The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of essays based on conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Issa Lopez (writer/director of ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’). Special thanks to my fellow Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.
The new indie film barnstorming across America is Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road. He’s taken a magnetic short film and transmogrified it into a feature-length masterclass in the exploration of emotion. You will cry and laugh as you watch the redemption story of Jim Arnaud, Austin Police Officer.
Brad Gullickson and I jumped at the chance to chat with Cummings and his producer Ben Wiessner. My first watch of the film was probably one of the most emotional ninety minutes in a theater I’ve experienced this year. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried my way through a film’s entirety. Words like cathartic and revelatory and, just, like, fuck come to mind. Y’all. This movie rocked me.
Cummings’ performance is stupidly, sickeningly good. Check out the trailer to get a feel for what he’s bringing to the table.
As a father, a Southerner, and someone not infrequently disillusioned by his life choices, I did not expect to connect so strongly with this movie. Jim Arnaud is many things, but his priorities seem all mixed up. Police officer. Man. Father. Husband. He’s going through a divorce and struggling with the realization that he’s lost contact with the only thing he cares about: his daughter.
We talk a bit about being products of the South, with all its ups and downs. Men, especially men from the South, are told not show their emotions. That isn’t quite right. We’re shown that we shouldn’t have them. Men don’t feel sadness or loneliness or have needs. We work and we provide. We are our function. But, that’s toxic. With no approval to feel things, how can we work through our emotions? Arnaud has no outlet. He is a pot of boiling water. No. Not a pot. A sealed container.
“It’s honestly not that far off of where we could have been, as well. We’re all products of Southern education. I don’t mean that in a school sort of way, but this way of being brought up and the expectations that are placed on you. And so, there are moments of this, that are just very much like, the edges of us.” – Ben Wiessner
Whether you’re from the South or are a father, there is palpable, relatable authenticity to Arnaud. We all struggle with our emotions and frequently make bad choices doing so. We close ourselves off when we should be opening up. And even if we wanted to open up, we don’t know what to do or where to start. The experience of life is overwhelming. We become spectators of our own experience.
The movie opens with Arnaud giving a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. It goes disastrously. Incapable of expressing his emotions, he careens wildly from collected to bawling to seeking approval from those around him. It his hilarious and devastating. And, yes. He dances.
This interview happened at an emotional time for me, just a few days after Hurricane Michael came ashore. I lived in Panama City for 12 years. I have family and friends there. It’s hard to watch people you love struggle with devastation and want to fix everything but have no words or answers. I’ve felt a bit untethered as I watched them begin a monumental recovery process. Proud and sad and raw.
To experience this emotional upheaval amidst the banality of things like workplace conversation is isolating and weird. That isn’t a criticism of them. They don’t know. And that’s something Arnaud literally screams. They don’t know. They don’t know!
Wiessner shares that while the movie is set in Austin, Texas, Arnaud, “Go Tigers”, is a product of the Hurricane Katrina diaspora. The universe is funny sometimes with what it puts in front of you.
The inability to communicate and express our emotions is fatal. We thrive on connection. Whatever our version of connection is. The world is overwhelming. Life often feels like it’s one big constant riff on the parable of Job. What else can go wrong? And, we lose ourselves to it.
Thunder Road takes the story of Job and heaps an impossible load on the narrow shoulders of Jim Arnaud. Is it a redemption story or Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale?
Seek this movie out. It’s available on demand right now! Now, here’s our chat.
A Conversation with Jim Cummings and Ben Wiessner
Brad: Today, we are so happy to be joined by the filmmakers behind Thunder Road, one of our favorite films of the year, without a doubt. Director, writer, and star Jim Cummings and producer Ben Wiessner. Thanks, guys, for being here. We really appreciate it.
Jim: Thank you for having us.
Brad: So, Thunder Road the short film is basically the opening of Thunder Road the film. One big difference being, no Bruce Springsteen song. When you decided to turn this into a feature, how did the opening slightly shift from the original?
