With 2018’s Thunder Road, writer, director, and star Jim Cummings marked himself out as a fascinating new talent who wasn’t afraid to take risks. The dark cringe comedy sees Cummings’ police officer completely melt down following a divorce and a death in quick succession, kicking off with a brilliantly-done, but genuinely painful, to-camera monologue from the man himself that seems to go on forever.
Cummings’ follow-up is, to put it mildly, something completely different. Although he stars once again as a member of law enforcement, this time around Cummings’ cop also has a mythical beast to contend with. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is an expansive, involving, frightening, and often very funny entry into the neglected werewolf sub-genre that confirms Cummings as a truly original talent.
Wicked Horror caught up with him to talk werewolf movies, AA meetings, and the fabulous moustache he sadly didn’t take with him to Snow Hollow.
WICKED HORROR: Hello! How’s it going?
JIM CUMMINGS: It’s going well! Where in the world are you right now?
WICKED HORROR: I’m in Dublin, Ireland.
JIM CUMMINGS: No way, my good friend Laura O’Shea is in Dublin, Ireland too, she’s a filmmaker, too. And my family comes from County Cork.
WICKED HORROR: No way! I was thinking with your surname there must be some Irish in you somewhere.
JIM CUMMINGS: I’m half Irish. I try to go there probably once a year. I was lucky enough to be a juror at the Kerry Film Festival in Killarney a few years ago. It’s wonderful. I love that part of the world.
WICKED HORROR: Killarney’s so pretty.
JIM CUMMINGS: It is. I miss it terribly.
WICKED HORROR: Where are you at right now?
JIM CUMMINGS: I am in East Los Angeles. I’m in my backyard doing my best to garden right now. It’s very hot. I presume it’s not as boiling hot in Dublin right now? It’s about 100 degrees here.
WICKED HORROR: Ugh, I’m so jealous, it just got cold here.
JIM CUMMINGS: Really? Well I’ll trade you all day. I miss sweatshirt weather. It’s such a weird boiling experience here in October in L.A.
WICKED HORROR: Yeah, I can’t even imagine. Speaking of cold weather, your movie, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, is a cold weather movie. How’s that for a segue!?
JIM CUMMINGS: Yeah, it is very cold!
WICKED HORROR: Snow Hollow is such a massive swerve after Thunder Road, so I gotta ask, was this always going to be your next movie or did it just kind of end up that way?
JIM CUMMINGS: I actually wrote this movie before Thunder Road. I had been doing all this research about police for the short [on which Thunder Road was based] and then the border patrol officer for another short that we made called The Stop, so I had already done all this research about small-town police departments and sheriff departments and I already knew what the ending of Snow Hollow was going to be, so I just thought, you know, this would be fun to do a crazy detective story. I started writing this just as a fun thing, because at that stage I wasn’t even a feature filmmaker yet, I had only made short films, so writing it I was just thinking this could be a fun thing to do eventually. And then we made Thunder Road and won SXSW, got into Cannes, and we just started shopping Snow Hollow around because we were thinking it would be so much fun to go out there and have this big snowball fight and make this giant movie. Very quickly, Orion Classics was like “let’s do it,” and that was such a crazy moment for me because it was like, “okay, oh shit, now we’re actually gonna do it.” But now I have to make this incredible… now I actually have to write this script and make it better! [laughs] I took the last six months of the year just doing that, and then I moved out to Utah on January 3rd and we started shooting March 1st, so it was a very crazy and cold experience. I guess I should be counting my lucky stars that I’m in L.A. right now because I would not wish frostbite on anybody else.
WICKED HORROR: Was that the biggest challenge of the shoot, then? The weather? Because it does look super cold onscreen.
JIM CUMMINGS: Yeah, there were definitely some challenging nights that we had shooting for 15 hours, particularly when we were killing Hannah’s character, the snowboard instructor, which was a really gruesome experience not just because of the practical FX and making the hair and the wolf look good, and the arm, but it was also 30 shots to get that sequence done and it’s 14 degrees out, top of a mountain, freezing cold winds, and then 55 people on set that are having to huddle in these small tents with propane heaters to not get frostbite. Overall, the biggest struggle in making this, our first studio movie, was figuring out just how long it takes to move between locations, to just move 55 people at once. It’s the equivalent of taking an aircraft carrier to the grocery store whereas before I was able to just grab a camera, get the shot, and then get out to the location. On this, everybody had to communicate using walkie-talkies so we could coordinate these giant trucks to move up mountains. It was… Sisyphean.
