Writer/director Jim Cummings, shares a very unconventional writing habit that led him to produce movies like Thunder Road and The Wolf of the Snow: His go-to writing strategy is to “write out loud” – no pen and paper, no typewriter, just him talking.
JC: So almost all of our writing is done out loud. It sounds stupid to say it, you're right – “writing out loud.” What the hell does that mean? It's always how it sounds out of human vocal cords and not me with headphones on, listening to music at a Starbucks, imagining the voices in my head of the characters and writing that down. Because that's how I learned in screenplay format how to write, in screenwriting classes in college. It never worked for me. I was always writing shitty stuff. The only time that I would realize that my writing sucked was the first day of rehearsal and I would go, “oh my God, I'm a terrible writer. This doesn't work.” And it was only because I was never doing pre-visualization in audio. I wasn't acting it out. I was just assuming that it was going to sound as good as it was sounding in my head. And so I changed. I pivoted to write movies this way, and I'm never turning back.
AH: That’s Jim Cummings, writer, director and star of acclaimed independent movies like Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Jim has an approach to screenwriting that’s unconventional but extremely effective, as anyone who's seen his intense new thriller The Beta Test can back me up on. The New Orleans-born filmmaker, as you heard there, likes to write out loud. That means to take a story idea, think of a scene that serves as an entry point into that premise, then begin spitballing moments, monologues and conversations between characters, all out loud. No laptop. No pen and paper. Just Jim alone in his apartment, his office and sometimes in his car.
JC: When I'm acting out some of the scenes, it gives you an idea of the space. So you can write-in funny happenings at the location. Like, if a mother is walking in and she's just parked the car, she comes in with a set of keys and they're jangling around and that becomes this comic prop in the scene. Then the scene could pivot in a direction that is very organic and normal to human behavior, in a way that it wouldn't be if you were just writing it in your mind, rather than actually getting it on its feet and acting it out.
AH: I’m Al Horner, and today on How I Write, a podcast about the highs, lows and workflows of screenwriting – Jim Cummings reveals why he makes podcast versions of his screenplays complete with music and sound effects to get a sense of his story’s pacing. We also get into the importance of writing stories you can make without waiting for anyone’s else’s permission, why gardening and alcohol are key to his creative process (not both at once obviously) and why his only rule is there are no rules when it comes to constructing stories.
JC: The best advice that I can give is not necessarily using the constructions that are there in screenwriting books or in film school. Instead, use whatever works for you. Doing it out loud really works for me, but don't feel like you have to obey my system. Whatever's actually going to deliver great results for you is how you should make your movie and you should never feel like you have to do it anyway.
AH: That’s all to come today on How I Write, presented by Arc Studio Pro – the screenwriting software that lets writers stay focused on the stories they’re trying to tell on the page. Get your free trial today to check out its intuitive design, seamless real-time collaboration feature, excellent outlining functions and easy-to-use import and export capabilities. More on Arc Studio Pro later – but for now, with no further adieu…
JC: I'm Jim Cummings and this is how I write.
JC: There's a good quote that I always use and I really got to change it cause it's not true. They say, if you have to ask, if you have to ask if you’re having a heart attack, you're not having a heart attack. If you have to ask yourself, “is this the right next movie for me?” It's probably not. It’s like when I'm doing Thunder Road, it's undeniable to me. I am bawling my eyes out, telling the story of it and also laughing hysterically. And I seem like a lunatic saying it out loud, but I knew that I had to make Thunder Road, the feature, or I was going to die trying. Now, when I'm writing stuff, it hits you. You know this is the next thing you have to do, you know you're going to spend the next month of your life writing this thing because you can't not. It's too good.
AH: In 2016, Jim released Thunder Road – his breakthrough short film about a police officer who falls into an emotional spiral while delivering a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. In a way, he never really decided to make that short. Nor did he really decide to make the feature-length version that went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW and become a global cult smash hit. Likewise, he never exactly sat down and decided to make a horror-comedy about a small mountain town under siege by werewolves – 2020’s The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Same deal with The Beta Test. Instead, when Jim stumbles upon the right idea, a feeling takes over that’s kinda comparable to cardiac arrest, he says. He plain and simple needs to write this story. It’s a sensation he tries to then channel into his scripts – especially with the Beta Test.
