“Beware the spam mail” is just one of the messages inside THE BETA TEST, the clever new thriller from writer/director/actor Jim Cummings. The filmmaker behind THUNDER ROAD and THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW has teamed with his acting partner PJ McCabe on the movie, with McCabe co-writing and co-directing alongside Cummings (also in the current HALLOWEEN KILLS) for the first time. In THE BETA TEST, McCabe also appears as Jordan’s trusted co-worker.
The story follows soon-to-be-married Hollywood agent Jordan (Cummings), who receives a mysterious letter seeking an anonymous sexual tryst. After the clandestine hookup, Jordan’s orderly life quickly unravels. The Type A Personality poster boy becomes ensnared in a twisted world of lying, paranoia and digital data mining.
In this exclusive interview, Cummings and McCabe take us behind the scenes of this darkly comedic thriller. Following its North American premiere, THE BETA TEST drops in theaters, VOD and digital November 5 from IFC Films.
How did you first meet? When was the start of the friendship and working relationship?
JIM CUMMINGS: We met originally in college, and it was just for making movies. I was in the directing program, and PJ was in the acting program. And so, I would bully him to act in some of the short films that we were doing. Then we hung out a little bit toward the end of college, making stuff. When I moved down to LA, PJ was living with a good friend of ours. And because of that, we started making more stuff. We were always writing TV and movies. And then it was, “OK, well, we’re basically directing it together. We’re thinking about how the film is going to be shot inside of the screenplay. Let’s just co-direct it. And, all right, let’s act in it too.” It was this perfect fusion because we liked each other.
PJ McCABE: We always had a weird sense of humor together that just clicked. So, we’ve been carrying that along.
What was the initial inspiration for THE BETA TEST, and how quickly did it come together?
CUMMINGS: We wrote it for about a year. The idea came about when I had this bizarre feeling that it was a bit of an invitation, sexually, where someone was holding their hand on my back for a little bit too long. That’s something that’s really weird. And then I thought, “What if you got this letter in the mail from an admirer of yours, who wants to meet up with you in a hotel room? Would you go?” And I called PJ and told him about this weird nugget of a movie. And he was like, “No, I wouldn’t go!”
McCABE: Why would you ever go? That’s ridiculous. It’s too good to be true.
CUMMINGS: But what if it wasn’t? And he said, “What if the person in the room was going to murder you?” I was like, “Oh, that’s a good point.” So, we both wouldn’t do it, but what if you were somebody who would? We started writing with this broad idea, about a guy who gets the letter. Then we wrote a first draft, but it was only about 55 pages. And we had [the lead character] be an agent because we knew that was funny since the whole thing’s about dishonesty and lying all the time to the people who you love. And then the WGA packaging fight was happening. And so, we’re like, “Well, let’s find out more about that. Let’s see what it’s actually like in the agency world instead of this conjecture of what we think is happening.” Then we got to draft eight, and it was all about this big fight in Hollywood. And we were also able to put in the stuff about digital data because Hollywood is changing due to the nature of the Internet and technology. That was about a year of writing. But at the same time, I was doing my werewolf movie with Orion Pictures. And then we ran a Wefunder campaign on set, basically. We were shooting videos and trying to sell shares to the public. And we were able to raise the movie’s entire budget to finance it ourselves. It was neat. It happened very quickly.
How did you guys split the workload on the movie?
CUMMINGS: Kind of evenly. We basically were attached to the hip the entire time of preproduction, production, postproduction. I edited the film, and then PJ was like, “I am so sorry that you have to do all this technical stuff” because I know how to edit. He was able to watch the monitor when I was in the scene and vice versa. It was fun, like this weird circus ballet.
McCABE: It was nice to get to work with our amazing cinematographer [Kenneth Wales], and I could be off talking to the actors and working through the scene. It was actually very helpful to have him editing it, with me yelling at him over his shoulder.
How does your relationship in real life compare to the one onscreen?
McCABE: It’s terrible.
