Jim Cummings is very much a man in demand at the moment. Not only is he directing, producing, writing, and starring in films all over the indie landscape, but when I caught up with him the weekend before Halloween he was also hosting a get together to mark his pre-birthday celebrations and working on some buffalo chicken. Hands-free but all ears, here’s what went down when first-time interviewing schmuck Jordan King met moviemaking maverick Jim Cummings.
*SPOILER ALERT* Some plot details from Thunder Road’s ending and The Sixth Sense’s feature in this interview.
Q: I suppose the first question, the big question, would be how are things going at the moment? Because you’ve been having a pretty crazy year. Not only have you premiered the feature of Thunder Road, but you’ve been doing the festival circuit too. ACiD at Cannes, Deauville, SXSW – where you won the Grand Jury, and you’ve just been at the London Film Festival as well. That’s quite a big year for you and the films, especially after the success of the 2016 short.
A: Yeah, we’ve been very lucky, it’s been crazy. It’s been a really wild time. A lot of it has been continually talking about this movie I made in November of last year, and my goal from the beginning has always been to just keep focusing on the next thing and get my team more employment and just to keep making cool stuff. So yeah, it’s been interesting for me to just continually have to travel around and take pictures. It’s kind of against my nature but it’s been a lot of fun and we’ve had some really incredible reviews. We had this crazy review in Rolling Stones we never dreamed we would get.
Q: Yeah, I saw the piece! They were saying that the eulogy scene at the start of the film was one of the best of all time, which is pretty crazy to be honest.
A: Yeah, complete hyperbole. (Laughs) But no, it’s been wild. It’s just me and my producers. We didn’t hire a market team or a distributor. We had French distribution but that was it because we didn’t speak the language too well, and so it’s been a kind of ‘do it yourself’ production from the very beginning and we’ve been very lucky. I hope that encourages people to do it themselves and not dream of having to have millions of dollars to get their movie out there or to get good reviews, they just need a good movie.
Q: Definitely. That DIY mantra is a powerful one – the film students at my university in first year as a rite of passage are shown that original short of Thunder Road to get them revved up to go out and make movies.
A: That’s so funny!
Q: Seriously! Mat Owen, one of our film lecturers, shows it and says to all of us ‘go out and make a movie.’ If you’re out there making feature films and shorts with your own set-up and crew, managing it all from a computer at home, there’s no reason why we can’t get out there and start making a noise, putting films out there for everyone to see.
A: Good, that’s great! That’s good advice because if you saw my offices i would always invite everybody to come and hang out but it really is very small, just a tiny desk with a computer and we have Adobe Creative Cloud and that’s it. We shot nine of my single take short films on a Canon or Sony DSLR. We rented lenses and it’s not anything that I don’t think anybody couldn’t do if they just took the time to rehearse something and make it really good, and focus and focus and focus.
Q: I was thinking before about the short films that you have made, and just how quick the turn around with them is, I mean the Thunder Road short was a matter of days I remember reading. How did it compare for you, making the feature film of Thunder Road versus the short? What was the process like?
A: I don’t know if we could have done the feature without having done the shorts, all ten of them. I don’t think the Thunder Road feature would be good had we not done ten single-take short films in the previous two years. But no, honestly, it was very smooth. Natalie Metzger, who’s my producer who did nine of my short films, was signed on to be the producer for the feature and is just a powerhouse. She’s basically my sister now. She’s a very smart and lovely person and I don’t have to worry about the productions if she is on board.
Q: It must be nice to have that rapport…
A: It’s incredible. We’d already done a bunch of long takes. We knew this movie was going to be very similar, very similar tone, comedy that makes you cry, and so we were prepped to make something good. We were in a Kickstarter campaign and had success there, it was crazy. We were asking for $10,000 and ended up raising around $36,000
Q: That’s crazy!
A: Insane, insane. So yeah, we had a backing and an audience which was very helpful, and then we went out and shot it all in Austin. We arranged the rest of the financing from friends, family, investors around the world that we had never met but were down to help out, who saw the success of the Kickstarter campaign and then reached out to buy 1% of our company, of the movie. It was cool but very stressful. It was a fourteen day shoot, it was all my best friends in the world who were there for it. It was great.
Q: So the whole feature was only a two week turn around then?
A: It was actually three five day weeks, and the last day we cut short because we didn’t need to do anymore.
Q: That’s incredible. But the results given the speed of the shoot are just staggering. I told you at Cannes and I’ll tell you again, it was my favourite film of the festival.
