The Beta Test, the newest micro-budget film from independent actor-writer-director Jim Cummings, finds the Emerson College alum teaming up with his friend, classmate, and collaborator PJ McCabe. The two worked together on 2020’s The Wolf of Snow Hollow, along with a slew of shorts over the past 15 years. Co-writing, co-director, and co-starring in The Beta Test, Cummings and McCabe craft a drama that leans into different genres more often than not—it wants to be “genre-fluid,” as the two describe it. In their own words, they just “wanted to make a dope movie.”
Following a scummy Hollywood talent agent (played by Cummings), the film navigates a topsy-turvy story focused on (mostly) bad people making (mostly) bad decisions. It attempts to satirize the prototypical “man in charge,” laughing at his mistakes and cautioning others to choose differently. It contains moments of pure shock, surrounding the agent’s involvement with a secret, anonymous sexual encounter, his unraveling engagement, and the marriage of the two stories.
As the film arrives in theaters and on VOD, The Film Stage talked with Cummings and McCabe about their long-lasting friendship, the film’s influences, upcoming projects, and their views on healthy relationships.
The Film Stage: When did you guys first meet?
PJ McCabe: Fuck. A while ago. 2005. Freshman year at Emerson College.
Jim Cummings: 16 years ago, if I’m doing the math right. Too long ago. I am from New Orleans. I flew out to Emerson College in Boston. PJ is from outside of Philly. And we met in Boston. And then he was in the acting program. I was in the film program. We had some overlap in school, but then really started to work together after college.
And we were you guys friends at Emerson? Did you hang out?
Jim Cummings: We were kind of drinking buddies with these two roaming different cliques of people that were working who were making movies on the weekend outside of the studio system. And PJ was always acting, with Tony Yacenda and others. And you know, the Daniels also had their own clique. I was making stuff so we’d always steal PJ to act, then we would party and hang out. But we started taking film very seriously after school. PJ moved to LA, I lived in San Francisco for six years, and then we wrote this movie called The Flamingo. It’s a 32-minute movie that we shot in 3D. It was insane. But we co-wrote it, you acted in it. That was in 2010. And that became our first co-writing thing. And then when I moved to LA, we were writing almost full time at that point.
What else did you guys make together before? Anything to note in college?
Jim Cummings: We did Space Rock. PJ played a drunk sound guy, like a boom technician. He was hungover all the time. It was like a Tommy Wiseau thing. It was like a terrible short film that we were all making and PJ’s character loved it.
PJ McCabe: I guess we did like This is Jay Calvin together.
Jim Cummings: And actually I act in Jay Calvin and PJ is my buddy in that, yeah; Tony Yacenda directed that one. And that was my first real acting bootcamp where I was living in San Francisco still, and then I would drive down on the weekends to act with PJ. That’s on Vimeo. That’s quite fun.
What about that first one? Space Rock?
Jim Cummings: Oh, Space Rock? I have no idea. I’m sure that’s on a hard drive somewhere.
Once you started writing scripts together, how has that process changed in the last 11 years? From then until now?
Jim Cummings: I mean, really, when we were doing The Flamingo, it was so much more like a Terrence Malick movie. It was in 3D. We were inspired by Larry David and David Gordon Green, and so I was like, “Let’s throw PJ in this space. Then we’ll find the scene.” We were shooting digital so it was no problem. You’re shooting as much as possible. And it was just this really nice little story, so that became a bit more improv. Then PJ and I are huge fans of David Fincher and Ruben Östlund, so after watching 1,000 movies together, we wanted to make something more crafted.
At that point, I had done well with the Thunder Road short film, and then we made more shorts. After that, we made Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. All those scripts that I wrote by myself, I was still bullying Dustin and PJ to come to Big Bear and help me work on these drafts. With The Beta Test, we just started writing it together and it was the first time since The Flamingo that it was actually two laptops open working on the thing. Now we’re fucking writing everything together.
How are you able to write something alone after this? Will you want to?
Jim Cummings: You know, it’s a commitment to your life, sometimes years of your life, writing something, shooting it, and then editing it. And so the movies that I’m getting pulled to are the ones that we are stoked about, that we like talking about. So it’s always stuff that we’re co-writing. I have other scripts that people send me that I’m not the writer on which I might do, and I have some stuff that I wrote before that might be just me. But now the two or three new projects that we’re working on are just in tandem with the two of us.
PJ McCabe: I think we’ve definitely found something pretty solid. We have a very good rapport together. And just the way we write, it just works—it’s very fluid, and it’s nice bouncing stuff off each other. We have the same kind of sensibilities. And we’ve written a million scripts now at this point that are bouncing around, and I’m pretty pumped about all them. I’m just looking forward to writing every day.
Jim Cummings: We feel like Trey Parker and Matt Stone a bit. We have the same sense of humor and it never feels like work when you’re doing it. Whereas if I was doing it by myself I would be very lonely. We kind of feed off of each other’s energy in such a way that it’s like, “Oh, no, now this movie’s gonna be fucking dope.”
