For decades, Willie Nelson has been playing to audiences, spending almost every day possible on the road crisscrossing the land to spread his iconic blend of Americana that’s as varied, complex, and complicated as the land he calls home. Born in Texas, his foray to Nashville resulted in standards like “Crazy,” a monster hit for Patsy Cline that made him a musician’s musician and songwriter. Leaving alcoholism behind, he found in the cannabis plant a new way of quieting the demons, illustrating perhaps the most “outlaw” aspect of his supposed style. He’d find hits and produce misses, did duets with legends and newcomers alike, and found his biggest financial success with a recording of American Songbook classics produced by an R&B legend, only to have his fortune lost due to mismanagement when the IRS came knocking for its share.
For a man with a guitar that looks like it’s been through a war, there’s still mighty music that emits from his weary instrument. The same, of course, is said about the man himself, and in this late period of career and life, he seems to have come to terms with what worked and what did not, and opens up in a way that at least attempts to go beyond the mythmaking.
Co-directors Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman are no strangers to dealing with iconoclastic musicians. The former is most known for his collaborations with Bruce Springsteen on a number of concert films and documentaries like Western Stars and Letter to You, while the latter is an Oscar nominated filmmaker who helped bring the sublime Brian Wilson drama Love & Mercy to life.
The 240-minute running time of Willie Nelson & Family is split into chapters, although the structure doesn’t quite fit neatly into being episodic, with clear intention to have the work appreciated as a whole. There are plenty of voices heard from various stages of Nelson’s career, but what’s most impressive is how the various versions of Willie himself help narrate the documentary, sometimes in obviously contradictory ways as his thoughts shift and perspectives mature.
The result is surely a definitive portrait of the man and his music, detailing his vast output and contextualizing him as both a unique talent but also a bridge to a wide variety of genres, from country to soul to jazz and beyond. It’s quite a trip, and thanks to some deft filmmaking and a tremendously impressive subject, the long journey is certainly worth taking.
POV spoke with the directors via Zoom from Park City where they were premiering the project at the Sundance international film festival.
POV: Jason Gorber
TZ: Thom Zimny
OM: Oren Moverman
The following has been edited for clarity and concision
POV: Let’s talk about how both of you have spent much of your careers navigating legends and finding ways of telling their stories that fulfil fans’ expectations, but also give us real projects. Where there’s so much mythmaking about someone like Willie Nelson, how do you tell the story without repeating what we already know?
TZ: It was an incredible challenge and very different from other experiences I had with films on other musicians, because Willie’s life is so big. We had the support of Willie, his family, and management, so we ended doing more than 80 interviews. There was so much material, and every time you came to a subject, it would grow. You might have an understanding as a filmmaker early on with a little bit of research about the details of Willie’s life, but everything changes when Willie tells the story, and suddenly somebody else adds to that narrative, so it gets bigger and bigger. That’s why this film – and we saw it as a film – runs five hours, for we couldn’t contain it into a small, 90-minute doc. His is a big life, and for me, it was a unique experience trying to capture it.
OM: From the beginning we started talking about doing a deep dive. We didn’t know how long it was going to be, but we knew it was going to be deep. If you’re going to go for a deep dive, you’re not going to stay in the myth-making narrative. You’re really going to go into stuff that hurts, and the stuff that’s not really talked about, things that are unknown, new perspectives, etc. We talked to people who truly knew the story, so it wasn’t just fans or people in his world who are just there to say how amazing he is.
We started collecting pieces of narrative, and started putting them together almost in the way he puts together a song: the way vocally he sits just behind the beat, or ahead of the beat, jumping in time. We’re creating something formally that’s equivalent to what Willie does himself, but with the voices of people who know him, but also his own voice throughout the years. The film was never going to be an almost 90-year old man reflecting back on his life and feeding the myth. He was so open and honest and authentic.
POV: Thom, your Springsteen album documentaries are so meaningful to me because they dive deeply into a very specific storyline and then expand outwards. It’s a unique way of dealing with one moment of time and going through it. And Oren, with Love & Mercy, you have this beautiful articulation of a massive story, but by telling it with two different timelines, you allow one to reflect upon the other. Structurally, those are very different. In some ways, this Willie doc is a very straightforward telling of this tale, with sprinkling of other, more experimental elements, providing clarity with which the rest can be seen in its scattered light.
TZ: It was definitely a narrative that was clean in terms of understanding it, but I feel like Oren and I definitely didn’t take a traditional approach. When you look at film one, you drop into a space called Willie’s Ranch that used to be a movie set. Then it goes into the Red Headed Stranger album, and that takes you into his childhood, to his first guitar, and so on. This is a deconstruction of that kind of PBS fade-up and a voiceover saying, “Willie was born on this date, and so on.” I never had any interest in that language. Both consciously and unconsciously, these things are being thrown around in the cutting room.
The film needed to reflect Willie as close as we were experiencing Willie’s reality. The edit style itself reflects Willie’s world. Talking with Willie, in a moment of time he will start describing a current demo that he just started working on, then flashback to 1975, and then reference the ’80s, all within a three-minute span. Yet you follow along, and you have a clear understanding what he’s going for. The structure of our edit reflects that style. We’re not tied to a docutainment A-Z format, but at the same time, we’re going to pick associations and ideas and link them together through the cutting.
OM: There is fundamentally a clarity to it. We arrived there because we found out that when we tried to be too clever in telling this story, you fall on your face. When you try to be experimental, you see the artifice of the filmmaking. With Willie, you can’t do that. It’s just gotta stay honest. You can skip around, you can make a joke, you can maybe bend the truth a little bit – not us, but whoever is talking – and then come back to somebody else who will say, “Nah, it wasn’t like that.” But you couldn’t be uber clever. You had to be honest.