Jim: Well, it was very difficult to get in touch with Springsteen to get the rights for the song for the short film. We wrote an alternate eulogy that didn’t have the song in it. But we shot it both ways just in case one of the takes worked better. With long takes, you never know. One of them has to be perfect, and whichever one is perfect, that’s the one you go with. And in our case, the last take, of eighteen, without the song was the one that we wanted to use. It just happened to not have the song in it.
Ben: It was a pack the trucks moment. That shot ended, and it was just like, “Oh, that’s eleven minutes of the movie.” You could just tell right then.
Jim: When it came down to it, it wasn’t even really a rights issue. It just worked. I’d done ten short films before I made the feature. I feel like there I was working where it had to be viral and contained. In the short film, the song plays and it’s very fulfilling to watch. But then, with a 90-minute duration, you can’t have it be incredibly fulfilling in the beginning. The fulfillment should come at the end of the film. And it does. This version is a much faster nosedive because the song doesn’t play, and then he has to redeem himself by the end of the film. I felt like it worked narratively better to not have it.
Brad: And, monetarily-wise, it’s probably a good call, too.
Jim: I think so! The producers were thrilled.
Ben: Bonus, for sure.
Brad: I love your Vimeo account. I love your short films. Out of ten, why was Thunder Road the first to go feature?
Jim: So, we had had people interested in doing something with The Robbery because it’s kind of an action film. But, it never came to fruition. We always knew that we wanted to do something with Jim Arnaud or something inside of this same tone. We’re all from the South, and so we like telling these Southern family stories. Real stories. And then, I had the idea to set the feature where the short film is the opening of it instead of the climax.
For a long time, we said, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t turn Thunder Road short-film into a feature because the rest of the movie leading up to the funeral would have to be him having a terrible relationship with his Mom, and then his Mom passing away. And nothing clicked for us. It was like, “Alright, well that’d kinda be a sad movie and it wouldn’t be very good.”
And then, in setting the short film at the beginning, it became a story about redemption. You’re thrown into this guy’s life and his mindset, and then he has to crawl back into his family and try to get his daughter to like him again. With that, we realized that we could do all this as a fun Mike Judge style family drama comedy. And it was working.
I wrote it in a couple of days, in my friend’s basement, and sent the first draft out to Ben, and friends and family. It changed over a couple of months, but we were shooting it before the end of the year. We shot it in November in Austin.
Brad: So, where does Jim Arnaud come from?
Jim: Austin, Texas! I don’t know! We say that he’s a much more pathetic version of me. Or, a much sadder version of me? I don’t know. I feel like he’s the kids we grew up with. The quarterbacks or the lovable guy who’s the wide receiver or whatever. He’s a kind of clueless dude who spends his life being a spectator of his own experience rather than making any decisions. And then he wakes up when he’s 35 and says, “Oh God! I can’t live in this town anymore! I’ve gotta change it for my family.”
Ben: And it’s honestly not that far off of where we could have been, as well. We’re all products of Southern education. I don’t mean that in a school sort of way, but this way of being brought up and the expectations that are placed on you. And so, there are moments of this, that are just very much like, the edges of us.
William: Where did you guys grow up?
Jim: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Ben: And I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina. Live in Durham now.
William: I grew up in the Panhandle.
Jim: Oh, okay cool. I’m so sorry.
William: Oh. I’m sorry. That’s a raw nerve. I’m sorry, I was not expecting the conversation to segue way that way.
Jim: No, it’s on the front page of the newspaper this morning –
William: Yeah, it’s been a crazy week.
William: Anyways, I don’t want to make the conversation about that. We can talk about that –
Jim: No, I’m from New Orleans, man. I’ve been through that shit.
William: So you know!
Jim: Yeah, dude. That’s how my orientation week of college, yeah. Evacuation and then bring in wet clothes to Boston.
Ben: And this character is somebody who’s part of that kind of diaspora that happened after Katrina. This is a family that moved to Texas because they couldn’t be in Louisiana anymore.
William: Oh, wow. I recognize that character. Or, I mean, that aspect of him felt very organic and real to me. I know that guy.
Ben: Could have been him.
