We’re fucking comedians. This is a comedy about facesitting. How angry can you get?
Few filmmakers capture the insecure and toxic masculine psyche quite the way Jim Cummings does. In 2018’s SXSW Grand Jury Prize-winning Thunder Road, the writer/director/actor made a huge splash portraying a bereaved police officer whose personal life upends his professional one. With his sophomore feature, 2020’s The Wolf of Snow Hollow, the multitasking DIY phenom returned in the role of a police chief struggling with alcoholism and anger management issues, all the while his small town is terrorized by a killer who may or may not be a werewolf. With The Beta Test—sharing writing and directing duties with its co-star PJ McCabe—Cummings completes his thematic triptych, taking on a self-important Hollywood agent who sharks his way through a post-Weinstein world, in which foul-mouthed alpha males and their shenanigans are becoming obsolete.
Cummings delivers a superb—and intentionally obnoxious—performance as Jordan, an abrasive man-child who demands respect while commanding none. He reeks of entitlement, berating his assistant at the talent agency where he works for simply being alive and lying through his teeth at every opportunity. With his Tesla (leased), pearly whites (veneers), and bottomless spending (company credit card), all that seems true in his world is his deeply patient and long-suffering fiancé, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb). But pretending is his game, so even that’s not sacred. Weeks before he is due to marry, when a mysterious letter arrives in the mail offering him an anonymous (blindfolded), no-string-attached sexual encounter with an admirer, he is impulsive. Then a short while later, when he is expectedly consumed with worry—was this a trap set up by a rival agency?—and a question mark continues to hang over the identity of a so-called admirer, Jordan confides in his only friend PJ (McCabe), the less smarmier agent of the two, and they set out to investigate.
Anthem recently connected with Cummings and McCabe via Zoom to discuss their indie gem.
The Beta Test hits select theaters, digital platforms, and VOD on November 5.
I had the same thought revisiting this movie yesterday that I had watching it the first time: I was curious to know what you guys are like off-screen. I think that really speaks to how effective these characters and your portrayals are. Obviously, there are wonderful agents out there, too—good people in this business. It’s just difficult to picture one in that moment.
Jim Cummings: Good!
PJ McCabe: [laughs]
PJ, I noticed that you kept your name in the movie, but Jim, you didn’t. How come?
Jim: In the first draft, it was Jim and PJ. Then we changed it to Jordan because I play Jim Arnaud in Thunder Road. PJ just sounded like such a great name for a helpful, cool, best friend.
PJ: We always assumed we were going to change my name, too, but we got to the shoot and it’s like, “PJ sounds fine. Who cares?”
From what you’ve experienced firsthand, coupled with the research you did in speaking to people from the agency world especially, how much of what’s depicted are exaggerations?
Jim: There’s a couple of specific punchlines that are exaggerations. When I’m shouting at Jaclyn in the office and really digging into her, that is verbatim from testimony. An assistant at one of the top four agencies had overheard an agent shouting at another assistant. We just changed it to be funny in the middle of it where I go, “I’d like to use different language for what I say to you right now, but I can’t because of the way the agency and the country is going.” That’s the only change in it. We knew that by including that, it’s like, “Oh, he’s a republican” or speaking to this larger mentality of some aggro, very masculine dude. “I can’t say what I wanna say anymore”—that Joe Rogen bullshit. And it was just funny to us. So some of it is exaggerated to make an audience laugh, and that line always kills. Again, it speaks to a larger sensibility—Type A personalities. It’s funny because people relate to it. But the majority of it, when I watch the movie, I’m remembering the testimonies: “Okay, cool, that person told me that. Yup, we nailed that.” All of those things are stitched together. So although it is fiction, it feels very true to form and I’m proud of that.
PJ: As fictional as it is, these people do exist. They do say things that seem like fiction, but are not, unfortunately. And not just in agencies—a lot of different corporate worlds.
I also just watched Dave Chapelle’s stand-up special and there’s overlap happening, having to do with cancel culture. Jordan clearly hates it, and Dave Chappelle is a great example of somebody who is in the crosshairs right now, pushing back. Can they survive this?
