Articles + Interviews

INTERVIEW: Jim Cummings Talks Indie Filmmaking, Thunder Road, And The Value Of Creative Ownership

INTERVIEWED BY JESSICA PEÑA

Remember this name: Jim Cummings.

He’s been on the road (Thunder Road, if you will) promoting the release of his feature length film, which took home the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year. A total knockout of a film, it blends together comedic ingenuity with grounded tragedy, which results in a film you won’t stop thinking about for some time.

We were fortunate enough to chat with Jim and pick his brain a little about the state of the film industry, his creative process going from short to feature film and the way he used his time to create a haven of creativity and support for ten independent filmmakers.


So, you seem to be having quite the week with Thunder Road, premiering here in the US. So I wanted to ask, How have you been? Are you exhausted at all? Do you need some coffee?!

That’s very kind of you. I’m drinking coffee right now so I’m okay. I’m better now. It’s been- It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been pretty well. I flew from LA to Milan Film Festival, then to Montreal, then to Raleigh. And then over the last couple of days have been charging it up to the coast to different Alamo Drafthouse screenings and waving and saying hi to everybody. And that’s really cool. No, I’m not tired. I’m thrilled. It’s cool. I feel like it’s been so long since everybody’s been able to see it. And we’re finally getting to put it out there. So yeah, I’m happy as can be.

Yeah, I’ll bet you’re very grateful but tired. But it seems like you’re chasing this high and you’re just going along with it. So that’s great. And you’ve been on fire lately traveling around for press for your film right now. And I’m so thankful to squeeze in a chat with you. I wanted to start off a little light- what was the last movie you saw that wasn’t your own?

Whooo, that’s a great question.

How do you have the time?!

Yeah, I don’t know. I think that the last movie that I remember seeing at the cinema, that wasn’t mine… I see a bunch of movies at film festivals. So I saw this film, STYX, that was really good. That was at the Odesa Film Festival. It’s a German film. But the last movie that I paid for that I went to the cinema for was First Reformed. That was really good.

Oh, wow. Very dark.

It’s great. It was great. I loved it. Yeah, it was great.

You know, it sort of reminds me of your film right now, actually.

Little bit. Yeah. It has a harsh ending.

I watched Thunder Road actually back in May at the Nashville Film Festival. And I’m not kidding when I say that, the more I thought about it since then, the more I love it! You really made something so unique with this film.

You won a string of awards, both at the calibre of Sundance with the short and at SXSW earlier this year for your feature. And it begs a realization that filmmakers should be seizing their voice and their passion and make it into a film at any given day, really. I’m just so grateful to be talking to you today, because I love your ‘give no fucks’ attitude, ‘do it yourself,’ approach to filmmaking.

Through this whole ride with the feature, have you learned anything new about yourself or the way you work on ideas?

Yeah, sure. And and I hate to say it- like, when I say that stuff of you know, don’t wait to make movies with your friends, and turn yourself into a movie studio. It’s a nice sentiment but I still have to wake up and tell myself that everyday. There are very distracting encouragements from people who are telling us that they’ll give us money to make stuff and you know, more than nine times out of ten, it’s false. It just won’t happen or it falls through or something happens.

It’s very important to remember that at every level and just because we’ve had some moderate success over the last few years, it doesn’t mean that I’m in any better position than anybody else to continue to make stuff and make more movies. So, yeah, I think it’s crucial for everybody to continue to make stuff. But I think the thing that I’ve learned the most is that it’s possible and that if you do do this enterprise, if you do seize the means of production and just go and make things, you’ll be rewarded for it.

Like people, if you can make something that’s different and you can do it on a small budget with your friends from a Kickstarter campaign, and it’s any good at all, people will be happy that it’s not a superhero movie and support it.

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And with the Kickstarter campaign for the feature film, I think you were asking like $10,000. What was your reaction when you saw just how much that amount grew to be?

Yeah, shock really. Okay, so we knew that we would probably be able to raise more than 10,000. We were thinking it’d probably be like 15 or 16 or 17 and we asked for 10 because Kickstarter has a policy where if you don’t raise the full amount, you get none of it. And so we asked a little low, but we didn’t dream that we would get, you know, 38 or 36,000, or that we would be able to raise the 10 in the first like, seven hours, which is crazy. Um, and then also the other shocking thing that when we were asking for help and making the film, we met a lot of associate producers who came on board who were strangers to us or were, you know, Twitter followers of ours until they joined the production and now they are good friends and they came and helped out, and it was just a really wonderful experience of tapping the community, and they learned a lot. We learned a lot. Yeah, it was a really great kind of collaborative experience through a crowdfunding campaign. We’re very lucky.

