Jim Cummings is an amusing chap whom the Internet has granted the status of indie cult filmmaker. After several years working on film sets including the likes of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he moved to Los Angeles to make his own films. His first feature Thunder Road (2018) – a 12-minute short film shot in one take – won Best Narrative Feature at the SXSW Film Festival that year along with the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize. His latest feature film The Beta Test (2021) – which comes out this Friday in Spain on Filmin – raised its budget on a 12-day equity campaign on WeFunder and had its world premiere at the Berlin Berlinale and domestic premiere at Tribeca last summer.
Cummings claims he never set out to become an actor but he keeps acting and making films rather than daydreaming, sitting and waiting for Hollywood to come knocking on his door. With an offbeat blend of genres becoming his signature dish, he is in the midst of finishing the script for his new feature – a Victorian horror-comedy.
I think you started your career in movie making working on film sets holding different roles including one as a production assistant at Industrial Light & Magic. Please tell us just briefly about it.
I went to film school at Emerson College and I graduated in 2009. I then realised very quickly that no one was going to hire a 21-year-old to direct anything. So I started in production and learned as much as I could on sets. I was lucky enough to get a set position on location, on Benjamin Button, which is really cool. I'm from New Orleans originally. They were shooting in New Orleans. That's 2007. And then I left Emerson, graduated and moved to San Francisco and got a job at Industrial Light and Magic working on Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It was really cool to see that level of filmmaking. But nobody really cared about the movies that I was working with – there were thousands of really talented artists that loved making movies. But I was making spreadsheets and doing stupid stuff, like the infrastructure of the visual effects area. And so after a year of doing that, I left and produced a film by a filmmaker named Patrick Wang because he called me and was like: I saw your previous stuff, as a producer, I'd love to have you come out. And that became the first job that I got being a film producer. After that, I was helping other friends produce things. So I was a producer for 6 years.
So you never attended acting school?
I didn't. I'm a very bad actor... I'm good, and I'm good in my movies but it takes me so much more rehearsal in order for it to be any good because I'm so critical of it, as I haven't gone to acting school. I feel like I have to compete with all of the other great actors. That became very sad to me... I was organising sketch comedy and was helping people do sketch and comedy videos. I was also doing music videos for Lil Dicky and thought I should do something important and funny, then I wrote the Thunder Road short film on my drive to work.
Do you think you will focus your career on directing rather than acting then?
Nobody calls me to act in anything really, it's just friends. I was in Halloween Kills because David Gordon Green called me saying he had seen Thunder Road on an aeroplane and was like: hey, another Southern guy making movies, we should hang out. And we talked for years. We were like buddies through emails and phone calls for many years. And then when he was doing Halloween Kills, he was like: oh, Jim could do this!
I'm not really pursuing it in a way that actors would love acting. But, as you know, you could spend your whole life trying to get cast in something and just fail. And so, instead of doing that, waiting around and daydreaming, I make movies on the side, on my own.
P.J McNabe and you have worked in a few films together already. Let me know how it works directing as a duo: who does what?
Oh, it was great! PJ is an actual actor, he went to Emerson for acting and is very well trained, and we were just drinking buddies for like 15 years. But when we were writing The Beta Test, the way that we wrote it was all out loud, so it was just acting and doing the scenes. Very quickly, I realised that we were directing the movie in the writing process and that we should co-direct together, it just became very fluid. We were like, PJ doesn't know anything about cameras, and I don't know anything about acting, but the both of us together make one really good director. That was how we were able to make this movie and a good one.
As a film director, you made short films for almost a decade until Thunder Road came out in 2018. How do you see this first period of your career in the film industry?
It's always very lonely when you're making short films and you're starting out. I just got a big break. In 2016, the short film Thunder Road won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. I'd never been to Sundance before, I didn't know anybody that had ever gotten there. We were very lucky, lightning struck me. So then the Thunder Road feature was very successful, it was an international success. Then we got to do our werewolf film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow. I'm just very casually continuing to make movies and running Kickstarter campaigns, as Hollywood and Marvel aren't knocking on our doors.
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How do you think the attention received that year at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, Sundance and the likes affected your career as a director?
With Thunder Road winning Sundance it became immune from criticism. It's a bit like, The Emperor's New Clothes: the movie is not perfect by any means, it's a really good short film but because it won Sundance, nobody could say, oh, there are problems with it. Everybody was like, oh it's a masterpiece. I think that kind of protected us for a minute. Before we started making features, these people really knew what they were doing. We did not (laughs), but when we were trying to make bigger movies, Hollywood didn't care about short films. The people who did care were the Internet. It was people who had seen the film on Vimeo. Hollywood never gave us one dollar to make our movies, but the public did, the audience really wanted to support our work. It didn't help us in our careers but it helped us with our ability to bring ourselves up with the people around us rather than waiting for someone to give us a lot of money.
I would love to talk about your most recent feature film The Beta Test. How did the idea about it evolve and what is the inspiration behind it?
I had the original idea for the letter service of connecting people anonymously for adultery, and I called PJ in a grocery store, and I was like: what would you do if you got this letter in the mail that would totally derail your life? Like a Michael Haneke film, it felt like Caché (2005) or something like that. And PJ was like: I don't know, I'm with my mom, and it became this long conversation of what would happen next. Would we do it? And we both said no. But then we wondered, is there somebody who would do that?