POV: I don’t think there’s anybody who truly hates Willie Nelson. Even those that he’s pissed off still find him agreeable, yet there some people might want tea spilled. They look for the tabloid stuff like that.
TZ: As a filmmaker, I’ve worked on stories with different artists, and I’ve always chased the journey, whether it’s Elvis Presley, or the Beach Boys, or Johnny Cash. With Willie, you have an active artist. We didn’t shy away from any details of life, but at the same time, it reflected his commitment to core ideas, which are family, his understanding of the power of music, and his relationships with those people. I just don’t think we’re interested in the POV of something salacious.
POV: Here’s what I’m getting at: you have very eloquent interviews with his ex-partners, many of whom might normally, with a different subject, have an axe to grind. But what seems absolutely genuine here is that the people who were spending all of their lives with him just like him. He seems like a mensch.
OM: He is. And there’s very little room for cynicism. If you’re going to be cynical about Willie Nelson, you’re kind of a lost cause, and I don’t know how to get you back. There’s a lot of pain in this, there are quite a few moments where it’s not pretty, where it’s not like Willie was great. I don’t know how many people knew that he was a mean drunk. I don’t know how many people knew that he would get into fights. I don’t know how many people know what he says on camera, which is in his drinking days, he tried to kill himself several times. If you go the cynical route, then you’re missing an unbelievably inspiring story.
TZ: And the reflection of family is there in the interviews. All of the children are there talking, and there’s descriptions of how they lived together and how they’ve had this life with Willie. It was great to have that choir of voices and in some ways feel like witnesses to Willie’s chapter. And the only reason we got that many voices is that we had a team of producers who not only opened the door for us to meet people and talk to them, but gave us some details that go way outside of the traditional books or film that could be used as research. We got an inside track with the people in Willie’s life and, really, that trust translates on to the screen.
OM: The film has plenty of room for audiences to draw their own conclusions. You see the first set of kids had very different experience from the second set of kids, and both sets had enormously different experiences from the youngest kids. You see Willie’s evolution through their stories and through their on-camera presence. He said it himself that he fucked up here and there, and the road was his way of being away from his family for so long. At the end of the story, the road brings his family together. There were a lot of spaces left, and the unsaid is not something salacious. The unsaid is the emotional truth that you’re getting out of it and what you’re feeling about your life and comparing it with this man’s life.
POV: Let’s talk about the fundamental personal thing when you’re in a room and Willie picks up his guitar Trigger and starts strumming a G chord.
TZ: Absolutely! Oren and I have been lucky enough to have been around different environments with musical legends or heroes. For my experience, there’s been nothing more powerful than to see Willie reach for that guitar, strum a chord, and have the healing power of his voice fill a small Maui room. And atop that to hear the blend of family that can only come from family, which was his youngest children. Oren and I, as filmmakers, we had dreams of certain things, like wouldn’t it be great if Willie played for us, yet we never could dream up these scenarios that we ended up with thanks to Willie, his family, and his wife, Annie.
We had this opportunity to see Willie thinking, processing these questions about his life, but also doing the one thing that Willie does in a space, which is the healing power of music. Those acoustic performances in Maui were the perfect driving force to experience before going into the edit. We have different chapters when making films—you have the dream of the film in your mind, you have the experience of shooting it, and then you have the edit. We would sometimes just look at Maui and just marvel that we had this moment.
OM: They were sitting around for an hour and a half, playing, picking, and singing and sometimes they would say, “What do you want to hear?” I remember looking at Thom and Thom looking at me and we couldn’t believe we were inches away from them and they’re performing for us. It’s so natural for them. They’re not putting on a show, they’re just existing. It feeds the whole idea that Willie tries to live in the present.
TZ: In the spirit of Willie and Willie’s world, you sometimes believe in the illusion of control. The world was shut down, and that meant that Willie was not touring. He was hungry to reflect on all of the past and the days, and he wanted to have an audience of some sort. There was no better time. If we didn’t get out of our own way, we would have had a forced POV. We stumbled into the beauty of mistakes, and that to me is the shorthand to defining Willie’s world. That’s why the film doesn’t try to be clever with stylistic cutting, or try to be perfect.
POV: How do you avoid succumbing to the charm of Willie? How do you find the narrative space not to be that person in the room who’s experiencing the moment?
OM: Thom and I kept each other real. We knew that we were not looking for dark secrets that would sensationalize, but we were looking for truth, an emotional truth more than anything. So we kept questioning each other, “Are we seeing it the right way?” The truth of the matter is that filming is one thing when you’re in a room, but then you have a long time away from all of this. By nature, we will challenge our own perception of things and challenge each other. We’ve been friends for a long time, so we know how to get each other’s goat and ask, “Are we just in love with this, or are we seeing it clearly?” We kept checking ourselves all the time.
TZ: I enjoyed having space and time with Oren where we would listen to archival recordings of a younger Willie Nelson to dismantle an idea that we had. The older Willie might have said one idea, but we found a cassette recording that had a different perspective, and we were able to at times use both recordings. The voice of Willie you hear throughout these films are all different chapters of his life. They’re not just tied to the reflections of the current day. Having that also keeps you truthful because the younger Willie had a different point of view at times, or at least could express an idea differently. We had two really great editors who stayed in the pocket of our dream world of Willie. We had one basic thing, which was trust, and with that, we could run with it.