Starring Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, The Beta Test follows an engaged Hollywood agent who receives a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter and becomes ensnared in a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data. It’s a dark, direct, and unsuspectingly funny film with a sharp edge.
If you’re familiar with Cummings’ previous films, The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Thunder Road, you’ll recognize the tonal dance of comedy and discomfort. The Beta Test is no different, but directs its energy through the lens of a sexual thriller. It exposes an ugly side of human nature with brutal honesty and dark humor.
We sat down to speak with Cummings and McCabe — who also co-wrote and directed the film — about the importance of safe simulated sex, impersonating an officer, creating difficult characters, and their unconventional creative process.
Kelly McNeely: One of the things that I loved about The Beta Test, is I heard that some of the dialogue is pulled verbatim from interviews with people who are assistants, agents and ex agents in some of the largest talent agencies in Hollywood. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because that is insane.
Jim Cummings: It’s true. So that screaming monologue of my character to Jacqueline is taken from an interview that we had with someone who worked at one of the top four agencies in Hollywood. It was at a dinner, and I had my big blue notebook, which is here somewhere. And the source was just saying what it was like to be there. And I said, how crazy is it? Have you heard someone be demeaned? And the source said, “How are you going to look tomorrow when you come in? How are you going to present to me today that you’re going to be better at your fucking job tomorrow?” And that whole riff is taken from an agent shouting at his assistant at one of the top four agencies.
I was very nervous about putting it in the film. But we did it, and it was just in the script in September or October, and then we shot it. And then it was that night where I was like, oh no! It is way too close to what the source told us, and I’m very nervous that this agent might find out about it. And so I called the source. And the source said, he’ll never remember. Don’t worry about it. He does that every day. And so it was horrible. It’s a really shitty system and power dynamic, where these assistants are working for literally minimum wage in Beverly Hills, for this dream of upward mobility in Hollywood that never comes. And we wanted to showcase it as realistically as possible.
Kelly McNeely: Well you did a great job with that, because it seems like a demeaning, spirit breaking job. So well done, I guess, for conveying that.
Jim Cummings: Thank you. It’s awful. Thank you.
Kelly McNeely: So where did the idea for this film originate? I’ve heard it described as kind of like The Game meets Eyes Wide Shut, which seems like a pretty apt way to describe it.
Jim Cummings: We call it 50 Shades of Grey directed by the South Park guys. Yeah, no, the original idea was the sexual envelope, it was the purple envelopes, the system of connecting people to commit adultery anonymously. And it was just kind of a funny, long form conversation that we had over a year developing it, just like calling each other like, oh, what if this happened, this could be interesting, then what would happen if that happened? And it just kind of spiraled out of control where we realized we had to do a lot more research than just our conjecture about what the infrastructure would be to connect people to have affairs. You know, David Ehrlich said, having an affair these days, you’d have to do an Ocean’s Eleven style heist. That’s how difficult it would be in the digital age. I found it to be very funny and true.
And so we did about a year of research about how somebody would actually connect people from their basement to commit adultery, and research Big Data and social platforms and stuff like that. And that was really the crux of the movie. And then everything kind of spiraled into this thing about lying and cheating, and talent agencies.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, it really started as us sitting down to write a contained horror movie that was going to be really cheap to shoot. The script we had originally was just called Apartment Hallways. And it was just like, we’ll just shoot something in our apartments. And then it didn’t pan out, and we wrote a very complex movie that kind of snowballed from there, but I’m glad we did. Because, yeah, it’s a better film than us standing in apartment hallways being spooky.
Kelly McNeely: How did you guys connect? How did you meet each other, what is your origin story?
Jim Cummings: Um, we probably met at a party at 21 Cortez Street in Boston. We went to Emerson College together, and PJ was in the Acting Program and I was in the film program. And we were always kind of working adjacent to each other and sometimes in stuff together. But really, it was after college that I moved to Los Angeles. And then we started working pretty seriously together as writers. And then we just found this method of writing together where it’s all out loud, and writing down the best improv. And that just became this flow state writing process. It’s funny, in the way that we discovered that we would write this way, we just kept doing it. And nobody told us no, everybody told us you can keep doing it this way.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, it just kind of happened by accident. I mean, we’re best friends in real life, but yeah, it helps to be able to come up with weird ideas and expand on them, and then we just kind of accidentally fell into this really successful effective writing partnership. And now we’re writing a bunch of crazy stuff, and it’s been fun.
