Thunder Road

Thursday, Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m., $13

Alamo Drafthouse, Raleigh

Thunder Road, a short film centering on a police officer’s decidedly madcap eulogy at his mother’s funeral, won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance two years ago. Now, writer, director, and star Jim Cummings has expanded the short into a feature film: a dark comedy and character study of Jim Arnaud, an earnest but deeply flawed man struggling with grief and fatherhood. Arnaud seems to sabotage every aspect of his life: his shared custody of a rebellious preteen daughter, his job as a cop, and his would-be friendships. The film skewers cultural expectations of masculinity—the unreasonable, unwieldy, and destructive John Wayne ideal.

Thunder Road is already earning plaudits at SXSW and elsewhere on the festival circuit. The funeral scene remains its fulcrum, although the titular Bruce Springsteen hit has been conspicuously excised. The film was produced by Ben Wiessner, a thirty-two-year-old Raleigh native and current Durham resident. He and Cummings met at Emerson College in Boston, where Wiessner went to study poetry. Eventually, they formed a filmmaking company with the lofty goal to “make movies with my friends,” as Wiessner puts it. He and Cummings are hosting an early screening of Thunder Road, followed by a Q and A, at Raleigh’s Alamo Drafthouse Thursday evening, the day before it begins an exclusive run at Alamos nationwide until October 19, when it opens at other theaters.

INDY: Why do you call the Triangle home?

BEN WIESSNER: I spent a few years between New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but I came back to Durham four years ago. I just really loved the area and what was happening, in terms of creativity and support for the arts and for anyone who is making an effort. There seemed to be real backing, whether it was an entrepreneurial thing or an artistic thing. I’m in LA a couple of months a year, but then I get to come back, and I have a backyard. I have an ability to really settle down and think about what’s important. And the stories I want to tell are from the South as well. Thunder Road is a super Southern film, and I feel like we have enough films from New York and LA already.

One thought I had while watching Thunder Road is that Jim Cummings took this kernel of a character from the short film in the direction of a funhouse, middle-American version of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, minus the racism.

That’s interesting. I think the character, for us, is really this person that we narrowly missed being. We have so many moments in our own lives where we’re going through something, and we lack this understanding and empathy and an ability to open up. He doesn’t have this tool that he needs, and that’s vulnerability—even though he shows it in all of these inappropriate ways, he can’t figure out how to do it in a relationship. Going through my own mother’s death was very much that loose and careening kind of feeling.

In the original short, the song “Thunder Road” was featured prominently. But it isn’t played in the feature film. Why?

We shot it both ways for the opening eulogy scene, which is basically a redoing of the short film. We shot it with the song playing, and we shot it with the CD player never working. You could just tell immediately that the [version without the song] was just so much more desperate and embarrassing. In a short film, you need that moment of catharsis and relief. But for a feature, you can’t have that come eight minutes into your film.

What was the collaborative process in deciding how to develop this Jim Arnaud character?

We knew from the start what we wanted to show, in terms of [Arnaud’s] toxic masculinity, the issues he would be having with his job, and his inability to cope with the world around him. We were originally thinking that the funeral scene would have to be at the end of the film. But it was when the film became about him being a father instead of a son that the story really unlocked.

Jim Arnaud has been described as an uber-narcissist, that everything revolves around his perceptions and how they affect him. The film’s opening sets you up to want to view Jim as a sympathetic figure, but he’s not totally that, is he?

He’s a very unreliable narrator. For us, it’s closer to a novel that Kafka would have written.

How so?

In that period of European modernism, you would carve out a lot of the other parts and focus in on one driving journey. You’d have an unreliable narrator, and you’d focus on what was happening to that person and you couldn’t necessarily tell what was real versus their perception.

You describe the film as Southern, but I’ve heard it described as being about middle America.

I don’t think it’s strictly Southern or middle American. For us, it’s a Southern film because we’ve got Dillard’s jokes. But it’s more about the way we raise men. We raise them to be John Wayne, and they always fail at it. That’s what we want to talk about, kind of poking fun at it but really empathizing with it at the same time.