Thom Zimny: How I Made 'Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You'
“It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” The man gleefully exclaiming this meteorological fact is watching tiny flakes begin to fall on the ground. Seconds before, he was telling the group of folks milling around the room to gather ’round (“Gen-tle-men, congregate!”) with all the authority of a general assembling the troops. Then he glances outside a large picture window, and suddenly, this rugged-looking seventysomething turns into a 10-year-old kid. “Last night I was sitting outside ’til nine o’clock, sitting on my front porch by a fire. Now it’s snowing. This is Jersey weather in the fall!”
Everyone chuckles, then the guy starts strumming on his guitar, and everyone listens intently, taking notes. For a second, this man — let’s call him “Bruce” — was like a fifth-grader prepping for a snow day. Now, he’s back to being the leader of the E Street Band. There are new songs to record, and old songs to rework, and tracks to put down. The snow outside his home studio is going to have to wait. There’s work to be done.
This off-the-cuff moment comes early in Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, the feature-length documentary on the recording of Springsteen’s 20th studio album — and his first with the E Street Band in almost six years — that gives fans a ringside seat to the five days of sessions that happened on the Boss’s estate late in 2019. The result was a batch of demos about loss, long-gone friends, and how the past is never really done with you that, thanks to these men and women, become bona fide rock & roll ballads and barnstormers right before your eyes. It’s an extraordinary showcase for what this “well-oiled machine” of a bar band and its frontman does best.
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But it’s those personal little peeks behind the curtain, like Springsteen getting giddy over snow and/or sharing a laugh (and numerous tequila shots) with his longtime collaborators, that make this film feel like it’s a lot more than just a making-of bonus feature, and that’s thanks to Thom Zimny. A veteran editor who first got involved with Springsteen’s camp when he helped assemble a cut of the 2001 E Street Band concert film Live in New York City, the 55-year-old filmmaker has become something like an in-house videographer for the rock legend, shooting everything from music videos to long, deep-dives into Darkness on the Edge of Town (2010’s The Promise) and The River (2015’s The Ties That Bind), as well as capturing Springsteen’s Broadway show for Netflix.
Starting with 2019’s Western Stars, however, Zimny and Springsteen (who co-directed it) had begun layering the playing with philosophical asides, panoramas of desert landscapes and loads of personal flashbacks to Bruce’s tumultuous younger years — it’s both a performance film shot in Springsteen’s converted barn-cum-barroom and a visual complement to his album of ’60s and ’70s-style California pop. With Letter to You, Zimny takes things even further, filming the singer and his band giving these song sketches the full E Street treatment in beautiful, stark black-and-white images that extend the thematic notions of looking back and giving thanks. He understands the balance of personal and poetic that informs so much of Springsteen’s recent work. It’s like turning the pages of a moving scrapbook, with wintry landscapes for wintry songs (and Bruce’s confessional, cathartic voiceover). It’s a work of art unto itself.
Zoom-ing in from his apartment in Brooklyn a few days after Letter to You began streaming on Apple TV, Zimny opened up about his long working relationship with Springsteen, the thrill of being in the room as the E Street musicians dug into their parts, how he came up with the notion of shooting this in B&W and a lot more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve worked with Springsteen, both as a solo artist and with the E Street Band, for years — and a lot of it has been capturing them live or looking at past works. But with this, you were there as these songs were taking shape. How early in the creative process did you enter the picture? Did Bruce already know he wanted you to film this?
Yeah, with both Western Stars and Letter to You, I was let into the process very, very early, which was extremely helpful in order to get a sense of the music. Because the music was what would help me determine the language of the filmmaking — how I was going to try to land visually alongside these great songs, with those specific sonic landscapes and lyrics. I try not repeat myself, and with Western Stars, we had this palette that was really coming from the West Coast country-pop sound of that record. Bruce and I really looked at a lot of photographs conveyed the heat of the desert and that told that story.
Letter to You was a totally different experience. I went completely in the other direction of winter. I think what happened is that, I got a sense early on of the spiritual side of Bruce’s music for this album. And there was this one morning … I was at his beautiful home studio that Patti [Sciafa] designed and there was this light was spilling through a window. And it just sort of landed right on to this vintage keyboard that I knew Danny [Federici] had played. On the side of it was this taped piece of paper that had songs listed from the Born in the USA tour, all these presets and numbers and info. And I thought, what a beautiful thing. This studio’s just carrying the full history of the E Street Band. At that point I just had this notion of: Let’s make the studio itself a character.
How did his “pitch” to you go, exactly?
The discussion with Bruce can be really summed up with paraphrasing it to this degree: “I’m bringing the guys to the studio — why don’t you come along? Maybe we can film something, see what you can get.” [Laughs] There is no plan. There is no discussion of themes. My job is to arrive and watch and listen. I could hear the lyrics and pick up certain ideas and themes right away that told me that this was an album that was going to reflect their early days of being in clubs and the power of growing up with a live audience.
