Interview: Jim Cummings Takes Hold on THUNDER ROAD
Generally, the one caveat that comes with the awesome privilege of conducting interviews with those whose work you admire, is that for the sake of said work’s future audience, the discussion must skillfully avoid spoiler territory while still driving at the film’s deeper meaning in broad strokes.The same cannot be said for the type of post-screening Q&A that occurs at film festivals or anniversary screenings where attendees can speak freely about what they’ve just seen. One interview style assumes the audience has yet to see the work in discussion whereas the other knows for a fact that they have. For the first time on this website, it is my pleasure to offer the latter.
This is usually where I would give a detailed intro providing readers with the film’s story and other bits of context to make for the best reading, but in the case of Jim Cummings’ rich in heart and laughs short film, Thunder Road, I have the rare opportunity to allow the work to speak for itself. After winning the Shorts category at Sundance, Cummings ventured on a half-year battle to obtain the rights to Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road, so to release his film online for free. Last month, with the approval of none other than The Boss himself, Cummings finally succeeded in obtaining a much-deserved Vimeo release. Thunder Road has been available since Tuesday.
Now, all you have to do is watch the short in its entirety below, then stick around after the jump for a post-screening Q&A. Then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to watch it a few times more and then send it to your entire family with a gushy, but deeply felt subject line. Godspeed.
Screen Anarchy: How did you fund this project?
Jim Cummings: I was working as a producer at College Humor for about eight months. I had saved up money just from that. I probably had three or four thousand dollars in savings to be able to make something. I knew I wanted to make something and Thunder Road was it. I got to a point where I was like, "I have to make this movie or I'm going to die."
So I had saved like three or four grand, then realized I wasn't going to be able to make it. I started doing a budget with my producers and just the cost of renting a funeral home was like two and a half grand. It was way more expensive than I thought. Then we had to give a deposit as well. It was like $1,000 up front and a check for that, that they would put on hold. It's a nightmare.
What did you initially have in mind for the shoot?
We knew it was going to be one shot. Because it's a single shot, we knew we'd probably do it in one day. I'd been doing rehearsal on it for three weeks beforehand. I was driving in my car to work, and I could do three full rehearsals on the drive there and three full rehearsals on the drive home. I was working full-time doing all these other, bigger, random productions for College Humor. Then it got to a point where I was like, "There's no way I'm going to be able to fund this with the money that I have saved up." The Fisher dolly that we wanted to rent and the lens that we wanted to rent to make this movie, the lens alone was $750 for the day. The fisher dolly, they only cost $150, but the deposit is $2,500. To make a $7,000 movie I needed $11,000. It was like, "Okay this fucking sucks."
I still had my wedding rings lying around. My wife had left me a year and a half prior. I moved down to LA from San Francisco, where we had lived together. I just had them laying around. I was like, "Cool. I don't need these anymore, clearly." I wandered the jewelry district in downtown LA and then sold them... It was like Snatch. It was like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. I was now part of the diamond trade. I sold them for three grand, which is probably way less than I knew they were worth. I got the rest of the money to make the movie. That was a weird experience.
Then it all just happened. It was one day. You spend all of that money in one day, and then you're like, "Shit. In order to be able to pay rent this month, I need to get those deposit checks back." You're hounding a funeral home to get the deposit checks. That was the funding experience for this movie.
For the filmmaking heads, what lens did you have your heart set on?
We shot on the Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm lens, which is a beautiful lens. Our DP, Drew Daniels, shot parts of Freak Show on that camera as well.
Backing up, when did this idea first hit you? When did you think you were on to something?
I had the idea because a buddy of mine was in a hot tub with me, and he told me a story about a friend of his whose mother had passed away. The guy sang a song rather than reading the bible. I was like, "That would be interesting. It would be a new monologue." We talked about it as a potential monologue. It was a really complicated thing. Then I heard Thunder Road on the ride home from a company retreat, and I was exhausted, sunburned. I was at the beach all day. I heard the song and for whatever reason I was thinking about my mom listening to it, all that stuff from the movie, my mom heard it for the first time when she was 16. I was like, "Fuck. My mom was a young woman once. This is such a moving song." I was crying for two hours. I was like, "Fuck. There's something to this. I probably should play this at my mom's funeral." That became a real synthesis of both of those ideas coming together.
