"Audiences view Thunder Road as an indictment of the American spirit right now" – TDF interview with director Jim Cummings
Thunder Road – the debut feature from writer/director/star Jim Cummings – contains many great moments. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny, some are surprisingly dark, some are a mix of the two. But the best comes in a scene in which Cummings’ character Jim Arnaud – a highly-strung lawman whose life is unravelling fast – finally reaches the end of his tether.
Grief-stricken and heart-broken, he has a spectacular meltdown in front of his police colleagues that ends with him practically naked, waving around a gun. It’s genuinely sad… and also utterly hilarious. It’s that tragicomic frisson that makes Thunder Road such a treat and New Orleans-born Cummings such an intriguing new voice in film comedy.
Thunder Road – named after a Bruce Springsteen song – started life as a single-take short set at a funeral, which won big at Sundance and SXSW. Cummings then raised funds on Kickstarter to expand it to a 92-minute feature, self-distributing worldwide, when offers from US distribution companies proved derisory.
I suspect Thunder Road might do rather well in the UK because it taps into the same tragicomic vein as some of this country’s finest sitcoms (there’s a touch of the Basil Fawltys about Arnaud), while serving up platefuls of ‘cringe comedy’ straight out of The Office (both versions) or Curb Your Enthusiasm.
I spoke to Cummings, when he was recently in the UK promoting the film, and started by asking him about his lead character…
You play Officer Jim Arnaud and I’m interested in where he comes from. He’s lonely and angry, following the breakdown of his marriage and mother’s death, and I think a lot of men would recognise something of him in themselves.
I always say he’s like a much more pathetic version of me. I don’t really have that anger, I’m a practising Buddhist, but I grew up with kids like that in New Orleans and I just saw a lot of testosterone and people not being able to handle their feelings or talk about their problems. I find that equally as tragic as it is funny. And it just came from doing it [developing the character] out loud a bunch and it was making me laugh and making me cry – he was a product of that.
The representation of women on screen has quite rightly become a big talking point in recent years, so were you worried about making Jim’s wife, Ros (played by Jocelyn DeBoer), so unsympathetic and awful?
I wasn’t worried about it – it’s an interesting thing nowadays, you can’t have a villain be gay and you can’t have a villain be a woman. My ex-wife was not very kind to me, so why can’t we just do this? Not all characters have hearts of gold like something out of Billy Elliot or whatever. If your allegiance is with a character, it’s okay to watch someone make fun of him or ridicule him. [Her behaviour] just makes his situation so much worse.
Thunder Road isn’t a traditional comedy – it’s more of a tragicomedy. How difficult is that line to walk? Because sometimes the film is hilarious and heart-breaking in the same scene.
Yeah, [in the movie] I come upon an overdosed body and another dude stabs himself, so the film is about serious stuff. I recorded this script with me playing all the characters, and I had like a 92-minute radio play version of it. It held people’s attention – the cast and crew – and before we went and shot the thing, everybody heard it and knew what the movie was going to be. Because of that, I was confident it was going to work. That fusion of comedy and drama I feel is so absent from cinemas and television – there’s a lot of good stuff out there, Pixar does it really well, but nowadays I think you’re looking at these very serious, humourless dramas or humanity-less comedies, and I wanted to do the opposite.
Who are your comedy heroes?
I came of age with The Office and Ricky Gervais, and the ‘cringe comedy’ that had something to say about society and the working classes – I really loved that and they pushed the boundaries both comedically and dramatically because it’s such a sad show. I was a big fan of King Of The Hill because they had southern accents like I did – it was character comedy rather than punchline-driven schtick. It was characters revealing their demons and I find that very funny. Mike Judge – all of his early stuff.
You’ve used Kickstarter to fund your projects and you’re very active on social media – is engaging with the Internet in a big way now crucial for emerging filmmakers?
Kickstarter was extremely helpful – we raised $36,000 for Thunder Road to make it when nobody else would give us any money in Hollywood. But that was the fourth or fifth Kickstarter campaign I’ve run to make stuff over the last few years – I was a producer of films for six years before doing anything of my own. I put down a lot of my audience engagement to having a Reddit account for eight years – it gives you an automatically upvoted and downvoted system, so you get to see what the general public finds to be culturally or socially significant or cool at that time. Because I had my ear to the ground with that platform, it’s as if I have a better understanding of audience’s attention spans – I think that’s one of the main reasons why my films work for modern audiences. The Internet is incredibly influential in the way I’ve been able to make stuff – I wouldn’t have been able to release my short films on Vimeo or have helped people through Twitter and Instagram [without it].
You ended up distributing the film yourself. How did that come about?
The highest offer we got for the global rights to Thunder Road was for little more than half the budget, which was going to be a huge loss for us. And we didn’t know if the distributor was going to bury the film, or be releasing 25 other movies that year, and we’d have to vie for attention. But I read a case study about a film called Columbus – that movie had a $750,000 budget and, by self-distributing, they were able to recoup $650,000 in the first year. Our movie cost 190 grand to make, so we applied to the same lab [the Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship] and got a grant for $32,000. We started calling up different distributors in every territory. The film played at Cannes and we just made friends there, who were in distribution in territories all over the globe [including Paname for France], and did it ourselves, rather than being on the back plate of somebody who didn’t really care about us in the United States.
Thunder Road has already been a big success in France, but how has its critique of toxic masculinity gone down in the States?
I think Americans have a very different relationship with the film to everyone else [in the world] – they see it as more of a comedy through and through, whereas other audiences tend to view it as an indictment of the American spirit right now. Watching a crazed, drunk, idiot with a gun as an authority figure is an astute observation of what America is going through right now, and I think Americans might be too close to it to get that. It’s how I want it to be perceived – it’s what the intention was.
What is next for you?
I’ve just wrapped a werewolf movie in Utah that I wrote, directed and starred in – we made it with a big American studio I can’t really name. It’s a horror movie, like Zodiac as a comedy, I might say, or like Thunder Road with a werewolf.
And you’re also crowdfunding for another project?
I’m shooting another film in August, that we’re running a crowd equity campaign for very soon, and I think that is the future for people like me. We’ll sell percentages, and percentages of percentages, for the film to the public, to anyone who wants to help finance it, and then have people collect money on it for the rest of their lives. Instead of running a Kickstarter campaign, where it is based on rewards and the acclaim of being involved in a project, you can actually buy percentages of the company and own it forever. So, we’re doing this weird test, I don’t know if it’s going to work, but that’s the goal…
Thunder Road is in UK cinemas from Friday (May 31)
You can read our review of the film here.