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Thunder Road: An Interview with Jim Cummings
June 5, 2019
Thunder Road is a brilliant movie, excellent in fact, but one that’s just too difficult to watch. Attributed mainly to the anxiety-inducing intensely raw peformance of actor Jim Cummings about a man, Jim Arnaud, amidst a pernicious nervous breakdown. 30-something Arnaud is a cop from the south in the throes of despair, inconsolable at his mother’s funeral, spewing out the most toe-curling, achingly painful, long-drawn-out speech ever. This unfiltered outpouring of uncharted emotions is just too much to take in, as you watch his gradation from sad to explosive to aggresively unhinged, lashing out at a bemused crowd of mourners agonisingly waiting for him to stop.
Already in a state of psychological decline, Arnaud has recently split from his wife who’s met someone else and is planning to move, taking their daughter away fom him His job that he was so diligently good at is slipping through his hands and now his mother’s death. As everthing proves to much to bear, he is pushed over the edge and an unravelling ensues.
Cummings also wrote and directed Thunder Road, a fine debut with his faultless delivery and a unique filming style dominated by the extensive use of long takes which skillifully allowed for humour, grief, discomfort and cringe to emerge; all conducive to an immersive viewer experience. As you are dragged through an emotional rollercoaster that is Arnaud’s life, it’s hard to remain detached and not empathize with him and his woes, but also laugh at him and then recoil as he train-wrecks his life into oblivion. Thunder Road is a film that encapsulates to a tee the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’, the tough guy persona that crumbles in the face of self-reflection and cripplingly feelings of sadness.
We were lucky enough to interview Cummings a few weeks ago, while he was over in the UK to tell us more about the making of the film and playing Jim Arnaud.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was making stuff for a while that wasn’t funny and that audiences didn’t like. And then I saw a film called Krisha at South by South West Festival (SXSW). It blew my mind. It cost 35 grand and it was filmed in a backyard. Its really funny, very moving and important, I thought it was the future of filmmaking. I had just moved to Los Angeles, I had gone through a divorce and I thought… what’s the worst that can happen? I’m going to make something, but I won’t show it to anyone. So, I started writing this thing about a eulogy, on my car ride to work. A short film, like a weird performance piece that at best I was hoping to get a Vimeo staff pick. I never dreamt we would get into festivals. I shot it in October, submitted it to Sundance late and got a phone call the next month to say ‘we got in’.
I didn’t have the rights to the Bruce Springsteen song. I lied on the paperwork. But when we won the festival, I realised we wouldn’t be able to get the film online because we didn’t have the right to use the song. So, I wrote an open letter to Bruce, he saw the short and let us put it online. Then I spent like a year going around Los Angeles trying to get people to give us money to make a feature, whilst making nine other short films. Then I said ‘screw it’ and run a Kickstarter campaign inviting the public to come and help us out. We got 190,000 USD in fourteen days and now we are here, touring the film with success.
I am curious to see how you described Thunder Road to possible financiers?
I would say to them Manchester By The Sea as a comedy. The story of Joab as a comedy. I mean… I get it… I understand the difficulty in funding a story like this. Especially a white cop in 2018… The story for me was endearing. The short film worked, it made people laugh and cry and I wanted to continue to do that. I recorded it as a podcast. I had a feature screenplay and then an audio play of the screenplay with music and sound design to convince investors that this is a functional thing. I would say if someone can misinterpret a text message don’t let them misinterpret your screenplay. It worked in audio format, so I knew it would work as an actual film.
When watching the film, Jim Arnaud resonated with me. I knew where he was coming from all the time. He made me feel funny, awkward, but mostly I felt empathy for him. It’s a real emotional rollercoaster watching him.
A lot of it was in rehearsal, how long can you hold the camera at him looking uncomfortable. That translates to the audience. All of that is in the DNA of the project. And because we are doing all these long takes, everything has to be meticulously worked out and staged. It appears improvisational and that’s a good thing, but in reality there wasn’t a single beat in the film that wasn’t planned or rigorously rehearsed, mainly due to the budget and schedule. It is a cocktail of many things, making audiences feel uncomfortable and then winning them back with a joke. You know, like a sad, human, tragedy, empathy machine and then bring them back with the comedy… Exactly how Pixar make movies.
