Director Thom Zimny is due for a big September: Come Sept. 22, he’ll find out whether he’s winning an Emmy Award for directing “Springsteen on Broadway” for Netflix. Ten days before that, he’ll be at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival to premiere a theatrical feature, “Western Stars,” which he co-directed with his muse and subject, Bruce Springsteen.
Even before these two high-profile, back-to-back projects, fans had come to think of Zimny as Springsteen’s 21st-century filmographer, in everything but official job title. His association with the Boss goes back to his being hired as an editor for 2001’s “Live in New York” — for which, incidentally, he won his first Emmy. He subsequently moved into the director’s chair for making-of documentaries about “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” as well as a succession of music videos.
But he resists being thought of as the Springsteen camp’s house director, if only because of how concerned he’d be about any kind of stylistic complacency setting in.
Springsteen’s 21st-century director in everything but official job title, helming making-ofs about old and new albums and doing music videos before making bigger and bolder leaps with “Broadway” and “Western Stars.”
“Although it’s a great honor to have the body of work, working with him, I never think about it like I’m his filmographer or this [next] job is there,” Zimny says. “Starting from ground zero is really important for me, because then you’re not riding on anything. And I’m picking up all that from Bruce, because he once said” ‘There is no “Born to Run 2.” He elaborates: “‘Born to Run’ was a layered album, and then he went to ‘Darkness’ and it was a stripped-down record where he went the other way. There are so many lessons I learn from watching him about dedication, focus and not repeating yourself.”
It might be easy to think of the upcoming “Western Stars,” which Warner Bros. will be putting into theaters post-Toronto, as a sort of loose sequel to “Springsteen on Broadway.” As with the adaptation of Springsteen’s run on the Great White Way,” “Stars” intersperses Bruce singing with Bruce talking, and takes place mostly in a single setting — with his 100-year-old barn taking the place of the Walter Kerr Theatre.
But Zimny says the similarities end there, maintaining there’s almost no stylistic similarity between his filmings of Springsteen’s one-man memoir of a show and the fully orchestrated companion piece for his latest album.
“I used the same cinematographer as ‘Springsteen on Broadway,’ ” he says, referring to DP Joe DeSalvo, “but we really went a different way with the language of it. It’s not a straight concert film; it has moments of him reflecting and talking about the new music” — without the small live audience that came for the intimate barn concert — “and we go in and out of those moments to a live performance of the new album. The beauty of filming a 30-piece orchestra perform this new music live meant there were a lot of new choices we could use in trying to capture it visually.”
With 30 orchestra members on stage (or amid the residual hay) for “Stars,” that’s already 29 more than appeared for the vast duration of “Broadway.” Staying true to the live Manhattan experience, the celebrated Netflix film put no other people other than Springsteen in the vicinity of a camera lens except his wife, Patti Scialfa — for the length of one duet of “Brilliant Disguise.” Even the sight of silhouettes of the audience members is put off till nearly the very end.
The self-imposed challenge: “How do you make this exciting for 2½ hours with just him in front of a wall and a microphone and a single guitar, without going to the language of things that we knew we didn’t want to do — which is cut to an audience member to milk a reaction? And it was a very deliberate conversation and decision early on to hold back on those details till the end. The cut actually opens up at the end and reveals the audience, but in the beginning, we really wanted to be like you turned on your TV set and you were there with him and he was beginning the story.”
It feels daring, to generally eliminate the audience as anything other than a presence felt in the surround speakers. But there was precedent. “I think of ‘The Last Waltz’ as being a great reference to the lack of audience shots. I think it keeps it very timeless as a film, as a piece, because you’re able to step into it as an audience member at any point. I can watch ‘The Last Waltz’ with the same loving detail of when I first saw it, because there’s not something that takes me out of seeing an audience member tied to a certain time with fashion or the look — or just really pushing the emotions.”
Very early on, Zimny suggested not having an audience present for the filming at all. That was short-lived; as Springsteen said, “Who’s gonna laugh at my jokes?” “There was a very limited conversation about how many people to have,” Zimny recalls, “and I think for one afternoon, it was, ‘Well, maybe we have nobody.’ But it didn’t go very far at the moment that humor was discussed, or performing off of an energy of an audience.”
The films he and Springsteen studied ahead of time ranged far and wide. “For ‘Springsteen on Broadway,’ I looked at everything (in the concert film realm) all over again,” Zimny says, “from the D.A. Pennebaker films through (Martin) Scorsese, of course — but also to dialogue scenes that meant a lot to me. A lot of the boarding and studying of how to present certain scenes or ideas or dialogue came not just from both concert films, but also traditional and classic Hollywood films.”
