One of the more unique voices in American cinema, Jim Cummings has, over the past three years, worked to reorient the rules of independent filmmaking. Winner of the top prize at SXSW, Cummings’s self-distributed debut Thunder Road (2018) went on to play in the ACID program at Cannes before taking in over twice its budget at the US box office, while his United Artists-released sophomore feature The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020) found an audience in virtual cinemas through its oddball blend of horror, comedy, and procedural detective drama. Cummings’s new co-directed feature, The Beta Test, takes the multi-hyphenate filmmaker’s DIY ethos a step further. Selected for this year’s online edition of the Berlinale, the film, which Cummings wrote and directed in collaboration with his longtime friend and associate P.J. McCabe, who also co-stars, was kept off the festival’s digital platform, prompting a question that has become increasingly relevant in our newly virtual world: if a film is selected for a festival, but doesn’t screen at the festival, did it actually premiere? Defying the new normal of online exhibition, Cummings instead arranged a week of “safe” screenings in his backyard for scouts, distributors, and critics, such as myself, who caught wind of the arrangement. As someone who hasn’t seen a film in a cinema since COVID hit, this 5.1 surround sound-enabled private screening came closer than anything I’ve encountered in the last year to approximating the theatrical experience.
A funny and brutally frank depiction of post-Weinstein Hollywood, The Beta Test reengages a theme that unites all of Cummings’s work: the dissolution of the male ego. Once again acting as his own lead, Cummings plays Jordan Hines, a married Hollywood agent who one day, in the midst of the very real war between the talent agencies and the Writers Guild of America over the packaging deals that the WGA feels create a conflict of interest between the agencies and a project’s creative personnel, receives an anonymous letter in an elegant purple envelope offering him a no-strings-attached sexual encounter. Unable to resist the temptation, Jordan accepts the proposal and, once satisfied, becomes increasingly anxious for more. But a new letter never arrives, sending Jordan into a tailspin across urban Los Angeles in which reality and the subconscious merge as he attempts to track down the people behind this perceived conspiracy. As one of the few directors who also writes, edits, and acts in his own films, Cummings opens himself up to the same scrutiny that his characters face as they watch the patriarchal systems that once fortified their worldview crumble before their very eyes. (In that sense, the film’s title isn’t just a clever pun, but a working metaphor for Cummings’s entire project.) At once a scathing satire and an acute morality play, The Beta Test is Cummings’s most accomplished work to date, and one that may become a model for retaining your artistic integrity in a rapidly changing and ever-compromised cinematic landscape.
The Beta Test screens on June 11 at the Tribeca Film Festival and, finally, at the Berlinale Summer Special on June 18 and 19.
NOTEBOOK: Let’s start with the Berlinale selection. Why keep the film off the festival’s virtual platform?
JIM CUMMINGS: We did something similar with Thunder Road; we didn’t provide screeners for that film. I’m actually writing a movie right now about screener culture in Hollywood and how pervasive and ugly it is; because this movie is about Hollywood I just didn’t want to partake in that culture until we’re ready. We also have anonymous sources listed in the credits who are still working at some of these agencies. Some of them have told me that they haven’t had a chance to quit because of COVID, and that it would be nice to be able to leave on their own terms rather than get fired. So that was one of the main ethical reasons why we couldn’t do it.
But it’s a strange thing: if you get on Letterboxd and look at some of these films that have “premiered” online, ostensibly for only a certain group of people, there are thousands of reviews out there because people illegally screen capture them or sign in with VPNs to watch them from different territories. This whole movie is about data and how to use computers to cheat the system, so we kind of predicted all that. At the time we were like, well, we haven’t sold the movie—we’re a small, independent production, so we’re the ones who are going to be in debt if this thing gets out before it’s supposed to. So we thought it was better to not do it, and that just kind of pissed people off. We had a bunch of people asking why they couldn’t see it—people were expecting to be able to see it. Some of them were fans, and I understand their feelings, but a lot of them were just these older cogs in the Hollywood system that feel offended that they’re not able to see a movie about them.
NOTEBOOK: Was there any pushback from the festival?
