Ten Years Burnin' Down the Highway to Hell with the Jersey Devil
October 31, 2018

Happy Halloween 2018! Exactly one decade ago today, Bruce Springsteen surprised his fans with "a little musical Halloween treat" via the internet. The music video for "A Night With the Jersey Devil," along with a free digital single of the track, dropped at brucespringsteen.net on Halloween 2008. The song is one of the few Springsteen-penned compositions to share a co-writing credit, since it closes with a few lines and notes from Robert Jones and Gene Vincent's "Baby Blue," one of Vincent's 1958 singles.

"A Night With the Jersey Devil" also was among the earliest of Springsteen's music videos to be directed by Thom Zimny, who in the decade since has worked extensively with Bruce on all of his major film/video projects, most recently wrapping up directorial work on the upcoming filmed version of Springsteen on Broadway for Netflix.

In the now-out-of-print issue #90 of Backstreets magazine, Zimny spoke extensively with Backstreets editor Chris Phillips about the making of the "Jersey Devil" video, which remains one of the most interesting — and fun to watch — of Springsteen's promo clips. In celebration of the tenth anniversary of this great little musical Halloween treat, here's the complete "Jersey Devil" section of our conversation with Zimny, now archived here at Backstreets.com.
- Shawn Poole reporting

From "The Devil & The Darkness: Behind the Scenes with Thom Zimny" in Backstreets #90, by Christopher Phillips

Backstreets: Let's go back and start with "Night with the Jersey Devil," because as brief as it is, it's really indicative of how far things have come since the last time we talked to you for the magazine. Since the Born to Run box, you've only become more involved, as a director, at more and more of a creative level.

Thom Zimny: Bruce and Jon [Landau] have given me a lot of great opportunities to try out some other things, like directing the music videos. My first experience with music videos was actually with Patti [Scialfa]. For her Play It as It Lays album, I got the chance to direct several videos, a live performance, and a TV special. The "Looking For Elvis" video had a lot of the elements, believe it or not, of "The Jersey Devil," in that it was a collaboration.

For "Jersey Devil," you were the director, but Bruce did more than just supply the song.

Absolutely. We had already worked on [the Born to Run documentary Wings for Wheels], so Bruce and I already had a lot of time working together. We had certain film references that we had talked about. So with "Jersey Devil," all that came together. We got to do a lot of things that we talked about, initially, that we wanted to explore in music videos. The whole opening — emerging from the lake — was an idea that Bruce had a while ago.

And it was fun to work on this — we played around with the de-saturation of the image, and Bruce kept coming up with ideas. One of them was the drawings, and incorporating those into the edit; another was playing around with text on screen.

It's clearly Bruce's handwriting—did he do those drawings, too?

He did. In the video you see him take on the character in a very intense way, yet it also played back and forth from something very serious to a bit of a lighter moment for his character. That's where I think the drawings really helped and worked, because it was a bit of a wink.

Still from "A Night With the Jersey Devil"

It's certainly the most acting he's done in a video since "Glory Days."

Yeah, and that era, the Born in the U.S.A. era, was probably the last time that he was in that phase — this was done with a really small crew, and it was one intense, long day. The thing about working with Bruce and Jon is that you see their commitment and you learn so much. In the course of that one day... we started at 8:00 in the morning, and we wrapped at 12:30 at night with Bruce in the water.

And that was the last thing you shot?

Yeah, that was the last set-up. You know, it's the middle of October, and that shot, we figured we'd run and get it. But we spent more than an hour just getting that set-up and getting the take right.

Was it a cold night? 

It was! And all day, Bruce jumped on a horse, chopped wood in front of a blazing fire, jumped in the water in the freezing cold.... We were all around different areas of this farm, and we worked a lot on presenting the sides of good and evil, visually, in different ways. Details, like setting up the backgrounds of the barn like a church, with all the candles — all those things are thought out. The necklace around his neck, or the bracelet dangling from his wrist — nothing is random. All that imagery we played with and talked about beforehand, searching for the right tone.

What were your film references?

There's the Charles Laughton film, with Robert Mitchum — Night of the Hunter.

Well, right. That was the first thing that hit me — clearly a big movie for Bruce, and he's talked about it before. Even the tattooed knuckles have shown up in a song.

