Willie Nelson & Family, the new five-episode, 260-minute docu-series about the music legend by co-directors Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman, should feel “like a conversation with Willie,” they say.
The film premiered Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival, just a few months ahead of Nelson’s upcoming 90th birthday, and it’s a glorious, anything-but-straightforward celebration of what Zimny and Moverman refer to as “Willie World.”
Willie Nelson & Family doesn’t exactly proceed chronologically, but it doesn’t exactly not proceed that way, either. The narrative flows in and out between various topics relevant to Willie’s life, from his family and his music, to his philanthropies, his collaborations, his friendships, and his battles with various establishments.
Each episode of the series has its own internal logic, as though you’re participating in a conversation with Willie that bounces around his life and memories. But what shines throughout are his incredible legacy of music and the unmistakable code that guides his life. As the sign in his kitchen says (and as gets consistently repeated throughout the series): “Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a goddamn asshole.” It’s a simple mantra, but Willie believes it and lives it to its core.
Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman both have extensive experience in music films, but those experiences have been very different. Moverman has never previously directed a film about music, nor had he made a documentary. But Moverman has had a celebrated career as both a producer, director, and screenwriter, which includes writing the screenplays for two beloved music biopics— 2007’s I’m Not There and 2014’s Love & Mercy — and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for his 2009 directorial debut, The Messenger.
Thom Zimny, meanwhile, is most prominently known for being Bruce Springsteen’s archivist, and he’s directed numerous film projects centered around The Boss, including 2018’s Springsteen on Broadway, 2019’s Western Stars, and 2020’s Letter to You. Zimny’s love of music archival work also led him to directing documentaries about Elvis Presley (2018’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher) and Johnny Cash (2019’s The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash).
We talked to Zimny and Moverman about how they met, how they approached documenting a career that goes back nearly 70 years, and what their process of working together was like.
Daniel Joyaux: You’ve been wanting to work together for a long time. When did you meet and how did that desire start?
Oren Moverman: We actually met at a dinner party. We ended up sitting next to each other and the conversation started, and now it’s been going on for almost 15 years. Movies, music, life… It was an immediate thing. Early on we flirted with the idea that Thom should come over to my side and do some scripts, but we never really started something, except in a way we’ve been preparing all those years to do this. When this opportunity came we just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This is the one.’
Thom Zimny: This is an amazing story for us to jump into as filmmakers, as friends, and as guys who just love Willie’s music. The narrative was massive, and that’s why you end up with five hours of a life that’s as rich as you can dream up. The real thing with my conversations with Oren is I was able to get a lot of inspiration just from him not having experience in documentaries. But he’s a writer, so that was a tremendous plus. He could work with me in a very natural way to make the film feel like it was a conversation with Willie. I got to take that journey with Oren, which was perfect because Willie is such a massive story that you needed to bounce around a lot of different ideas.
Daniel Joyaux: Oren, you hadn’t worked in documentaries, but you’d written the screenplays to two great music biopics. And Thom, you’ve worked almost exclusively in music documentaries, but most of your work has been about specific albums or concerts. How did this project bring your different experiences together?
Zimny: I don’t think I was very conscious of it, but when I look back one of the key things Oren brought to the language of the film was having people sit in this sort of confessional booth of black, where you wouldn’t see anything, and they could just sit in front of the camera and reflect on Willie. That was one of the first ideas that felt like a new approach for me in getting interviews.
But it was never conscious. We’re filmmakers that love music. I see very different narrative elements in the film that I know come from Oren’s background, and I see some archival elements that I know come from mine.
Moverman: In many ways we approached it with a beginner’s mind. It wasn’t about what either of us had done before, but about ‘What is this story,’ and how do we find the language within Willie World, and not trying to impose anything other than just instincts.
Daniel Joyaux: Were there any previous music documentaries that you two looked at with a sense of how you wanted this film to feel?
Zimny: It’s interesting, I don’t think I ever once referenced another music doc with Oren. We constantly referenced narrative films and music, but never other music docs.
Moverman: I think we talked about movies like Reds more than we talked about other documentaries. And in the Reds interviews they’re actually talking to Warren Beatty, but here we put them in this confessional booth with the camera. So we kind of developed our style for the movie based on who we are and what we were encountering.
Daniel Joyaux: Once the contracts have been signed and you’re making the movie, you’re faced with a seven-decade archive of material. What was Day One of making the film like?
Zimny: Way before it was green lit, we were making the film in our heads. That’s the dream that you want to be in. But we brought Adrienne Gerard on board as a story producer, and he worked with us on creating this bible of Willie World. We broke down his life into these conversations, and these initial conversations create a dream space that you try to carry on all through the process.
