Arriving in select theaters and on VOD and Digital platforms today is The Beta Test from co-writers/co-directors Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, courtesy of IFC Films. The film’s story is centered around an engaged Hollywood agent (played by Cummings) who receives a mysterious letter inviting him to indulge in an anonymous sexual encounter mere weeks before his wedding, and the downward spiral that follows once he realizes that there are no secrets in life anymore.

Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with both Cummings and McCabe (who also co-stars in the project) about their experiences collaborating on The Beta Test, and during the interview, the duo discussed their approach to the story and directorial duties on the comedic erotic thriller, as well as how they tackled blending several genres that don’t necessarily seem like they would work well together. McCabe and Cummings also chatted about taking on the power dynamics in Hollywood, how the real-life assault of Terry Crews inspired them to take on how male sexual assault is handled in society, and more.

Hey guys—great to speak with you today. I’d love to start at the beginning and talk about how The Beta Test came together. Was there a specific impetus for you guys to go in this direction with your story and examine all these different power dynamics that can affect people in both their personal and professional lives? To me, it feels like those dynamics have spilled over into lives online as well, where there is a real lack of authentic communication happening these days.

Jim Cummings: I think with this one in particular, we wanted to talk about and address the power dynamics in Hollywood. But now that we've screened the film for a bunch of different people and a bunch of different industries, we realize it's not exclusive to Hollywood, that people feel like they can't make fun of the powers that be, or even describe what's happening with the powers that be, versus their employees or their assistants.

So we wanted to say something that would give power back to the assistants of the world, because we thought that was very important, while also making people laugh. But you're right, there is this generational political shift towards sanitized filmmaking that I've noticed, where people feel like they can't make something that has a lot of cursing in it, or a lot of sex, or a lot of violence. And I see that as a bit of a branch off from people's speech, where we've been so antagonizing against toxicity in conversation and with people, that everybody is trying to be nice, and so they will sacrifice themselves and their own personal well-being to not come across as a jerk, and I think you're right. So much of our speech is curtailed by the society that we've created since the dawn of social media, and I find that to be very interesting. But then as a comedian, laughter is the mind sneezing. If you can make people laugh at something, even if it's slightly offensive or against the normal narrative, people will appreciate it. And I think we all know these things are happening and it's okay to make jokes about it.

PJ McCabe: Yeah. These are definitely major issues, not just in the film industry, but again, like you said, in all corporations and all industries across the world, and a lot of stuff is very serious. But I think by breaching it with comedy, it brings light to it and people don't feel as uncomfortable about it. You can actually have these conversations and enjoy it with a weird narrative, which I hope we've spun here and made it fun.

Because this is an erotic thriller, but it’s also a very dark comedy at times, was that a huge challenge for you guys coming into this, to take those elements and blend them together? Because you don’t really see a lot of funny erotic thrillers come along very often.

Jim Cummings: But they can be so ridiculous. Watching Eyes Wide Shut, it's like it's so big and so insane. How do you not laugh? The only other response that you could have is to be like, "Wow, this is super sexy." And there's just the fact that sex is humiliating. It's goofy, especially when you're watching it in a movie and it’s not pornography. If you're watching it in a film, you're like, "Wow, this is uncomfortable." So, we wanted to make something that would be humiliating and funny, and the two sex scenes in this movie that make it an erotic thriller are very ridiculous. And the second one where my wife and I are in front of the fire, it's basically a fight scene. It's not a sex scene, and it's just constantly like, "What is she doing to me?"

So we always have to fuse comedy in these things because it's ridiculous, and I think people are missing out on opportunities to engage with an audience if they're not putting those jokes into a film. If you're not putting jokes throughout your film, your audience is making them and you need to be prepared for that to make the film bulletproof.

PJ McCabe: I think part of the fun of writing and doing this movie is because Jim and I, we'd never get caught up in something like this. We would be so awkward and weird with this whole situation, so it's funny to make it a comedy so the audience can come in and be like, "Yeah, this is nuts. What would you do in this ridiculous situation?" ​​That's fun, and from an audience member’s perspective, it would be like, "Wow, good luck guys" [laughs].

Because you both co-wrote and co-directed this together, what was the back-and-forth like then in terms of the creative process? 

Jim Cummings: We wrote it together and so much of the sculpting of the movie and the directing of the movie was done in the writing process. And once the script is written, we'll record it as a podcast and then we'll put in music and sound design so that we can create the audio direction of the film. Then, we can listen to the film as many times as we want before we show up on set. So really, the movie was directed before we ever showed up. We knew how it was going to play. I'm also a very technical director. I spent time as a cinematographer, too, so PJ and I had these long-form conversations with the cinematographer about how The Beta Test should look and feel and move cinematically.

And then there were times where just performance-wise, PJ would jump in and be like, "That's not really the feeling that we're going for here," or like, "Instead of it being what we imagined it should be, how do we make it what it should be with the characters that we have?" And so, although my mind is always more technical, PJ is always more like, "How do we get the thing? How do we make sure that we nail this thing?"