That’s really great. Yeah, I’ll bet the perseverance really paid off there. And just the song itself, “Thunder Road” is just so riveting and how he’s telling us to just pack our shit, forget about the troubles, and just hit the gas, you know? Would you say you’re tied to your work in very personal ways? Because Thunder Road is in itself a very intimate character study.

Yeah. I sympathize with that call to arms of leaving your life if you’re unhappy or if you’re on the verge, just hop in the car and pack things up. I think that is a really beautifully American anthem. But no, I don’t have a whole lot to do with the guy, I think. I am a divorcé, but I don’t have children of my own. Both of my parents are still alive, luckily. And yeah, I have very loving sisters. Yeah, there’s not a whole lot– I mean, I do feel that pathetic sometimes and I’ll put my foot in my mouth often, so I think everybody has that. So yeah, he’s just a product of me trying to make people laugh and trying to make people cry.

Yeah, and you did it very excellently, by the way.

Thank you.

You’re welcome! And his relationship with his mother just seems so far gone from the things he needs to deal with on a daily basis, like being a good father upholding his job, and it just continues to destroy his psyche and he becomes irrational because of it, although he means well. So how did you build up his traits and who this character would become in the film?

Yeah, so I guess it started out with story where I was like writing different ideas for scenes and trying to build out the plot of what the story would be and having it be structured for maximum audience engagement and fulfillment. And so I wrote down, you know, like 50 or 60 scenes and then narrowed it down to, 30 or 35. And some of them were crappy, some of them were fun. But then yeah, it was just that. It was throwing this person into interesting experiences and creating a scene where we were able to see a different side to this guy or an interesting side of this person from the Thunder Road short film.

Often when I was writing the feature, I’d be thinking a lot about the short film, what made that valuable, what audiences took from that. It was just like, you’re watching this person having a public meltdown, which is very interesting. That’s like number one, and then it’s also this love story for the mom and then this scary depiction of a possible future with his daughter. And it’s all contained in this performance piece and sometimes it doesn’t use a whole lot of dialogue, or it’s all monologue. And so I was like, kind of using that as the visual language of the movie. And that was part of the construction of the screenplay as well.

Yeah, it’s really magnificent how it all plays out on screen. You can see he’s put on such an act to the world trying to create this tough layer. And I thought it was so interesting how he’s a cop and yet the world just continues to disarm him. And it was so sad to see, but also somewhat cathartic to his character. Even his phrase, “See me wrestling an alligator, help the alligator,” as a viewer, you see just how defeated he is the next time he says that. It just goes hand in hand with how this guy continues to feel emasculated, humiliated, and yet this is actually just his way of grieving his mother. And I wanted to ask how did you come to the structure of the feature when the short film has become the opening scene here?

Yeah, so for a long time I thought that should be the climax because that’s a really big scene in this guy’s life and then I didn’t really like the idea. I couldn’t really find a way to make that work. I didn’t know what his real life relationship would be with his mom, but I’m a huge fan of short stories. When we’re writing a short story, they always say, “show up late and leave early.” So, you jump in the middle of a conversation and it kind of forces the audience to find out what’s happening, and it’s kinda like a riddle that you have to parce out and try to understand what’s happening, and I find that to be a really interesting and fulfilling experience. I don’t know, it’s like a game you’re playing with the with the filmmaker.

And so yea, I thought that eventually would be a good idea, to just start the film with that instead of have it be the crescendo in the movie. And then I, you know, started writing scenes with it in the beginning of the movie and then introducing the character this way and then having to have his daughter like him again, and the struggle of that, and then it just came like that. The goal was to never back down and to continue to build up the tension and the aggression, and the interesting dilemma that this guy is in all the time. So although it is a challenge to do that, having seen the short film, we just had the world crumble around him. He gets fired, he loses custody. I realized that it was going to be far more interesting to watch this guy take all of his clothes off in a parking lot and get fired than at the funeral, possibly.

Yeah, I love the part in the opening scene where they’re trying to get that Hello Kitty boombox to work and he’s like, “Should we just call the manufacturer?”

Yeah. Yeah, that was one of my favorites, too.

Do you have a favorite scene in the film?

