There are only a handful of filmmakers that everyone on The A.V. Club’s film staff can agree on, and Jim Cummings is one of them. With a recent run of playful, genre-bending movies that includes 2018’s Thunder Road, 2020’s The Wolf Of Snow Hollow, and the new film The Beta Test, Cummings has established himself as an idiosyncratic, independent voice whose projects, while they vary in content, all share the same thoughtful point of view.
The Beta Test sees Cummings and co-writer and co-director PJ McCabe take on both erotic thrillers and post-#MeToo Hollywood, casting Cummings as a shallow Hollywood agent whose life spirals out of control after he receives an offer for an anonymous sexual encounter with a “secret admirer.” In some ways, it’s a change of pace from the cop characters Cummings often plays in movies, including in the recent Halloween Kills. In others, it’s a continuation of Cummings’ ongoing deconstruction of masculinity in crisis.
Talking with The A.V. Club over Zoom, Cummings was cheerful and freewheeling, enthusiastic about his work and hopeful that The Beta Test will attract the types of collaborators that he and McCabe want to work with going forward. As for the rest? As he says, “Fuck ’em!”
AVC: I follow you on Letterboxd, and your Halloween Kills review was very funny.
Jim Cummings: [Waves.]
AVC: How long did you sit on the fact that you’re in that film?
JC: We shot it in early October of 2019, and then I came in to do [automated dialogue replacement] in April or May of 2020. Then I found out that it was going to get pushed a full year, and I was like, “Oh, my god, poor David [Gordon Green] has to wait a year.” But the movie came out, and it’s done really well!
I purposely didn’t tell anybody [I was in the movie], because I wanted it to be a surprise. My character running up is such a reveal, and I knew that people were going to dig it. So [it was] over a year that I had to keep quiet about it.
AVC: I know that being in film, you have to keep quiet about projects pretty regularly. But that’s a long time!
JC: Other people were tagging themselves on IMDB and bragging that they were in the film. I was very quiet about it, and it’s proven to be a successful strategy. People are actually reaching out to me like, “I loved your part.”
AVC: We really liked Wolf Of Snow Hollow at The A.V. Club. And when we talked about it, we said it was the “Jim Cummings take on a werewolf movie.” I’m curious what you think the “Jim Cummings take” on a genre is?
JC: I think it’s about fusing comedy with the genre engine of the movie. So with Wolf Of Snow Hollow, it feels like Zodiac as a comedy, or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as a comedy. It has these goofy idiot characters, but it’s also about stress and alcoholism and a thousand other things in a werewolf movie.
With The Beta Test, it feels like 50 Shades Of Grey directed by the South Park guys. It’s the filmmakers understanding where the audience is going to be on the roller coaster and making jokes with them. That’s what I love about movies nowadays—it’s not just this genre or this narrative that we’ve all seen before.
Being able to bring in better jokes and to win an audience’s attention at any given turn of the roller coaster is my craft. That’s what I really love to do. Focusing on audience engagement, and making them feel like I haven’t wasted their time, feels rare and revolutionary in film. And so I think that’s my little stupid take on stuff.
AVC: This question could apply to any of your films, since PJ McCabe co-directed The Beta Test: What are the challenges of directing a movie that you’re in?
JC: Oh, all of them! Every possible challenge! It’s terrible, because you’re making something that you’ve written that you think is very funny, very poignant and beautiful. And then you show up on set and you have to ask people to speak the language of the film, to make something poignant and permanent, which is very artist-like. And that can sometimes come across as, “This guy thinks he’s funny. This guy thinks he knows everything.”
And so finding a team of people that really love the story that you’re trying to tell, and to purposely sacrifice yourself a thousand ways—your ego, your body, your safety—to make this goofy bullshit, it’s every possible conflict. You also have to be a diplomat. You have to be the nicest person and work three times harder than anybody else on set. That’s very important. It’s a bit of politics as well as an art and a science, and it’s my favorite thing to do.
