Bruce Springsteen: how I made Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen
(Image credit: Bruce Springsteen)

"Hello early morning film watchers," says Bruce Springsteen. "I hope you like my film."

Springsteen is onstage at a cinema buried beneath a hotel in London's infamous Soho district, introducing his latest project. Having triumphed with Springsteen on Broadway and written one of rock's more honest autobiographies in Born To Run, The Boss has made a film.  

It's a brief intro, but the movie does most of Springsteen's talking. Western Stars is beautiful film, shot live in a 100-year-old barn on Springsteen's New Jersey property and intercut with footage of The Boss out west, near Joshua Tree, driving dusty roads and philosophising.  

Made with longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, who directed the Emmy Award-winning Springsteen on Broadway and has been been working with Springsteen for two decades, Western Stars finds the singer performing tracks from his Western Stars album accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra and a group of musicians including wife Patti Scialfa. 

It's a surprisingly intimate film considering the large number of players, and the barn itself is one of the stars of the show, swaddling players and punters alike in a hazy, whiskey-toned warmth. 

It's a moving, tender film. It's a film that's as much about growing old as it is about the power of performance. The shots of Springsteen and Scialfa sharing a mic, taking turns to sing lines from Stones, are poignant and lovely. And it's a film that cements Springsteen's growing reputation as one of rock's true elder statesmen, delivering wisdom with road-worn gravitas and no small amount of honesty.

"I've spent 35 years learning to let go of the destructive parts of my character," says Springsteen, in one of the pieces that link the songs together. "And I still have days when I struggle with it."

After the screening, Springsteen and director Zimny took part in a Q&A with broadcaster Edith Bowman. An edited transcript is produced below. Western Stars opens in UK cinemas on October 28.   

What was the reason that you wanted to make this film?

Thom Zimny: I think the first thing was that I got a call from Jon Landau saying that Bruce was going to check in. There was some new music that we wanted to just capture, and then I think after shooting it at the barn it evolved to doing some interviews and from there we started to look at the interviews and think about approaching it differently in the cutting room. We kind of found what we ended up with. 

Bruce Springsteen: It was really just pragmatic because I made this record, and that took me a long time to make. I started it in 2012. You know, I'd put it away for a couple of years and go back to it. And then I had like 40 songs and I edited them all down and I had to find a record that I'd been making. 

But it was an unusual piece of music so I knew I wasn't going to tour on it and bring an orchestra. So I said, ‘well if I'm not going to perform it, maybe we could perform it once and film it that way people get a chance to see what it's like to play it.’ And so it just started with that. And initially it just started out as a performance film. I was gonna just shoot the record from start to finish. 

The whole performance was shot and we rehearsed once in New York, once in the barn, and then shot it for two days, and that's when it was done and the band were completely ready when I walked in. I had never seen them before, and I haven't seen them since. 

They're like ghosts of your imagination. 

Bruce Springsteen: So it just started out as a performance film, and what's the next thing you do in a performance? Well, you interview the people who have performed and they say what a great guy I am and what an honour it is to work with me. So that's just what comes next, you know, so we did that. 

But at some point I said, ‘well gee, this is all new music, how am I going to get people into the inner life of these songs that they've never really heard before’, and I start with what I need to introduce them. And one night in front of the television I was sitting there and I just kind of started to scribble my thoughts down for each song. And it was all right there. So I ended up with the script that that is the voiceover. And then once we sort of had the voiceover, we needed something for it to voiceover. 

So Thom had some images and we shot a little film during the photo session for the record and we just started to play with that and it started to feel good over the voiceover and then I started to score the voiceover and that got us into this whole other section of the film. Which is really what turned it into a movie you know rather than just a concert film. You know, so it really kind of happened very organically and just bit by bit. 

These little films, they're so beautiful, like mantras.

Bruce Springsteen: It was very enjoyable because I got to go inside the songs again. And try to have a deeper understanding of what they were actually about. What was I actually trying to write about? While I was working on a meditation about men and women and love and the difficulty of love and how do you move from being an individual actor into a life that's filled with people and family and friends and some communal experience. 

Everybody has to walk that journey. And so the film was a study about what that trip is like, and the spoken pieces end up being just these meditations, you know these little tone poems that lead people into a deeper understanding of the music. 