Why did you use the long takes?
I love long takes because they do two things simultaneously. Firstly, its impressive to watch, the audience feels like they are present inside of the experience of the characters. It’s like watching two people play ping pong, your constantly focused. It forces the audience to pay attention the way conventional editing doesn’t. The other one is because it’s an experience they are watching, rather than something that seems edited, you’re able to get away with talking about deeper subjects. Where if its formally edited and not a long continuous moment, it comes across as preachy. The opening eulogy, if it was edited as a normal short film, it would feel like this weird movie about a cop at a funeral talking about life and humanity. But because you’re there with the guy, looking at how he progresses from moment to moment, you are going through the experience with him.
You bring up themes of toxic masculinity. Jim doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions, it’s like his feelings just come out messily without any filter. I think that’s what I found most cringeworthy to watch.
Of course, dude… that’s the point of the movie. You know that bit when he’s shouting: “do you want me to talk? It doesn’t help to talk about your emotions… ever”. And then to watch him loose his mind, being upset, with all these emotions he can’t control. It’s really funny. For any outsider, anyone whose had a single therapy session will realise how valuable that is, to talk about one’s emotion. The goal was actually to get some tough guys to watch it and go ‘that guys an idiot, I’m never going to be that bad’. I haven’t come round to doing that yet.
So like a commentary about the tough guy that doesnt do emotions?
I make fun of John Wayne. My favourite words in the movie ‘I never meant to be mean to her, John Wayne’. I say at as an excuse and an apology. That guy must have grown up watching John Wayne movies and that’s why he thinks it was ok that he was mean to his mum. He didn’t realise it was wrong until he was old enough. That’s such a sad thing. A lot of men probably realize in later life, that the tough guy theatrics is all bullshit. Stupid… dangerously stupid.
Is there any correlation between you and Jim Arnauld?
Some, I guess. I mean I don’t have any children. Both my parents are still alive, they came to the Prince Charles screening last night. I am a divorcee but that’s probably it. I don’t know… He is like the ghost of Christmas future, what I could have been if I lived in the South and had a child. I sympathise with the guy a lot. I think he probably has, although more magnified, situations of ‘foot in mouth’ problems, that I also have. Apart from that, not a whole lot in common unfortunately.
The film is described as a comedy. I see the comedy in it but I wouldn’t characterize it solely as that.
I think various people see it differently, across national borders but also across age. With older people who have buried loved ones, who know what life is like, they may see it as a drama with some funny parts. Younger generations see it as a comedy through and through. The humanity aspect, they are not old enough to understand it. They think it’s great, they love the cringe comedy. That was kinda the genesis of it, like its ok for things to be funny and make you feel uncomfortable or make you cry. I’m happy with all those reactions.
You wrote the film, directed it, acted in it and produced it. Is the idea of making another film quite daunting?
This was how this film was made because we didn’t have any money. I may add that I also edited Thunder Road, I played the three songs in the film and I learned after effects to be able to crop out some minor issues, like a sneaky boom pole which needed to be erased from scenes. YouTube tutorials are great for that kind of stuff. I had to because the release date for SXSW in 2018 was looming and we had to have the final cut submitted and we didn’t have any money left. So, it was the whole staying up all night working on it, which is how it was for the entire movie. It didn’t really matter as it was another thing that I had to learn.
And when nobody was willing to buy the film, distribution was another thing I learned. With this film, that’s how it went. But now I just finished shooting a feature film back in March, which I wrote, directed and starred in which is much more ambitious, bigger and crazier, perhaps a little bit more conventional than Thunder Road and we are shooting another film in August which I will also write, direct and star in, as well as finance myself and hopefully with the help of friends.
You are obviously very prolific.
Thanks. Although honestly, people aren’t calling me. Like when someone said ‘Jim gotta feature deal for Thunder Road’… No I didn’t, I started a Kickstarter campaign. Its quite freeing though. When you make stuff, nobody knows the story behind it. I just want keep doing what I’m doing, make the movies I want to make and it doesn’t matter if nobody comes knocking.
Thunder Road is out in cinemas now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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