Having cracked the crowdfunded code with Thunder Road, writer-director Jim Cummings returned to his indie investor hive in 2019 with the ambitious aim of blending a conspiracy-laden erotic thriller with stark post-Weinstein Hollywood satire. One pandemic later, and The Beta Test is finally out in cinemas.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay caught up with Jim and co-director PJ McCabe to discuss how the project came about, the online indie revolution, and what it’s like to make a movie with your best friend.
NICHOLAS LAY: Thunder Road was a major crowdfunding success. What led you to level up and reach out to investors this time around, and were you surprised at how quickly you were able to raise the money?
JIM CUMMINGS: We were constantly surprised! During the Kickstarter campaign for Thunder Road we had people reaching out to us online to buy shares, which was both unexpected and awesome. We realised that funding movies through investors would probably be the future, whether it was people in Silicon Valley, people we had met at festivals, or people outside the industry altogether. For The Beta Test, we ran the campaign and raised the money [$250,000] in 12 days, which told us that the worst case scenario would be that we would never have to go back to Hollywood cap-in-hand. Instead, we could do this entirely on our own. That was a surprise, but with the technology and global reach available these days, it has never been easier to do.
PJ McCABE: That success has only emboldened us to keep going because it works incredibly well, better than we ever could have expected. We’re now off and running as a studio and that’s where we want to be going forward.
NL: The Beta Test is part Hollywood satire, part erotic-conspiracy thriller. What was the inspiration behind the idea and how did it develop?
JC: It started with the simple idea of getting a letter in the mail inviting you to an anonymous sexual encounter and how that could completely derail your life. That was interesting to me, almost as a sort of Twilight Zone concept. I think I must have been getting seedy DMs on Instagram and that’s where the idea came from. I pitched it to PJ and asked him what he would do if this ever happened. I’d like to say there were loftier goals focused on saying something poignant about Hollywood or the internet, but it wasn’t that… it was this petty anonymous sex thing that we thought was funny. The way we make movies now means that we don’t have a massive budget or a long schedule – we shot the film in 18 days – so everything, including the poignance of the film, was developed during the writing phase and built into the DNA of the script.
PJM: It was definitely because Jim was fascinated by those messages and was tempted to follow through and see what happens if you actually replied to one of these random people. I told him it would probably be weird and scary and you’d get murdered, plus you’re in a happy relationship, so don’t do it! But I too was intrigued by what would do go down if someone did it, particularly if the invitation came by letter, which is a unique way to communicate something like that in the 21st century. From there, the concept snowballed. The core theme was temptation and the other themes played off that as we wrote the script and built the story.
NL: Jim, this is your third feature as director, and PJ it’s your first. You wrote, directed, and starred in the film together… was this collaboration long in the works and what was it like working together through the writing process and on set?
JC: Back in 2011 PJ and I co-wrote and co-directed a short film called ‘The Flamingo’ that we shot in 3D. No-one took writing or directing credit, it was just an experimental collaboration about PJ moving into a hotel for a month after a break up, so very funny and very poignant. We shot in stereoscopic 3D, which is ridiculous, but it was a fun movie to make together and we became good friends during that experience. We constantly bounced other stories around, until this idea came about and we found ourselves talking about it ad nauseum. We realised it played to our interests and both thought it was a really cool idea, plus it made me laugh every day and was a dream project as it didn’t feel like work. I got to hang out and bullshit with PJ and my other friends, which is what I would have been doing anyway! The way we construct these movies is very forensic and meticulous with regards to setups and punchlines, so when we write we direct and act the script out loud as we go, then record it like a podcast and add music and sound design. The movie has essentially been directed before we show up on set; we simply live in the moment and elevate that podcast recording to a full feature.
PJM: We probably have thousands of script ideas that we’re working on or that are in different stages of development, but this was the one we really latched on to and wanted to complete there and then. Writing and then being on set together was a breeze. There was no delegating or saying you do this or you do that. Once we’re on set we have a really good idea of what we need and from there it’s just a fun process where you get to shoot a movie with your best friend and the rest of your buddies who you hang out and drink with on a regular basis. It was a very chill environment and the shoot went suspiciously well considering some of the complicated locations we were using. We had so little time on set that dicking around was out of the question. We got in, got our shots, and got out, which was easy because Jim was the editor, so we knew when we had the shot and could move on.
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NL: Did you have a favourite moment during the shoot?
JC: There is a scene where my assistant in the film comes into my office, sits down, and it becomes this shift in power dynamics when she reveals she might know something about me and is possibly using it to blackmail me. It’s a wonderful sleight of hand magic trick that we knew the audience wouldn’t be expecting, and it’s a real laugh out loud moment, so that was definitely one of my favorites. Every day was special and even ridiculous at times, including me beating up a dude with a hammer, which we were excited about as it looked so real!
