Co-writers/co-directors/co-stars Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe spoke about The Beta Test, their new satire about Hollywood toxicity, ahead of its Tribeca premiere in June.
In as much as The Beta Test is about agencies and the WGA packaging fight, it is also about mysterious purple envelopes and adultery. I’m not going to beat around the bush here–the best parts of The Beta Test are all of the inside baseball that comes with depicting the agencies. There’s a funny meta line in the film about agents not being like what you see in movies and television!
Written and directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, The Beta Test stars Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Olivia Applegate, Jessie Barr, and Malin Barr. IFC Films releases the Vanishing Angle production on November 5.
What was the genesis behind the script for The Beta Test?
Jim Cummings: We had a conversation about what it would be like to get an invitation to a sexual encounter from an admirer. I was in a grocery store and I called PJ and then he was in a grocery store.
PJ McCabe: With my mom!
Jim Cummings: I was like, what would you do if this happened?
PJ McCabe: I was like, dude, I’m with my mom right now? This is a weird conversation to have. But yeah, that’s actually interesting. Let’s go into it.
Jim Cummings: It was gonna be a much smaller story. It was like, what feature film can we do from our apartment buildings? Is there some story that we can tell where it’s just inside of this apartment building? We promised our producer, Ben, that’s how big it would be and that’s it.
PJ McCabe: It was gonna be one location.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, that’s right.
PJ McCabe: In the beginning. It was gonna be so easy to shoot.
Jim Cummings: We lied to him but then it kind of it went out of control. We were thinking about it and the importance of telling a story about a certain subject and doing a deep dive into a certain subject. We wanted the film to be really about adultery, infidelity, and dishonesty, mainly. The main character in the film lies all the time—the opening line of the guy is a lie. We wanted to make something about lying. I was like, well, there’s a lot of lying that happens in Hollywood, we’re shooting in Hollywood, why don’t we just make it about agents because that’s notoriously the vipers den of liars.
It just kind of became a perfect tandem of telling a story about a small adultery and a certain type of person that would do it and then with the background of Hollywood and the WGA packaging fight. I don’t know—it was just making us laugh. We did a bunch of research. The first draft was probably 55 pages. We sent it to our friends, the McManus brothers, and they’re like, this agency stuff is really interesting. You should make it more about the agency stuff. By that time, we were like, well, we have 40 more pages, it has to be about this agency stuff. The actual first draft of the script then was us being like, well, we don’t know what’s going on, we have to talk to people. We interviewed a bunch of different people about what it’s like to be in the agency world these days and during the WGA packaging fight and producing fight. With that research, we kind of built the script off of that of how insane it is.
PJ McCabe: And kind of who would be the best person to throw into this crazy letter digital data system and it was a Hollywood agent whose life is already kind of just out of control and has to face this new crazy problem. It just worked.
One of the things I liked about The Beta Test is that it tackles the WGA fight.
Jim Cummings: It’s funny. What’s great is you’ll hear people in Hollywood, when they see the film or hear about it, like, oh, that’s inside baseball. We never could have gotten the film greenlit had we gone through the conventional rounds because people hate the idea of us talking about this important issue. It really was the most important thing in recent Hollywood history—that the WGA didn’t have to put up this fight to support creatives and to ensure the future landscape of filmmaking and TV making to support the artists rather than these criminals who are trying to take all the ownership of things.
It was in the news all the time but I had never seen anybody even make a sketch comedy about it and was like, alright, well, why don’t we make a movie in secret about this thing and then hopefully, we don’t get into trouble about it. Most of the times, people will watch it and they’re like, yeah, it’s a joke. It’s funny. It’s about a serious thing and there are real good guys and real bad guys in this thing.
PJ McCabe: It’s a very real landscape to place these really ridiculous characters going through a really ridiculous conspiracy and that was fun for us to place them in these very real stakes—something that’s actually happening in the industry and watch them kind of go through hell.
Jim Cummings: Truth be told, although the movies about purple envelopes and adultery, my favorite stuff is the agency.
There’s a line in The Beta Test referring to how agents are nothing like we see in TV series and movies. Did you model Jordan Hines after anyone in particular?
Jim Cummings: I think that would be inappropriate for me to comment about. No, no, no. I’m kidding, it’s not.. It’s actually based on a lot of the stories that we heard. I mean, the character is this stressed out version of—it was more like a plot device of how stressed can we make this person who’s also this type A lunatic?
PJ McCabe: Who’s the most stressed out person we can find: a Hollywood agent whose career and life has already falling apart?
Jim Cummings: Literally, the world around him is collapsing.
PJ McCabe: So let’s give him this to work with.
Jim Cummings: Yeah. So no, it’s not based on anywhere in particular but because of all of the people that we spoke to, we took little nuggets of like, Oh, this was perfect. One of the anonymous sources was like, I witnessed this screaming match between this guy and the assistant. We took that almost verbatim and we had my character shout that at Jacqueline. Some of it is based on real people probably, but it’s mainly about 50 agents that then become this one person. But I love that moment where I talk about Entourage and I say, we get a bad image—like we’re not angry, petty people. I think the film industry has changed since Harvey left and then immediately someone comes in and steals my limelight. I go, who the fuck is this person? He immediately becomes angry and petty. It’s really funny.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Jim Cummings: To be honest, it was a breeze. I mean, I got beat up a lot. There’s some days—the physicality of having to crawl around on the floor of a garage and beat up somebody with a hammer. It was fun but I love doing that stuff. It’s like Jackie Chan—I get to pretend to be Jackie Chan for 15 days or whatever. I guess that was it—like having no time to shoot stuff.
