- 17 Oct 19
Long-time film collaborator Thom Zimny knows what makes The Boss tick
There was only one man Bruce Springsteen was going to work with when he decided to turn his Western Stars album into a movie, and that was longtime friend and collaborator Thom Zimny. In a revealing interview, he talks to Stuart Clark about bringing The Boss to the big screen, his Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash documentaries, and editing three seasons of The Wire.
Stuart Clark: It must have been amazing going through Bruce’s home videos.
Thom Zimny: I had this opportunity at one point to try and figure out a unique gift for him, and they were telling me they had a bunch of Super 8 movies. I transferred the material and came across the magical moment of him and Patti on their honeymoon. Home movies convey such a truth. They’re so raw in their lack of sophistication. A truth comes across in the imagery of the two of them at their honeymoon cabin.
Western Stars is, in many respects, a love letter to Patti.
He never said that to me directly while making the film but, yeah, I was picking up the cues! This was a close look at the beauty and intensity of that commitment to another person, and also seeking out a community to have a sense of place. There are a lot of layers to it.
The scene where Bruce kisses the top of Patti’s head brought a tear to my eye.
Whether it’s the E Street Band or something like Western Stars, you realise when you’re on stage filming that there’s a secret language amongst musicians. That secret language is very hard to capture on camera, but at times you get lucky like when Bruce signaled Patti to come over to the mic or just the brief eye contact between them during a chorus. It tells the viewer about the intensity they have both as musicians and husband and wife.
What was your guttural response to Western Stars: The Album when you first heard it?
Well, it was ten years ago when it was just demos. Already, though, I could tell it was very cinematic and the imagery of landscapes would appear to me. These songs are mini-movies to begin with.
Bruce’s songwriting has always been very cinematic, hasn’t it?
You can immediately see the characters Bruce is writing about in your mind’s eye. No detail is lost in the lyrics. He brings so many key elements together in the music that as a filmmaker you just want to honour their presence. You don’t want to interfere with the magic of what he created sonically. There’s nothing worse than loving a track, getting to see some visual representation of it and you don’t recognise it.
Is Bruce as obsessive about making movies as he is making music?
Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the archival footage of the E Street Band. He pays so much attention to all the details that are in the making of the music. That translates completely to the cutting room. The filmmaking process is very close to the focus and dedication he has in the studio. The studio gives him this opportunity to try things and the editing room is no different. It’s chasing a sound, it’s chasing an idea, it’s chasing a visual. It’s trying to bring it to the best place. His visual understanding and his references of both photography and cinema is extensive. It’s become a shorthand between us. Bruce will reference something, and straight away I’ll know whether it’s the stylistic approach of how they were shooting or if he’s talking about a lighting element.
The odd grey hair aside, has he changed since you first met him?
It’s been fascinating to watch Bruce the artist develop these things. A book, taking on the challenge of a play on Broadway, and now with Western Stars stepping up and co-directing. I see those three things as being part of the trilogy of him examining his relationships. To me as a filmmaker, it’s enormously inspiring to watch someone constantly want to grow and learn. It’s a great energy to be around. Both with Bruce and Jon Landau. No one’s sitting back and making another Born To Run.
From the Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band: Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 concert film to Western Stars, all of your collaborations with Bruce have had their own unique vibe.
The idea of not repeating ourselves is always a part of the initial discussion. With Western Stars we knew we wanted to step away from the language we created with Springsteen On Broadway, which was a traditional stage; Bruce in front of a mic and alone. This time we bring it to a barn with a thirty-piece orchestra. We’d already done the music videos for ‘Night Of The Jersey Devil’ and ‘Tuscon Train’ there, so when Bruce said, “We’re going back to the barn” I was delighted because I had other ideas in relation to how we could use the space. That’s when the movie came together. It was taken to another level when he started to write his voiceover.
I get the sense watching Western Stars that the explaining Bruce is doing is to himself as well as the audience.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I love hearing his voiceover in the movie because it’s a voice of honesty and reads as a person examining both his past and present day motivations. He’s still trying to work it all out.
So Bruce Springsteen remains a work in progress…
One hundred per cent!
Have you met anyone else with his work rate and obvious pride in what he does?
One of the most exciting things about making films with Bruce is his arrival first thing in the morning. We’ll say, “Meet at ten” and he’ll arrive at 8.30. The energy when he walks into that room is incredible. Bruce has a way of working so intensely that you forget about time. We’d get to six o’clock in the evening and go, “Have we had lunch?” He’s hands-down the most hard-working artist I’ve ever been around.
A couple of years ago you made the Elvis Presley: The Seeker film, and your Johnny Cash doc premiered at SXSW. Them all being American icons aside, are there any points of intersection between them and Bruce?
What I connect with all these guys is the lost father, and their commitment to their artistry. Johnny was doing concept albums. He was pushing the form as Bruce is now. They’re sort of cut from the same cloth. Just to let you know, we’re using ‘Further On Up The Road’ as the opening to the Johnny Cash movie. If you’re a fan I’d love to talk more about it sometime.
I am and we will! Aidan Gillen told me that The Wire was one of the best learning experiences he ever had. Was it as much of a masterclass for you?
Working with David Simon is an amazing experience that will never leave me. Every time I go into the cutting room there is some sort of reference that comes back to the lessons I learned from three seasons of The Wire. David Simon and Bruce Springsteen; I’m a lucky guy!
Western Stars screens for one night only in cinemas worldwide, including Ireland, on Monday October 28 with the soundtrack album out on Friday October 25. See the special 1,000th Issue of Hot Press for coverage of Bruce Springsteen at the Western Stars launch event in London, plus Steve Van Zandt on his E Street Band adventures with The Boss.