Wholly Cinema Exclusive Interview with Actor/Filmmaker Jim Cummings
Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.
American indie filmmaker/actor Jim Cummings, after winning a major prize at Sundance in 2016 for his short film “Thunder Road” about a cop undergoing an emotional breakdown during his mother’s funeral, has taken the bold step of turning the celebrated short into a full length feature.
Now only just beginning its theatrical run in select North American cities as well as online, the constantly-hustling writer/director/actor Cummings is currently riding high on a wave of critical and audience success as he follows his indie muse while distributing the film himself.
Filmmaker Cummings, always trying to give something back to the indie film community, took a few minutes break to chat with us here at Wholly Cinema as he was mentoring in a workshop of young, inspired filmmakers trying to turn their shorts into features.
Wholly Cinema: What was your process from getting the short of “Thunder Road” to the feature script phase?
Jim Cummings: It took me about a year of thinking about it to turn it into a feature and I was thinking there’s no way we can make it work. Then I had an idea one night and ended up writing the script in the next five days.
WC: What was the biggest challenge in getting the film made?
JC: The hardest part was coming to the conclusion that I had wasted time waiting for someone to help. I feel like I was suffering from a gambling addiction for a while with all the going around and shaking hands and listening to all the people who said they were going to help get the film made- and then nothing happens.
So then it was like- OK, I guess we have to do it ourselves.
WC: Have you developed a process/style/philosophy of directing a film?
JC: For a long time I was a producer working for other people for around six or seven years so I had unprecedented, exclusive access to watching other directors fail. That was an incredible education for me to see the various ways stuff we were making wasn’t connecting to audiences. So I left that experience thinking that I wasn’t going to let that happen and that every moment that you create has to be interesting- with the audience always first.
There are things I want to say about mortality and life and love and legacy but my instincts are always to consider how to make things work best as if I was an audience member. So I was able to transition that into a storytelling style. I like long takes, I like doing things that are impressive to audiences and challenging and difficult to pull off. I like making things that are life affirming.
WC: How was your experience directing yourself acting in “Thunder Road”?
JC: It’s a lot of rehearsal. I had to do it a thousand times. The writing process involves acting it all out- I’ll end up writing down the best stuff from a hundred trials and that becomes the script which I’ll memorize and rehearse it a thousand times. I’m not an actor- I’ve never taken an acting class and have no background in it but I knew what good acting looked like and that’s why I did the short film. Acting is like self-directing to me- I set up the camera and then everyone knows where I’m going to be at every moment if we’re doing a long take and then I just get to go in and know my marks and act out the thing I already did a thousand times in my apartment.
WC: You’re distributing “Thunder Road” yourself. How’s that going?
JC: It’s going suspiciously well. I was really able to follow in some good footsteps with the Sundance Creative Distribution Lab because they had done five or six films that they had self-distributed and given grants to help out- which they didn’t have to do but they think that the current distribution system is broken and needs work and we agreed.
We didn’t get any offers for the feature even after winning South By Southwest or getting into Cannes or any of these other accolades that are supposed to mean something to people. So we were like- fuck it- let’s just do it. We made the whole movie ourselves- we spent far less money than “Columbus” and that film was able to recoup a huge amount of it’s money off distribution in the first year so why don’t we just do that ourselves.
We were able to distribute our film in France because it did well at Cannes, submitted it to the Deauville Film Festival- it was originally only going to screen in twelve to fifteen across France but when we won at Deauville the previous week we had sixty-seven theatres reach out. Then we had seventy-six the next week followed by eighty-six the week after that. So we’re doing good. In the first week our movie has grossed $310,000 in ticket sales and the movie only cost $190,000 to make. It’s really unbelievable how well the movie’s done in just the first country its opened in.
WC: What advice do you have for those who want to make their first feature film?
JC: Make ten short films first. That’s always helpful. If you’re trying to make your first feature I think it’s important to sit down and realize that no one is going to help you and that you have to do it yourself. All you have to do is remember that you’re alone in this endeavor and that you have to do all the work and then the work can get started.
WC: What’s your next project?
JC: I’m in talks with a big studio to do a werewolf movie. Also, I just signed a deal with a major TV network to do our show about astronauts- which is very funny and poignant. I’ve also just produced two features for a friend in Atlanta and right now I’m doing this lab for the next couple of days with filmmakers so they can go and make their movies and their own dreams come true based on their incredible short films.
And…I don’t know. I’m just gonna keep making stuff and keep not listening when people tell me no.
“Thunder Road” opens in Vancouver, Canada on Oct.19 at Van City Theatre.
Buy tix: https://www.viff.org/Online/thunder-road
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Viva La Cinema!