January 31, 2023
A BITESIZE CHAT WITH
As part of the Future Of Film Showcase, Bitesize had a chance to chat with writer/actor/director Jim Cummings (Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, The Beta Test) about his upcoming projects and the importance of independent film.
BB: Hi Jim, thanks for chatting with us. As an independent filmmaker how important do you think festivals like the Future Of Film Showcase are?
JC: Oh, they’re everything. I mean, you would not be interviewing me right now had it not been for film festivals. I was a producer for six years and I didn't know what made a good movie, but then I went to local film festivals and saw stuff that was being programmed where, like, the jobs of the programmers was to program the best stuff or the most culturally or socially significant stuff from around the country [and] world rankings. I got to see lots of short films that were impressive, and I was, like, “Oh, this is what I should be judging myself against. It's easier than I thought to make something cool, and somebody in Zaire is doing it so I should be doing something like that.” It's less of a risk, and you feel like you're less lonely in making stuff. So, I think festivals, championing not just independent filmmaking but also education in independent film, is incredibly valuable. It builds a community that, especially right now, most young people don't have. And I think having good influences in any art form or any business that you're trying to pursue is crucial. If you don't have good influences, you're gonna fail every time.
BB: With The Wolf of Snow Hollow, you seem to have a knack for dark horror comedies. What about the mix of those genres do you find compelling enough to blend them?
JC: I think horror and comedy are both punchline-driven narrative structures. Like, with a scare, it's setup and payoff, and the same thing happens with a joke. Arguably, the same thing should happen with drama as well - where you're surprised and you're moved to tears, which we did once or twice in early films. But with horror and comedy, I just find them to be really wonderful, perverted audiences that are down to take risks. They go to the cinema to see something with teeth, and I just really find it a lot of fun to wield the audience's attention through setup and payoff, to get big audible reactions out of them, whether it be a laugh or a gasp, or just a scream. It's a really fulfilling thing to be the DJ of that nightclub and I just love it.
BB: Are there any other genres you’d like to branch out and work on?
JC: Romance. I've been… Horror, yeah, I'm still kind of new to horror. I was a comedy guy for a long time. But there is something so subtle and punchline-driven about good romance when you're watching a Jane Austen movie. When something romantic happens, and Hugh Grant finally comes in and says, “Actually, I'm no longer married and I'm wondering if I can take you out on a date.” And then Emma Thompson starts crying so hard that everybody has to leave the house. It's, like, “Oh, thank God, their dream has come true.” That kind of relief, especially 85 minutes into a 90 minute movie, is such a daydream of mine. Like, “Oh, movies can be really lovely.” I think that [genre], and then there's another type of film that I call “umami filmmaking,” but there is no real term for it. It's like Ghibli movies of just, like, kind of life pornography of what it's like to make ramen and chop vegetables and spend the summer in a fishing town. I would love to do both of those things. Maybe ensemble. But, yeah, I feel like I haven't really chased that part of my brain or encouraged my team to push me into making that kind of a movie yet.
BB: When it comes to acting and directing, who are your key influences for both?
JC: Jackie Chan, notoriously. Bill Hader, recently. [He’s] another Southern kid who's writing, directing, and acting, humiliating himself in kind of endearing, funny violence. I don't know. I mean, I grew up watching [John] Cassavetes movies. And, you know, I feel like there's just something that you get from watching a writer/actor/director that is a relationship between the filmmaker and the audience that you don't get from just a director. Where it's like, you're watching Buster Keaton or W.C. Fields and it's like, “Oh, this person is getting their ass beaten in the street and they wrote that and rehearsed it.” You know, it's a much more elaborate joke when it's all coming from the same biological person. I think it's a deeper relationship that you have with Lena Dunham than you would with anybody else. There is something really beautiful and more cohesive that you have in watching something like Thunder Road, where you're like, “Oh, this is a document of this person's humanity in 2018.” And I don't really feel that way about Damien Chazelle's work, you know?
BB: Which of those roles are you more comfortable in?
JC: I mean, writing has very little stakes because you get to write something ridiculous and then somebody gets to go off and do it. So, that's really comfortable. You can do it in your pajamas. But then with directing, I feel like it's probably the thing that I'm best at because you can sculpt the audience's roller coaster. That's really what that job is, like, saying how long this pause should be as an awkward moment before going onto the next line and really nailing it. Kind of like editing the film, almost in performance and the way the camera moves. Then acting is just kind of self-directing to me. I've never taken an acting class, but I know what good acting kind of looks like or at least I've seen good acting before, so I think I know what the scene needs. So I think probably I'm most comfortable doing all three because they work together, they work hand in hand for me. We write all of our scripts out loud, so we're kind of already directing them and acting them. I really love doing all three. It's such a rush and such a fantastic feeling being on set, but I think probably writing is most comfortable if I had to pick between the three.
BB: When you’re directing your own performance, does that make you more critical of it?
JC: Yeah, constantly. There were times when I was doing my earlier movies and it would suck, or one line would come across as flat, and I'd go “No, I can do better” or “This ain't it.” Like, “They're gonna make fun of me on the internet. They're gonna say I'm not a good actor.” *laughs* That became, you know, this neurotic thing, but I was already doing it. My neuroticism for making it feel authentic, or at least interesting performance-wise, didn't stop me from making stuff as it does for so many other people who are, you know, aspiring writers, actors, and directors. I was already going to do it, and that feet to the flame of "you're gonna record it, and it's got to be really good; otherwise, you're gonna get made fun of," was a really big impetus to me trying to make sure that something was perfect before going out the door. I think it was helpful rather than harmful. It's too soon to tell.