Jim: It seems as though Jordan has completely changed by the end of the film. He has abandoned the country almost because of the way he acts. I think it’s going to be a reckoning where these Type A personalities—these assholes—are gonna have to leave the industry because we won’t tolerate it anymore. Because of cancel culture and because of people wanting a safe work environment, whatever the fucking industry it is. They deserve one. So yeah, I think there is much less room for these types of people in the agency world or in the world itself. I have no pity for that guy. I think he is a really dangerous person to be around. Not fun. It’s also very distracting for most people. They won’t be able to focus on their jobs. He’s a bad student, basically. He’s disruptive to the class. Those guys are gonna have to change. The world is not going to.
And with Dave Chappelle—I love him. I grew up watching him. I think he’s one of the best public speakers in the world. I watched the special, too. I think there were jokes where you go, “That’s offensive” or “That’s not a very nice thing to say.” But he’s a comedian. Also, I’m not going to tell Cormac McCarthy to not write about incest and infanticide and cannibalism. He’s one of the best writers in the English language. I’m still going to read his stuff because it’s English done perfectly, almost. The same thing goes for Dave. It’s unfortunate that he’s being an asshole right now, but again, he’s one of the best public speakers in the world. He’s carrying the torch for people like George Carlin. He’s George Carlin 2.0, you know? It’s just a shame he’s doing what he’s doing.
How much of it was cathartic for you—to depict a world you might have grievances about?
Jim: It’s the best! [laughs] Not only for the fact that it’s successful and actually funny and working for audiences, we completely circumvent the Hollywood system. We raised the funds on our own through a crowd equity platform and dodged all the bullshit: studio systems, their bad notes, and spending years talking about making movies without actually making them. It’s also us making fun of that system from the outside, getting people to laugh at this system: “You’re better off being on your own. This guy is a bad representative of himself. Why would you hire him to represent you?” It’s so fulfilling. It’s the most cathartic experience you can have making a movie like this.
PJ: For sure. We had fun doing it. We didn’t have to take any notes. It was our own very original story. We didn’t have to censor anything. It was the most freeing thing you could possibly do. We never would’ve been able to do a movie like this if we had gone with a studio or another parent company. That would be impossible. We had to do it independently just like this.
Was it a balancing act at all where any fear of retribution is concerned?
Jim: It’s so funny that’s something that happens when you’re dealing with comedy and power dynamics. For the last hundred years basically, people have been scared to make jokes or even describe what’s happening in Hollywood because of that fear of retribution. Fear of retribution is something that only comes up when you know that there’s a corrupt system. It doesn’t happen in normal commerce or business. The fear of retribution comes about in the mafia when there’s dangerous fucking people that might go out of their way to hurt you. We’re fucking comedians. This is a comedy about facesitting. [laughs] How angry can you get? And if they do, so be it.
PJ: It’s fine. It’s a joke. At the end of the day, it’s a comedy. I think we’ll be alright.
If they don’t get that, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway, right?
PJ: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: That’s confessing they have a bad sense of humor. They can’t take a fucking joke.
Did you guys always have an interest in trying your hands at a lot of different things—writing, directing, acting, editing, whathaveyou—or does that come with the DIY territory?
Jim: Dude, it’s all because we’re broke. It’s all just because, in order to have the movie be a certain quality or seem like it’s of a certain quality, you have to do everything on your own. The way that most people—independent filmmakers and industry filmmakers alike—get things done is by paying people to give a shit for a week or two. Most times, people phone it in. It’s all contract-based labor so they’ll do as much work as they can get away with and they don’t have to work any more than that. And that’s not how we make movies. We care about them incessantly. It’s a weird addiction for us to make the movie better at every step of the way. We kind of have to do all of these things in order to ensure that they’re not fucking mediocre.
At one point in the movie, an earthquake rocks the agency building, which works on a subliminal level. It’s not so explicit, but I’m sure it’s very specific to you why that occurs.
PJ: Oh yeah.
Jim: We wanted that to be about the landscape that Hollywood is built on. It’s not safe. Also, we’re on the San Andreas Fault so it is true that we’re right next to this earthquake hotspot.
PJ: We might actually get a big one at some point.
Jim: [knocks on wood] Hopefully, that doesn’t happen soon. Like we need that this fucking year.
PJ: Yeah, really. Don’t even say it.
