“The Middle” features sweeping footage of great expanses of America’s heartland, as Springsteen voices a narrative about a chapel in Lebanon, Kansas — “standing on the exact center of the lower 48. It never closes, all are more than welcome” — before going into broader themes about how divided we have become. “It’s no secret, the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue… between our freedom and our fear,” he continues. He ends delivering hope that we can find a way back to each other as neighbors, friends and Americans.
Springsteen appears in the ad, driving a Jeep through snow-lined streets, as the commercial’s elegiac score, composed by Springsteen and Ron Aniello, unspools.
Landau took Billboard behind the scenes on Sunday on how the commercial came about and what it means for future brands wanting to work with the superstar.
You and Olivier have been discussing ideas for years. What had those discussions been like?
I thought the  Clint Eastwood/[Chrysler] commercial called “It’s Half Time, America” was the best commercial I had ever seen. Olivier Francois and I had met around then and stayed in touch over the years. Every December, he would send me some very good ideas for Bruce that we automatically turned down. This time he sent us the outline and rough for “The Middle,” and Bruce and I had the identical reaction: “Let’s do it.”
What about the outline for “The Middle” made you, as you say, immediately reply, “Let’s do it?”
They had assembled a terrific rough cut from stock footage and Bruce’s pre-existing film work. When we saw it, we just felt that Bruce could turn this into something special.
What were your conversations with Bruce like, given this is a step he has never taken before?
This was a spontaneous decision. Olivier sent me the treatment, and I sent it to Bruce, we got on the phone and decided in a minute. It was like, the material’s great, we knew we could make it greater, let’s go. That was about it.
Were you surprised he said yes?
No, it felt right to me and I thought it would feel right to him.
The narration is like a prayer for America. How much involvement did Bruce have with the Doner agency in the script?
The excellent original script was by Mike Stelmaszek and substantially revised by Bruce. Bruce and I were happy with every word of the final script.
How long did Bruce and Ron work on the underscore? Did they write it specifically for the commercial?
Yes, it was written for the film. They worked on it for a few days. They would come up with something, director Thom Zimny would put it in the emerging film, and then they would revise. Ron Aniello has been collaborating with Bruce for many albums by now, and they have a very relaxed way of going about their work.
Why did Bruce feel it necessary to go to Kansas when he was given the option to not leave New Jersey?
The heart of the film is the tiny church in Kansas. Being at and in that church was essential, so we never really thought about him not going.
A non-Christian friend of mine brought up that the church made her feel excluded. Did finding a way to make it more inclusive to other religions come in discussions?
The narrative was built around a specific church in a specific place, so we did what the context called for. To me, this film is the most spiritual commercial I’ve ever seen. Despite the presence of the church, it is intended to be spiritual, not exclusionary, that’s for sure.
Bruce was very critical of Trump, but never critical of Americans who may have voted for Trump. Still, do you expect to get pushback that he is now touting a “come together” message?
In general, Bruce deeply appreciates his audience and always respects their right to like or dislike something that he’s created.
How active was Bruce in the editing?
This is the most-watched TV event of the year. Given that Bruce had hoped to go on tour this year pre-pandemic, how important is it that this gets him in front of an audience he can’t see in person?
The biggest audience we have ever had at any one moment was when we played half-time 12 years ago. This will be our second biggest audience. Speaking as a manager, we are in a media landscape where the emphasis is more than ever on young people. That makes it harder to maintain your presence and to introduce yourself to new people. So, this is a great opportunity to reach a very large section of the public.
How much was Bruce paid for the spot? Is there a charitable component to the deal?
Bruce was paid fairly. I don’t comment about his private charitable work.
Does this open up the door for more Bruce music usages in commercials or is this a one-off moment in time?
This doesn’t open or close the door. If we see something that we think might be great and the time is right, and we like the people we would be working with, it’s always possible.
Is there anything Olivier did right that other brands that may want to pitch you could learn from?
Olivier is one-of-a-kind, tremendously creative and energetic, and very savvy. But here is the most important thing: Once he brought us a great initial idea, this became a Bruce film. He went 100% with our team: director Thom Zimny, cinematographer Joe di Salvo, music producer Ron Aniello, and Bruce did the rewrites himself. The process was identical to the way we work on a record or a movie. Ultimately, Bruce controlled every second of what you see and hear, and that’s why it feels so personal. Because it is.