Jim Cummings: He’s not my best friend.
PJ McCabe: I gotta stop bringing that up in interviews, because every time afterwards, it’s a long awkward conversation.
Jim Cummings: All our other best friends are furious.
PJ McCabe: Yes, there goes the afternoon.
Kelly McNeely: With The Wolf of Snow Hollow, The Beta Test, and also going back to Thunder Road, Jim you’ve done a bunch of roles of men who are absolute dicks, but in the most endearing way possible. You make them someone you can really root for through this comedic honesty; there’s a sense of masculinity in crisis, but they’re played with honesty. They’re earnest and genuine, in a way that you really care about them. What’s the writing process like for creating those characters?
Jim Cummings: Thank you. Um, it’s all out loud. So I have 24 hour access to the lead actor for those three films. So that’s very helpful. Where legitimately we’ll have the scene and I’ll write it out loud. So it’s perfect for my vocal cords anyway, and my turns of phrase and accent, and then I’ll be in the shower, and I’ll be doing a scene and then come up with another bit of improv that’s way better than it was before. And then I’ll write it in my Voice Memo app, and then transcribe it to screenplay format later. It’s kind of thrown together, we say it’s like building the plane while you’re flying it.
But then when we shoot things, it’s incredibly forensic, because we don’t have much of a budget, or schedule to be able to shoot the things that we want to shoot. It’s a lot of just us having to memorize it exactly the same every time, especially when you’re doing long takes. Thunder Road, there’s not a word of improv in it. It had to be that way, because if there was any improv, the camera would be out of focus, or the boom mic wouldn’t be in the right spot. And so, because we’re making these movies for pennies, for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it has to be done that way.
Really, the way that we create these dudes, these characters that I play, is just kind of doing it out loud and kind of guesstimating where the audience is going to be with their allegiance with a character. Can you slap a corpse 85 minutes into a film and have them still be okay with it? Can you pull a gun on your black partner 70 minutes into the film and have the audience go, oh, the poor guy? It’s all this kind of strange chemistry that you have to guesstimate with where the audience is going to be. And we’ve gotten pretty good at it. I mean, you know, there are gasps in the crowd sometimes. But we’ve never had a walkout. Everybody is okay and endures the character.
PJ McCabe: Gasps are good. They’re paying attention.
Kelly McNeely: Your films have a very specific tone and language to them, just in the way that you guys write your scripts and how you film them. How do you get everyone to kind of vibe on your level when you’re creating these? Because again, it sounds like you do a lot of very specific, very detailed work into creating it all. How do you get everyone on your level?
Jim Cummings: Yeah, English is incredibly complex, and language and comedy, and horror as well. Horror and comedy work together because they’re punchline driven structures of sentences where it’s like your setup and payoff.
PJ McCabe: It’s an equation, it’s very forensic.
Jim Cummings: And so because they’re very complicated, PJ and I always record the scripts as podcasts like this with this microphone. And we’ll put in music and sound design in the same program that we edit the film in, Premiere Pro, and it takes a couple of hours to record it. We play all the characters, saying it out loud the way that we imagined it was when it was written. And then it takes about a day, a couple hours to mix it. And then we send it to our producers, and they send it out to the cast and crew.
So if they want to, the cast can listen to it, you know, a hundred times before they show up on set. And we found that to be the most effective way to execute the punch lines, whatever genre it is. I don’t know anybody that does it that way. And the only reason that we’ve been able to do it this way is because we’re terrible directors and this is the only way that we know how to deliver a good product. I’m serious.
PJ McCabe: It’s hard when you’re on set trying to get someone to figure it out in the moment. You don’t have time for that. Everyone has to know ahead of time the flow of the scene and the tone, because we don’t have time to explain it on set. Like, “let’s try it 15 different ways until we get it, until we get your essence of the line”.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, it takes fucking forever. I’m sure it feels really good as an actor to have that happen, you can pick the take that I thought would be great for the line. That’s probably nice, but it’s such an insult to the rest of the crew, carrying heavy gear up flights of stairs for your ego. I don’t know. I think really, we never work with egotistical actors. So everybody gets it. It’s like having a choir, and then you have this one egotistical person like “well, actually, I want to sing it my own way. I want to take some liberties with the tune here”. And it’s like, no!