Jim: Yeah, we could have been that guy. I also feel like there’s something to the foot in mouth disorder. You see somebody struggle and it’s, “I’ve been that idiot.” The only real auto-biographical thing about the movie is that I am a divorcee. There’s that moment of him making the good joke about not wanting to see his wife get hit by a train. And it kills, and then in the next scene, he has to crawl it back and be like, “Sorry I said that thing about you getting hit by a train.” And it’s funny, but everybody feels like that sometimes. Saying the thing they wish they hadn’t said, and so you relate to him. He is this like, oddly relatable, clumsy guy because we’ve all been there.
Brad: Well the miracle of the movie to me, is –
Jim: Here we go!
Brad: Your performance! In the span of one sentence, you have to go from a place where he’s ripe for mockery to pathetic to sad to hilarious. And back to melancholy.
Ben: We talk a lot about hinges as these opportunities. Words in the middle of sentences. Breaths. The performance. All of the eye stuff. Anything like that is really scripted. And it’s these hinges that can kind of get you into the next place that you need to be emotionally. Or with the joke. Or with that bit of emotion.
Jim: Yeah. Having grown up watching Armando Iannucci’s work, I was able to see what they did with performative comedy. Language is so complex. You can write it in screenplay format, but you’ve got to get on your feet and do it to find out what subtlety you can employ. There are moments where we write over-the-top dialogue for something, and then I’m like, “No, you can sell it to an audience with facial expressions.”
For example, when I was writing the short film I had a line in the back pew, where Arnaud would sit down with his daughter and actually say, “Hey, uh honey, I’ve gotta talk to you about something.” And that was the end of the film. Just this one line. And then I was like, “No!” If we just have him say nothing, and he tries to connect with her through these facial expressions, it’s so much more powerful. It tells the entire conversation just from him moving his face a certain way.
William: So, what hat are you wearing to figure these things out? Actor, director, writer?
Ben: Part of it was driving around, looking for locations together for a month straight. Everything was an opportunity to run and rerun every single scene. Doing the performance over and over and over again. Workshopping.
Jim: There were times where we’d be location scouting, it’d be 11:00 at night, like, “Alright. I think I’ve got the parking lot scene down.” And then I’ll just do it at half volume for people. With Ben and Danny and the rest of the crew, sitting on the cars before we leave the parking lot. And they’re just laughing, and then I have to stop because I’m laughing. And then it’s like, “Okay, it’s going to be like that, but serious.” That kind of rehearsal process, where it is growing. You can feel the roller coaster. But it’s all performative.
There are moments when the writing is literally me walking around a golf course in the middle of the night, and just having the free space to walk and talk to myself. To do it out loud a thousand times. And then you find these small things. Me saying “John Wayne” came about because I was riding with Zack Parker, a producer, and he said, “You know, I grew up in Austin. If ever anything bad happened to me, I’d just John Wayne it.” He used it as a verb, you know, like, “I’m a tough guy here.” And I was like, “That’s so good! I’ve gotta steal that instantly!”
I put it in the notes app on my iPhone, and I have this long list of turns of phrase, and things like that. Idioms, to fit into the film. And then it just works so well in the eulogy, in that one moment. Like, “I have to say that.” If I had known that expression for the short film, it would have been in there.
William: So, as you’re trying to figure out how to capture an inherently visual performance, what’s your relationship with your cinematographer like?
Jim: Really, really great. The cinematographer for this film is Lowell A. Meyer, and he is really wonderful. He shot six or seven of our short films and is just a golden retriever of a human being. A really lovely guy. And it was probably a month of conversations of exactly how many shots we had.
Ben: Tech scouts were a big part of that, and really walking through what needs to happen for each moment. We had to get that down all ahead of time. And Lowell has this playbook of where the lights go for everything, and all of that, where you walk in and you’re lighting the space within a minute.
Not just a shot list, but I think, more important to us, an approach of how to light the room when you get to the room. Because one of the things that we need to do for our schedule is getting day-of production out of the way as much as possible, so that you have time for performance. It was tricky because we had to shoot 360 degrees in a lot of the spaces we’re in.
William: This was quite a challenge you bit off for your first feature film! How did you pull this off in fourteen days? Are you broken?
Ben: Fourteen and a half.
William: Oh, well okay then you know what? Never mind!