Moverman: Just to give you an example of how Willie World works and how this movie was made, we got to Maui, first day of shooting, and we were setting everything up when someone told us that Willie looked kind of beautiful in the lounge he was sitting and waiting in. So we picked up the cameras and ran in there, started talking, and we kind of never left. That was part of letting the magic happen and not trying to control the process. Being in Willie World means not striving for absolute perfection, but striving for truth in the moment.
Daniel Joyaux: Did you two go through the archive chronologically? Or how did you approach the mountain of material?
Zimny: Because we always talked about not telling this in a linear fashion, we embraced looking at the old Willie with the young Willie. I think we relied on keeping away from a chronological mental build, and for me it’s much more impactful to be watching Willie in the 1950s singing on a TV show, and then suddenly you get a clip of Willie in the ‘80s, and you see that full arc of development.
Moverman: We were the opposite of militant, because Willie World is not militant, and if you bring that kind of discipline to it you’ve shot yourself in the foot.
Daniel Joyaux: How did the length of the film evolve? What was your original goal, when did you settle on an episodic format, and how did five become the magic number?
Moverman: We don’t know, it just did. [Laughs.]
Zimny: The way the film evolved into a series is a classic example of Willie World, which is, there was no big discussion, and no moment of index cards on a wall saying ‘The five episodes will be this.’ It was a process that was very different from other films I’ve worked on.
We had an amazing editorial team [Brett Banks & Chris Iversen] that captured this nonlinear fashion that also felt very comfortable and very logical. It landed at five, and sometimes that’s my only sadness: that it has to stop. But there was no show bible. Oren and I both love the process of editing, and we both felt the film was talking to us. Each episode is very different, but they have overlapping qualities that make it a journey.
Moverman: There was also a hope that we were building it in such a way that you could go back and start watching anywhere you want.
Daniel Joyaux: What was your process of working together? Were you assigning different elements to each other, or were you mostly in the room together?
Moverman: I don’t think there was a decision that was made by one person.
Zimny: The beauty to me in this collaboration was that we could both turn to each other about an abstract obsession. But often it came down to just a vibe. Asking each other, ‘Do you feel alright with this,’ or saying ‘I think we need to do a little of this, and I’m not sure why.’
Moverman: There were times when we made a decision, and then hours later Thom would text me and say that something’s not sitting right. Then we’d talk about it and discover exactly where that instinct is coming from. We made decisions constantly like that.
Daniel Joyaux: Was there anyone you really wanted to get and just couldn’t for some reason?
Moverman: No, everyone wanted to talk about Willie. And one rule that we stuck to religiously is we were only going to interview people who knew what they were talking about. We weren’t going to interview people who were just celebrity fans. We only wanted people who could contribute to the story because they were there.
Daniel Joyaux: For the most part the film has a fairly linear chronology, but every once in a while that would break. For example, the sequence about the Highwaymen came after the sequence about Willie’s 1993 comeback album, Across the Borderline. Can you talk about the calculus for how you ordered the film?
Moverman: I’m glad you feel it was mostly chronological, because we tried to make something that was chronological but not linear. And that’s not just semantics; part of being in Willie World is understanding that the past, the present, and the future are all existing at the same time for him. He lives in the present, but he can talk about all those things in one breath.
We wanted a movie where you never feel lost in the chronology, but we’re actually not that beholden to the order of events. Because so many people are involved in the conversations — so many memories and different timelines — we kind of enjoyed the fact that people had different dates and different ideas of when things happened. Ultimately it all adds up to one experience, so we never felt we had to put dates on the screen. We worked really hard with our editors to make it feel like you won’t get lost in the story, but you also won’t be beholden to when each thing happened.
Zimny: In early Zoom conversations with Willie, you could see he skipped around. So there was this idea of, ‘What if the movie had the flow of a Willie conversation?’ And that means he could go into a story about Red Headed Stranger, and that reminds him of his childhood, and that reminds him of owning Trigger [his guitar], and then you’ve just covered so many different chapters in a six-minute period. That was a freeing force, because then emotionally as a viewer, as long as you’re not confused, you can follow along with the conversation.
With Willie’s world, you needed to dismantle the linear structure emotionally right from the very beginning. So we start the film with something that was familiar but kind of explained him a bit, which was Red Headed Stranger. And now you’ve stripped away the ‘Cradle to the grave’ language. All of those things happened instinctually because we both reject that language of filmmaking that’s strictly linear.
Main image: Willie Nelson, from Willie Nelson & The Family. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.