satisfied with how in-pocket and character he was for the delivery of the first take, and then he pushes it to another level, and that's take two or three. With Western Stars, he had a team of people who have fully prepared to capture the sonic qualities of the orchestra but the real delivery that comes for me as a filmmaker is Bruce falling into the role of the characters, the delivery in the vocal. And we found on Western Stars on our second night, we really found some magic that conveyed both the original tone of the album but something different, something live that you can only capture with an orchestra in a bar.

The film has its own rhythm, and after each live song, it fades to black before emerging with Springsteen’s voiceover musings that carry the audience to the next track. Did you imagine that audiences might feel the need to clap after each live performance?

When we were making the film, we thought about the idea that people might applaud at the end of the song, and we didn't want to lose ideas between the songs, so there's this moment to take it in. We created a space of black and fading up slowly to the next idea. So, we imagined that people might at times feel the need to clap.

It feels that at age 70, Bruce Springsteen is having this incredible burst of creativity; what is that like to be around when you're working next to him in this studio, what's the atmosphere like?

You know, working with Bruce, I've had the chance to look at archival footage of him in 1978, and then working with him right now, I recognise the same qualities. When Bruce arrives in the edit room to work on Western Stars, he arrives early, on time, focused. It's no different than any stage performance where he gives it the full commitment, and that’s an inspiring thing to work around. It's enjoyable, but you're there and it's serious. The atmosphere is a focused energy and one of great comfort and trust.

Springsteen’s opening monologue on Western Stars talks about feeling torn between what the individual, the self wants versus being part of a family, and giving yourself to a community; how did you feel about translating Bruce’s meditations as he calls them, into this film?

When I heard Bruce's original script for the voiceover and the ideas that he was throwing out to the audience to ponder and connect to, I realised that this was going to be a really big challenge to put visuals to these ideas. So, I listened closely to the words but also to the way he was saying those words, the musicality in the delivery; it felt very warm and personal. And it reminded me of my other work with him on Broadway, so I went to a place of just listening to these small spoken pieces and considering them as their own little movies that they would live in the space of the film, as these poems, tone poems to be honest, and each one, Bruce scored and gave me certain direction on what we should be looking at and thinking about.

Springsteen has called Western Stars a love letter to Patti Scialfa and of course they sing together in the film, so it would be great to know how involved she was in the overall process as well?

As a filmmaker, I knew that something really was special when I saw Patti step up to the mic and join in on songs with Bruce. Their eyes and what's conveyed was really demonstrating many of the ideas in the voiceover but also the beauty of their collaboration on stage and their life together; there's a certain magic there when Patti's next to Bruce, and on the songs Stones and Moonlight Motel especially, you hear the beauty of her voice, and I admire her so much as a musician and a friend but also what she brought to Western Stars the film is this wonderful arrangement of the vocals with the background singers and a texture and a quality to the narrative that just fit perfectly with what Bruce was thinking about and talking about in the voiceover.

By Natalie Jamieson



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