Director Thom Zimny on His 18-Year Journey to Making ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

Longtime Bruce Springsteen collaborator, Thom Zimny, breaks down how he wanted to shoot the Broadway performance of some of his most beloved songs.
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After 236 performances and over $100 million in ticket sales, Bruce Springsteen‘s time on Broadway was a smashing success. For diehard fans unable to attend the show, though, each performance was a reminder of what they were missing out on: over two hours of quality time with the boss and his acoustic guitar and piano. What sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime event, although Springsteen has teased similar performances in the future, was thankfully captured on nine Sony Vega cameras during two live performances.

The director behind Springsteen on BroadwayThom Zimny, has a long history with Springsteen, having directed an HBO doc on him and far more. Zimny, who also made Elvis Presley: The Searcher, shoots the E-Street band leader up close and intimate with almost no crowd shots. Most of all, he gets the joy of a Springsteen show. Recently, Zimny spoke with us about making the Netflix film, filming Bruce Springsteen, and the challenges some of his most famous songs presented.

You first met and worked with Bruce Springsteen around 18 years ago, right? 

My first project to work with Bruce was in 2000, on this concert called Live in New York. It was a show that was aired on HBO. I was hired to be the editor. Chris Hilson was the director, it was a multi-towered concert shoot. I was told I was gonna work on it for one week. That ended up being eight months. The second week, we were in an editing room.
From there, we got to know each other and I started collaborating with Bruce and [producer] Jon Landau. It’s been an amazing journey and ride. Each one of these projects brings its own set of challenges. Springsteen on Broadway was just a great thrill to work on.

What challenges did Springsteen on Broadway present?

The challenges that Springsteen on Broadway brought to me as a filmmaker was, how do I get in that space with Bruce in the theater? How do I keep that silence and how do I convey that emotional arc that happens in the show?
What I did was I spent a lot of time looking at the show and looking at the details of the show and taking a lot of the keys from Bruce. The kind of details that Bruce would tend to finesse, the delivery lines, but also some of the editing of the dialogue. Just how he was making it tighter and tighter and connecting to what he was changing.

I was also imagining, how can I film this in a way that doesn’t get in the way? It’s silent but conveys the emotion. One of the things that I thought about was the camera that would slowly creep into his face. For me, the challenges was how do I keep that magic that happens, and how do I do it in an invisible way, that you’re not really noticing it, but you’re feeling it.

Is that why you chose not to show the crowd? Did you want that one-on-one feeling? 

All the great concert films that I’ve seen growing up, the ones that stay timeless to me don’t cut to an audience reaction. With Bruce, I want that same sort of feeling. In Live in New York, that was the first time that we talked about the idea of not showing the audience. With a Broadway show especially, I wanted nothing of a distraction, no backstage, no cutting into interviews, no stepping away from the performance. There’s no close-up of a person’s face that could really not take you out of that narrative, take you out of that space. The audience I silhouetted and really didn’t reveal them until the very, very end.

Without the audience, you’re just focusing on your own experience, so I did wonder if you were cutting to the crowd if you’d then start to think too much about their experience. 

A hundred percent. The power of the edit is really an important thing to consider. When you cut to the audience member laughing, you’re suddenly not engaged with Bruce. You’re suddenly part of something bigger that you’re not sitting next to that person. Or you’re looking at their experience with it. I really wanted to make sure that I always thought of the viewer as having this theatrical home experience, that’s one-on-one with Bruce. So as a filmmaker, I really cut it that way and shot it that way.

It’s funny, though, one of my favorite moments in the movie is when you do see that crowd reaction and Bruce Springsteen is listening to a fan. You have no idea what the fan is saying, but it’s clearly a meaningful moment. Not knowing what he’s saying definitely gave it more power. 

Absolutely. It’s a great moment in the editing room that Jon Landau pointed out to me. I have to say, Jon said, “Look at this moment.” And we stopped and we watched it. And it’s really a key moment for me as a filmmaker, capturing in one shot the event that night, the community that Bruce has with his fans, and the purity of that young guy just looking at Bruce and thanking him. I don’t know what he said, I don’t know what he’s saying, but it’s all there in the shot. I thought that’s a perfect way to end the film.

Since you’ve been filming Springsteen for some time now, what about his presence and look do you want to make sure you capture visually? 

Well, I know that I want to be able to capture him in this natural way that he forgets about the presence of the cameras. I also know I want to not interfere with his interaction with an audience at all. It’s a fine line that you’re danced upon, where you try to get close and try to get the most powerful shots, but also, you just don’t want to be noticed. There’s many things that I’ve done with Bruce in music videos and with the show itself. Which is, you never box him into a space. You give him this ample space to work in. With the Broadway show especially, he was able to do the show he was doing every night, walk around, there was no cameras or things in the way to take him into another space and get in the way of the natural things and the magic that happens.

A closeup of Bruce Springsteen is really something. How did you decide on the moments to get really close to him? 

