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the beta test


Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe of ‘The Beta Test’ on issues with Hollywood, the future of making movies, & genre cinema

The Beta Test has been one of the most critically lauded movies of the year and is a favorite here at AIPT. The movie is about a high powered Hollywood agent who one day gets an envelope that promises a no strings attached one time sexual tryst. This ties into a story about lying, the value of possessions versus personal well-being, and a skewering of Hollywood. Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe wrote, directed, and starred in the festival favorite and spoke with AIPT about the film.

AIPT: Before we talk about The Beta Test, I wanted to ask about how you got the movie funded. You didn’t go through the traditional avenues. 

Cummings: We raised the funds through a crowd equity platform called Wefunder, which means that you start an LLC, a company, and then you sell shares based on what people are willing to pay for it. We raised the full budget for the film in about 12 days from strangers on the internet and supporters throughout the years. 

We’re very, very lucky. It was the fastest that we’ve ever been greenlit, And I think it actually is the future for independent film. We were the third film on the platform, and obviously by far the most successful, which is crazy. But anybody can do it, and it’s a great way to make movie. 

AIPT: Why did you decide to go that route? 

Cummings: We never would’ve been able to make this film in Hollywood. It’s so offensive to Hollywood. Nobody would’ve dreamed of it. And we knew …that’s why we made it in secret. We purposely didn’t send anybody the script. We just had people show up on the day and made the thing.  

And it was very important for us to keep this radioactive story secret. And we knew that we could do it. Having done two other films with the same team, we knew that we could execute this thing and make it what it is today. 

McCabe: I think we just wanted to see if we could do it this way so we don’t have to rely on other people constantly telling us it’s okay to go do this and waiting years to get a project made. It’s like, what if we just find a way to finance it ourselves through starting our own company this way?  

This was kind of the beta test for being able to make projects like this. And I think luckily it seems like it might work, so good start. 

AIPT: What was the inspiration behind The Beta Test? 

Cummings: PJ and I had a conversation about the letter service, about what you would do. That was kind of the genesis of the project, was what you would do if you had a letter in the mail inviting you to a no strings attached sexual encounter with an admirer? And … 

McCabe: A very weird specific thing. 

Cummings: We’re like, “Would you go?” And then PJ said, “No, I wouldn’t go. Please don’t call me. I’m with my family.” And then it became … 

McCabe: We’ll talk about this later. 

Cummings: And then we did. For about a year, we talked about. And then it became about lying and cheating, and we thought that it’d be funny and kind of poignant to have it be a talent agent, which is like ground zero for lying and cheating. And the WGA packaging fight was happening at the same time, so we developed this research about that to kind of nail that world.  

And then it was also about big data and how the internet is now connecting people in ways that agencies never could, and that you could completely derail someone’s life just by using the internet, and derail a system like an agency world just by making movies on your own. 

And The Beta Test as a feature film kind of became the beta test for us to see if that thesis could be proved, that we could make something and completely circumvent the Hollywood system and still be successful. And it was. 

AIPT: Were you ever a little scared or think you might have gone a little too far? 

Cummings: Constantly. And I was the worst at that. PJ and I have very much a South Park kind of writer’s room mentality  where we were writing stuff and then I was like, “I don’t know. Can you say that? Is that okay that we’re making fun of this? I don’t know.” And then towards the end, PJ was like, “Burn it down.” He was like, “Do it all. We’re doing all of it. So fuck them.” 

And it paid off. I’m really glad that we were as honest as we were in the film, because the movie’s about dishonesty. We couldn’t pull punches. People would know. And so we tried to make it as ugly of a craft as you could possibly imagine entering in a world of suits. And it was fun. 

McCabe: I think if we made it any lighter, it wouldn’t have been as impactful. I think the only way that you care about the stakes is to really lean into what’s going on in the real world and what this guy actually goes through to make it feel real, to make the stakes high enough that the rest of the story matters. Honestly, I don’t think we went far enough. 

Cummings: Looking back at it, it’s tame. And there’s so many stories that we heard from people that were graphic of like cocaine use and sex in the office and all of this really terrible shit, and we didn’t include any of that because we’re like, “People wouldn’t believe it.” 