Jim: Yeah forget it!
Ben: Scratch that question!
Jim: Well, for that funeral scene, I say 18 takes. We started it 18 times, and we probably only got through it 12 times altogether. We started at five in the morning, waited for the sun to come up, started shooting, and by the 12th take or something, I would go, “Nope!” halfway through. And then everybody would reset because I wasn’t feeling it.
That’s the thing with long takes. By the time you get to lunch, you’ve already had six takes. You know what’s the best that you’ve done so far. For the next takes, if it’s not as good as that last one, you can say, “Cut!”
Brad: Even still, the stress level of like, “Well, I have to come away on this day with this scene.” It must be immense.
Jim: Yeah, but that’s every minute. Every minute of every day. “Can we get this? How about this?” Or, “How many shots do we need of this?” But because I was a producer for years, and because my film team is my family, I’m very reasonable. I’m not Stanley Kubrick. And so, if we get it, and I know that we got it, then it’s like, “Okay, we don’t need coverage. We don’t need anything else. Let’s pack up the parking lot and get the hell outta here. We’ve got other stuff to shoot today.”
Brad: Right. And now you have the luxury of seeing almost instantaneously, what you’ve done.
Jim: If it’s a good take, we make sure. If it’s a long take and it’s an important one, we’ll watch it and then go, “Yeah we got it. Moving on. Let’s get outta here.” But if one person of the team says, “I could use another one.” Or like, “Eh, the focus wasn’t that great in this one shot.” Or like, if I was like, “I can do it better, I can do it better.” For any reason. If any member of the team says, “We should do it again,” we do it again.
Ben: One other advantage was we had an onset editor, Brian Vannucci. He was cutting the project the whole time. So by the time we got to like, day 12, we could watch 85% of the film together. So, we had that back-end of day 13 and 14 where we had a little wiggle room in this schedule so we could go, “Oh! Actually, we need an extra 10-second space here.” We were able to find some of the holes for the audience, and give them more room to breathe, and all of that.
Brad: So, with all this prep and workshopping, how do you keep your performance from becoming mechanical?
Jim: That was a big problem! Thinking about recreating the short film, Lowell said the same thing. Drew Daniels shot the short film, and Lowell shot the feature. And so the night before, Lowell’s like, “I can’t do it. I don’t know. It’s just going to be a recreation of this thing. It’s gonna be an impersonation of the short film.”
Brad: Night before?
Jim: Yeah! And I said, “I feel the same way!” I was like, “If I’m there, how do I make it authentic? How do I do it?” That’s why we had to do it 18 times. The first few were Jim doing an impression of the short film that he made already. Then I did some takes where I put in dumb improv stuff because I knew that my on-set audience would find that funny.
That loosened it up, and then I was like, “Okay cool. I am bastardizing this thing. Fuck it, let’s just do it real.” By the end of it, I couldn’t cry anymore. I sat down with another producer of mine, Natalie Metzger, and we had a little chat. And I was crying harder than I’d ever cried in my life. And I said, “Let’s do it, let’s do it. Let’s end this thing.” And we went in, and I fucked up one take. It was a small technical thing. Then we did the last one and it was the one that’s in the movie.
I was able to get loose enough to forget all of the scheduling and production shit. All of that stuff disappears after you do it enough times, and then you’re the guy. An exhausted guy just trying to say that you loved your Mom.
Ben: That was day one. It was really interesting watching him go from Jim Cummings playing a role to Jim Arnaud.
Brad: And so getting back to the cinematography and the visual side of things, your conversations with your DP, what are those conversations? Are they referencing films that you want it to look like?
Jim: Lowell built a lookbook of the way of the colors and also certain lenses and things he uses to get close to the people. We talked about Krisha, which is one of my favorite movies. It’s a lot of dollies and zooms, and I feel like that movie moves in a way that’s really beautiful in connecting to an audience. We all went to see The Killing of a Sacred Deer. They used a similar approach in that film. I just sat there, squeezing Lowell’s arm. Zooms and dollies, they’re awesome. It’s going to work!
Ben: That was like two days before production.
