Towards the end of The Beta Test, Jim Cummings explodes into a monologue of anger and truth. Those who have seen the writer/director/actor’s other feature films — Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow — are familiar with this trademark scene. The reason for the routine display is that Cummings loves public freakouts.
Cummings’ latest character, a hotshot Hollywood agent named Jordan Hines, has good reason to erupt. In the midst of planning his wedding, Hines’ agency (aptly named A.P.E.) is trying to sign its biggest client yet. At the same time, Hines has received an invitation to a discreet sexual encounter. Hines’ balancing act is the heart of The Beta Test. In the midst of this character study, the movie tackles toxic masculinity, social media’s lack of privacy concerns and archaic Hollywood systems.
“All of those connective tissues became this big circle of stress for this main character,” Cummings says. “It was working for us dramatically, horrifically and comedically.”
As The Beta Test debuts on streaming platforms and in limited theaters, Cummings, 35, sat down to answer questions about making the movie, interactions with fans through social media, and the titles that inspired him.
SPIN: How does your agent feel about this movie?
Jim Cummings: I don’t have agents because of the WGA packaging fight. I was at William Morris Endeavor. They were not signatories to the WGA, who were making the demands. In order to stay with the writers, I had to fire them.
Did your experience with the Hollywood system inform The Beta Test?
This movie and the others have been made out of necessity. When we won at Sundance for the Thunder Road short film, we still couldn’t get anybody to take us seriously to make a feature. We couldn’t get any funding from Hollywood because the movie was only going to cost $190,000. They weren’t going to make anything off the back-end, basically. We had to run a Kickstarter campaign for financing.
The only reason I’ve been able to make movies is by circumventing the system. The only reason we got to make The Wolf of Snow Hollow is because of Dan Fagan, the young executive at MGM at the time. [MGM was] rebooting Orion Pictures, and [Fagan] liked my short film Thunder Road and followed the feature. He was like, “Come in and pitch your monster movie.” They all got it. It was like, “Cool, now I get to make a studio movie.”
With [The Beta Test], we were seeing the fight with the agency world in the press all the time. We just wanted to talk about it. It seemed like no one was talking about it because of the power dynamics. We ran a WeFunder campaign to raise the funds.
Which do you prefer: crowdfunding or studio experience?
A little of both. I wouldn’t have been able to make a giant werewolf movie (The Wolf of Snow Hollow) in the budget range we’ve been working on with my other films. I had to go to a studio. It was a lot of fun. I got to go out in the woods and pretend to be David Fincher or Taika Waititi for a minute.
With this one, I had final cut. I edited it for 16 months. We did the sound mix, colored it, and edited it in my garage. It really did wake me up to the possibility that you can create your own film studio. You don’t have to necessarily rely on these systems of the past.
It sounds like creating your own studio is what you’re moving towards with each film, is that true? Or are you weaving your way through the system?
Nobody asks us to make bigger stuff. Nobody is knocking on our doors. I think that’s a sign of the times. You can be well-regarded as a filmmaker and still not have people knock on your doors. You have to make movies on your own.
In these three features, you play characters who are all visibly cracking up. What draws you to these roles?
I really love public freakouts. To watch someone at the end of their rope, screaming and shouting, is incredibly compelling. It’s universally interesting to watch someone say, “I’m not going to take it anymore. Fuck you. I quit.”
We’ve always done that stuff. I’ve done 10 single-take short films that are almost all public freakouts in different ways. By nature of me being the writer-actor-director, it always becomes about these dudes who are toxically masculine and building up to these parking lot shouting matches.
Were you improvising or was that all written?
All of it’s written because of the budget. We shot it for $200,000 in 17 ½ days. We can’t do improv at all. It all has to be forensically planned out beforehand. [The Beta Test co-writer/co-director] PJ [McCabe] and I would act out every scene, then it became the screenplay. That’s where we wrote down the best improv.
We record the screenplay into a podcast. We’ll direct the podcast. We have the podcast mixed and sound-designed, then we send that to the cast and crew. They get a base layer idea of how the movie is going to sound and how it should be performed; so, we don’t have to spend twice the budget on rehearsal days.
The Beta Test makes a good case for how Hollywood agencies, social media and toxic masculinity are connected. How does it all connect from your perspective?
The internet is connecting people in ways that talent agencies never could. You don’t have to go through anybody. You can directly reach out to a celebrity on Instagram. That was the point of why these agencies were built in the 1920s and ‘30s. Now, they have far and far less utility. That is directly changing the landscape of Hollywood.
Then, we thought about this letter service and how it’s about lying and cheating. That was also similar to the agency world because they’re liars and cheaters. That service was about big data — how a rogue agent could scrape public information from social media profiles and connect people, which could completely decimate the industry.
At the same time, using the internet to connect directly with talent is how we’re making the movie. It felt like while we were shooting this thing entirely on our own that we were sneaking gunpowder into parliament. I’m glad the movie came out on Guy Fawkes Day. It feels like we’re blowing up parliament with the movie.
You personally are using Twitter and Letterboxd to ask fans, “What should I watch?” Do you get those interactions where people send you direct messages and try to get a part in your movies?
All the time. We cast people in our films entirely on talent and enthusiasm. It has nothing to do with their IMDB credits. I put out this open casting call for The Beta Test, and I was like, “Send me your reels.” We were just looking to find people. We had 500 people reach out with their reels and some of them ended up in the movie.
So many of our friends are actors who we happened to cast early on and just kept around. Kevin Changaris, who plays Johnny Paypal (in The Beta Test), auditioned through our casting director Amey René for one of our short films in 2016. Kevin has been in all of my feature films since. It’s been this kind of accident that we kidnap people to act in our stuff then keep them around as buddies.
It sounds like the response keeps growing from film to film. I think the attraction to it is your enthusiasm and transparency.
Yeah. We put out this documentary, Behind the Scenes: The Beta Test, on YouTube and it’s really humiliating. [Laughs.] It’s just like us in pajamas doing sound design. But I think that’s normal.
They say, “Those who care don’t know, and those who know don’t care.” I find that to be so true. Every time I meet a hero of mine, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m always doing sound design in my pajamas.” Then, I never feel so bad. It’s kind of been my job to send that demystification ladder back down to independent filmmakers who haven’t gotten to our level yet.
So what’s next?
I guess it depends on what day you ask me. We wrote this beautiful script called David Tonight, and that’s a love letter to American journalism. It’s about a YouTube journalist who works in his garage, and his mom is his producer. I would love to do that.
We’re also writing a Victorian horror movie that’s very funny. We’ve been workshopping it and developing it for the last two years. We have a lot of irons in the fire.
Was there something that specifically informed this desire to make movies, to go out to L.A. and make movies?
Oh yeah, dude, I saw The Matrix, Fight Club and The Royal Tenenbaums…All those movies that came out in that time period — it was this Renaissance of style. I was like, “Oh fuck, I would love to be David Fincher some day.” Right now, I’m basically doing parodies of David Fincher movies. [Laughs.]
There was a Blockbuster that was a 10-minute bike ride from my house, and that became my early film fetishism and loving the 90-minute form. That created this ambition in me to make something dope. Seeing people like David Gordon Green, the Duplass Brothers and Andrea Arnold making stuff — I just had to do it. And I spent 12 years failing to do it. I was a producer and was doing sketch comedy that wasn’t any good. Then got back into doing the feature stuff because I grew slowly in short films. I was incredibly lucky.