5 Questions: ‘The Life and Times of Thomas Thumb, Jr.’s’ Ryan Fox

“In the end, I want as little silence in the audience as possible.”

Thomas Thumb, Jr. is the average American. He feels. He struggles. He desires. Working dead-end jobs between failed entrepreneurial ventures, “TJ” (to anyone who knows him well) plans to rise above his shortcomings with his sights set on one day making a giant golden pyramid his home.

There is one key difference between director Ryan Fox’s extravagant parable and every other rags-to-riches story: TJ has a giant thumb for a head. The Milwaukee-based director earns plenty of off-beat comedy from that particular quirk, but The Life and Times of Thomas Thumb, Jr. has plenty of heart to go along with its extra digit — even when its bizarro every man hits rock bottom.

After bringing its tragicomedy to the Fox Valley Region’s Wildwood Film Festival, the Phoenix Film Festival, and the Boston Underground Film Festival, The Life and Times of Thomas Thumb, Jr. comes to Madison for the Wisconsin Film Festival, and I asked Fox “5 Questions:”

1. So a guy with a thumb for a head…

I have some pretty gnarly looking thumbs. They’re called “clubbed” thumbs so they’re basically short and stubby. Actress Megan Fox actually has them too (no relation). I wanted to write a script glorifying them since I was teased about them from time to time when I was a kid. Then that quickly became why not just personify a giant thumb and make this unique looking guy my protagonist? That pretty much got the ball rolling as far as coming up with possible jokes and prop gags.

2. What was it like having to adjust the facial expressions on TJ during the shoot?

Pretty effortless actually. I used sticky-backed black felt and cut them out ahead of time and would just make notes of when to change them for each shot. The hardest part was removing them carefully without leaving any glue residue or damaging the airbrush paint job on the mask. If you look close enough you can basically tell in what order we shot each scene cause the thumb mask continually looks worse and worse.

3. What influenced your style in this? I see some resemblances to Royal Tenenbaums in the montages and obviously there’s a similarity with The Big Lebowski in your southern-drawling narrator, who’s fantastic.

I love Wes Anderson but he wasn’t an inspiration for anything. I’m kinda curious which shots remind you of Royal Tenenbaums now. That’s interesting. For the narrator, I knew I always wanted a classic, wholesome sounding voice since I knew it would pair well with some of the absurdist narration and vulgarity. It was a toss up between Adam West or Sam Elliott and I found an impressionist that could do both. In the end I just preferred his Sam since Adam West sounds already a bit too comical. Other than that, I’ve always been a fan of fast cuts. It keeps the audience’s attention while propelling the story forward. It also works well for jokes. In the end, I want as little silence in the audience as possible.

4. You introduce a key plot point in Dr. Chaft, who peddles sketchy penis extensions with tacky commercials. I think Thomas Thumb is funnier for it, but why did you make his television ad so cheap?

It just adds to the feeling that this guy is really a shoddy, ill-informed doctor. Pretty much a mix between content you’d see on Adult Swim and those horrible lawyer commercials you see on local television. Almost like Dr. Nick from The Simpsons.

5. Did the 24k gold pyramid idea come before you had a place to shoot?

This was one of the most luck-filled, crazy revelations that occurred while making the film and in the end completely made my ending. A gold house was always in my script so the plan was to just use After Effects and make a house appear gold plated in a basic closing shot. A couple of weeks before shooting that scene I was hanging out with a friend in Gurnee and she knew nothing of my film but in conversation she mentioned she lived near a giant gold pyramid house. My jaw dropped and I was pretty much crying tears of joy at the potential of this location. I honestly left immediately, drove two miles and there it was in all its beauty. I looked it up on Facebook, messaged the guy, and got a response within a minute from the son of the man who built it in the 70s. He told me to let him know what day worked for me and it was done. He couldn’t have been more supportive and it was an incredible coincidence. Once I knew I had the location I knew I had to make a music video styled, self-indulgent ending.

  • The Life and Times of Thomas Thumb, Jr. plays as part of the “Beyond the Pale” program on Fri, Apr 15 at 9:00p in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.