Then I was at a pizzeria a couple days later. I met these two police officers, and they said you have to wear a uniform in California to go to a funeral, especially a family member's funeral. I guess in New York they wear a special outfit with white gloves, but in California it's just straight up cop uniform.
I was like, "That's amazing." I was thinking about the song, I was thinking about how humiliating it would be if I sang it, and I was like, "What if we dance to it, too? We could make his mom a dancer." Then it became an idea. I was like, "Fuck. I have to make this thing." Two weeks before shooting I was nervous to die. I was driving safer and really scared that I wouldn't be able to do it. I had done so much crap to do it. I saw myself doing it so many times. That was the prep process.
I’m guessing you had to tap into some very real and borderline cryptic feelings about your mother...
Sure, yeah. The thing about the child that has dyslexia, that's my sister. I don't have dyslexia, but that is a member of my family. I thought about that and all the things that you take for granted as a kid. In that car ride home from that company retreat, I feel like I grew up. I became an adult. I'm like, "Fuck, my parents are human beings. They were just as young as I was. They had all this bullshit, all that stuff that I'm going through." I tapped into that a lot.
Because of that, I was able to summon crying every time. I'm not an actor. I've never been to acting school. I've never done anything like that. I've never taken a class or anything. I just did it a thousand times, and the fact that it was still hitting me as hard every time I did it. I was like, "Cool, this is something."
Most people I've spoken to who have seen THUNDER ROAD just love it. But I have one friend who really liked it, but in my opinion didn't really get it, and said, "That was the best thing since NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE." I kind of really resented that comment, because what your character is going through is so sincere. It's a little goofy I guess, at first, but I just love how you ride the tone.
I’d watched and rewatched your film a few times around Sundance, but the first time I saw it with an audience was at SXSW, and I almost didn't enjoy the experience. Usually watching films with an audience is a ritual I covet, but in this case I found the response distracting. They clearly loved what they were watching, but I thought that they were too presumptuous about what it was, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, I think so, too.
The laughs at the beginning are definitely funny, but there comes a point when the tone starts to shift and even though he’s still acting ridiculously, his pain sets in and it’s so relatable it humanizes the embarrassment. The joke is no joke, but the laughs persisted like you were Leslie Nielsen.
Yeah, I think you're right about that. At the premiere at Sundance, somebody was laughing really loud in the back row. Then everybody else was laughing really loud because of it. The whole time I kept turning around like, "Who's this jackass laughing at this funeral?" I meant for it to be funny, but that aspect of it, I took it so seriously. It's a fucking tragedy. It turned out it was Key, from Key and Peele, who was laughing that loud. He was one of the jurors.
Hah! Well that's good.
I loved it, but yeah there's something to that. If you watch it alone, or if you watch it with four or five people, there's hardly any laughing. If you're in a movie theater, it's uproarious. It's crazy, the amount of laughing.
My introduction to your film was at the Sundance award ceremony. I saw the announcement that it won, and they featured a still of a cop in front of a casket. I'm like, "Oh, this must be some bullshit cop drama." Later, Jeremy O. Harris told me that it was awesome. I was like, "Okay, I'll give it a look." So I'm watching and I’m laughing very hard at things like, "She was a bitch". Then the next thing you know, you're like punched with this genuine sadness that resonates so potently it evokes a sort of empathetic cry-laughter.
One of the things I so admire about it, is you ride that tone of not being sure of whether you can laugh or not for so long and then, one of the best moments is after he’s singing and dancing for a verse or two, the camera starts pulling out and you see the guy filming with his iphone, and it lets the audience off the hook. They know for the first time since things get deep that it's okay to laugh again. The person filming him is almost meta, because his footage is going to end up on YouTube and nobody is going to have any idea about any of the sadness. It's just going to be this super weird viral thing that objectifies his incredibly human experience... Which is great.
That was an idea that we had three weeks before shooting. I was like, "This has to be in the movie."
While I'm kind of in gush mode, I’ll share another favorite moment. First of all, I love the detail that the picture on the casket is the daughter, who wasn't even at the funeral. It's hard to really know what that says about everything, but it's just kind of an interesting little detail.
