Jim Cummings is perhaps as recognized for talking about making movies as he is at making them. If you pay attention to American indie films, Cummings has carved out a career the past decade as producer and actor, and now directing his own movies. In his Thunder Road follow-up The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings plays John Marshall, a deputy carrying the weight of his sheriff father (played by Robert Forster in his final movie) who is in decline, and trying to keep his predilection for booze in check. When a werewolf shows up in Snow Hollow, Marshall is tasked with stopping the beast, but turning his attention to this bloodthirsty foe, everything he balances in his personal life comes unraveled.
As the film now arrives in theaters and digitally, we spoke with Cummings about casting Robert Forster, what it’s like to direct yourself in a movie where you’re the star, why he humanizes the police so often in his work, and the future of movie theaters and independent filmmaking in light of COVID-19.
The Film Stage: It’s really something that Robert Forster’s final movie role has him dealing with hidden health issues and death, and not taking it so well. Will you talk about creating his character?
In hindsight, it is such a crazy thing that he played this part before he passed away, but I’m so glad that he did. He brought such authenticity to it. And I created the character based on my dad. He’s 83 and still with us. He is such a figurehead in our family and in the community in New Orleans. I wanted to make this thing about what it’s been like with him, where anytime something comes up with his health, he feels like he can’t talk about it to anybody––that it has to be hidden. And it’s so infuriating as a child. I’m sure millions of Americans go through the same thing with their parents, or with the elderly. I just found that so interesting, and so endearing. I knew that relationship well, so I wrote about the relationship between this father/son, who were in charge of the sheriff’s department of the small town, and having to hide his father’s health condition from the sheriff’s department. Robert came on, I think, five weeks before we started shooting, and just got it and loved it and he was so thrilling to be around. Although he plays such a fatigued, older grandfather figure in the film, he was just as lively as the rest of us. And so excited to be making this movie with us and obviously had done so many genre films in the past. And so many wonderful performances in the past that it was just kind of confirmation that we needed at that point that the movie was going to be great. It’s like okay, cool, Robert’s in, let’s focus on making everything else perfect.
I’ve always been curious about directors who direct themselves in movies. How do you do it? How do you give yourself feedback?
Um, very poorly. I end up writing for a long time, and then recording it as a podcast. Once it’s close to being good. But I’m not really an actor. I’ve never gone to acting school. I feel so inadequate when it comes to performance that I end up rehearsing it 1,000 times. Most actors are better at memorizing lines than I am, or better trained than I am. They can just kind of do it off the cuff and make it realistic. It takes me a really long time to make it any good. I spend weeks rehearsing every line in every scene to make it any good. So it’s very difficult when I’m on set. I’m also thinking about, did we get the shot? Is it in focus? Did I screw up this thing? Did anybody else screw up anything? So it’s really wonderful to have a team of people around me. I have three wonderful producers who are on set for all of my films. And then my buddy Danny Madden, who’s a director, comes out and is my creative director, and he eyeballs the monitor so whenever I screw things up, he is free to yell cut or anybody on set is free to yell cut if it’s not as good as the last take.
You mentioned recording your stories as podcasts. What does that all entail and what do you get out of it?
I heard Peter Jackson in the making of The Fellowship of the Ring say that he shot some of it on a miniDV camera with green army men, just to showcase the animatic of what it was going to be. I was like, oh, that’s interesting. Like, of course, it’s okay to make the movie once beforehand. If I’m taking pictures of the set, and doing shot listings, that’s kind of making the movie beforehand. But then I was like, our movies are so complicated in tone and comedy and tragedy and horror, why don’t we just start recording them as podcasts? So I write the script, just like a normal screenplay, and then I record the script of me reading the stage direction and performing the parts of how I imagined the scene to play comedically, dramatically, horror-wise. Then I spend two days mixing it and putting in sound design and music. It becomes this 90-minute podcast or radio play that we send out to the cast, crew and producers so we know how long the movie is going to be. Then my base layer of what I think the scene should play as. I always say it’s easy to misinterpret a text message––don’t let somebody misinterpret a scene.
Will you talk about the use of werewolves as a metaphor male rage and abuse in the film?
Very different from many other monster movies, the werewolf mythology is about somebody who does something terrible once a month, and then feels shame about it afterward. To the townsfolk it’s scarier than a vampire, who lives at the top of the hill that everybody knows is a little spooky. But with a werewolf, it could be anybody. That’s why it’s so much more realistic and frightening. It’s also this thing about rage. It’s like the Hulk mentality of somebody, because of circumstances they’re not in control of, loses their mind and murders women, once a month, and that is just so realistic to me, when it comes to violent crime and people who feel the need to control and dominate and hurt women in their towns.
