Jim Cummings and Julia Bales were at LAX when they decided to launch the Kickstarter campaign for “Us Funny.” It had been something that was spontaneous and at the same time deeply felt, working out what it might look like if the young couple were confronted with serious milestones in their relationship perhaps before they were ready, dealing with big emotions in a playful way. Cummings had just had great success with handling such a tricky tone in his Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning “Thunder Road,” involving a policeman’s awkward eulogy for his mother – in fact, he and Bales were headed to Oslo to present the film – and Bales, a comedy writer, was eager to stretch her creative muscles. The two thought nothing of throwing up the crowdsourcing campaign, hoping that maybe in a month they’d raise the thousand dollars necessary to shoot this thing, but by the time they landed in Norway, they were quite pleasantly surprised.
“We had already funded like 25 percent of the budget and it was like wow, this is crazy,” recalls Cummings. “We ended up making $3700 or something like that. We were very lucky. I feel like the movie would’ve just been all from a couch if we had gotten what we had asked for, but we were able to make a bigger movie.”
Perhaps the short film became bigger in terms of more locations, but one suspects “Us Funny,” which is now available on Vimeo (and right below) always had grand ambitions, once again setting Cummings up en route to a funeral before reflecting back on the moment he was going to be a father for the first time. With Bales acting from a script she wrote as his longtime girlfriend who gives him the news, it wears its heavy subject matter lightly, somehow distilling the highs and lows of a casual relationship that’s grown serious over time into a beguiling 15-minute drama that packs an emotional wallop when you realize it so precisely captures a defining moment for the pair, with a sense of loss emerging not only from how crisply the filmmakers have captured that emotion, but also because you come to love these characters so much.
These days, Cummings seems to be invested in bringing such moments to the screen, soon rolling out a series with his partner Dustin Hahn on Fullscreen called “Minutes Collection,” which move in more ways than the signature one-take style he built on from “Thunder Road.” One of them, “The Robbery,” a fiendishly clever and devilishly funny look at a liquor store heist gone horribly awry, will premiere this week as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight Shorts program and despite an incredibly busy schedule ahead, Cummings and Bales graciously took the time to talk about making these short film delights, the unusual inspiration to get “Us Funny” into production and its stealth release, as well as acting together for the first time on film.
Julia Bales: Well, I guess…we’re dating. [laughs] When we came together as a team, Jim [mentioned] we should make a short and we thought we should do it about us, but what exactly? He said, it should be something like a conversation and then I went away and wrote a script.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, it was a really organic process making it because it was just Julia and I talking together, like acting out the scenes in car rides back from San Francisco and then we would just do that [couch] conversation a couple times, like what would it actually look like to have a conversation where the girlfriend says that she’s pregnant?
Julia Bales: And this isn’t based on a true story. [laughs]
Jim Cummings: At least not with us. [laughs] But it was just very organic. We just did it a bunch of times [informally] and then when we thought it was good enough, we got Danny Madden, our buddy who’s a filmmaker himself to come out and shoot it. We had the camera, we had this great sound dude [Jose Gallo] and…
Julia Bales: Yeah, it was just the four of us running around L.A. and filming a bunch of stuff. The short was probably 20-25 minutes initially, but we had a lot of stuff that we just cut out — and it was all fun stuff, but not necessarily key to the story and we weeded through it to get to the core, which was this couch conversation. At one point, we [thought] this could be the short, but we liked the whole thing together.
The way that couch conversation is shot – the way you use different angles and focus – is really intriguing. Did you actually run through it many times?
Jim Cummings: The way we were doing it was so simple. We really wanted to do over the shoulders and get coverage like that, but on the day, Julia and I [rehearsed] on the couch and she kept sitting up in one spot, so it was a couple different [camera] set-ups within the same scene. It was like, we’ll go up to me finding out that she’s pregnant and then she sits up and it almost becomes its own scene in and of itself, so we shot it like that, and there is a lot going on in this one small set-up. That was the appeal to me – just getting something where you can make a really compelling short film in your living room, if you focus on the right stuff. And Julia had it in the script. It just worked.
How did the hat come in? it’s silly at first, but it becomes a really effective emotional prop.
Julia Bales: Yeah, no one has said anything, but we went through so many different ones and [Jim] actually had originally a whole other outfit that was almost too ridiculous.
