Eleanor McSherry was at Kerry Film Festival’s Masterclass with Jim Cummings, an award-winning producer, writer and director. Jim presented a masterclass on the key stages of production on his short film Thunder Road. The case study film also screened at the session, plus a discussion and Q&A.
Jim Cummings, actor-director, is the award winning person behind the film Thunder road that won the Sundance Film Festival award for best short film. He had submitted before but was unsuccessful – but this time he won. He took a chance by entering his film to the festival – a one-take film, which is unusual. Sundance not only screened the piece but also awarded the film the festival grand-jury prize for short film.
There was a good crowd for the workshop with a good mix of ages and film experience. We were located in a boardroom around a big table in front of a big screen for the workshop. It was nice and intimate.
The workshop began by watching the Sundance award-winning short film, Thunder Road:
Jim, scripted, directed, edited, sound mixed, and starred in the short film, which is one long shot of a police officer eulogising his mother at her funeral. Gradually, over the course of the eulogy, the officer starts to lose his composure, eventually breaking out in a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s titular song. It is a very human, funny story told in a brilliant way.
His amazing journey began when he got the call on the 19th of November last year saying, ‘We’d like to screen this at Sundance.’ He could not believe it and in facts says, “I never thought it would get into a big film festival. And then we won, which was crazy.”
How it all began:
Jim believes that anyone can do what he did, which is a very humble thing to say. His story begins with making that first decision to make his own film and stop making other people’s. He had been acting for other people for so long he wanted to give himself a chance. So he decided to jump in and make his own film for a change. He never thought that it would win.
The idea for a dancing, mourning messed-up cop (single take) was thought out in his car on his way to work while listening to the radio. Then he heard Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ and felt it was the perfect song for the film. He practiced and practiced every day and recorded himself and wrote down the best bits in his car. Jim feels lucky that the film’s twelve or so minutes has a good enough mix of comedy, tragedy and human interest to keep the audience interested.
What Jim feels makes his character in the film so sincere to the audience is that he is very human. The Bruce Springsteen song evoked strong emotions for the character, Jim asserts, of family, legacy and parenthood. The character offers emotional punchlines right from inception, to try and get the audience to identify with him. In a way comedy is tragedy but in film it happens to someone else. If it is a one-shot film it forces the audience to take in everything that is happening. In this long take he fits in love, empathy, parenthood and a host of other emotions. While it wasn’t an easy shoot he feels it was the best way of doing what he wanted with the film.
He believes there should be more single-take films produced. Single locations aren’t as hard as you think and there is a lot you can do with it. There is no flashy production values or special effects – just the character baring his or her soul on the screen.
It is difficult performance-wise; there is no audience to react to you. There were no ‘marks’ on the floor that he had to make, as each time he did the take it was slightly different. He stressed that when it was being edited that the audience was to be paramount in their minds. It had to work for an audience… or what was the point?
According to Jim, “We ran a really cool crowdfunding campaign with a great video. You need a teaser trailer to get funding so it’s worth doing from the beginning. We bugged our friends and spammed Facebook groups to get what we needed. We then put up fliers in expensive restaurants and yacht clubs. The thing about crowd funding is to offer big and small rewards because everything helped. We only asked for what we needed. We had family investors on stand-by at the deadline in case we got nothing. It worked out ok though!”
The music, the Boss:
How he got the rights to the music is a very interesting story. He hadn’t gotten them before he uploaded the film to Sundance. When the film was selected they realised that maybe that wasn’t a good idea to not have gotten them before. So they asked for the rights by email from the music company, Springsteen’s lawyers and agent. There was very little in the way of a reply. They tried many different routes to secure the rights but to no avail. So in the end, with the festival looming, they put an open letter on the internet begging the Boss to give them the rights. The letter caught the imagination of social media and we can only guess that the Boss was hounded by people saying ‘go on’, give the guy the rights. The music company eventually got back to them and gave it to them for one year but the open letter had to be removed straight away.
You submit blindly to Sundance. They get approx. 870 submissions a year in the short-film category. They have an 8-10 short programme. He not only submitted to Sundance but also to SXSW as well but nothing came back from either initially. One bit of advice Jim gave was that if you are planning your film, keep them 12 minutes or under – it is easier to get them screened at festivals if they are that short. They travelled with the film to Sundance. It cost approx. $4500 for ten days in Sundance, over the course of the festival, which is a lot of money on top of making your film. It is well worth going though, as it not only is a fantastic experience but you also have great networking opportunities.
They had such fun making the film that they decided to make a documentary of the trip to Sundance Festival. He did a series for one of the movie magazines, Filmmaker Magazine, about the experience but as opposed to playing it straight, they made a spoof. It is hilarious and Jim felt it was even funnier considering they won.