BB: You had the honour of directing Robert Forster’s final role. What was that like?
JC: He was great. He was like everybody's grandfather on set. He’s definitely the most famous actor in the movie. He had no business being in our werewolf movie, but he liked the story because his character was dying from a disease that he couldn't tell anybody about and how it was affecting his family and his relationship with his son. And little did we know that’s exactly what was happening to him. He reached out to his manager and was, like, “I want to do this movie, it can be really good.” And his manager was like, “Bob, it's a werewolf picture. Are you joking?” [Bob] was like, “Eh, I don’t really care about the monster stuff. It's the stuff in between that I really like.” He was so savvy when it came to making movies. He had written, directed and starred in a movie that he made in the early 90s where he plays a detective in Hollywood, and he was, like, “I'll never do that again. That was crazy. I don't know how you do it.” So he came to us with just unrelenting respect and was just really, really wonderful. Everybody was trying to hang out with him at lunch, and anytime you got to talk to him about movies and what it was like to be making movies in the 70s and with fucking [Quentin] Tarantino as well, it was just a really great hang constantly. He never wanted to stop working. He was such a proactive, ambitious, will-driven guy, and he was marvelous. I think he shines in the movie. All of his scenes are so endearing and wonderful. I'm glad he said yes.
BB: And as someone who is known for creating indie films, how did your role in Halloween Kills come about?
JC: Backasswardly. *laughs* I don't know. It was a weird one. I had been pen pals with David Gordon Green for a few years, even before I had made Thunder Road, the short. I had talked to him at a film festival and somebody put me in touch. I was just writing letters to him sometimes, whenever I was down and out, being, like, “How do you do it? Like, how do you do the modern All The Real Girls or George Washington? Does that fucking matter anymore?” He was just so encouraging constantly. He was, like, “Yeah, nobody's been through more hell than I have. This is normal. It's okay to feel this way.” Very much my life now is sending the ladder back down and doing what David did for me. So when I made the Thunder Road feature, I guess Danny McBride had seen it, and [he] reminded [David] of it, like, "Hey, check this thing out." Then, it happened to be on United Airlines - my producer had made a deal with United Airlines, so it was on airplanes - and David, who was flying to North Carolina to cast Halloween Kills, was, like, “Oh, yeah. Jim is great in this, we should just call him.” So, he landed the next day and called me, and was, like, “Hey, do you want to come down to Wilmington to shoot this movie?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. My birthday is Halloween, I would fucking kill to be in the new Halloween movie with you directing. Daydream.” I said, “Should I audition?” And he's, like, “No, it's okay. Just go and talk to the Blumhouse team, hang out with the casting department, and have them know that you're not a lunatic. Come on down, we're spending a week in Wilmington.” And I did, and we shot the movie. I'm in the first, like, 10 minutes. No spoilers [but] that Michael Myers guy’s a real pain in the neck. *laughs* It was really just a dream come true working with him. So, really, unconventionally is how I ended up in that movie. It was because I had already made something independent that the director found to be impressive, and [he] was, like, “Oh, yeah, he could do this” and completely circumvented the normal process of getting into a big movie.
BB: Is mainstream film something you’d like to feature more in or even do?
JC: Oh, yeah. I mean, the reason I'm making movies is out of necessity. It would be too sad for me to have not made movies when I was young. Life is too short, and I couldn't spend 10 years working up a corporate ladder in the hopes of being considered a director someday. Instead, I wanted to scratch the itch, and also sharpen my knife, so that I was actually good at it by the time I was making good movies. So, yeah, I made 10 short films, then the Thunder Road feature, then made two more subsequent features that I feel like are only getting more cinematic and stronger. I'd love to make bigger stuff, it's just that nobody's knocking on my door. The last movie we made, The Beta Test, [was] basically a big middle finger to Hollywood *laughs*, so nobody's knocking on my door, like, you know, unless it's a big person like David Gordon Green or, like, Christopher Nolan. Almost nobody in Hollywood wants to work with me because I made a movie making fun of them.
BB: So word on the street is your next project is a Victorian horror film. Can you provide any updates on that at all?
JC: I mean, I recorded it as a podcast a couple of days ago, so that just means that it's me in my room recording it on this microphone on this computer I'm talking to you through, drinking the LaCroix I'm pouring for myself. But, yeah, I recorded it and then it's, like, “Alright, this scene sucks. I don't know what I was thinking of writing this bit. These nine pages have to go. They're unnecessary.” So, I have it. I sent it to people. I sent it to a big studio, this really cool executive that I had a great meeting with and loves my work, and she…was, like, “I don't get it, and I don't know if you should be doing this.” *laughs* So, I was, like, “Alright, back to the drawing board.” It's bad that it only takes one person that you respect to kick you in the nuts, and then it's, like, “Alright, maybe I'm a sham. Maybe I don't know what I've been doing these 20 years.” Now, I don't know, I'm talking to a couple of different cool people off the record that could be contributive, but right now, I'm doing another movie. It's a passion project about journalism. It's like a love letter to neighborhoods, moms, and independent journalists. It seems like that might be my fourth movie, and then the Victorian horror movie might be my fifth, knock on wood.
Make sure to check out The Beta Test now on VOD.
Interview conducted on June 15th, 2022 by Adriano Caporusso.
Photo Credits: Banner - Ian Spanier/The Wrap; Photo 1 - Austin Film Society; Photo 2 - Universal Pictures