On a rainy Wednesday last week at the Metrograph on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Bruce Springsteen unveiled Western Stars to a small group of family and friends that ranged from bandmate Steven Van Zandt, Sopranos creator David Chase to CBS Records magnate Clive Davis, who signed The Boss. The film marks Springsteen’s debut as director alongside longtime collaborator Thom Zimny. Constructed around the live orchestra-backed performance of Springsteen’s latest album staged in a cavernous wooden hay silo/barn on The Boss’s ranch, the film’s power comes in what is an extension of the revelatory show he wrote and performed on Broadway, as Springsteen and Zimny lay in what The Boss called “the interior life of the songs.” Those moments of personal revelation are illustrated personal Springsteen family footage that includes Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa in a cottage on their honeymoon that looks like your parents’ home movies.
In this blockbuster-obsessed moment, Western Stars might not be considered worth the time of the exec running a major film studio. But for the second time, here was Warner Bros Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich introducing the film and presiding over its Q&A. The first came at the film’s Toronto premiere, where Emmerich was present when more traditional studio releases, Joker and Just Mercy, made splashy premieres along with Western Stars. Springsteen described how the film – which Warner Bros releases this week through Fathom Events in over 300 theaters – started with his desire to present hardcore fans an alternative to a live tour that would have been too cumbersome and impractical with that large an orchestra. He and Zimny transformed the film into something far more intimate as The Boss stares down his own mortality, along with the demons and depression and what they’ve done to his family and friends. Emmerich made the obligatory ask that Springsteen consider more theatrical scoring, and possibly more, but the Q&A showed a studio exec well-tuned to an iconic artist’s canon, from the early rebellious anger to a fearful and depressed father and playing it safe that helped many young men with similar parental scars, to an emotionally evolved but imperfect man who has lived a full life and now faces reflection on the back nine. So what’s with Emmerich’s bromance with The Boss? Read on.
DEADLINE: The moments between songs in Western Stars, convey a writer with profound understanding of emotions, human beings and the interactions between them that you can see Springsteen has a memorable movie in him if he chose to write and direct one. You’ve become a Boss buddy, but you run a major movie studio too. How hard have you pressed him?
EMMERICH: I’ve never had that conversation with him, other than in a joking way. Whether he knew it when he started, or realized it looking back, the way he contextualizes this movie is…over five or ten years he published the autobiography, he wrote and performed the Broadway play, and then he wrote, performed and co-directed this film. He sees them as a trilogy, they are all part of him changing the conversation with his audience. He has had this very long conversation with a very loyal audience going back to the early 1970s when he used to tell long stories in between the songs, narratives about friends growing up, friends he lost in Vietnam, issues with his parents and his family, works of art that inspired him, novels and films. He would talk to the audience from the stage in between songs are very cinematic, like mini movies or short stories.
As he got educated over the years with John Ford movies, reading Flannery O’Connor…he didn’t graduate from college, but Jon Landau and others suggested things to him and he became a very literate self-educated guy and he has used a lot of that down time between albums and tours just reading and learning. He went through very intensive Freudian analysis he’s written about and talked about publicly. He’s an artist and a storyteller, and this trilogy is in some ways a summation and reflection on the conversation and journey he has had with that audience over the past 50 years. Jimmy Iovine told me that Bruce has found a way to make honesty radical and counterculture. So much of music and storytelling now is hype and posing and the internet. In this movie and the interstitial narrative voiceovers that he wrote and performs in the film, Bruce bares things that are incredibly raw and honest. I noticed that in the Broadway show, when he starts off by saying, I’ve never worked in a factory, I’ve never had a job that was five days a week before this show, and when I wrote Racing in the Streets, I had never driven a block. He has talked during that show about how we all wear masks. This completes a trilogy of him trying to take the mask off and show the emotional and human truth between what his music has been and what his art is.
DEADLINE: Did you get involved when the film was completely finished?
EMMERICH: Essentially. They invited me out to Bruce’s farm and we sat at his mixing board and watched a cut. There were minor changes. He basically made this whole movie, he financed it, he produced it with his team, he co-directed it. He made this in his own bubble.
DEADLINE: How did Warner Bros get a shot at this?
