If you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, I strongly recommend checking out Western Stars in a movie theater this weekend. If you aren’t familiar with the film, which is now playing, it’s unlike any concert film I’ve ever seen because it mixes Springsteen performing all the songs on his latest album of the same name with narration about family and loneliness as the camera gently ventures through the American West in between songs. You can get a taste of it in the trailer below:
As you saw, Springsteen is backed up by a band and a full orchestra in his nearly 100-year-old barn and in between songs he talks to the audience about his inspiration for the music. In addition, he weaves in old home movies along with recent footage. It’s a great mixture and it works perfectly with the music.
Shortly before the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I got to see the film and then sit in on an intimate conversation between a moderator and directors Bruce Springsteen and Thom Zimny. They talked about what they were trying to do with the film, how it came together, what it was like for Springsteen to work with a number of new musicians, how they filmed the live performance, how they filmed the bits between the songs, what California and the Western expanse means to Springsteen, how Rhinestone Cowboy ended up in the film, and a lot more.
Check out what they had to say below. Western Stars is now playing in theaters.
QUESTION: So, gentlemen, you’ve been working on this all summer. You just finished it weeks or days ago. How’s it feel when you watch it now?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: It’s only the second time I saw it on the big screen. So, it’s fun, but we’re still getting used to being finished.
Bruce, you have written your memoir, you did your Broadway show. It felt like in those works you were pouring out everything in the pitcher you had. And I want to know when you approached this new album, “Western Stars,” what were you looking for? What were you trying to do with it?
SPRINGSTEEN: Really it was just a collection of new songs that I had that pieced together in a certain way and had a certain ambiance to them that invoked the Western part of the country. So that was a certain style of songwriting that was probably sort of Southern California in the late ’70s, so I was interested in writing in that vein. And then there’s an emotional arc that you’re trying to communicate and that’s what the picture really brings out much more than the record even did. So, thanks to Thom and his crew, I was really able to — when we added the spoken pieces in between the music, that really traced the emotional arc of the album and brought the album and what it was about much more to the fore. It really is a centering device. Also because I knew it was all new music and I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the record at all, but those pieces were meant to lead you into what the songs were sort of containing and the emotional arc that I wanted the album and the film to have.
Thom, for context, you’ve been collaborating with Bruce for many years on different films. You both were here in 2010 for the film, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town at the Toronto Film Festival. You worked on the Springsteen on Broadway production that came out last year. Can you talk about when Bruce approached you about this film, what was that conversation and how did you conceptualize what it became?
THOM ZIMNY: I think with this film it was very different right from the very beginning because we got into a dialogue that was just different than the other films. We went to the space that we were thinking about filming, which was a stage environment, and then we ended up in the barn. And this was very unique for me as a filmmaker because I actually ended up going to the house where Bruce’s studio is in, and cutting it together with Bruce. So, that journey was a very different process for me, and it was really exciting because we were responding to the material together in the moment. So, that was a very different filmmaking experience than in the past 19 years.
SPRINGSTEEN: That’s actually the upstairs in my barn, dressed up quite a bit. But I think ending up in the barn had a lot to do with the way the thing felt, and it was just kind of gritty and intimate. It was very intimate, which is a lot of the songs are. The songs are very intimate, and I think when we initially … Discussing the shooting, we were just going to shoot — I wasn’t going to go on tour. So, I said, “Well, how am I going to communicate and deepen the record a little bit?” I said, “Well, we’ll just shoot this stuff live from start to finish,” which we did. And then we figured well, we’ll do some interviews and do what you would normally do on a music pic. People talk about how great I am to work with and what a pleasure and honor it was and the usual shit. And so, we started to do some of that, and it didn’t quite feel right. So, one night in front of the TV, I wrote that whole script in about a couple of hours. Just sort of sitting there thinking, “Well, maybe these songs because they’re new need individual introductions.” And then with Thom, we put together the images and shot the footage that we did and suddenly we had this whole other sort of film that excited the two of us and we hope communicates well to the audience for our music. And so, I kind of had the book, and then I had the play, and this film is sort of the completion of that little trilogy of work. So, we’re excited about it.
I think watching the film, for me, it teaches me how to listen to this album and it’s so wonderful to see all the musicians at work. And it made me wonder watching it today how you worked with these musicians because they’re new musicians. It’s not your regular E Street Band and also, it’s a different configuration of musicians. I was watching that string instrument this morning and thinking these are musicians who maybe are often used to following a conductor and you have to be the conductor. Can you talk about that?
