Go backBack to selection

“It All Mirrored Willie’s World” | Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman, Willie Nelson & Family

Willie Nelson performs on stage with an acoustic guitar. He dons a red, white and blue bandana and guitar strap and his distinctive braids.Wille Nelson & Family, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Every production faces unexpected obstructions that require creative solutions and conceptual rethinking. What was an unforeseen obstacle, crisis, or simply unpredictable event you had to respond to, and how did this event impact or cause you to rethink your film?

The obvious unforeseen obstacle, crisis, and unpredictable event we had to respond to in making Willie Nelson & Family was the pandemic. But the impact on the process was surprising. As most people know (if they don’t, they will after seeing the five-part documentary film), Willie Nelson lives on the road. He always has to be on the bus, on the move. At 89-years old, he is constantly active: touring, recording, writing. He’s also quite spontaneous in his nomadic life. He can pop up in some unexpected place, or simply disappear from another only to reappear somewhere else, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Sure, we knew where his home was, but the only place Willie Nelson really lives is in the moment. To schedule the filmmaking around the one-day-at-a-time Willie became quite daunting. Even with a small crew, production doesn’t tend to be THAT freewheeling. And then the shut down happened. And, of course, it was tragic, frightening and catastrophic on many levels; we don’t really need to remind anyone, you all remember it. But in our little corner of the world, once there was some breathing room to go out there and film—masked, vaccinated, etc.—somewhere between the Alpha variant and Delta, before touring resumed, we not only knew where Willie was holed up, we found a Willie Nelson who was well-rested, hungry to create, and ready to reflect on his life. With the world still turned upside down, production had its hiccups and mistakes, difficulties and delays, but we quickly realized it all mirrored Willie’s world, Willie’s story. It was all about attitude. We learned to embrace the obstacles and let go of the quest for perfection that comes so obsessively with the passion of making a film. We just lived with Willie in the moment. One day at a time. Letting things happen. The result is not only what’s unique about the finished film, but also how it changed our lives, our philosophy. Willie, the man and his story, has a healing quality. In many ways, he helped us get through the unforeseen obstacle, crisis, and unpredictable event we had to respond to. And in some other strange ways, the best ways, he himself was the unforeseen, unpredictable event we encountered—his positivity about life, his resilience in the face of adversity. Add some great music to that, and there’s very little rethinking to do. There’s just being. 

See all responses to our annual Sundance Question here.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham