When Sean Penn decided to make the step from in front of the camera to a directing role, there was one story that he knew that he needed to tell for his debut feature film. The inspiration for the film came directly from a Bruce Springsteen track. It landed heavily on the actor and it became clear Penn had a desire to bring Springteen’s words to life.
Springsteen’s way with words is simply breathtaking. The methods in which he can induce the listener into emotionally investing in the story have earned him the deserved title of ‘The Boss’. The stories that Springsteen conducts with his music, however, don’t always materialise from thin air. One of his most beloved storytelling songs, ‘Atlantic City,’ was born from the cinematic inspiration of Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon’s film of the same name. Likewise, the influence of Springsteen has also influenced the world of cinema, as Sean Penn can attest to.
In 1982, Springsteen shared the seminal album Nebraska, which is unequivocally up there with anything that The Boss has ever released. There was one song on the album that hit home with Penn. ‘Highway Patrolmen’ tells the tale of two brothers whose lives go down opposite routes and how one brother settles down to live an everyday rural existence, whilst another get’s lost in a life of crime. Penn was only 22 when the track was released, but the story always resonated with him. When his stock rose to a level that allowed him to step foot behind the camera, he knew that this was the only story he wanted to tell, and alas, he did in 1991 with The Indian Runner.
Penn explained in an interview with Roger Ebert in 1991, “What happened was someone that I knew had a promotional copy of the Nebraska record before it came out, and we sat around listening to it, and Springsteen happened to call that night. I had met him once or twice before that, briefly, and I was so moved by the whole record, but this one song, in particular, I got on the phone with him, and without thinking in any literal terms, I said something to the effect of: ‘I’d like to make a movie out of that song.’
“As the years went by, I thought of doing with myself and De Niro. We talked about it a couple of times, and it always came back to getting a writer. I talked to a couple of writers, who expressed sporadic interest, and meanwhile, every time I heard the song, I thought about it. I realised after several years had gone by that a lot of pictures were coming into my head from the song,” Penn continued.
“I’d go for a long period of time without hearing it, and sometimes I’d hear it again, and just before we were doing We’re No Angels and I was thinking about it an awful lot then. At that point, I knew I didn’t want to act in it, but I started getting pictures in my head of what these guys would look like and what they sounded like – rhythms of speech, and things like that. I really wanted to write. I felt a need to write at that point, and so rather than go ahead and secure the rights, with the song and everything, I said I’m just going to go ahead and write this and get it out of my system.
“So I sat down to write it and I wrote it, and not long after that, I showed it to Springsteen, and he told me to go ahead, which was a surprise to me; I know that he’s turned down a lot of similar situations, but I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I wrote it on spec, so he could already look at it, and not make a blind deal.”
The film did justice to Springsteen’s song and was a fine debut directorial effort by Penn. Although it was a different story at the box office, with the film only recouping $191,000 despite having a budget of $7,000,000, however, Penn remains duly proud of the effort. The fact that he was able to feel a connection so strong with the characters in ‘Highway Patrolmen’ that he felt compelled to create a film based on the story is a testament to the songwriting prowess of Springsteen and his gift with a pen.