I really came from a narrative background. I treated the Broadway show and its script very much how I would treat a narrative film, where I would look at the power of the lines and imagine certain things played out in wide, medium, and close. There were certain key moments of lyrics where delivery of the lines, I wanted to slowly move the camera into, form a medium close-up to a closeup, or something to play wide, I would storyboard to set, to make sure it got the physical comedy, to this movement of Bruce playing the guitar or dancing around. I knew that the jokes themselves would land and read in that kind of cinematic language.

There are a few songs I want to ask about storyboarding and editing, starting with “Born to Run.” What did that song require? 

“Born to Run” song was a really interesting example of why you can plan, but also, you have to be open in the cutting room. I look at “Born to Run” and I really had boarded out a lot of ideas. This camera was gonna be on this moment. For for this line, I know I wanted, on the techno-crane, slowly going into his face. I cut that song about 27 times. I had a great cut. But I remember sitting with Jon Landau and just saying, “I want the film to end differently. I want ‘Born to Run’ to feel like it does in the night where you sort of have this big journey. Then that last song comes up and it’s euphoric. But I want the edit to feel that way.” I remember just showing it to him, and the cut looked great, but I said, “It’s just not right. There has to be something different for the last song. Not for the sake of just being different, but to get that feeling across.

Then, my lead cinematographer, Joe DeSalvo, the director of photography, he shot on a Fisher dolly that went across the stage. I looked at his camera very late after spending hours with John in the cutting room talking about this. That’s what ended up in the concert film, was this single take on his camera where there’s not a single edit, from Bruce’s speech to the very last note of Bruce playing “Born to Run,” was one single take. That wasn’t planned. It was captured. And Joe, on that fisher dolly, was able to shoot wide, medium, and close, but was perfectly in sync with Bruce the performer. To me, it’s one of the highlights of the concert film, because he got it in the moment and we were open and ready for the film gods to throw us something magical. For me, that was a great moment and it made total sense to end the film with a song that had no edits whatsoever. It conveyed the right energy.

Those lyrics, too, just sum up the show and Springsteen’s stories, too. 

Absolutely. Also, the feeling of community that happens in the song “Born to Run,” the energy of knowing that everyone knows that song in their DNA. Then when Bruce reaches across the stage to shake everyone’s hands. It’s a real moment.
Yeah, it was the perfect way to explore the idea in a cinematic way to show something different.

What about “Brilliant Disguise”? 

I really wanted to honor the beauty and mastery and the harmonies. Working with a two-shot is really important because you can get the secret language and the dynamics between them, with their eyes. They’re singing on they connect with each other. You see them glance at each other. That was an important thing. “Brilliant Disguise,” I knew I wanted to have full-body shots of the two of them, and also these close-ups that conveyed the relationship, the love, and the musical language that they had between each other, harmonizing.

And “Thunder Road”? 

“Thunder Road” is an amazing, quiet, tune in the Broadway show. Because I knew that I wanted to open up the stage at that point and shot it with the techno-crane, in a way that just revealed Bruce playing that last harmonica. I also knew that it had to feel very different than the first two songs of the show. And really worked with wides and also his slow delivery I felt was really effective. It was a thing to get across in the language of the cutting, but also the sonic quality of the mix from Bob Clearmountain is a beautiful thing, where “Thunder Road” and that harmonica break at the end is one of my favorite moments.

How did seeing the show first and checking out the stripped down set influence you? 

Well, I loved watching Bruce work on the stage, so I saw sets designs. I saw him working with his lighting designer, who did an amazing job, Natasha. I watched him create this world, the world of Broadway, where the song “Arising” was basked in some white light or “Born in the USA,” there was hardly any light. Or “Promised Land” has the beauty of those reds and orange and glow of the desert.

All those decisions, I watched Bruce attack during the rehearsal process. I watched the lights change. All those decisions, I worked with my cameramen making sure we got those. So the palette of the show is really challenging to film, but I thought, “God, the stark quality of it will make an exciting frame.” The depth of field, the row cases and the textures of the wall, all of it was really beautiful and great to photograph.

There’s a really warm quality to it, which feels right for Bruce Springsteen.

You know, we wanted the language and the look to feel like a film, but it also had to have the live event feeling. The fine line, you don’t want it to be too bright or clean, because it takes away from the music, but at the same time, we wanted the lighting scheme to come across. That’s what I was hoping would happen.

Over the last 18 years, what’s been the most meaningful part of your collaboration with Bruce Springsteen?

I’m most grateful that they give me the trust to take on a project as big as Springsteen on Broadway. And also, have let me grow as an artist and have given me that amazing thing, trust. With trust, you have a high responsibility with it. To me, that’s the beauty of these projects, is that we all collaborate together. I get to sit in a room with Jon and with Bruce. We take a journey and really test what we’ve done before and also whatever’s going on in the moment. Whether it’s a music video or a documentary, I really try to honor that collaboration in being involved with them. To me, that’s the greatest gift. For that, I’m very grateful to have. Because as an artist, I feel like I’ve been able to be around two amazing people and to work with this music and narrative that has changed my life. It’s something I deeply respect.

Springsteen on Broadway is now available to stream on Netflix.

Jack Giroux: Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.