The Beta Test, the third feature from indie director Jim Cummings (Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow) is an arresting watch. Co-written and co-directed by collaborator and close friend PJ McCabe (who also stars), the film is a taut, high-energy blend of horror, social comment, and searing satire.
The premise feels bitingly pertinent. Cummings plays Jordan Hines, an odious, self-important Hollywood talent agent who receives an anonymous invitation to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter in a hotel room. Unsurprisingly, curiosity and temptation get the better of this loathsome industry insider and, despite help from a colleague (played by McCabe), Hines soon finds himself ensnared in a web of deceit and violence as he searches obsessively for answers.
To mark The Beta Test’s UK release, The Indiependent caught up with Cummings and McCabe to chat about public freak-outs, making fun of Hollywood, and a fascination with men on the brink of disaster.
The Indiependent: There’s a lot going on in this movie. On the one hand you’ve got this erotic thriller about personal data and social media. And on the other you have this sharp satire of Hollywood. How did these two elements come together during the writing process?
PJ McCabe: Combining the two, it just made sense. When you’re already planning to do a movie like The Beta Test about lying and infidelity, why not do it about a talent agent from Tinseltown too? It was the perfect setting to lampoon Hollywood while also doing a digital-age thriller about this crazy letter service. The two elements just seemed to match up.
Jim Cummings: A lot of it was just working out loud. The way that PJ and I write is by talking out every scene and then recording it as a podcast. We’ll run the audio back and then be like ‘oh my god, that’d be so ridiculous to have that happen here’ or ‘this joke would kill about 70 minutes in.’ It sort of just works.
As part of your research, you spoke to real-life assistants who work for these big talent agencies. How much of what they told you influenced the final script for The Beta Test?
JC: Yeah, so much of it. Like, a thousand little things. One example was the testimony from a source at one of the top agencies saying there are 50-year-old agency partners, working in this tiny little office making like $45,000 a year while also living in this small apartment together. That was inspiration for the scene where my character and PJ’s character are talking and I say “we don’t make a lot of money.” He then says “yeah, but we act like we do.”
Did their testimony validate the opinions you already held about the industry? Or was there anything that surprised you?
JC: Oh yeah. What we say is that everything you think about Hollywood is true. It is. It’s terrible. It’s like Succession. All of these people—these shells of people—pretending to be a certain thing. Nobody watches movies. Nobody gives a shit about movies. So of course with The Beta Test we wanted to make fun of them.
PM: They all work in the Death Star and you go in and it’s very intimidating. And not just agencies. Studios and these other big companies can seem very scary. They’re just trading intellectual property like it’s currency.
JC: All that ‘let’s keep talking’ stuff, that’s real. For years everybody just talks about making movies instead of actually making them. Our friends who were executives would tell us that they’d be developing 90 projects a year and only making two of them. Yet they’d still be talking to creatives as if their projects were the only ones they cared about. And it’s so sad because these people are left daydreaming for a decade instead of going out and making something. It’s this really corrosive waste of time, really. And so, in the making of The Beta Test, we wanted to completely circumvent that stuff by showing that you can do it literally any other way. And better.
What is it about humour and satire that makes it such an effective tool in exploring what are actually quite serious, and very real issues affecting real people?
JC: I always say laughter is the mind sneezing. If you put a good joke into the thing, you can win the audience. You can talk about serious issues but if you can make a joke while doing it, the audience will be on your side. I think you can cut through so much bullshit by the inclusion of comedy and having these characters humiliated. It makes the audience feel more powerful than the character. And these agency people have been making audiences and filmmakers feel like shit for the last 100 years so it’s great to be able to make jokes about them and bring the power back to the people.
Jim, I think it’s fair to say that in The Beta Test, as in all of your films, you’ve shown a particular penchant for writing and playing men who are on the verge of disaster. What interests you about these sorts of characters?
JC: I just find public freak-outs really interesting. There’s something fascinating about watching someone basically say ‘I’m not going to take it anymore.’ That kind of thing speaks to the populist in me. So when I show Thunder Road to an audience and you see my character take his clothes off, shout at a bunch of people and quit his job there and then, so many people are like ‘man, I’ve been wanting to do that for years.’ I think it speak to this bizarre, human desire to say ‘fuck you’ to the powers that be. And I love that. With Jordan, it was the same kind of thing but in reverse. We were able to humiliate this guy and the audiences get to laugh at their boss a little bit. Screaming in a parking lot seems to be my trademark. The Beta Test is my third film doing that.
