Soon after my film “Thunder Road” won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, I wasted about eight or nine months.
I started out traveling, doing a water bottle tour of Los Angeles, shaking hands, kissing babies. I took about 75 general meetings at all of the top places to talk about different projects and eventually realized that nobody was going to give me money or take me seriously. I was just a short moviemaker, and it didn’t matter if I won Sundance. They didn’t care.
I had the idea of turning “Thunder Road”—which centers on police officer Jim Arnaud (played by me) who eulogizes his mother via a performance of the Bruce Springsteen song of the title—into a feature for a long time. Still, I thought, “There’s no way you can turn this into a feature… it’s just a climax.” The rest of a movie that shows the events that happen before what’s in the short would have to be my character having a shitty relationship with his mother while she’s still alive—like 8 Mile, but worse. But when I watched the short again, I noticed a moment in which the daughter pulls away from me and thought, “What if the rest of the movie was about being a parent, rather than losing one?” Thunder Road, the feature, would be about being caught in between the older generation and your children—about the cycle and the legacy of parenting.
Once the idea finally clicked, I wrote Thunder Road in five days.
That was A24’s idea. My buddy who worked for the mini-major studio happened to be in town after I’d honed in on the premise for the film and told me, “Come pitch it tomorrow.” I did, and he loved it, but explained, “We don’t buy anything that isn’t in screenplay format. Please write it.” “Oh my God, A24 just asked me to write a script.” I wrote my draft immediately, and just as I was about to send it over, A24 won the Best Picture Oscar for Moonlight. “I’m never going to hear from them again,” I thought. So, I ended up doing it myself.
At the time, Thunder Road co-producer Zack Parker and I had become friends and pen pals ever since he’d seen the short at SXSW and spent two hours after the screening walking around the river with me, crying. We started meeting at coffee shops and bawling our eyes out, talking about story and the love letter we would make for our moms. This was embarrassing to do in public, but these sessions would one day become the finished film.
Next, we ran a Kickstarter campaign… accidentally. I told Zack, “Let’s just run the campaign and it will finance pre-production.” We asked for $10K and got $38K. It was insane. Having a Sundance-winning short helped, but really, our key to fundraising success was the gravitas we showed our backers by saying, “Fuck the system.” Even after our 30-day campaign had expired and no one else was eligible to become a backer, people kept coming out of the woodwork, asking, “Hey, I saw your short film and I’d still love to help you out. Is there any way I could buy one percent of this movie on the back end?” So, we sold points—basically shares of our LLC for the project to these people from around the world who wanted to support the feature.
The Kickstarter campaign became a kind of commercial, an advertisement in itself for our efforts toward getting Thunder Road made. Crowdfunding platforms are a great lightning rod for moviemakers to come out of the community and help out one another. We were able to raise our monetary goal and the funds became a decent chunk of production: Thunder Road, which I was told by potential investors could only be made for $6 million, cost only $180K to make. (That’s $20K less than what I wrote it to be made for.)
When we finished the film, I edited it myself, and we submitted it to SXSW, got in, and won. When no one would consider buying it, Sundance gave us a $33,333 grant through their Creative Distribution Fellowship so we could release and market it ourselves. Throughout every stage of our careers, my collaborators and I have had to do it ourselves. The sooner you get that wake-up call that you’ll need to create your own support system, the sooner you’ll begin to feel comfortable.
Pre- in a Pod
When you’re assembling your crew, look for two things and two things only: talent and enthusiasm. No bullshit, and no kind of “industry” nonsense.
Blindspotting star/co-writer/co-producer Rafael Casal once told me, “Forget the industry, work with your friends. Your friends will walk over coals for you, sprint a marathon for you in ways that the industry won’t. Network sideways, not upward.” That was very poetic advice, and thus far I’ve only found it to be true. Making Thunder Road, we said, “Fuck it: You don’t have to be an incredible sound mixer or an incredible focus puller. We’ll all work together.”
We had a four-person camera team, and we shot on the RED Dragon with some incredible zoom lenses. Cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer and I had long conversations about how we were going to approach each shot. I knew how each of the film’s many long takes had to be executed in my head, since I had been workshopping and rehearsing them, and a lot were already written. But if you’re shooting a feature with as many long takes and as few shoot days (14 to be exact) as Thunder Road, you’ve got to put a lot of extra work into pre-production, because each day demands that you and your team get in and out of every location swiftly. Everybody would have to be on the same page, so I decided to record a walkthrough of how the scenes would be shot in the same way one would a podcast. I sent out that recording to the entire cast and crew beforehand so they could listen to the scenes with music and sound design on their drive to the set in Austin.
For certain scenes we were able to rehearse about four times and then had to go from zero to 100 on two takes. That’s four hours of prep, followed by just 30 minutes of shooting. But typically we worked 11-and-a-half-hour days and always finished 30 minutes early. When you can manage to find that extra time, every department can be listened to, and that makes for a happier crew.
As a producer, you have be a kind of summer camp counselor, making sure everybody’s OK before the actors jump in front of the camera and do their thing. Remember: These are the people who carry C-stands up flights of stairs for you in the fucking heat of Texas, so treat them like your family. Editor Brian Vannucci did an assembly edit during production—so we were able to watch the footage from the day we’d just shot that night. Anybody and everybody in the crew was invited to our base camp Airbnb to come and watch. When you’re running around different locations, doing wardrobe, props, and all of that shit, it’s easy to forget that you’re making a movie—a collection of light and sound that, when assembled into a formula, can move people. Keeping that open door policy until 2 or 3 a.m. after a full day’s work is the kind of thing that forms a film family; I know Thunder Road isn’t the last movie we’ll all make together.
Finding Strength in Feature Length
If you’re getting ready to make your first film, make a feature first. There’s something about a feature’s 90-plus-minute duration that’s a different language. A lot of feature moviemakers will fail hard at first, and that’s OK; you’ll learn how to speak that language a lot more when putting together 90 minutes of footage than you would putting together 10.
Shoot your entire feature on an iPhone. It doesn’t cost you anything. Or, convert your movie into podcast format. Pace the story precisely how you want it to be in audio only, and you’ll still take your audience where you want them to go. You might listen back to it and say, “This sucks!,” but you can always re-record the part that sucks, whereas you can’t when you’re shooting an actual movie.
Audience Before Artist
As a producer, I’ve worked with moviemakers who were just not considerate of their audience at all. My go-to line when it comes to this is: Most “visions” are mirages. An in-depth conversation between audience and moviemaker through the language of film is more important than any artist’s “vision,” and that fact applies to your set and your public presence as much as it does to your film itself.
When we needed locations for Thunder Road, we knocked on locals’ doors and they invited us to shoot in their homes. When I saw that very few successful moviemakers regularly interacted directly with their audiences, I focused on building an online presence, asking fellow independents what I could help them with based on my own experience. If you focus on the right things, your audience and surrounding community will reward you.
Few moviemakers come back down after they find success, but that should be part of the job—to not let anybody go through the same hell you went through while trying to make something without any credibility. If you can stop anyone from going down the rabbit hole of Hollywood’s bullshit, that’s a good day’s work. MM
—As told to Andy Young
Thunder Road opened in theaters October 12, 2018, and opens on iTunes October 26, 2018. All images courtesy of Jim Cummings. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.