Inside the Boldest Must-See Indie Movie of the Year
Writer-director Jim Cummings stars in ‘Thunder Road,’ his tour-de-force feature film debut. He takes us inside the self-made triumph defying the rules of the film business.
Jim Arnaud is a Texas police officer who’s grieving the loss of his mother, going through a divorce, and struggling to connect with his young daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr), and in Thunder Road, he proves to be a hilarious and heartbreaking sort of disaster. First introduced to audiences in writer/director/star Jim Cummings’ 2015 short (which won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury award), Arnaud is a man falling apart before our eyes—a ‘70s-porn-‘stached doofus with a kind heart, a lot of underlying regret and anger, and a habit of making a mess of every situation. As embodied by Cummings, he’s the year’s most uniquely captivating big-screen figure, and he makes the filmmaker’s feature debut—which Cummings himself self-distributed in theaters earlier this month, and is now also on VOD—an unqualified must-see.
That’s apparent from the outset, as Thunder Road (recipient of the Narrative Grand Jury Prize at March’s SXSW fest) opens with a genuine jaw-dropper: a 10-minute single take of Arnaud, in full uniform, giving a funeral eulogy that involves rambling asides, whiplash segues between open-mouth wailing and stone-faced declarations, and a dance routine tribute to his mom set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Except that, in typical inept fashion, his musical number is undone by a boombox that won’t play. So instead—unlike in Cummings’ short, when the Boss’ tune is heard—Arnaud writhes and flails about in silence, thus delivering the most awkward memorial performance of all time.
The reason for that key alteration, Cummings reveals, had to do with transforming a short into a 90-minute movie. “We shot it both ways. We shot it with the song for the first nine times that day, and then we shot it without the song the second nine times that day. The performance and the camerawork and everything congealed in such a way that the last take was stronger, and it just happened to not have the song in it,” he admits. “Because we chose the scene without the song, it becomes this nosedive that this guy has to recover his daughter’s appreciation for him, and to make it up to her in a way that’s different than in the song version. With the song playing, it’s funny and engaging and you get to see how much this guy put into this thing. Without the song, it’s this weird interpretative dance that makes him look like a lunatic.”
Arnaud is certainly unhinged, due to his complex mess of emotional and psychological issues. For Cummings (who maintains that the only personal connection he shares with his protagonist is that they’re both divorced), the character’s appeal is that his desire to bond with Crystal marks him as a fundamentally good guy. “With Jim, he’s always thrown about. He’s a victim of circumstance at every opportunity we put him in. And he just puts his foot in his mouth. He’s a very clumsy but likeable guy with the best intentions. That makes the audience have allegiance to him.”
Almost as unusual as Arnaud was Cummings’ decision to distribute Thunder Road on his own—and to get it into theaters before its inevitable arrival on digital. “Cinemas are the place for cinephiles. And if you can do a small release in cinemas, and if it’s a good movie and people like it, they can be your early champions,” he asserts. Furthermore, based on a case study done by the Sundance Institute (who gave Cummings a grant to release the film), he learned that it made more financial sense to go the DIY route.
“We took a bet on putting it out ourselves, and we’re in the black already,” he explains. “We haven’t even opened in a few territories. We made $500,000 from French theaters alone, and we don’t even have a TV deal yet, or blu-ray/DVDs. As an independent filmmaker, you make a lot more money doing self-distribution than you will going with a distributor.”
“The feature film distribution market has become so predatory because all of the distribution companies are going out of business,” he continues. “Our movie cost $180,000, and we’ll probably make a killing. The offer we got was a $100,000 global deal for ten years, and we don’t own the movie anymore. I was like, fuck this. That’s a dumb deal. That’s literally removing us from the property for peanuts so somebody else can do a shitty trailer and a shitty poster and bury our movie. It makes no sense. You don’t need somebody to upload your movie to YouTube for you, so why would you have somebody distribute your feature? It’s the same thing.”