CUMMINGS: Well, when we were invited in January to world premiere at the Berlinale it wasn’t yet a virtual festival—it was still supposed to be an in-person event. But after we accepted they were like, “Oh yeah, it’s going to be a digital festival.” So I had to tell them, “I hate to split hairs, but is it okay if we just show the film at the festival’s June showcase, with in-person screenings?”
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a little about the distribution strategy for this film? You self-released Thunder Road and while The Wolf of Snow Hollow had proper distribution, it came out virtually during the pandemic. Did these situations play into how you’ve been approaching the release of the new film?
CUMMINGS: We were actually planning to self-distribute this film but we got a really wonderful offer from IFC, so we sold it to them domestically. And we have a few other incredible distributors lined-up in other territories, who will actually release the film before it comes out in the US. I think we’re coming out day-and-date in the US in early November.
With Thunder Road we actually didn’t have many offers. The offer that we did get was for half the budget of the movie for ten years of distribution rights. We had seen a Sundance case study for the film Columbus (2017), which was a $750,000 project; our movie cost $200,000. The filmmaker, Kogonada, had put out the film himself and made like $650,000 in the first year. We thought that was a huge amount of money, so we decided to apply for the Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship grant; we were great candidates and we ended up getting it. So we put the $33,000 of grant money into self-distributing the film, and we made all the money back very quickly, and we still own the movie. Anytime someone buys that movie I’m making $0.41 of every dollar, which is astronomically different than any Hollywood contract—and certainly different than what I’m being offered from any studio for my movies.
After we won SXSW and went to Cannes with Thunder Road, I started shopping The Wolf of Snow Hollow script, and we got that one greenlit pretty quickly. A couple of different studios were looking to partner with independent filmmakers who would be willing to make something on a small budget; for us a small budget was two-hundred grand and they were talking two million! So it was like, “Oh my god, we can do whatever we want with this movie!” We sold it within two or three weeks coming out of Cannes, and started preproduction and eventually began shooting by the following March. But that was a very different scenario. They were putting up more than ten times the money for promotion than we had for Thunder Road. It was kind of like the Steven Soderbergh model: doing one for you and one for them. And it worked out pretty well for us. The movie came out digitally in October in the US, and theatrically in a couple of other territories, and it blew up in a crazy way, I think because it’s a genre movie and also because it’s very funny. The horror audience really appreciated the graphic violence and also that there was something more to the story—it wasn’t just a slasher movie. So it was nice, if kind of different, to have the ear of an enormous audience of horror fans that dug what we were doing. And then all the while I’m editing this other movie that’s even crazier and has some wild horror elements in it as well.
NOTEBOOK: When I saw the film I think you said that a distribution offer would have to be really good for you to consider it.
CUMMINGS: Right! As you know, I opened up the backyard and screened the film for a bunch of different people. The shitty thing is that there were scouts who would come to see the movie and they would love it, but then they’d be like, “Well, my boss has to see it and they’re in New York.” Luckily, there’s a platform called indee.tv—an incredible platform that’s encrypted that you can send screeners through and not only will it tell you when someone starts watching your movie, but it’ll show you where they watched it and if they stopped or skipped through it. So it’s really valuable for people in the industry. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but a lot of people in Hollywood don’t feel the need to be honest all the time. [Laughs] They can say, “Oh, I loved the movie. It’s great.” But you can look and see that they only watched like ten seconds or skipped through it. So that helps so you don’t have to spend the next ten years of your life working with them in France or wherever it is. And we’ve made decisions like that: we’ve sent the movie to people and they’ve watched it once and they didn’t even finish it, but for some reason they want to buy it?
Anyway, it’s been interesting. We’ve had this kind of digital, in-person Berlinale in my backyard, but I’m glad we’ll now be able to take it to theaters and show it to people.
NOTEBOOK: You’re the only filmmaker I know of that’s done this, but it seems to have worked out well.
CUMMINGS: I think moviemaking nowadays is all backyards. It’s just bigger backyards depending on the movie. The more I talk to people about their process, the more I learn. Like, David Fincher has always worked with his friends. You just kind of grow naturally into the next generation of Hollywood. There’s no, like, special club or VIP curtain. It's always backyard filmmaking—you just get better at disguising that I think.
