Jim Cummings on Making Thunder Road

The Sundance-winning filmmaker talks self-distribution, adapting a short film into a feature, and Bruce Springsteen

31 May 2019
By Owen Richards
Owen is a writer and filmmaker from South Wales

Jim Cummings burst onto the film scene with his short Thunder Road in 2016, written on the train to work and filmed with his friends. It’s a hilarious and heartbreaking one-take film, where Officer Jim Arnaud (played by Cummings) unsuccessfully attempts to eulogise his mother at her funeral. It won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and was named by IndieWire as one of the best short films ever made.

After a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, Cummings raised $190,000 to adapt Thunder Road into a full feature. It won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW Film Festival, but he shunned traditional distributors and instead self-distributed the film. The film has already recouped its budget.

Thunder Road was so successful as a short, what was the experience of adapting it into a feature like?

For a long time after making the original short Thunder Road, I said it couldn’t be turned into a feature. I thought that scene would have to be the climax of the movie; it was the most important moment in the character’s life, and so the rest would just be filler. That’s how Whiplash did it, the big crazy end scene was the short film.

For a long time I couldn’t figure it out, so I did nine other short films that kept me busy. But then I thought about opening the film with that eulogy, and then the rest of the movie could be about this guy trying to get his daughter to like him while going through a divorce. It could be like a Mike Judge-style comedy, with this living-room drama that would be very inexpensive to do and interesting to me.

So, I just started writing it. I used the reminders app on my iPhone to write down scene concepts, because you can shift their order around, and over a 24-hour period I moved these ideas around until I thought “Yeah that looks like a screenplay.” Once I had that, I went to my friend’s basement for five days and just started writing it. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it was kind of the same as the short but over 90 minutes.

I sent the first draft to some friends and we went out to Hollywood, but they didn’t help us out at all. We spent a few months going down that spiral, and then we just ran a Kickstarter campaign.

What was that experience like of crowdfunding a film as opposed to traditional funding?

It was a very lonely experience! But looking back, it’s probably the only reason I’m here now. We bet on ourselves and made something.

I’ve had friends that have made successful shorts turned into features and it usually takes around four years to make it in Hollywood. Then they don’t own it, and have no control over the release, and they ended up washed up and salty over the entire experience. I’m very lucky that I have a group of friends that will drop everything to make stupid slapstick comedy with me in the south.

It feels like this is becoming an increasingly viable option for filmmakers – what advice would you give to those hoping to do the same as yourself?

I always say to shoot something short-form first. You can shoot anything to show to people that you know what you’re doing and that it’s going to be successful. Also, emulate our page. This is the fourth or fifth Kickstarter that I’ve run; I was a producer for six years so I did a bunch of research on how to run the best campaign. I’ve had friends and students emulate our page and become successful.

A lot of work went into that page. It’s important to have content to show off and really caring for the audience. If you were going to land on a Kickstarter page, what would you want to see that would convince you to become a part of the project?

Once you had all these public backers, were you at all nervous about living up to their expectations - having to write, direct and star in yourself?

Not really. When I write, I act it all out. I very rarely start out in screenplay format. I act them out loud, and even record them as podcasts with music and sound design added to the scenes, so I already know how the movie’s going to sound. I play all the characters on the recording –even Crystal, a nine-year-old girl – just in my closet and then edit it on Adobe Premiere, the same software we edit the films in. So I’ve already performed it once while writing it, before we film anything.

Then directing is a lot of in-depth conversations with my producers about what actually needs to be in the frame at all times. I shot it for $190,000 in Austin, Texas over 14 days. At one point, we were supposed to be filming in a police station, but really if you panned the camera just a couple of inches, it’s just a decrepit warehouse. We just put the sounds of a police station on afterwards, but you’d never know because of the angles we shot it.

Did having such a tight budget force you to think creatively?

There’s a good joke about line producers: how many line producers does it take to change a lightbulb? Does it have to be a lightbulb? I was a line producer for a year and a half beforehand, so any time that I write, I write specifically for that. I’m always thinking about where the audience is going to be on the rollercoaster, and what you can do very simply in a living room rather than a space ship.

Just like the short film, the opening scene in the feature is that one long shot. What was it like reshooting that, knowing you’d already had a very successful take previously?

It’s a weird one. I had longer conversations with my cinematographer about that scene than anything else. Drew Daniels shot the short film, and Lowell Meyer shot the feature, and he was so nervous! He said the short film in his mind was perfect, what if he screwed it up and did it different? I had to say it was going to be different, that’s OK.

But it took me a long time to get that this was something that had a fanbase. If I did it wrong, I’m ruining it. People would say why would you bother expanding it into a feature? So, I wrote in all these pieces of dialogue like “I don’t even know if it’s going to work without the song”, and that’s an inside joke to the people who have seen the short. It was me vocalising that I actually didn’t know if it would work.