WICKED HORROR: Did you always envision this as a horror movie, or did that develop over time?
JIM CUMMINGS: I’m such a fan of Zodiac and Se7en, all the Fincher serial killer movies, and Mindhunter of course though at that time season 2 hadn’t even come out yet, but I’m such a fan of that work and the characters that we write are so funny and endearing, so when I was watching all these Hitchcock movies where the characters are smaller it’s always funny, it feels like a Norman Rockwell painting or something. So, we always knew we were going to do comedy as well. Then it just took me cracking the code on how to fuse those together if possible before we could go and shoot.
WICKED HORROR: You have a couple comedic actors in there, like Riki Lindhome and Jimmy Tatro, is that because your background is comedy? So the comedic elements are always very important?
JIM CUMMINGS: I think there’s something so humanising and endearing about comedy performers playing serious parts, like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, where you know the person you’re watching onscreen is capable of having a good time so watching them go through hell is just so endearing. I think audiences really take to seeing actors who they’ve only seen doing comedy on the screen in those situations really well. Jimmy and Riki, and Chloe [East] too, she’s done Disney stuff for years, having them play these parts of, like, sad people in these towns where there are so many victims of violent crime, it was just so much more interesting to watch, rather than someone you’ve seen cry onscreen a million times. Watching someone we know through comedy going through hell is much more interesting.
WICKED HORROR: What about your character, why make him an alcoholic? Where did that come from?
JIM CUMMINGS: The myth of the werewolf is about somebody who wakes up kind of regretting what they did the night before, and I thought that falling off the wagon… I know a lot of alcoholics who are in the program and I thought that was a really interesting fusion with the werewolf story, to have somebody who has the same kind of shame and regret for letting the monsters out that are inside of him. I know alcoholics well enough to kind of tell that story. I really wanted to have it be something earnest and honest. I read it with a buddy of mine who’s been in the program for 10 years and I asked him whether it was too much to have the character drink Listerine and he said no, actually, Listerine is 16.5 percent alcohol, so that makes sense, I’ve seen that before. And I was like wow, he knows the percentage alcohol in mouthwash, which means this isn’t too much. I found it to be very interesting, this deeply flawed character that feels like he can’t talk about his problems in front of anybody and that’s something that werewolves and alcoholics who fall off the wagon both feel.
WICKED HORROR: That’s actually a really interesting comparison. The reason I ask is because I’m nine years sober myself, this month –
JIM CUMMINGS: Oh, congratulations!
WICKED HORROR: Thank you! But, yeah, I could relate to his struggle in a very visceral way. It felt very real to me. But I’m wondering how it felt for you to get into that mind-set? Was it difficult to put yourself in that position, because you go through some pretty tough stuff in this, I actually thought you were the werewolf for a while.
JIM CUMMINGS: It was tough not just because of… I mean, when you’re making a movie that has 55 people on set, you’re constantly stressed that you’re not getting enough footage, things are falling apart, you have to keep the ship moving straight, and there are just a lot of frustrations that occur on set. There were times when I was just able to channel that stress to be falling apart as that character onscreen. I’m always the guy that’s running around like “we gotta shoot faster, we gotta shoot now, we gotta shoot, come on!” I’m a very manic person on set, just because I know what I need in the editing room, and so that was very easy to channel. But then also, the second AA montage, where I’m talking about having a nervous breakdown and the only clues that you have that you’re going through a nervous breakdown are that everybody around you is asking “are you okay?” I was having that myself. I was acting manic and upset and I have to make this thing perfect and just putting all this pressure on myself, and the only clues I had that I was acting irrational and crazy at all was all these people who’ve known me for years being like “dude, really, what is going on? Are you okay? Let’s have a proper sit-down conversation.” It took enough of those for me to realize okay, I need to take a break. I gotta go and meditate or something, you know?
WICKED HORROR: Totally. Do you feel like werewolf movies deserve more love? We haven’t seen many great ones, at least not recently, so yours is kind of an outlier.
