Actor, writer and director Jim Cummings can notch 2016 up as one of the most significant years in his professional film career. In the space of just a few months, the LA-based filmmaker scored a host of important awards for his funny and sentimental short Thunder Road, including major prizes at SXSW, Palm Springs Shortfest, Los Angeles Film Festival, Chicago and Atlanta Film Festivals as well as the lucrative Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
New Machine’s Michael Kelleher spoke to Jim about his experience making Thunder Road, his thoughts on the work and what’s next for him.
Perhaps tell me a little bit about your background. How you came to be a filmmaker?
I was a producer of music videos, commercials, features and comedy sketches for about 8 years before making Thunder Road. I became a filmmaker when I got fed up watching bad movies being celebrated.
Filmmaking is not an easy path. What drives you? What keeps you persistent, focused?
Showing off. Making people laugh. Making people think and cry. I really like using the small tools that I have to move people in a dark room.
Tell us about Thunder Road. Why tell this story?
I was in a hot tub with a friend of mine, the actor PJ McCabe, and he told me a story about a friend of his who sang a song at a funeral and I said “Oh my God, he must have sounded terrible. Did anyone film it?” and PJ said “No, why would somebody film that?” and I realized that I had never seen that on film before. I hear Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen on the drive home and thought that if my mom had passes away I would probably sing that song at her funeral, and I would probably mess it up. I started writing it on my commute to work.
How has winning awards on the film festival circuit been beneficial so far?
It’s been good. I have a cabinet full of beautifully designed trophies which is nice. I was always jealous of my cousin’s baseball trophies and my sister’s horse ribbons in high school; now I have more of them than they ever had and you realize at some point they’re nice, but they don’t make you happy, they make other people happy. I was lucky enough to get signed at a big talent agency and go out to big meetings around LA and now I have many friends who are doing really cool things.
Do you plan to make a feature one day? What did you learn from making shorts, for example?
I’m trying to make the feature version of Thunder Road. It’s tricky with the rights situation, but we’re working on it.
“They say work begets work. I am the biggest champion of just doing it yourself. Imagine that no one is going to help you and that you’ll have to do it yourself “- Jim Cummings
What is your philosophy about getting work as a filmmaker today. Do you create your own opportunities?
They say work begets work. I am the biggest champion of just doing it yourself. Imagine that no one is going to help you and that you’ll have to do it yourself. For many indie filmmakers that’s how they get so good. They grind until they know how to do everything on and off of a filmset. I think that’s the future of cinema, people becoming their own studios. Like youtube influencers, except, talented. 😉
You act, direct and write. How does acting inform your work behind the camera or vice versa? How the two skills are affected or not?
I think acting for me is just self-directing. I look at actors like Dennis Hopper or John Cassavetes who were so good because they were classically trained, but also knew the ins and outs of what was in frame and how they were going to look in a shot. Thunder Road was just me trusting my team, telling them how it had to look at every turn, and then just believing it with all of my might for 13 minute takes. You fall into it, by the sixth take I was no longer me, I no longer remembered all of the times I had rehearsed it in my car on my drives home from work, I was Jim Arnaud, I was losing my mom, I was becoming considerate of my daughter and her place in the universe, and we captured it all in one long take on October 10th, 2015.
Tell me about a hard moment. What did you do to keep moving forward?
I wrote and directed a feature film in 2009 and it was terrible. It screened at one festival and that’s what inspired me (or whatever the negative word for inspire is) to not direct anything serious for 6 years. What kept me moving was an ambition and high confidence behind closed doors. I worked at CollegeHumor where we made shorts every week that weren’t funny and weren’t important and it wore me down, they could have been funny, they should have been. Doing that week in and week out made me say “fuck, just let ME do it.” So I did. AND so did Anu Valia who worked at CollegeHumor in New York, she ended up breaking away and SHE won Sundance the year after we did! To think that we were both commuting home, wanting more for ourselves, wanting to be listened to, knowing that we were good. She is my sister. Along with every other kid who writes screenplays on their iPhones, or acts in a car on the way to work, any one who risks being weird, anyone who has the drive to make it.
Who/what are your influences as filmmaker generally?
Reddit. Reddit gives me an idea of what people like and it helps to guide my intuitions to making enjoyable content. I guess it’s less “Reddit” than it is just “listening to audiences”. Audiences. There’s your answer.
Can you describe your directing and/or visual style?
I don’t have one. I like long takes. I like comedy and drama interlaced. I always laugh when straight-laced characters reveal their demons on accident, I always cry when someone is vulnerable and someone comes in to save them or make them feel less alone at the last minute. They’re more sensibilities than styles I guess.
What’s next for you?
TV. Features. Lots. Stay tuned. All of my love, Jimbo.
Follow Jim on Twitter.
See entire Thunder Road short below