PJ McCabe: I definitely liked to focus on how we make sure we're doing what needs to be done for the story to keep it moving forward. There were never days where we'd wake up in the morning and be like, "All right, you deal with this and I'll deal with this." It just kind of happened very fluidly. We knew exactly what we needed.

Jim Cummings: It was very easy. We never argued. It was just putting out fires.

PJ McCabe: It was really very fluid and it was fun. It was just making a movie with your best friend, so it was like a dream. It was great.

Jim, I know that you have generally worked outside of the studio system. Because of some of the themes you guys tackle here, was this a catharsis process for you both in terms of addressing some of the problems in Hollywood then?

Jim Cummings: This is definitely the pinnacle of our careers as independent filmmakers. I don't know if we'll get hired again [laughs], but we were able to do it and skirt along making independent films for the last several years, and doing crowdfunding campaigns to raise the funds and then editing them in this garage and finishing them, putting them out to much acclaim. The movie was screened at a bunch of the biggest film festivals in the world, very luckily. But I think if we're able to find cool executives who have a good sense of humor, we'd love to work with them. Really, this movie feels like a big commercial for us as people who are “no bullshit.” I think we'll probably meet some cool people that we otherwise would've spent 10 years talking to, who don't have a good sense of humor, cheesy people in suits, and I think now we're going to be able to dodge a lot of that Hollywood stuff, just by the nature of the film coming out.

PJ McCabe: I agree. We'll weed out people and get to people who will be okay with our crazy, weird style of storytelling, and maybe we'll get to make all this other fun stuff we want to do. I don't know. I'm cautiously optimistic that people will get the joke and be like, "Yeah, that was fun. Let's do something like that. That's cool."

I know we're getting close on time, but I wanted to mention this one line that stuck with me, especially the second time I saw it. Jim, it was when your character is on the phone, and he says something to the effect of, "Do you want to keep starring in all these indie movies, or do you want to be a star?" Was that your way of being introspective towards the path you’ve taken in your career?

Jim Cummings: Yeah, that's definitely an inside joke. I'm so glad that you caught that because it seems like nobody else has. There's a moment where I say, “Well, what's so wonderful about television is that the world of independent film is so much smaller than that of television. How much longer do you want to keep making movies that nobody is seeing?” And the fact that we've put that line into an independent film means that anybody who's in the audience is watching an independent film and the audience is enormous for independent film. And so, it was a way to be able to say, "Fight the system. These people are wrong and they don't give a shit about independent films. The movie that you are watching, they would not care about," and that's what's so funny to me.

I also just wanted to say to you, one other thing that really struck me is when you talk about when Jordan gets groped and it feels like society often overlooks when men are victims of violence like that. It starts off as a “ha ha” moment, but it’s a very serious thing that I’m glad you’ve addressed here.

Jim Cummings: Thank you. So, the first time that we did it, immediately, we knew that the audience was going to laugh as I said something humiliating inside of this bizarre doublespeak world where my character is groped at a party by a Chinese media mogul. And I go, "Ha ha, I love it." And then I keep talking because that's the power dynamic, that I wouldn't be able to call him out for sexually assaulting me at a party. And then later in the film, it comes up and it's not funny at all. And immediately I say, "This thing happened to me and nobody did anything about it. We kept working with this guy." And that's something that if you're watching the movie correctly, you go, "Finally, somebody's talking about that thing. Okay. The filmmakers are right about this history."

And to be honest, that's based on a real event that happened to Terry Crews by an agent at one of the top four agencies. And he did it twice in one night in front of his wife. It's like, although it's a joke in our film, it's actually a reference to a very serious thing that happened to an incredible actor and role model. And he's very open about it. He was on the front page of The Hollywood Reporter when “Me Too” was finally breaking, and we wanted to put that into the film because it was based on reality.

I'm a really big believer that whenever you're doing something creative, whether it's writing, directing, producing, whatever it is, you put a part of yourself into that project. But I'm curious for both of you, coming out of The Beta Test, what was your biggest takeaway from your experience working on this project?

Jim Cummings: That it works. Really, we had no idea going into the fundraising, if we were going to raise the funds on a crowd equity platform, or that going the unconventional route would work. We had hypotheses, but we had no idea that it would work. And then we didn't know that the fusion of all the genres would work. We heard it in audio format and then we thought that could be a good way to work. And then we didn't know if we'd be able to finish the movie from my garage and that worked, and it still played on the world stage and is coming out with one of our favorite distributors of all time, IFC Films. So The Beta Test really was this beta test to see if the rumor that we had spread about independent film being alive and well in America was true. And so that's the biggest takeaway that I have with the film.

PJ McCabe:  Yeah. I think it just emboldened us to say, "Yeah, we can do this." Not only do it ourselves, but all these projects that we're writing, Jim and I, on the surface, they may not seem very commercial or very marketable. But I think blending all these genres and telling these offbeat stories, there's a huge hunger and an audience for that. And so yeah, we're going to keep swinging for the fences with our projects.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.