Jim Cummings has carved out an essential role in the indie film landscape with just three films: “Thunder Road,” “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” and this week’s “The Beta Test,” co-written and co-directed by co-star P.J. McCabe. In “The Beta Test,” Cummings plays Jordan, a Hollywood talent agent who receives a mysterious purple envelope that promises him a no-questions-asked sexual encounter in a posh Los Angeles hotel. The mystery around the envelope, and Jordan’s decision, starts to basically drive him mad as Cummings and McCabe unpack the fragile male ego in a way that recalls everything from Jim Carrey to David Lynch. It’s a daring, ambitious movie from a filmmaker who surprises every time. The gentlemen got on Zoom last month to talk about L.A., “Mulholland Drive,” masculinity, and more.
It’s a film that’s very clearly about power structures in a post-Weinstein way that I’m not sure people have talked about much yet. Just because we know about Harvey and Rudin, doesn’t mean these things aren’t still happening. So this is kind of a big place to start but how do we dismantle those structures?
JIM CUMMINGS: So, it’s very simple. Obviously, having women being above the line is an incredibly important thing. There is something specific to testosterone that corrupts power dynamics. Women can also be corrupted by power, but it’s far less so, and the dynamics have only been controlled by the cheesy fraternity brothers who end up helping each other into these awful positions of abuse. That’s the easiest thing in every power dynamic—more estrogen than testosterone to make sure you don’t fuck things up. But then, I think calling it out, and I think humor is very helpful from our understanding. We always say that laughter is the mind sneezing. If you can make jokes about the powers that be, often those powers that be will then soften and become much more able to laugh at themselves and realize they don’t want to be like that because it’s not cool. Being courageous and fighting the powers that be with humor is the easiest way we’ve found.
P.J. MCCABE: Taking pretty serious issues and not so much making fun of them … well, kind of, very much so making fun of them, and bringing light to some very dark situations is a way to bridge the gap hopefully.
JC: I don’t know. How do you think we fix it? We’re open to suggestions.
I think what you’re getting at is leveling the playing field—the idea that people can’t be above being made fun of. If you can make fun of your boss then it balances things out in a way that shifts the power dynamic.
JC: I think another thing is that the exponential increase in technology that allows 4K cameras to be bought for not much money—in an iPhone, basically—all of that is democratizing the film energy, which is causing stress among the higher-ups but if the subordinates are now the competition then it really IS a level playing field. I think we’re only going to become more like the music industry in that there will be a lot more ugliness of people in the film industry to people—trying to make them feel inadequate—but hopefully they all end up moving to Wall Street to follow the money instead of brutalizing the art world.
Other than just industry, it feels like L.A. is more than just a backdrop here. How important was that setting for you?
JC: We wanted to make this movie about this letter service—that was the origin of the project—and then we realized that it was about lying and cheating, and so we were like ‘We should probably set it at a talent agency,” ground zero for liars and cheaters. And P.J.’s always been a fan of “Chinatown,” and so have I, and we always wanted to do this noir. It was gonna be this simple production that we could shoot in our neighborhoods, but then it blew up into this big thing about the WGA Packaging fight based on our research. We tried to make Hollywood seem very ugly. There’s a lot of chain-link fence. It’s not a glamorized version of Hollywood, which pissed off a lot of people in Europe. I guess when people in Europe watch movies in Hollywood, they want to see “Entourage”—the cool glitz and the glamour that isn’t really my experience of being in the city. We definitely went out of our way to shoot the ugliness and the cheesiness of L.A.
It feels very much like Lynch’s L.A.
Was he someone you talked about in terms of “Mulholland Dr.” and “Lost Highway,” both of which came to mind here to me?
JC: “Lost Highway,” for sure. I’m a big fan of that dude. P.J. hadn’t seen “Blue Velvet” until this year. I kept referencing it and he was like “I think I’ve only seen the first 20 minutes…”
PM: I had only seen bits and pieces.
JC: And I was like “We have to watch it RIGHT NOW.” We were supposed to do a Q&A for BIFAM and we were getting close to being on camera when Dennis Hopper comes in frame and P.J. is like “What is this movie?!?!”
PM: It’s like “Mommy, mommy!” And they go, “And, you’re on!”
JC: Lynch is a huge influence on me, especially “Mulholland Dr.”—it’s so cheesy and so ugly. It’s not the glamorous “Pulp Fiction” stuff. It’s not cool diners. It’s ugliness and living on the street while you try to make it in the film industry. That’s far more interesting to me.