PJ: He does it in real life too, by the way.
Speaking of freak-outs, as a performer, how much preparation goes into those moments and how much of it is off the cuff?
JC: It’s all meticulously planned. There’re so many things that make it this ballet that you have to orchestrate a million times before you do it. So if you’re not ready to go and nail it every time on set, it’s going to fail. I rehearse all those things a thousand times before we show up. And that’s the only reason they’re any good. I’m not an actor. I never went to acting school so I feel the need to rehearse more than anyone. It’s the only way I’m able to ensure the work isn’t mediocre.
PM: Yeah, it’s nerve-wracking to show up on set and be like ‘I’m just going to figure it out on the day.’ That’s insane. I don’t know how people can do that.
One of my favourite lines in the movie is when Jordan says to his fiancé that they’re thinking of remaking Caddyshack with dogs. If you could remake any film and give it your treatment, what would it be?
JC: The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Nah, I’m joking. I just had such a complicated relationship with that film. There were studio notes and I was constantly thinking ‘man, I wish I could’ve done things this way or that way.’ But no, I’m happy with the film. So it’d probably have to be Stalker, the [Andrei] Tarkovsky film. That’d be a lot of fun.
PJ: There’s a Jimmy Stewart movie called Harvey that’s always been close to my heart. I’ve always thought it’d be really funny to make it a much weirder, tense modern version about a guy just losing it with a pooka that walks around scaring people. So, yeah, doing a dark Harvey would be hilarious to me. I don’t know why I just thought of that.
As champions of independent film, what’s your take on where Hollywood is now and where it’s headed? Particularly given the fact that someone can now, quite literally, shoot a movie on their mobile phone?
JC: I think it’s that. In The Beta Test, we have moments when buildings are shaking and the landscape of Hollywood is literally being moved by earthquakes. And that’s representative of the shift that’s happening. Everything is becoming more democratised. You can now knock on the door at Netflix and say ‘hey, I have this thing—would you be interested in buying it?’ And they take you just as seriously as a sales agent, which has never happened before in the history of the system. So, I think it’s all going to become levelled. I think it’s going to be about the cream rising to the top. But I still think the biggest issue for independent filmmakers is the feeling of inadequacy. That worry they don’t have these stamps of approval that qualify their work. The only reason I know that is because I went through it a thousand times myself. But you only need to look at what’s happened in the music industry. Someone like Billie Eilish was able to make a name for herself and do a song in a Bond movie because she and her brother put some mattresses up around her living room, recorded some tracks and put them on SoundCloud. I think that’s what the film industry is like now, and will only become more so once the walls start to fall down.
So, with that in mind, is there anything you’ve seen recently, perhaps a lesser known movie by a fledgling filmmaker, that really impressed you?
JC: Corpus Christi, the Polish film from 2019. It’s a really beautiful, stressful movie. Also, Barry, the Bill Hader TV show. Super violent, super funny.
PM: Just traumatic comedy, really. I haven’t seen that much new stuff because I went through a phase of watching nothing but Hitchcock movies. It’s so bad, but if I have a night to watch something, my instinct is to always stick on a classic when I really should be watching something new. I only recently got Twitter. I don’t even have a Letterboxd account yet. I’m playing a lot of catch up.
And finally, with The Beta Test now done, what’s next for you guys?
JC: We’ve been doing development internally, which translates as us talking about it and planning a trip to the mountains to work on it, on a 19th Century horror-comedy-romance-buddy-ghost story. Which is a mouthful but it’s really great. We haven’t written the script yet but we have this big document where we’ve compiled all of our research. We basically have the entire outline. We just haven’t sat down to write yet.
PM: I think we’re going to do it in November. We’re just going to rip the band aid off and lock ourselves away for a week and not come out until we have something down and just go from there. It’s going to be a blast.
The Beta Test is out in UK cinemas now. Read our review here.
Words by George Nash
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