NOTEBOOK: What can you tell me about the anonymous agents you consulted?
CUMMINGS: It’s about 11 people in total. Some of them are still current agents, though most of them have left by now to start their own production companies. Some of them are assistants at agencies, and ex-assistants. So it’s a bit of both.
NOTEBOOK: Was the starting point of the film the battle between the WGA and the agencies, or was that something you came to after coming up with the anonymous sex storyline?
CUMMINGS: The latter. We had the idea for the anonymous sex thing because for us it was one of those things like, “What would you do?” I called P.J. and asked him, “What would you actually do in this situation?” And he said, “I wouldn’t do it. I would get murdered!” But I was like, “Yeah, but what if you were someone who you go in for something like that, who didn’t have that kind of self-protection function, who was crazy enough to do something like that?”
From there we started writing and we had this 60-page screenplay; the character was already a talent agent and it was kind of funny, with jokes about dishonesty. So it was like, “No, if we’re going to make a movie about lying and cheating in Hollywood it has to be set in this world.” We thought about the John Patrick Shanley play Doubt: if you’re going to make a movie about believing in something without evidence, you have to set it in a church—it’s perfect framing. So for us it’s the same thing: if we’re going to make a movie about dishonesty and cheating in Hollywood it has to be set in agencies and it has to be set during the WGA packaging fight. It was also so perfect to us because we were making this movie by just completely circumventing the system—most of the agents that I know didn’t even know we were making the film, even when I was interviewing co-workers of theirs! We were able to raise the money independently and were able to get to the point where we were comfortable with self-distributing, to be fully formed and to say, “Fuck the system,” especially for everyone that is being held down by the agencies.
NOTEBOOK: What’s your personal experience been like with regards to the industry battle? You’re in the Writer’s Guild, correct?
CUMMINGS: Yeah! [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: Do you have an agent?
CUMMINGS: I had six agents working for me at WME [William Morris Endeavor], though I don’t really know the relationship with them right now. I guess technically I can go back to them under the rules. But once the WGA fight was happening the Guild reached out to me and said that basically you don’t get paid for anything until I agree to get rid of William Morris Endeavor, because they’re not signatories to the deal. WME was the worst—they were the ones that held out the longest, until just three months ago. Even CAA [Creative Artists Agency] signed before them. But part of the deal of being with the WGA is that they sent out a letter on my behalf to the agents. That’s kind of how it was: people in the WGA would sometimes feel pressured, or that they might not have a working career anymore, so the guild was bold enough to say, “You don’t even need to talk to these people. We’re just going to send out this automated thank-you-so-much-but-I’m-no-longer-available message.
NOTEBOOK: Was there any hesitation to depict this world?
CUMMINGS: There was for a long time. There were times when I was putting stuff in—stuff that we had researched, and stuff that was making P.J. and I laugh but that was maybe cause for concern. We very much have a Trey Parker and Matt Stone kind of relationship where we’re just trying to make each other laugh, and whatever does make us laugh is kind of the bar for what makes it into the movies. But there were times when I was like, “Can we put this in the movie? Can I make this joke?” And he’d say, “I don’t know, man. I don’t think so.” [Laughs]
There are two references in the film to Harvey Weinstein and how the Hollywood world still wants to be like Harvey: to dress nice and fuck people and get away with it. P.J. had sort of convinced me not to include those references, but then like two or three weeks out from production he was like, “Fuck it, let’s do it. Fuck ‘em. Let’s do it all!” I think that became very emboldening, to the point where the whole cast and crew were down to do it. But then of course it was our job to say the dialogue! [Laughs]
At this point, though, I have no trepidation. It’s a comedy. It is kind of like South Park in that way: if you can’t take a joke then you’re not cool. So many people find it funny and true to form. And it’s so well researched that I don’t know how much you can deny it. I’m certain we will get some backlash, but we made the whole thing without them anyway, you know? The world has changed so much that you can’t really say, “You’ll never work in this town again.” We did this with, like, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—we made this thing in a backyard. You can’t kick us out of something that doesn’t exist anymore.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting that the pandemic has only further highlighted how unnecessary a lot of these different middle men are, whether that be agents, distributors, or production facilities.