PM: “Sunset Boulevard” was a big influence. I’ve always been such a fan of noir and L.A. is such a cool noir city. What if we do noir but it’s not the romanticized version of it? It’s just kind of the sad, cheesy, lame version of Hollywood that we see more every day than the public does. What if we lean into that?
JC: And that’s a visual metaphor for the awfulness of what’s happening in the film industry. If you can make em look bad then fuck em—they have to live in this town.
Noirs became so overly stylized that people forgot they’re usually about pathetic dudes.
PM: Yes, they’re sad guys.
JC: Dangerous, weird dudes on the fringe. Alcoholic.
PM: With bad demons.
You mention the WGA deal. Any other real people or incidents that inspired the film? Did you ever get yelled at by a boss?
JC: No comment. To be entirely honest, there’s an interview when Conan left TV. He played this character named “Television Executive” and he said, “This isn’t based on one person. It’s based on two people.” It’s a bit of that. There are people who were adjacent to us that we worked with but really we had eleven different people tell these horror stories of what it’s like to work in the agency world and so much of that became the language of what we speak in the film. “It’s exciting. We’re excited.” All of the flattery they use to convert somebody to get what they need from them. It’s a weird psychological experiment working at a talent agency. We had a thousand horror stories, some of which we couldn’t include because they were so outrageous they would seem false. It’s based on the top four agencies in Hollywood from testimony we got from late 2018 to late 2019.
What was the greatest challenge here?
JC: We just had fun, but we did shoot it in 17 days. We shot “Thunder Road” in 14 days. We shot “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” in 23 days. This was in between. It’s still a sprint. When you get the shot—P.J. and I mix it in a podcast beforehand with sound design and everything—and when we know that we get it, we have to immediately spring to the next scene. I can’t even be on monitor. Can’t do playback. P.J. tells us to move on. It’s a sprint. Leading up to it is a marathon—three months of prep. We’re doing post on the previous film and this short window to shoot the thing.
PM.: Challenge was thinking we got it and having to move on and the whole time you’re setting up the next shot being like “Did we get it? I hope we actually got it.”
Did that happen?
PM No. Not really. It went surprisingly really well for the short time we had. We were very lucky.
JC: I contribute so much of that to the prep. Doing it as a podcast is so helpful because you know exactly what you need. You don’t need to get coverage or inserts you might need. This is the movie. We’ve made the movie once before in audio format. We are so prepped beforehand that we don’t have any fluff. There’s nothing superfluous. So we get in and get out.
PM: We had done it so many times before and acted it out and put it on its feet so many times that it’s like filming a play we had already put on.
Is that true on all three films?
JC: Yep. You need to. That’s craftsmanship, I think. I don’t know how people wing stuff. “We’ll find it”—I don’t know how people do that.
PM: That’s so stressful. “We’re gonna make it brilliant” and everyone is there and everyone’s time and money is being spent and we’re gonna just “find” the brilliance. God bless. That’s super nerve-wracking to me.
What did you learn from this that you can take to the next one?
JC: Sticking our courage to the sticking place. Something like that. There were times when we were nervous about pulling punches and then the last two weeks of writing the script, we were like “Fuck it. Let’s do it all. Burn it down.” And I feel really confident in it. Now watching it feels tame! Now, we feel more confident in our writing and to say, “No, our independent film IS the competition and it’s OK to take big swings.” And not settle for some namby-pamby mumblecore thing and try to do “David Fincher as a comedy.” We can broaden our ability to become like Bong Joon-ho and not live in the Duplass landscape. That’s what we’ve always dreamed to do.
PM: I was going to say the same thing. We’re writing all these weird things that some might say isn’t commercial or marketable. I think that’s good. I think that’s OK. It’s OK to take big swings and be genre fluid. I think there’s an audience for that—a big audience, bigger than people think. It’s OK to do these weird, crazy stories. Don’t be afraid to do different things. I think it’s emboldened us to be able to write crazier, weirder stuff. If anything, I think we didn’t push the envelope enough. I think we’re gonna do even crazier stuff. So I think we’re gonna try.
An auteur theory class would say that your movies all deconstruct traditional forms of masculinity. Why does that interest you?
JC: I love that you couched it in “If I was a film theorist, that’s what they would say.” [Laughs]. I love public freak-outs. I love watching people on the edge. I love “Dog Day Afternoon.” I love watching people say, “It’s bullshit and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” It speaks to the times. It speaks to the human spirit and people who are dying to say this to their boss. “Thunder Road” is the most cathartic because you can watch the guy remove his full uniform and get naked in the parking lot and quit his job. And I’m an actor, so I have to play dudes, and so it always becomes about toxic masculinity because I just like shouting in parking lots.
