Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe Pass The Beta Test

How the indie filmmakers burned Hollywood down

PJ McCabe and Jim Cummings in The Beta Test (Image Courtesy of IFC Films)

There aren't many stars in indie cinema but, much as he might blanch at the idea, Jim Cummings is one of them. After his new sharp-fanged satire, The Beta Test, had its Austin debut during Fantastic Fest, he was politely, and with socially-distanced respect, mobbed.

As one of the most prominent faces of the current DIY indie scene, and a constant advocate for making your own movie on your own terms, there’s an image of Cummings as the modern auteur. Instead, he’s a collaborator, as shown by The Beta Test (on VOD now), for which he shares writing, directing, and starring credits with fellow filmmaker PJ McCabe. The creative relationship goes back years, with McCabe having acted in several of Cummings' films, including the original short of his breakout feature, Thunder Road (which Cummings wrote in McCabe's basement and shot partially in Austin), and his Fantastic Fest 2020 lycanthropic police procedural The Wolf of Snow Hollow, plus they were cast together in coastal horror Block Island Sound where we pay a duo of yokels," said Cummings.

McCabe added there was no deliberate decision to share credit. "It just sort of happened from start to finish. It always felt like our movie."

“It always felt like our movie.” - PJ McCabe
Cummings described it as an almost inevitable byproduct of the way they write scripts together. "Because we do so much in audio form, the movie's kind of done in screenplay format and it's not gonna change at all. I was like, 'Fuck it, we're already directing it, why don't we direct it together?' ... It was so fluid to do it that way."

If The Beta Test does prove one part of the Cummings legend true, it’s in its contempt and mistrust for the current state of the film industry, and especially agents. In it, Cummings plays Jordan, an ego-driven ladder climber at a big agency, whose hubris is caught between a changing industry and out-of-control technology that rips through his personal and professional lives. "The internet connects people, and it's great for small business, and it's terrible for the gatekeepers," said Cummings.

At the same time, The Beta Test is built on mistrust of social media, and the new gatekeepers, the people designing platforms and software that so many people blindly trust with their personal information. “And we know what they’re doing with all this data,” added McCabe. “They’re harvesting it and selling it.”

“To people who want to win elections,” Cummings concluded. “It’s fucking awful.” He cited the philosopher Sam Harris, who had a bleak prognostication about technology, and particularly the future of AI. “The scariness is not that it’s Apple, or Google Deep Mind. It’s going to be these bros in Silicon Valley – he refers to them as a room full of Asperger’s high on Red Bull – and they end up breaking the system and making a conscious being, and it fucks up everything.”

The film has added a new layer of relevance: while Cummings and McCabe were at the film’s Fantastic Fest screening, there was a tectonic shift in the film business. Two of the four biggest Hollywood talent agencies, CAA and ICM partners, announced they were merging. This wasn't a standard acquisition, but a sign of the wavering power and wealth of agencies, often despised for securing deals for their clients that benefitted the firms, not the creatives. Cummings said, "The weird thing is that, during the pandemic CAA fired half their staff, and PJ and I were like, 'That's what's happening on our screenplay. That's what we did. That's the joke that we're making.' But it's true. Hollywood is changing because of the internet, and Covid is pushing it 10 years forward."

Austin Chronicle: Your first two films hammer on male fallibility, but this pulls back and goes, "No, everybody sucks."

Jim Cummings: It's so funny to watch the movie around the world. With French audiences, they go, "Why do American audiences care about sex?" In America, we get it, because social media is a chip in our brain and we go, "Oh, you can't do that on social media any more because you'll get murdered, or your reputation is destroyed." In France, they go, "Everybody has a mistress."

AC: It's that old joke about French politics, that it's a scandal if an elected official is only having one affair.

JC: What a conservative! That's what I love about making movies. Acting in the lead is really fun, getting to be Jackie Chan and getting the shit kicked out of me, and audiences like it. That's this weird self-flagellation humiliation pornography that I love to portray to make audiences laugh. I love making movies about these weird, shitty guys, and have audiences go, "Oh, that poor guy" but also "I'm glad I'm not that person and I'm never going to be that person."

The next few movies that we're going to do, we're not acting in, so there's going to be different loads for audiences' brains.

AC: This is surprisingly gory, and the opening scene is up there with anything from The Wolf of Snow Hollow.

JC: This scene is far worse.

PJM: We showed it to David Fincher and he said, "Yeah, you're very talented." That scene is so graphic.

JC: To hear the whole audience go "Oh my god!" and gasp, it's so much fun as a filmmaker, and PJ and I are just laughing for the next three minutes

PJM: I feel terrible. We're just cracking up.

JC: And the couple are actually our good friends, Christian [Hillborg] and Malin [Barr], they're actually a couple in real life, they're actually Swedish, they're very lovely, and there's no blood on set. All of that is visual effects, and you'd never know. So the whole time PJ and I are going, "Cool, our magic trick sleight-of-hand is working." And to open a comedy with that scene - you might lose the audience, but nobody left.

“I love making movies about these weird, shitty guys, and have audiences go, ‘Oh, that poor guy’ but also ‘I’m glad I’m not that person and I’m never going to be that person.’” - Jim Cummings
AC: That opening scene reminded me of the opening to You're Next, which goes for the throat straight of the door too and then goes, "Oh, here's the plot."

JC: It's really good. It's a great use of a single location, great use of tension, great out-of-focus characters in the background. It feels like classic horror done really well. It feels like a more potent version of Halloween - I know, that's blasphemy to say.

AC: Nah, it's just honesty, which is really what the film is about, with people adopting these personas and lying about their true natures.

JC: Jean-Paul Sartre said there's no such thing as a waiter. It's just people pretending to be a waiter. I find that so true for every line of work. You show up, and you pretend to be this other person.

He also said, when two men get in an elevator, there're three people: it's guy one, guy two, and the cop. For whatever reason, society has set up that you can't grab the guy's bag because the cop is going to get you - but there is no cop, it's imaginary. But you have to remember that nowadays, especially with social media and that branding that we have on Instagram of who we are, that you're not that person, and that you're actually funny, goofy, sad.

We watched all of Adam Curtis's documentaries before making this movie, and they're all about power dynamics. That was what Ceán Chaffin, David Fincher's partner - the producer of Seven and also his life partner - said. "The movie is not necessarily about the WGA packaging fight. It's about the power in Hollywood shifting from the letter-getter to the letter-sender, and that's a system that has never been part of Hollywood before." I read her email and went, "Oh, that's what I was trying to say."

The Beta Test is available on VOD now. Read our review here.

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Jim Cummings, The Beta Test, PJ McCabe

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