JIM CUMMINGS: It’s a very difficult thing to do. The nature of werewolf movies is that there’s got to be a great transformation scene, that’s what the fans demand, because American Werewolf in London is so dope, but then you have the bigger studio movies like The Wolfman with Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, and the majority of those transformation sequences are all CG, so you kind of lose the audience there, and it seems synthetic. So I think it’s a very difficult thing to pull off right and to thread that needle. I’m not surprised by that. The majority of studio horror movies that are coming out right now are lowest common denominator and there’s very little craftsmanship to them. Right now, there’s this beautiful time period, a renaissance almost, of independent filmmakers making stuff where they actually give a shit and they care about making something wonderful before it goes up onscreen in a way the larger studios just don’t have the bandwidth for. We felt very free to be able to tell the story that we wanted to, to make sure it was going to be dope for audiences and also critics.
WICKED HORROR: Your movie subverts the age-old argument of man-in-suit versus CGI very cleverly, too, which I really appreciated because you’re right, the CG just robs these movies of their essential tactility.
JIM CUMMINGS: Obviously, the movie is almost entirely practical, the only thing we did for the werewolf was make him a little bit taller to match the character and then the breath coming out of his mouth because if there’s breath coming out of the mouths of the other actors, we needed to match that with the wolf but unfortunately the wolf’s head wouldn’t let the air out. But everything else is practical. It’s actually really funny, because if you slow it down and freeze-frame it right when the claw hits the back windshield it’s very clearly a glove with some claws on it so I can imagine the fans watching it thinking “this looks like such a janky outfit,” only for everything to become realised at the end of the film. It’s funny, too, a lot of the comments from people are like “oh yeah, big woop, so the sheriff becomes the werewolf, who didn’t see that coming?” I just want to set the clock and wait for people to get it, ‘cause it’ll be fun [laughs].
WICKED HORROR: We’ve talked a lot about the challenges of making Snow Hollow, but what do you feel is your biggest achievement? What are you most proud of with this movie?
JIM CUMMINGS: It’s my first studio movie, so that’s a huge deal for me. I think being able to work with a studio and become a diplomat, become a bit more of a politician, when it comes to making movies is a huge step for me. I was such a masochist and such an authoritarian on set for my smaller movies because I had to keep control of everything, so this is a huge step for me. The thing that I’m most proud of, really, is just being able to employee 150 people over the length of the film and post-production. And to make something that everybody at the end of the day will say “hey, I got to make that movie, I was actively a participant in making that film,” to be able to provide value in that sense for all these people who lifted these heavy weights for us in freezing cold weather, that is my favorite thing to be able to do.
WICKED HORROR: You do a lot of producing, on top of acting, writing, directing, and everything else. What’s your favorite thing to do, if you had to pick one?
JIM CUMMINGS: I think directing, because with directing I’m framing the way the story is told. As a writer, you write something and then somebody comes in and changes it, to tell the story a little differently, and then as an actor, I feel like you’ve such little control over how the movie ends up being edited regardless of what you think your best line delivery was, or the best take. As a director, some of my favorite times on set were me not being in frame, where it’s like, cool, I don’t have to put on hair and makeup today, I get to just direct and chill with some characters in the parking lot because I’m not going to be onscreen. I think directing is probably my favorite thing to do because I end up doing so much research and then I just get to run around on set and make sure we get the footage we need.
WICKED HORROR: I have one, very important final question for you. [dramatic pause] What happened to your moustache?
JIM CUMMINGS: [laughs] This is a true story. I shaved my moustache off on the night of the 22nd of November 2017 and I put it into a Ziploc bag and I gifted it to one of the SXSW programmers [laughs]. So I don’t know where it ended up, but one of the programmers from SXSW has it in a small sandwich bag in their home, I believe.
WICKED HORROR: I was so disappointed when I saw you didn’t have it. In fact, I just showed the trailer for Snow Hollow to my friend and the first thing he said was “what happened to his moustache!?”
JIM CUMMINGS: [laughs] What happened to the moustache!? Yeah, it’s a gruesome thing to grow. I’m so sorry, but it’s just such a difficult thing to grow because I have to grow out a full beard first so I don’t look like an idiot and then I shave off the beard except the moustache. I’ve had to do it twice. I can’t tell you the amount of hell that it causes with my family, who just make fun of me endlessly for looking like a creep, like a seventies porn star or something like that. I’m glad that I don’t have it but it’s also nice to look back and think actually, yeah, that does look good on my face.
WICKED HORROR: I think it really suits you, I can’t believe you got rid of it.
JIM CUMMINGS: All right, I guess I’ll have to grow it out again. The next thing we do, I’ll do my best.
WICKED HORROR: I’m gonna hold you to that!
Catch The Wolf of Snow Hollow in theaters and On Demand from October 9, 2020