A: Thanks man
Q: It’s something that I’ve spent the last 5 months telling everyone that they need to watch when it makes its way over here. In the film itself there are a lot of monologues and long takes, drawing on that magnetism and power that the initial short film had, where you see Officer Arnaud at his worst in terms of the actual character but at the best of your performance. I was wondering how those scenes were to film on a sheer level of stamina? Because I know that you’ve spoken in the past about how you take an oral approach to screenwriting, rehearsing things countless times before putting them on film. How did you find it for those draining, very emotional scenes?
A: It’s hell! We shot the funeral scene in the feature 18 times and that was the 18th take. We actually shot the short film six times and used the last take and it was the same thing with the feature. But no… it’s gruelling, it’s a lot. It’s a month to two months of rehearsals just doing it, and then we had to do an alternative eulogy for the first nine times because we shot it with the song and the last nine times we shot it without. It’s gruelling and by half way through, it’s like I can’t do this anymore, I can’t cry anymore. But then luckily Natalie, who knows what to say to make me cry, she comes over and sits down next to me, and I just was there crying uncontrollably. It was the most I’ve ever cried in my life. Then we went up, shot the last take, and got out of the church. It was crazy.
Q: That funeral scene is a strange one for me because I’ve watched the initial short countless times, and here in the feature there’s the parallels with that but also quite a radical departure from it too. I mean, the biggest one is that you left out the actual song itself, Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’. That in many ways made the scene that little bit more uncomfortable and surreal though, bringing out a whole new level of emotion.
A: It’s a weird one, it’s more of a nosedive than it is with the song. We shot it both ways and we were like, “well if we can get the rights it might be nice,” but then it just happened that the performance was so much better at the end of the day when we lost the music. The last take was just better, the focus was perfect, the sound was perfect, and in the editing room we went to that shot first because everybody clapped at the end, and it was kind of like “I think we got it”, “I think we got it too, let’s get out of here”. So from the beginning we were all like “cool, that last take had something really magical about it”. Then in the editing room, where we were editing it sort of in real time, we had Brian Vannucci who was on set cutting the film for the three weeks that we were there and it was really great to just be able to watch the footage and be there like “I don’t think we need the song in the movie”. The producers were like “yeah, it’s going to be so much easier not to have to bug Bruce Springsteen again, let’s just do the Thunder Road feature without the song in it”. Then if you notice in the short film, I never make it to the point where I describe what the song is about. The end of the song, the last few lyrics, are the only things that really qualify that the song is about this guy who’s getting this girl to leave their small town, and in the short film I never make it there. I end up turning the thing off so you never know. But because of the nature of the boombox not working, it forces me to culturally contextualize the song, and describe what it’s about in a way that has such a big pay off at the end of the film when I do the same thing with my daughter.
Q: That intentional, metaphoric almost absence, was something that really struck me. When you watch the whole of the film with the song cut out, you’ve got this whole film where Officer Arnaud and his daughter are in a very transitional phase, looking for that break out whilst also being stuck in the cycle, and it’s the song! The final few moments of the movie I remember so clearly, they really stuck with me, that leap of faith where all this stuff has happened and it’s just a father and a daughter and an offer – we can get out of here now and we don’t know whether it’s going to be perfect or even if it’s going to be much better, but it’s something new. Yeah… that was a really touching ending man.
A: The last 5 minutes or so of the movie is the thing I’m probably most proud of in my life. That thing of distracting the audience so they don’t really know what’s going on, they’re following the comedy and the drama and this guy’s downward spiral, mental breakdown, and that’s interesting in that it carries them along. Then you forget that this whole thing is about his Mum being a dancer or the song ‘Thunder Road’ and what the song is about. So, by the end of the film when he says “we gotta get out of here, I’m gonna get you outta here, you’ve gotta get in the car with me”, and then he goes “oh my god, that’s the song”, the audience gets it too, and then it’s like “oh I understand why this movie’s called Thunder Road now”. It’s about the song, even though it’s not in the movie. And then we transition from that into this ballet scene weeks later in a different city, and his daughter has dyed her hair, and it’s her falling in love with ballet in the same way that his Grandfather took his Mum to go and see the ballet for the first time, and it’s brutal. It’s the most beautiful ending for a movie. It’s so great to have screened it across the United States, standing in the aisle and seeing people inconsolable by the end of the film, not because it’s like a tragedy of an ending, but because it’s like a beautiful moment, and I find that to be so rare in movies.
Q: Definitely. I think that’s something that comes across in almost all of your short films and the feature as well now. I remember you saying at the start of the screening at Cannes, “it’s okay to laugh, it’s okay to cry”, and that stuck with me throughout the film because there’s so many individual moments where there’s a tear in your eye but you’re laughing.
