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Derived from the award-winning short film of the same name, festival favourite Thunder Road is one of the best indie movies you will see this year, guaranteed to make you both laugh and cry.
Darkly humourous, incredibly moving and transfixing from the very first scene, Thunder Road tackles themes like masculinity, grief and love as it follows a man facing a personal breakdown after the death of his mother.
UNILAD spoke to the the film’s director, writer and actor, Jim Cummings, about the road to Thunder Road, independent filmmaking and the beauty of long takes.
You can watch the trailer here:
UNILAD: You have made several short films before, and that is how Thunder Road started out. Why did you choose this one first to become a feature-length film? Did you have the idea for the feature while making the short?
JIM: Actually no. I made the short film as a weird comedy-drama performance piece, which was never supposed to be anything longer. I had people reach out after it won at Sundance and they said how would you expand it, and for a year I said you couldn’t expand on it. The most interesting moment in that guy’s life would be that funeral, and that would have to be like three quarters of the way through the movie, or the climax, and that just wouldn’t work.
After a year of saying that I thought, what if the movie starts with that scene? What would happen after that? Would he have to make it up to his daughter? And I thought oh, you could just do that, a fun Mike Judge style living room drama, that would also be funny and about raising kids. I could talk about legacy, life, love and all the stuff I love talking about. Other short films we did are very contained, I wouldn’t have a way in, but something just clicked with this.
UNILAD: I think it does work, very well. To discuss the inspiration, for both the short and the feature, how did this story come about?
JIM: So for the short film I wanted to do this kind of love letter to my mum, who is still alive. I wanted to do this thing about somebody realising their place in the universe while public speaking, and I thought that would be funny to watch, and be a challenging performance, and also very dramatic.
What’s interesting about that scene is that he is very much a son who has lost a parent, and it’s an incredibly sad, human moment. I thought, how can we do that even more? What about if we see him be the parent, and we get to see him pass that on, the problems he had with his mum, trying to fix those problems with his daughter? How beautiful will that be? I started there and thought about how to do Thunder Road full circle. Can we do the running away part? But rather than a teenager asking another teenager to run away, it’s a man asking his daughter. It all hit me at once.
UNILAD: This is your first time making a feature-length film. What challenges did you come across during the process?
JIM: Oh, all of them. I was a producer for four features beforehand, so I was able to see how things didn’t always work out as planned, which was helpful. Being taken seriously, that is always the biggest fight, probably in every industry. I was like 30 years old when I made this feature, and it was difficult.
UNILAD: When it came to funding the film, you started a Kickstarter campaign. What was your experience with crowdfunding like? Do you think it is benefitting cinema?
JIM: It’s incredible. We didn’t expect to raise as much as we did. We raised $36,000 and we were asking for $10,000, so we had so many people come out of the woodwork to help out and be supportive. I think it’s the future.
For my next movie, instead of doing a crowdfunding campaign, we are using a platform which is crowd equity. So anybody for like $100 could buy percentages of the movie, it’s really neat. It is the future for independent film, and I don’t think the systems we have in place are going to be around for much longer because of that. If you can go directly to your audience and win their attention, it’s going to be democratised. Anybody can do this stuff now and it’s incredible.
UNILAD: That does sound amazing. For you, how important are festivals and social media, especially for spreading the word about independent films?
JIM: Festivals were really helpful and a lot of fun. The short film won an award at Sundance in 2016, so we submitted to others and they loved it. It was great. Festivals are like summer camps. You can just go and hang out.
I see it as more of a place for community building rather than helping promote the movie. But it’s nice afterwards, especially when we won awards, it was nice to have those accolades. Social media is the same thing. It’s cool, I can like tweet and be like ‘hey, I’m going to be doing Q and A sessions, come hang out’. I feel very, very lucky.
UNILAD: To go back to Thunder Road, there’s a lot of long takes in the film. Why did you make this stylistic decision?
JIM: I really love movies which have long takes. In college when I went to film school, I thought about what that experience is like, watching a movie with long takes. You feel much more inside the experience than something which is conventionally edited.
I realised long takes worked better for me narratively. I really enjoyed it. It was also very challenging. My background was in producing hand-drawn animation, the reason why people like that is it takes forever but is very impressive. I thought what is the equivalent in live-action, and it is these incredibly long takes.
UNILAD: You shot the film in 14 and a half days, was there pressure to get it right on the first try, especially with these long takes?
JIM: I was very lucky that my crew had done 10 single take short films together before, so we understood the language of being on set, getting the footage and running to the next location.
It was very fast-paced, but every film is. The scene with Macon Blair, who plays my daughter’s teacher, we shot that in like five hours, and it took up like ten minutes of the movie. That never happens. There were pluses and minuses to it. I want to do more long takes.
UNILAD: I think there are so many levels to the film. For me, it made me think about my relationship with my dad. What does it mean for you?
JIM: I feel like it is about that, and it’s about being caught between generations. One that is older than you, your parents. You think they know everything and then you wake up and think oh no, they are just people. And you do that at the funeral scene, as you watch him make a fool of himself.
The point of the movie for me was to show those going through hell how to not do it, as well as a means of making people laugh and be like I won’t do it like Jim did. I’m going to get therapy, I’m going to do it better than him, and that’s the best thing you can do as a comedian. Make yourself humiliated on purpose to help people.
UNILAD: What is next for you?
JIM: I just wrapped my first studio movie. It’s a werewolf film, it’s really fun and me acting, writing and directing again. I play the under sheriff of a Utah police department and it’s really funny. I’m editing that right now.
And then we are launching that campaign to make another movie. Then I don’t know what I want to do. I am writing a sequel to Thunder Road, but I want to shoot it like ten years from now, so Kendall is old enough to play 17-year-old Crystal. I am going to keep making small movies, and then whenever people come knocking to make something bigger, I will show up.
Thunder Road will be released in UK cinemas on May 31.
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