Jim Cummings on Thunder Road: "Jesus Christ, I'm crying the whole time"

Thunder Road's über-talented writer-director-star Jim Cummings tells us how he made the year's most original American indie movie

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 31 May 2019
  • Thunder Road

Remember when US indie cinema was the most exciting in the world? In the late-80s and early-90s, it seemed like all a young American filmmaker needed was a credit card and some chutzpah, and they could join the likes of Steven Soderberg, Spike Lee and Richard Linklater in that era's boom of filmmakers making indie features on a shoestring. The last few decades for grassroots American cinema has seen significantly fewer breakout successes, but every so often a film from those shores will come along to give the industry a right kick up the arse. This year’s example is Thunder Road, the hilarious and heartbreaking debut feature from 33-year-old New Orleans filmmaker Jim Cummings, which he shot for $190,000 in just 15 days.

Thunder Road started life as an award-winning short film centred on Jim Arnaud, a straight-laced cop who goes into meltdown after the death of his mother. Taking the form of a single, 13-minute shot that zooms in from wide to close-up, we see Jim giving an ill-conceived eulogy at his mother’s funeral that blends karaoke and expressive dance as he performs a bizarre rendition of the deceased's favourite song, the titular Bruce Springsteen track. As well as writing and directing, Cummings also stars as the depressed cop.

The feature begins with this same scene, then for the next 90 minutes we watch the fallout from Jim's public breakdown. On top of the grief he’s feeling, he’s going through a divorce, fighting for custody of his daughter and coming apart at the seams at work. The result is a cringe comedy that’s also beautifully empathetic towards its wayward protagonist. Cummings’ performance is all-in. Several more virtuoso single-shot scenes follow, and it’s impossible to look away from the car crash of Jim’s life, but no matter how obnoxious or crazed he becomes, Cummings always keeps him likeable. We want things to work out for him.

Ahead of presenting the film at Glasgow Film Theatre, we sat down with Cummings to discuss his knockout debut.

The Skinny: You’ve been touring the film around the UK for the past week. Has the UK reaction differed from the reaction back home in the States?

Jim Cummings: It's a little smarter of an audience here, I think. I feel like everybody gets all of the jokes. Part of that is that UK audiences don't feel attacked when they're watching the movie. I feel like a lot of Southern audiences laugh at themselves with it, but it is still kind of an indictment of their culture. But I think generally, UK audiences tend to appreciate comedy that's not punchline driven or goofy. It's more about seeing how the characters' brains work when they speak – that's what I love about UK comedy anyway.

I've read in your previous interviews that UK comedy was an influence on Thunder Road. You're a big Armando Iannucci fan...

I love him. And Steve Coogan and the Gibbons brothers, they're so good. Alan Partridge is so pathetic and so funny. And when he speaks, you're constantly just waiting for him to give himself away. And that's what's so funny about it. In Thunder Road, there's this line where it's absolutely that – it's just an Iannucci joke. I go to my daughter, 'Honey, you don't have to do your homework now. I was hoping we could go downstairs, order a pizza and watch a Fast and the Furious.' That's what he thinks would be a great night for her. That's not necessarily a punchline in America, but it gets a lot of laughs here. It's showing the character's demons, his cluelessness, and that's what's funny about it.

So you made this fantastic short, and it does really well at festivals. At the time did you know where this character was headed?

No, I didn't. For a long time I said that it couldn't be a feature, because I kept thinking that the short had to be the climax; the funeral scene would have to be the end of the movie. But then as soon as I struck upon the idea of moving it up to the front of the movie, I was like, 'All right, cool. We'll just have him go further off the cliff comedically and dramatically and just have worse things happen to him.'

As soon as I had that idea of structuring the script that way, I started writing notes on my phone and then wrote the first draft in five days while drinking in my buddy's basement and listening to Springsteen on YouTube. But initially I had no aspirations to lengthen this out. I kept saying it wouldn't work until I realised that it could.

Did that change the tone? Does it become closer to tragedy than comedy?

It basically becomes the story of Job. We watch somebody fall into this human depravity and humiliation for real, heartfelt dramatic reasons, and I knew that we were going to be able to make that funny regardless. It was always watching this main character struggle and go through these different pressure cookers. So it was going to be very fulfilling dramatically for an audience, but then I'd throw in a scene of me showing my butt after a ridiculous screaming match with police officers, so I knew that it was going to be very fun too.

You do a lot of crying in this film...

Jesus Christ, I'm crying the whole time.

And it’s not movie crying. When the leading men cry in movies, it's usually very dignified

The James Dean, single tear down the cheek.

Exactly, whereas your character is an emotional wreck. You seem to be challenging the American tough guy bullshit of Hollywood...

For sure. That’s why it had to be set in Texas: the home of John Wayne and Western movies, that tough guy mentality. It had to be that world where masculinity is king. The film was always meant to be an indictment of that. It's like making the Charlie Chaplin clown The Great Dictator, we're doing something similar for this Southern cop. It's a really terrible epidemic that's pretty harmful to society, and this dude, he's crippled by not being able to talk about his problems and admit he's unhappy.

And that’s where Springsteen comes in; he gives a voice to that.

Exactly. For the last 50 years, he’s been that remedy, saying it's okay to quit your life, pack your car and drive away. And that's what the whole message of the Thunder Road song is. It's like, 'This town is going nowhere. We've got to get the fuck out of here – and tonight!'

The short was one long unbroken shot. You replicate that in the opening scene here, and the film has several of these long scenes with unbroken shots. That must significantly increase the degree of difficulty for you as the lead.

It's extremely difficult, and that’s the point. There's a great quote from Tom Hanks in A League of their Own. He says [about professional baseball], 'It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.' And it's true. In transitioning from animation to live action for me, I was like, what is going to equally impress audiences? And by doing something in this one uninterrupted shot, the audience is left feeling, 'How the fuck did they do that?'

You mentioned your previous shorts. Were they good training for making the feature?

I had no confidence beforehand. I had all of these inadequacy complexes. I thought, 'If I make something with my friends it is not going to be a real movie.' And that crippled me for a long time. That's why this morning I was talking to some local filmmakers and told them, 'I was fucking worse than you were for a long time. Anybody can do this; great artwork comes from everywhere. Don't imagine that you are inadequate.' So I don't think it was possible for me to make something like this had I not made a bunch of short films.

And I guess the great thing about shorts is that there's less pressure. They give you more room to experiment.

Yup, a shorter period of time, smaller budgets, single locations. You can do whatever you want. You can focus on the right stuff without having to raise thousands of dollars.

And it seems you've taken that same experimental ethos into the feature. Not to say the film is difficult in any way, but it certainly has different rhythms from the typical American indie you might see at Sundance, say.

For sure. And that's probably why we didn't get into Sundance with the picture. But I think the reason Thunder Road works is because I developed a crew that we had honed for the last ten short films. Making the film was like sniper warfare rather than battalion warfare. We all knew what we were doing. I record it as a podcast, so everybody had heard the movie several times beforehand. I was able to walk through each part of the script and describe exactly what was going to be in a frame. The budget was low, craftsmanship was high, performance was king. We were all on the same page and because of that, we made a good movie.

Thunder Road is released 31 May by Vertigo