Director John Sayles on Bruce Springsteen "I'm On Fire"

Bruce Springsteen - I'm On Fire

With Bruce Springsteen being honored as the MusicCares Artist Of The Year this weekend — headlining a charity event that boasted a who's who of rock from Neil Young to Mumford And Sons to John Legend — it seemed a good idea to throw the spotlight on The Boss. For this installment of our ongoing tribute to great 4x3 videos, Golden Age Of Music Video maven Stephen Pitalo revisits an interview he conducted with filmmaker and video director John Sayles. The focus of this excerpt is "I'm On Fire," a very unusual video for Springsteen that has him character and living the narrative of the song.

Director John Sayles on Bruce Springsteen "I'm On Fire"

Film director John Sayles has let his independent flag fly for over forty years. His steady and thoughtful creative output has yielded revered films such as Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Honeydripper, and the Academy Award-nominated Lone Star. His film school was on the job in Roger Corman's camp, scripting low-budget horror films such as Piranha and Alligator. Having famously polished the occasional studio script (Apollo 13, Mimic), and reportedly having written the screenplay for the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Sayles has simultaneously found a way to continuously write and direct his own pointedly personal and political dramas that answer to no one, save himself.

Sayles directed three music videos for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band during the '80s — the memorable clips for "Born in the U.S.A." "I’m On Fire", and "Glory Days" — which each reinforcing Springsteen’s position as an artist who could command the small screen as well as a stadium. Springsteen’s first real onscreen acting job was the smoldering night ride of the "I'm On Fire" music video.

Stephen Pitalo: "Born in the U.S.A." was concert and documentary footage, but  in "I’m on Fire", you have a storyline with Bruce paying a car mechanic. How was that developed?

John Sayles: With "I’m On Fire," it's a very unusual song to get on the air, first of all. In Bruce Springsteen’s work, it reminds me most of "Because The Night", which he didn’t even have on an album until he started doing compilation things later on. That song was always a highlight when he’d perform it, and it has a heat to it, a driving quality to it. And "I’m On Fire" is a really well-crafted song. It’s got a tone to it that is really kind of unique. For "I’m on Fire" and "Glory Days", the songs are basically stories, and Bruce had some ideas on what the story in the videos would be. I tend to say that those are the only two movies I’ve made as a director for hire. I came up with shots and stuff like that, but Bruce had a real idea of what he wanted the video to be. They were good ideas, and they were fun to work on.

SP: How did you know that Bruce would be such a good actor on camera?

JS: I think the fact that he was interested and willing to do it made me feel comfortable with it. This is a guy who people have been trying to lasso and drag into the movies for years by that time. You’d have to talk to him about this, but he’d been resisting it. I think he really understood the character, and that’s a big thing with an actor. And he doesn’t have to talk much! It’s a brooding character in a brooding song. I think he really understood that about the guy. That part I wasn’t worried about. I never call people "non-actors," I call them "new actors". New actors understand one thing, and if they are storytellers and show up and say they think they can do this, that’s a good indication that they’re going to be okay. You’re not asking them to do something that they are not mentally prepared to do, and I think it came down to the fact that he really understood the character.

SP: We never see the girl’s face in "I'm On Fire". Was that your idea?

JS: The song is so much in the character’s head that I didn’t think that she should be a character, that she should almost be iconic. So the legs belong to a model who we hired, and the voice is Maggie Renzi, who was the producer of the videos [she is also Sayles’ creative and life partner]. It’s a moody, moody song. So much of it is about the internal mood of this guy. I’d say my major contribution to it is that if Bruce Springsteen was going to play a character and have an entrance, it should be kind of a working-guy entrance, so I have him slide out from under the car. So many of his songs are about a social distance between people.

SP: Which is also an interesting thematic element of some of your work.

JS: Yes. And in the case of that song, I really felt like there’s so much distance between them that, let’s see iconic things. Let’s see her legs and a little bit of the clothing, this incredible car that she owns, and this house that she lives in, literally a "Mansion on the Hill" — it was a mansion overlooking Los Angeles — and realizing that, as much as there’s that physical heat I’m getting from the song, there is this gap. And that idea is something that Bruce had brought to us.

SP: That moving shot over the bed is great. Did that take a while?

JS: Not really. We were dealing with professionals. None of these videos took that long. They were fun to make. By the time we made "Glory Days", the only problem with making them was that Bruce had gotten so famous, there were TV crews and telephoto lenses and fans and everybody trying to find out where we were shooting. So planning how to avoid them and just get your work done was a big part of the problem.

Visit The Golden Age Of Music Video to read the  interview in its entirety, and for more '80s music video conversations and features.