Kelly McNeely: In the credits, I see you guys had an intimacy coordinator as well, which I think is fantastic. I know more films and theatre are involving intimacy coordinators, which I think is so important. Can you talk a little bit about that process and about getting an intimacy coordinator involved, and the decision to do that?
Jim Cummings: We knew that we were going to have one, it’s a very intimate movie. Because it’s this kind of erotic thriller, and there had to be sex scenes between the power dynamics on set where it’s like, I’m the writer, director, and lead actor, it’s a very different ask for me to say “sit on my face in the sequence as a joke, trust me, the punchline is gonna work” than if it was me doing that to another actor. It’s basically this like, employer/employee relationship. And so, I mean, PJ and I are both puritans, we were absolutely terrified of sex – which you can probably tell from the film, it’s very funny, all the sex scenes are a joke in the movie – but it was very important to us. We had to have an intimacy coordinator, because it’s a safety thing. It’s like a Kung Fu scene, if you don’t have a fight choreographer, somebody’s gonna get their teeth knocked out.
And it was a great experience. I was able to promise both of my co-stars in those scenes that nobody would have access to the footage, except for me, who was the sole editor. So we set up a separate computer that was my computer, I had the password for it. And it was on separate hard drives, and it was in the public, so nobody could see it, we had no monitors going out into the hallway, where we normally would have a focus puller, all of it was done in this very closed set, cell phones were taken away, all of that. So it was perfectly safe. And I was able to promise them and deliver on the promise to both stars that nobody would see the footage until it screened at the film festival. And I did. And I had both of my co-stars come up afterwards and say, that was the most safe I’ve ever felt on a film set, doing any sex scene or anything like that.
Really, it took a long time, it took five hours to shoot the five shots that we needed in those scenes, which is the longest we’ve ever had between takes of just setting it up and making sure things worked. But the feeling afterwards that the people who are in the movie felt taken care of and appreciated and saved is invaluable. And I don’t know, they say be the change you want to see in the world. And I think it’s important to correct the problems in the past by doing it the right way. The long answer to a short question.
PJ McCabe: An important question, and an important thing to cover.
Kelly McNeely: Absolutely. It’s just like having a fight choreographer. It’s about making sure that everyone there feels comfortable and feels safe and feels cared for, which I think is so important.
Jim Cummings: Because it’s awkward as hell!
PJ McCabe: It makes us feel better too, you can tell if somebody’s uncomfortable, it makes everybody uncomfortable. It’s terrible. You don’t have to do it that way.
Jim Cummings: We were so nervous, we were the most nervous out of anybody! Any there’s a scene where I have to synthesized sex with Olivia [Grace Applegate], the girl in a hotel room, and we’re on this desk in this hotel room, and it feels like a porn set. And I’m the employer of these people, and I’m half naked doing this scene to get the footage for this joke. And Annie Spong, the intimacy coordinator, comes up and says, do you want some sort of protection, do you want me to have a towel here to make sure that you don’t get aroused? And I took the blindfold off and I said, there is no possible way that I could get aroused right now. Let’s start rolling. And you forget, it is like kung fu, somebody could actually get hurt here and the only stress, the only thing that could make me feel good, is when this is over and we have the footage here. We can go away and not do this anymore, you know?
Kelly McNeely: A question for both of you, have you ever been tempted to impersonate a police officer or an officer of the law?
Jim Cummings: [Laughs] Well, it’s against the law, and if it’s a federal officer it’s a federal crime. My character just ends up doubling down.
PJ McCabe: The police officer wasn’t working, so he had to go to a federal level.
Jim Cummings: Agent Bruce McAllister – the dumbest fucking name. No, I have not, thank heavens.
PJ McCabe: No one would believe me. I still can’t get into rated R movies without showing ID, so no, it wouldn’t work.
Jim Cummings: He got turned away to see this one.
PJ McCabe: Couldn’t get in to see my own film. They’re like, no, no, no, not for you son, maybe when you’re older. So no, no, I haven’t yet. Not successfully, no.