CUMMINGS: It’s no good [laughs]. No, I guess it’s not bad. When you need somebody, they step in to help out. It’s very similar. The things that you don’t normally talk to everybody about, you have your best friend, and it’s like that. I mean, my character is such an idiot in the film. I hope I don’t come across like that too much, but PJ coming in and saving the day is the story of our lives.
McCABE: I was having these weird conversations, and that is a lot of us in real life too. That’s where a lot of our weird, wacky concepts come from. I’m very lucky to have a friend with whom I can go into these big existential ideas that come across in a lot of our films and TV shows. That’s how it is.
CUMMINGS: Similar, that’s the short answer. Maybe it’s a little closer than we’d like [laughs].
Is it true that the agent speeches and dialogue in the movie came directly from real life?
CUMMINGS: Some of them. The moment when I am shouting at Jacqueline, apart from one line, is verbatim from testimony from a member of the agency world who witnessed an administrative assistant [being belittled by] an agent. It might not have been verbatim because it was told to us by someone who witnessed it, but at least that portion is the truest to what was actually said in those moments. All that bad stuff is real and awful and terrifying.
What do your agents think of the movie?
CUMMINGS: I’m still very friendly with my agency, but nobody’s seen the movie. They know about it. It’s not insulting in what is going on. Democracy dies in darkness. If nobody’s talking about it, we should talk about it.
McCABE: It’s not necessarily brutal ill will toward them. It’s just a funny backdrop.
CUMMINGS: It’s a comedy. Like we made a SOUTH PARK episode about the agency world. That’s all it is.
McCABE: It was a perfect, funny backdrop for a guy going through pressure cookers of dishonesty, his upcoming marriage and infidelity.
CUMMINGS: And it also happens to be about the agency fight with the WGA.
Why go the crowdsourcing route?
CUMMINGS: We asked the public for financing rather than any of the film world. Everybody should do that. It’s how any startup in Silicon Valley would raise funds. They do this like a crowd equity campaign where you’re selling shares of the company. We had the idea to do that before doing our werewolf movie. We thought this could be an interesting way for somebody to do it someday. Then we looked up the Wefunder platform, and it was like, “Hey, this might be easier than we thought. Why don’t we just try it? Let’s figure it out. Let’s see what we can do.” And then we opened the campaign and within two weeks, we had sold the full amount of what we were able to sell the company. It was really easy. Going through more conventional Hollywood systems, it takes friends of ours four years to make a feature, to get it greenlit. And then they have no control over it. They don’t own any of the movie. What is the point of that? And you waste four years of your life to then have somebody else make decisions on how the movie should be cut and released. And it’s like, “Well, that doesn’t make sense.”
And then once we finished it, it took us a year to edit. It screened at the Berlin Film Festival. And it’s premiering here at Tribeca in a few days. IFC got to see it, and they were like, “Oh yeah, we absolutely want this movie!” THE BETA TEST just perfectly embodied the sentiment of independent filmmaking, that you can completely circumvent the system while making fun of it. That’s the message that I hope lands with independent filmmakers: You’d be better off doing it yourself and representing yourself.
Were you worried that your characters would be too unsympathetic in the film?
CUMMINGS: I don’t think so. I’m a huge fan of THE SOPRANOS and BREAKING BAD. Those characters are some of the most detestable characters in history. “Likable” is always something that I grew up listening to, that your characters have to be likable for whatever reason. But so long as the characters are interesting and good at their jobs, I find that to be enough to carry through. Looking at our favorite film from last year, UNCUT GEMS, Adam Sandler’s character is so hilarious and you’re just stressed out the whole time watching the guy. You can’t take your eyes off of him. And we’re like, “We can do something like that.”
McCABE: And also find out, “Is there going to be anything likable about this guy? Is he going to find any redeeming quality or learn something from this experience?”
CUMMINGS: It’s one of those things with this guy where you kind of love to hate him, you want to see him fail and he fails the entire movie. And honest members of the audience think, “Just don’t lie to people.” That’s the lesson that you have to learn: Don’t be a liar. And he learns it by the end of the film. We wanted to make something very satisfying and having that satisfaction at the end of the film will, we hope, be enough for audiences.
The movie also a warning against hacktivists.