A: It’s like Pixar.
Q: For sure. I remember reading in one of your interviews that one of your micro-marketing targets was adults who love Pixar. My fiance, she adores Pixar films and she absolutely loves the Thunder Road short, and she’ll watch the feature with me when it’s out for sure. But coming back to the comedy, it allows you to go to some really raw places emotionally and still have something to bring you back – the laughter. But then balancing that you still have this emotional core, meaning that the comedy doesn’t just descend into farce.
A: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s a weird thing. I think right now, because I keep going on to my buddy Dustin Hahn about this. I don’t know if you’ve seen Parent Teacher, he’s the guy who plays the teacher, but there is this one moment that was a consciousness raiser for me when I was working at CollegeHumour where I was like “why isn’t this stuff funny?”. They spend all this money and they shoot all these sketches; why can’t they just make it funny? That’s what it’s supposed to be right? The whole point of this thing is to make people laugh. He goes “well yeah dude, being funny is hard. Making comedy is hard”. So I was like, “it’s not for us, so why don’t we just try it?”. And then that became the Thunder Road short film. But I do keep finding myself complaining like why are Pixar the only people who are able to do that? Threading the needle of engaging an audience with comedy and then also showing such deep humanity with toys that it moves a huge human audience to tears. Why are we the only people who are in competition with Pixar on that front? It’s because it’s difficult I realise. It’s not difficult for us, but for a lot of people that’s the dream. People want to be able to engage an audience like that emotionally, exerting many emotions, and sometimes you just can’t. So now we’re having this epidemic and famine of movies like that where there’s dramas that don’t make you cry and we’re okay with it, and then there are comedies that don’t make you laugh out loud, with the comedies having no humanity to them, and the dramas having no comedy to them. There’s these two overlapping genres that are tonally deaf, basically ineffective. It’s a weird market right now.
Q: It’s so true though. I mean I remember a few weeks after watching Thunder Road in Cannes I was at home watching some old Charlie Chaplin films, and I put on ‘City Lights’. It’s the perfect tragicomedy. The way that the tramp acts in that film though, I couldn’t help but see that truism in your performance in Thunder Road. You can laugh at Officer Arnaud and you can cry for him. Sometimes you’re laughing almost out of a perverted pity for his situation and the crazy things that are happening. But there is a real human emotion undercutting that. You’ve shown us someone that’s just a real person who doesn’t know how to cope but who is desperately trying nevertheless. But the way you perform and direct that – we can’t forget that you’re doing both, orchestrating from behind the camera and then just going out there and laying it all on the table in front of it – is incredible. It really does bring back to mind those classic silent era comedy films where you can cry and you can laugh. Like you say, we’re in a state in the mainstream movie industry at the moment where you do have these drama films where you can’t cry at them because they just bludgeon you with vapid heaviness and no light, and you get these comedy films that don’t make you laugh because there’s nothing going on beneath the surface or because they’re just not coming from someplace real. To that end, Thunder Road really does feel like it is a film that really needed to be made in these crazy times.
A: Thank you, thank you, that means a lot! It’s crazy, it’s a weird time. I don’t blame anybody for it. It’s a tough order. I watched the ‘Sixth Sense’ last night, and it’s a really, really, really good movie. A lot of that’s due to Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall helping out to make that movie good, but it’s so well structured, and you’re laughing throughout. It’s a very good comedy, despite the fact that by the end of the film, it’s Bruce Willis talking to his wife and saying “I never put you second, you were always the top of my list”, which is a brutal, sad ending that moves an audience in a horror movie. There’s no reason for it to have such humanity, but it does and that’s what makes it a great movie. I got into this spat this morning about ‘The Haunting of the Hill House’, which is this “terrible” Netflix show, and to have to describe to people the short term memory we have as audiences of “this is what’s on right now on Netflix”, I guess that’s the best or only stuff that’s out there, so they’re like “that’s the only stuff we should be watching or comparing it to other Netflix shows or the same soughts”. That’s so crazy making. Also, it sets up young filmmakers to thing that’s sufficient story telling. It’s not. Just watch older movies. Watch good movies. It sets us up for a healthy career because we get to eat those people’s lunches anytime they make something. It’s a sad and scary time when a film or TV show’s marketing is everything, and if you can just tell people it’s a masterpiece, people will believe it rather than thinking about whether or not the thing moves them.