Yeah, it's an obvious influence in this. I've always loved that film, and both Bruce and Jon have talked to me about that film at different times. So we touched on the tone of that at moments with his character and the song. I think where it really came together for me was getting a chance to talk to Bruce and have him deliver the lines to the camera in different tones.

His character going back and forth, as you said.

You should watch the video with the sound off. You'll see that he's going in and out of different characters. Sometimes with rage, sometimes more defiant, you know, looking into the camera. I just never had that opportunity to work with him like that before. He was really working with this idea and really understood the power of the camera. With "Jersey Devil," just like all projects, Bruce is involved with all the details: we talked about camera angles; he understood the power of shooting himself in a certain way, how his performance could be enhanced with certain lenses. So, in some of the close-ups, he looks like he's about to burst through the screen.

Another film that was a big influence was Moonrise. It's got an amazing first two minutes; the first two minutes are complete terror, and it's all done through the editing. Jon Landau got me into it — Jon has shared his knowledge of film with me for the past ten years — and it was perfect timing because all of a sudden I was in this Halloween genre.

There also seems to be a Hammer horror influence. Was that deliberate? Or is that just sort of the nature and the language of doing something spooky at this point?

Well, I know all those films, and I definitely reviewed them, and I got into that mindset beforehand. But with "Jersey Devil" it's more that it's set up with a lot of noir lighting in it — a very classic film noir set-up. Besides Night of the Hunter, we would reference many noir titles to get ideas across.

So, if I mention the Hammer movie Dracula Has Risen From His Grave, that doesn't mean as much as the noir films?

No, though I will say that right before shooting the video, I went through the Hammer films — I have that box set — looking at them for the way they filmed the fire. They were a big influence in that way; there are certain shots of Bruce out of focus and fire in the foreground. So, definitely for some things, but not a huge influence; the film noir element of it is much more where I drew from than flat-out horror.

There are moments where he's looking up to the sky and sort of taking cues from the heavens above [laughs]... he'll deliver a line and then look up. That sort of thing was a reference to some of the horror films of the Night of the Hunter genre, which was more psychological than the Hammer.

If you look at the video, the straight-on shots of Bruce, where you see he's half-lit — a huge part of that comes out of the film noir genre. I'm playing with what is really not shown, and it's sort of the lack of details in the frame that help.

Still from "A Night With the Jersey Devil"

And those are things that intrigued him, as well? When you guys were talking film?

Those are completely his sensibilities. All these things that I'm talking about are discussions that happened before shooting.

You can see those sensibilities, I think, in the imagery that he chooses for album covers. You look at The Rising — talk about something out of focus or half-hidden.

Right. I mean, even Live in Dublin, in its setting, that was a very darkly lit, moody piece that way. Bruce has complete control and influence over all those decisions. And the big thing is, with Bruce there in the cutting room, you find these elements together; for Night of the Jersey Devil it was this great de-saturated look. We pulled back on the yellows and the reds just enough to give it an eerie feeling; and then cross-cutting it with the black and white, it set up the emotional side of the song.

And in the cutting room, with the footage you shot as director, your job as editor kicks in.

It's amazing how one choice — the choice of what camera angle you pick at the moment — can either defuse a line or give it more power. Especially with a film like "Jersey Devil." In editing, there are a million choices of how one line can be delivered, and sometimes the effect is much stronger when it's not directly into the camera. If you look at the line "Kill Poppa too," it's in a side profile. That's almost conversational; that line reads much more powerfully when it's not sung directly to the camera. Bruce and I in the cutting room always work with those details. What's going to be right on?

There are moments where it cuts to burning flames and the Bible, or just shots of pure fire. I sometimes just pull away from Bruce's performance to get a breath and then go back to it, so it's not constantly hitting you. These are all deliberate choices.

And just hearing you talk about it — I knew this was the case, anyway, but it really strikes me how detail-oriented that whole process is.

Right. I've had an opportunity to work on dramatic film, and this sort of cutting I treated like narrative film, as opposed to music video. I'm working with a story and I'm cutting it in that way, as if it were a dialogue scene with its tempo. I'm not working always off of the beat — I'm really working with performance. That's what I'm really interested in: performance and story. So I'm really lucky to work with Bruce's stuff, because those are the important elements.