Jim: Yeah! There were times where Lowell or somebody would say, “Oh we should do this on the movie and move around this guy when he’s walking into the police station.” I was like, that’s going to be way too cool! The visual language of the movie is dollies and zooms. We can’t do it any other way. So, your hands are tied. And that sucks sometimes.
The scene of me breaking the window of the car and trying to get into the car is a good example of how hard it can be but also how it can come together. We’re like, okay, we start out and we’re driving 30 miles an hour down the road, trying to pull this guy over. We start out tilted down, so it’s a police uniform, and we’re thinking the audience goes like, “Oh, is Jim back in the uniform?” Then it tilts up and we reveal it’s somebody else. It’s Doug. And then you’re like, why are we watching this? Then Doug gets out and moves to the front of the car. You hear me, and it starts zooming in.
So it’s like this enormous rig of a camera for this stupid introduction of just the badge. It was this long lens so we have to pivot the camera back in the car on a dolly in the shotgun seat, take the shotgun seat out so that we can zoom into me through the windshield, and it’s a beautiful shot. It’s one of the most incredible shots in the movie, but we couldn’t shoot it any other way. That was the only way to do it, and it’s a nightmare.
Brad: But, you manage. So, what’s the nightmare scenario on this film?
Jim: Rain. That’s always the nightmare. Any of the stuff that you have no control over. Me cutting my arm on the window and then super gluing it shut. That was a quick one, but that could have been a serious one. There were times where-
Ben: It’s only an artery.
Jim: Yeah, I was in cowboy boots and then sprinting to go and get something because everyone else was busy and they were like, “No, don’t run. It’s wet. Do not.” Everybody was very conscious of how I couldn’t, like, break an arm on this thing. That was difficult. That was the first time where my body was actually precious material.
Ben: Years ago, Jim and I used to produce hand-drawn animation under the name Ornana with our good friend Danny Madden, who did sound design and creative directed Thunder Road. Danny and I would always joke with Jim when he was about to do something stupid. “Not with your animating hand! You can hurt yourself. I don’t care about you. We need that hand for another two months.”
Jim: It was the first time everybody’s like, “Does Jim have enough blood sugar? Does he have a Red Bull?” It was a very strange diva thing. It felt like that to me. So, if I wasn’t constantly humiliating myself on film, I would feel worse about it. But from day one, we said this might be the most important thing that I do with my life, and we have to watch this guy go through hell. It’s a redemption story. It’s a comedy about the story of Job. How do we actually continue to give me spinning plates and just pile on more shit for this guy to go through? And we did.
William: It’s been in a few theaters now. What’s it like the first time you go sit in a theater and watch it with a crowd? Can you do that?
Jim: Yeah, I sneak in. It’s great. I try to go in at around 58 minutes because it’s right before the parking lot scene of me getting fired. It’s just so much fun to be there with an audience where it’s there’s a big Will Ferrell style comedy shouting in that scene. It’s also this endearing tragedy of watching this guy take his uniform off and become a human being and a scary armed gunman. It’s great to hear people laugh at the setup. It’s this wonderful rollercoaster. I get out of the car, I fall out of the car, crawl up, slap Nate, it’s abrasive. I get tackled, my pants get ripped. Everybody’s laughing at this stuff. You can see my junk in tighty-whities in this hole in my crotch and-
Ben: You were stuffed.
Jim: … and he’s shouting. He says … Yeah, I was. It was freezing.
Ben: It was very cold.
Jim: It is great to be with any audience at that moment where you’re watching this live wire, you’re watching this meltdown. I love that. All my movies are about meltdowns. They’re all about usually public meltdowns. I feel like that’s just objectively interesting. It’s also been nice to see it with southerners who have a deep understanding of the language, Dillard’s, and small jokes like that are local.
Ben: That’s what’s been so rewarding about this little thing that we’re doing. We had a hometown-screening three miles from my high school in Raleigh at the Alamo Drafthouse there. The next day, we got up to Charlottesville to do it there. Then we’re in a Northern Virginia, and now we’re here in Winchester, and it’s getting to see this and meet these audiences that are just like us, these southern folks who want something about the South that isn’t just like-
Jim: A caricature.