Q: For you, you’re making films constantly and you’re at the forefront of a big moment to be a indie filmmaker and to be a producer as well. You’re championing a hell of a lot at the moment with the Indie Labs project too. You really are one of the true figure heads of this movement saying that now is the time where we need to move away from that corporate and lethargic need to put out consumerist, commercial, Netflix “this is on the highlights this week and here’s next week and next and next” material. You’re telling people that they can go out and make something that’s fresh, and they’ve got a chance with that.
A: That’s so important to me. We realise the time that we’re in where Disney is buying all of these giant companies like Fox, where the majority of the stuff that you’re going to see in the cinema is a watered down camel that was supposed to be a horse. There’s no cursing, there’s no real sex, there’s no real violence. It’s always virtue signalling and it’s always how can we make this movie as liberal as possible and also be so inclusive for everybody in the world. It’s so bizarre, and it’s all of these different fights that they’re fighting – they can’t be unsterilized. They can’t be unsanitized. They just can’t make that stuff. So independent films now have a real fighting chance to win the attention of audiences that like good stuff. I feel like it’s lucky to get a good movie every five years in the cinemas. I’m surprised Mad Max made it through. But I feel like we’ve built up a tolerance to assume that it takes five years to make a good movie in this system. But instead it’s just the system that’s shafted.
Q: I suppose you can see the reverberations of that when you look at the way in which the Oscars have gone in the last few years. You look at the kind of films that take centre stage at festivals like Cannes & Sundance, and you see that quite often it’s the politically motivated and, like you say, the virtue signalling projects that are championed. But these films do often cater to such a wide audience, and include so much that they end up in a bind, depriving themselves of an actual story with a beating heart in it. You have quality that squeezes through the gaps, of course, directors like Del Toro and Villeneuve and McDonagh, but it is an issue. It certainly sometimes feels like we need to remind one another that if you just start with the story itself and focus on telling that, it gives you a chance to create something cool and meaningful too. Something that people are going to remember. That, for me, is what set Thunder Road apart at Cannes. It was a film that wasn’t trying to fit itself into a box. It was just trying to tell a really good story from a real place.
A: That’s the thing that the studios will try to encourage you not to do, or anyone will try to encourage you not to do. They’ll say you’ve got to work inside of their system so that you’re the subordinate of their’s and not the competition. But if it got out there that we made this movie with no stars except for Macon Blair, who is only in the movie for 10 minutes… I think that if that got out there, it’s something that could change the system in showing that audiences don’t care about stars. They would much rather watch somebody slap a corpse and feel moved in a movie then watch whatever some multi-millionaire actor/actress is putting out. With that stuff too, celebrities; when they get involved in a feature film, it’s all their lawyers, it’s all their contracts. They don’t want to push the boundaries. It’s this weird fight for their brand rather than fighting for getting in the mud and making a good movie. I just find that to be so crippling of good storytelling when I could just make a movie in our backyard with my friends, and I don’t have to worry about those sorts of things.
Q: With Thunder Road, it brought The Florida Project to mind a little – the Sean Baker film. I mean especially as you had such a young amateur actress in Kendall Farr playing Crystal. She was so good. It’s hard to believe that she’s so young, in her first feature film. It reminds me of how in Baker’s film you had Brooklynn Prince in that, a young actress with no ego and just a belting performance. It had Willem Dafoe too of course, which is a big name draw, but at the same time it had that indie film vibe of something that wasn’t fitting into a specific mould. It had actors more so than stars, and I think that you definitely touch on something that needs to be changed there in terms of returning the art to a craft more than a celebrity making machine.
A: I have a good role model in Sean Baker. He’s a big fan of the movie. He saw it at London Film Festival. He had the most uprated Letterbox reviews. Sean Baker said that it was good, and people were like “oh Sean Baker”. But with Sean, they cast somebody who is a big celebrity to play the Mum in The Florida Project, and she was signed on to work but ended up not working because of personality issues. I don’t know who the star is, but he said that in an interview, and then he went to Instagram and found this girl (Bria Vinaite) who plays the mum, and she’s absolutely terrifying and so good… and nobody cares. That girl is so fascinating to watch man. You don’t need Kristen Stewart or whoever in that role. Then the same thing with Derek Cianfrance when he says that “you can make celebrities real people and make real people into celebrities”. If you focus and make movies correctly, it doesn’t matter, they’re interchangeable.
Q: Definitely. You’ve said a lot of the things that I think a lot of young filmmakers might be thinking but don’t necessarily feel like they’re in that position to go out and say. I suppose it brings us back around to Thunder Road and the short, and how that has been almost like a totem piece for a lot of our film students at the university. We watched that and we go “hang on a minute. This is a one take film, written, directed by, and starring just one man”. The question I’d like to put to you is, to the film students who are going to be reading this – what would you say to them with regards to dealing with the knocks and rejections that might come along the way in this volatile business, pushing through that glass ceiling and getting heard?
