Initially released in 2021, The Beta Test, was an unlikely stew of comedy, erotic thriller and satire. The third film from Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe (writing, directing, starring, editing *draws breath*) it punctured insidious business practice at the heart of Hollywood talent agencies while dragging its despicable antagonist, Jordan Hines (Cummings) through the mill via an illicit hotel hook-up scam.
Released this year in an expansive blu-ray edition from Arrow Films, I contributed a piece to the special features looking at the history of hotels as transformative locations in film. It was a strange piece, featuring an actor playing me onscreen as I unravel waiting for a planned interview with the filmmakers. When the opportunity to actually interview them occurred it felt too perfect to ignore.
GA: The Beta Test is really finding its audience, a relief given its deliciously skewed tone.
JC: The movie is incredibly cynical, a bit cold — certainly colder than our other films — so yeah, it is nice that people got the joke.
GA: You’ve talked before about the importance of using humour to get your ideas across, is that always an essential part of the mix for you?
JC: Our background is in comedy. I worked at College Humour for a long time and grew up on Alan Partridge, on character comedy so… when PJ and I take on a project we would never have to worry about injecting comedy into it. Whether it’s an erotic thriller or Victorian horror movie, we know it’s going to end up being funny because that’s our backbone.
I think it was especially important for The Beta Test, given the power dynamics of this world. Having been a client of agencies like this, I was interested in what they were doing behind closed doors.
We knew it was going to be a comedy giving power back to those who don’t have it in this system. After COVID a lot of people have felt incredibly powerless and unable to tell their bosses to go fuck themselves and making a comedy that does that is very empowering I think.
It’s clearly in the air, Triangle of Sadness came out a little later and… it was like, ‘Yes! This is exactly what we wanted to do!’
PJ: When you’re talking about big uncomfortable issues, jamming it down an audience’s throat… I think people just check out. I certainly do. You have to make people laugh in order to keep them honest, keep them connected to the story and what you’re saying. We build these big worlds, they’re very serious, the stakes are high but then if you can find the comedy within it I think that’s the most interesting recipe for telling a story.
GA: If you can elevate things to the level of farce you can turn the volume up on everything, the world of the film can be bigger and wilder.
JC: Nicolas Cage, who’s one of my very favourite actors, saw the film and he gave an interview backstage about me saying ‘Jim Cummings goes big, I mean… he goes to like eleven.’ If Nicolas Cage is saying that…!
We wanted this world to feel insane so that the main character feels his entire world is falling apart, all of the power he and his teams used to hold is now on shaky ground in this shifting Hollywood.
PJ: And to make that performance work you have to set up a serious world first, which is why we open the movie with this very straight, very violent scene with the Swedish couple. There’s this brutal massacre and all of a sudden, we’re with Jim’s character and it’s: yeah, let’s see how this idiot can survive in this world!
JC: People aren’t sure they’re watching the right movie because of the opening. I’ve been in the theatre watching people turning around in confusion… ‘Wasn’t this supposed to be funny?’
GA: And all they can see is the weird guy in the row behind laughing like a maniac at their reaction.
JC: Right! We heard that Ridley Scott laughs the whole time there’s anything super graphic and violent in one of his movies because everybody’s riled up and terrified, so it’s working, you know?
GA: The fact that this is a story about Hollywood also allows that heightened tone I think. Look at The Sweet Smell of Success or The Player or even Mulholland Drive. There’s an acceptance from the audience that Hollywood is a world where characters can be bigger, situations even more grotesque. Audiences are both fascinated by Hollywood and yet also ready – maybe even eager – to be repulsed by it.
JC: When we screen the film in France a lot of people see it as presenting a dark underbelly to Hollywood because the French want to prop up this idea that Hollywood is still a magical place, connected to its glory days like Babylon – though Babylon is pretty despicable in its depiction of Hollywood! But from the inside, actually living here, it’s really just auto body shops and chain link fences and nowhere near the glamorous place so many seem to imagine. Especially in the indie world.
I think there was a slightly sickening effect of something like Entourage that glorified bad behaviour, audiences watched terrible people behaving terribly and loved it and felt, maybe, that gave them permission to be terrible too. That same audience moved to Succession and felt like ‘Oh, it’s the same uniform! I still get to wear a suit and seem smart, even though I’m terrible at math and failed on Wall Street! I think it really seduces a certain type of audience, that we hate, and by doing the Beta Test we wanted to make something for people who consider that stuff to be cheesy bullshit. To render all that stuff powerless in the same way that Triangle of Sadness does, showing billionaires having excrement coming out of both ends at the same time.
PJ: I think it’s the pursuit of an idea, a glamour, that maybe once existed but certainly doesn’t now. That’s the point of Jordan Hines, accepting this invitation, desperate for this wonderful encounter, this cool moment that maybe a person like him would think Hollywood does or should offer but…
JC: …there’s no such thing as a free lunch!
GA: You sketch your movies out as podcasts first, can we talk about that?
JC: I see it as just the next step of the process. You write something and you’re reading it by yourself and you think ‘this is brilliant’! You can see it in your mind. But then you do it out loud – most filmmakers do a table read bringing in actors – and then you realise the whole thing sucks! It really lets you see things clearly. You suddenly realise two scenes are the same and they could become one, or this scene needs to be longer because the audience is interested in the detective stuff that you thought needed abbreviating… or just, this scene needs a good song! You can work with it as a living, functioning thing. Then you send the audio to the investors and you can tell them that the movie is going to be exactly ninety one minutes. You can say to the actors and the cast and crew here’s a movie and they can get a real sense of it before you even go and film it. When filming, sometimes it can feel like it’s all going out of key and you can play the audio version and it’s like hitting a note on the piano, getting everyone back in tune.
It’s so useful and it means that we don’t show up on set and blow bunch of money or time before knowing exactly how it works. It’s not a daydream of a script, it’s something you can actually listen to.
PJ: It’s really helpful creatively. When you’re listening back and realise that, as the writers, you’re checking out of your own movie so you know it needs work!
JC: Then, of course, I hear stories that my heroes have been doing this all the time! I had to discover it on a Zoom mic in my closet, it would have been really helpful to hear Alan Partridge had been doing it for years!
GA: Is that part of the pleasure of Indie filmmaking? Learning how to do things? That sense of ‘I’m not sure of this can actually be done, let’s find out?’
JC: Yeah it’s great, and the type of blind confidence that you grow from working like that isn’t something that comes innately to my brain it’s something that had to be learned by being kicked in the nuts a thousand times! You just know there has to be a way you can do it that’s less painful, that’s growth in filmmaking! It’s how all our heroes got to be who they are. Like Francis Ford Coppola says: the things you get fired for when you’re young are the things they give you lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old. You know, that helps you on set, it gives you confidence. You decide, it’s OK, can slap a corpse in a film you’ll be fine!
All of the things we’ve learned, they’re not things we learned in screenwriting school because a lot of those schools don’t really know how to teach people how to make movies.
GA: What’s next for the two of you?
JC: We’re scheduled to shoot another independent film that’s untitled right now, it’s an exorcism film that PJ and I are working on together. Knock on wood that will go into production in October. After that, we’ve written a Victorian horror film and the dream would be to do that next. Our Awful Austen! That would be the big one, the one we could do and then retire, happy to have made movies.
The Beta Test is available now on blu-ray from Arrow Video.