CUMMINGS: Yeah. It’s this horror cautionary tale about digital data and how any lone wolf can take information from these giant corporations and then derail your life. Just don’t pay attention to spam mail, throw it away.
McCABE: We had engineering friends and people who actually helped write algorithms and codes to show this stuff is very possible. And it’s actually probably happening. It’s very easy to harvest all this data in parity with your searches.
Did you deliberately cast someone who looked a little like Julian Assange as your lone wolf?
CUMMINGS: No. The actor who plays Johnny PayPal [Kevin Changaris] is a friend of ours, and he’s actually in two of our other movies [THUNDER ROAD and THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW]. He’s really talented and very funny. That was important to us. We’re like, “We should have him be a comedy guy.” Although it’s a very serious scene, it’s gotta be funny and have these punchlines. Like casting Peter Sellers as the bad guy. Kevin is really wonderful, but he wanted to do the Rutger Hauer thing from BLADE RUNNER. He said, “I want to go full white and just be this lunatic guy who lives in a basement.” And we said, “All right, let’s go for it.” And he did a really good job. He’s a really spooky, funny dude.
McCABE: And that’s the guy at the end of the tunnel, pulling all the strings.
CUMMINGS: This bizarre, bisexual guy in a basement, not what you would expect at all.
McCABE: And that’s the Internet overall, that a macho Hollywood man has no control over anymore.
With the recent Russian hackings, the film is a timelier than ever.
CUMMINGS: It’s only gonna get worse. They’re making money. That’s how it works. It’s terrible. We have to pay these ransomwares, but because we’re paying them, we’re bartering with terrorists and that’s a very scary precedent. They’re not gonna slow down.
McCABE: All that stuff you put online, it’s not going anywhere. People don’t want to talk about it, but it’s out there.
CUMMINGS: The Sony hacks were a huge inspiration to us. We got to read some of these leaked emails from the agency world. And it’s one of the first times that any of that has become part of modern history, where you can read emails from agencies to giant studios, sometimes multiple giant studios. It’s just very interesting to understand how the cogs are working, the corporate doublespeak that’s involved in some of the language, how they coerce something out of somebody. We found it fascinating. We went through this treasure trove of emails, and it was very inspirational to the movie. So, thank you to the Sony hacks!
Jim, this is your third high-strung, hot-tempered character in a row. Are you going to lighten up for your next movie?
CUMMINGS: Yes. We always joke that this is the end of the “Jim Cummings Screams in the Parking Lot Trilogy.” Everybody’s gonna be happy that that’s the end of it. In fact, the two new movies that PJ and I are writing don’t star either of us. They are about other things. We’re going to have to wear the hats of just working behind the camera instead of in front of it. THE BETA TEST moves a mile a minute, so the next ones are going to be much more patient.
You guys are producing THE YETI. What could you say about it?
CUMMINGS: [YETI director] William Pisciotta was an executive producer of THUNDER ROAD and has been a buddy for a long time. We did this new initiative of reaching out to people to see what horror movies people wanted, for us to green light and be interested in making. Will, out of the blue with his co-writer and a producer, reached out with this idea for a Yeti movie. And it was just so cool. He showed us the script, and we did some internal development on it. It’s such a brilliant idea, and Will is such a singular voice of how to make something. If he says he’s going to do it, he’ll do it. It’s insane.
McCABE: It’s a weird [throwback to] the old days of arctic expeditions in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s a lot of fun.
What else are you working on?
CUMMINGS: We are writing this PARASITE-style Gothic, Victorian horror movie that is very funny and very cool, really wonderful. That’s our next thing. And then we just finished the first draft of a script about a YouTube news guy that we co-wrote with Dustin Hahn, our good buddy. We hope to do both of these in the next year. And then we’re in development to do a TV show about astronauts returning to the suburbs.
It seems like you love dabbling in horror.
CUMMINGS: Yeah. Horror feels very punchlines-related where it’s set-up and payoff, and the punchline is just a scare, you have that suspense. I’m not surprised that Jordan Peele, who started in comedy, is so good at it. It’s the same thing.