This is your second time you’re playing an officer after Thunder Road. He’s not the super soldier, militarized police officer that we’re used to seeing on TV these days. It’s a humanizing depiction. Let’s talk about systemic racism in policing, and you being a filmmaker who tells humane stories about police.
The goal was always to humanize and humiliate. There’s something so funny to what Chaplin did playing Hitler, where at no point somebody’s like, he’s glorifying German dictatorship. We wanted to do the exact same thing. In both Thunder Road to The Wolf of Snow Hollow, it’s about these people who are struggling to keep all of the plates in the air at once. They are human. And that’s the problem. Some of these people shouldn’t have a fucking gun. That becomes very evident throughout the film. In Thunder Road, I slapped my partner, and then I pulled a gun on him, like I became an armed gunman and I’m also a small-town police officer. That is so important to do, because these people, some of them are type-A personalities that have way too much testosterone in their systems and are also just lunatics, and are prone to being racist or prone to being complete totalitarian assholes. But then also, you can still do slapstick comedy, because that is a Trojan horse. That’s how you keep some members of the audience watching.
Variety reported that 69% of our small and midsize movie theater companies will be forced to file bankruptcy or close permanently if they can’t open or if they don’t receive stimulus. What’s your blunt forecast for seeing indie and international films in theaters going forward?
It sucks. I mean, it’s awful. I think what’s crazy is that when most conflicts happen around the world, independent film is never directly affected, but because cinemas in order to enjoy them, or even to make a film, and to watch a movie in theaters, you have to break social distancing guidelines. So this is the first real time that the future of technology and home theater is becoming so much more prevalent around the world and in the United States. It has forced theater management and theater companies 10 years in the future because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s something that is terribly unexpected. Retail is bottoming out as well. It was on John Oliver last night that a third of retail businesses are going under and won’t come back after the pandemic is over. And it’s terrible.
But you’re not going to stop people from enjoying watching the movie together. Yesterday we went and screened this movie at Beyond Fest, and it was 100 cars, and everybody honked after the movie. There was this real camaraderie in enjoying a film together, like watching movies is less about being right next to a stranger who’s shoveling popcorn into their mouth, and more about listening to the crowd laugh and communal endurance horror movies and oxytocin during comedy. It’s something that is intrinsic to human biology that we’re not going to lose because of this thing. Netflix can finance all of these movies in the interim, and buy independent films to be available for the next two years in people’s homes. That’s just how we’re going to have to adapt. And then, honestly, I think that there are going to be huge patrons of the arts that come in to support cinemas in the same way that people support the ballet. Opera and ballet have been living under that cycle for the last hundred years, that they’re only able to stay afloat because of these fundraisers and people that come in that give a shit about ballet. I think that there’s so much more opportunity to be greenlit and to be bankrolled by patrons of the arts rather than these giant corporations. I think that’s probably what we’ll see in the future.
As a follow-up, you look at Film at Lincoln Center: a major part of their financial backing comes from patrons. They have exclusive benefits for being a patron like special screenings, seating, etc. If film becomes like the opera, do you think that minimizes the potential audience? Because it’s just going to be a few hundred rich folks who are going to watch movies in an outdoor theater?
I don’t think so. Ticket sales have already skyrocketed over the last ten years with the development of 3D and the willingness of people to want to go to a cinema. I don’t think that it will be something exclusive in the same way that the wealthy go see The Nutcracker at Christmas. Any lovers of theatrical performances, even on Broadway, those ticket sales are through the roof. But people want to be a part of it, they want to do the thing. That aspect of human nature is not going to disappear because of a pandemic.
What do you tell somebody who wants to go into filmmaking in 2021? That kid who was going to Sundance.
It’s a crazy thing to think about the pandemic, and how it’s going to affect indie film. Not just for the question––should you submit to Sundance––but also, it’s going to create this educational gap for many people who should be entering their prime in the next several years, who are at least in their formative years of understanding film and be educated in film because they’re not able to be on set and learn how long it takes to set up that light. So much of my abilities come from having been a production assistant for many years and a coordinator for many years, in order to learn every job on a film set and how long it takes. It’s one of the only reasons I’m any good at making movies, the actual practicals of making movies.
I would still say do exactly what the Napoleon Dynamite team did or Whiplash did. Make short films with your friends. Make stuff that is poignant that showcases your abilities, and do it on a small budget. The Thunder Road short was exactly that too. It took six hours and we shot it in a funeral home with my friends and family. There are still ways to do it. It’s just gonna take a little bit of creativity. On Thunder Road, we were supposed to have a full church and only 25 or 15 extra showed up that day. So we reframed the shot to make it look like it was busier. You have to do that nowadays. There are creative workarounds. Guillermo del Toro has this great quote about as soon as you get a certain amount of budget, the creativity goes out the door because you’re not forced to be creative anymore. I feel the same thing. Artists and people who want to succeed in the arts are going to do it no matter what.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow is now in theaters and on demand.