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, there was a conductor there. He sneaks in every once in a while, and you can see him. But the main thing is that was all put together in about four days. And basically, there was a music director which I’ve never used and he put together the entire band and rehearsed the entire album. So, the first time that I walked into the studio with them just to rehearse, they knew everything better than I did. And so, we spent a night rehearsing. We rehearsed a day in the barn, and my recollection was we started shooting the next day-
SPRINGSTEEN: And we shot for a couple of days and that’s what you see on screen. So, it was a very different type of experience for me in that someone put together the entire orchestra and I could just come in and had all my arrangements and they had everything down to the T that we had and put on the record. And then we expanded on that a little bit, but for the most part the whole thing was put together, recorded and filmed, in four days with the exception of the pieces in between the music.
Thom, can you talk about filming the live band because the cameras seem to be everywhere from the closeups on the accordion player to the violinist, et cetera?
ZIMNY: But the one thing I noticed right away was that Bruce was still leading the band and it was a different feeling than the E Street Band and I tried to capture that energy in the space. And we talked a lot about cameras and also the beauty of that wide, walking into that bar and just imagining a 30-piece orchestra there. We wanted to make sure that we captured that space. But I also think there was a lot of dialogue about how the strings would be represented at different times. And I really spent a lot of time listening to different pieces of the music and there was just, there was in the moment, I remember very clearly watching Bruce connect with the players that way and wanting to make sure that at every angle I could get a moment of that and capture it.
SPRINGSTEEN: The thing about the filming was the filming really deepened the emotional content of the record. If you listen to the record, it’s its own experience. But making the film, it allowed me to tell a story that I hadn’t directly told before. It’s hinted at and all over the years and in a lot of my work and if you read the book I wrote or saw some of the play or … But it’s a story I haven’t exactly told before, in a way that I’ve never told. So that is the excitement of the film for us. But Thom allowed me to by just … We just took it day to day, and it developed on its own. It was, like I said, there was some accidents, but it’s the filming — just deepens the emotional content of that music in a way that I hope will provide some entertainment and inspiration and insight to my fans.
ZIMNY: There’s a big part of this that you plan, but I think you have to be spontaneous. And the idea that Patti was on some of the songs wasn’t really discussed before and I think that brought a whole other element to the performances too.
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah. Patti, when she comes in, I wished I had her in more. When she comes in, she’s incredible.
So, there’s the music of the songs. There’s also a lot of music in between the songs that you wrote for this.
But listening to it this morning, I realized how seamlessly that music would move into a song and sound like…
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah. Yeah.
So, can you talk about writing the other music for the–
SPRINGSTEEN: Orchestrating the visual pieces in between songs, it was just scoring, and that was particularly a lot of fun. You’ll always have pieces of melodies and different things that you don’t know exactly what to do with and songs always hint to a certain ambiance in a certain sort of — you can pull a melody out of a particular piece that you’re working on. The scoring was particularly enjoyable. It was a lot of fun to do and it really added to … It’s like a tone poem, the film really is. It starts and there’s a smattering of applause but not much and it really plays as a tone poem in those written pieces, a musical, and the dialogue really just sort of hopefully creates a poetic feeling that runs throughout the arc of the film. That was the intent anyway.
Thom, can you talk about filming the bits that happened between the songs? Where did that take place? How did you do that?
ZIMNY: The sections between the songs were out in the Joshua Tree desert area, not in Joshua Tree, but in that area. And there was a period where we were sketching just with voiceover and I was around a lot of those instrumental pieces that Bruce was building, and I could hear it in the other room. And there would be these moments where I would just hear something going on and he would be working and then we’d come in and discuss some of the visuals that we could go out and get, or some of the imagery that was coming to mind with some of the sounds from the score. So, it was this very unique opportunity because I was responding in the editing room and I was responding to the idea of visuals based on this score that was literally happening next door to me. And that’s an experience I’ll never forget. So, we had gathered up a lot of ideas and stumbled into the desert.
SPRINGSTEEN: And then the story arc in a way, the first thing that I say at the top of the film is that there’s two sides to the American character. There’s this isolated side and then there’s this part that aspires to community. Most of us have a hard time putting those two things together in our own lives and so you get to the end of the film — and those are my honeymoon tapes. We hadn’t even moved in Yosemite into that little log cabin, Patti and I. And she was a couple of months pregnant with our second child and we just drove up there and the only thing she said was, “I’m pregnant. Don’t take me anywhere where it’s hot.” So, Yosemite was 70 but getting there across the California desert, it was 100 degrees. So, I didn’t earn many points. But it’s footage from our honeymoon, which we just happened to find — Thom had found– and it kind of completes that story from… I started way, way long ways from there. And so, the film is about making that journey to making your peace with having a life, actually allowing yourself to have a life. Having a life, being able to enjoy that life, along with all of the pain and the happiness that it brings and a lot of the pain that it takes to get there. But those are the deep satisfactions.
