Having made waves on the festival circuit earlier this year, The Beta Test arrives in theaters and on VOD today, with the razor-sharp satirical black comedy winning rave reviews from critics, where it’s currently Certified Fresh with a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Co-written and co-directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, The Beta Test stars Cummings in the lead role of Jordan Hines, a soon-to-be married Hollywood agent who receives a mysterious envelope offering him an anonymous sexual encounter with no strings attached.
Accepting the offer, he soon finds himself drawn into a seedy underworld of lying, cheating, deceit, infidelity and murder. McCabe also co-stars in the film, which manages to take shots at everything from the duplicitous world of talent agencies to social media data mining via the tropes of the conspiracy and erotic thrillers thrown in for good measure.
Ahead of the movie’s release, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Cummings and McCabe about The Beta Test, and you can check out what the duo had to say below.
What was the original genesis of the idea that eventually became The Beta Test? Because you surely can’t have settled on an industry-set, paranoid, sexual, social media, societal, data mining, conspiracy, narcissistic comedy thriller right out of the gate?
PJ McCabe: That was the plan all along! We knew exactly what we were doing.
Jim Cummings: You discovered us! So yeah, the original idea was not that. It was just a simple idea of getting envelopes in the mail that would invite you to an anonymous sexual encounter, and that was just interesting to us. Like, modern day, and how you’d have to stage, you know, a heist basically.
This very kind of complicated, Lupin the third episode, to have an affair these days, and it was just kind of funny and interesting to us. And it was about lying and cheating, and then we thought, ‘If you make something about lying and cheating, then it has to be about talent agents as well’. So we sat there, and all the while the agencies were in this war with the Writers Guild of America and it was always in the headlines, so why don’t we do that?
And then the data mining came about from everything that we wanted to say about the agency world probably collapsing because of interconnectivity and the internet. And so, it kind of created this ball of stress for this one guy to go through that all felt connected, and it just became very quickly a screenplay, like, ‘Oh this would work if we started writing it’. And PJ and I wrote it over like a year and a half, it was crazy.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, it definitely went through a lot of different versions, but the more we kind of wrote and beefed up the different aspects of it, the more it kind of just made more sense to us and came out to the final product.
Was it difficult to condense the script down from the core concept to where you wanted it to be ahead of the shoot, when it’s constantly juggling so many tones, themes and insights?
Jim Cummings: I mean, yeah. I’m really bad at that stuff, PJ was really good at tracking all of those things, and we recorded it as a podcast as well, so we had like an audio version of it that we knew was working, so you could kind of track all of these different elements; the drama, the comedy, the kind of scares, the stuff like that. So we kind of knew that it was going to work in an audio format, and then we kind of showed up on set and just kind of hoped that it would still work in video format. And then every day was us furthering that hope, like, ‘We got yesterday, so maybe we’ll do well today’.
PJ McCabe: It was definitely… on set, I was constantly checking the script to make sure we weren’t getting details of the letters screwed up so it wouldn’t make sense, or it just… We had to at least make it seem feasible that all of this stuff was happening. Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking, but I’m glad we got everything and didn’t screw something up, or shot the wrong day or the wrong color envelope or something, yeah.
The Beta Test is scathing in its commentary of social media, but the film wouldn’t have happened without the support and backing of fans and crowd-sourced funding, so was it fun to take such big shots at something that’s been so beneficial to your careers to add another layer of self-awareness to the film?
Jim Cummings: I mean, for us, we’re still a small business. Like, we’re still independent filmmakers doing the best we can. And the way that we were able to use social media to engage people who might be interested in wanting to invest in a film was very incredible. Like, there’s no way we could have made this film without social media, you’re right. But then, to make fun of Facebook is just the best thing in the world. Because they’re just war criminals, basically. And so, I don’t know, it felt like we were using these social media platforms to say these social media platforms are dangerous, and we should act that way.
PJ McCabe: It’s definitely a double-edged sword. I mean, we love the internet so much, we’re huge Redditors, I would be lost without the internet. And it has so many good things, but it’s also fun to talk about some of the scarier aspects of it that are only getting more dangerous, with the data collecting and data scraping. And that was a fun, kind of horror movie thing, to try and make a movie about.
Have you shown the movie to your own agents, or is there an unspoken don’t ask/don’t tell agreement in place to avoid any sort of tension?
