Jim Cummings in "Thunder Road"

SXSW ’16 Interview: Jim Cummings on the Memorable Memorial of “Thunder Road”

“Thunder Road” started in a hot tub, an unlikely birth for a film about an uptight police officer, but in some way a juxtaposition that fits the final product perfectly. Jim Cummings was relaxing with a friend, who told him the story of another friend who recently eulogized his mother by singing at her funeral. With his interest piqued, Cummings asked whether anyone filmed it.

“My buddy PJ was like, “Yeah, no. Nobody. Why would anybody film that?” recalls Cummings. “I thought, ‘That’s a good point. Maybe I should film it because nobody else does that.’ I heard ‘Thunder Road’ on the radio when I was driving home one night and I was so moved by it, I was like, I would probably sing this song if my mother passed away.’ Then I thought I’d probably fuck it up because I don’t think it would be a really good performance. It’d just be me being really nervous – I thought that’d be really funny.”

Cummings may be one of the best filmmakers you probably don’t know, having served as a producer on two of last year’s most audacious and distinctive films at SXSW with Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” and Patrick Wang’s “The Grief of Others,” and a frequent enabler of such unique and ambitious projects, going back to Danny Madden’s auditory wonder “euphonia.” However, Cummings has rarely been in the director’s chair himself, which is still partially true in the case of “Thunder Road,” since as its writer, director and star, he had precious few opportunities to sit down during what is essentially a 13-minute monologue. Still, what emerges with him at the helm is such an exuberant high-wire act it’s just as likely to bring others to their feet, as it did at Sundance where “Thunder Road” won the Grand Jury Prize in the shorts category.

Shot in one continuous take that breathes new life into all-too-often showy practice, the film starts out as a remembrance of a mother than turns into a exhumation of withheld feelings and personal demons for a cop (Cummings) who can’t contain himself for better or worse, giving a digression-filled tribute before ultimately finding his rhythm in more ways than one by playing his mom’s favorite Springsteen song. The situation is so ridiculous, it’s easy to recognize it as ineffably human as the cop struggles to reconcile the person he is with who he was in his mother’s eyes, honoring her in the only way he can, though whether it’s appropriate is up for question.

All this is dazzlingly delivered by Cummings, who surrounded himself with friends who suited up as extras, shooting the film in just six hours after weeks of rehearsals to nail down the intricate camerawork and the perfectly awkward “emms…” and “anyways…” peppered throughout the memorial. Shortly before the film makes its way to Austin for SXSW, where Cummings has become a regular, the filmmaker spoke about how he scrambled to put the money together for “Thunder Road,” figuring out how a member of law enforcement would dance and balancing tragedy and comedy. (The film can now be watched directly below.)

Thunder Road from Jim Cummings on Vimeo.

How did this come about?

I was working at College Humor as a producer, making two or three short films a week, and there was just no time to make them as great as they could be. In my spare time, I started rehearsing this thing when I was driving back and forth to work, writing it in my car because of the nature of the project. There wasn’t really a whole lot of pen to paper – it was more like me saying it a hundred thousand times and getting it to be what it ended up being. I could get through three rehearsals on the drive to work, then three rehearsals on the drive home for about two weeks. I filmed it in my buddy’s basement and then sent it to a couple of producer buddies and my [cinematographer]. They were just so moved by it, even though it was cell phone footage, they were like, “Yeah, we really have something here.” Then I spent another two weeks rehearsing it and set a date like, “Hey, October 10th, we’re doing this thing.”

Is it true you wound up incorporating some stories involving your real (living) mother into this eulogy?

I was thinking about my mom when I was doing it and this is really a love letter to her. “Thunder Road” actually is one of her favorite songs and [as you hear in the film] my sister really is dyslexic and my mom did buy a tape recorder to read her college textbooks. It’s one of those things that when you’re in high school [you think], “Oh, yeah, that’s just something that mom was doing,” but then when you grow up you realize, “Holy shit, that’s impressive” when she was working full-time and teaching my sister how to read, so that she could do well in school. [As you also hear in the film], she did donate to the school – this was years after we left – because one of the principals of the school called up and said, “This girl that did have down syndrome wasn’t able to play on the play structures,” so she anonymously donated to our school to build this girl a playhouse and I heard about that through the grapevine. My mom didn’t tell anybody.

You hear these things as an adult and you’re like, “Jesus! My parents are real people, and they’re really good people.” That’s what growing up is. So what that means and the amount of love that goes into that was just heartbreaking, so when I was thinking about that, I was crying and also trying to use that ammunition to make something funny, as well. It was working. If you can hit both emotions properly as an audience, you’re doing something right. It is a love letter, an apology note and a really nice showcase of that woman.

Was it from the start that you decided you should also star in it?

No, I had called Danny Madden and Ben Wiessner, and I was like, “Hey, I want to do this thing as a cop at a funeral. I thought about acting in it, but there was also Sean Carrigan, a really talented actor that we work with a lot who looks a lot more like a police officer. I had him in the back of my mind, but writing it, doing the dialogue, and the fact that it’s all sentence fragments and mannerisms – [like] where [the character] will shake his head quickly, then says, “I wish I hadn’t said that last sentence out loud” – all of these little things are so complex, and there’s so much going on, I realized if I were going to write this 12-minute movie how it needed to be written, itwould be like 45 pages long. There was just too much of a learning curve if we want to shoot in October to get somebody else to do it, so I realized, “No. It’s got to be me.” I had acted before in Tony Yacenda’s movie “This Is Jay Calvin,” which is online, but that was the first thing I’d ever done. After doing it a couple times, Drew Daniels, the [cinematographer] who also shot “Krisha,” was watching me with his girlfriend, and she was just crying watching my little stupid rehearsal in a basement, so I was just like, “Cool, I could probably do this.”

