Watch ‘Thunder Road,’ The One-Take Short That Won Sundance

The director who pleaded online with Bruce Springsteen for the rights to his song talks about why he shot the short in one take.
"Thunder Road"
"Thunder Road"
Courtesy of Jim Cummings

From the start, writer, director and star Jim Cummings had always thought of his short “Thunder Road” as something he’d toss up on Vimeo and share with the world.  There’s been some unexpected twists and turns for the filmmaker to get to that point.

As Cummings tells it, the film very unexpectedly got into Sundance, where it then won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film. Of course, this brought some heat to the short and Cummings, which meant attention was also paid to a major question from the film: If he’d secured the rights to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which plays during a pivotal scene.  After paying $7,000 for the rights to the song so it could travel the festival circuit, Cummings was faced with a $40,000 to 50,000 licensing fee to put his short online. This prompted Cummings to take his case to Springsteen in the form of an open letter he posted on the internet.

READ MORE: Filmmaker Writes Open Letter to Bruce Springsteen, Asks for Music Rights — And It Works

The letter worked, and as result you can watch the short now:

IndieWire recently asked Cummings why he decided to shoot the film as one long take and what he learned as a result. This is what he wrote:

This movie kinda had to be one shot, if it had been edited it would have just been a weird movie about a dude at a funeral.

I wanted to do it in one shot because I knew that it would make general audiences feel present and impress audiences interested specifically in film. I knew it was gonna be much more challenging if it was all one shot; the memorization, the dance choreography, the dramatic and comedy pacing, etc. But I had never seen something funny and sad done in a single take: it’s very hard to make audiences laugh and cry in a single scene.

Honestly, all of that stuff is what you think about years before making something and then after the fact. I was writing and memorizing this film on my commutes to work and I’m certain I wasn’t thinking a lot about film theory. Sadly, I was thinking about how to best impress people with my abilities and how a combination of Alfonso Cuaron and Pete Doctor and Chris Lilley might work, cinematically.

Long-takes are great, but in watching old movies, I’ve become so unimpressed with “Thunder Road.” “Rope” is unreal with their long takes, the memorization and timing is just crazy. Same with “Birdman,” good God. This whole medium came from theater where it’s always one take, so it’s shocking that people these days are impressed by a dude memorizing 13 minutes of dialogue, you know? How far we’ve separated our thinking about movies from the theater. We don’t leave plays and say, “Wow, they had to memorize all of that, and they had to do it in one go!”

This whole thing taught me that you can make something compelling in a single location with only a few actors so long as you focus on the right stuff: the performances, the pacing, and making the scene compelling for audiences. With long takes, the actors become the film editors in a sense, they decide the pacing and when to move to the next sequence.

And also, if you can, don’t use a super duper famous song in your film.

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