CUMMINGS: It’s weird, yeah. I mean, building out the garage to be 5.1 surround sound studio: we spent five grand at Guitar Center on the equipment and then used their 45-day return policy to return it all. The technology is there to impersonate a movie studio from your house. YouTube influencers found that out ten years and it’s taken us until now to figure out that we don’t need these people—all that time to finally say, no, we can do it on our own as well.
NOTEBOOK: How did the collaboration with P.J. come about? I know he had a small part in Snow Hollow, but how did he come to co-write and direct this film?
CUMMINGS: P.J. had never even directed a short film before! But he’s been my buddy for years. We worked together on a 3D short called The Flamingo (2012), that he was the lead actor in, and we’ve been great friends ever since. When I first moved to LA we were working on shorts all the time, just sketches and goofy stuff, and during the making of Thunder Road he was helpful with the writing; I would read the script out loud just to see if it was working for him. He’s been a great collaborator for many years. For awhile we were in development for a TV show about astronauts coming back to the suburbs. We were hoping to do that but we were kind of getting tossed around a little bit in development—still are, actually. But the writing relationship for that was so wonderful: he would set up a laptop and I would set up a laptop and we would be able to write in real time. It’s really valuable for me to write a joke and hear him laugh, so I can know what works and what doesn’t.
So when Beta came around we thought that maybe we could do this together, and it just worked. The joke is that P.J. doesn’t know anything about cameras and I don’t know anything about acting, and so together we kind of make one director.
NOTEBOOK: For not knowing anything about acting you sure do act a lot!
CUMMINGS: I’ve fooled everyone so far! [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: There’s only one big review of the movie out there right now, in Variety, and it compares you to Jim Carrey.
CUMMINGS: Yeah, and it does a lot!
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, I guess because Jim Carrey revealed a lot of himself in those dramatic roles he did around the turn of the millennium. But then the Variety review of Snow Hollow compares you to Vince Vaughn, so…
CUMMINGS: Thunder Road was the film that revealed the most of me as a person. It was just so perfect: this narrative that hypnotizes you because of the long takes and the goofiness of the character. He’s like a Jacques Tati or Chaplin character moving through the film. It’s so bizarre, and it shouldn’t work, but it does. I learned how to write movies during Thunder Road. So long as you’re doing something poignant and heartbreaking, that will give meaning and emotion to the viewer, and then you can immediately switch into stupid bullshit and humiliation pornography where the audience can be the voyeur; you can string them along for 90 minutes. And if there’s a very fulfilling ending that ties it all up, then all the better. I realized I could do those things—the kind of live action Pixar stuff; very funny tearjerkers—through the Thunder Road short, and then I just raced as quick as I could into the feature.
These last two films are just comedies. Comedies about important stuff—alcohol addiction, losing your father, Hollywood falling apart, and lying and cheating all the time—but they’re not Pixar movies. I wouldn’t show them to the same audience. Snow Hollow is like Zodiac (2006) as a comedy.
NOTEBOOK: I do actually see some of Fincher in the craft of your films.
CUMMINGS: We call him Uncle Dave on set. We’re always like, “Uncle Dave is gonna love this shot.”
NOTEBOOK: Your films all sort of rework genre conventions to varying degrees as well.
CUMMINGS: For this film P.J. and I were always talking about ‘70s giallo films. They would do insane shit in those movies. Especially early Dario Argento, like in Deep Red (1975), he would just pull off crazy stuff with zoom lenses and dolly shots. It’s just so freeing to see that and realize that you can do whatever you want with a movie. We incorporate some of that in Beta Test: there’s red and blue lights and it feels a little giallo at times.
Fincher, though, is just the best. He has this ability to be so meticulous with his filmmaking, and I find that so fucking absent from cinema these days. Especially in independent film: handheld, cross-coverage of characters talking—people just feel like they can skirt along with critics and audiences if the movie’s about a certain cause. You’re getting by with the PSA way of making movies instead of using the camera and sound to tell a story in a certain way.