JC: The question wasn't about it hitting me and making me feel like I'm having a heart attack. It was like: how do I make this thing inspire a heart attack? How do I make it something that is actually going to make me laugh and is actually going to make me cry. It was like, I'm trying to force a heart attack here.
AH: Jim has a writing partner – PJ McCabe, who he created The Beta Test with. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out – it’s a disturbing and deeply satirical tale of a duplicitous Hollywood agent who one day receives a mysterious purple envelope. Inside is an invitation to a no-strings-attached one-night-stand. Rgw film began life like all of their projects together – as a logline in a Google spreadsheet that they both can access anytime, anyplace. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Jim’s approach to working on the go, wherever inspiration hits him. Once a heart attack-worthy idea has come to him and he’s begun that process of writing out loud, Jim can pretty much construct an entire movie from the front seat of his car, sitting in traffic, using voice-to-text memo apps and the notes section of his iPhone to guide him.
JC: We have this metronome that’s set from watching a thousand movies and understanding the internet and Reddit and how people like content, what actually makes people laugh, what actually makes people cry. And so eventually it gets broken down to probably like three or four projects that I'm working on at any given time. And when something is really moving me emotionally, I'll create this, like, notes file inside of my iPhone where I'll just do voice-to-text and it's a thousand different ideas that then I move into a Google doc.
I think of this great idea, I do voice-to-text and write it down and then compile this enormous Google document that has all of the ideas from the movie. And I'll organize it with PJ, my writing partner, over a month or so before we start writing the script.
AH: Once enough raw materials are in place, the pair will start to work on the project in person, improvising scenes together and searching for what they want their story and characters to express and explore. Together, they push each other to get the best out of their material and the complicated men often at the heart of these tales.
JC: Writing with PJ is really easy because we're actually great friends and we have the same sense of humor and it’s very different from writing in my normal space, because I'm never really pushed by friends to see if I can change the scene. I have one idea, like, “this is it.” But it might suck. Doing it out loud with other people, they become the first audience members. And so, it's really great to collaborate because you get to use other people's brains and have their parlance, the way they speak, their vernacular come out. And turns of phrase that are more perfect than anything that I could think of off the top of my head.
JC: PJ will set up his laptop on the other side of the table and I'll have mine set up and then we'll go through the Google doc of what the movie needs to be chronologically. And we'll just start. And it'll be like, “all right, we have to do this scene.” And so we'll get up and start acting the scene out or kind of talking about what it would be. And then once it's good, then we'll write it down. It's like, “oh, that's brilliant.” And then we'll write down the best improv that came about from us acting it out.
JC: If you’re familiar with Jim’s work, you’ll know that his characters are frequently men clinging on in worlds changing rapidly around them, whose unravelling states mean they blurt out contrasting thoughts as they come to them in the moment. Despite their flaws, there’s something likeable about them. All of them. There’s a storytelling principle at Pixar that I love, and that rings true in Jim’s work, too: you admire a character for trying more than for their successes. It’s not what your protagonist achieves that endears them to you. It’s the courage and effort they put into trying to hold everything together that you can’t but admire. Jim’s films might be a little bit more adult, and a lot lower budget than Pixar’s, but the same applies: his characters try and try and try in the face of everything crumbling around them. These traits amongst his characters are born out of Jim’s improvisational process, in which he gets to know the character by stepping directly into their shoes, rather than trying to find them through a laptop screen.