Was it was obvious to you, Thom, in terms of when you were thinking about how you were going to shoot it and what it would look like visually, that it had this kind of real sort of filmic quality to it already? 

Thom Zimny: Well I think I immediately responded to the sonic landscape and as a filmmaker I could just feel listening to this album for the first time, the colour palette and just it evoked all kinds of references to cinema and just widescreen and when we shot the concert we had no idea it would end up being a movie at all.

But we did shoot it in a way that gave those sweeping barn shots and I was really responding to the sonic qualities and listening to those arrangements with the strings, because for me it evokes all kinds of feelings of visuals and a landscape even before we start. 

Bruce Springsteen: When I write in character, in other words, I'm writing these narrative short stories about, you know, it's a way of exposing your own inner life and struggles but you're writing all the details of someone else's life, you know.

I tend to write real cinematically when I do that whether it's Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad or Devils & Dust. Those are all my short story records and really, they're my little movies that that I script out before. And so, those songs are always suggestive of a visual landscape. 

You look great driving a car as well. Oh man.

Bruce Springsteen: When in doubt I just get in and drive the car. What are we going to do with this song? Ahh, drive the car [laughs]. 

There's some beautiful old footage as well. And I wanted to touch on that footage and where it came from and making the decisions about what you would use for that. 

Thom Zimny: For me this is a space where I'm just really grateful to have this collaboration with Bruce because if you can imagine I have his voiceover that is really powerful and you have nothing there. And I am so happy to have that space of trust that I can throw up some old Super 8 and we can both sit in the room and wait until that thing happens that I can't put into words, which is it.

It feels right. It's magical. A home movie from the 50s or we explored things on a rainy Saturday afternoon with home movies that as a filmmaker I had nine cameras and Bruce discovered a clip that you shot your honeymoon. 

Bruce Springsteen: Yeah but if you look at the films that Thom chose it's all ritual, ritual, ritual, ritual. The things that connect us: weddings, parties, family, dancing, the things that keep our heads above water, and so Thom dug out all that beautiful archival footage that really suggest all those things you know, and then he also found the home footage of my honeymoon.

That's my honeymoon. A log cabin we decided it was a good idea and it was 1988 and he hadn't seen it before, so he had archived some of my home movies and pulled that stuff out. It was fun to get in the film. 

That's an amazing trust to have with each other.

Bruce Springsteen: Well we've been together a long time. Right from the beginning Thom's trustworthiness was always without question and he's just somebody I feel like I could do anything with cinematically I can say, ‘gee this is great or man I'm not looking so good in that shot’. I can kind of say or do anything with Thom and Thom always responds and he's a beautiful collaborator so I'm very lucky. 

There are pieces where it might go to black for a second or two after a performance before it goes on to the next thing and it almost feels like you're giving us a chance to either exhale or just take a moment. Was that deliberate?

Thom Zimny: I think this is reflective of a lot of the records that I listened to - actually what I'm thinking about is just like Born To Run in the seconds between those songs, the importance of those moments and I remember sitting in the kitchen editing room next to the studio and we would watch it in real time and then just wait for that natural gut moment. OK. Let's carry the story on those details matter. 

Bruce Springsteen: It's like sequencing a record, all good records and all good cinema has rhythm. And you know you're trying to gently lead your audience on this journey, and so you're timing their breaths you know and good timing is essential in the filmmaking just as it is in music. So those, just those brief moments allow you to sort of collect your thoughts about what you just saw and just long enough to prepare for that next thought. 

Stones for me is just extraordinary and it's a different performance on the film than it is on the record. You have Patti singing with you, when you're singing together on the mic. Extraordinary.

Bruce Springsteen: I should have had Patti on the record, you know, that was a big mistake because it's all about men and women and Patti brings so much and we've been together for such a long time, for 30 years, and so that's a lot of experience around that one little microphone.

So we bring all of that the minute we lean in. Oh my Lord, there's this whole 30 years of emotional life together between us. She's wonderful and even when she's not singing with me, if you dig deep down into the centre of the film, she's there. 

We feel like you're really letting us in on such an intimate moment really.

Bruce Springsteen: Thom edited it all of that and caught all that himself. You know so that, he found all those moments. 

Well you only shot it in May, is that right? That's an amazing kind of turnaround for something so cinematic and beautiful. 