Ben: Yeah. It’s not Deliverance. “Deliverance” is my favorite book in the world, but that’s the image we have of the South in cinema.
William: You can’t get away from it. It’s just such an easy go-to voice reference, visual reference, or character reference.
Jim: It’s strange. Yeah. There aren’t many actors that have southern accents. You’re usually stripped of that. You can count them on a hand. I think that’s a strange thing. I grew up loving the Blue-Collar Comedy guys, but that’s kind of the forward-facing image of comedy in the American South. And it’s rare. I was talking to Andre Hyland about that. He has a southern character that he plays, and it’s rare to find somebody where there’s any humanity.
William: But that’s an essential element of the comedy.
Jim: That’s what connects you to the character.
William: Exactly. And if you don’t have that, what’s the point?
Brad: This whole experience of Thunder Road feels impossible to sell from a marketing standpoint.
Jim: Fuck, yeah, dude. I leave the cinema from Inside Out, and I’ve been laughing and crying for the last 90 minutes. And it’s fun. And it’s a kids’ movie! It’s crazy to think that unless you’re making a drama in America you can’t make the audience cry. It’s stupid. We go to the cinema to have that feeling! To see life portrayed in moving images, and we’re supposed to feel moved.
Comedy is everywhere, and I feel like the thing that connects to somebody is poignancy or grandeur. You get both of those from showing a public meltdown of somebody being like “Fuck it, I’m done, I’m out.” But if it was just the comedic versions of it, it would be a Mike Judge movie. It would be Extract.
The trailer with the meltdown put us on the front page of Reddit two days ago. People shared it, which is incredible. We’re very lucky. But, that’s the main takeaway that people have. Thunder Road is poignant and authentic, and the comedy is very funny. There are big laughs in the movie, but you draw them in with something that’s going to change their lives.
Thunder Road is this fun anthem sung by this stadium rocker. But, really, it’s trying to convince people who are unhappy to change their lives for the better. That guy was so inspired by Roy Orbison, who would just sing songs for sad and lonely people, and that sharing of being sad and lonely is the thing that drew people in. They see this and they can say, cool. He’s been through worse than I have. I’ll be fine.
To me, people who are approaching it as a comedy will be very surprised to be crying throughout, but then people who approach it as a drama will be even more surprised to laugh out loud throughout the movie.
William: A lot of times, it’s like, okay. Let’s go to the next movie. Thunder Road was a deeply moving experience. Now we’re on team Thunder Road.
Jim: It’s not a cult.
Ben: It is.
William: That’s what all cultists say. So, let’s get culty for a minute. I think it’s fair to say it’s very, very hard to make an independent film. You can feel very lowly. What gets you through it? What’s your one thing, to quote City Slickers?
Ben: Maybe it’s this. I don’t know.
Jim: Ben and I produced movies for a long time, and we had about six years of lowly moments, and buoying each other all the time. When we were doing hand-drawn animation, it would take eleven months to do ten minutes of footage. It was brutal. We were trying to understand the landscape and everything felt like this club that we weren’t in.. Then we would have these long walks to my car and Ben would say stuff like “We’ll figure it out tomorrow.” That kept me showing up. I’m still going to do this thing. I’m not good at anything else. I went to school for this. I’m terrible at math. I can’t keep a straight face in a board meeting. I don’t know what else I would do.
We just were persistent. Then I think of seeing Krisha for the first time in cinema, at South by Southwest, and then spending the next two hours walking around a river crying. Ben and I drove from Texas to Los Angeles, and we just talked about that movie and how it’s gonna start this renaissance. They were right. They made something in a backyard for not much money and just started something.
We were successful. That was scary. For a long time, we weren’t, and so it was very easy to be down and out, and to just be self-loathing, and to not know why you’re unhappy, and if only you could make something good, if only you could connect. It takes a long education on the internet and in schooling and friends to actually make something that’s gonna be good. It took us ten years.
Ben: I think it’s exactly what Jim said because our solace wasn’t in something that had happened. It was always in that idea of no matter what, “Let’s go to work tomorrow.” That was going to be this thing that saved us.
You can find the audio for our full, unabridged conversation at In The Mouth of Dorkness.