In 2019, Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen co-directed Western Stars, a meditation of sorts based on Springsteen’s album of the same name. Springsteen’s thinking was he didn’t want to embark on a tour promoting that solo album, especially with plans for a new, full E Street Band album on the horizon the next year, with a whole huge tour attached. So, instead, the film would serve as the tour.
Well, hey, welcome to 2020. And guess what? That Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band world tour to promote the new album, Letter To You, didn’t really pan out, as how most things really didn’t pan out this year. Luckily, Zimny has a new film that documents Springsteen and the band recording the new album at Springsteen’s home recording studio in New Jersey. It’s a look inside how this band, which in this incarnation has been together (with a couple of exceptions) for over 40 years, gets together and creates something pretty special. And the thing is, now, this documentary (which will premiere on Apple TV) is pretty much the only “live” performance we’re going to get anytime soon.
Ahead of the film’s release, we spoke to Zimny, who didn’t know it when he made Letter To You, but now, his film will once again have to do double duty.
Letter To You almost feels like a direct sequel to Western Stars, stylistically.
I think the style of filmmaking on Letter to You is drawing on just the challenges that I’ve watched Bruce do over the years. Which is, I didn’t want to repeat myself…
And I don’t think it does because it’s about the process, but it still has Bruce’s voiceovers, which is almost poetry, like the last film.
Sure. I think what I try to do with these films is, there are certain things of Bruce’s narration and score that really give you an opportunity to expand on what the songs are. So, it kind of gives me this opportunity to step away from it being just a studio film, or behind the scenes kind of thing, or a concert film with Western Stars. What I’m doing is straddling many different genres. I’m not quite sure what it falls under. It’s not typical documentary; it’s not narrative film. It’s a thing that is a combination of many filmmaking genres that I like to play. And at the same time, tying Western Stars to this film does make sense, but I also tie it back to Bruce from the Broadway show and the book.
Oh, for sure…
Reflective pieces and narration. So, I get it. There’s a tone in there that he’s been using since Broadway, of reflecting on his life and music and certain themes. And that is reminiscent in some of the voiceover of Letter To You.
He’s also said this is a continuing conversation with his fans, which I always kind of interpret as starting with the book, then the Broadway show. And then into Western Stars and then to this. It’s almost like the only person that’s going to deconstruct Bruce Springsteen is Bruce Springsteen.
One hundred percent. I think it’s a great point. And I think I live with that understanding. And that’s the kind of place where the art conversation happens in the filmmaking process. where I’m really taking cues from lyric writing, or taking cues to a score. And letting myself feel for this music, and trying to convey visually, a narrative that is aligned and in sync with the emotions of making of this record. And the space itself, the studio was an amazing space to film in.
Oh yeah, I’ve been in that studio. It’s incredible.
It’s an amazing space. And something was happening there that I’ve been wanting to get an understanding of: what happens in the studio? And what is this thing, exactly, when a band like E Street and Bruce come together in a room. And can the cameras capture that lightning in a bottle?
The first film you did with Bruce was the Born to Run documentary, right?
The very first one was Live in New York, but the very first film was the first documentary I made, Wings for Wheels. Making the Born to Run record. In that, I saw the struggles of the studio.
In Wings for Wheels, Bruce is so meticulous you almost get the impression that version of the E Street Band was just like, “Who does this guy think he is?” How is Bruce different today watching him put together an E Street recording, versus the archive footage you have gone through?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think as a filmmaker that I could look at the archive footage and see similarities of some of the moments of Bruce standing behind the board. And there are certain gestures that are just the same. But the difference in this current situation of recording Letter To You is that you see, after working on films where the studio session was, at times, really intense — like the making of Born to Run, or The River, or Darkness — you see the opposite with this. And this film is, it’s a master class of sorts because they walk in and there’s not a sound that they’re chasing. They’re really out of place, that the studio is in control.
It did feel like in the past Bruce was chasing a sound and, here, they’d finish a song and Bruce would kind of just say, “good enough.”
I don’t want to speak for Bruce, but I think what the film reflects is that there’s an acknowledgement of a E Street sound. And in Letter To You, I did see a band come in at the height of their powers where Max Weinberg’s playing is just unbelievable on this record. There was a mission. And I just feel like that’s the beauty, which is an awareness of who you are and what you do. And some of the voiceover, Bruce, I think says it best of the power of E Street, but also the power of that awareness at this chapter.
Does he seem more open today than when you first started working with him?
Well, I think when I look back at the 20 years of working with Bruce, there’s always been a path on pushing the films forward. There’s never the feeling of relying on any sort of formulaic approach to telling any stories, whether it’s music or film. So, in a way, the basis of this collaboration, I see it as time and trust, and he’s giving me those two gifts. And the trust is to explore. How are we going to tell the story of the band playing in a barn? Is it a concert film? Well, maybe it’s not, that’s not enough.
With Western Stars, Bruce didn’t want to tour for that album and that film was what he did instead. With Letter To You the plan was a big tour, that obviously isn’t happening now. So have you thought about how this film really has to do some heavy lifting for this record? And did that change how you presented it?
Oh, as a filmmaker, I’m really aware, with the band not going out, it has a place to live alongside the album and also the history of E Street. But also more importantly, the energy of this band recording in the studio, though it’s not a live event, it has an energy that I think, as we all hunger for the next E Street tour to arrive, this is a satisfying moment to witness. And it’s just a great companion. I hope it’s a great companion to be with the record and the listening experience of the record, because you see the band play this music in such an energetic way and full of life. And those are the elements that I see as a filmmaker, but also as a fan, when I go see Bruce and the band live. So I’m grateful that this thing was made on many levels, but one of the key things is that, in this current time with people not being able to tour, I love the idea that this film can live in that space. And fans can connect with this new music this way, which is as close as we can get to a live event until things change.
So, did that change how you edited it?
No. I don’t think the current situation influenced the way the film was edited, but I do think that there’s a bittersweet sadness when they toast to the road. And they’re so excited about this new music. And they’re at a place of talking about going on the road. And we’ve come to realize that’s not a reality. So I think it would be wrong to not say that the outside world doesn’t influence the work. But in that way of, I made this in an apartment during pandemic, so the outside forces are there. But there wasn’t a moment of, now let’s make this the tour, psychologically. I just wanted to make the best film possible. And tell a story that engages the fans in a way that felt new, and also represent the power and the beauty of this new record.
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