The Austin Chronicle

Angels, Devils, and Jim Cummings at The Last Stop in Yuma County

By Richard Whittaker, May 17, 2024, 10:46am, Picture in Picture

There are filmmakers who make films, and filmmakers who show people how to make films. Jim Cummings is self-deprecatingly the latter. “To follow somebody’s footsteps – who is an idiot – is very helpful for people,” he said.

He added, “It’s been important for me to demystify the process of making movies, because sometimes it can seem unobtainable and then people don’t take the risk to make something.”

[inset-1-right]Forever an honorary member of the Austin film scene due to his locally-shot and self-distributed breakout Thunder Road, Cummings has become a regular on the festival circuit here with films like The Beta Test and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, both Fantastic Fest selections. All three films saw Cummings as star, writer, and director, but last year he returned to FF as the lead within the ensemble of The Last Stop in Yuma County.

Now the gang's back together in the film from Well Go USA, and is playing at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas as part of their Fantastic Fest Presents programming.

The debut feature from writer/director/editor Francis Galluppi, it stars Cummings as the unnamed Knife Salesman, a door-to-door hawker in 1970s Arizona who finds himself on the front step of a gas station and diner – the only one for 100 miles in any direction – where he and the other diners find themselves at the mercies of a violent gang. When Cummings first read the script, he was instantly reminded of classic Australian exploitation thriller Wake in Fright, “just this dusty, violent, beer-drinking, ugly, ugly movie,” the actor said.

He’d been impressed by Galluppi’s early shorts, but it was only in working with his cinematographer, Mac Fisken (Invader, Pod) did Cummings realize the young filmmaker's talent. “Everything’s meticulously planned,” he said. “Every moment is not storyboarded but done in overheads of how the camera will move. It’s crazy!”

Inside that elegantly filmed diner, for captors and captives the stakes are high: a bag stuffed with cash, enough cash for bad men to do terrible things, and even tempt the best of us. Cummings described it as “a Treasure of the Sierra Madre kind of things, a morality tale, one of those conundrums of a bag of money and how it corrupts.”

Not that the characters need that much corrupting. It’s that old saying that Film Noir is bad people doing bad things for good reasons. The customers at this diner are soon revealed as scoundrels, vagabonds, wastoids, and villains of all stripes: or, as Cummings describes them, people who are “cruel and meanspirited and just want the money.”

[inset-2-right]Even the good guys aren’t always that good. “Except Charlotte,” says Cummings of the waitress played by cult horror veteran Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil). “She’s kind of angelic,” Cummings said, adding that casting her as the most likable character “is kind of cheating. She’s immediately so endearing and earnest and you just feel for her. She’s so good. And she’s like that in real life, too. She’s a wonderful baker, and she brought all sorts of loafs and cookies to all the people on set. She’s this lovely figure, just like Charlotte.”

The same cannot be said of her Offseason costar, Richard Brake (Barbarian). Not of him as a person (his reputation being that of a notorious sweetheart) but his character, heist man Beau. Cummings said, “I’m going to speak with the crowd and say he’s the nicest person in the world, but it makes him such a better actor because when the camera comes on he’s so frightening.” He noted one scene in which Beau quietly threatens Charlotte. “It’s so blasé,” said Cumming. “It’s so ‘banality of evil.’ It’s lovely, and it’s how that actually looks. In hostage situations, it’s never The Rock. It’s never that clean. It’s more like Funny Games. It’s much more uncomfortable, where you stay in a booth and you’re forcing yourself to do it.”

Galluppi has assembled an old-fashioned murderers' row of great actors in the ensemble, many of whom have become festival mainstays, like Donahue, Brake, and Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes). But there's also a number of older actors, like Gene Jones (The Sacrament), Barbara Cramption (We Are Still Here), and Faizon Love, "who's done a hundred films," said Cummings. As part of that relatively younger generation, working with those veterans was a chance to act with "everyone we looked up to. We got to clown around and be the kids on set."

At the same time, there were younger actors to whom the all the older hands could become mentors, like Sierra McCormick (The Vast of Night), and Ryan Masson, who Cummings had first been impressed by when he auditioned for The Beta Test. "When Francis asked me if there's any good actors that I like, I said, 'I always wanted to work with Ryan,' and Francis said, 'Oh, he's perfect.'"

If the faces are recognizable, then so is the location. The Last Stop in Yuma County is actually the diner and motel situated on the Four Aces movie ranch, in the middle of nowhere outside of Palmdale, California. Its lovingly-restored and tended mid-century architecture has become cinematic shorthand for a certain mood, so whether it's Max Barbakow hunting for Palm Springs, or Rob Zombie digging up the House of 1000 Corpses, Quentin Dupieux rolling down the road with Rubber, even David Lynch hungering for the perfect cup of coffee and cherry pie in Twin Peaks, they all seem to end up at the Four Aces. Cummings said, "I'll be watching commercials and go, 'Oh, I spent a month there."

However, while the site is famous, it still looks a little different filling in for Yuma County: in that, it actually looks like itself. “It’s never shot for what it is. They always try to make it look neon and cool, and it never feels as hot and as dusty and as Wake in Fright as it does in this movie.”

The ranch became a home away from home for the cast and crew, who would shuttle between it and the local Motel 6. this is real indie filmmaking, with no space for egos, and the team quickly unified. “We were all in on the joke, and the violence,” said Cummings. “Everyone was in video village, watching the other person do something great, and then after it was, ‘Hey, that was really good.’ It was a really wonderful set, and I was really lucky to be part of the ensemble.”

So if Charlotte is the film’s angel, and Beau the Devil incarnate, where does Cummings fit the Knife Salesman on the sliding scale between good and evil? “I’d like to think that my guy is just a cowardly idiot that ends up thriving in this environment.”

The Last Stop in Yuma County, released by Well Go USA and presented by Fantastic Fest, is in theatres now and available for preorder on AppleTV.

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