Published on April 11th, 2018 | by Darren Paltrowitz0
“Elvis Presley: The Searcher” Director Thom Zimny On Elvis, Bruce Springsteen & What’s Ahead
Initially a poor truck driver from Mississippi, few artists had as dramatic of an ascent as Elvis Presley. While the man who many referred to as “The King” left us over 40 years ago, the demand for Elvis-related content has never gone away. Fortunately, HBO has produced the two-part presentation Elvis Presley: The Searcher, which features more than 20 new interviews with session players, producers, engineers, directors and artists who knew Elvis and/or were majorly influenced by him; Tom Petty is interestingly one of those artists. The Searcher also includes plenty of never-before-seen photos and footage, as sourced from private collections all around the world.
Director Thom Zimny — who has helmed multiple projects for Bruce Springsteen beyond worked on the all-time classic series The Wire — is the man behind The Searcher, which premieres on April 14th at 8:00 PM on HBO. I had the pleasure of speaking with Zimny about this and other projects has been involved with. More on the estate-approved documentary can be found on the HBO website.
What was your first exposure to Elvis? Do you remember the first song you heard about him?
Thom Zimny: My first exposure to the sheer power of Elvis’ music was when I was nine years old, and I got hold of a greatest hits cassette tape. I can still remember the energy and excitement as Trouble blasted through my parents’ home speakers and it had a huge impact on me.
How long did you spend working on The Searcher?
Thom Zimny: I spent three years developing and then another two years actually making both films.
After watching The Searcher, is there something you want more people to realize about Elvis? Do you feel that there are any misconceptions?
Thom Zimny: As a filmmaker you want to tell a story that both the serious fan and casual listener can relate to, and hopefully capture the real essence of the man that your story is about. There are so many misconceptions with the Elvis story especially, that our main goal was just to get beyond the celebrity and fame and show how the beautiful music he created gradually became lost amidst the distractions.
From working so closely with the Elvis estate, any idea if there is still unreleased footage? Or unreleased materials that one day may be released?
Thom Zimny: We went deep into the archives for this film, both in terms of the estate and private collections to uncover a lot of footage that hadn’t been seen before or if so then rarely. It was really an exhaustive process and yet what I found is that there’s always more footage to uncover. So yes, I’m sure there is more material out there that may be released someday, there are still collectors out there with private collections, so all I can tell fans is just be patient and to lobby their fellow fans to share that footage.
Given that Elvis had around two decades of musical activity while alive, and it’s 40-plus years since he left us, was it a hassle to know what to include within the film? Were there a lot of extras?
Thom Zimny: From working with Bruce over the past 18 years, what’s been remarkable is to see how he edits his own work, and it’s really an amazing example of how important editing is to crafting a narrative and a tone. I think a film’s soul as well is found first of all in the cutting room and you really have to remain open to how you respond to the material because the film has its own tempo and soul that talks to you if you take the time to listen.
When in the production process did Mike McCready come onboard?
Thom Zimny: I was introduced to Mike first by Marc Cimino at Universal Music and I’m very grateful for that because Mike just seemed to understand immediately what I was looking. I knew it had to be someone who could capture the emotional journey of Elvis as an artist, but also his influences — all without it overpowering the tone of the Elvis story and music. The composer had to be someone who understood the role the score would play in the two films, and they had to be somebody who could translate the emotional themes that I, who am not a musician, could only describe with words and visuals.
The Searcher is not your first music-related project, as you have worked with Bruce Springsteen, or your first HBO-related project, as you worked on The Wire. When did you make your transition from an editor to a proper director?
Thom Zimny: I was very fortunate in that I was working with Bruce and Jon Landau on making the Born To Run documentary and at the end of the process without any discussion they gave me the director credit, which was a huge honor for me. To this day I love both editing and directing and have drawn a lot from my history of working with David Simon and Bruce and bring those experiences with me to every new project I take on.
Aside from promoting The Searcher, what is coming up for you?
Thom Zimny: I’m very fortunate to be working on a new Johnny Cash feature documentary, which is being produced by Imperative Entertainment and Frank Marshall, so that’s a big project that I’m really excited to be involved in.
When not busy with film, how do you like to spend your free time?
Thom Zimny: I try to spend as much time as I can with my sons and daughter, and I find it’s with them that I get the most inspiration to carry me through both life and work.
Finally, Thom, any last words for the kids?
Thom Zimny: Throughout my career I’ve had some very positive mentors, so my main advice would be to seek one out — they stay with you throughout your life and remind you of the journey you’ve taken and all you have to be grateful for. Aside from that everything is really a combination of hard work and focus and of course luck.