Yeah, I really like the scene of me getting fired. I think that’s like, just a really awesome moment. And we get to see different sides of this dude. But it was also very similar to the short film. And I like that. I like the fact that there are a lot of similarities in the cinematography, the pacing, and the comedy and drama of that. And I think it stays true to the short film while also being something new and different and big. So I’m proud of that. It’s kind of like the sequel of the short film and I’m happy with that.

I think my favorite scene in the movie is at the ballet at the end. That’s probably what I’m most proud of because it’s so big and small at the same time. It’s like using the story that we’ve built up for the last 85 minutes or 87 minutes and then in these last few moments, you get catharsis. You get to watch this guy have a very important moment in his life in private in a ballet, and he’s crying and he has nobody to talk to about it. But it’s a lovely little moment. That’s probably my favorite moment of the movie.

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Yeah. And how was it directing yourself with all the emotion you had to bring to the table? And was there ever a point in production where you thought you’d give up or did you just keep yourself steady on that high you’re chasing?

Oh, no. All the time. Yeah, I was always nervous that it wasn’t going to work. But we rehearsed it 1000 times. Like, at every moment of the day that I wasn’t doing something, I would go off at a Starbucks here, you know, into a parking lot and just act out some of the scenes and talk to myself and try and make it as good as possible. Um, but yeah, we shot it in 14 days in Austin. It was a very small budget. We were always nervous that something was going to go awry, and that’s the nature of independent filmmaking in America. So no, I was always nervous. And I’m not an actor. I’m not a trained actor at all. And so it kind of required me to rehearse a great deal. And in order to make sure that it was any good at all.

And at what point did you realize that you’re just gonna have to do this on your own as far as coming up with a budget with your team and the self distribution part of it?

Basically, whenever anybody who was supposed to be in charge of us or in charge of helping us out failed to do so. So like, you know, the production companies that had turned other very famous successful movies from short films into features were telling us no. So I was like, all right, well, there’s kind of nobody else to go to. Why don’t we just fucking– I guess we have to do it ourselves. And it was kind of better that way. We’d already done 10 short films independently and well, you know, this is gonna be nothing new. It’s just gonna be a longer duration.

How was the mindset changing from looking for the help that you thought you were gonna get to helping yourself and taking that ownership?

Yeah, ownership is something we talk about a lot. It’s not in the metaphorical sense, but in a literal sense of it. If you’re able to do it yourself, you own the thing. And really, the idea of getting greenlit in Hollywood is that they give you a little bit of money, and then they own the thing forever, and you don’t make anything off of it. And so although that sounds like the word “greenlight” is a really cool thing and success, it’s actually less successful since, you know, filmmaking has become more democratized. And so although our movie’s very small, we’re not spending a whole lot of money on marketing. We own the thing. And it’s our first movie. And it’s the first of many, and so I’m glad that we took charge. And we weren’t, you know, spectators of our futures.

We were able to say, okay, no we’ll put in a little bit more work, and maybe not even. The distribution of course is a lot more work. But you know we’ve had films, when I was a producer, we had films distributed and there’s still a lot of work, we still do a bunch of spreadsheets and do all these deliverables and pay a lot of money to get the DCP’s made and all that stuff. It’s no different from what we’re doing now. We just have to spend a couple more months doing other things too.

You mentioned before, I think, how you like to stand as you write and perform the script as you come up with it. So in your writing process, do you prefer to work in solitude? Or do you like to have those people around you to bounce ideas off of?

It depends on the script. So for the short films, for something like Parent Teacher or The Robbery, both of those were written and co written by my friend Dustin Hahn. And he is so much fun to work with because you just get to bullshit all the time and, like, come up with funny things to make each other laugh. And then that becomes the script. But then with this one, I wrote it for the first, few months, maybe the first month, kind of in private. And it was a very sad endeavor and I kind of wanted to do it that way. And I felt like I had to. I was crying a lot while writing and it was kind of a much more personal and private kind of experience in writing than many other things. But then I opened it up as soon as I had a first draft. I sent it to everybody and got good notes, and then it changed. We always say we’re building the plane while we’re flying it. So there were times where like, we’re actually on set and Dustin has a funny idea for a line, and we ended up using that instead of what was written on the page.

Are you like a meticulous planner or do you just prefer to go with the flow and let everything fall into place?

No, no, no. It’s gotta be planned out with long takes, specifically. It has to be like, everything has to be planned out because everything has to be in focus and if there’s anything that’s different or a stand out from the other takes, it’s not going to be in focus or it’s not going to work and everything has to be planned.

