Fantastic Fest Interview: Jim Cummings Hunts The Wolf of Snow Hollow
The actor and director talks bloody myths and drive-in premieres
By Richard Whittaker,
10:30AM, Wed. Sep. 30, 2020
Talk about a shocking transformation: As the bumbling and heartbroken hero of indie smash Thunder Road, Jim Cummings is no stranger to playing a cop. For his follow-up, law enforcement versus lycanthrope comedy-horror The Wolf of Snow Hollow, he's back in the blue (just this time with a lot of red on him).
(WARNING: light spoilers ahead)
Cummings (who shot his 2018 SXSW Grand Jury award-winning feature in Austin) has his latest film play as the closing night title for this year's redux Fantastic Fest. Yet before them he premieres his werewolf horror at Beyond Fest under the strangest circumstances - at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Los Angeles. "Q&As are really weird, because I have to pull up in my car and shout out of the sun roof. It's a new age, 2020."
Thunder Road was his breakout indie success, an unconventional dramedy that managed to reach out to broader audiences. For his first studio film, he's gone big, with a story he called "Zodiac as a comedy." The writer/director plays John Marshall, a small-town cop with anger management issues who's trying to shore up his failing relationship with his daughter (Chloe East) while hiding the ailing mental and physical health of his dad, the local sheriff (neonoir legend and beloved character actor Robert Forster in his final performance), from the local community. If that wasn't enough, now his quiet little snowbound town is plagued by someone or something that is ripping people apart. But it can't be a werewolf, can it?
Snow Hollow has only one real point of connection to Thunder Road, and that's Cummings playing a cop again. Oddly, he noted, that may have been key in getting the movie made. "It's a product of the way that Hollywood works, " Cummings said. "I remember hearing the story of a guy that's trying to get a car commercial, and they say, 'Oh, we shot a red Lexus on this crazy mountain road.' They go, 'Well, we're shooting with a white Lexus. Have you shot a white Lexus on this road before?' He said no, and he lost the job because of that. People won't hire you unless you've done that before, so the easiest way to get it green-lit was for me to go, 'OK, I'll play a cop.'"
However, there’s a big gap between John Marshall and Jim Arnaud, the well-meaning and slightly doltish protagonist of Thunder Road. "Jim’s a kindhearted person" said Cummings: By comparison, "John is such a nightmare. He's angry all the time and thinks he’s right." At the same time, both parts allow him to explore a favorite topic – the ridiculousness of people in power. "It's just so funny to watch a police officer struggle, because it feels a bit like The Great Dictator. Chaplin had this amazing ability to humiliate this guy, but also seed the stresses and the breaking point. It helps people realize that the powers-that-be are more concerned about their lunch than what they're supposed to be concerned about – justice."
Austin Chronicle: Werewolves are hard to make work onscreen, and it's so hard to define what makes for a successful effect.
Jim Cummings: Dude, it was a battle. The studio, in the edit, we have this awesome shot of him standing up to his full height, this silhouette shot, and they kept trying to take it out of the movie, because "Oh, the smart thing to do is to hide the shark. In these movies, you basically want to see as little of the monster as possible to the end. I said, "By showing it, we're hiding the shark. ... In this case, showing the monster is going to keep the audience on that fight of allegiance with the characters. "Is John right?" "No, he's clearly wrong, that certainly looks like a fucking werewolf."
And we were very lucky with our makeup and FX team. Lauren Wilde, who helped me out on my first few short films, she did the head of the monster, painstakingly putting in every hair on the face, and then the eyeballs, the teeth. Then this guy Michael Yale, who's based in LA and not really a big monster effects guys - he's actually a theatrical wardrobe builder - built this suit that was pliable and would keep [the actor] warm when we were out in the snow. So I was very lucky to have a cool team, and they were all on the same page.
It's like Ray Parks playing Darth Maul, or the Headless Horseman. Everyone is making sure Ray is comfortable, and he gives the fucking coolest performances in both those movies. So everyone is trying to make sure that Will was OK - and he wore it in every scene.
JC: There was a bit that we had to cut about Christianity, that you have to create monsters because you have to love your neighbor. So there was this thing in the Middle Ages that it couldn't possibly be your neighbor, it had to be these demons, these monsters that came about.
I'm a non-believer in werewolves. I would side with John in his over-rational thinking. But that's probably what started it. Looking around Germany in the 1300s to the 1600s, all of these werewolves probably were serial killers. In France, there actually was a monster, the Beast of Gévaudan, which was a lion or something that someone had thrown out and it killed 55 people - that's what Brotherhood of the Wolf is based on. So there wild animals that could do this to a body, bears and larger mammals. But I think, for the most part, this was us having to go, "Oh, no, it couldn't be someone in the town, it has to be a monster."
That's an interesting thing to us, because we know there's no such thing as vampires but there's still this weird twinge in our minds of, 'I don't know. Maybe, maybe."
AC: There's a myth in the North of England of the Boggart, which is this thing that lives in dark waters and snatches children if they come too close. It's a way for people to remind kids not to go too near dangerous moorland, but even though you know it's not real you still kind of want to believe.
JC: Yes. It's a cautionary tale.
AC: Werewolves live in that same liminal space - and really it's only them and sasquatch that have that same wish in us for them to be real - because it's this thing that's mostly us.
JC: It's human anger. It's someone who loses their temper once a month. It's the Hulk mentality, that there is this monster inside of all us and we can all relate to it.
I showed the movie in an early cut to one of our Short to Feature Lab fellow Laura O'Shea, and she said, "Yeah, now I'm watching this werewolf movie I'm thinking a lot about the myth of the banshee." The banshee was this witch-woman who would live on the moors and scream at the top of her lungs. She said, "I wonder why it's taken centuries to realize that, if there's a woman screaming on the moors, nobody goes near it. When did that start? It's clearly a woman being attacked by somebody, and nobody's doing anything about it." So there are all these things that are a defense mechanism to say, "Yeah, humanity's really that bad."
The Wolf of Snow Hollow opens Oct. 9, and there will be a special Fantastic Fest screening at the Alamo Slaughter Lane. For more of our Fantastic Fest coverage, plus a longer visit austinchronicle.com/Fantastic-Fest.