A: Yeah, it’s hell. I might not be the best person to ask because I’m an atheist of Hollywood. (Laughs) I don’t believe it exists and think it’s completely imaginary. It’s something where you could write the best script on the planet, you could have the best screenplay ever written, and still nobody really cares because the industry has changed in such a way that you’re in direct competition for the attention of audiences or anybody just by starting a YouTube channel and developing a subscriber base… just by doing that you are in direct competition with MGM or Sony Pictures Classic or whoever. I think people are seeing that. So everybody is turning towards production, like these agencies, these management companies, everybody is starting to produce their own content. A24 have started doing it and it paid off. There is real value in understanding how to make movies. If you enter the industry, if you try to get a job, you’ll spend years of your life trying to climb this ladder of trying to be taken seriously, hoping that the hard work you’ve been doing, climbing the corporate ladder will pay off. It’s like a religion, and it’s imaginary. That doesn’t happen. You have to build your audience yourself. I wrote the Thunder Road feature based on the Sundance winning short film. I went to the people who turned Whiplash into a feature from a short, Napoleon Dynamite from short into feature, basically everybody in town and they all said “oh, but you want to act in it?” or “well you’ve never directed something”. You could reach the ceiling of American short film making by winning these giant festivals, and still nobody cares. You have to do it yourself and never dream that someone is going to come along and help you because that’s gambling addiction. It’s like “if I keep spending my time doing this stuff, it might pay off and I might win someday”. You have to get a camera, and you have to go out and make the thing yourself, and run a Kickstarter campaign, and learn how to become a studio on your own because that’s the only way to make it and how movies get made nowadays.
Q: Absolutely. You just have look at the way Thunder Road turned around after getting backing because of Deauvile. You guys made the whole budget back within a week.
Q: And that’s just the start. I know we’re all dying to watch the film when it comes out in the UK. We’re going to be talking about Thunder Road for a long time to come.
A: Thank you brother, I can only hope so!
Q: It’s genuinely a huge privilege to talk to someone I look up to as one of my favourite and current working filmmakers. Thank you for your time, it’s been great!
A: I’m happy to, thank you so much! Stay in touch, let me know whatever else I could do. This is a community.
Q: That means a lot. The last thing I’m going to have to mention, on a purely selfish note, is that I believe you are something of an Alan Partridge fan. Please tell me… is this true?
A: Yes! I am the biggest American fan that I know. You can’t get Alan Partridge in the United States, and I’ve been watching that team, Iannucci’s work for the last 20 years probably, at every chance that I get now.
Q: I mean Alan Partridge is pretty much one of the finest examples of British comedy you will ever find. So… what’s your favorite Alan Partridge line?
A: “I f**cking hate the general public”. I really think that’s a great one. I saw somebody cross stitched that onto a pillow, and it said “I f**king hate the general public” – Alan Partridge. No, I really like that one because it’s so intense for news reporters to say, but then I don’t know. It’s never the punch lines that get me, it’s the turn of phrase that he has. Have you read Nomad, the book he wrote with the Gibbons brothers?
Q: Of course!
A: Well then you’ll know It’s incredible. It’s the funniest book ever written. But there’s a moment where he says, “I was staying at this B&B, and there was a blackbird outside of the window that kept me up all morning. So I asked the old woman who ran it if I could only pay half the night’s rent since I only got half a nights sleep because of the birds. She said no, but she’s dug her own grave there because today I’m absolutely going to rinse her on trip advisor”. It’s so good, the amount of idioms that he is able to fit in there – she’s ‘dug her own grave’, he’s going to ‘rinse her’ – it’s that kind of petty, conservative mindset of this man’s brain that’s just great. But no, I’m Alan Partridge, Knowing Me, Knowing You, all of it… it’s so good. Screw it man, I’m going to spend the rest of the day watching Partridge, thanks!
Q: You’re very welcome! Well it’s been an absolute privilege talking to you Jim. Thank you so much.
A: Likewise, thank you.
Jim did partake in some Alan Partridge impressions, and so an audio upload of the interview shall follow in due course, but for now I leave you having just heard that Vertigo have got UK distribution rights to Thunder Road and are planning to release it in cinemas across the UK early next Spring! In the meantime, watch Jim’s short films on Vimeo, and I shall leave you with the original award-winning short ‘Thunder Road’, and the theatrical trailer for the feature.