Yeah, and I actually just watched The Robbery the other night. I was like, how did I not go find this in his pile before?! It’s interesting. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Thank you. Yeah, so that poor girl, yeah. That’s funny.

She just wanted to save her pet.

Yeah, exactly.

So, juggling your personal life with work and passion, I can’t imagine it’s all that easy. How do you strike the right balance to ensure you’re keeping all the plates spinning?

Yeah, I might not be the best person to ask about that work/life balance. I’m not too good at it. And really, we have eight or nine projects going on all the time. So yeah, I struggle with it a lot, to be honest with you. I think really, work/life, I see them as both the same. I’m a filmmaker and I’m kind of the same person, you know, in the writing process as I am in the filming process. I’m just always trying to make something and get something going. So yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how I do it. I think it’s just project management. I have five producers who are really wonderful and keep us all on task and you know, keep me calm. It’s nice.

Well, that’s really good. And something I can’t shake since seeing Thunder Road and the press you’ve done for it is the need for more unique voices as your own and we here at JUMPCUT ONLINE, we’re super grateful for the opportunity to talk to you right now, because honestly, you’ve become a necessary voice in film today and your message and the things you champion just go on to validate every single filmmaker out there who just wants to turn their passion into a living and just ignore the industry standards. So I was kind of hoping you can expand on that.

Yeah, so I didn’t have anybody to do that, really. I heard Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass saying the kind of stuff like, ‘the cavalry isn’t coming,’ and, ‘you have to do it yourself.’ And I just saw that as this big endeavor. I didn’t know how to do anything. And so it scared me a great deal. And then I met a filmmaker named Trey Shults and he made a film called Krisha which is one of my favorites, and to see him making movies in his backyard with his family, you know, I’m sure John Cassavetes is doing the same thing, but it was so much more relatable to see him do it.

But he doesn’t have a Twitter account, really. And you know, he’s a very quiet person. He’s not a big braggart like I am. And so I feel like I was the only person who was really inspired by him and his story and his family, directly. And so, that’s what got me off the couch to make the Thunder Road short film, for sure. I was like, well shit, I get to be that now. And, you know, I get to pretend to be him and try to help people who were going through hell like we were, for years and years, trying to make projects, you know.

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Yeah, and it seems like making a movie these days, really, when you think about it, it’s just as easy as grabbing your iPhone and just shooting the thing because Sean Baker and Steven Soderbergh have clearly proved its capabilities, as of late. So going into what you’ve been working on lately, with the Short to Feature Lab, I was wondering if you can talk about its conception, how it all went down and if you’ve built some strong relationships with all 10 of your fellows as you guided them.

So yeah, the Short to Feature Lab was an invention of Benjamin Wiessner and mine’s. We  were talking about the toolbox that we have now of turning shorts into features. Our buddy, Danny Madden, turned his short Krista, which won SXSW, two awards at SXSW this year, into a feature a few months ago that Ben was the producer on and I’ve helped out on. Jocelyn DeBoer and Don Levy both shot the feature of Greener Grass, which was a short film at our production company as well, with the help of our producer Natalie Metzger for the Thunder Road feature. And, I don’t know. We just had the experience of doing that path of short-to-feature that we were like, well, why don’t we just start something to help people. We were so incensed that nobody would help us to turn our short film into a feature, despite the fact that we were good candidates for it.

Like, we know our short film is very, luckily, incredibly successful, and still, the channels of Hollywood were not there to help us out or catch us when we were falling. So it really just became this instrument of philanthropy for us of wanting to help people and we did it. We ran a Kickstarter campaign. We were able to raise almost $9,000 in total from donors and submissions, and we brought out these 10 filmmakers who have really cool short films.

Yeah, so we were able to meet these 10 filmmakers and bring them out to my parents’ house in Malibu and spend five days with them workshopping their features and just, like, giving them all of the tools that we learned how to do for free. We helped them with their Kickstarter campaigns or you know, just taught. There’s a lot of bullshit in the film industry and there’s a lot of strange old wives tales that get passed around. Like, one of our filmmakers said, “well, I need a million dollars to make my movie.” like that’s how much it’s gonna cost. Like, “everybody who I’ve spoken to said this is at least a million dollar movie.” But one of the arguments that the filmmaker made was, well this stuff happens. Movies get made. Like, people spend a million dollars on a movie, that happens, but it’s just, I’ve never seen it before.