EMMERICH: I am a big fan and while I didn’t know him well I certainly knew his manager Jon Landau and Barbara Carr, a lot of people around him and Clive Davis, who signed him. We were dealing a lot with his management around the marketing and distribution plan for Blinded By The Light, for which he had granted his music rights. He met Gurinder Chadha, he read the book and the script, and was a fan. He made a special deal that made them able to license the music for that film. We, [New Line co-president] Carolyn Blackwood and her team bought that film at Sundance. And we started working with Bruce’s team on what stuff were they comfortable with us doing to promote the film. Barbara and his team got to know the Warner Bros team through that process and liked what they saw.
As great as the deal was for him to bring Bruce Springsteen on Broadway to Netflix, I think he wanted this to be a theatrical movie. He didn’t want to make another deal with Netflix. He didn’t see it as a Netflix movie or HBO, which had been his home prior, when Richard Plepler had done all those docus that [Bruce] and Thom made, the documentaries on the anniversaries of Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. He was looking for a theatrical release here, and there was one movie company where he was loosely in business, where his team was comfortable. So they said, do you want to see this movie? Absolutely. So I watched the whole movie. And Bruce was sitting there, maybe six inches away, to my left.
DEADLINE: What’s that like?
EMMERICH: Intimidating. I didn’t know he was going to stay for the screening. So one half of you is watching the movie. And the other half is going, I’m sitting next to Bruce Springsteen, watching this Bruce Springsteen movie. It was surreal. I knew it was a performance of the album Western Stars and that he decided not to tour behind the album and that his idea was to film a concert performance so he and the fans could feel what it would be like in a live experience. I knew there was going to be that. I had listened to the album a bunch already and I liked that it was a left turn. I have always liked when Bruce takes these left turns in what he calls his short story albums. Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils & Dust. They aren’t E Street Band albums, and he is writing characters that are different from his usual characters, more specific and particular and of a certain period. If you look at the movie Sean Penn directed, The Indian Runner, which is off a song called Highway Patrolman from Nebraska, you can see how that was adapted into a very contained film. I knew this was a short story record, and I liked those and the vibe and the musical references to Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb, the people who inspired him and who he was cribbing from to make Western Stars.
DEADLINE: That in itself makes a great album, but not necessarily a movie with strong commercial prospects…
EMMERICH: What I didn’t expect and what blew me away was, I didn’t know it was going to be so revealing and emotional, much the way his autobiography and the Broadway play were. I figured he had scratched that itch; I didn’t know he had another one up his sleeve. In some ways, I find this one to be the most raw, honest and unfiltered. The things he talks about, are super private and personal and are admissions of profound shortcomings, mistakes and hard lessons learned.
DEADLINE: You mean like when he talks about trying to hurt the ones he loves?
EMMERICH: I found it profound when he said, if I loved you, I found a way to hurt you, and it was a sin, or where he talks about chasing wild horses. He goes there. He talks about carrying baggage and it gets heavier and heavier. He doesn’t romanticizes himself at all in this movie, as he did in the book and Broadway, which traced the rise up, the story of rags to riches and this kid dreaming and becoming this huge rock star. Here, he doesn’t talk about the rise to rock stardom, it’s his inner life, his inner struggle.
DEADLINE: The movie’s visuals shot by Springsteen and Zimny, the desert and the skies, are as rich visually as is the music. Even the way Springsteen looks and sounds in voiceover at 70 years old gives him the aura of Sam Shepard, who also wore the miles very well.
EMMERICH: My honor’s thesis at Wesleyan University was about Sam Shephard, Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese.
DEADLINE: What was the connective tissue there?
