A version of this story about Bruce Springsteen and “Springsteen on Broadway” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
The Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) category is often the province of comedy specials, from stand-up (Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K.) to politics (Stephen Colbert live on election night, specials from Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee) to icons (Carol Burnett, Steve Martin & Martin Short).
But this year it has a different look — or, perhaps, a different sound, because three of the five nominees are specials featuring huge music stars. There’s Beyoncé’s “Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé,” James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool” and director Thom Zimny’s “Springsteen on Broadway,” a concert film from the Tony-winning show.
Zimny has been working with Springsteen for nearly 20 years on documentaries, videos and concert films — and in that time, he said, he’s learned one big lesson from Springsteen and his manager, Jon Landau: “Come fully prepared, but be ready for changes.”
That lesson came in handy even on something as scripted as Zimny’s Netflix film of the startlingly intimate nightly journey in songs and stories that ran for more than a year at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
“It was one of those dream projects, seeing the show in the early stages and then spending time with Bruce and watching him develop the stage show,” Zimny said. “I really got to explore a lot of ways to capture it.”
While the acoustic song performances and the monologues that introduced them remained the same for much of the show’s run, Springsteen threw Zimny a curve on the first of two nights when “Springsteen on Broadway” was filmed: With misty eyes, he told a heartfelt new story about an unexpected visit from his father shortly before his first child was born, and then performed a stunning version of “Long Time Comin’,” a song that had never before been in the Broadway show.
“For me, the experience of ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ came during that song,” Zimny said. “It brought the film to another level. It caught the raw energy of Broadway, but I was also able to bring you right up on stage next to him to see the details in his eyes.”
While the experience in the 900-seat theater was almost shockingly intimate for the audience, Zimny knew that he couldn’t rely on the kind of closeups that are used in every concert movie. “Broadway itself was such an intimate journey,” he said. “I knew I wanted to bring that theater across, but also give you a sense you’re even closer in that experience.”
One of the ways to do that, he said, was to not introduce the audience, or the space in which the performance is taking place, until many songs into the show. “We used the simple idea of not having an introduction, of just going straight to a closeup of Bruce. Or not cutting to an audience member to enhance a joke. I really opened it up slowly throughout the edit.”
Zimny saw the show repeatedly during its run, working out a plan to, he said, “honor the space of seeing Bruce live, and also that magical thing that happened every night while he was on stage.
“But I also wanted to work in the language of film. I would take in the details of his body language — the boots going across the stage, the times when he didn’t sing on microphone — and I thought, ‘How can I portray that in a shot?’
“That’s the power of camera movement – it can cross over and take you into another space. I tried to do that in an invisible style. I really worked on storyboarding and also certain sections of dialogue, no different than my experiences shooting or editing narrative.”
In September, Zimny will head to the Emmys with Springsteen, who can complete an EGOT of sorts if he wins for “Springsteen on Broadway.” But it won’t be a true competitive EGOT: He’s won a number of Grammys and an Oscar, but his Tony was an honorary one. That would put him in the same category with Barbra Streisand, James Earl Jones, Liza Minnelli and a few others, who have won all four awards but with one being an honorary or career award rather than a competitive one.
But before the Emmys, the two will venture to the Toronto International Film Festival with a different film: “Western Stars,” which Springsteen and Zimny co-directed based on the acclaimed Springsteen album that was released in June.
Read more from the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.