NOTEBOOK: One of the things that interests me about your films is that each one is shot on location in the city where it’s set. How do you conceive of your films geographically, and as far as budget goes, how has location shooting affected each production?
CUMMINGS: For Snow Hollow it was a bit different than the others because we needed the tax credits that you get from shooting in Utah. So it either had to be shot in upstate New York or Utah, which both have open tax credits. Utah is such a beautiful landscape and I already knew it a bit having gone to Sundance twice. I just thought we could go there and rent an Airbnb—I always assume going in that we’re not going to have any money.
For Austin and Thunder Road—again, I had been there for SXSW a couple of times and loved it. I thought we could shoot in these few neighborhoods that I was familiar with—just contain the entire movie to these few neighborhoods, which we did. With Beta Test, it just had to be shot in Hollywood. We’re all already out here, but it was the most expensive of the independent films that we’ve made because of all the permitting you have to do to be able to shoot anywhere. It’s just so difficult to shoot anywhere in California, which is probably another reason we shot the previous two films elsewhere.
NOTEBOOK: As an LA resident it’s nice to see the city not used as simply a backdrop but as a kind of psychological space. A lot of it is shot downtown near the Biltmore Hotel…
CUMMINGS: You’re the only one who's noticed that the exterior shots of the Biltmore are not the real exteriors of the hotel! [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, Thom Andersen would not be happy with that use of geographic license!
CUMMINGS: Well, hopefully for most people it just blends into the landscape. But for movies this small—I mean, it was made for $320,000. We didn’t have much to work with. So there were times where we had to think, “Ok, cool, we’re shooting inside this building, and we have the rights to shoot inside and outside, so can the outside be used for a separate exterior?” There’s a scene near the end of the film where I’m outside the Swedish murder house, and then we cut to a shot of me looking at the house, and then to a shot of me standing in my driveway looking at the window, and then we’re in Lake Arrowhead as I climb through the window of the house, because that’s the only place we had access to that had a bathroom window that I could crawl through. And then the interior of the house is actually our production office apartment, while the basement of the house was shot across the street at another location. So it’s like six different locations in a minute-and-a-half span. That was the first time I’ve had to think like that as a filmmaker—like, if you just use the same color light outside the window, then these two locations will match.
But to answer your question about Los Angeles, there was a lot of stuff that we cut that was too slick—stuff like me driving down the intestate in a Tesla. We didn’t want to make the lifestyle seem cool. Even for some of the drone footage we ended up putting, like, the sound of bus brakes over the shot of the Hollywood sign—we didn’t want it to seem like a cool place to live. We wanted it to be the opposite of Entourage. There’s a good quote from Derek Cianfrance: “It’s important to make celebrities real people, and real people celebrities.” We were trying to do the latter, by taking something that is commonplace for people who live here but shoot it in a way that’s mysterious and Chinatown (1974)-like.
NOTEBOOK: As far as research goes, you mentioned speaking with agents about their experiences, but how does one go about researching the world of anonymous sex? Of course I couldn’t help but think of Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
CUMMINGS: Yep. I love Eyes Wide Shut, and P.J. hadn’t seen it. I kept referencing the movie while we were writing, and he was like, “I think I’ve only seen the first half of that movie.” So I told him, “We need to watch it right now!” And of course the mansion scene happens and he’s like, “I haven’t seen any of this!” [Laughs]
For this film I just wanted to make something that felt evergreen. I guess it’s a Hollywood thing, but when you make a movie and put it out there, people… send you weird DMs on Instagram! [Laughs] As an engaged man myself that’s a very strange thing. So I started thinking if there was a way you could do this in an analog way that might entice someone and make them feel more special. Obviously I see all of the DMs as spam mail, but what if you got the same thing in an envelope—what would you actually do? And what if it was perfect and you never got another letter but then it ate at you? Even in this best case scenario for adultery it would be the worst thing ever to live with. I’m a very monogamous, lame guy, so because of that—I think everyone should be able to do whatever they want, but I think it can sometimes really upend people’s lives and accidentally hurt the people around them.