JC: I find it to be a tool of verisimilitude. It becomes this incredibly realistic thing based on human biology and how people move in a space and act out. It's all kind of driven in the same way, to make me laugh and cry in the scene that I'm writing or whatever it is, but it's just done in a different way. It's not me imagining how the actor should speak. It's me actually doing it and then finding, you know, giving them the toolbox to say, “this is how I would do it, you elevate it from there.” It's become this incredibly normal way for us to make movies and having spoken to some of my favorite screenwriters, they always do that. Steve Coogan when he was doing The Day Today, they would film themselves on a VHS camera and then they would act out the scene before they went over to record it. And then they would rewind it to the parts that they would burst out laughing for. And Armando [Iannucci] would say, “cool, that part really works, let's put that in the show.” So like every time I've spoken to my heroes, they're like, “oh yeah, doing an audio version of it is totally normal.”
AH: During this process, he and whoever he’s working with usually establish the plot first then thinks of the most interesting character to be put in the midst of that chaos.
JC: It's always plot for me first. It's very rarely character. I remember listening to an interview with Peter Sellers where he [explains he] does the voice first, and then we'll come up with the outfit and the story afterwards. He develops the character first. But I'm kind of the exact opposite, where I want to say something about something and then that will be the plot of the movie. And then we kind of use characters as plot devices, unfortunately. So that's kind of how my brain thinks about screenwriting and filmmaking in general. But it's a weird process where I will have an idea for the movie broadly, what would be dope to do or how it could win an audience’s attention for ninety minutes. And then it's just a thousand different conversations and like months of development, before we ever go into screenwriting.
AH: As he finds that character and starts to forge a journey for them to go on, testing their limits and pushing them to dangerous brinks, Jim works instinctively. As you might expect from a guy who rebels against the Hollywood system at every turn – his latest film “burns all bridges” with Tinseltown, he jokes, a nod to its dark depiction of the industry – he doesn’t pay attention to traditional storytelling structures. In fact, he claims he’s pretty oblivious to what’s supposed to make a great screenplay.
JC: The thing that makes me like movies isn't necessarily a three-act structure.
It's like, if I'm entertained the whole time. I'm really, really, really bad at all the screenplay stuff. I don't think I would be a very good screenwriter, but the things that I do write in screenplay format, end up being very good movies.
Everybody in Hollywood is just like, yeah, but what are the themes? And I'm like, fuck you. It's a dope movie.
AH: For Jim, a way more productive and effective thing to do than bury his head in screenwriting books is… to pick up a trowel and do a spot of gardening. That’s not some laboured metaphor for writing. I mean literally, gardening. This is how Jim gets his research done, listening to audiobooks and steeping himself in the texture of the time and place he’s planning to write about.
JC: Before I could ever accurately write a screenplay without having to delete half of it, it takes me doing a bunch of research. The new movie that we're writing is about the Victorian era in America. It's a lot of audio books during gardening and stuff. I like to think I seem like a really cool writer, but it's a lot of like listening to Jane Eyre or any of the Bronte sisters’ works and Jane Austin, and kind of like getting an idea of th, the turns of phrase, how things work, what it's like inside of the Victorian home. It's kind of like living inside of that space in your mind, kind of like method acting a bit but it's more like method writing, I guess. And then it's just a thousand Google notes.
AH: Coming up on How I Write – writing first drafts drunk, recording podcast versions of his screenplays as a way of working out what’s working and the lesson about his craft he’s reminded of once a year, when he writes a cheque addressed to one Bruce Springsteen. But first, a word about Arc Studio Pro.
Screenwriting to me is all about immersion. I want to stay immersed in that dreamy fantasy-like state while I weave my story and craft my characters. I don’t want to be distracted by anything and I certainly don’t want to be thinking about text formatting. Arc Studio Pro understands that. It’s so intuitive. It has a minimal and dare I say beautiful interface that allows me to stay completely focused on the story I’m trying to tell. If you like to work with a writing partner like Jim does, well, good news – Arc Studio Pro has seamless real-time collaboration kind of similar to Google Docs which allows you and whoever you’re working with to stay and literally and figuratively on the same page. Importing and exporting other formats like PDF and Final Draft files is easy. And best of all, it has an always free plan. Meaning you can sign up today and start writing. To take your screenwriting to the next level, visit ArcStudioPro.com. Click the link in today’s show notes to find out more. Okay, back to the conversation.