I see it as the granddaughter. His daughter, who's there. That's the granddaughter and the mother together. It's two brunettes and then a blonde woman. The blonde woman is actually my mother in real life. The girl is my niece, Cindy, in the photograph. Then we got an actress who looks a lot like her to come in and do it. She was great. She killed it, it was Francesca. She was the little girl.
That was the idea, it was supposed to be the granddaughter. A lot of people have said that, too. Then what's that story? It's so funny. Some of the most poignant things in the movie that people take away from it is this one line of dialogue, where it's the brother and sister didn't show up. Then it's like, "Who are these fucking jerk siblings who don't show up to a funeral? This guy's struggling, and they're not there to support him?" They're like, "Maybe was the mom a great woman? Was she actually that awesome? Maybe not the best mom." I love that, being able to use dialogue to put the entire back story into an audience's mind.
I love the cop’s funeral behaviour - the front he finds so important to put on. There's almost a professionalism involved in hosting a funeral. “Thank you for coming.” At first he acts as though he's above grieving.
The dude is probably ... He's in the police department, he’s used to talking to groups of people all the time. He's used to that. Then as soon as he starts to realize what he's doing up there, he's like, "Oh shit." You realize he hasn't processed any of it. I talked to people like Benjamin Weisner, who's a producer on this movie, he lost his mother at a young age, around 18 or 19. He said that when you go up to eulogize a family member, you feel like you're up there for about ten hours, and you're really only up there for about three or four minutes. Your goal is to try and distill the beauty of this human being in that short time period. You find yourself so nervous that you're going to mess things up and not do them the credit that they deserve. So much of it is self-despisal, then also love for this person, in front of a group of people, which is something you never see in movies.
Right, and if you’re a tough guy, it's also apologizing for feeling. That kind of American blowhard mentality. Men struggle at funerals. It makes for fascinating, but very inappropriate, people-watching.
A week ago, right before SXSW, my best friend's father passed away. I went back home.
I was expecting him to be so broken up, and it's not that he wasn't - of course he was, but he was very much like, "Thanks for coming." Y’know, to his boss and people like that. He was playing host in many ways.
There's a lot of weird interpersonal things. Your co-workers are there, your family is there. People you haven't seen in years are there. There are aunt figures, and also family members, so you're having to cater to everybody and make sure they're okay. Then you never have time to think about yourself, until it's all about you and you're speaking. That's the other thing about a funeral, the children speaking at funerals is the thing that everybody remembers. It's like, "Fuck, now all eyes are on me. I have to do this thing now." It's a fucking tough thing. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.
I love how he struggles to own it. When he introduces the idea of playing a song, he feels the need to qualify it: “People said it would be a good idea...”
That describes entire conversations. “I had it working this morning, I promise.” He practiced this morning by himself, which is crazy that he did that. I just love it. Using that dialogue of "people said it'd be a good idea. Anyway, so I brought it." All of that stuff, having to backtrack, all of that is so funny to me.
My favorite moment of the song section might be, "You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright." And then he looks back at the casket!
That's his mother! Who might not have been a really beautiful woman, but he says that to her and he’s like, "Fuck, she had to go through life without being so beautiful." That's so fucking heart-breaking, man.
Not to mention the impact of that lyric in the first place. And then to think about your mom when she's 16 thinking about that lyric…
It's negging. The song is about a dude who's telling this girl how her one-track life is going to lead her, and it's going to be terrible. You have an opportunity to go and do that. Your fucking prom gown is going to be in rags at these people's feet, at the end of the song, or you can jump in this car with me and we'll get the fuck out of here. We don't have to do this shit anymore. It's such a beautiful American risk, love story, and personification of taking risks for life through automobile metaphors. It's so great. He's so good with that shit.
Totally. The other thing that's so bittersweetly painful about it, to me, is the teenage connection to ideas like ‘tramps like us were born to run’. That impulse to run away is such a youthful feeling of isolation angst. Now Brenda is at the end of that struggle - all those feelings are as distant as possible. The angst-ridden teenager has lived her entire life and produced a son who is realizing he too will at some point live his entire life. I love that we’re witnessing him tap into these ancient feelings from before he was even born, when his mom was Brenda, and not an entirely different creature from his own daughter in ten years time.