EMMERICH: Similar generation, children of the ‘50s and ‘60s, who came of age creatively in the ‘70s with the baggage of that time, the Vietnam War, the broken promise of the ‘60s. That long after-burn of post Nixon and Vietnam, the assassination of King and the Kennedys. That generation of American storytellers has a conflicted relationship between what it means to be American. There is a great pride, but also a shame in being American, this paradoxical embrace and rejection of American frontier mythology. It’s this land of civilization with this great wilderness that’s unexplored. When we head West and push against that boundary to undiscovered land the central American myth is that we find redemption, reinvention, renewal. But as a professor of mine has written, it is regeneration through violence. A lot of American storytelling is what happens when a situation can’t be resolved. This is most clearly delineated in the Western and something Bruce talks about in this film, with The Searchers being his favorite movie. And all these references to gunfighters and cowboys you see throughout a lot of Sam Shepard and Springsteen. And with Marty, it is transposed to the gangster, but it’s all men of violence. That is a central American iconic protagonist. I wrote that that in ’83 when Reagan misinterpreted Springsteen’s Born In The USA song, but with all three guys it was about the love hate relationship of what it meant to be American, and how we love and buy into the myth of the American frontier. But also realizing how disgraceful it was. Because what was the American frontier really about? It was about the genocide of the indigenous Americans.
DEADLINE: So what grade did you get on that paper?
EMMERICH: I recall I got a good grade, but don’t remember. What was fun about it, I got to spend a lot of time with Sam, Marty and Bruce and I love all three of them. Their storytelling meant a lot to me as a young man studying and maybe wanting to be a storyteller. As an older man, walking a different path, it still means a lot to me.
DEADLINE: Beyond a personal connection to his work, what makes Springsteen’s Western Stars a success for Warner Bros, where the priority is profit in narrative films, and not concert film documentaries?
EMMERICH: Bruce fully financed it and made it super economically. Nobody was involved but him and his team. It’s a true independent film that is being released by a major studio. The high water mark and a similar strategy we are using is one we did on Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. That one was a home run that exceeded our highest expectations.
DEADLINE: It grossed over $20 million worldwide.
EMMERICH: If that film was the sky high dream, a win here would be a decent percentage of that.
DEADLINE: In your interview with him before the tastemaker crowd at the Metrograph, Springsteen leaned into an interpretation of The Searchers and what he didn’t want his life to turn into. He mentioned the ending, and how the family goes into the house with the kidnapped niece who had assimilated with the Commanches. And how John Wayne rescued her and reunited his family, but could not himself go into the house. Springsteen said he didn’t want to be that guy. On what other films did you connect?
EMMERICH: By the way, that character in The Searchers is very iconic. There’s an academic term for him, the guy who lives in the amorphous terrain on the border between civilization and wilderness. He’s not at home with family, but he doesn’t really live with the quote unquote savages. If you watch the end of Shane, well Shane walks off, too. If you go back and watch the Westerns, you’d be amazed how often you see that gunfighter, the Clint Eastwood guy, the one who comes into town willing to do what the others won’t, which is, kill the bad guys, and when the killing is done, there is no place for that guy in polite society, so he has to leave. It’s axiomatic to the gunfighter canon.
DEADLINE: But as Springsteen relates in Western Stars and your interview, it’s no way for a man to live.
EMMERICH: Exactly, and if you fall in love with the myth or the legend and try to live like that, it’s not real. We get fooled by that and as kids growing up, you think that’s romantic. I can be alone. You listen to those songs on the album, he talks about how you get too used to being lonely, you become trapped in it. That’s what happened to him where he was just really comfortable being alone, which is a dangerous thing. As for other movies, he’s a movie junkie so a better question is what hasn’t he watched. He’s a huge Coppola fan; I was with them together one night and he’s seen all those movies, and they were talking about The Rain People, that early Coppola movie that Robert Duvall was in. He’s clearly fluent in cinema.
DEADLINE: So does Springsteen have a narrative film in him? He shows in this film more enlightened about emotion and human interaction than we see in a lot of scripts turned into films. Of course, he’d have to fire his agent as a writer because of the Guild standoff, though not if he was directing…
EMMERICH: I think I have zero ability to influence whether he’s going to do that or not. I think he knows if he wanted to, Warner Bros would be the first in line with a checkbook and an open door. He knows that. But he’s a man who, as much as anyone I’ve come across in this life, takes his own counsel.
DEADLINE: When you invited him onstage to do more film scoring, he parried with the observation that he’ll save his creative ideas going forward and use them as ways to get his E Street Band back on the road as fast as possible.
EMMERICH: I think he’s planning to record a rock and roll record with E Street and then tour behind it. My sense is that’s next on his agenda. What comes after that? Your guess is as good as mine.