Kelly McNeely: What would your advice be to anyone who might be looking to break into the entertainment industry? If they want to get into directing, if they want to get into acting, if they want to get involved in the industry?
Jim Cummings: There are really wonderful Facebook groups. Like, I Need A Producer, I Need An Editor, I Need A Production Assistant. And they’re well subscribed. And you can go on there and join the group, and they’re public. And they have like 50,000 people in them. And so if you’re looking to get on set to learn, it’s not difficult to be like, “Hi, I’m in Des Moines, or Azerbaijan, and I was wondering if anybody is in the film community in my neighborhood”. And I’ve sent a bunch of young filmmakers there through Twitter, and it’s been very helpful. That’s how we started when we were first moving to LA, Facebook groups.
And then my answer is always to make short films and not work on feature screenplays. I think everybody when they first start out, I was like, “I have to make the perfect screenplay”. And if you can just focus on making something that’s ten minutes or five minutes, that’s perfect. You’ll save yourself a lot of money and a lot of headache, daydreaming that you’re not good enough.
PJ McCabe: Yeah. And don’t be afraid to try other things. I mean, I was an actor for most of my life growing up. I had done writing, but I was scared to death to share it with anybody. It’s like, don’t be afraid to share your weird stories and try new things and wear different hats. Because, yeah, it helps. It helps with all the other parts of filmmaking to try other stuff. It helps with your acting. So do everything, try to do everything. Don’t be afraid. And don’t be afraid to do weird stuff when you send your stories out. It’s okay. People are looking for that, I think
Kelly McNeely: It’s the best way to learn too, is just to get involved in every way, shape and form you possibly can.
PJ McCabe: Do whatever the heck you can.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, you have to learn everything. I think that’s kind of the future. I think everybody’s gonna have to become much more like YouTubers, where they have to learn everything and create their own studio and channel. I see Hollywood going the same way. So you’re gonna have to learn it anyway. Better start now.
Kelly McNeely: Fair advice. Now, this is a very cliche question, but it’s one I like to ask every now and again. What’s your favorite scary movie? Or top three, because I understand trying to pick one is kind of like trying to pick your favorite child.
Jim Cummings: I’m just looking at the Rosemary’s Baby poster over there, the really beautiful one. It’s the Jonathan Burton print. It’s really gorgeous, if you haven’t seen it, it’s like his fan art of it and it’s really beautiful. Anyway, that’s a really good one, because it lures you in and it kind of makes you feel like you’re going crazy with her. And it’s beautiful.
But the scariest movie, my favorite horror movie, there’s a movie called Session 9 that is kind of cheesy. But there’s 45 minutes in that film that I think is the scariest horror movie ever made. And it’s when the recordings come out, and then the power starts to go out, and that kind of stuff. It’s really, really frightening. And then The Conjuring 2, the James Wan film that takes place in England, I think is probably another one of the scariest movies I’ve seen. And it ends so beautifully, where it’s Ed and Lorraine Warren, and Elvis plays on the record on the radio and they dance in slow motion and it’s a beautiful moment, and you’re still terrified that something’s going to jump out, and nothing does, and it’s really a very complicated fusion of romance and horror that I just love so much.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, I’ll just go with one of the staples. I always go with The Exorcist, just because of just the way it builds up. It’s the most believable movie I’ve ever seen in terms of some of the most ridiculous demonic possession. The way that they forensically go through all this, they do all the steps you would actually take. Like going to the hospital, you would do all that. Everyone is so believable. Even the doctors and scientists that she deals with are like “yeah, this is insane. Have you ever considered going to a priest? I hate to say this. I don’t know what to do”. It’s so heartbreaking and terrifying in such a way, instead of some goofy guy coming in like, “I’m here to do the exorcism”, where it’s just out of nowhere.
Jim Cummings: Which is what we see in every movie since. Which is so weird, because that movie came out in the 1970s.
PJ McCabe: It set the tone, and no one’s been able to come close. And I just… that movie just in terms of a build up? The horror movie is all about the build up, building the stakes high enough and believable enough, and then breaking them in the end. And that’s hard to do. And The Exorcist does that to perfection.