At the time Hollywood was changing. It was very evident to us that these people were lying and cheaters. Well, what if we fused these two together? And then what if it was also about data scraping and how Hollywood's infrastructure is collapsing because of accessibility through the Internet and technology? And all of that became this full circle of a movie, and we started writing it. We did all this research, we brought in so many people from assistants in Hollywood and agents and ex-agents to come and talk to us about what it was like to work in the industry. That became the development research period. Then we just wrote it. And it was just us trying to make each other laugh and trying to create this experience for an audience in a cinema that would be really compelling, funny, shocking and ridiculous.
Was it hard to get that great cast together?
It was fucking great, basically, everybody in the movie is friends of ours. The guy who plays Johnny Pay Pal at the end of the film with the white hair and hammer is a guy named Kevin Changaris who is in Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. He's the guy that I punched in the eye. I beat him up. Every little cast member was just a friend of ours that was sometimes not even an actor. It felt like a summer camp, we're very lucky, we didn't do much casting. We didn't do much like trying to get celebrities to be in it.
I had interviewed several film directors releasing their third or fourth movie and everybody struggles with the time pressure to reach deadlines, looking for financial aid and self-distribution. What is your take on this?
It has never been easier to make the financing of your movie possible through the Internet. Listening to interviews with Orson Welles, he talks about how ninety per cent of filmmaking is just raising the money and that has nothing to do with filmmaking. And that's very different for us. We ran a crowd equity campaign and we raised the budget of The Beta Test in 12 days all through strangers on the internet.
Was it a Kickstarter?
It's a platform called WeFunder, which means that you're selling shares of the company to people. And it's amazing, like the technology is there now where, if you wanted to, you could advertise that you're trying to make this movie and people can help you out. That has never happened before. And so there is this real tidal shift of power dynamics in Hollywood, where children can post something on the Internet and say, hey, I'm trying to make a movie, and it ends up on iTunes or a film next to James Bond. And audiences don't know the budget was completely different between those films. I think it's a really wonderful time for young people to be making movies.
What about self-distribution?
I self-distributed Thunder Road because we couldn't get a good deal. The best deal that we got was half of the budget of the movie, and the movie only cost $200,000. So instead we self-distributed it, and it was the best financial decision of my life. I own thirty-eight per cent of that film, and the movie has grossed a million dollars or something like that. I think every filmmaker should own and self distribute their first movie, because any movie that comes after that when the new one comes out, you see spikes of revenue in your first movie. It's a wonderful retirement plan and the system right now is not based on allowing filmmakers to do that. It's about taking away their property and their money.
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I think you like to engage with people on social media. You are pretty active. Apart from self-promotion, what do you think is the most interesting part of this?
I think it's really great to be able to support filmmakers who are struggling. I struggled for 10 years. I didn't have the right answers. I didn't have a great education and film. There isn't a great education. Film, everything, is changing so quickly with technology, that when you go to film school, you're taking notes from people who made films in the 90s. And it's like, well, everything's digital. Now it's not the same thing. So the fact that I can get onto Twitter, and do a Twitter space live and answer questions for 400 people at once and say, Don't do that. That's stupid and bullshit, make a movie, make a short film, this is how you do it. It helps the entire community so that I get to see better movies. Yeah, five years from now, four years from now. Like, it's just It's so fulfilling to be able to do that. And to do it digitally, especially when nobody can meet in person, has been really fulfilling over the last few years.
Could you share with us some current projects you are involved in?
PJ and I have co-written this Victorian horror comedy that is really beautiful and romantic. And we're hopefully going out to other financiers to maybe make that one. Who knows, knock on wood. But I don't know, we're also trying to focus on smaller things like The Beta Test, stuff that we can make in our house if we want to. So I'm not waiting for Hollywood or Marvel to come knocking on our door. Maybe they will, but probably not.
Right, you keep yourself busy.
Exactly. I have to work, I have to keep making movies.
Is there any TV show or featured film you have enjoyed in 2022 so far?
No... (Laughs). I really do think that that's a sign that there's this drought of good cinema right now. As you know, most of the movies that I've been watching are old, they're all stuff from the 60s and 70s.
For example, the new Matrix movie I didn't think was very good, I thought it was terrible. And then I just went back and watched the original and it was like, oh my God! And this one cost a quarter of the budget of the new one but the craftsmanship was there. I don't know, man, I think I really like that I'm a big pessimist about the modern state of quality in cinema. And I hope to change that. I mean, that's our job, right? Filmmakers have to work hard to entertain an audience.
In terms of writing, will you point out something like, “oh, this was a really good story?” So many times, I watch a new movie that comes out and it's like, why are we doing this?
This is so, so lame, I think it's because of the way that movies are made. And the way that Hollywood television or feature film executives put in notes that are just bad. Most of these people aren't on the Internet. They don't understand how modern audiences watch movies. They wouldn't appreciate something like Parasite. They would say, oh, it's too complicated or there isn't an audience for a South Korean film in English. I think tastes have changed so much and having good taste is a currency. We're very lucky to have any of it.
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