Jim: We knew that we wanted to make it about Hollywood changing. These people are pretending that everything is okay and safe because that’s their whole fucking job. While the WGA [Writers Guild of America] packaging fight was happening, that’s the imagery they were putting out into the world. The facade that they were living under was this studio backlot that’s front of the house and it’s completely empty behind it, you know? It’s showmanship. It’s show business. And it’s terrible and toxic and corrosive to the human spirit. It was just funny to us like, “This is a great visual metaphor for what these people live in 24/7.”
PJ: These big, scary Death Star-like buildings that are shaky and collapsing.
There’s a scene where Jordan sits his assistant down and asks her, “What does Jaclyn want?” First of all, I don’t believe for a second he actually cares about anything she wants.
PJ: Of course not.
But hypothetically, if you were in her position as filmmakers, and you were sure that you could get any one of your projects greenlit, what would you want to make next?
Jim: It’s a complicated question. It depends on which day you ask me to be honest. I know—I’m sorry. I’m terrible! But really, it always comes down to impressing audiences. It always comes down to this petty, high school class clown shit of wanting to make something that’s impressive, to make people laugh or to engage a new audience. There’s this comedy that we’re writing. It’s a Victorian horror film that’s really beautiful and I think it will actually be a masterpiece. It’s really, really good. I’m calling it right now: a home run. And then I also have this weird thing of wanting to champion cinema and add movies of our own to the tapestry of timeless classics that I fell in love with even as a child. I’ve written something that’s a kids adventure film that is that—a love letter to cinema. So part of me is like, “I should be doing this thing that is important for humanity.” Meanwhile, there’s also a bunch of other goofy bullshit that I wanna do separately. [laughs] It’s kind of like the difference in my mind between a YouTube channel and a Vimeo channel, but I say we can do both at the same time.
PJ: We have so many things that we’re kicking around on our slate. We’ll try to do as many of them as we can.
Jim: And dude, honestly, nobody’s knocking on our door to make stuff. It’s still just us calling each other and setting up sessions to write whenever we can. It’s not like anybody gives a shit about what our next project is. We have to be the people to give a shit, and it depends on the day what we want to get out. That’s why you have to have so many different projects going at once.
I was also curious about this other film you’re writing about screener culture.
Jim: How’d you hear about this?!
There’s an interview! It’s actually how I found out that, with the Indee.tv screeners, you can actually track how people are watching your movie. When I was watching The Beta Test, I caught myself going, “I don’t even want to pause this.” You can access that information.
Jim: Well, that’s different. There are people who will send it to production companies and they’ll click around—not watching the movie—and go, “Loved it. So great.” And you’re like, “Cool. You’re bullshit. I never want to talk to you ever again. Now I know I don’t have to waste my time talking to you.” It’s really helpful for an independent filmmaker to get that information.
The screener culture I’m talking about is this social currency that agencies use where they go, “We got this movie early. We got a copy of it.” It’s all copyright infringement and criminal, and they’re doing it to make it seem like they’re connected in the film industry in a really ugly and pervasive way. So I’ve written like half of the script about it, about how you would prosecute that world using the RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] Act, which is the type of law that they use to prosecute a crime syndicate like the mafia. It’s a fun script.
PJ: It’s like a cousin to The Beta Test.
Do you guys see some math in what you do—the alchemy that is filmmaking?
Jim: It’s always a dramatic or horror or detective narrative engine to start out with, like, “This is a cool idea for a movie.” And then we’ll do the research and work to make it a normal, conventional movie inside of those genres. Because we’re comics and have the same sense of humor, the comedy always ends up infusing itself into it. We also do it out loud and make a podcast version to see whether or not it’s going to be too ridiculous at any given moment. It’s all alchemy, as you say. It is chemistry. You’re riding the rollercoaster with the audience to see where they wanna be at any given time. It just takes doing it out loud a whole lot before going on set.
PJ: A lot of long walks and performing it out loud until we find variables that make sense.
Jim: It’s funny—for so long, I thought that, because we were practical in our writing and not like “the artiste,” that somehow disqualified us from the arts and screenwriting. Because I’d read all these screenwriting books about structure and all this stuff. It was very unhelpful to me for years. And it felt like I wasn’t really a good screenwriter. It just took doing it out loud a lot where we can now celebrate it: “Well, the scripts are terrible, but the movies are great!”
In the context of your storytelling, do you think the adage is true—is truth stranger than fiction? Have there been instances where ideas are left on the margins of a script because something that’s actually pulled from life simply doesn’t work in a movie format?
