The last time Bruce Springsteen had any kind of crisis of professional confidence may have been 45 years ago. He can actually pinpoint the time. He was 25. Born to Run had just been released to critical and commercial success, propelling Bruce to worldwide fame — and suddenly acting opportunities were starting to emerge. But even a young movie lover like Bruce knew this wasn’t the right path for him.
“I said, ‘Well, I just feel like I haven’t done the homework and the preparation to be an actor.’ I didn’t have the confidence," he said. "Whereas in music I was completely confident. I liked that feeling, so I stuck with it.”
It’s worked out pretty well so far. But it’s funny how things come full circle. This weekend, Springsteen makes his feature film directing debut with Western Stars, an intimate portrait of an aging artist cleverly disguised as a concert film. In the film, co-directed by his frequent collaborator Thom Zimny, Springsteen performs his newest album live inside his century-old barn. While the performance is the center of the project, archival footage and vignettes frame the film more as a meditation on love and loss, regrets and evolution from Springsteen's eyes.
The intimacy of the feature is probably why Springsteen has invited a small group of journalists to his New Jersey home to talk about his latest artistic endeavor over bagels. It's here, from the comfort of his own couch in the sitting room next to his home recording studio, that he opens up about his creative process. "The part that really turned it into what I think was a film," he said, "was when we started to shoot the little films that come between each song."
He wrote the script in one night. He and Zimny shot the vignettes that illuminate the backstory of the album over the course of two days in Joshua Tree National Park. Springsteen casually mentions that they edited it at his farm in less than two weeks.
But don’t let the accelerated timeline fool you: There’s nothing haphazard about the 70-year-old first-time filmmaker. Movies have been in his bones forever.
Western Stars opens with nostalgic iconography: the old Warner Bros. logo. Springsteen laughs when this is brought up in conversation. After all, it's the same logo that opens one of his favorite Westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers.
Ford, he explains, resonated with him not only in the themes he explored but in the way he built a crew of collaborators. “He was working on certain consistent themes as every picture went by and every picture sort of related to another one in certain ways," he said. "He had the cast of characters. He had the ensemble that he worked with really steadily. I had my band, and I was interested in telling this longer story where each album would relate to one another in a certain way.”
Any Springsteen devotee won’t be surprised to learn that the works of Terrence Malick have been an important influence on him, starting in the 1980s.
“I remember at the time that I wrote Nebraska I had seen Terrence Malick [movies] for the first time. Terrence Malick’s films are meditative with a lot of voiceover — Days of Heaven, Tree of Life. That was always something that drew me in.”
“All of these things started to resonate and find their way into themes and soundscapes that I was interested in," he added. The Nebraska album really came from the soundscape of [Malick's] Badlands.”
BRUCE AT THE MOVIES
Movies were as integral to Springsteen's formative years as his New Jersey residence. And the experience of going to the movies — sitting in seats alongside movie-loving strangers and eating popcorn — is something he remembers fondly.
“My generation of people, we’re used to going to the movies," he said. "You went to the movies every week. Initially, my mother would take us. It was 35 cents if you were 12, and $1 once you hit 13. So my mother would say, 'Just tell them you’re 12. Get down! Squat down a little bit, and tell them you’re 12.’” (He laughs as he recalls how "shitty" it felt to pretend to be 12 as a full-grown teenager.)
Decades later, and Springsteen finally got to experience the thrill of seeing his own movie on the big screen during its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.
HE LOVES THE IRISHMAN
The timeline of Springsteen’s career dovetails nicely with that of another master who shows no signs of slowing down — his longtime friend, Martin Scorsese. Or, as he calls him: Marty. Yes, he’s seen Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, and yes, he’s a fan.
“It was just beautiful to see that cast [Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci] working together again and to see Marty at the top of his game. There’s never going to be a group of actors quite like that again. And if you grew up with them as folks in my generation did, it’s a powerful picture.”
BUT HE ALSO LOVES ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
Coincidentally, Western Stars shares some notable themes and even character types with one of the most beloved films of the year. A nostalgic look at a time gone by? An aging cowboy? A stuntman? We might as well be talking about Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Did Springsteen notice the similarities? “I did," he laughs. "I said, ‘Well, that’s a funny little coincidence.’ That was one of my favorite pictures of the past year. I really liked that picture a lot. It was quite touching and quite lovely.”
DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR THAT BIOPIC
As much as Springsteen’s music has been a part of the fabric of film history — from his Oscar-winning song for Philadelphia to this year’s Blinded by the Light, we have yet to see a biopic about The Boss. Springsteen is in no rush. “It’s kind of something I’ve held off on because so few of them are successful," he said. "And finding someone to play yourself is really weird! It’s just been something I haven’t dove into. I don’t know if I will.”
BUT IF A BOSS BIOPIC DID HAPPEN...
Walk the Line director — and Springsteen fan — James Mangold has contemplated making a Springsteen film that would detail the depressive two years following the release of Born to Run, when he was legally unable to record new material. When this is posed as a possibility, he says, “That’s interesting. Somebody came up and recently wanted to shoot a picture that went up to Born to Run. So if we get both guys doing it, we’ll have the whole story!”
But perhaps Western Stars teaches us that Springsteen's story is best told by The Boss himself.