But just like the band, I’m experiencing it for the first time right there. When that notebook opens, everyone is just waiting because a new Bruce song is about to enter the world, in its purest, rawest form of demoing for the band. Then you’re watching the guys walk over to their instruments after having have heard the song once, maybe twice — and with no real discussion of “you’re doing this, you’re doing that” — and all of a sudden, they just start playing. Max has got this beat. Gary’s got the bass going. Stephen and Nils kicks in with that sound of their guitars. Roy starts playing something. And then Bruce’s voice comes, and now this song that you heard as a demo a second ago is suddenly taking shape … and it’s become a genuine E Street band song!
So for me, this film was trying to find some kind of preservation of this very magical thing. Sometimes it falls right into place, and other times things get … a little bit more chaotic [laughs]. But you see all the members contributing. You see all the power of those 45 years together. And you see Bruce the bandleader, who cuts in and says, “If you’re lost, just follow me.”
You’re chasing the Big Bang — the moment of collective creation.
I had this goal that yes, it’s very exciting to see this Holy Grail moment of the guys in the room creating. But I also wanted to break down musically what I like call the cinematic sound qualities of the band — how it’s, say, the glockenspiel and the saxophone sounds playing against those guitar bits that make you go, “Yeah, that’s E Street.” The magic of it is exposed in the raw footage because you see the inner workings. You see Bruce and the band communicating with their eyes. You see him gesturing or saying, “Hold off on the piano here, try coming in at this point…” And it’s those little tiny details that really gave you a sense of the building of a track. To me, the small moments were the most important.
You know, there’s no point in me asking them, “So, how is this music influenced by the British invasion?” That, to me, would be a dead end. But watching Bruce and Steven [Van Zandt] stand next to each other in a mixed board, listening to their own playback, smiling, totally being lost in the moment — and then bursting into handclaps and vocals that later will end up on the song? That tells you everything you need to know about the shared language they have. That’s the greatest high as a documentary filmmaker you can get. It wasn’t created. It wasn’t directed. I just recorded it. And it still tells a story that we hear on the record, and can see in the history of these men and women.
Do you view the band, both collectively and as individuals, differently after having seen them at work in the studio, working these songs up from scratch?
I’ve always had great respect for this band — I was a fan before I ever got near them in the concerts or the videos that I worked on. But my understanding of their power of individual players has really changed from the experience of standing in the middle of the room, watching them hear a song and then create a new track within seconds. I loved watching them come to the sessions because it’s like watching someone go to a boxing ring. They’re happy, they’re excited to see each other, but then once Max sits down behind that drum kit, it’s all razor focused. I mean, filming Max … the hardest thing was not to have every one of my cameras just pointed at him. You would think it would be a Bruce thing, but for me, it was just: Look at what Max is doing! [Laughs]
I’m listening to the music unfolding, and I’m thinking, “Oh, that’s an interesting sonic moment. That bass thing that just happened or the piano thing … wow, that Hammond B3 bit feels feels very classic E Street to me.” So I’m quickly whispering to my cameraman to move over and get the keyboard. I want to make sure that I can show as many of the sonic elements of the track in as natural a way as possible. And on top of that, we’re trying to keep up with Bruce, who is arranging and changing things mid-song. I think Max might break into something at this moment, and then Bruce throws a curveball because he’s just looked at Max and indicated for him to do something else — and now they’re into another verse or they’re back to the chorus. There’s no filming it again. There’s no playback. I only get one shot.
This sounds intense.
Yeah, and I did not have any clue it would be this intense. I’ve been around the band when they’re rehearsing for a live show or doing isolated parts in the studio — but I’ve never had the experience until this film of seeing them cut a whole album, live and in the room together. I loved seeing their expressions of being so happy in the moment. I wanted to capture that feeling. This is not a music video — I didn’t worry about the sync. I just wanted to be able to show someone’s face in the moment, enjoying what they’re doing. Because there was a lot of joy in these sessions — and there’s a lot of joy for me in this music.
It’s an entirely different beast from doing a straight performance film — which is really what Western Stars is, right?
If you look at those two films together, they’re very, very different, yeah. The template of the voiceover narration is somewhat similar, but actually the writing is very different. And I was working with a certain type of space and character for Western Stars. We were in a barn. He’s playing these songs live. You’re going after a performance instead of, say, a take.
And with Western Stars … I already knew the songs and I knew what to do with the camera. I had ideas of, Oh, I need to have a camera all the way back and then come in for these strings because that lush sound is bringing me forward. So I studied every bit of that music, every second of that song. Bruce says this line, I need to be in close up. You’re tuning in to what’s happening on the stage, but you also have the advantage of being prepared.