AH: The gardening part of Jim’s process might sound pretty wholesome. The next stage however, once he’s done his research and written an outline, is slightly more hedonistic.
JC: The first draft I have to get drunk to write. We call it the vomit draft because we just had to get it out of our bodies. We'll have a huge Google doc of all these notes and stuff but it becomes very intimidating to look at an empty screen and then you're like, fuck it. Let's just start doing it. Let's start writing scenes that I know that I'm excited about. And I'll do that. Eventually it becomes this tapestry that becomes the full movie. But yeah, the first two days of it, I have to be drunk and then I go back and edit it sober. And then for the next several months, I'm fine. But there is this timidity in me that although we have been working on this thing and daydreaming about it for the last several months that it's never ever going to happen and I'm wasting my time doing this thing. And I know that's something that most screenwriters feel, where they're like, what’s the point of this thing? And this could just be a PDF on my desktop for the next 10 years. And how sad is that? And that kind of fear and inadequacy trap that I fall into all the time, I have to just continually remind myself that I'm doing the doable, I'm writing something that I can execute with my friends.
It's not too big and, you know, write small – write stuff that you can do in your backyard.
AH: We’re gonna need to take a little detour here, because that last point’s worth repeating and is a huge part of how Jim writes. Jim’s a filmmaker who really cherishes independence. The right to tell the story that he wants to tell without needing to wait for outside permission. Without creative interference. His name is kind of synonymous with do-it-yourself independent movie-making in 2021. Remember at the top of this episode when I mentioned his 2016 short film, Thunder Road? It featured a Bruce Springsteen song that, well, he didn’t exactly ask permission to use. It’s all good though: when the short blew up, Jim struck a deal with the Boss, or whoever handles his affairs, to keep the short online. Now, once a year, Jim writes a check to Bruce for the sum of one thousand dollars. What stuck out for Jim the first time he did this, was he wasn’t writing the check to Bruce’s label or some management company – he was writing it to Bruce himself. That’s the autonomy that Jim says he strives for. Write stuff you can make in your backyard, without needing Hollywood’s help or permission, and it’s your name on the checks. You hold the power.
JC: SPRINGSTEEN LESSON
When we were doing the Thunder Road short film, I was an idiot and it was a single take. And, you know, we used the Bruce Springsteen song Thunder Road in the short. Nobody was supposed to see it. At best, it was supposed to live on the internet. It was never going to make any money. I was like, I'm paying for this budget, whatever. I wanted to make something that would live forever. My parents are lawyers. They were like: “you're an idiot for using the song. You should use the karaoke version or a soundalike or something like that.” I was like, “no! It's a cop. He would just have like, you know, the Born To Run album and then play the fucking song on it. So we should do it”. And then I just did it and it's one long take. We can’t cut it out and it just became that. So I reached out on Medium.com – I wrote an open letter, and the Springsteen family saw it. They also saw the feature. They're very nice pen pals of mine now. We didn't get into trouble, really. And I write him a check every year for a thousand dollars to keep the Thunder Road short film on Vimeo with his name on it.
It says to Bruce Springsteen – not to Sony. It's not to any of these labels or anything like that. It's to Bruce, because he owns his music. And I own the Thunder Road feature. I own about 38% of that movie. So every time we make a new movie. People go back to watch the first one. And it's so important to own your work, because if you own your own artwork, it's a retirement plan. Anytime you make something bigger, you end up making more money on the previous films. You see spikes in revenue because you own that thing. And we're coming about in a time where the internet is so prevalent towards rights, where you can make something and self-distribute like we did with Thunder Road. And you just become like any other production company in Hollywood or any other studio. The barriers of entry are becoming so low because of the exponential growth in technology that you can impersonate a distributor and do it all on your own. And audiences will thank you for it. And you don't have to be removed from the ownership you have over your property.
