As skilled as Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe are at cracking codes, they knew for “The Beta Test,” they had to build one when a key plot point revolved around an online phishing scheme.
“A good buddy of ours wrote the algorithm. We know it’s possible,” said Cummings, who had a friend in programming for the likes of Space X that could match kindred spirits online based exclusively on their search histories. “There’s a moment in the movie where [a character] gets on the computer and presses send on the thing that’s going to send that to a thousand times as many people. And he stands up in the frame, moves his computer chair out of the way, and it’s only for about a second-and-a-half, but it’s perfectly in frame, and it’s the algorithm that our buddy built of how you would do it, so if anybody watched the movie, they could pause the movie and then build it for themselves. It’s a little frightening, but we had our buddy build it and it could work. We won’t do it.”
Adds McCabe, with a mischievous smile, “Yeah, but I hope somebody does.”
A healthy appreciation for anarchy runs throughout “The Beta Test,” a wickedly funny comedy set in the movie business that Cummings has been aiming to dismantle ever since he broke through it so dramatically with his ferocious first feature “Thunder Road.” With McCabe, a longtime pal from their days together at Emerson, as a co-conspirator, the two lay waste to the alpha males that have long fashioned themselves as gatekeepers to the industry after Jordan, a hotshot agent savagely played by Cummings, receives an invitation for a no strings attached sexual rendezvous with a stranger. Less than two months away from his wedding to a stable fiancée (Virginia Newcombe), the instincts that have served Jordan well as an agent work against him personally as he ends up leaping at the opportunity to pursue what he doesn’t yet have as a master of the universe, exercising his power only to prove his importance to himself and his life unravels as a result when he attempts to backtrack and learn the identity of his one-night stand.
That the collapse of Jordan’s personal life coincides with impending doom in his professional life – “The Beta Test” was in part inspired by the Writers Guild drawing a line in the sand against agencies that were taking packaging fees, a byzantine practice in which they could make significantly more money than the creatives involved by coupling clients to sell projects to studios – isn’t an accident, as Cummings and McCabe continue the skewering of the fragile male ego that has been a signature of the former’s work so far. Nor is the fact that it shows how it’s those working with only the humble resources in front of them that have one up on the powers that be in this moment of technological innovation and corporate monopolization that has paralyzed those who believe themselves to be creative because they work with genuinely creative people. Cummings and McCabe’s performances as such agents are particularly impressive when it means hiding their natural ingenuity, though it emerges in every other aspect of the shrewd satire, whether it’s in the consistently sharp repartee or its slick, stylish filmmaking that ably attests to an ultra-image-conscious industry before digging so deeply underneath.
After touring the world in recent months with premieres at Berlinale, Venice and London Film Festivals, Cummings and McCabe generously took the time to talk about this wonderfully nasty bit of business as it opens in the States, finding inspiration for their existential Hollywood horror film in the work of Argento and Fincher and how to pull off an incredibly ambitious shoot in just 17 days.
I’ve heard varying accounts of how this script came together – the first being that you were interested in the issues at the root of the recent Writers Guild boycott of the agencies over packaging fees, but then you had this erotic comedy idea too. Which actually came first?
Jim Cummings: It started out with the envelope service. PJ and I had the idea to do a movie [where it] was like, “Okay, this could be a cool ‘Twilight Zone] episode that we could shoot in our apartments — a small-budget movie, kind of like how we did ’13 Cameras,’” And I was like, “This could be an interesting thing that we could do for not much money and make it on our own.” Then it spiraled into all of the agency battle stuff with the WGA and it became so much bigger than we thought that it was going to be. But we had the idea originally about the cheating and lying, and then we realized immediately that it would have to be about agents and the cheaters and liars. [laughs]
The script was 57 pages, and we sent it to our buddies, the McManus brothers, who are Emmy-nominated writers, and I was like, “They might have a better idea of how to do this.” In the script, [PJ and I] were both supposed to be agents, but it was a very small part of the script, and then they said, “Well, it’s only an hour-long and you should do this about the WGA fight – that’s the interesting stuff.” Then it became about big data as well and it created this perfect circle of everything that we wanted to talk about — of how anybody could make something using the internet that could debase and humiliate this entire industry that’s already built for them, and we decided to do that as well by making a film.