Jim Cummings: We don’t have agents!
PJ McCabe: Yeah, I don’t have an agent right now. I don’t know if that’ll change anytime soon…
Jim Cummings: It probably won’t after this film! But no, for the last year, maybe more, we haven’t. Because of the WGA packaging fights, like right before we shot the film basically, we had to sign something saying we’d leave our agents, because the agency that I was at… PJ never had agents… but I had like six or something like that at William Morris.
In order to stay in the WGA I had to fire them, so I fired them in something like October of 2019, right before we shot, and so… And I didn’t even have to do it myself. The WGA was like, ‘You just have to sign this thing in order to get paid and we’ll reach out to them on your behalf’. And it was very clean, and it was very interesting. So I have no idea what they’ll think, I have no idea.
PJ McCabe: We’re sort of running out of runway here pretty quick! So we’ll find out…
Jordan is an asshole, but he’s a very watchable and strangely charismatic asshole. Is that more exciting for you as performers and filmmakers to have a protagonist like that, rather than someone that’s easy to root for and organically generates sympathy?
Jim Cummings: Yeah, I mean to me, if a character has a heart of gold and saves the cat every five minutes, I’m not interested. Like, I think you have to show horns and halos in order for it to be a human, and the humanity is the thing that audiences connect to, I think. So no, it was very important for us to have this guy be a very complicated, watchable dickhead. Those are the only characters I know how to play, and it’s very… It’s much more interesting to watch those characters than someone who is flawless.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, I mean I think he’s one of the most realistic characters we’ve ever written! I know so many Jordans out in the real world. These people exist. So yeah, I think it’s incredibly fun to watch this realistic guy go through this ridiculous hell.
The Beta Test is what I imagine would happen if David Lynch directed an Entourage spinoff set in the L.A. of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. Does that sound like a fair summation to you guys?
Jim Cummings: That’s pretty good.
PJ McCabe: I like that, that’s a very good one.
Jim Cummings: It does feel like that, the Falling Down kind of like, pressure cooker due having a nervous breakdown with the audience while they’re watching. And yeah, Blue Velvet is one of my favorites. It’s just so terrifying, and ugly, and suburban and… Yeah, that’s not too far off.
PJ McCabe: Entourage would have been a much better show if they’d had David Lynch guest directing.
Jim Cummings: Weirdest. Episode. Ever.
PJ McCabe: Oh yeah!
After Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow and The Beta Test, thematically at least you’ve created a trilogy of toxic masculinity stories set in three wildly different genres. Was that by accident or design?
Jim Cummings: It’s a bit by accident. So… I just… all of my films, even the ones I don’t act in happen to be about public freakouts. They happen to be about some event where somebody’s having the worst day of their life happen in public very loudly. Often in a parking lot. And I just find that to be interesting. I grew up on Reddit, so I was watching all of these public freakout videos, and Karen videos, and stuff like that.
And it was just… it became this, I guess my litmus test for writing, was just that. ‘Is it going to be interesting internationally and universally?’. And I just find them to be so interesting, these public freakouts, and the fact I’m acting in them, it has to be a due that’s humiliating himself and shouting a lot. So it always ends up becoming about these toxic dudes, in order to placate our desires to just show people freaking out.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you’re working on a Victorian horror comedy buddy romance and a YouTuber who runs a news station from his garage. It doesn’t sound as though you could come up with a pair of ideas much further apart, but which one is closer to becoming your next project?
Jim Cummings: I don’t know. I mean, we’ve written David Tonight, that’s the YouTuber movie. and it’s amazing, and it’s so endearing and f*cking hilarious, and I’d love to do that. It’s a written script. Like, PJ and I are still taking off next week to go write the Victorian film, and so… I guess David Tonight is closer to getting made, but the passion PJ and I have for the Victorian film is so strong that it’s like, ‘F*ck, if we get this made it’ll be the most important thing we ever do in our lives’.
PJ McCabe: That’s the one we kind of circle, and we’re like, ‘That could be the masterpiece. That could be the best thing we ever do’. We’re very overconfident on that one, but I think it’s warranted. We were working on it last night, and it’s great. I just… it gets better and better every time we start working on it.
That concludes our interview with Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe. The Beta Test is now playing in select theaters and available to rent on VOD from today, November 5.