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Award-winning Thunder Road Plays at Emerson LA

In the opening sequence of the award-winning film Thunder Road, alumnus Jim Cummings ’09 performs a eulogy at his mother’s funeral that’s various degrees of funny, heartbreaking, and bizarre, among other adjectives. Dressed in his cop uniform, protagonist Jim Arnaud jokes, dances, and even spits during the funeral, which is shot continuously for around 10 minutes. What follows after that eye-opening sequence is a movie about a Texan cop whose life slowly unravels.

There’s Jim’s strained relationship with his young daughter and ex-wife, the loose ends he has to deal with after his mother’s death, and his friendship with his patrol partner, Nate. So, exactly what genre is Thunder Road?

“I love this question,” said Cummings with a smile. “I feel like a good drama should make you laugh. I would say it’s a funny drama.”

Cummings, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, brought Thunder Road to Emerson College Los Angeles on April 24, the first time it has screened outside of the SXSW Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Award in the Narrative Feature Competition. For Cummings, having the opportunity to share the film with students was something he looked forward to because he remembers hearing from filmmakers as a student and learning from what they shared.

“In the entertainment industry, it sometimes feels like there are these clubs and you can’t really reach people. It feels unattainable,” said Cummings. “I just hang out and make movies with my buddies. You can make movies with your friends in your backyard.”

Jim Cummings '09 encouraged students to make their own movies during a screening of his award-winning film Thunder Road at Emerson College Los Angeles. Photo/Daryl Paranada

Preceding the screening was All Your Favorite Shows!, a short film directed by Danny Madden ’09. The short weaves together Madden’s animation with more than 150 movie and TV show clips. The seamless, tight editing was the handiwork of Mari Walker ’08.

“It was a really perfect project for me,” said Madden, who started working on the short in 2014 and served as sound designer and creative director on Thunder Road. “We got to really dissect films down to the frame.”

“It was a really fun project for cinephiles,” added Walker, who stated that the most important thing she got out of Emerson was a great community of friends, a sentiment shared by Cummings and Madden. “The group that we have has this absolute love for film.”

Cummings’s love for film developed as a young kid. He once tried to remake The Matrix on his dad’s camera. At Emerson, Cummings competed at local film festivals around Boston and said he was always getting second place to people like Madden or the Daniels (Daniel Kwan ’10 and Daniel Scheinert ’09, writers and directors of Swiss Army Man). That healthy competition helped him grow.

“It built ambition in me as a filmmaker,” said Cummings, who collaborated with several Emersonians on Thunder Road.

From left: Danny Madden ’09, Jim Cummings '09, and Mari Walker 08 pose for a picture after a screening of Thunder Road at Emerson College Los Angeles. Photo/Daryl Paranada

The short version of Thunder Road, produced by Mark Vashro ’08, won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, among several other awards. The 13-minute short shows Jim at his mother’s funeral and features one long, continuous shot. It was redone for the feature film.

“[An unbroken shot] charges up the crew because suddenly everything counts,” said Madden, co-founder of the filmmaking collective Ornana Films. “It all matters.”

After the success of the short, Cummings raised money through Kickstarter to film the feature. Thunder Road was shot in 15 days in Austin, Texas, and edited in real time, a process Cummings calls “insane.” Working with friends helped build camaraderie among the tight-knit cast and crew.

“Now I want to do every movie like that,” said Cummings, who is currently working with veteran producer Warren Littlefield (Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale) to develop a show for FX, which explores the lives of astronauts after they come back from outer space.  

After the screening, Cummings, Madden, and Walker spent time answering questions from students, going beyond the event’s scheduled time to offer advice and share stories. They fielded questions about the film festival experience, the distribution process, and first steps after graduating. Cummings said he failed miserably directing a feature that got into just one film festival. Madden taught snowboarding in Colorado and learned he had a knack for animation. Walker co-edited a feature and moved to LA, where she’s lived in the same apartment since 2008.  

All three alumni encouraged students to learn about different aspects of filmmaking because it can be beneficial when directing a film.

“Editing can be a great place to learn what mistakes can be made on set,” said Walker, who has gotten back into directing over the last few years.

One message that Cummings hoped to convey to students: make your movie.

“You’re never going to find someone who cares more about your film than you do,” said Cummings. “You have to do it yourself now.”

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