But when I got to Letter to You — it’s really jumping out of a plane [laughs]. Because I didn’t know the music. I didn’t know what to expect, or how I’d be able to keep out of the way. What I needed to do was to keep an element of the language of the filmmaking but also listen to what’s going on at the moment.
Can you give an example of when something like that paid off?
Ok, so, at one point, Bruce is talking about his guitar. What does that mean? Well, he just did a song called “Last Man Standing.” Now he’s talking about the guitar that George [Theiss, singer-guitarists for Springsteen’s early band the Castiles] had. I’m thinking, this is something. “OK, give me the reaction of Steve. Got it? Now stay on Bruce.” Because I came to this as an editor and in the moment that we’re capturing all of this happening, I’m piecing together how I imagine it would play. So I’m whispering to the cameraman, stay on Steve, knowing that he will have a visual response. I was watching it unfold and also beginning to edit it in my mind’s eye in the moment.
How early on in the process did you decide that you were going to shoot this in black and white?
Actually, it was part of the very first conversation I had with Bruce. Here’s how it really started.
He’d called me one day and said, “Come on over this Sunday, we’re going to go into town and have dinner with some friends and family. We’d love for you to join.” I got there a little early, so before we went out, Bruce and I both went outside, sat down by this fire he had going, and he said, “I’m going to get the guys together and record an album for a week. Why don’t you film it? It’ll be fun, let’s see what we can get.” He told me one of the songs was called “Last Man Standing,” and that it was a little bit of a nod towards the Castiles. He played me some Beatles and British Invasion songs, we had a drink … and I didn’t say anything, he didn’t say anything. We just sat there by the fire.
Then I looked over, and it was this perfectly gray New Jersey day. There was a very soft light — and I just suddenly saw it in black and white. I thought, This film’s in black and white. I never looked back. From the moment I arrived “on set” on day one, I was looking at everything — the light in the studio, the instruments, the shadows on the walls — in shades of black and white. I even used vintage lenses that really worked with light flair. I love the idea of light being a source and inspiration of healing. I wanted it to feel very much like the classic films in the ’70s, but with more of a spiritual sense.
Thom Zimny, director of ‘Letter to You.’
And the landscape shots?
The beauty of it is that … so Bruce, on the first day of shooting, gets a text from his sister Pam. You can see him check his phone in the movie, then he looks out and, “It’s snowing, it’s snowing out!” … I mean, I just love that he’s so excited. You never lose that thing of seeing snow out the window. Doesn’t matter how old you are. But that was when I started thinking, Maybe it would be interesting to play around with images of snow. That sort of fits with how he’s talked about the songs, you know.
So I sent Bruce some stock images of snow, he sent me back this voiceover track — and then I knew I was onto something. I had my cinematographer, Joe DeSalvo, work with me on finding the right landscapes, the right look, the right lenses to shoot this. Maybe the God’s-eye point-of-view shots looking down, black and white cinematography and the sight of these barren trees could convey some of the words and the feelings that I was hearing in his narration. Suddenly, I could feel the movie taking shape. Those woods became a spiritual space that worked perfectly with Bruce’s thoughts about the many themes in the songs: life, death. growing old, fear, acceptance. All that seemed to play so nice against those black-and-white images of nature in winter. All that seemed to play along in the dream world of Bruce’s words.
It was the power of the studio — which I mentally dubbed in my head “the house of a thousand guitars” — that we wanted to convey. But that also gave me the advantage of going outside the studio and conveying a sense of a higher power there as well.
How would you describe your working relationship with Bruce after 20 years?
What I have in the collaboration with Bruce, really, is a sense of trust. And the trust he gives me let’s me step as close as I can to getting inside the words and the music. If I didn’t have that trust, I wouldn’t be able to take chances. And the chances I took with Letter to You probably were the biggest and the most satisfying because I got to record the process. I got to visually try to represent the ideas he was exploring in those songs.
I was an editor when I met Jon Landau and Bruce back in 2000, but I knew that these guys were conveying a level of detail in storytelling that I was dying to get near. And I also knew that this guy standing onstage singing was the same guy who told so many powerful stories that affected my life. The way I stepped up to becoming a director was not because any big conversation, but in a way that was pure, classic Bruce way. He just said, “Hey, I want to do something on Born to Run.” And that was it. I knew I was going to maybe have a chance to really learn a lot about the craft of filmmaking and storytelling simply by being around those guys.
The full circle of all this is: I’m 16 years old and I was looking at The River album, I pull out the sleeve and see Jon and Bruce, and went: Who are these guys? What do they do? And now I’ve landed at 55 and am ti this place of being able to tell this story about what they do, and also the love and the creative forces behind these relationships. So I’m enormously grateful to have that. But could I imagine it at 16? It’s … the whole idea is just too it’s too funky. [Laughs] But you know, when I get that phone call from Bruce, I never know where this is going to take me next. And part of the excitement is not knowing.
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