Everybody has a Willie Nelson story, including Willie Nelson himself.
“We really opened ourselves to have somewhat of a nonlinear story so that we gave ourselves the opportunities, and five hours gives you that chance to kind of go on tangents and come back into the story, skip back,” Willie Nelson & Family co-director Oren Moverman says about the decision he and Thom Zimny made for their five-part docuseries about the legendary 89-year-old musician. “Almost like talking with Willie, where he’ll tell you a story from 1963 and then tell you a story about something that happened yesterday and all these times are really part of one story. So, we just went with it.”
Going with it is the essential vibe of Willie Nelson & Family, which has its Sundance Film Festival premiere today in Salt Lake City. At times as much a meditation on the American experiment as it is on the man himself, the series is a freewheeling ride — as you can see in this exclusive clip:
Before the debut and several more screenings over the next week, The Messenger director Moverman and Springsteen On Broadway helmer Zimny discuss what brought them together for this project, the positive role the Covid pandemic played, and the nice break Willie Nelson & Family could provide from “the madness of Sundance,” with or without a puff or two.
DEADLINE: There’s a great line in the series, in the last episode, about Willie and the magic he carries around in his pocket. It kind of sums up the whole show for me, but I wonder what those words meant to you guys?
ZIMNY: I think a big part of that quote reminds me of a phrase that we came about in making the Willie documentary, which is there’s a Willie world where you sometimes plan things, you sometimes hope to get certain ideas across, and you have to get to this phase of falling into a rhythm that reflects Willie Nelson’s life.
This is not a straight story that unfolds easily. That chaos is very different in a production when you’re dealing with Willie Nelson’s life. Because we interviewed about 80 people, and you just have all these different points of view and all these different rich details.
The Willie magic really is an impossible task to define or categorize him. If you ever go into any of those directions as filmmakers, we would just step back and go wait a minute, this is feeling like it’s stepped out of Willie World.
MOVERMAN: That’s the magic. Things happen. You accept them. You live one day at a time. You embrace the present. You see the joy and the tragedy. You’d rather have the joy, but you deal with the tragedy. He’s gone through so much in almost 90 years of life. That special magic in his pocket is just his ability to not only survive but inspire.
DEADLINE: Both of you come out of long and traditional film format, but Willie Nelson & Family is a five-part TV series. Why did you choose to go that direction with this project?
ZIMNY: I think early on we realized that we were dealing with a massive story and that there was no other way but to explore it with a duration that honored things that we wanted to spend time with, which is the influences. We didn’t want to just check boxes in the film.
DEADLINE: Getting right down to it, with streamers become such a significant portion of the bidders and buyers, especially at a festival and especially Sundance. Was that a factor in the decision to go to a TV series?
MOVERMAN: Not really
MOVERMAN: Honestly, we really treated it as one film.
We really opened ourselves to have somewhat of a nonlinear story so that we gave ourselves the opportunities and five hours gives you that chance to kind of go on tangents and come back into the story, skip back. Almost like talking with Willie, where he’ll tell you a story from 1963 and then tell you a story about something that happened yesterday and all these times are really part of one story. So, we just went with it.
To be honest, we didn’t know if it was going to be five hours or four hours. We knew it was going to be long. The film, and we treated it like a film, it kind of told us how long it needed to be.
DEADLINE: Was that part of your own learning curve as a first-time documentarian?
MOVERMAN: The truth is that, as I’ve learned, when you make a documentary film there are certain things you have to give up and there are certain things you have to not include, exclude from the final film. But we really sort of stripped it down to the essence and the vibe and the philosophy, and that took this amount of time. Then the idea of breaking it up into parts because we do consider it, even though I corrected myself, we do consider it a film that’s divided into five parts. On our end it didn’t come from some kind of calculated marketing or sales approach. It really came from the idea…because we’re not worried if anybody’s interested in Willie or not. We knew people are interested. Really honoring what the story was asking us to do with it.
DEADLINE: The project gives a great sense of Willie’s go-with-the-flow ethos, and you guys have leaned into that too here. In terms of going with the flow, you made a lot of this in the heat of the pandemic. Lot of challenges there…
ZIMNY: For sure. But I will say this, there was this point that we realized that it was the perfect time to interview Willie.
ZIMNY: Because for the first time he wasn’t on the road. For the first time he could sit down and reflect. That, to me, is another aspect of this whole film experience, because I’ve had other experiences in documentary where you don’t have control. But with the Willie project especially you kind of turn over to the chaos because you start to discover gems, whether that’s chasing footage or learning about new music, or the story suddenly changing because you’re sitting across from Willie and he tells you a detail that you’ve never heard or read.