PJ McCabe: It all started with getting a letter in the mail and it evolved into this crazy, complex story that is a lot of fun.
It blows my mind that you were thinking of this as a single-location film at one point when the locations are really part of what makes this work on such a large scale and it resembles the Hollywood I actually live around. What was it like looking for places to shoot?
PJ McCabe: Yeah, we blew our producers’ minds too when they read the script.
Jim Cummings: We’re like, “We’re going to do the single location apartment horror thing,” and then they were like, “This is like 25 locations and a thousand speaking parts. This is harder than ‘Wolf of Snow Hollow.’ What have you done?”
The biggest expense was shooting at the Biltmore Hotel [for the rendezvous], and then we had to shoot the exterior somewhere else downtown to make it seem like it was a bit seedier. But it was driving around the city a lot and finding different spots. There’s a sequence at the end of the film, where the guy is cleaning up the blood, that’s in Pasadena, and then it cuts to me looking at the house from afar and that’s my driveway in East LA and then it cuts to Lake Arrowhead [with] me climbing in through the shower. And then the next sequence is in our buddy Ben’s apartment in Atwater Village, of me coming through and Johnny PayPal getting something out of the microwave, and then his whole spot that’s supposed to be the basement is actually our production studio across the hallway, so over about a four minute span, it’s six different locations pretending to be one. It was insane.
When you said it was a 17-day shoot, thinking about the amount of camera setups to pull this off was just staggering to me.
Jim Cummings: All of that production of like, “How do we fake this and still make it seem real?” was forced upon us because of the budget and you can’t really tell. It looks seamless in a crazy way. The room that we shot the Johnny PayPal sequence at the end [was at our production company], and our production designers came in for two days and built it out to look like his basement, but literally, we had no money to make it look like a basement, so we built out our own space to make it seem that way.
Your production designers are obviously geniuses and besides being able to create such authentic environments, the color palette here is amazing. What was it like bringing a style into these sets?
Jim Cummings: PJ and I were watching a bunch of giallo horror movies throughout the writing process. “Suspiria” was big, but then “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” and “Bird with the Crystal Plumage” for a lot of the murder sequences to make something that was very Dario [Argento] inspired and [with] our cinematographer Ken Wales, and our production designer Charlie Textor, who I worked with for my last three features, it felt like this hive mind of the five of us all making this movie together. We were very lucky.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, I think everyone was in on the style and I remember Charlie came into day one with this massive notebook and [he and Ken] just got it and they understood the color schemes and the tone and the visuals. You had to buy in for a movie like this.
Jim Cummings: Charlie Textor comes in and he’s talking about the agency stuff, and he is like, “When the [emergency] alarm goes off for the earthquake [in the film], I want it to all be red. And then I want it to be black leather and cow horns because we know they’re all Satanists!” [laughs]
PJ McCabe: We’re like, “Never would’ve thought of that, but yeah, you’re goddamn right. Let’s do it.”
Jim Cummings: We all jumped into this thing and found ways to make it work while also loving Dario Argento and David Fincher and Ruben Östlund, and to try and fuse that into this narrative structure. It felt very seamless because we were all speaking the same language.
PJ, I understand you might’ve been a bit of a genius making the most difficult scene you had as an actor be your first day — that 360° shot as your character and Jim’s talk at a bar. Were you on easy street after that?
