The story of the boy from New Orleans that becomes one of the most critically-acclaimed filmmakers on the festival circuit nearly sounds too good to be true. It’s a story that highlights a feat that seems even less likely for someone coming from Boise, Idaho. Fortunately, aspiring filmmakers, like myself, can be assured that this tale is much more than pages from a book; it is one that writer, director and actor Jim Cummings is living to tell (and I was living to listen to).
Throughout a 30-minute phone call, he was able to make me believe in his mission from start to finish. His start was that of many film school graduates; beginning without a film community, his career kicked off at Emerson College in 2005 with a dream of becoming a household name in Hollywood.
Follow along for a sneak peek into my interview with Jim Cummings, who proved he should be on our film-fanatic radars.
Logan: First of all, congratulations on the major success of “Thunder Road” in the festival circuit for the last two years. You went from no one knowing your name to winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2016 for Short Film to doing it again at South by Southwest this year, except this time with a feature film. How did you get your foot in the door to a successful filmmaking career?
Jim: I always wanted to be a writer, director and actor, but I realized shortly after finishing college that no one was going to hire me to do any of those things, so I did it myself. I was doing coffee-fetching jobs at Lucasfilm and on the set of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and then I realized I had to get off the couch and go make something. I scraped together schedules and created with a team of my friends and I didn’t worry about wasting my weekends; you can get drunk and party for the rest of your life, you know? I do it all the time. I shot something to impress people. The DNA of the project has to be to make something that matters to people.
L: That’s a very entrepreneurial way of thinking, but I suppose that’s exactly what independent filmmaking is. I’m a pretty frequent follower of all things film festival, so I’m interested to know: what made you decide to turn the award-winning short into the feature-length version of “Thunder Road”?
J: It’s funny, actually. I had so many other ideas for movies I wanted to make. I had a great idea for a thriller and a kids’ adventure film, but I had no help. No one was there except for Danny Madden, who helped with sound production, and Benjamin Weisner, one of the film’s producers. It was a roundabout way of creating a film of sorts. We set up a Kickstarter and raised $36,000, got a small team, and got our shit together. I learned that acting is essentially self-directing, and putting myself in the lead role was a strategy for finance, too.
L: It’s fascinating that so much of this was done entirely on your own, yet the finished product looks like a full production crew put it together. As it turns out, some of the nation’s top critics from publications like Variety, IndieWire and the Hollywood Reporter have given the film raving reviews. What thoughts went through your head when you saw that your film got the coveted 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes?
J: It’s really more stressful than it is exciting. When you’re at a film festival, you’re at a screening for your film, and watching critics that walk past you causes this horrible fear. And then the movie is over, and your buddy comes over to you and says “I just heard that guy from Rolling Stone talking about your movie, he loved it!” and it’s unreal and terrifying. It’s a weird experience, to say the least.
L: I can’t even imagine that sort of pressure, but you seem to be handling it quite well. Do you think that creating most of this experience entirely on your own has made you a better independent filmmaker?
J: Not necessarily. I think persistence made me a better filmmaker. I would write myself notes that said things like “you’re a bad filmmaker,” or “do something else” constantly. I used scare tactics, the voices talking me down in my head as motivation. Because I was able to think so deeply, I was better fit to make something that is something self-fladulating like “Thunder Road.” Doing everything yourself can be extremely lonely and it definitely may not make you happy, but the real craft is hauling ass to make the film. I certainly understand why so many people quit, but you have to persist and get it done yourself.
L: You have such a down-to-earth grassroots career story, I think it’s easy for you to inspire a new generation of filmmakers. Lastly, what is your most personal advice for aspiring filmmakers?
J: I’m in a unique position where college students are going to be reading my words, and I’m ten years out of college. I think when you are ten years out of college, the film industry is going to be a very different landscape. You’ll still have blockbusters, still have merging studios, but the instinct should still be the same. You want to make something you can make on your own, that impresses people and moves them, that uses the language of cinema to make them feel something: fear, disgust, sadness, or whatever. And you can do it for nothing. You can write it on a laptop in a cafe. You’ll dream big and shoot small and compel people around the world, forever. It is a wonderful thing, and you should never let it go. Say ‘fuck it,’ and do it yourself.