DEADLINE: Thom, you’ve had a long career, and a lot of people know you from your Emmy-winning work on Springsteen on Broadway. Oren, you have had a long career in the industry too, and saw your feature directorial debut The Messenger pick up a couple of Oscar noms about a decade ago. Now, I know Willie Nelson’s fanbase is pretty broad, but so are your backgrounds. So how did you come to co-direct this series together?
MOVERMAN: We’ve been friends for a long time, so it wasn’t like somebody threw us into this and said work it out. We’ve been talking about making a film together or more over the years. We never knew if it was going to be a documentary that I’ll be involved with or a script that Thom would be involved with. But, we already had the language of friendship
DEADLINE: How did that actually translate into making this project together?
MOVERMAN: The third mind.
DEADLINE: Pardon me?
MOVERMAN: This idea that when you put two minds together it’s not two minds together. It’s actually a creation of a third mind. Maybe that’s part of the magic of Willie as well. That story affords the possibility of two people coming in and sort of getting everything out of the way and just getting in touch with Willie world.
Once you’re in it, the language is so clear. The positivity is so apparent. We found the language because of Covid we had a lot of time to talk about it before we started shooting. We talked about his story and the themes and all these things way in advance. So when we got in there we just felt so relieved to finally shoot that we just went with it. There wasn’t a lot of second-guessing. There wasn’t a lot of giving it too much thought, and we followed Willie’s philosophy, which is if you’re not having fun, kick it out.
ZIMNY: Us having a history but at the same time being open to taking a chance in front of each other to come up with great ideas but also ideas that we both laugh at and go, well, that’s not going to work. That’s a creative freedom that was fabulous to make for this film in particular because it’s such a distinct personality and history and family and world that you needed to have a conversation creatively all along. Up to the very last part of the mix or color correct, we’re still in that zone.
MOVERMAN: The beauty of Thom is that he’s completely open to taking whatever is conventional and going fuck that. So that kind of conversation. The certain kind of a bit of a punk attitude to what is accepted and what is right and how do you do these things really fit into Willie world as well because he doesn’t have any rules. He doesn’t have any structure. His life is what it is in the movie, in the series. It’s in the moment and it just goes. It flows. It’s the road.
ZIMNY: The movie becomes a person you start to listen to and tells you and guides you in the direction that it wants to live and be.
With the storytelling, we thought about Willie’s world and we thought a lot about it and then we realized we weren’t going to call them interviews. We were going to call them witnesses to ourselves. What were those witnesses? Where were they going to live? One of the ways that we decided was to shoot them behind black so as almost this testimony of sorts where they’re looking directly in camera. Then everyone who’s family with Willie would be in real environments. Those were the kind of things that we talked about in terms of details to separate the word at times and points of view but also visually start to tell the story.
DEADLINE: The telling of that story takes some unexpected turns on the road, most noticeably to me in that tale Wynton Marsalis tells of doing a tribute to Ray Charles with Willie. He speaks to the camera about how much he respects and likes Willie but there were worries, or concerns the Jazz master and his band had, of Willie coming in at the right time on the right note.
DEADLINE: And every time, Willie nailed it.
ZIMNY: That’s a moment that we literally were talking about today. It’s an important moment for us because its placement at the end of the film…
DEADLINE: I don’t mean any disrespect by saying that. It was just so strong, and so telling.
ZIMNY: Not at all. That’s beautiful. It’s like there is a narrative arc sometimes that at the end of these films the journey goes into an isolated work and talks about an isolated work as being the pivotal work and then it segues to an end. We didn’t want that because the reality of it is, is that we never fade out on picture.
We just leave.
Willie’s still creating is my point. Willie is still actively pursuing his musical ideas. The Marsalis piece for us really helped that fourth chapter of his creativity in a way because it was an honest description because it did talk about can he do it. And also just him looking directly into camera and saying this is serious. Take this note. For us, that really structured that last bead of the film to really show Willie as an active artist on the journey.
You know, just to say it’s like we had so many different influences of interviews and people telling us that theme so many times that we knew we couldn’t condense the last chapters of his life into anything because he’s still…when we were interviewing him he was playing demos and rough mixes, much like a young country star.
MOVERMAN: We really believe that there’s something quite healing and inspiring about this movie.
Willie’s a very spiritual guy, however you sort of read him or look into his story. I think that it will be, in a way, a nice break from the madness of Sundance.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
MOVERMAN: It will just allow people to sit there and just get into the vibe. Maybe there are substances to be brought in and maybe there aren’t. But just really sit there and just kind of hopefully be absorbed into Willie world. I think that kind of…because there’s so little cynicism. There’s a vibe to it that sometimes could be a little funny. There’s so little cynicism to it.