Character studies on struggling male protagonists are a dime a dozen, but none in recent memory have had the fervour or captured the hearts of audiences quite like 'Thunder Road', which released in Melbourne and Perth cinemas last week (and begins its theatrical run in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide & Hobart on the 25th April). The film is a passion project for Jim Cummings, the film's writer, director and lead actor. It evolved from the short film of the same name that Jim produced in 2016, both titled from a Bruce Springsteen song that Jim's mother loved when he was growing up. The song features in the short film, but acquiring the rights to the song proved to be a nightmare.
"We were just talking about the legal ramifications of it, and I just got so fed up with it," Jim recalls. "I was like, 'All right, I'm just going to do it. What's the worst that can happen? I'm not going to make a dollar off of this movie. I'm going to sell my wedding ring to finance the short, why don't I just do it?' Then we submitted it to Sundance not knowing anybody, and it got in. And then I was like, 'Well, we might not be able to put it online now.' And then we won Sundance and I was like, 'Well now we're really never going to be able to put this thing online.' I spent two or three months reaching out through Hollywood connections to try and get in touch with Bruce. The music label was just telling us, 'No, he's never licensed that song to anybody before,' so we knew it was this uphill battle. Then I wrote this open letter to the guy. A bunch of people shared it on Facebook, and within 24 hours I got an email from his team saying, 'Hey, put it on Vimeo, give us a thousand dollars, take down the open letter.' And so I did, and it's been online ever since."
When it came to the feature film, Jim was never sure whether the song would even make the cut. "We shot it with the song as it appears in the short film, and then we shot it without the song. I'd been doing it all day, and we ended up using the last take, which doesn't have the song in it. I was like, 'I don't know if we're going to have the song in the movie.' And then my producer is like, 'It'd be so much easier if we didn't have the song in it. We're not gonna fucking bother Bruce Springsteen again.' And so, very quickly, it became the 'Thunder Road' movie without the song in it. He's forced to comically describe the cultural significance of the song while trying to deliver this eulogy, and it was funny."
Not only has The Boss seen both the short and the feature film, he's quite a big fan. "A couple of weeks ago I got an Instagram message from Patty Scialfa, his significant other, and they said that they had watched the feature in their living room as a family and loved it, and she just reached out to say how much she loved it. It's great. It's unbelievable. Now he's just a penpal."
Springsteen isn't the only big name to praise the film. "Rian Johnson was pretty neat," Jim exclaims. "I mean, to have the 'Star Wars' dude reach out and share it on Twitter was really cool.” Despite this praise, Jim still dreams big for his films future viewership, the same optimistic mindset that helped him create the film in the first place. “I still feel like not many people have seen the movie. I'd kill to hear what Chris Lilley thinks of it. I'd kill to hear what Steve Coogan or Armando Iannucci or Mike Judge think of it. I've gotten this cult followership, which is great. I'm sure they'll see it eventually, but they're busy people. I think Bruce seeing it was pretty big. I made the whole thing for him hoping that he wouldn't hate it."
Distributing his own film, Jim watched 'Thunder Road' develop a significant following worldwide, particularly in France. “The French love it,” he said. “It hits those problems in French cinema right now, where movies are either strictly comedies or they are strictly dramas, and our movie does both at the same time. So a lot of French audiences were like, 'This is a breath of fresh air.' We opened in 130 cinemas across the country, like 12 theatres in France or in Paris, which is crazy. We doubled the budget in French ticket sales alone in the first two weeks." There were other countries, however, where Jim was surprised by the feedback he received from audiences. "[In] Germany, we screened in the Munich Film Festival, and they hated it. They said, ‘You should take the comedy out.’ They had no sense of humour for this guy. They didn't find that character funny at all. And they're like, 'How dare you put comedy into this movie!’”
Writing the screenplay for the film, Jim took a unique approach to make the dialogue as authentic as possible. "I wrote the short film in my car on the drive to work, and it was just me doing it out loud, the monologue, so that was easy. I was able to play 'Thunder Road', and practiced the monologue a thousand times over on my drives to and from work. I would come up with something and be like, 'Oh it's good,' and I recorded that in my voice memo app on my phone. To write the feature was the same thing. I just sat in my buddy's basement and put on the 'Nebraska' album by Bruce Springsteen and hung out and acted it out by myself. It was workshopping each scene as it comes out of human vocal chords, not me sitting with a screenplay software open, writing down how I'm imagining characters speak. I found that to be incredibly freeing, and I've written almost everything since like that, just talking it out and finding the things that are funny and finding the things that are heartbreaking."
The film has received rave reviews, but to get to that point, Jim had to push through a lot of discouragement. "Every fucking day! Every minute of every day. The industry is based on discouraging you to prevent people from being able to do it themselves, because if you can make your own movie you are no longer the industry subordinate, you are their competition. I spent years imagining that I was a terrible filmmaker and I wasn't going to make anything of myself, and I should pursue something else. I guess that's how it is in every industry, but in the film industry it's really damning, and it can prevent people from actually making anything. I wasn't a real artist for a long time. I realise all that shit's imaginary and in-your-mind bullshit, and you just have to work hard. If you just keep working hard and you're persistent and you challenge yourself, anybody can be anything."
The creative challenges weren't the only issues Jim faced - he had his share of physical problems too. "I had kind of resolved to the idea that this movie was going to kill me, and that I would be okay with that. Saying it out loud, I realise that I'm mad, I never said that before, but that's true. This was a self-sacrifice movie; I'm going to put everything that I have into this film, emotionally, physically, and if I die before I'm able to make my next one, I'll be happy. Months after shooting, and I had a knee brace, I couldn't lift anything above my left shoulder. I'd cut my artery open on my left arm when I broke the window. And still I was like, 'Oh, it's fine, no, I'm fine. It's totally fine,' and superglued it shut on the car ride to the next set. That was the point of the movie - to make something impressive and to do each scene in these long takes and have it be really difficult to perform."
Far from resting on the success of 'Thunder Road', Jim has been working hard on a number of exciting new projects, proving he’s no one-hit wonder. "I just shot and I wrote, directed and starred in my first studio movie. It's called 'The Werewolf', which is pretty cool. Then I'm running a crowd equity campaign on the 28th and 29th [of April 2019]. Kind of like a Kickstarter campaign, except the backers own [a] percentage of the film, and so they'll be able to collect on it in perpetuity, like an investment. And then the big one, the one that's more in line with the emotions of 'Thunder Road', is another father-daughter story about movies and how they can be life-affirming, and that's a kid's adventure film that I want to make soon."
'Thunder Road' hits cinemas in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart on the 25th April, and is screening in Melbourne and Perth cinemas now. Click here to read my 4-star review of ‘Thunder Road’.