McCabe: We didn’t get near The Wolf of Wall Street-esque level of debauchery in the agent world that I’m sure exists. It’s just kind of like lame and boring side of LA, which was kind of the fun part to make fun of in this movie. 

AIPT: There’s a lot of themes in the movie. It’s a comedy, but then it’s a mystery. It has a little bit of erotica and horror going on in it. How would you describe it? 

Cummings: I always say it’s whatever Parasite is. It’s like all of these different genres put together, but it works. And PJ and I always try and make movies that function as an engine like a genre, like a detective story or an erotic thriller. 

And then the comedy comes naturally because it’s so ridiculous when you’re acting in it or thinking about it. And so inevitably the movies become comedies with these functional genre audience engines. 

AIPT: You mentioned the comedy to it. How much of the movie was improvised? 

the beta test

Cummings: Almost nothing was improvised. Because of the budget and the schedule that we have, it’s very difficult to improvise. So, if someone improvises, the boom mic might not end up in the same spot every time. That’s a great compliment. 

McCabe: I’m glad to hear you say that. But yeah, it was all very meticulously thought out and we stuck to the script very closely pretty much the whole movie. 

AIPT: Including the monologue at the end of the movie? 

Cummings: Yeah. It had to be; we were doing a lot of that in long takes. In order for it to be in focus all the time, it had to be done forensically. And that kind of comedy is my favorite kind. It’s not improv and setting up over the shoulder coverage of each scene and finding the comedy and the edit or whatever. 

I’m not an improv actor. I’m not an actor really. But the only way that I’ve been able to find a way to make it any good is to plan about months and in advance and make sure that it doesn’t suck. 

AIPT: The movie balances a lot of different tones. Were you ever worried that you might lose the audience in it? 

Cummings: We do all of the scripts out loud and then we’ll record it like this as a podcast. We’ll play the parts, PJ and me, for every scene, and then we lie in music and sound design. It only takes like a day and a half to do. 

But then we have this document that is an audio version of the script, and so not only does it tell you that it’s working in some of these parts, it’s also telling you when it doesn’t. Like there are times when we’re in the recording booth doing the podcast version of it, which is just my closet upstairs, and I’ll go, “No, that’s not really working. That’s taking too long,” and so we’ll cut it down and kind of find the real meat of the scene and make it that. 

It’s a really great litmus test to see if the movie’s going to work. So we’ve already listened to it a thousand times and edited it. It just happens to just be in audio form instead of in video form. 

McCabe: I think the only time we’re worried about losing the audience is when they watch the first scene and think they were in the wrong movie, and so they walk out. 

Cummings: Yeah, the movie opens with this really graphic Swedish murder and it’s not funny at all basically.  

McCabe: And you’re like, “I think we walked into a foreign film that is not what we signed up for,” so we’re in the wrong theater.  

Cummings: And then my stupid face shows up and they’re like, “Oh, I guess this is a comedy.” 

AIPT: What do you want audiences to get out of it? 

Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe of 'The Beta Test' on issues with Hollywood, the future of making movies, & genre cinema

Cummings: Honestly, I just want audiences to be like, “Oh, that was cool. That was a cool movie.” I’m so selfish with that and petty. It’s never any of the loftier ambitions of people reconsidering the value of having people in suits represent you who do a bad job of representing themselves. Any of that stuff I hope is like the medicine that gets taken down with the sugar, but the sugar of the movie is just the suave cinematography and the goofy comedy. 

McCabe: I just hope people are along for the ride and that they see something that’s unique, and you’re like, “Wow, I’ve never seen storytelling like that before and that kind of tone. And I don’t know. That was something new, and I feel like … ” I don’t know. I’m most proud of that, that I feel like we did something pretty unique for audiences and I think people want to see that. 

AIPT: Do you prefer being in front of the camera or behind it? 

Cummings: Definitely, definitely behind. I think for our new movies, we’re not going to be acting in them. I think we’re going to be casting other people that we love to be in the film. 

McCabe: If you had asked me before this project, I would’ve said 100% in front of, but now I’ve got the bug. I just want to write and I want to direct. I’m so much more interested in that side now, and I definitely enjoy that aspect of it. It’s fun. 

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