PM: The Shouting in Parking Lots Trilogy.
That’s the name of the eventual book about your work.
JC: Shouting in Parking Lots! I’m writing that down, Brian. I’m stealing that.
Let’s go back to my film theory class. Three very different genres—a dramedy, a horror movie, and a thriller. How intentional is that?
JC: It’s kind of whatever is making us laugh at the moment. The next one that we’re doing is a Victorian Horror Comedy Buddy Romance.
Another one of those.
JC: We don’t have enough of those. It really depends. It was kind of circumstantial. The werewolf movie is something I had written before “Thunder Road” and because of the success of “Thunder Road,” the studio reached out to say what else you got. “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is kind of like “Zodiac” as a comedy—a detective murder mystery. And then this one is kind of like an erotic thriller in a weird way. It’s what P.J. and I find interesting that we know will work for audiences.
Let’s go back to something. You’re very vocal about your support for the independent film community on Twitter. It’s a big part of what you do. This is such an open question but what’s the next decade of independent cinema look like?
JC: It’s gonna be fucking great, man.
That’s what I want to hear. Why?
JC: Because of the power dynamics. Because these giant corporations are making lame, tame, sanitized content because of the political generational shifts. And it’s this birth of like the punk movement or rock and roll where everything is pop and then this was the alternative. Audiences want to watch something that is un-sanitized. They want to see something that has real cursing, real sex, real violence. “Audiences are perverts,” to quote David Fincher. If people can create movies in their garage—we finished the film in this space on the computer I’m talking to you on—anybody can do it now. If you can entertain an audience better than the corporations can, you win that crowd. I think all it’s gonna take is pushing these independent filmmakers a little bit and encouraging them—“You can make a movie in your backyard through a Kickstarter campaign and win an audience and play on the world stage.” People will start doing it.
The making of it is easier than ever. We agree on that. My concern is getting it in front of people’s eyes.
JC: Those were the two biggest problems when I entered the film industry: Financing and Distribution. With financing, we ran a crowd equity campaign for this film. I ran a Kickstarter campaign for “Thunder Road.“ We sold shares to the public for this film. We were immediately able to give them their money back. We sold to IFC. We sold to territories all over the world. It’s been a commercial success in a crazy way already. With “Thunder Road,” I was able to self-distribute that film with a $33,000 grant from Sundance. But legitimately any independent film could walk into a bank and say, “Hey, check out this case study from Sundance of this film. I’m going to do the exact same thing with my movie. Give me 33 grand.” Things are changing so quickly that you can get a film put on Netflix or Amazon or iTunes by going through an aggregator. I think it’s an educational issue. I have no business having an audience, but I kept making movies and the technology came along at the right time that I was able to get on iTunes.
OK. I still worry about it getting lost on Netflix. How do we get these good works out of the algorithm that shows them “Tiger King” over and over again?
JC: I think the thing is that you have no legislative ability for that real estate. An independent filmmaker has no ability to convert the algorithm. The goal is to make stuff that people actually care about. Obviously, the cream rises to the top in every industry and art form. That’s a cheap out—“Just make better movies.” But there are enough platforms like Mubi or any of these new streaming services that are looking to pay money. There are new aggregators and platforms where you can make a living in a way that’s unprecedented over the last hundred years.
JC: We wrote a script about American journalism and it’s a guy who runs a YouTube News channel from his garage and his mom is his producer. It’s this love letter to American journalism. It’s really beautiful and really funny. It’s a bit like “Sideways.” It’s called “David Tonight.” The thing is that nobody’s knocking on our door to do something bigger. Now that you’re able to do something on your own, it’s very lonely when you say, “Fuck Hollywood.” [Laughs.]
Are you interested in that though? Would you do a writer-for-hire gig for someone else?
JC: Yea, sure. I did the acting thing in “Halloween Kills” because David Gordon Green called me up and I was like, “Yeah, of course.” I always wanted to work for David Gordon Green. I guess it depends. If it’s good. We’ve been sent a couple things we thought we worthwhile and P.J. and I have been workshopping those. We haven’t been paid to write anything yet but if it was something we knew we could do well…
PM: If they’re cool with us putting our weird take on it, which we’re kind of debating with people right now. We’re like “We’re gonna do it, but…”
JC: “It’s gonna be graphic. You have to be OK with it being graphic.”
“The Beta Test” opens on Friday, November 5th.