Jim Cummings: We were looking at people for my character in Silver Lake and Echo Park — they’re guys that wear jean shorts. I was actually referencing Daniel Scheinert of the Daniels because he sometimes wears jean shorts and tie-dye shirts and it’s a very different style, but we thought for this, it’s going to be difficult for them to have this cute relationship where you’re thinking, “Oh my God, it’s this Silver Lake kid,” so I didn’t end up doing it. I put that on the night before like an idiot – I thought I don’t think anybody’s going to like this guy. But the hat — obviously, I would never be caught dead wearing it in real life, but we did that because when he finds out that she’s pregnant, he throws that down and it’s like him giving up [his immaturity].
Julia Bales: If you haven’t had kids, you get to be a lot more selfish, so I think that was him accepting it and being like okay, I’m going to step up and do this now.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, I can’t wear this stupid hat anymore! [laughs]
There’s a very entertaining video online of the two of you singing the “Cheers” theme song together, but had you actually acted together in something like this that’s more dramatic?
Julia Bales: “Cheers” is probably the only thing we’ve done. [laughs] Jim and I have worked together a bunch, but not necessarily acting together. I think in the future we will be, and we’ve always done bits, but just not on camera.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, being in this relationship, we’re always putting on voices…
Julia Bales: I am always acting. [laughs] In order to be happy, I need to be acting.
Jim Cummings: This was the first real thing that we’ve done and we had no real reason to do anything, but we [thought] we’re pretty good, we’re good enough, let’s try it.
Julia, was that interesting to write a script that retained the voices you knew but weren’t necessarily putting yourselves on screen?
Julia Bales: Yeah, it definitely was. Having not necessarily acted on camera a lot and writing for myself is cool [at first], but then I thought [as I was writing], “Wait, is this what I’m like?” It’s like no, no, it’s fine. I really enjoyed it and I feel like they are separate versions of ourselves, but there is stuff that’s similar. The fun part was bridging the gap between the two.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, like reading the scene of me at the sushi restaurant where I get distracted and I’m on the phone and not paying attention – I am certain that we’ve had that dinner and I feel really shitty about it. [both laugh] But it’s like okay, I’m going to play the shitty boyfriend in this scene.
Julia Bales: You’re not that bad.
Jim Cummings: I’m not that bad, but again, [it was important to] manifest that on screen because that’s compelling.
I’m curious about this longer version – how did you figure out what to show of this couple to make it a whole?
Julia Bales: There was a point in the short where we went our separate ways and we hung out with a friend and chatted about things. You learn a little bit more about each person and Jim’s a little bit more like, “I’m just here to have fun…” and then I go off with my friends and it’s a little bit more foreboding about what I have to tell him later. When we were editing it, it eventually felt like it’s taking forever on the couch and the [other] stuff wasn’t necessary.
Jim Cummings: A huge amount of it was stuff that was making us laugh when we were writing. Our buddy Tony, who’s the guy that picks me up at the end, is from Philadelphia and there’s a whole scene where he comes over to drop off something and we just make fun of him for four minutes [with] us doing Philadelphia accents — the Rocky impression and all of that stuff — and it was funny to us while writing it, but we realized, “No, this movie is about this person telling somebody the first time that she’s pregnant” and [that scene] took away from it. [There were] probably 10 or 15 moments [like that that] ended up on the cutting room floor.
Julia Bales: But it’s really funny thinking about it right now — doing that scene with Tony was a big reason that we got this short done because we were so excited to do it just to make fun of him. [laughs] He knows it and we love him, but it was a kick in the head [for us, like] “Okay, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to make fun of Tony. Let’s do this! When do we get to make fun of Tony?”
Jim Cummings: One of the three days that we shot was just making fun of Tony.
Julia Bales: Echo Park Lake, [Jim’s] apartment, which ended up getting cut. My apartment. Our friend Tony’s back street, which is the street light stuff. The sushi restaurant was my back patio…
Jim Cummings: [It was a] very minimal amount of locations and it was really relaxed. It was like friends coming together to make something. It was the first time we’d ever really called in favors, like “Hey, you’ve got to dress up in a suit and pretend like you’re going to a funeral,” but that was great. It was like shooting a Derek Cianfrance film where everybody’s hanging out on set having fun.
Julia Bales: Yeah, and we still had a little budget to give everyone a little something, which was important to the both of us.
How did The National song “Racing Like a Pro” come in at the end?