And hopefully watching the film sort of gets you in touch with that, that you had to make, because we all have to make that, and we all have to make that trip in some way. So, hopefully the film is universal in that way and adds a little insight into the price and what that takes to get there.
In your work New Jersey obviously looms large as the central location, but the second location would be the West and at that open road in California. And I wonder if you can reflect on what California and the Western expanse means to you?
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, I think I grew up in the ’50s, so we all grew up on westerns, so that has a lot to do with it. And then the Southwest was always just interesting to me just because of its size and the way it played on my own psychology. And then I lived in California for almost 10 years and I enjoyed it very much and I just wanted to include it in my work. I always figured I was out of New Jersey, but I wanted my work to include and encompass the entire country and all of its settings. And so, I, very early on, on Darkness, there’s songs set in Utah and different places and that was always a big part of America for me. So, it was nice getting able to do this and to get out there and actually film out in that part of the country. And Thom did such a great job and Joe, our cinematographer.
ZIMNY: And I blamed Jon Landau for 19 years giving me a lot of John Ford and other great westerns. This was a great, great moment to play out a lot of those visuals.
SPINGSTEEN: So, we had fun playing with the Western landscape there.
Well, as follow up to that, were there specific films that you were looking at or thinking about while you were making this, either concert films or Western films?
SPRINGSTEEN: I mean…
ZIMNY: Not for me. There’s not one single reference, but I would get a text from Bruce where it was a sketch of something, and it was a shot idea. And I think I was listening to… I had two scripts. I had a script from the song lyrics and then I had this amazing voiceover and I also had the presence of Bruce being in the room with me and that trust. So, I was working off of that energy. There’s not one individual film and I try not to be too conscious about some of the classic Hollywood references that I love. So, I’m stumbling around and sketching and sometimes it’ll be a sound, a sonic thing, that reminds me of a feeling and then I chase it.
SPRINGSTEEN: Or mentally, you’re thinking of Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper or there’s a certain sort of physical presence that they had. And then we had the fun of making these little movies in between each song, which was just a tremendous amount of fun to play with.
Bruce, you and Thom have collaborated on films before. This is the first full length one where you’ve taken a co-director credit and I see that your collaboration’s deeper on this film. Can you talk about that and your interest to be a co-author of this work?
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, Thom did all the work behind the camera and conceived it with me. I think that my direction was just to the general direction that the film was going to go. And then the pieces that are in between the songs and us getting that going and — it was just a real collaboration between the two of us. So, it was just fun. It was a lot of fun to do. It was a one off, but it was really joyful.
ZIMNY: It’s something we never talked about and it was in the process of… It just felt that way from day one. And for me, I felt like I was learning so much in this different collaboration. Especially with the individual films between the songs. Yeah.
SPRINGSTEEN: I’m a nice guy to work with.
ZIMNY: That’s right. That’s correct. You’re very nice.
Rhinestone Cowboy feels like such a perfect way to end this film. Can you talk about how you arrived at putting that song in, since it’s not on the album for anyone doesn’t know?
SPRINGSTEEN: Otherwise the record ends on this very contemplative piece and so I said, “Well, for the picture it might be fun to have something that sort of, so much of the music sort of was drawn from that genre.” And Glen Campbell was actually a huge influence, and Jimmy Webb, and that type of Southern California pop. I said, “That would just be a fun song to throw in there at the end,” and it just ends it in a nice way. That’s all. There wasn’t a whole lot to it.
ZIMNY: And again, this is the spirit that I’ve been enjoying for the last 19 years, which is you prepare for a certain place and then this new song is thrown into the setlist last minute. And I’m so grateful I had a cameraman who just was nearby when Bruce turns and looks at the camera. To me, it was like one of those magical things that I had no control of, but we got and it seemed like a perfect way to end it.
For my last question, I want to ask about some of the archive that you pulled out in this film. And over the years you’ve surprised fans with some of these gems going back to The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story and the video footage you had in the studio there. Thom this past spring I invited you to the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival and you curated some treats from the Springsteen archives. And I know you’ve spent a lot of time in those archives. Anything that we can expect for the future? Any ideas about something to look forward to?
SPRINGSTEEN: I got a lot more home movies if you’d like to see them. They’re all kind of boring. They’re me taking pictures of the kids, but Thom probably knows if we have more musical stuff in the archives.
ZIMNY: We have some gems we’re working on. What I love about this film is that you have all these cameras and you have all these plans, and Bruce puts a camera in a park on the hood of a car, and it’s my favorite shot. So, the home movies have a real beauty to them, and this film especially. I’m so happy with the things we discovered together.
SPRINGSTEEN: No, thanks for coming everybody. I appreciate it.