PJ McCabe: We definitely packed it into three weeks. Jumping around in different locations because we lied to our producers.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, we said it was gonna be a smaller movie. It was gonna be a ten-day shoot but yeah, we shot it over 17 and a half days in November and December. The way that we work is just constantly sprinting through this marathon. That’s always the hardest thing of never feeling like you have enough time. And then as soon as you get the shot, you’re like, we’ve got to move to the night shoot, we have more to do today. Not having time to watch the dailies. We did like a bunch of different inserts throughout the movie that we shot in our garage and it blends in. I think having more time in the future would be helpful.
When you say November and December, which year?
Jim Cummings: 2019.
PJ McCabe: We got very lucky. We got it in right before. I guess post-production was challenging, trying to get together to actually edit the movie.
Jim Cummings: PJ would come over for a week. He’d get tested, then come and stay at my place. We edited it in my garage. I edited it on Premiere in Creative Cloud. and then we also mixed the film in Adobe Audition, which is like almost unheard of. We mixed it in 5.1 in my garage and bought speakers from Guitar Center because they have a 45-day return policy, no questions asked. We were able to mix the movie, kind of for free, which was gnarly, but that was necessary to finish the movie that way.
PJ, The Beta Test is your directorial debut. What did you make of the process and does it help having a co-director?
PJ McCabe: Yeah, it helped a lot. It helps when your co-director know how to edit and use After Effects, sound mix, and everything as well. But no, it was great. I mean, we’ve written together for years and so to come together—for me, coming from an acting background, being able to work with the actors while he’s working with our amazing cinematographer setting up the shots, it was a really good one-two dynamic that we had. It was a lot of fun. It’s very nice having Jim to work with as you go through the process. It definitely went very well, I would say.
Jim Cummings: My joke is that PJ knows all about acting and I know about cameras, and he doesn’t know anything about cameras and I don’t know anything about acting.
PJ McCabe: (Laughs) Yeah. We were able to help each other in that regard?
Jim Cummings: It worked! It was really good.
PJ McCabe: For sure.
Jim, you’ve been a big champion of independent filmmaking and DIY filmmaking in general. I know we don’t have much time here but what would you say is the biggest thing that needs to be changed in the system?
Jim Cummings: Power to the people. Man, you’ve got me on my soapbox. What do I think is the biggest change that needs to happen? I mean, really, it’s happening kind of naturally. The film industry is changing to become more independent. Audiences are changing to appreciate more international sensibilities I think because of COVID, one of the casualties of it is people not wanting to watch stupid bullshit and having a bigger tolerance for more natural filmmaking. That’s wonderful for independent filmmakers. Independent filmmakers get to curse, show real sex, and show real violence in a way that companies with stockholders can’t do that. I don’t know. I think the biggest shift needs to be more democratization. We were very lucky. We ran a WeFunder campaign, a crowd equity campaign to raise the funds for this film, which anybody can do. I think it’s just going to be the cream rising to the top in the future, where everybody is going to finally be able to tell their story. The technology is there now where you can make a movie in your basement right now and mix a film by yourself. It’s only becoming more democratized. I think that it’s gonna happen naturally. I think we made a movie about Hollywood collapsing a bit but there’s no real cost to that. It’s just technology. It’s just access to filmmakers. I think I think the future of independent film is going to be very bright and it’s going to happen naturally. That was a long answer to a short question. I’m so sorry.
It’s definitely nice to see some original content out there when it feels like everything is a sequel, remake, or reboot.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, it’s an epidemic. It’s so funny—we’re big fans of early Walt Disney. Walt made a movie called Three Little Pigs. It was one of the most famous short films of all time. People would go to see the short film before it played before a feature because it was so good. His investors were like, we gotta have a sequel to Three Little Pigs. And he says, you can’t top pigs with pigs. They made a sequel to it and it bombed. It’s funny that the origin story of Disney is that this is something that shouldn’t be—we should be doing more original content. And nowadays, it’s just sequels. It’s just reboots of things. And yeah, I agree. It’s funny where people will ask us like, oh, is this based on a book? Is it based on something? It’s like, well, no, it’s original. We own the intellectual property for the thing. Anybody can do that. It’s so much more authentic when you’re watching a movie that’s from someone’s brain.
PJ McCabe: I think, unfortunately, we knew something as unique as this, we’re probably going to have to do it ourselves. I think we went around pitching this concept.
Jim Cummings: We’d be shooting it 10 years from now.
PJ McCabe: Yeah. We’ve been taking an insane amount of notes. Something like this, you kind of have to do it yourself to tell the right story.
IFC Films will release The Beta Test in theaters and VOD on November 5, 2021.
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