Adapting Yourself: How Jim Cummings Adapted His Own Short with Thunder Road
I saw 131 movies in theaters in 2018. And another 58 more outside of theaters. It was … a lot. A small part of me still can’t believe that I spent THAT much time in a dark room watching movies, but the rest of me is ecstatic that I got to see THAT many different kinds of stories on screen. I saw movies of all kinds, from blockbusters to small arthouse flicks, but the movie that might have affected me the most out of all of them was one called Thunder Road.
If you’ve never heard of this film, or are only familiar with the Springsteen song of the same name, then you’re in for a treat.
What you see above is the original, almost thirteen-minute, one-take short film that Jim Cummings (the writer, director, star, etc) made on a very shoestring budget after spending a few years in the industry as a producer of other people’s works.
I had the absolute pleasure of seeing the short at the Atlanta Film Festival a couple of years ago and immediately fell in love with this story and this character that Cummings had created. It made me feel so many different emotions in such a small amount of time. I laughed (a lot), I cried (a little), and was made thoroughly uncomfortable pretty much the whole time (by design). All of that added up to become my favorite short film that I had ever seen.
After the festival, I showed this film to everyone I could think of, if only so I could talk about it more. Friends, family, and pretty much everyone I knew was getting a viewing of Thunder Road.
Eventually, Thunder Road faded from my mind into a distant memory. An incredible memory, mind you, but you can only watch a short film so many times, right? Other movies came and went over the next couple of years, and I moved on.
Fast forward to September of 2018, and I’m in the middle of the pointless quest to see 100 films in theaters (thank you MoviePass). Since I’m a giant nerd and have kept track of the dates of each movie I saw, I can tell you that I had seen 91 up to that point. I began my typical routine of checking the local theaters to see what was playing and if anything happened to catch my attention, generally that was how that night was going to be spent.
So when I visited the website for Atlanta’s famous Plaza Theater, you can imagine my surprise at seeing that there was a Thunder Road screening that very night. In my head, I assumed, “Oh, awesome, they’re showing the short in theaters again! Sure, I’ll go see that.”
But upon further inspection, I noticed a runtime of 90 minutes and began to put two and two together.
Had Jim Cummings gone and made a feature length adaptation to my favorite short film I’d ever seen?
Had I really missed hearing ANYTHING about this?
That’s exactly what happened.
I was ecstatic.
Of course, I made my way to the Plaza Theater and enjoyed those 90 minutes so thoroughly that I knew this was going to be one of my top films of the year (a VERY close #2, in fact).
Jim Cummings succeeded in adapting his own work and, almost more surprising, managed to expand on everything that made the original short so great in the first place.
The story itself is a simple enough one. A police officer in the South struggles to deal with his grief after his mother passes away, all the while trying to be a better father to his young daughter. That’s pretty much it.
But Cummings is able to mine this simple premise for so much more than just sadness and drama. It’s also incredibly funny. I found myself switching from crying tears of sadness to crying tears of laughter scene by scene, and that’s a credit to his script.
For some reason, films that are able to successfully toe the line between drama and comedy like that have always really stuck with me. One of my all-time favorite films is In Bruges, if that tells you anything about me. Cummings has said that he got the initial idea for the short film because he wanted to tell a story that was “funny and tragic at the same time,” which he has certainly achieved.
And while the story and script are great, part of what makes this film so interesting is the process of how Jim Cummings was able to turn a surprisingly successful short film into a full length feature, which is a feat only a few filmmakers attempt.
In the two years after the original short was made, Cummings spent his time writing, directing, and occasionally acting in NINE more one-take short films, all the while writing his script for the Thunder Road feature.
Also during that time, he was making his way around Hollywood, trying to secure funding for the feature, but nobody was biting. The lack of a marketable star actor made Hollywood execs uneasy about financing an indie film that few people would see.
Sick of being rejected, Cummings and his producers just decided to make it anyway, on their own. They pooled their money to get things started and set up a Kickstarter to cover just the preproduction costs, set at 10k. They wound up raising over 36k and after that, everything else just began to fall into place.
Because of the success of the Kickstarter, people from all over the world began to contact him, wanting to invest in Thunder Road. The short film, which could be viewed for free online, worked a bit as proof of concept for what they were investing in.
And just like that, the film was financed.
Filmed in Austin, Texas for around 180k, Thunder Road wound up being a sleeper hit and made its money back quite quickly. It was especially popular in France, for some reason.
I can’t say that I know exactly what Jim Cummings is working on these days, but I can say that I’ll be the first in line for whatever it is. I’d also highly suggest following him on Twitter, because Cummings is consistently one of the most encouraging filmmakers on the site, constantly pushing other creative people to pursue whatever their passion is and make it happen.
The perfect example of this kind of encouragement would be his Lab Curriculum for how to go from Short to Feature, just like he did for Thunder Road. Cummings really lays it all out there and he’s not afraid to pull any punches. It’s absolutely worth reading.
As of writing this, his latest tweet is “Make movies however you can” and I can’t think of a better way to end this. So there.