PJ McCabe: Trust me, day one, I didn’t sleep a wink. I slept over at Jim’s house the night before and I was so nervous because I have so many lines in that scene, but it’s such an important scene, transitioning the movie and there’s so much exposition. I was like, “I don’t want to blow the movie on day one with my performance.” And obviously, [we had this] 360° shot [where] the rig alone is amazing — Ken built it from scratch and it’s unbelievable, but on top of that, I have to get the lines right while [the camera is] spinning around, so it was definitely very nervewracking, but I’m really happy with how the scene came out. I remember when we finished shooting it, that was one of the scenes where I was like, “I hope we got it.” But it was a lot of fun because that’s one of the most stylized, intense scenes in the movie.
Jim Cummings: Yeah, like an hour in, you’re like, “Wait, now it’s become ‘The Social Network’?”
The two of you were able to save a lot of time on set by actually recording the script as a podcast first, so you knew the rhythm of it. Did you actually get the other actors involved early enough so you knew tonally what it would sound like?
Jim Cummings: We would’ve liked to. [laughs] I recorded the podcast in a hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina, because I was shooting “Halloween Kills” at the time and PJ and I had written the script to a point where we were like, “Cool, we can record it now.” Then I recorded it on the Zoom mic I’m talking to you on right now ad it was very pedestrian. It was very small, simple production and we sculpted it in a way [where] it was “I think this scene could go somewhere else” [after listening to it]. I sent the first cut to PJ and the producers and really, that is so much more of a litmus test as to whether or not the movie’s going to work than the screenplay. Music decisions, sound design, and pacing out of the movie — it really is the first draft of the movie in a way that a script never could be, [though] in the future, we’ll try and do as many other actors as possible so people don’t have to listen to my stupid voice.
PJ McCabe: We did one more recently for a TV show [where] we had multiple actors and it does add a lot to have different voices in there. Jim does a fantastically good job covering it, but it is nice to kind of have the different tastes of who the actual performances are going to be.
Jim Cummings: What’s crazy is, PJ and I were in prep for the movie and then Ben happened to be in town right before he went to do the final mix at Skywalker for “The Night House,” so he was spread thin, doing a thousand different movies. I love that guy so much — he is an actual master, one of the best modern-day composers — and [even though he was busy] he and I hung out with PJ at this place in Franklin Village, and he was like, “Look, anything you guys need, let me know. I have these great musicians that will come into this church and we can record stuff. Anything you want to do, let me know.” And it got to a point where we really did need him to come in and help out where we had so much Vivaldi and classical music we were populating the rest of the film with, [but we thought] “It’s got to be giallo. It has to be a modern Bruno Nicolai.” And immediately, we sent it it to Ben Lovett and he was like, “Yep, I can do this.” He sent us so much great material and we [thought], “Cool. We’ll just pepper it in throughout the film.”
PJ McCabe: Yeah. A lot of great stems that we were able to pick and match.
Jim Cummings: Ben is unbelievable. And he is also a really humble, lovely, hard worker in a way that we are. It has nothing to do with how qualified he is or the amazing movies that he’s done. He’s just this chill Southern guy, and that speaks so much to our sensibilities about making movies.
You’ve actually gotten to travel with the film – from its premiere in Berlin to its recent debut at the London Film Festival. What’s it been like to see the reaction to something such a culturally specific satire as this?
Jim Cummings: We screened at Berlinale and most times, with German audiences, they haven’t appreciated the comedy of my previous two movies. They’d be like, “This guy’s trying to be funny. He should take the comedy out.”
PJ McCabe: But they really loved it, and it was great to screen it in front of a big, open air audience in the middle of the summer in Berlin. And then we screened it in Tribeca and it killed. People were dying for it. Then at Beyond Fest [in Los Angeles] and Fantastic Fest, all the genre festivals we played, people have been dying for this kind of unsanitized, goofy horror film.
Jim Cummings: It’s been really wonderful. It’s coming out on the fifth of November — Guy Fawkes Day — and it feels appropriate. It feels like we’re blowing up Parliament a bit with this film and I think audiences appreciate this kind of stuff right now.
“The Beta Test” opens on November 5th in theaters and will be available on demand.