Jim told the group, “As you know there is a limited lifespan really for a short film and I just want as many people to see my films, so in that vein, we released our movies online for free. Then we reach out to blogs and media outlets asking them to help promote the releases. We gave them the advantage of being the first to break the story and the bonus is we get as much of our stuff seen.
After Jim spoke, he opened up the discussion to the people attending the workshop.
Q: how much did your film cost to make?
Jim: Production was €8000, post €80. Sundance cost a lot but that came after and was an unexpected expense.
Q: The audiences that have watched the film, do they all get it?
Jim: I’d like to think so. We get a lot of laughs at the screenings I’ve been to which is what you want. When you practice and practice the dialogue you aren’t sure what was hilarious the first time is still funny. Definitely some people just got it and there are a few that didn’t but that is ok!
Q: Did you have to have many takes?
Jim: Six takes, the best ones then were decided in the edit. Especially when you are dealing with young actors, their reactions cannot be rehearsed really, beforehand.
Q: What is the meaning of the film, was there one you decided before?
Jim: No, the film contains many meanings and interpretations.
Q: Did you write a script, in the traditional sense?
Jim: Sure, there was a lot of dialogue and every time I practiced it, I’d add a bit more. But it was all written down in the traditional format.
Q: What influenced the dialogue?
Jim: Well, every time i practiced it in the car, it changed. I also had discussions with my DoP and producer, so they had a say in it too.
Q: How was the shoot planned?
Jim: We had a very tightly planned shoot. It was very well planned and we also had a couple of rehearsals. It helped me to get my part perfect or at least to where I was happy with it.
Q: Where was the rest of the dead woman’s family, her children?
Jim: we purposely left them out to give the impression that there was family conflict. What it is, is hard to say but I wanted him on his own, a loner, who had little support, even from his own kid. We see that in the film and at the end.
Q: Since you have won, what has happened?
Jim: Well it’s a bit crazy, as everyone wants a piece of you. You get a lot of meetings with people who wouldn’t even return your calls before. You have to have other projects you would like to pitch though. You can’t have these people’s ear and say nothing.
I am also working on other projects at the moment. One was filmed in April straight after Sundance with six different characters and we filmed 10 minutes of their lives, called Minutes. It was single location piece, which had the advantage of being cheap and short. You can make stories anywhere. Features need more money and as a result are commercial entities but short films don’t and that his a huge advantage.
Q: Can you give us some idea of the breakdown of the finances for the film?
Jim: Camera: $250
Insurance: $250 (1 Million dollar coverage)
Fisher Dolly: $250 ($2500 deposit for the day)
Location: nothing but a $2500 deposit
Gaffer/focus puller: $350
We also paid people, different amounts depending on their experience etc.
Q: A Feature next?
Jim: Not sure! I would love to work on a feature as a writer/director or as an actor. My acting is going ok and I have an agent.
Q: Did you study film theory?
Jim: in so much as I watched, watched and watched movies. You can’t make movies or good ones without being a fan of movies, it’s just not possible.
Q: Did you get any money for winning Sundance?
Jim: If you use the same pool of actors it can make the shoot go smoother. They know you and you know what you can get out of them. It’s great. If you can produce something that people like then you have an in. There is such freedom in short filmmaking, there are no commercial pressures and you can make anything you want.
Q: Have people sent you scripts?
Jim: I get sent scripts and some are great but some are really bad. I have been sent some interesting projects and they are great. I’ve also been working on a treatment for Fargo TV, a one-off series.
Jim: It’s best if you are collaborating on a script that you meet a person face to face. Doing it by email or over the phone doesn’t really work. Skype is ok but can be hard to get across what you want or see. Start your collaboration with a great character and a broad idea. It’s a good place to start. Keep your audience in mind as well, that’s important.
Q: Pitching for funding, any advice?
Jim: Keep your pitch to ten sentences, at the most. If you can’t sell it in ten sentences you won’t be able to sell it. Also you should act part of the script out, it’ll give the producers, or whomever you are pitching to an idea of what you are trying to get at. It can be very effective. Also having a short promo can also be good. Impressing people enough to give you funding for a short film or any film is the hardest part of the whole process. If you can get that right you are doing very well.
At the end of the workshop, Jim offered help to everyone who attended and he hoped everyone to follow him on twitter. He comes across as a very down-to-earth, funny and a generous guy who is genuinely nice. Jim wanted everyone in the room to just go out and make films. He truly felt, and listening to him you believed him, that anyone can make a film and the younger you start the better but age has very little to do with it. Shorts open doors, he assured us and once the door is open the sky is the limit. Everyone really enjoyed the workshop and felt that it was well worth attending. It left me with a huge amount of food for thought!
The Masterclass with Jim Cummings took place at the Killarney Plaza Hotel on the 22nd of October, 2016.
The Kerry Film Festival took place from the 19th to the 23rd of October 2016.