Working With The Boss: 'High Hopes' Director Thom Zimny Discusses His HBO Documentary And Collaborating With Bruce Springsteen

Apr 4 2014, 4:58pm CDT | by

Working With The Boss: 'High Hopes' Director Thom Zimny Discusses His HBO Documentary And Collaborating With Bruce Springsteen
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

“I find I’m trying to resolve something that’s bothering me internally. It’s quite non- intellectual, it’s non-verbal. It’s just feeling. But that’s the real mechanism of writing.”

That’s Bruce Springsteen describing the hard work of songwriting in the opening moments of “High Hopes” a half-hour HBO documentary that airs tonight. Ostensibly a preview of Springsteen’s latest album of the same name, the film is really an exploration of Bruce’s creative process.

And few people understand that process better than filmmaker Thom Zimny. For the past 14 years Zimny has shot Springsteen in the studio and on stage, directing everything from music videos to full-length concert films.

As his relationship with Springsteen has evolved, Zimny has gravitated toward telling the stories behind Springsteen’s music. In 2005, he directed a DVD documentary about the making of Born To Run, and four years later he took that idea to the next level with a feature-length film, called The Promise, about the making of Darkness on The Edge of Town.

While those films focused on the often torturous process behind these classic albums, “High Hopes” addresses the way an older and wiser Springsteen works now.

Zimny took some time out from filming to talk with me about being a fly on the wall in the studio with Bruce, the current incarnation of the E-Street Band on tour, and what kind of a boss Bruce Springsteen really is.

There’s really a lovely intimacy to this film. I knew the record, but I feel like I know it so much better for having heard these stories.

With this film, we really wanted to have it feel like a conversation with Bruce. It had that tone where you see Bruce relaxed and going to a place where he’s talking about the music.

How did the project come together?

The first part was that we captured a great interview with Bruce [on Sirius E Street Radio] that felt really different. Everyone loved the intimacy of it. And that was it. There was no plan for a half-hour show about the album.

Then Bruce had called me and asked if I would come and film a little bit of the band [before they left on tour.]

I was able to see him prep the band, but also, in the bigger picture, to see [guitarist] Tom Morello in the band [for the first time.] When I saw that, I went and did an interview with Tom the next day.

So all these elements fell together and in the cutting room I was able to build this narrative that felt organic. We weren’t just putting together footage. The story was ongoing, and it was happening in front of me, about this album and about his process.

“High Hopes” seems to be of a piece with The Promise and also the documentary that accompanied the Born To Run Anniversary Boxed Set. On those films Bruce talked about what it was like then, and on “High Hopes” he talks about what it’s like now.

Sometimes when you’re in the room you hear a quote and it just stands out. You go back to the cutting room and you work off of that energy.

One of the quotes from the HBO piece that stayed with me was Bruce describing how he had found a balance of when to work and when not to work, but also accepting that being uncomfortable was part of his creative process. I opened the film with that because I thought it was such a powerful statement, and it was a great intro whether you knew the record or not.

Bruce talks about the problems with doing a studio version of “American Skin” because it’s so hard top a live recording by the E Street Band.
American Skin” for me is a perfect example, because it gives you the chance to hear from Bruce’s perspective and Tom Morello’s perspective how he tackled a song that was out there and established with a certain sound and how they brought it to a different place on this album. As a filmmaker that’s a priceless moment, because you’re getting both the history and the current place where Bruce is now.

I love listening to Tom because he’s got this infectious enthusiasm.

Tom’s energy, his excitement really came across on camera and helped tell the story.  That’s one of the reasons I kept the focus on Bruce and Tom.

You’ve been filming concert footage for a long time. What’s your take on the E Street Band in 2014?

The band right now is really, really exciting. When I was making the film Bruce called me up and sent me a version of “Heaven’s Wall” they had just performed, and it was one of those great moments that demonstrated the excitement of that leg of the tour. It’s a great time to see them live because there are so many surprises, him digging out these one offs and songs that are rarely played. And the band is really sounding great with Tom on this leg. And Bruce just seems really happy on stage.

What’s your favorite moment from the film?

The performance of The Wall in that stripped down environment that was the most powerful thing to be a part of.

It was this perfect combination of having this interview and the luck of this performance and the two of them being married together to tell a story.  It wasn’t a big plan, but when it happened there was magic there.

He tells a great story about these guys from a band down the shore, Ray and Walter Cichon, and juxtaposes that with being at the Kennedy Center and sitting a few tables away from Robert McNamara.

He just ended it with ‘There you go. What do you say?” That was such a great cut point. As an editor you look for those small moments where you don’t need to go further

There’s this really honest moment where Bruce talks about working with his wife Patti Scialfa, admitting that they sometimes work best in the studio when they work separately.

I loved having this moment where Bruce talked about his process with her, their collaboration and the way he gave her space. I feel like Patti’s vocals on this record are just amazing and I built that section of the doc around her.

There’s a funny moment where Bruce is talking to Max Weinberg about how the drumtrack should sound like he’s half drunk

I’m glad you caught that detail. You want to make a film that has these small, personal moments. When you’re in the studio you want to be invisible, a fly in the wall.  You hope that this abstract and quiet thing that’s the creative process comes across on film. And it’s not always an easy thing to capture.

Bruce has this dialogue with the band that’s very much a shorthand. It’s about all the years those guys have been together, but also Bruce as a bandleader who can listen to a first take and zone in on what’s wrong:  the drums being too defined. Bruce just tells Max “Play sloppy.”

How much time did you spend in the studio.

There’s a lot of time I don’t even have a number or a clear memory. Bruce is always busy making music.

What kind of equipment are you using?

Super 8, 16 mm, 35 mm, HD, old ¾ tape.  With The Promise, we used every one of those formats. [Bruce and I] have a dialogue about the visual approach and the look. There’ve been times I’ve been shooting Super 8 just because of the texture.

How much does Bruce get involved in the finished product?

On “Dream Baby Dream” we worked on that for months. He sent over the footage from the tours, and had certain ideas about [fans in the audience] he’d want to incorporate into the video. And then I’d send him an edit and it would go to another place. I’d come up with some ideas. Some of them worked. Some of them didn’t. We’d go back and forth and look at the color and look at the cut and the everything down to the tempo of the cutting, and ways to play with the image. All of that is a daily dialogue. I’m grateful to have that with Bruce and Jon Landau

So, what kind of a boss is Bruce?

For me the greatest thing being around Jon Landau and Bruce is to see their drive and their work ethic. Approaching something very intensely and looking at all the different angles.

We don’t just make a music video and throw it out there. It’s thought out.

Bruce is extremely inspiring because you’re around a certain energy. He’ll be out for a month and a half on tour and he’ll come back with new ideas. I never know what to expect. And that to me is really exciting.


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