PJ McCabe: We get excited about these things. I try to write alone and t’s just not as fun. I look forward to writing with Jim every day. You come up with great stuff and bounce off of each other. And it’s good. It turns out to be good. We’ve had some good success.
What about being co-directors? Does one person take the lead? Do you split the workload and decision-making?
Jim Cummings: It’s kind of fluid in a weird way. Because we’ve never had a budget, anything very big. We never have time. We shot this movie in 17 days. We shot it in no time at all. We were sprinting through it constantly. I mean, I was a cinematographer for four years before getting into producing and directing. So I’m much more technically savvy about what lens is going to convey the idea that we want to convey in the moment, or how the camera should move and stuff. But then when we’re on set it’s, like, constantly trying to execute it in a way that we know will be enjoyable for the audience at every turn of the rollercoaster. So the best idea wins. And if I’m sucking in the frame, PJ’s like “You’re gonna do it like that, right? It’s very shared. It’s very equal.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, we don’t wake up every morning before shooting and say, “You’re going to handle this part, I’m going to handle this part.” We know what we’re going to do ahead of time, and we talk about it for hours for each scene specifically. So going in, we kind of both have the same idea. It’s not like we’re fighting over decisions in the middle of shooting something.
Jim Cummings: And there are 1,000 fires every day on set. So the fact that there are two of us to put them out is very helpful. And the fact that I can be memorizing lines or workshopping something, and then somebody be asking PJ what prop we want in the gun scene or what we will be using in the background. All of that stuff ends up getting dispersed kind of evenly.
What genre would you put this move into?
Jim Cummings: Whatever Parasite is. Genre fluid? I don’t know. Good? I think good. Like watching The Godfather. It’s a drama, but I laugh a lot during it. I think if you’re not making jokes throughout your films, your audiences will. And although I think, broadly, the movie is a comedy, it’s still as poignant as a drama. It’s still as serious as a drama. It’s also a horror movie. And a weird erotic thriller. So yeah: I guess, like, erotic thriller comedy.
PJ McCabe: An LA noir erotic thriller.
Jim Cummings: Goofball Chinatown. I think the Trojan horse is that it’s Fifty Shades of Grey as a comedy. I mean, all of my movies are comedies so I guess comedy is the right answer. [Shrugs.]
The performances are so riled up. What’s the decision process in crafting those performances?
Jim Cummings: We really dig obviously Uncut Gems but like we really dig public freakouts, like watching people have a meltdown in public I feel like is a very American, very interesting thing to watch. We like Pacino a lot and him in Dog Day Afternoon, but to do that as a comedy, I find that to be even funnier, because people have gotten so used to seeing the white male rage stuff. To do it where it’s humiliation pornography as well is very funny. We like that, for it to be this insane roller coaster ride for the audience. And we’ve found that to be effective. Like, we screened it two nights ago at Fantastic Fest, and the audience were fucking rolling in the aisles. They understood the visual language and that audience is so media literate that it would have been boring if it had just been Chinatown, you know?
Do you like watching it along with the audience?
Jim Cummings: Well, this is the first time PJ saw it in a cinema.
PJ McCabe: I haven’t been able to watch it indoors. So this was the first time in a theater which was amazing. But now I want to do it as many times as possible, because it’s such a fun movie in a theater with a crowd.
Jim Cummings: Because there are so many big punch lines in the movie, we’re like gearing up for them. So like the moment of Jacqueline saying something, everyone starts laughing, then the next montage is me thinking about the punch line, which just brought down the house. Everybody was like, “Oh my god, this whole next sequence is about face-sitting This is fucking amazing.” [Both laugh.] To sit in an audience of people, and you have the setup and payoff, and you know what’s coming. That’s why we make movies, to get a reaction, a rise out of the crowd.
After making a film like this, one that’s looking at all of these folks in positions of power within the industry, do you then have to play the game a bit? With all of these steps in the process, do you have to balance those two things?
Jim Cummings: We’ve been very lucky. Anytime you make a movie, you have to get it out and hopefully you get as many eyeballs as possible on it. Because of the radioactive nature of the film, the marketing kind of does itself in a weird way, because it is so graphic and demeaning to the powers that be. It’s like the fucking court jester analogy. You get to make fun of the king, then people are like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe he said that.” The way we write movies, we make stuff that people have to talk about it, about things we find culturally and socially significant or important, and we want to punch up.
We’ve been very lucky: all of our partners with the movie have the same sense of humor and they have an axe to grind as well. I mean, they’re not blind. Everybody hates these fucking people. And even outside of the film industry as well. We had a guy in the theater yesterday, who was like, “Do y’all have any background in sales? Well, I’m in the sales world. I know three people in my office who are like this.” Yeah, I think it’s a bit more universal than just that so we’ve been very lucky.
