If anyone knows Bruce Springsteen, it’s filmmaker Thom Zimny. The two have been collaborating for 20 years, from video shorts to retrospective documentaries like “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” before moving his cameras into a New York theater for “Springsteen on Broadway.” Their latest collaboration is “Letter to You” (now streaming on Apple TV Plus), an intimate step inside Springsteen’s Jersey recording studio as he recorded his album of the same name. Zimny was there to capture the magic as the E Street Band recorded an album mostly live in the studio for the first time since 1984.
The director spoke with Variety about their collaboration, filming “Letter to You” and working with the Boss, remotely, during the lockdown.
Your relationship with Bruce dates back 20 years. How has that relationship evolved given you’ve been working on all these projects with him, most recently “Springsteen on Broadway,” “Western Stars” and now “Letter to You”?
This film was special because I was responding to my filmmaking journey with the process of seeing them in the studio. Some of the earlier films like “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” dealt with his artistic struggles and I saw footage of him trying to work things out with the band. Filming the band now, I’d see the details hadn’t changed – they had the same shorthand and gestures.
The three most recent projects back to back are using a voice that stemmed from the book. Bruce’s narration in all three films for me, as a filmmaker, and a fan, calls back to that original voice that I heard in the book, then on Broadway. We expanded it to the idea of (the film version of) “Western Stars,” where he’s writing from this point of view, where he’s able to expand on the songs, expand on the narrative of the songs, but also have something rare — which is to produce the music in the studio, and then give himself this moment to think about: What does it all mean?
With “Letter to You,” I had that challenge of presenting two different languages in one film, which is the language of vérité documentary with the band in the studio and all that is unfolding, and then to tackle possibly the hardest thing one could imagine, which is, what (other) visuals do you put to Bruce Springsteen’s words?
I have this trust with him that I’m able to feel like he’s giving me the two essential things as a filmmaker that I need, which are time and trust.
You put a great deal of this together during the lockdown. If you didn’t have that shorthand with Bruce, would this have been harder to put together?
With this, I drew upon all the various projects we’ve worked on, and also a sense of the E Street history. I was able to look at this contemporary footage differently and see within the small moments. I could see the bond between Jon Landau and Bruce, and that was powerful.
Some moments stood out such as the band members overlapping and it became chaos. Bruce jumped in and said, “Follow me.” That was a great moment to pick out in the dailies and we didn’t have the traditional setting of a cutting room.
I did this at the start of shutting down. My communication with him was through FaceTime. He’d send me text messages with voiceover in the middle of the night, and we started communicating. So many of the themes of the songs started to land during that time — the idea of loss, death and aging. It was all unfolding while making the film. It was a surreal experience of communicating with him.
When we made “Western Stars,” we stood side by side, and for this, we weren’t in the room together, but there was this whole other thing going on that was emotional and powerful. We both bonded and worked through this chapter with this movie.
The opening starts with a voiceover and he says, “I am in the middle of a 45-year conversation with these men and women I’m surrounded by…” How did you land on opening the doc with that moment?
The first time I got a voiceover from Bruce was this opening paragraph where he was talking about having this conversation with fans. The very first recording was him doing a count that said, “1-2-3-4,” and then he read the voiceover. That is how he begins every show, and we begin the movie. It was the first moment of an editorial decision, which was taking that voiceover, and putting that count in. But then we let it breathe.
I wanted the film to start its conversation with you, the viewer, which is Bruce talking about his conversation for the past 45 years with fans. The film is unfolding, almost as if it were a POV shot of him handwriting a letter to the viewer. But it had to start with the power of rock ‘n’ roll, and the first thing I saw when I saw Bruce live was him walking up to the mic and doing a count-off. I wanted Bruce’s voice to launch us into this dream world.
This is the first time the band was tracking together live since 1984. What was it like to be in the room where it happens and see that all coming together as a lifelong fan and filmmaker?
There is an energy in the room. The surreal part is that Bruce walks in, opens up a notebook. No one knows the song; they scribble some abstract things on a piece of paper; they don’t say very much and they play it roughly once. By the second take, you’re singing along in your head. A minute ago, this song didn’t exist, and the next thing, you’re singing along to an E Street song.
With further examination of the dailies of the documentary, I could see how this beauty unfolds. You have the power of Max Weinberg, this machine playing drums in the room, filling your heart. You’ve got Bruce looking at the players engaging in this language and his performance getting more intense per take. You’ve got Roy arranging in the moment, sonically, what I would call the signature of E Street; the piano comes in and out and is the DNA of that music. There’s Gary and Charlie and all these elements are spinning around the room.
The album unfolded in five days and there’s a scene where everyone is listening to the playback, and you can see the body language between Bruce and Steven (Van Zandt). In that moment, they do handclaps and harmonies. I showed that to Bruce and said, “That’s the whole history of the British invasion in that one moment. That’s the two of you doing the Beatles and the Byrds,” and he laughed.
As a filmmaker, I saw that studio as a character. It was a place where the light I wanted to use light was as a healing force, which is why the studio is bathed in the early morning light a lot.
There’s a beauty and sereneness to black and white, especially for this given the themes of aging, loss and death. Where did the idea to shoot the doc in black and white come from?
It came from me sitting with Bruce. We sat down for dinner and he lit a fire on this cold New Jersey day where there was no light and no sun. He mentions “Last Man Standing” and he said he was going to get the guys, and I looked over at him and I just saw it all in black and white, and I chased that small moment. The first day we started filming he said, “Look, it’s snowing out,” and snow became the motif for the documentary. It works so beautifully with the passing of time and aging.