And this is storytelling, right? I mean, that's a big part of what you do.

Yeah, and that's my connection to this music, in respecting what I'm seeing and hearing the story to be. If you look at the shot of him on the horse in black and white — he's riding, and then it just cuts to him looking at the camera. Right there you have your structure, right at the very beginning of the video. It's full of these moments of just him turning and reflecting to the camera a state of mind. That was the first time I was able to do something like that, where Bruce and I worked with the acting to that level where he would just stop and address the camera. And it was a bit eerie. [Laughs]

Still from "A Night With the Jersey Devil"

You'd directed other videos, but a lot of what you'd done up to that point was more about being a fly on the wall, not having the camera be intrusive.

Each one has been a different journey. The Born to Run doc, of course.... "Radio Nowhere," which I guess was my first official music video for Bruce. And then "Long Walk Home," which was the start of having him look into the camera and getting a performance in that sense.

With "Long Walk Home" he delivers that great line — the courthouse line — and he looks directly into the camera. I got a great suggestion from Jon to leave it on his face in that moment, and there are no edits. Nothing goes on. It just stays on him, and he just takes the moment.

To me, this is a great example of why I love the work and the process, and how it's all about the details. I recall asking Bruce to challenge the camera on a take — to advance forward and lean into the camera crew's space, to take them by surprise. When he did that... it got that moment. He said those lines with such intensity. Jon saw that moment too, and the need to see that message. It served the music and the story perfectly. And we each brought something to that brief moment — that's the process for me.

It's interesting that you mention that "courthouse" line because that, to me, is the crux of "Long Walk Home." Knowing the song from the Seeger Sessions tour, it was sort of a surprise to hear the studio version of it on Magic and hear how that line was not really stressed in the recording. In the production of the song, I wanted a little bit more accent on that line, I guess, just to set it apart. So it was cool to see your video putting the accent back there, when he has that moment looking into the camera.

It's a beautiful line, and I remember being on set and seeing him deliver that, seeing him lean into the camera when he delivered it, and I just knew.

Sometimes in cutting you'll find one take, one moment, and you build the whole edit around the beauty of that moment — all the videos have that. In "Long Walk Home," that was the moment. In "Jersey Devil," I found it really beautiful to see him ride the horse with the wind blowing, coupled with the other shot of him on the horse just looking to camera. There's something so sinister about those two ordinary moments. When you have those moments and you put them against the track, and then the cut starts to talk to you, you have a reference point and you just build from that.

Still from "A Night With the Jersey Devil"

And the horse was "the moment" for you, more than Bruce rising out of the water?

I think so, for me. Because rising out of the water was a shot that Bruce described to me a long while ago. It's obviously an homage to the Apocalypse Now moment. We got it right after many takes, and it worked. I always felt like it was part of the song — but it was prescribed where it was going to be, and it had to be the beginning: the start of the evil coming out of the earth.

But when you're cutting, and you're looking at footage, and the sound and pictures, and one thing clicks.... then you just try to stay with that one exciting feeling of "this is the right image. This is the right moment in the song." You use that as a an emotional guide. And you can be surprised: sometimes what will seem like a small moment on set, when you put it against a track, all of a sudden it takes a new life.

So, those moments happen for you in the editing room as opposed to behind the camera?

It cuts both ways. But a lot of times you're shocked in the edit room with the power of the image. For example, again, Bruce on the horse. In reality, it wasn't as powerful. But when you made that image black and white and in slow motion, all of a sudden it took on a whole different meaning.

You talk about this as a collaboration with Bruce, and it's interesting, this is one of the few Springsteen songs — the only one I can think of right now — that doesn't work as well without the visual element. Was the song completely done when Bruce brought it to you?

At that point, yeah. It was something that was a small project, being that it was just going to be a fun music video for Halloween.

At the same time, it was one of the most intriguing things he'd done in a while, just because it was so far outside of his usual album/tour/album/tour routine. It was such a fun surprise to wake up on Halloween and find that thing there.

Yeah, I think it was an exciting way to use the internet — just the way I feel like the online concert clips have been on brucespringsteen.net. It was a great way to use the net. And we just took a lot of chances; for me, it was one of my favorite shoots.


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