Jim Cummings came to international prominence with a short film and the most compelling can-do Cinderella story in American cinema, since Kevin Smith maxed out his credit cards to make Clerks. In 2016, the writer, director, producer, star, and – oh, yes – choreographer of Thunder Road premiered that short at Sundance. A mesmerisingly excruciating portrait of a grieving cop who expresses his sense of loss at his mother's funeral with an interpretative dance set to the Bruce Springsteen track of the title, Cummings's breakthrough won the Grand Jury Prize at the Utah event, and charmed many admirers. It wasn't just mumblecore. It wasn't just cringe comedy. It was something else.
"We've been calling it backyard Pixar," says Cummings. "Because of the alliteration. But also the fact that we're actually making movies in the backyard. And they are kind of like heartbreak comedy things. It feels like a Pixar film. Trey Shults's Krisha [on which Cummings was an associate producer] was the beginning of something for me. It was the first movie that I saw that was cool. This wasn't mumblecore. This isn't arthouse. This is like Terrence Malick, PT Anderson, Robert Altman – or whatever the f**k is going on there. It's DIY, because we're making stuff. We're like YouTubers, except we're making 90-minute movies and stuff with our friends and family that are influencer-inspired, rather than Spielberg-inspired. And, you know, it still counts as a movie. So I want to do that. And that became my career."
Fans raised $36,000 (€31,000) in just three weeks on Kickstarter, and Cummings sold his wedding ring to finance the equally winning feature-length version, released here in 2019. It’s a film that changed everything for Cummings, who subsequently won the South by Southwest Grand Jury Award for best narrative feature and was shortlisted for the 2018 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award.
In order to tell that story and have the audience engaged with someone who is having a public meltdown, it has to be about a toxic guy
"There is no magic to making movies," says Cummings, who has been evangelical in his insistence that anyone can make a feature. "It's just hard work and doing your thing. And if you just don't quit and keep making stuff, you end up rubbing shoulders with people who are very talented, and sometimes your heroes. People like Bill Hader, who reached out after seeing Thunder Road – I was such a fan of Barry, especially the ronny/lily [sic] episode. And he's one degree away from Alfonso Cuaron, who's one of the guys who got me into making movies. They watched Thunder Road together. David Gordon Green cast me in the new Halloween movie because he had seen Thunder Road on an aeroplane and thought: I'm a young Southern film-maker and I want to help out this other young Southern film-maker. It's a bit like summer camp."
It has often been observed that most successful offerings from the semantically unstable medium hailed as prestige television – The Sopranos, Succession, True Detective, Mad Men – are studies of men, typically living at the end of an era, who are successful at work, but dismal as husbands and fathers. They are, as cultural critic Matthew Christman summarised: "Mostly crime. Mostly male. Mostly extravagantly unlikable anti-heroes whose sheer awfulness makes us feel better about our own, more mundane foibles."
One, consequently, has to wonder when HBO or similar will come knocking on Jim Cummings's door.
At a moment when most of the industry is slowly emerging from Covid-related hibernation, Cummings has written, directed and starred in two features. Released last year, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, a comedy horror film about a small Utah town menaced by a werewolf, proved to be a fittingly arch last film for Robert Forster, star of Mulholland Drive and Jackie Brown. That film casts Cummings as an alcoholic with anger management issues. The Beta Test, a new post-MeToo Hollywood satire, co-written with frequent collaborator PJ McCabe, goes even further with Cummings's depiction of a paranoid Hollywood agent caught up in a wild and weird erotic conspiracy.
“This is the third movie that I’ve played a toxically masculine guy having a meltdown in the parking lot, and this is probably the end of the trilogy,” laughs Cummings. “PJ and I are both redditors. And so we watch public freak outs all the time. We find them to be incredibly interesting, probably the most interesting moments in those characters’ lives. But in order to tell that story and have the audience engaged with someone who is having a public meltdown, it has to be about a toxic guy. You know, I’d love to play a woman in a movie, but not this time.”
That power dynamic is still there between young women and powerful men. So yeah, nothing's really changed, unfortunately
The Beta Test provides a character study of a Tinseltown player who makes Entourage look positively cuddly.
“There’s a quote from Robert Altman when he made The Player,” says Cummings. “Somebody asked him at the premier in Venice: is Hollywood really that bad? And he says: no, it’s worse. The industry is changing so much. It’s becoming more democratised, where there are real social networks – like agencies – where you can connect with celebrities. The necessity of dealing with agents is going down in the same way that you don’t have to deal with a travel agent. And so, because of that, it becomes a far more toxic environment because people are having to fight harder to make a salary. Over the last six years in Hollywood, we’ve met people like this all the time. They’re commonplace.”
Cummings has long resisted the blandishments of Hollywood, preferring the DIY route to years of gilded meetings. It’s an industry that, according to The Beta Test, is both post-Harvey Weinstein and simultaneously waiting for the next Harvey.
“Harvey is in prison, and he’s gone,” says Cummings. “But the infrastructure that built the guy and enabled the people that helped him to be able to rape and abuse more than 50 women is still there. They haven’t lost their jobs. They’re not in prison. They’re still making decisions in Hollywood, and getting their names in the credits. That power dynamic is still there between young women and powerful men. So yeah, nothing’s really changed, unfortunately. And he’s still a role model for so much of the industry. It’s disgusting. And not just this industry, either. It crosses through a lot of different industries around America and the world.”
The Beta Test opens on October 15th