Jim: Yeah. There’s an interview with Robert Altman about The Player. Someone said to him at the premiere: “I can’t believe it’s that bad.” And he replied, “Oh, it’s so much worse.” And it’s true. Hollywood is very insane. You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to get these articles coming up about agents being involved in kidnappings and having these different charges made against them. This is such a weird organization and enterprise to be spending your life being involved with. There are a couple of different interviews that we had with people about rampant cocaine use in the office, sex in the workplace, blackmail between different people to change the power dynamics, getting someone to shut up during a meeting—really ugly stuff. Fist fights would break out between veterans where they would slam each other up against glass doors for the public to see on the sidewalk—suits being chimpanzees. So there were things that were very interesting and terrifying that we ended up not including just because it would’ve been too ridiculous.
PJ: It could’ve gone full The Wolf of Wall Street. For our purposes, it would’ve been distracting.
Jim: But then, we put in the dick grab—the Adam Venit/Terry Crews sexual assault that took place at Adam Sandler’s party. It happened twice that night, but we were like, “Let’s do it once and that should be enough to get the point across.” So there’s stuff like that we referenced.
I wasn’t sure if that was specific to Terry Crews. It happened to Brendan Fraser as well.
PJ: Yeah, I’ve heard that.
Jim: Ugh. I love Brendan Fraser. I just watched The Mummy the other day for Halloween season.
PJ: He’s the best.
Jim: He’s so good. I also saw him on some daily talkshow and they were going through all these tweets of people loving him. He started crying in that interview. He’s had such a struggle over the past 30 years. He’s such a nice guy. I’m so sorry to hear that happened to him. Fuck!
It looks like he’s about to have a renaissance.
PJ: Yeah, he’s gonna be the bad guy in Batgirl.
Jim: That’s great. He’s a lovable guy!
He’s also leading Darren Aronofsky’s next movie.
Jim: Another thing that people really like about him is that he’s very funny in his movies. He’s kind of like a Han Solo character where people are laughing with him. He’s analyzing the situations in his movies in real-time, in the way that the audience is. I think we’ve been stealing a lot of his performance stuff for the last couple of years.
Jim—happy early birthday. I learned that your birthday falls on October 31st and, of course, you just starred in Halloween Kills. Was your character, Pete McCabe, named after PJ?
Jim: I think a couple of things happened. McCabe is the son of Scott Teems, one of the co-writers of the new Halloween movies. But then Pete comes from nowhere, and I know David [Gordon] Green and PJ and I hung out. I get this script like, “Hey, I want you to play this character.” So I get it and it’s like, “Pete McCabe.” I’m like, “Okay, fuck you.” [laughs]
PJ: A little suspicious.
Are you superstitious at all?
Jim: [to PJ] You knock on wood all the time.
PJ: Just in my regular life, I’m a huge wood-knocker. It’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. It’s getting to the point of becoming a problem.
Jim—you were knocking on wood earlier.
Jim: [laughs] We were also in a hotel room in London and there was no wood.
PJ: And things went terribly.
Jim: That’s right! Things went terribly.
What about in filmmaking?
PJ: I don’t know if I have superstitions from a filmmaking standpoint.
Jim: I’m usually not. Really, the thing that I’ve become much more of is being diplomatic, making sure that everybody’s okay. There’s something to it when you start to become successful and you have these ideas about what’s going to make the movie better. People are like, “Oh, this guy thinks he’s so smart.” So it’s very important to squash that and be like, “No, I have a very negative self image when it comes to my intelligence.” [laughs] Also, I don’t really know what I’m doing very often. Now, I just want to make sure that everyone’s happy leaving the filmmaking experience—satisfied that they worked on this film and not something else.
I’m sure fostering a happy set allows you to do your jobs better, too. It comes back to you.
Jim: I can’t even tell you, man. We’re so fucking lucky. The way that we make movies is so inclusive, where anybody’s allowed in video village. We’ll come back and watch playback, and if I’m exhausted from acting in the scenes or whatever, to be able to lean on any member of the cast and crew feels like summer camp. It feels like this very fulfilling experience. And at the end of the day, we have this feature film that we can all be proud of. It’s never lost on me that we’re living the dream. The dream we had when we were 13, 14 of making David Fincher movies is happening. It’s never lost on me for a single second when we’re on set.
What a gift.
Jim: Isn’t that crazy?