Rooftop Talks: Jim Cummings

An expanded, feature-length version of the Sundance Grand Jury Prized dramatic short of the same title, Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road tells the story of flawed police officer Jim Arnaud (also played by Cummings), who lives a shambolic life that’s somehow made even worse by his mother’s passing. One of the best reviewed pictures of the Cannes Film Festival and winner of Best Narrative Feature at SXSW earlier this year, the film is a darkly comedic, largely devastating portrait of grief that’ll stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In anticipation of our 2018 Summer Series screening of it this Saturday, August 11th, at New Design High School in the Lower East Side, we sat down with Jim to get a glimpse behind the curtain of his indelibly beguiling process–

ROOFTOP FILMS: When did the idea for Thunder Road first come to mind?

JIM CUMMINGS: My buddy PJ McCabe told me a story in a hot tub about a friend of his who sang a song at a funeral, and it got me thinking about that as an incredibly sad monologue–but then also how painfully funny it would be if the song was performed poorly.

RF: What inspired the titular Springsteen song choice?

JC: It actually *is* one of my Mom’s favorites, and it holds such grandeur to that entire generation. I talk about it in the film, but that song means so much philosophically to an American era–it still does! I wanted to make a movie about getting out of a small town, applying the song to your life. Waking up as an adult and realizing that the lullaby your Mom sang to you was a gift from her to help you through hard times like the ones you’re in now.

RF: What was your process for expanding the short into a feature, and where did you find inspiration for the story?

JC: So, the the feature was a much stranger genesis. For a year I thought that, if we were going to make a feature of it, that the short would have to be the climax and that movie wouldn’t be very good, I don’t think. But then I thought about using the short as the opening scene, and then considered what the rest of the movie would have to be and it became more of the story of *being* a parent than losing one. It would be this wonderful frame within which to discuss legacy and the cycle of parenting, and it kind of hit me all at once and I asked PJ if I could write it in his basement and I spent about 4 nights down there writing and acting out every scene and drinking Budweiser by myself, listening to the Nebraska album on repeat.

RF: Is some of your own personal story included in the script and/or character of Officer Arnaud?

JC: Sure, I still have both of my parents thankfully, and I’m not a father (that I know of)(knock on wood), but sure. The story and the character is just a more pathetic and humiliating version of me and my life. I am a divorcee. I guess this film is in a way my own Ghost of Christmas future.

RF: What’s your acting and rehearsal process like?

JC: A lot of prep. A *lot* of prep. I’m not a trained actor, and all of these are long takes so really the film’s prep is me doing each scene 1000 times until it’s perfect because it has to be on the day of the shoot. It’s hell. And then, working with the other actors, they’re all on the same page, so they’re all off book a month prior, and that gives us the liberty to make something really phenomenal in the moment by continually adding complexities to the physicality of the scenes.

RF: What has been the most surprising part of the journey that is creating Thunder Road from the short to now the feature length?

JC: Being able to travel with the film and meet people who are touched by it. I have dudes in Carhartt jackets who come up crying to me. People who may never open a book of poetry but could quote Springsteen songs all day. That’s what has been most surprising: actually moving people.

Questions by Megan McMillon

For tickets to/more information on Thunder Roadclick here.