He has to do that. It's like he's thinking about what his mother was thinking at the time. All of that stuff, what Bruce Springsteen meant to people, the fact that she didn't have this incredible life. She started a dance studio and raised a few kids, and has grandchildren, a lover. To him, that means everything. That was a big, successful life. That was better than what she would have had.
God, that’s so tragic.
It had to be. We were going through pictures on Tumblr with Dave, the production designer, of different things to use. Instead of it being my mom, we were thinking about having these photographs of ballet dancers from the 1970s. There were pictures that we were considering using of outside of a trailer, doing a ballet move, beautiful old school film photos that we were going to use. They were just so tragic that we were like, "No. It has to be something pretty, because that says redneck rather than American." .
Let's talk about your mom and her introduction to this project.
I told her about it when I was writing it. I was like, "I'm going to make this thing. It's about a funeral. It's about a police officer eulogizing his mother. He sings a Bruce Springsteen song." She was like, "Alright. What Springsteen song?" I was like, "Thunder Road." She was like, "Cool. All right." It's one of her favorite songs, and I think she knew that it was a love letter, an apology to her in many ways. She's such a fan of all my stuff anyway. Then for the few weeks, I was going through all the rehearsals and processes of memorizing and all that stuff. I kept calling her and just being like, "This thing's going to be the best thing I'll ever do. Hands down. It's the best thing I've ever done. You're going to love it. It's going to be timeless, and it's going to be great. I promise you, it's going to be awesome."
She gave me $1,000 to finish the movie. She's fucking amazing. She hadn't seen it yet. I brought it to Christmas, which is the first time she had seen it. I showed it to her and the whole family. My brothers and sisters were like, "Fuck you. Why would you make this thing? You killed mom. This is horrible." My mom was balling crying, holding my arm, and then the song came on. She sang. She knew every word. We sang it together while watching it. Every time she sees it she says, "If you don't do it at my actual funeral, I'm going to pay someone to beat you up." I have to do it, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At Sundance, she came. She could only make it after the awards, so we had already won. We came to the third screening and we wanted to give all the seats away to everybody. We gave all our tickets away, and then we came in and stood in the aisle. The song came on, and she and I would just dance in the aisle, privately, where no one else could see us. My dad was there. It was just great, man. She's the biggest fan of the movie.
That’s so fucking beautiful. Perhaps the best moment of all comes at the end. He's back down and he seems to have this moment of profound clarity. For a second there he sees it all so clearly, and then he swallows it and reverts back to professional cop.
Yeah, so what do you think?
He sits there and he sees his daughter, pulls away. He looks back at the coffin, looks back at his daughter, and is like, "I'm fucking this thing up - this thing was fucked up." Then he has this transformative moment to himself.
What I wrote was that. There was no dialogue. In the description in the script, I have him realize the legacy and then he might be fucking up with his daughter. Everybody was like, "Nobody's going to get that. There's no dialogue. He has to say something like 'honey, we've got to have a talk,' or something like that."
Instead, I have this long drawn out thing of you see him go through this weird thing, he takes this deep breath and exhales. To me, that's him being like, "I have to be a better dad. Her pulling away is the first time I realized that. I've been selfish my whole life. I did this stupid dance, and I'm sorry. I fucked up, and all that." That to me is him realizing the error of his ways. What do you think?
In my head - and I know I’m to a degree projecting (and that's a good thing) - in my head it was that stuff, but it was also "be nice to your parents." He's watching his daughter be mean to him at his own mother's funeral, which is how he was. He's like, "I was mean to her and I was a kid and I didn’t know any better. You can’t know any better until it’s too late. Is this how my daughter will feel when I die?”
No exactly, so he's watching the cycle firsthand, and at the same time he's also battling feeling bad about that. Both of those.
He's having that feeling that his mother must have had.
Exactly. It's this fucking horrible legacy.
To me, I do think he a little bit reverts back to, "Okay, I'm about to seat people again, I'm about to own up to this"
Exactly. I was thinking about that. He's in his uniform. He's actually going to have to go back to work after this. He's got to go back on the clock like nothing ever happened... Fucking nightmare.
Yeah, there's a lot going on in that movie. I'm glad you get it. So many people that I talk to, some people are like, "It's so funny."
And It is.
It is funny. But there are some people where they watch it, and they're like, "I have to talk to this person. Otherwise, I'm not going to feel like I've experienced everything that I can get from them."