Jim Cummings: The first ten minutes take place in Iraq, and it has nothing to do with the story, but it has everything to do with the story, where it’s like the old priests against the devil. And when it comes back up 60 minutes into the movie and he’s coming back, you’re like, oh, this is why we started that all off.
PJ McCabe: That is the coolest writing, it’s setup, payoff. That is a great structured movie. Yeah, that’s the best.
Kelly McNeely: Do you have two others, or just sticking with one?
Jim Cummings: Zodiac.
PJ McCabe: Zodiac, sure, there’s so many great ones…
Jim Cummings: Did you know that in Zodiac, by David Fincher, they didn’t have any fake blood on set. It’s all CG blood. Because David didn’t want to bother with costume changes. “It would take too long, it would be too much of a mess. We’re not doing makeup and costume changes. We’ll do everything CG.” It’s amazing. You’d never know.
PJ McCabe: Does Se7en count?
Jim Cummings: Se7en counts, for sure.
PJ McCabe: So those are I guess more thrillers, detective thrillers, but they’re horrific. We’re all about the detectives.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, anything David.
Kelly McNeely: There’s a scene in The Wolf of Snow Hollow that reminds me so much of the basement scene in Zodiac. When there’s that slow realization.
Jim Cummings: In the kitchen? That’s the best scene of the movie. I mean, it’s why we made the movie. To be able to do the Mindhunter interrogation style, over the table interviews with a killer is just my favorite thing in the world. And then to do it as a comedy as well. It was so fun. It was so fulfilling. Will Madden, the actor that plays the wolf in that film, he is one of the best actors I know. And he and I were very close when we’re making that film, because he was the only other person that had read all of John Douglas’ books for researching serial killer stuff. So he and I spoke the shorthand of like, all of these different killers and how they think and how they work. And so we were always talking on set about that stuff. And it was a great relationship.
Kelly McNeely: I love that, with Mindhunter, they pulled cases directly from his book. There are so many cases and conversations that were pulled pretty much verbatim.
Jim Cummings: I think Season 2 of Mindhunter is probably the best piece of media ever made. The Wayne Williams case, and the fact that the season starts out and it’s about other cases and Manson and all that kind of interesting stuff, and Son of Sam, but then it becomes about the Atlanta Child Murders and has such a fulfilling ending. And then an unfulfilling ending politically. It’s really incredible. And yeah, I think I watched it about five times. When it first came out. It’s so good.
Kelly McNeely: What’s the best lesson that you’ve learned in your time working in film?
Jim Cummings: I’d say, always work with your friends, that’s the most important thing. Actually I should have learned that earlier. But there’s a story of David Fincher’s where he said he showed up on set for Alien 3. And he said, “I learned in a couple of hours that a union dolly grip doesn’t want to push a dolly for a 29 year old. As soon as I finished that film, I realized I was only going to make movies with my friends”. And he has since, and that’s something that’s very important to us. If you can make movies with people that actually care about you, the movie will be much better than any other way to make a movie.
PJ McCabe: I would echo that. I mean, because it’s such a collaborative effort. I mean, for The Beta Test, obviously, it was Jim and I, but our DP Ken [Wales], I mean, the movie never would have been anything near what it was without his vision, and him adding so much creatively. Charlie [Textor], our production designer, our producers – with whom we’re all friends, like Jim said – and people you trust, because you can take bigger creative leaps and don’t feel self conscious about asking, what do you think about this? And I think that’s a big thing. And I think a lot of times you work with people and you feel weird about trying to take leaps and asking their opinion. So working with your friends, with people you trust, helps creatively, and also just gets it done.
Kelly McNeely: And what’s next for you guys?
Jim Cummings: We are… what’s next for us? It depends what day you ask us. We are writing stuff that’s all very funny, and very poignant in their own little ways. We’re writing a Victorian horror movie as we speak, today. But we’ve been developing it for about two years, and only last week did we start putting it in screenplay format. It’s very good, and we love all the characters, and we’ll try and get that done for the end of the year. And then I don’t know what’s next. It depends. Like we have all these ideas, and then it takes someone saying, yeah, we’ll pay for that, then that becomes what we do next. So yeah.
PJ MaCabe: We’ll see. All of them at some point. We don’t know what order yet. So we’ll see.
The Beta Test is available now on Digital and VOD