Jim Cummings is the writer, director and star of Thunder Road – originally a short film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2016, and later turned into a full feature, which won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW in 2018.
Doing the reps
A recurring theme was perseverence. As the old adage goes, there's no such thing as an overnight success – and this was no exception:
We submitted it to Sundance, and we didn't really know anybody who had ever screened at the festival. We had submitted a hundred times – some of my shorts, some of my sketches and stuff – and never got in.
Like an infectious virus, you have to spend a long time chugging away slowly, before you reach the exponential growth that gets you noticed.1 And although it's annoying to feel like you're not making progress, it pays off in the long run:
So I was kinda like this short filmmaker for a long time, but that became my education in telling a story that was ninety minutes. It felt like if I hadn't made those short films and understood how I spoke the language of making movies, I wouldn't be very good at making features.
As I wrote before, I often struggle to think like this. It's tempting to jump straight into writing a big, ambitious project – like a new television pilot or film – because it feels like that's a faster route to where I want to go. But the time you spend on smaller, low-stakes projects – where you're free to experiment and figure out what works – will be worth it eventually, even if it's not as exciting right now.
1 I know it's probably too soon, but the analogy was too hard to resist.
Reach for the sky
That said, ambition is good too. As Ray Dalio writes in his book, Principles:
Be audacious. What you think is attainable is just a function of what you know at the moment. If you limit your goals to what you know you can achieve, you're setting the bar way too low.
The idea is that you set 'audacious goals', and trust that you will figure out a way to solve any problems that arise. There were plenty of examples of this in the production of Thunder Road – like not having the rights to the song that gave the short its name, even though they had been programmed by Sundance:
We got a phone call about a month later saying that they wanted to play it, but we didn't have the rights to the Bruce Springsteen song. And I just signed a contract saying yeah, we have the rights to everything, just play the short! And then we won, and we were like nobody's gonna be able to see this thing because we don't have the rights to the Springsteen song... but then we reached out to Bruce and he was cool with it, so we put it on Vimeo, which was incredible.
And then, despite winning the Grand Jury Prize, he found that no-one seemed interested in funding a feature-length version. So he pooled his money with his producers and ran a Kickstarter campaign, so he could make it himself:
We raised $34k, and really that was it. It had no money from Hollywood, it had no real support from Hollywood. It was just my friends... We just had this wonderful collective of people who were energised and had an axe to grind against the system. Screw 'em, we're gonna go and do it ourselves!
We shot in fourteen days in Texas and then that's all that mattered. It didn't matter that Hollywood wasn't taking us seriously, or that we couldn't get anybody to take us seriously. The crew took it seriously and we all really cared. And so we shot it and I had the footage and I took it home and edited it for three or four months – and now that movie has a life of its own. It'll be available for everybody for a hundred years. And that's kinda how I became a feature filmmaker. Ass backwards.
Of course, this came with more problems, like figuring out how to do everything with a limited budget. But working with producer Natalie Metzger, they found loads of creative solutions – like how to save money housing the crew:
She stripped $70k from the budget... There were things like: what house are we going to use for Jim's house? Does this house work? Because it's an Airbnb, and if we can shoot in the Airbnb, that also means we can house fourteen members of cast and crew here and save an overlap.
Or how to film a scene in a police station:
The police station was gonna cost like $10k for the day, just to be able to shoot it inside of a real police station. And there was a moment where I thought: it doesn't have to be a police station. We just need a circulation desk, a wall behind me, with like a blue line on it... If we moved the camera at all, you'd see collapsed walls. It doesn't look like a police station at all. But it doesn't matter, because it's not in the frame.
You write something, and then figure out exactly what you need... If it's not in the frame, it doesn't really matter.
As selfish as it is, I was beginning to feel a bit frustrated with lockdown. I had finally started filming some sketches, after years of procrastinating – but now who knows when I'd be able to film something again? But this – combined with e.g. this soap opera parody filmed exclusively over video calls – reminded me to stop making excuses. If I put my mind to it, I'm sure I can make something...2
2 It would also help if the perfectionist in me didn't spend the last three hours rewriting this blog post that was definitely fine three hours ago, but one mental barrier at a time.
Inputs not outputs
Finally, if you really do need to wait for someone else to say yes, it's a good idea to keep working while you're waiting. As morally-dubious-but-nonetheless-insightful billionaire Jeff Bezos wrote in his 2009 letter to shareholders, it's better to focus on the inputs you control (what you produce) rather than the outputs you don't (waiting for a green light). If you do the work consistently, you'll be ready when opportunity does come knocking – as shown by the story of how Cummings was able to make one of his latest features, The Werewolf:
I had written this werewolf movie that we were pitching to different digital platforms when I was still doing only shorts. I hadn't made the Thunder Road feature yet. Nobody trusted us to make anything longer... I had pitched it to a couple of different places, big studios and stuff, and done this kinda tour, shaking hands and talking about the project... but everybody said you can't do that. And then we won SXSW with the feature, and I got emails back from the same people – like on the same email chain, [originally saying] we're not interested in doing this thing – now saying hey, what's going on with that werewolf movie? What's happening? The script didn't change at all, the idea didn't change at all. In Hollywood, it's like a stock market. Well this stock is doing well, it doesn't matter what the company does, just screw it. We'll just like invest in it.
(In the end, he didn't go with any of them.)