Speaking of Drew, all the one-take shots in “Krisha” must’ve been good preparation for the single take here. Was it logistically challenging to figure out how you would shoot this?

Totally. The whole time it was conversations back and forth with Drew and Mark Vashro, the producer, [asking] “Are we ever going to cut away to see what’s going on with the audience [at the funeral home]?” I was always the one saying, “No, no, no, no, no.” The dialogue and his story are going to be compelling enough that we don’t have to see how people are responding to it. Also, if you cut away to the crowd, that’s going to be telling the audience how to feel about it. All it takes is one raised eyebrow in a cutaway shot of the audience to give away that this is uncomfortable and if you don’t do it, instead of telling the audience how to feel, you force them to question how they’re feeling. That was always something I wanted from the beginning, with camera movement, with color correction, with everything. We wanted to make sure that the audience didn’t know if it was a drama or a comedy throughout until he starts dancing. The goal was make the audience understand who this dude was in a very short period of time and to see all avenues of his life, so you realize this is like the 13 most important minutes in his life.

That cop uniform winds up serving so many purposes – it gives the audience an immediate impression before he speaks, then once he does, it becomes disorienting. Was that idea in there from the start? After all, he’s not on the clock, so it’s unspoken that it’s a choice to wear it.

That came in a little bit later. I knew he was going to have to be a tough guy because if it was me, I feel I have this kind of high-pitched voice and I don’t think I’m that compelling to watch, and we wanted to talk about masculinity. Guys at funerals have such a hard time expressing themselves and that’s always interesting to me. Then I was in a pizzeria about three weeks before we were shooting, and there was these cops in there and I was talking to them about funerals for whatever reason. They said in the state of California, you’re required to wear your uniform at a funeral and in New York, it’s even crazier – you have to wear this special jacket and then white gloves. I started growing a mustache the next day. I was like, “Yup, it’s got to be a cop and he’s got to be surrounded by his coworkers from the beginning and then not sit next to them at the end. It’s got to be this brutal thing that he’s got to go through.” And to dance around in a cop uniform in 2016 is hilarious.

How did the choreography for this come about?

I had a couple of moves but I’m not a dancer by any means. [laughs] And I had worked with a choreographer named Kathryn Burns, who is amazing. She did a lot of stuff for Comedy Central and is now on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which she was just starting on [when “Thunder Road” was coming together]. She’s amazing and has moves that have moves. I was like, “She’s so big now, I don’t know if she’ll take on this small project,” but she was like, “Come to the ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ studio.” We went over there with a boombox and I had the song, I explained it to her and she’s like, “I only have two hours,” but I explained it to her and I was expecting her to be like, “This is a stupid project. I regret having told Jim that I would do this,” but she was like, “Fuck yes!” and built this dance routine for a police officer with a lot gun pointing and hip swaying. She just got it instantly. Because we didn’t have a lot of time, we filmed it so I could do the routine once all the way through and then I just went home and memorized it off of the video tape.

You’ve been helping so many other filmmakers in recent years as a producer. Was it important for you to direct something?

It’s a really weird feeling. I was a producer on Patrick Wang’s film, “The Grief of Others,” and an associate producer on “Krisha,” and I was working on a bunch of College Humor videos and there’s like this ambition that came up in me of, “Just let me do it.” I never had that before. As a producer, you’re not that creative. You’re able to make creative decisions, but it’s never about the film itself and it got to a point where I was talking about missed opportunities and what people love about movies and what engages them and what makes something compelling. I saw “Krisha” on the screen and it makes you laugh, it makes you cry – it moves you – and seeing how audiences respond to that film that was shot for no money in a backyard, gave me the confidence to be like, “All right, cool. I’m going to try and do something cool, too.”

The films you mentioned premiered at South By Southwest and you have a longstanding relationship with the festival through Ornana, which produced the festival bumpers in 2014. Does it hold a special place in your heart to play “Thunder Road” here after the hoopla of Sundance?

This will be my fourth time going, but the first I’m going as a writer or director and going back, I’m so honored. Even as a producer, going to South By every year, there’s something new. It’s such a great program and I’m always so excited about it. It is a bit like summer camp. All my favorite people are there. My buddy Yianni Warnock is coming in from Australia because his movie [“Homebodies”] got in and it’s like I have an excuse to see Yianni.

But this movie, I’m so surprised by its success. It’s something that I made in a month-in-a-half with the help of a couple of talented people. I was miserable making it. I spend a lot of time writing it in a dark apartment and I didn’t have enough money to fund it so I sold my wedding rings that my wife left me two years ago because I was two or three grand short from being able to rent the location of the funeral home. That was a nightmare in and of itself [because] all the funeral homes in LA County are run by this shady corporation. So making this was a heartbreaking experience [because] I didn’t know if it was going to be any good, but I figured it’ll be a new chapter in my life and if I ever get into a film festival, I’ll be able to do that for the next six or seven months and travel the world. To submit to these these two enormous film festivals, and get in, it’s been the most confirming experience. It’s such a dream come true.

“Thunder Road” will play at SXSW as part of Narrative Shorts Program #1 on March 12 at the Topfer Theatre at ZACH at 11:30 am, March 13 at 1 pm at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, and March 17 at 6:15 pm at the Stateside Theater.

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