As for why, out of his many shorts (all of which are available for free on Vimeo), he chose to adapt Thunder Road into a feature, Cummings claims it was all about the right inspiration. “They always say, if you have to ask yourself if you’re having a heart attack, you’re probably not having a heart attack. You know it when it hits you.” Enlightenment struck during a post-Sundance drive, when he decided that—instead of being the most interesting moment of Arnaud’s life—the funeral fiasco could be the inciting incident for a “Mike Judge-style drama about this guy trying to get his daughter to like him again. It was making me laugh and it was making me cry.”
That, in turn, set the film on its triumphant course, because it allowed Cummings “to make all these comments about being a parent rather than losing a parent. To see the full cycle. What I took out of the short – and I think a lot of others take out of the short—is that last moment of him pulling away at the back pew, and realizing that the relationship you fostered with your mom is being passed on to the next generation.” The result was a far more cautious rest of his fateful car ride. “It hit me, and then I was driving safer because I was so nervous that I would die before I could finish making it,” he chuckles.
Thunder Road’s balance of misery and comedy was “the DNA of the project,” according to the filmmaker, who contends that as you learn about Arnaud’s backstory through subtle dialogue clues, “it becomes this tragicomedy thing—it was funny, and then it’s not, and then it’s funny again. It became this roller-coaster shit-show watching this guy struggle, and that was equal parts funny and tragic to me, and you find the character in doing it a whole bunch.” While much of Arnaud’s craziness seems spontaneous, it was the byproduct of endless rehearsal and meticulous planning. “I become the conductor of the roller-coaster, imagining I’m going to know where the audience is going to be at every turn,” he states. “There’s no improv in the movie. It’s all very manufactured in such a way that we make it try to seem authentic and off-the-cuff.”
Multiple standout sequences in Thunder Road—including a late police station parking lot freak-out that finds Arnaud stripping in front of his superiors—are shot in prolonged, unbroken takes, which Cummings says are partially indebted to the work of Alfonso Cuarón, whose Children of Men he dubs a “life-changing experience.” Still, there’s more than just homage to those visually impressive moments. “I think psychologically, it makes you feel like you’re more present inside the experience of the characters. It connects you to the characters in ways that conventional editing doesn’t.”
Plus, by taking that aesthetic approach, “you’re able to tell the story without being too preachy. Because it’s one long shot, the ideas wash over you. Although I’m saying a lot about mortality and life and loss, and being kind to the women in your lives to tough guys, that’s kind of lost in the shuffle because I keep flowing on to the next idea. That’s something unique to long takes that I love.”
Thunder Road is far from a sermon, and yet there’s no mistaking a strong political element to its portrait of Arnaud, whom Cummings describes as “this Texan tough guy archetype. That was the exact type of person we’re trying to make fun of, and to convince people that it’s ok not to be that way.” If mockery was part of Cummings’ point, however, he also makes it clear that his larger goal was to situate the film in a particular hot-button space where both sides of the red state-blue state divide could find something of value.
“After the short, I realized it was this weird wedge issue. Late 2015, when I wrote the short, you couldn’t get onto Facebook without seeing something about a police officer having shot some unarmed black person, and the Black Lives Matter movement started. It was insane,” he remembers. “I knew if I made something about the police, and humiliated them (like Chaplin did for The Great Dictator), and also made something that showed the humanity of these people—they’re just these fucking people who also happen to have guns and a lot of responsibility—that it would hit both audiences at the same time. It would be this funny viral video of a dancing cop, and also this crazy thing where you’re humanizing the cops in 2016.”
Cummings drew the line, though, at foregrounding his commentary. “We purposefully didn’t have any Trump bumper sticker or whatever.” And despite Arnaud being a dim-witted southerner, the filmmaker doesn’t believe he’d be goose-stepping in line with our current commander-in-chief. “I don’t think he would have voted for Trump. He’s one of the nicest guys out there. I don’t think he would have responded to that bullshit.”