AH: As a result, even now, with his credentials proven and Hollywood knocking on his door, Jim still prioritises stories he can tell himself with minimal special effects or reliance on big budgets. The Beta Test is incredibly gripping but centers on a story in which the biggest financial outlay beyond paying his cast and crew may well have been a handful of purple envelopes that are central to the plot. Inspiration for ways to write small just takes a little research.
JC: Find the most impressive movies that are made for not much [money]. Go to Short of the Week and look up the channels for Sundance and Cannes and Berlinale and SXSW and see what is being programmed at those festivals. Reset your metronome for what is the most culturally and socially significant content that's coming out on the planet and say: “okay, how do I make something like this? How do I make something that's this impressive in my neighbourhood?”
AH: But anyways. We digress. What’s next in Jim’s process, once he’s got a first draft down? For most of us, it’d be rewriting. For Jim, it’s something else entirely. Making a podcast version of his screenplay. Complete with sound effects and music. This, he says, allows him to get an overview of his project and a sense of the atmosphere and emotions it might conjure. It’s something he’s able to take out running or throw on in his car, coming to conclusions that are gonna inform his rewrite.
JC: So anytime we have the first draft or second draft of the screenplay, I'll use the zoom recorder I'm talking to you on right now and I'll open up Adobe Premiere and record the entire screenplay as a podcast. And instead of saying “interior police station – night,” I'll say: “Jim walks into the police station.” And it becomes very simple. You don't realize, but the only thing that's different about screenplays is the scene heading rather than a radio play or an audio book. And then I'll play all the parts or I'll get friends to come in and, you know, loan their voices to do some of the parts if it's confusing. And then I'll put in music and sound design so we can at least hear the movie working and in doing so, just by doing it out loud, you go, “oh, this part's too slow. This sucks. How do I make that better?” And you can hear it not working. It's just been this really great safeguard for me, where I'll literally have my screenwriting software open and be reading off of it for the podcast and while I'm recording as a podcasts I’ll be like, “so yeah, this isn't working – I got to change the scene.” There's all these recordings of me tapping away at the keyboard going: “now, how do I make this scene shorter? Because the audience is already bored. I'm bored, Christ. How do I make this more interesting?” And it works. It's been really, really helpful for us.
AH: To Jim, there’s no better feeling than having a finished script that gives him that heart attack feeling, ready to begin bringing to the screen. When you’re acting in and directing your own movie as well as writing it, the writing can feel like a footnote on all the other obligations and responsibilities you have towards the project. But Jim still enjoys the process. There’s a quote by his producer, Ben Wiessner, that he thinks of often when he thinks about why he writes, and the place that writing has within his creative process.
JC: Someone asked him what it was like to win SXSW. And he said it was almost as cool as being on set. And I kind of feel that way. That Derek Cianfrance line: writing is like giving birth. Filming is like living and editing is like murder. It can sometimes be very unfulfilling to make movies, but it is nice to get it out into the world.
Honestly, I'm very petty. It's just to show off. I still feel like I'm the seventh grade class clown, and I want to make people laugh. And then like looking at the history of film, you see Hitchcock's work and it's the same kind of thing where it's impressive craftsmanship, built to scare people or to make them feel an emotion out of the cinema. It's very selfish in a way, you know. There's a great Orwell short essay that he wrote called Why I Write. And sometimes he talks about the English teacher that he had that said he would never make it. And he's like, no, I'm writing to say, fuck you, I’ll be one of the best writers in the English language. I think it is very petty and very selfish as to why I write, but I guess just to entertain, just to make people feel less lonely.
AH: Jim Cummings there is the acclaimed writer-director behind Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. His latest film, The Beta Test, is a tense thriller and my personal favourite thing he’s done yet, which is saying something. Check it out today – it’s available now as a digital download. You’ve been listening to How I Write, hosted by me, Al Horner, with production by Kamil Dymek. Music is by Oliver Knowles. Our theme song is by Nafets. How I Write is brought to you by Arc Studio Pro. Get your free trial today by visiting Arc Studio Pro.com. Thanks for tuning in – we’ll see you next time.