After taking the indie scene by storm in 2018 with his crowdfunded sensation Thunder Road, Jim Cummings is back behind and in front of the camera with his delicious black-comedy-horror The Wolf of Snow Hollow.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay caught up with the maverick director to discuss his rapid ascent, the evolution of his filmmaking process, and working with the late screen legend Robert Forster.
NICHOLAS LAY: Thunder Road was an instant cult classic that promoted indie filmmaking in its purest form. Was it easy to come down from that high and get straight back into the action on The Wolf of Snow Hollow?
JIM CUMMINGS: We were very lucky in the sense that I had already done nine or 10 single take short films in the year and a half leading up to Thunder Road, so by that point we were a well-oiled machine. This being my first studio movie made it a completely different endeavor, but we were able to pitch and get the film greenlit relatively quickly after Thunder Road came out in September 2018. Suddenly there we were, in the middle of Utah in the snow, ready to shoot as early as March 2019 because we had the same team around us, all of whom love making movies. So to get things rolling production-wise wasn’t that difficult, but we soon realised that we had to scale up quickly as there was a thousand things we hadn’t considered when making a movie with 55 people on set, rather than seven.
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NL: How much of a confidence boost and sense of artistic freedom did the success of Thunder Road give you when it came to considering future projects?
JC: It was a wonderful confidence boost, not just because of the acclaim and being on the world stage, but because it gave me the opportunity to take my team of five years straight into this crazy bloody snow globe of a production. The chance to level up together really inspired me and told me that it was possible to make movies like this. Winning the awards and getting into festivals, and all the glitz and glamour that comes with those things is really fun, but it can often be a terrible distraction. I was lucky to have been a producer who was already making things, as I had seen filmmakers fail and struggle to recover from it, so I knew that my focus was getting back to my garage [where Jim is currently editing The Beta Test] and trying to make something impressive for the heroes who support me.
NL: You wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which is an emerging trend in your work. What is your process when facing such a demanding creative output and how do you maintain creative balance throughout the production?
JC: I’m able to take on multiple responsibilities because I have five producers, four of whom are on set at any given time, and then my buddy Danny Madden, who’s also a filmmaker and works with me as a creative director. I don’t have time to race back and watch every take, so having those guys on the monitor makes my job as director a lot easier and makes for a collaborative production. We’re going through the same thing now on The Beta Test, and it’s so wonderful for me to be able to take a note from anyone on the team, because they’re seeing what I’m seeing and are part of the creative process.
NL: You blend horror, drama, and comedy seamlessly in The Wolf of Snow Hollow. What was the catalyst for your decision to take a multi-tone direction and how did it influence the style you and cinematographer Natalie Kingston brought to the picture?
JC: I always say that if you don’t make jokes during your movie, your audience will, so for a film like this there has to be that fusion of genres, especially when working with something as austere as horror. I wanted to make sure the film had a blend that lent itself to maximum audience enjoyment. The approach Natalie and I took was to sit in a room for five days, go through the emotionality of the script, and shot-list everything based on what we were going to be feeling during each scene. This really influenced how the movie looked as I had never shot-listed like that before and found that it allowed us to stay in constant communication and learn the language of the movie leading up to the shoot.
NL: Your brand of comedy – personified by your portrayal of John – is cutting, dry, and self-aware. Did you draw from any core comedy influences for this script, character, and performance?
JC: I grew up watching stuff like Alan Partridge, Danny McBride, and Jeeves and Wooster, and reading P.G. Wodehouse, so I love character comedy and using the genre to create a punchline. An example from The Wolf of Snow Hollow would be the cliché Seven or Zodiac style montage of investigation, after which I fall asleep and get woken up by the librarian, which is a jump scare followed by me saying, “Oh, fuck you” and screaming at the guy, which worked really well as it was me speaking through the audience and saying, “Oh, you’re going to a jump scare? Ok, fuck you”. Most of my comedy influences are probably English, but I also love character comedy that lends itself to emotionality, like Pixar’s Inside Out.
NL: Your wonderful supporting cast is headed by the late, great Robert Forster. How did it feel when he came on board and what was it like witnessing a legend do his thing on set?
JC: Legend is exactly the right word for Bob. He said he wanted to do it, only for his manager to question why he wanted to be in a werewolf picture. He responded that he didn’t care about that, but really liked all the stuff in between, so he came on board about five weeks before we started shooting. When we got together for a costume fitting I was a little nervous, but he had already seen Thunder Road and was raving about it. Straight away he knew how to make you feel like the most important person in the room. From then on I was comfortable with him and he pretty much became my dad. We would bicker and fight and do all the things a father and son would do. To others he was a wonderful and kind grandfather figure on set, and he looked right at home rocking the cowboy hat and becoming part of the police station. He added real authenticity with his little micro-performances and was so funny throughout the movie. He even knew my lines better than I did! It really sucked when he passed away last year.
NL: Ben Lovett’s score gets its teeth into you quickly and really helps kick the film into gear. What approach did you take when developing the score?
JC: Ben is amazing and has so much more musical knowledge than I do, so I take absolutely no credit for the how score turned out! I would send him music and throw down ideas, but he worked so fast and was so perfectly fused with all the technology that he was able to mix with the film in real time. This was the first time I had ever worked with a composer and it shows as he completely nailed it with what is such a big, fun score to listen to. He was a dream to work with and has actually just released the album on vinyl if anyone wants to pick it up.
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NL: Your next crowdfunded project is The Beta Test. What’s it all about and when can we expect to see the finished reel?
JC: I’m editing it on the computer we’re talking through right now! We’ve managed to keep most of it secret, but what I can say is that it’s a horror film about Hollywood set during the agency war with the Writers Guild of America, told through an agent who is having a nervous breakdown while committing adultery. It’s about these cheaters and liars, and how the internet will ultimately lay waste to enterprise and the endeavor of connecting people. It’s so big, so funny, and has been so cool to work on. We shot it in our offices at Vanishing Angle (Jim’s production company), as it already looks like a talent agency, and we were able to blend it and make it look like Hollywood. It’s incredibly sleek and the most beautiful move we’ve ever shot, which is ridiculous as it has no right to look that good! Aside from editing I’m putting the final touches to the music and VFX, after which we’ll wrap it up and send it out to buyers and distributors.
NL: Great chatting with you, Jim.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow is out on VOD on 9th October.