PJM: On day two we had this lovely woman come in and beat up our producer Ben’s car with a baseball bat in the background while Jim’s walking by and there’s a helicopter flying overhead. It’s such a quick, ludicrous shot and it was so early in the shoot that it was one of the moments where I thought to myself, “What the fuck are we doing… what kind of movie are we making?!”. It was so funny and we were all cracking up because she was so timid at first and was hitting the car so lightly because she didn’t want to damage it. Eventually Ben picked up the bat and smashed the shit out of his own car and this sweet old lady got it and knew she could go for it. At that point I shrugged and knew it was going to be a weird movie.
NL: The film looks fantastic, even more so when the micro-budget is taken into account; what did cinematographer Ken Wales bring to the production?
JC: There’s a great quote from Allison Janney when she won Best Support Actress for I, Tonya: “I did it all by myself.” [laughs]. Seriously though, Ken Wales is unbelievable and the movie feels so precise because of him. He has so much technical wizardry as a cinematographer and you really are watching a master at work when he’s behind the camera. We had many long conversations about film theory, the language of the movie, and how to “get” the audience. Ken’s a pervert like us when it comes to getting a laugh out of the audience, and if we want to make a great cinematic punchline then the camera has to be there with us to help structure and tell that joke, and that’s what Ken brought to the table. It was so much fun working with him.
NL: You shot the film before the pandemic and oversaw post-production during lockdown. How does it feel to finally see The Beta Test on the festival circuit and in theatres?
JC: It’s been great. We weren’t able to travel to Berlin for the world premiere but they had us there during the summer season and we had an amazing outdoor screening. Then we had Tribeca in New York and have travelled all over the festival circuit. It came out in theatres in the UK on October 15th and it’s out in theatres in North America as of November 5th, which makes for a crazy, complicated feeling because we started almost as a rumour that you can make a movie in your garage and get it to the world stage, and it turned out to be true! My aunt texted me the other day asking when and where she could see the film, and I was excited to tell her that it’ll be out at her local theatre in New Orleans, which really made me feel like we’d made it, or at least that we’ve snuck into the building and no-one has called us out yet.
NL: Jim, you continue to examine the American psyche with the characters you write for yourself, who are frequently anxiety-ridden and lost for the purpose to the point of open toxicity. What keeps bringing you back to this type of character?
JC: It’s funny because I play a really nice guy with a heart of gold in Thunder Road, but he has those public freakouts, meltdowns, and Jerry Maguire moments along the way, like when he quits his job. I just find this age of public meltdowns so interesting, like Karen videos, which I love and just can’t stop watching, especially when they’re being kicked off a plane. An uncomfortable, confined public space like that is such an inappropriate place for a fight, and that says something about how society at large is failing those people, who themselves are guilty, like my character Jordan is in The Beta Test, but at the same time are so fascinating because they’ve reached the point where they are now broken and are willing to shout and scream in public. It speaks to a larger American sentiment in the way Dog Day Afternoon does when Pacino is shouting “Attica!” at the police. I grew up watching those movies and I still love acting so I’m drawn to playing these toxic masculine figures who are complete jerks.
NL: We just saw you pop up at the start of Halloween Kills. Are you open to working for other directors more often or is the plan to focus on your own features?
JC: That was the first time anybody had asked me to be in their movie! David Gordon Green watched Thunder Road again on a plane while he was casting Halloween Kills and he called me the next day to ask if I’d like to come and shoot something. I wondered if I would have to audition but he was like no just come on down. I’d love to act in other stuff and I know PJ would as well, but nobody’s knocking on our doors. You have to make your own movies these days to find the best part.
NL: PJ, this was your first feature behind the camera. Is directing a lane you’re planning to move into for the long haul?
PJM: I think so. It’s funny, if you had asked me that a few years ago I would have been petrified at the idea and said absolutely not. After doing this movie and gaining that experience however, I have the bug and want to run with it. I’ve always enjoyed acting, that’s what I went to school for and that’s what I did through most of my 20s, but acting as a career is the last thing I want to do. Now I want to focus on writing, being behind the camera and directing our future projects. That’s so much more appealing to me and I want to do it forever. For years I thought I was just this dumb actor who couldn’t do anything else, but now I know you can say no, fuck that, I’m doing this. So many people are afraid or don’t know where to start, but they know storytelling and could easily do it if they gave it a shot.
JC: It’s great to see PJ making this transition that I accidentally pushed him into! As an actor the system makes you feel like you cannot take that next creative step. When you’re an independent actor auditioning for parts, you’re constantly being kicked in the nuts and rejected, so your confidence is through the floor and you feel inadequate. The system has been built around that concept for years and only now is that dynamic starting to change because the internet allows people to make stuff on their own and directly compete for the attention of the audience, and that’s scary because it’s the first time it has ever really happened.
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NL: Now that The Beta Test has wrapped, what’s on the horizon… any upcoming projects in the works?
PJM: We have a space show that we’ve been developing forever that I’m dying to do. It’s about astronauts coming home from the moon to the suburbs and it’s been a five-year slog to write, but it would be a dream to make that one happen. Then we have this crazy Victorian horror movie that we’re finally starting to write that we’ve been outlining for a long time and could well be the best thing we ever do! Those are the two I’m most excited about for sure.
The Beta Test is out now in Cinemas.