Jim Cummings: It’s [on] one of my favorite albums of all time and I was listening to it in my car and thought this could be a really neat ending montage song. Julia and I were playing it and we were thinking these guys should have a song together and it should be the thing she’s just doing to distract [my character], so we came up with the lines of “Oh, you learned how to play that…don’t play that right now.” So this nice little thing that instantly says this song carries weight to the two of them and he’s uncomfortable because he can’t process it well enough, so he’s thrust into it. It’s like a metaphor for the entire experience. Julia plays the ukulele and it was a nightmare to get the chords for that. We thought maybe she should get the guitar, but then we thought that’s too cheesy. Then we talked to Dan Carr, who’s Julia’s friend…
Julia Bales: He’s a director and [director of photography], but he’s also a very talented musician. and he was like on the East Coast filming something and I [texted him asking], “Hey, can you help me transcribe these chords? I don’t know what I’m doing.” He took time off of working just to do it and sent me a bunch of voice memos, [saying] “You’ve got to go A, G, C…” The way that we played it isn’t necessarily word-for-word National, but we adapted it to Jim’s voice and how it worked [as] a tempo. It was really important to me [also] that we didn’t see me playing it because I felt like it made it a little bit too [twee]. Like oh, now I’m playing a song and I have a ukulele because of course I do. But having [the focus] just on Jim makes it a little bit different than something we’ve seen before.
Jim Cummings: And there’s footage that we had to cut, but I didn’t realize… I have a beautiful voice, Stephen. [laughs]
Julia Bales: Oh my God! I don’t know, if you go back to some of the “Thunder Road” stuff, it’s a little rough. [laughs]
The stealth release of this took me by surprise, given all the success “Thunder Road” had on the festival circuit. How did you decide to just make it available online so quickly?
Jim Cummings: It got to a point where the sound editing was done …
Julia Bales: Yeah, we were just editing and editing and then [there was a point where] we did it so many times that we thought it should just go online instead of just sitting on a file.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, so we were just like, we’ll just put it online and see what happens. It’s done very well for us. [As of this writing, it’s over 30,000 views in a week.]
Julia Bales: Everyone has been so nice. I’m shocked. [laughs] It’s been great. It’s been very low-key, like we should put it up on a Wednesday and let’s just do it.
Jim Cummings: So many people have reached out just to [say], “This is great,” and there’s something cool about that. A lot of influencers put up a video every day [that gets a lot of views] and it’s no big deal, but it is strange to just be filmmakers [where] we aren’t doing stuff like that – having surprise releases. I’m always surprised when I go to a film festival and people aren’t shooting. They’re just hanging out. We’re going to Sundance this year and we’re shooting another season of the Sundance documentary that we made last year and then Ben Wiessner, a filmmaker from North Carolina contacted the two of us to be in a feature after seeing “Us Funny” that we’re going to shoot part of at Sundance, so we’re going to be busy little bees in Park City.
Jim Cummings: Before Sundance last year, Fullscreen reached out to us and said, “What would it look like if you were going to do a web series of ‘Thunder Road’?” I had been working with Dustin Hahn, my co-creator [on “Thunder Road”] and we were talking about doing more single-takes, one for him and [others] for a couple actors that we really like. We said, “Let’s go to Full Screen and pitch this 10-episode season of a bunch of different single takes, following around people in the 10 to 20 most important minutes of their lives. They greenlit us and we started writing it right after Sundance. We wrote ten and they bought six from us, and “The Robbery” was one of them and it’s based off [the story that happened to] a kid that went to Dustin’s grammar school – he was on drugs, living in people’s backyards and he took a taxi to rob a liquor store and tried to use it as a getaway car. This is probably mid-to-late 2000s, and it obviously didn’t go very well.
I was talking to Dustin about it and I’m like, “What does that even look like if you take a cab to rob a store and you go back outside and think you’re not going to get caught?” We were just doing it like “Fargo,” where it’s very funny, but still very realistic. We always think about crime as this clean cut thing and it’s always just horrible. So we wrote a bunch of stuff [in the scenario], like the [cashier] behind the counter has a crossbow and all these complications in the main character’s life. Initially, I was going to act in it, playing this Michael Keaton-heroin addict [like character] and then our producer and the network said, “Why don’t we cast a woman for this?” That way if we’re doing six episodes, it’ll be three women and three men, and when it was this poor young girl who’s robbing a convenience store, instantly, the stakes are raised.
We brought in a bunch of people to play the part and then we got this one audition tape for this actress Rae Gray, who was phenomenal. She actually shot her audition tape in a single take and her background was in theater, so she was able to nail all of these marks emotionally, comedically and physically and it was incredible. It was like, “I think this is our girl.” We brought her in and we shot it in 10 hours, about an hour north of Los Angeles in this strip mall. It’s brutal, it’s very funny and very hard to watch at times. I like it.
“Us Funny” is now available online here. “The Robbery” premieres at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Midnight Shorts program on January 20th at 11:30 pm at the Prospector Square Theater in Park City, January 21st at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City at 6 pm, January 23rd at the Prospector Square Theater at 11:30 pm and January 26th at 7 pm at the Holiday Village Cinema in Salt Lake City.