And like, we’re doing fine. We’re making movies in the film industry. But there’s just these rumors that gets spread around that are very dangerous and can often make filmmakers spend years and years, and years not making movies, because they’re waiting for somebody to give them permission to or give them money to.

And it’s just a daydream that’s like, you know, verging on gambling addiction of wasting all this time and spending your whole life daydreaming that someone’s going to help you out and waiting for your boat to come in. And it’s just, it’s imaginary. And so really, reprogramming that kind of film school thinking was the first step and then walking them through Facebook ads, building your own audience, and all that stuff. It’s empowering the next generation of international filmmaking and I’m stoked about it.

Yeah, like going off what you said are the next generation of filmmakers, it sort of seems like the industry a lot of times is rigged against their best interest. So, it’s so refreshing to see how the Short to Feature Lab has been working, and you said it was five days that you took?

Yeah.

Were you able to fit in all the information and everything you wanted to teach them within that time frame?

Yeah, so the first evening were, you know, we were hoping to just have a meet and greet and then have the majority of the lectures and stuff the next day. But it very quickly turned into like, hey, you know, everybody had questions and so we were able to hang out by the fire that night, talk through stuff, and then have our full workshops the next day and then throughout the week. So the first three days of the five were mentorships and workshops where we had incredible filmmakers join up, like Derek Cianfrance, Rick Alverson and Sean Baker was actually really close to doing it, but couldn’t because he’s shooting a movie right now.

Frankie Shaw, Jocelyn DeBoer, Danny Madden. We have all these awesome filmmakers who took time out of their day to workshop these movies for these filmmakers that we paired them with, and it’s great. They are now on their way to making their movies. So that was the first three days. It was like, heavy workshops and hangout sessions. And then that afforded us two full days to just allow them to start working on whatever part of the project they’re on. So like some of them were writing scripts. Vishnu, who’s one of our fellows, spent the first like, day and a half workshopping, and then he spent the next three days writing the entire first act of his movie, which is really cool.

Same thing with Joey Izzo, he was workshopping his movie and writing out scenes and dialogue. It was a very, very cool collaborative process that we’re thrilled to do again and expand. We want to expand to other labs and do specific ones for sci-fi, or female stories, or LGBT stories, and basically anybody who needs help making their feature out of a short, we’re going to try and expand to.

Yeah, that’d be awesome if you guys expanded on that. And throughout the whole thing, the whole process of it, did you see a part of yourself in these filmmakers?

Yeah, sure. So like, I mean, they submit to me and I watch all of the films. So of course the movies are playing to my sensibilities, but they’re all original. Like, a lot of them are not the happy, sad kind of movies that I make. They just have really great craftsmanship. And that’s what I feel like most audiences respond to, is craftsmanship. So we picked movies that had a really great sensibility of cinematic storytelling. Um, but yeah, I was nervous showing up you know. It was Ben and me, and we’re like prepping and building the tents in the backyard and, you know, getting all the craft services and stuff. And we’re nervous that the filmmakers might not get along. But we picked the movies and all the movies were great. And so of course, they got along. They’re all now very good friends of ours, because they’re so cool, because their movies are cool.

That’s awesome!

Yeah, we’re lucky.

So what can we expect next from you and your team? How much can you tell us about your next project? I hear you’re working on a werewolf movie?

Yeah, I’m doing a werewolf movie right now with a major studio and then I am in development with a streaming platform to do a show about astronauts, which I’m really excited about.

That’s really cool stuff! I do want to stress how thankful we are for you as an emerging creative in general. Because seeing your strong success so far can actually go on to validate someone else out there who’s trying to lift their project off the ground, and as you say, anyone can do it, right?

So yeah, anybody can do it. Exactly right. Always keep that in mind.

Thanks so much for your time, Jim! Last question before I leave you, does pineapple belong on pizza?!

Absolutely not.


We really hope you enjoyed this interview with Jim Cummings! I encourage you to seek out his work and continue to support and talk about unique perspectives and what it really means to be fulfilled with your filmmaking and carving your own methods for success.

You can totally go ahead and pre-order Thunder Road on iTunes right now!

You can follow Jim on Twitter: @jimmycthatsme

You can check out all the amazing fellows and mentors Jim talked about on the Short to Feature Lab and be sure to check out Jim’s Vimeo page! There, you’ll find a couple of the shorts mentioned in the interview, as well as the glorious Thunder Road short, which inspired his feature length film.

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