AVC: Especially on this film, because there are scenes in The Beta Test where you are naked and blindfolded, and you are very vulnerable. Did it help to have PJ as a co-director in that case?
JC: Absolutely not! [Laughs.] PJ is such a puritan that any time that we were shooting a sex scene, he was at the monitor like, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
But I was very lucky. Annie Spong was our intimacy coordinator, and it felt more like a kung fu scene than anything else. I was working with Olivia Applegate and Virginia Newcomb, who are both pros, and Olivia had done sex scenes in previous work. This was my first time doing them, and so I was very nervous, but it felt very orchestrated. It took five hours to get the six shots that we got in the film. It was the longest I’ve ever taken shooting a scene, but we wanted to make sure everybody felt safe.
But it’s obviously very uncomfortable, because you’re the writer and co-director, and then the producers are like, “All right, you can take your clothes off in front of your employees,” and it’s like, “This doesn’t feel right in 2020.”
AVC: Yeah, talk about a delicate situation.
JC: The other thing is, the sex in the film is for comedic payoff. We had to shoot this face-sitting sequence to make the joke pay off later in the film. And so it’s like, “You’ve got to trust me. It’s hard to explain, but you’re going to have to sit on my face for the next, like, 25 seconds. I’m so sorry.”
AVC: You said it was like a kung fu scene—do you mean in the sense of being choreographed, like action or dancing?
JC: For the hotel scene—okay, you’re both blindfolded, so you can’t see anything. So you have to find the right spots. It’s like, “Right hand goes to the left breast. Her hand goes here. Then we show the hands going down underneath the frame, and then we back away.” [We were thinking about] what we know we can get away with in the edit—how much do you show?
It felt, at any given point, so safe. There were times when people would say, “I’m going to keep my cell phone on me in case I need to use this, like, light meter” or whatever. And Annie, our intimacy coordinator, was like, “Absolutely not. No cell phones on the set. Put them in this fucking pillowcase and I’m going to walk them outside and you can go get them in 25 minutes.” It was such a wonderful experience—and the footage is better! The performances are better in those moments because the actors felt safe. I was one of them!
AVC: You talked about the edit. What about editing yourself? How does it feel to be watching tapes of yourself in the editing room?
JC: So much of the movie is made before we go in to shoot it. PJ and I will record a podcast version of the movie where it’s us reading the script, and then we’ll put in music and sound design and performance—
AVC: Oh really?
AVC: I’ve never heard of that technique before.
JC: I knew that Peter Jackson did parts of Fellowship Of The Ring with little green army men and action figures, and I was like, “Oh, you can do that. You can make the movie in pre-viz before you actually go and shoot it, and save time and money.” Instead of thinking that the scene is going to go a certain way, you’ll know that it will work with these little green army men.
So PJ and I do it in audio format months before we shoot, and it’s proven to be incredibly helpful. So for the last three movies, including Thunder Road, I [recorded the script] as a podcast. I’ll play all of the parts, and I’ll put in music and sound design. I’ll send that to the producers, and they send it out to all of the cast and crew. So if we don’t have the time or can’t afford a week of rehearsal, at least they’ll understand what the directors think about ground-level cadence or comedy or pacing or whatever the scene should be before they show up on set. It’s very helpful. Everybody listens to it and they get the gist of the thing, and then we’re able to elevate it from there.
AVC: So it’s like audio storyboards?
JC: Yeah, it feels like an audiobook. I grew up listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks and Jim Dale will play Hermoine and Hagrid in the same scene. But the brain fills in those gaps of “this is actually two people talking to each other.”
I’m talking to you through the Zoom recorder that I recorded on right now. And I’m using the computer that I edited on. The technology is there now where you can do this stuff from a laptop. I actually recorded The Beta Test podcast in Wilmington, North Carolina, while I was shooting Halloween Kills. I was in a hotel room, and I had this little Zoom recorder with me. Much of the prep of the movie was done on a laptop, and it was very helpful. It’s why the film feels so well-crafted now.