Thom Zimny: These experiences get a little bit blurry in the sense that you just dive into this deep dream and then all of a sudden we were cutting and Bruce said ‘let's go to the desert’ and then we're in the middle of the desert and we're shooting and then before you know it I'm back in the cutting room and there's new score coming in and in a strange way we just keep very concentrated energy at it at all times. And it's a little fuzzy afterwards. 

What is your drive, and where does that drive come from?

Bruce Springsteen: I'm a man of many talents. You know I write books and Broadway plays and now l'm making movies. I'm going to try being an astronaut next, I’ll let you know how that goes. I've been lucky I think some of it might have to do with you know you're turning that, you know, you're getting to that age where you sort of, you’re summing up a lot of what you've learned and what your life has been and so the writing a book really was the first chapter and me doing that I suppose and then the play came out of the book and in a funny way you know this sort of came out of the play.

You know there's some relation to that so I've had a really, really good run over the past five years as far as feeling really inspired and being really creative. I've done things I've never done before. It's been, I feel very lucky for that because you never know. 

I did hear you say on telly last night that you are going to tour though, you’re going back out on the road?

Bruce Springsteen: Yeah yeah I got to go back to the day job, you know, got to pay the bills, got to pay the bills. 

What's the catalyst for you to start a record?

Bruce Springsteen: I just hope I can write something because you always think you're never gonna write again because you can't explain writing. Writing is a mystery. Anything creative remains a mystery. Am I gonna ever write another song? Because you often think I have no ideas.

I'm simply wandering around for a year without any ideas or any inspiration and so suddenly something comes along and you find another vein in your creative mind that you can tap. And so for this record it was sort of the Southern California, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and I said gee and it can come down to something as simple as OK, major 7th chords I've never written with major 7th chords. What if I tried to write some songs that had that feeling and suddenly something you're into something fresh, so you have all these new ideas and that's the key.

The key is the hardest thing to do is write rock music because I've written a lot of it. But in a funny way the play and the book and these are all things that were very fresh and so I had a lot of new ideas as to what creative direction to go in but that's always the challenge as you get older you have to, you know. I always say your audience wants you to do two things, they want to feel at home they say and surprise me, you know, what you have to do those two things at the same time, you know, and then you've kind of clicked on something and your journey with your listeners continues down the line you know.

So I'm feeling good. You know I'm lucky. I mean they have such a big audience at this point around the world and that supports my work as is, I don't ever take it for granted. You know, it's a wonderful thing and I enjoy providing fresh pieces of work and ideas you know, for them. 

There's another track in the film that isn't on the album: Rhinestone Cowboy. I love that song.

Bruce Springsteen: That was just tossed in at the end because we got to that, as well see you know, there's a little on a dark side, so, which this story was and was not. And that was just the tip of the hat to a lot of my inspiration. The inspiration for the record and film so it's great. 

Did you know it was coming?

Thom Zimny: No I was just thinking about that. I think I found out like three minutes before shooting. 

Bruce Springsteen: Man we've got to do Rhinestone Cowboy! This isn't finished until we do Rhinestone Cowboy

I think that this film will give so many people the opportunity to address so many issues that you raise in these wonderful little films in between the songs.

Bruce Springsteen: I wish them a lot of luck. You know. It's complicated shit. 

I can't not talk about the barn. Just from watching it on screen it's a magical place.

Bruce Springsteen: The barn is pretty cool. You know, it just came with the property and we rebuilt the bottom for the horses and upstairs hasn't been touched since the late eighteen hundreds.

So all that was, has been there for a hundred years and it's just a, you walk into that upstairs and it's just an incredible, incredible space, you know, so we have our parties and weddings and we built that little bar that's up there, all that is up there not just for the film. That's actually how we keep it. So it's kind of neat. 

It was fun. You know, it was like you have all that power off to your right. And I haven't played with a string section before you know just a little, very little bit but not in that way. And it sounded really good inside the barn so it was very inspiring. We sung every song twice. I think we did everything twice, shot it for two days and used almost exclusively the second day. 

What would you like people to take away from this film?

Bruce Springsteen: Well you know, you come in to see it and you're with your gal and you sit down and you're watching it. Gets towards the end and you hold hands. 

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.