NOTEBOOK: What’s the division of labor like on set? Since P.J. hasn’t directed before did he spend more time on things like the script?
CUMMINGS: He was always on the script. That’s the most important thing to him. He was always trying to make sure we got the dates and timeline right. This film was a little complicated because it deals with mailing letters, so he was making sure the timing was right as far as how long it would take for a letter to actually be delivered after it was sent. So he did all these kind of technical things that I could not follow, like continuity and seeing things in the frame that shouldn’t be there and would have ruined the movie if they stayed in. We made this little behind the scenes documentary during the shoot that shows a lot of me just running around and shouting. I get really excited when I’m doing the thing—it feels like the most alive you can possibly be. It’s like playing football and getting touchdowns every time you get a shot. It’s like a summer camp. So P.J. is there to keep me levelheaded and to make sure the movie ends up good. [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned that the editing and much of the post-production was done in your garage. Was that because of COVID, or is that how you’ve always worked?
CUMMINGS: I edited Beta on the same computer that I edited Thunder Road and most of Wolf of Snow Hollow on. It’s my 16.5-inch iMac—not that size matters. [Smiles] Some of the other post-production stuff was done at the Vanishing Angle offices, but otherwise it was just me carrying my computer home to edit here. So it didn’t change much at all.
NOTEBOOK: What about on a practical level: your films tend to alternate long takes with montages. How do you find the rhythm you’re looking for?
CUMMINGS: I actually started out as an editor, so I’ve gotten decent at it. I kind of understood how to put things together. Soberbergh’s always been doing the same kind of thing, and I admire that. Using Premiere to edit is one of my strengths, I think. So when I’m writing I’m constantly thinking of how it’s going to be put together in the edit, so much so that when we show up on set we don’t shoot extra coverage. If I know that the scene is going to open with P.J.’s monologue about the Medici family, we only need the dolly track and the zoom lens for that shot, and then we move into the close-ups. We don’t continue anything; it’s already edited a bit in my head. And that’s because we’ve generally had no money or time to work that way. We have to shoot to edit.
And I love that process, especially with regards to Beta because there’s just so much to the edit. With long takes, it makes the audience feel inside the scene—an audience can feel present inside a continuous shot. It’s an experience that the conventional editing of scenes doesn't allow for. So you can suck people in with these long takes, and then you can move into the more edited murder sequences. And that’s all part of the screenwriting process for us. We’ll note zooms and camera movements in the margins of the script—it’s all in the DNA of the project. There are times when we get on set and we say, “No, we can’t do this scene in five shots. It has to be one, like it says in the script, or else we’ll lose the audience.” With Snow Hollow, shooting Hannah’s crime scene in a full 360 degree steadicam shot while my character is just getting yelled at—it puts you in my character’s shoes and makes you feel his stress. And that’s 40 minutes into the movie, which, after Thunder Road you may have expected something like that earlier or more often. I try to consider where the audience will be on the rollercoaster at all times.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like the films are getting tighter. Not in terms of length—they’re all around the same length—but in terms of how the film’s are constructed in relation to the sheer number of things transpiring in the plot. There are a couple of long takes in Beta, but they feel more integrated and less pronounced than in something like Thunder Road.
CUMMINGS: Yeah, and duration-wise the takes in each film of the two films aren’t even close. I think we’ve gotten better at doing long takes, to make people feel like it’s not a single take. The Vietnamese cooking class scene is probably the longest take in the movie, but because the camera moves so much and is so controlled I think you forget that it’s one long shot. In fact, our colorist did forget: he was like, “This isn’t one whole shot, is it?” I love stuff like that, and that scene is one of my favorites in the movie because of how controlled it is. It’s like Tess (1979), by Polanski, or like a Ruben Östlund film or something. Like Thunder Road, the opening shot of Beta is a continuous take, but it’s only like 45 seconds. The opening shot of Thunder Road is eleven minutes long! I think with that film I really wanted to impress people, with both the camera and my acting. Now I want to impress people in other ways.