At the intersect of Fargo, Zodiac, and Dog Soldiers is The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Orion Pictures’ latest movie to blend the horror and crime thriller genre into one surprisingly funny package. The film, about a small town cop handling a series of supernatural-leaning murders, was written and directed by Jim Cummings, who also stars as the film’s lead. In preparation for the film’s premiere, NOFS had the chance to chat with Cummings about making the movie, plus his interests that went into the idea for it. Cummings is a serious true crime buff, not to mention a dedicated filmmaker, and though that won’t surprise anyone who’s seen the movie, it was fascinating to hear just how passionate he was in his own words. Read on to see for yourself.
Grant DeArmitt for Nightmare on Film Street: What’s your relationship with werewolves? Did you grow up with them? Do you have a soft spot for them? Why did you want to make a movie with a werewolf?
Jim Cummings: I grew up with a lot of people who did something stupid once every month or so, and then feel really guilty about it. In that sense, I kind of did grow up with werewolves. I also love werewolf movies. An American Werewolf in London is probably my favorite of all of them, just because it is very funny, very spooky, and uses wonderful practical effects. Growing up, I always watched The Silence of the Lambs and all of David Fincher’s movies. I was more of a serial killer buff then a werewolf guy. But my birthday is Halloween!
NOFS: Well, happy early birthday! So would you say this project started out as more of a serial killer movie?
Cummings: Yeah. I’ve always loved Seven and Zodiac, so I was always trying to structure my detective stories around real violence. And the closest thing that you can get to a werewolf is a serial killer. I read all of [Mind Hunter author] John Douglas’s books and did as much research as possible on what the actual policing and detective work looks like when you’re trying to track one of these people.
NOFS: I’ve heard that a lot of serial killer stories involve messy police work? Is that true?
Cummings: The first thing that comes to mind is that Arthur Leigh Allen, the lead suspect of the Zodiac cases, got a speeding ticket in Lake Berryessa the night of the Vallejo Murders. There were two people that were murdered at the picnic ground near Lake Berryessa. That day, Arthur Leigh Allen is speeding home, he’s about a hundred miles from his house. But he was speeding to get away from the fact that he was anywhere near the area. That fact just fell through the cracks. It was the 1970s, so there’s no real communication between police departments. Zodiac goes into that in great detail; the battling between the police departments to get information, between state and local police stations. Forensics was much harder to get a handle on back then too.
The police had many cases to call solve, and with serial killers, there are very few murders. During the Zodiac Killings, there were a hundred murders in San Francisco that year. Only two or three of them were Zodiac. [Those murders] were actually just is a distraction from a police work, is how they saw it. So there’s a lot of clumsiness and things that fall through the cracks. Also red herrings. You know, you think you find a guy and then you don’t. And that’s a frightening thing.
NOFS: Do you think that this idea of a Hannibal Lecter type, a serial killer that is super smart and evades the police, is that a real thing? Or is it a combination of that and messy police wok?
Cummings: Yes and no. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was able to operate for almost 30 years. He had a long stretch of six or eight years without killing, but then fell into wanting to take credit for it and needing to still be the boogeyman of Wichita. So there was a long stretch of six to eight years of him not killing anybody and the police were thinking, “I think the suspect became a married person.” Because they thought that, although it is very unlike other serial killers to murder that far apart in large spans, a married person if they’re caught doing something suspicious would have to lay low because they live with someone. That’s exactly what happened with Dennis Rader. At the same time, I do think that there are very smart serial killers who are out there, who are tempting the press for their own egos and then also trying to defy the police in the same way that the Zodiac or the Golden State Killer did.
NOFS: Going back to the movie, Snow Hollow is in Utah in the film, did you actually film in Utah?
Cummings: Yes, we shot in a town called Kamas, and then a town called Samak. It’s such a small town that they just reversed the name of the nearby town. It’s really goofy, but we shot in these very small towns and then the government building in Coalville [Utah], which is our police station, and kind of all over that area. I moved to Utah on January 2nd of 2019, then the first day of production was March 6th. And we were there for three or four months making a movie.
NOFS: I imagine it’s pretty cold there; the scenery was very snowy and everything. Is it challenging filming in that cold?
Cummings: It was fucking hell! (laughs)
It was terrible. There was a moment, at one of the crime scenes, where we took out a ski resort at top of the mountain. It’s like an hour drive from where we were staying, and it was 14 degrees out. We shot that scene for fifteen hours or something like that. Everyone was dancing in their spot and setting up butane torches and tents to be able to stay warm. It was brutal. Everything froze. You can’t lay down dolly tracks on ice so you can’t really have a dolly shot. We were salting everything to make sure that the ice would melt in the time that we need. It was crazy.