It was nerve-wracking, because you don’t want it to be an impersonation of the short film. It has to be authentic. So, I just memorised it until it was muscle memory. We shot it 18 times that day and the 18th take was the one that we used.

There were some pretty big topics (grief, divorce, regret) explored in this film, why did you decide to tackle them?

That’s the evergreen stuff: loss and legacy and love. I feel like we all put in the back of our minds that, if we’re lucky, we’ll all have to eulogise our parents (and not them eulogise us). You forget and live in the moment. Ricky Gervais says that, “It’s never too late until too late, and then it’s too late.” You try not to think about it because it’s uncomfortable.

I wanted to do something about the hardest moment in somebody’s life, and then make a comedy out of it. That way it would give ammunition to people that are going through hell. I’ve had people say they were at a funeral and they thought about me. That’s a weird experience, but it’s cathartic.

I lost a parent and didn’t speak during the service, and watching the film I was glad I didn’t go through that! 

Yeah, exactly. If I can do it so much worse than anybody else, maybe they’ll feel better about the experience. That’s what I see with Chaplin, or Buster Keaton, or Jackie Chan. Watching somebody else go through hell on purpose helps somebody going through hell.

What were your expectations for the film when you finished the edit?

I think on the worst side, I was expecting nobody will like this movie. I knew it was good, and at the very least we could put it up on Vimeo or Video on Demand and find the small audience that like the short. But then, delusions of grandeur wise, we were thinking we have some friends at A24, maybe they’ll buy it.

Really, I wanted to make the film distribution work in a way that I knew it notoriously didn’t. When we won South by Southwest, we got very small offers, like $25,000 minimum guarantees for global rights, and I thought it was insane. I remember walking down a street in Austin and saying “someday, somebody’s going to win one of these big awards and say ‘fuck it, we’re going to put it out ourselves’.’” I just didn’t think it would be us a month later! I was hoping that it wouldn’t be, but it was, and that’s fine.

What have you learned by taking that jump to self-distribute instead of taking those offers?

Everything! And now everything seems so much easier. You climb a small mountain and the next one’s not as difficult. Legitimately, when we look at our heroes like Spielberg and Fincher, we think I could never do something like that, but really they’ve just been doing it for a long time and created their own companies. That’s being a filmmaker. There’s this idea that there’s an anonymous entity of Hollywood that will come along and do all the work for you, but that’s bullshit and passé. You have to do it yourself. That’s the nature of the market.

Looking back, even if you had a substantial offer on the table, would you still self-distribute?

In every possible way, it was the best financial and career decision I’ve made. It was a risk at the time because we didn’t know if it was going to work. We’ve had friends that had a feature at Sundance that took that distribution deal we were offered, and nobody’s ever heard of that film. It’s a great film, it deserved to get out, but they botched the release, put it in the smallest theatre. One of the filmmakers even went on famous talkshow, and the distributor said “Don’t say it’s in theatres. Say it’s on iTunes because we’ll make more money.”

It seems like your opportunities are only as limited as your ambitions. What are you planning to do next?

I want to grow. I want to make more ambitious stuff. Maybe not bigger budget, but more ambitious. Stuff as equally entertaining as Thunder Road, with a lot of spinning plates on screen. Maybe it’s over confidence, but it feels like we can do whatever we want now because we’ve done so much already. One of my ambitions is to keep showing up at work and keep making stuff. That’s the best I could have.

You’re very vocal on Twitter about filmmakers shunning traditional studios and distribution. Is that empowerment important?

Oh yeah. One of the prerequisites for putting the short on Vimeo was we had to pay Bruce Springsteen $1,000, and when I signed the cheque, it was to Bruce, not Sony or anywhere else. He owns his own music. That’s how you become infamous. The rest of Hollywood is a revolving door, they go to Sundance or Cannes and buy up the next class of filmmakers, but they have no retirement fund, they have no ownership of their material. I really think it’s changing; it’s about making stuff and owning it.

You have an international release of your debut feature, what’s it been like sharing Thunder Road across the world?

It’s crazy, man! For something we made in a backyard with our friends, I never dreamed it would be taken this seriously, that people would laugh and cry and need a hug in the lobby. It’s been wonderful, it feels like this introduction to the world stage but it also inspires me. I was a nobody for so long, and to be able to send the ladder back down to people asking how to do it, it feels like democracy. The good guys win!

Would you have any advice for upcoming filmmakers?

Yeah, never imagine that anybody’s going to help you. If you wake up each morning and say “Nobody’s going to help me make this movie”, that’s a pretty honest and reasonable expectation. If you do that long enough, you’ll start to make the thing yourself and people sometimes come in and help out.

Thunder Road is released in the UK on 31st May