There was a spark of both in the bold choice for an opening shot, which has Zimny starting right in with a tight closeup of Springsteen’s face. “We didn’t want to do a preamble backstage or have him walking up the stairs,” the director says. Springsteen himself has talked about one spark for that choice being Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special, and how it begins with an already zoomed-in opening shot. “I had made a documentary on Elvis and Jon [Landau, Springsteen’s manager] was a producer,” says Zimny, referring to their 2016 HBO documentary “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” and we had many conversations about the power of that opening close-up.”
But Zimny says the choice was also influenced partly by narrative films that have gambled on a similar we-join-this-monologue-already-in-progress gambit, like “The Godfather.”
He says a lot of his work on the film is also rooted in what he learned in his career as an editor on projects like “The Wire.” Unlike those shows he edited, Springsteen is having a conversation with the audience, or himself, but it’s still a conversation.
Far from milking showy camera moves to make you forget you’re watching one guy for 2½ hours, Zimny’s approach was to not be afraid of a lot of fairly static close-ups early on to create a Springsteenian trance, then moving the camera around more once you’re too hypnotized to be consciously watching out for those moves.
“I had watched so many filmed live theater shows, and after five minutes in, you mentally know the map of the cameras — where they’re go-ing to be, what the shot sizes are. And I said to Bruce, ‘Imagine if we treated every song as its own little movie,’ and if we also worked on camera moves and boarded certain things, and based those on the dialogue and the narrative arc. It was filming a live concert, but I was really drawing upon a lot of the narrative cutting and narrative experience that I had had.”
Early on, there are few early indications of the dolly tracks that were installed and then quickly un-installed in the Walter Kerr for the filming. “Working with Jon Landau and the other producer, George Travis, it’s great because they give you the trust and the time to figure things out, and if that means removing 200 seats so you can put a crane across the theater that goes into Bruce’s stage area, they’ll make it happen. That is really one of the great blessings of that collaboration, that ideas are really explored, and you don’t end up with just the notion of ‘You can’t do that in a theater,’ or ‘It’s shot traditionally this way. Why aren’t we doing it that way?'”
Zimny didn’t storyboard all of “Springsteen on Broadway,” but he did with select songs. “If you look at ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ that’s one where I knew I didn’t want a single cut for those three verses. And when it comes to the line where Tom Joad speaks to his mom before he goes and says ‘You’ll see me in all the eyes of the people,’ I knew at that moment I had to be very close on Bruce delivering that — and I knew I had to earn that moment by slowly bringing camera in. You couldn’t just cut to that close-up. And that was something I boarded and thought a lot about, because I had been wanting to do something like that with his writing for a long time — which is really try to get in sync to the power and delivery of the line, so that the camera lands at the right emotional space at the right moment at the right line, and it’s not too early, not too late, and it’s just felt, and not really noticed.”
Zimny emphasizes that it was not filmed remotely like a traditional concert film, even when it comes down to personnel and live direction — or the lack of it. “There wasn’t a sort of situation where there’s a live edit going on and someone screaming directions. I didn’t cut it live. Everyone was shooting very much like their camera mattered at all times — the opposite of live concert shooting. I had a fantastic cinematographer in Joe DeSalvo, but every one of the nine camera operators was at a level of being a DP. The cameramen and camerawomen had all worked with me before, and sat with me and watched tests of it and discussed the content. Especially song to song, each one of them served different purposes to capture the drama and the narrative arc as well as the musical moments of Bruce. As a director, I was just really grateful how far everyone went with me and how in tune they got to the Bruce narratives. You know you’ve got a great crew when they’re in the audience filming and they’ve got tears in their eyes because they’re emotionally moved.”
With “Broadway,” Zimny was charged with capturing a live experience that tens of thousands had already seen. With “Western Stars,” it’s presenting an experience that only dozens got to see. “I knew that they weren’t going to tour with this, so it’s just great that a film has captured this music live,” he says.
Zimny didn’t have any hesitation about sharing directing credit with Springsteen on the new film. “The credit of co-directing with me reflects that on this particular film journey, Bruce was with me even more than other film experiences. From day one, I was looking at him as a co-director and really listening, and we were both collaborating in that zone — without any discussion that this would be the case. It just evolved organically, and for me, it’s been just a fabulous experience because we’ve taken the last 20 years of things that we’ve made together and learned from to try new things. I’m very inspired by the relationship of working with Jon and Bruce for these films. Each one feels different and is a challenge.”