There were times when it was actually blizzarding. Another crime scene, the first one, was set in an actual blizzard. It was kind of dangerous to have all that camera equipment outside, but it looks beautiful, it looks like a snow globe. It was horns and halos when it came to the territory.
The hardest part of this movie was dealing with the ice in the snow. I watched Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and have always thought I know it’s so cool, but you don’t realize that that’s actually a hundred people who are forced to get very close to having frostbite for the sake of the story. That raised my consciousness about shooting anywhere else in the world.
The last movie we did, we made in Austin, Texas, and the worst thing we had to worry about was rain. There is no comparison to what it takes to drive a trailer up icy hills at three in the morning, and how terrifying that can be for the people that you love, and that you are the responsible for bullying up into the mountain in the first place. Our producers had a joke; they said the next movie is going to be called “Werewolf Beach.” We’re shooting in Hawaii. (laughs)
“It was fucking hell!” – Jim Cummings on filming in the cold
NOFS: Youu weren’t only behind the camera, but you were also in front of it as the character of John. when you were coming up with the idea for the movie, or writing the script, was John always going to be you? Did you picture yourself in the lead role?
Cummings: The way that I write is all out loud. When I’m writing scenes, I will act them out and then write them down. I’ll act out every scene a thousand times, and then write down the best stuff when it comes to me. I literally stand up in a garage with a laptop open on the table, then act out the scenes, then race the laptop to write that stuff down. It’s a really weird process.
I guess I was imagining someone that has similar vocal cords to me. But that’s only because I don’t really know anybody. I’m not a big filmmaker, but if Jake Gyllenhaal or Shia LaBeouf said, “Hey I’m going to act in your next movie,” I would be like, “Fucking finally! I don’t have to speak any of these scenes ever again!”
It’s also a budget thing too. We need somebody in order to do these long takes to rehearse basically 24 hours a day, to make sure it’s perfect. Because we have fifty people on set and it’s costing us a fortune to run this thing. So I’m the person that I know will rehearse in the shower, and in the car, and in my sleep in order to make sure it’s great. It’s just been kind of a necessity for me to do it, because I’m the only one that agrees to the thing three months before we shoot.
NOFS: So, in a way, you kind of played all of the characters?
Cummings: Right. I also recorded it is a podcast before I sent it out to producers, so they knew how long it’s going to be and what the tone was.
NOFS: That’s very cool. Will that be a DVD extra or anything?
Cummings: I don’t know. Maybe? I would love that. I kind of want to release the script, too. it’s interesting to read how that works as spoken word to text. But I’m not in charge of that, unfortunately. I would love to see a release of that stuff. Then again, it’s really goofy to hear me play a victim getting murdered. So maybe it would be nice if it never saw the light of day.
NOFS: We see the monster a couple times throughout the course of the film and it didn’t look to me like there was any CGI. I know you referenced An American Werewolf in London, and that you liked the practical effects of that. Can you talk a little bit about making this monster? Were all the effects practical?
Cummings: When we were on set it was entirely practical. Michael Yale and Lauren Wilde built the outfit and painstakingly laid every hair on the thing to make it viable for the actor to perform inside. Then, in the edits, there are two things that were accented. One is the height of the wolf, in a large wide shot at the beginning of the movie, to make him seem seven feet tall. Then, when other characters were breathing and you can see their breath hanging in the cold, we had to accent a little bit of the wolf’s breath in the air. The actor’s breath couldn’t come through the wolf head. But then everything else is practical.
NOFS: It looks phenomenal. To wrap up, one of the themes in this movie is skepticism. Some of the people in this town are into the killer being a werewolf, some people are not, particularly John. Are you like that? Are you a skeptic like John?
Cummings: Yeah, I’m a non-believer. There’s also this theme of not listening to the mob in this movie. John is asking, “Is this thing what the mob says it is?” And he has to answer, “Well, no, we live in the real world.” There’s no such thing as monsters. I think that our neighbors are scary enough.
NOFS: Would you ever do another werewolf movie?
Cummings: I think I’d definitely do another movie about people showing up in town dead. That could be a werewolf movie. But I think the thing that really made me love this story is the detective aspect of people in town showing up dead, and having to find out what happened. This is just the beginning of me working on those kinds of stories.
You can purchase The Wolf of Snow Hollow on VOD today. If, like Jim, you’re interested in the types of stories that serial killers inspire, I highly recommend that you watch it. The same is true if you just want a solid horror/thriller, or a unique take on the idea of a werewolf movie. Once you do, let us know what you think over on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. For more interviews with your favorite creators, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.