The unlikely path of Jim Cummings's Thunder Road—a short film about an uptight police officer eulogizing his late mother—continues to surprise even as it's released today, in the midst of a month marred by shootings of people by police, social unrest, and high-profile attacks on law enforcement.
While not overtly political, this tale of a young, small-town cop fumbling to find the right words to say at a funeral reframes perceptions of police in troubled times. The feelings exhumed are so raw and visceral that all pretense is wiped away. As his masculine identity becomes riddled with holes, he turns into a spectacle at a time when he would rather just be seen as any other grieving person.
The timing of the release of the Sundance Film Festival's 2016 grand jury prize–winning short is as happenstance as the origin of film. Cummings came up with the idea after hearing about a friend who had sang at his mother's funeral, and decided that Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" would be the one he'd sing to his mom when she died.
From there, the seed of the idea took typical indie turns—after writing the story, Cummings realized he was the one who should direct it, and act in it, and obviously produce it. He was also dead-set on doing it all in one continuous 13-minute take, in order to lock in on the cop's personality and state of mind. He even went as far to sell his wedding rings in order to fund it.
The explicit use of Springsteen's hit is another of Cummings's more unusual moves, since as a producer he's acutely aware of the difficulties in licensing popular songs. He dutifully ponied up $7,000 for limited rights to the song—but after he won Sundance, Sony Music requested $50,000 for a year if he wanted to put the film online. Instead, Cummings penned an open letter on Medium (that's since been taken down) appealing to the Boss himself for the right to put the song in his film on Vimeo for free. And the crazy thing is, it worked—as of last month, now has the rights to the song.
Thunder Road has now won prizes in festivals all over the world, and it's online now for all to see. Watch the film below, and scroll down to check out my interview with the multi-talented Cummings.
VICE: Why did you want to make something where you are so utterly exposed both emotionally and professionally?
Jim Cummings: Professionally, I really wanted to show off, honestly. I knew I was a decent actor, but I would never get cast in something like this, so I had to write and direct it too. I wanted to make something super challenging, so I made it all one take, with lots of memorization, a big dance number, about everybody's biggest fears: mortality and public speaking.
Emotionally, I had seen Celia Rowlson-Hall's film The Audition and Trey Shults's film Krisha and was floored by how pathetic and vulnerable they make themselves on film. It's so rare that actors do that—actors usually try to seem cool on camera or propagate their own personality. There's something so wonderful about watching someone have a convincing breakdown on film to say something about humanity or drama, or in Celia's case, the audition process and the film industry.
You've worked a lot over the last few years producing some great films, but this is one of your first attempts at really taking the creative reins. What made you make the jump?
Ambition, I think. I was surrounded by people who were being celebrated for their movies that were supposed to be funny, but never made people laugh, and supposed to be dramatic, but never made people cry. As a producer I was unable to alter [films] creatively and that turned into ambition. I said, "Fuck it, just let me do it." When I saw Krisha at SXSW, I was really floored by it; they made this inventive, big story about family and addiction in a single house in Texas. The message to me was that you can make movies in your backyard, so long as you focus on the right stuff. The time had come for me to make the leap.
The song "Thunder Road" is central to your film and performance. What were you thinking by including it?
It had to be that song. "Thunder Road" has such a weight to it. We were playing with doing a karaoke cover, but it felt dishonest and sounded terrible. At the end of the day, against almost everyone's advice, I said, "Sorry, I'm doing it like this and that's that," and I didn't do too much thinking about it, and then it was shot and I couldn't change it.
After you won Sundance, how long did it take before you realized, Shit, people like my film, and I'm going to have to get rights if I want to keep screening it?
I'm not able to talk about it. All I can say is that I'm super glad that the movie is now available and thanks to everyone who helped out.
You wrote what became a widely distributed Medium post imploring Springsteen to either heavily discount or gift the song license to you in order to release Thunder Road online for free. What the fuck were you thinking?
After that post, you received some negative feedback regarding your asking for something after the fact where you were the main party with something to gain. I know it's something you take very seriously as an artist who has produced art not expecting returns, but also as an artist who would like to make a living doing what he loves. How did you approach that contradiction, and what do you think of the result?
Yeah, I was surprised by that. Filmmakers attacked me pretty thoroughly for that, [but] a lot of those people ended up sending me private messages and helping me out! I think there's something about someone succeeding and bending the rules that makes anyone in any field uncomfortable, but you hear stories like this all the time. Yoko Ono gave the rights to the team that made I Met the Walrus. A few filmmakers have reached out to me saying that when they wrote to David Bowie, he OK'ed the use of his music in their film. This stuff happens all of the time.
I rounded the square by telling myself that I'm not a pirate and that if you wanted to hear that song on YouTube or Vimeo, you could find 100,000 other places that were being terrible about it. I think overall, artists should never be in the business of saying, "You can't do that." Sometimes all it takes is a gentle reminder.
So what are you working on now?
Dustin Hahn and I just wrapped a series for Fullscreen, and I'm working like a madman on other stuff. I really want to make this show about astronauts and a kids' adventure movie with my girlfriend.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.