For Jim Cummings, making a werewolf movie set in a Utah ski town just felt natural.
“The last time we shot a feature, I dragged my team to Austin, Texas, and it was just so hot and sweltering,” Cummings said. “So [the thought] became, ‘Let’s do a fun Christmas movie.’ … Everybody’s made fun of me ever since: ‘Why couldn’t this have taken place on a beach? I’m freezing. I’m getting frostbite.’ But it was a blast. It was such a fun kind of winter summer camp.”
Cummings is the writer, director and star of “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” a psychological drama wrapped in a gory werewolf movie, which is opening in theaters across the country — including at several Megaplex Theatres locations in Utah — on Friday.
In the film, Cummings plays Deputy John Marshall, who is unraveling from the stress of investigating a series of brutal murders of women in his sleepy ski community. The evidence seems to point to something supernatural: a werewolf attacking and devouring its victims.
Cummings’ birthday is on Halloween, he told The Salt Lake Tribune this week, and “I grew up watching horror movies and loving them.” He’s always wanted to make a horror film, in the spirit of one of his favorite directors, David Fincher — who made “Seven,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac” — “but I had an education in comedy, so they’re never going to let me do something like that.”
As he was writing the script, Cummings said, “it was just so cool. This can be such a fun Alfred Hitchcock/Fincher thing, and I could make it funny.” He pitched the idea to Orion Classics, and they agreed to produce it.
Cummings decided to blend horror and comedy because, he said, “if you don’t make jokes throughout your movies, your audiences will. … If you attack a subject with complete austerity, you lose the audience.”
Utah was the first place Cummings scouted for film locations. He credits the Utah Film Commission, particularly production manager Derek Mellus, for reading the script and then “dragging us around to, basically, all over — around Salt Lake City and Park City.” Ultimately, the production shot in March 2019 in Kamas, Samak (a tiny town whose name is “Kamas” spelled backward) and Coalville in Summit County.
“It felt like this mountain resort town,” Cummings said. “I realized we could shoot 99% of the movie in these several-block radiuses.”
“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a low-budget horror movie, but it’s still a larger production than his first feature, “Thunder Road,” in which Cummings played a Texas cop whose life was unraveling. The centerpiece of that film was a 12-minute single-take monologue, a rambling eulogy at his mother’s funeral that includes an interpretive dance to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” (A short film, of only the one-take monologue, won the Grand Jury Prize for short films at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.)
A bigger budget meant being able to hire some recognizable actors.
The biggest was Robert Forster, the veteran character familiar from “Jackie Brown,” “Mulholland Drive,” the “Twin Peaks” revival, “Breaking Bad” and countless other roles. Forster, in his final role before his death last October at age 78, plays the aging Sheriff Hadley, who is both boss and father to Cummings’ deputy.
Cummings’ producer, Matt Miller, knew Forster from a previous project they had worked on, and sent the script to him. They expected a polite “no,” Cummings said, and were surprised when Forster said he wanted to be in the movie.
“His manager said, ‘Robert, this is a werewolf movie,’” Cummings recalled. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, but I don’t care about the monster stuff. … This is just a dramatic movie about a father-son relationship, and complications of aging and health.’”
Forster had written and directed a film during his career, Cummings said, so “he was really just this champion of us and doing it yourself. … He was an old man when he came on set, but he was just as vibrant as the rest of us.”
Through another connection, Cummings cast the comic actress Riki Lindhome, who at the time was best known as the taller, blonde half of the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates. Since filming, Lindhome has become recognized for playing one of Christopher Plummer’s possibly murderous relations in the mystery “Knives Out.”
Before meeting her, Cummings said, he wasn’t sure Lindhome was a good fit for the role of a small-town deputy.
“She seemed so cosmopolitan, but I had only seen her in comedy,” Cummings said. “Then she got on the phone with me, and we talked it out, and she said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m a cowgirl. I grew up as a tomboy. I could totally be this person.’” Her audition, he said, convinced him.
Cummings said Lindhome “is so endearing and sad on film, and the audience just wants everything to be OK with her, which is exactly what we needed.”
Releasing a movie in the middle of a pandemic, Cummings said, “is different. … I’m so thrilled that people will be able to see it, basically, a year after we finished it.”
Several horror blockbusters, like “Candyman” and “Halloween Kills,” have delayed their releases for a year, because they have massive budgets and need big audience to recoup their investment, Cummings noted.
“It’s really cool,” Cummings said, “to be able to put ours out, because immediately the smaller fish became the bigger fish in the smaller pond.”