If you told me a year ago, or way less, three months ago, that I'd interview a short film director, to be honest, I would’ve said, “shut the front door”, but I was just so fucking moved by your film.
Thank you so much.
Another thing I wanted to ask - I know we both have to run - six takes, tell me about one through six if you can.
We did the first one, and we had all these actors from Craigslist and LA Casting come in to be cast members, extras. Everyone was in there, and they knew it was a funeral. I walked them through what I was going to do, and I was going to dance. Nobody knew it was going to be me. It's all older people and people that are my age, then some kids. I go up there to do it. I do the whole thing, and then instantly afterwards I was like, "I'm going to go outside and get some water." I walk outside. As soon as they realized we had cut, I got swarmed. Everybody was hugging me. Some people were laughing. Like, "Holy fuck, this is awesome." Some people invited their friends, "Put on a black suit, come here, we're shooting. It's awesome. You gotta come to this thing." That was take one.
My performance in take two was better, but the camera wasn't there yet. The camera and sound weren't there yet. We had just started, but the performance was... It was a really weird, intense, manly man performance. Then three was okay, and four was okay. We had two takes that we had to stop halfway through because people were laughing. Everybody was laughing in the crowd. I was like, "No, fuck this. Back to one." That was early on, so I was like, "Cool, let's go back to one. Scrub the set."
About a minute before the fifth take ended, the boy who is sitting in front of me is a six year old. He turns around. He's the only one. We have him turn around to look at me, because kids will turn around and look at stuff. He turned around, looked at me, and about a minute before the end of the take, while I'm having the moment with the daughter, he farted really loud for like ten seconds. Everybody laughs. Everyone felt like they couldn't laugh, because it was dead silent in the church. We had to reset because I was laughing.
The sixth take was the one. That was the sixth one that we did all the way through. Every other take, I was like, "We can do it better, I can do it better. Let's do it again. Let's do it again." The sixth one, I was like, "I think that might have been it." Drew, the DP, pulled it up and we started watching it. It was the first take that I watched all the way through. As I was watching it, everybody came over and was just kind of watching it. We were like, "Yeah. That was it. Cool." Then everybody sat back down. We did some sound stuff, people creaking in their seats, people laughing, stuff like that that we hadn't gotten before. Then he said, "It's a wrap." Everybody hugged everybody and laughed and cried. It was really wonderful. It was a six hour shoot, easiest shoot I've had all year. It was the most fulfilling experience. It was so cathartic, to get it out.
Certainly cathartic to watch. I think the first moment that probably punched me in the stomach - I was already moved - “I got mad at somebody, somebody didn't say thanks.”
It's such a quiet moment, too. There's like ten seconds of silence, where you hear a car drive by. He's thinking about saying something, and he realizes that he's not as kind as his mother was. Then he has a moment of silence thinking about it, and then he describes it. Then he realizes he's wasting time talking about himself.
The moment that made me just like emotionally collapse - and I don't cry often in movies, but I really fucking did in yours - when he starts with the dyslexia. He's like, "She must have stayed up so late." Oh my god dude, it kills me.
That's Giovanni Ribisi, in Saving Private Ryan. I watched that clip between takes sometimes, of him talking about his mom. He's like, "She would come home from work and I would pretend to be asleep. I don't know why I did that." It's just like, oh my god!
Regret and the idea of ‘too late’... it’s unbearable.
The regret speech from Magnolia, too. The old man...
"Life's not short, it's long." (“I'm seventy five years old and embarrassed… my fuckin REGRET AND GUILT AND- these things...don't let anyone tell you that you shouldn't regret anything.....don't do that…”)
That stuff, yeah. It's so incredible, you can do this stuff. You can just hear people say certain stuff and make people feel certain things. Everybody connects to that stuff. I feel like a lot of filmmakers are scared to do that, because they think that people don't want to see that shit. I don't know, if you can make people laugh it's kind of like giving them ammunition to be able to cope with that stuff in their own lives.
With that, I gave Jim a hearty hug - another interview first - and we went our separate ways. That was almost four months ago and Thunder Road is still on my mind. Since first seeing it at Sundance, I’ve had many friends lose relatives. Sending them Thunder Road was the least I could do.