PJ McCabe: I don’t think it’s necessarily only attacking certain people in the end. These are universal themes for everyone and every culture and every job that you might have and the lying and infidelity that happens all around the world. We’re hopeful that it’s just going to get out there and someone’s gonna find something in it that they can relate to.
Is there any one theme you would want people to focus on while watching?
Jim Cummings: I don’t know, dude. Honestly, the main thing: we are such simpletons. The main takeaway we want the audience to have is like, “Wow this was dope.” Really, that’s it. If we can hold an audience’s attention for 93 minutes, like, that’s a feat in and of itself these days. But yeah, we just wanted to make something cool. We wanted to make, like, a love letter to David Fincher, make a few fucking jokes along the way.
PJ McCabe: Just make a cool weird goofy LA noir with some fun mystery to it. But also, it’s been fun. Like everyone we’ve talked to after screenings, they find something different that they want to talk to us about. And I like that there are multiple things happening at the same time and different things out
Jim Cummings: My thing that I know is not PJ’s thing… the axe to grind that I have is that I’m such a proponent of independent film and DIY filmmaking. And hopefully, when people leave this movie, they’ll think, “Oh, that’s what an agent is. And that’s what Hollywood is.” And I think that’s a win, because we also completely circumvented the Hollywood system to make this movie. Not only is the movie anathema to the system, the way that we made the film is the same way, the fact that the movie being successful at all is a sign that you can do all of this stuff by yourself. And the old ways in power dynamics is stupid.
I’m curious, what do you two think makes a healthy relationship? Since so much of this film is about unhealthy relationships.
PJ McCabe: Honesty and communication. The whole point, at the end, she said, “This could have been a conversation”. And they were both just going behind each other’s back based on the weird, creepy stuff they were doing on the internet. A conversation would have gotten ahead of the fact that they were falling apart.
Jim Cummings: The weird thing that we have nowadays is the brand of people and Instagram and putting up this facade of what you are and who you are, and it’s not necessarily true. Like to be honest with yourself and with your partner, even if you are pathetic, even if you risk humiliating yourself and saying, “Actually, I’m into facesitting, honey,” saves people’s lives. It saves time and I think that there is this bizarre cultural sanitization that’s happening, because people feel like they don’t want to be politically incorrect, or that it’s better to be timid than to be honest with your partner, and it’ll kill you. It will kill the both of you. Honesty and communication. Long answer, short question.
You said you’ve written tons of scripts, hundreds of scripts together—
Jim Cummings: What’s bad is, although it sounds like a lot, we focus on like four. We get deep dives into these four. So it takes a long time to write anything good. And sometimes we’re like, “Actually, this isn’t really making me feel anything. Let’s start working on this other thing.”
Is there anything you’ve written that you think, “Wow with an unlimited budget, we would do that immediately,” or is that not how you think?
Jim Cummings: We always try to do the doable, the Mark Duplass-ism. And me having been a producer for six years, we’re not writing like enormous space operas. It’s like stuff that we still think is funny. And so there is this weird litmus test, since we thousands of ideas for movies, and then it has to pass through the siphon of: Is it actually funny? Is it actually poignant? Is it important? Could we do it? And so the four projects, give or take, that we’re doing right now, that we’re juggling, have all passed those things. And it’s something that’s exciting that we’re actually stoked to sit down and spend several weeks writing.
But there was one where there was a stupid idea that we had about American journalism, and we set up this writers retreat to go and work on our serious Victorian horror movie. It was me, Dustin, and PJ, and we got halfway through the trip, and I was like, “No, I think we’re gonna write this stupid journalism one. And it’s gonna be fucking amazing.” And it was only because we were laughing out loud thinking about it. We wrote David Tonight instead of doing the new one.
PJ McCabe: But I think it’s good that there’s two of us to balance all the different projects at least. So that’s also helpful having the partnership for all these things.
You guys seem to be spending so much time writing, acting, directing, etc. Do you ever feel like you need to put it aside to do something? Do you guys do anything to take a break together?
Jim Cummings: I’m a really bad influence for that stuff. My work-life balance is just work life. So much of the way we think about the world is cinema, like we were out yesterday swimming in the Colorado River. And I was like, “Oh, it’s like Miyazaki. Look at how beautiful it is.” And I’m like, “No, it’s like a river. Miyazaki came after the river.” Like, I’m really bad at it, my life has become making movies. And because our movies are so lo-fi, you know, we’re doing them on laptops, we’re writing them on cell phones, it’s not too cumbersome for us. It’s not like we have any kind of special way of doing things that it’s expensive. We’re gonna be sitting on our laptops anyway.
PJ McCabe: We like to talk about science and space stuff and how you would do certain things and like nuclear fusion aircraft, but then that always inevitably turns into an idea for a movie. Let’s figure that out.
Jim Cummings: That process is just life to me, like the movies is life to me. And so I’ve built my entire existence around making them and writing them. And it’s a dream come true. It’s like I could not be good at anything else. I think I would have to live my life like this, no matter what.
The Beta Test opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 5.