AVC: Did you have any trepidation about taking on the Harvey Weinstein jokes, or any of the other satirical stuff in the film?
JC: We had so much trepidation. In the beginning, we were like, “We’re making a movie that’s the biggest ‘fuck you’ to the agency world possible. We’re never going to make it in Hollywood.”
But the [Writers Guild of America] was having their fight against the agency world. They didn’t have to have that fight. They were incredibly courageous. But we were seeing it every day in The Hollywood Reporter. We were seeing it every day in Variety. So I said, “Fuck it, let’s do something about this. It’s on the tip of everybody’s tongue, but everyone is too nervous to talk about it because of the power dynamics. Let’s just do it.”
And PJ is such a bad influence. It is like South Park—Trey Parker and Matt Stone are like, “No, fuck it, let’s do it worse. Let’s have it be more offensive. Let’s really bury these guys.” And it became so fulfilling, where we felt nervous that we were making these jokes, but that’s how you should be. If you’re the court jester, you should be nervous that the king is going to cut your head off.
That’s how you win the crowd, I think. And it’s proven to be successful.
AVC: I was going to ask—do you care if you burn any bridges with The Beta Test?
JC: Hm, I don’t know. [Pauses.] You know what? I don’t care if I burn any bridges, because if you don’t have a sense of humor, fuck you. If you can’t take a joke, then you’re not cool. And the whole future of the industry is based on what’s actually cool.
I really think that once the movie comes out on November 5, people who have been having to deal with this stuff for the last 30 years are going to say, “Oh, thank god.” I think that we might get celebrated on accident by the actual cool people. Really, we’re doing this as this kind of net to catch people that are actually cool in the film industry, because we haven’t met that many yet. [The people at] IFC are the first people that actually believed in us and fought for the same goals that we have.
AVC: This is a broader question: Something I’ve noticed in your work, and that I think is really interesting, is a running theme where you make comedy out of the pressures of performing a certain type of masculinity.
AVC: What about that theme speaks to you? Why do you keep coming back to it?
JC: I grew up in New Orleans, and I watched all of these kids I went to high school with on the football team. I was the videographer for the football team, and so I got access to locker rooms, and how these dudes talk to each other. And that was so formative in my understanding of what it means to be a dude, or to pretend to be a a tough guy.
I was not a tough guy. I was a film kid, a cinephile. And so I saw it as this anthropological study that I was filming on MiniDV in locker rooms and on the football field. And to see these jocks pretend to be this tough guy with this straight back—all of that stuff was so interesting to me. I loved it.
And it’s so funny to watch somebody fail at that, to admit their humanity and not pretend to be somebody that they’re pretending to be. These last three features that I’ve done have been about that, because I’m an actor, and I’m a dude. I love watching these public freak-outs, these nervous breakdowns of guys. [Laughs.] And performing them is very fulfilling as a human being, and as a filmmaker. I just love doing it.
We’ve done short films where actresses have done [this type of freak-out] for female characters, but for me to act in it, I kind of have to play this dude on the edge. And it’s really funny—it’s great to bring in an audience on the joke of that. Everybody understands that somebody is pretending to be this person that they’re not for their own ego or sales abilities or whatever it is. And to break that social boundary is humanizing for audiences, I think.
AVC: Your character in this film is taking performance to a new level. You don’t know if there’s anything real about this guy at all.
JC: We watched American Psycho [before making the film], and that movie’s definitely about a psychopath and a sociopath and someone who is grifting to get their way. Completely ego-driven, focused entirely on the facade. And I really wanted to make something that was more humanizing. There are people that get sucked into this world of high finance—or in this case, talent agency packaging—where they feel the need to pretend to be someone else in order to succeed.
And that’s just going out the window. I think people really desire authenticity in business these days, and to not be lied to. I find that to be so interesting, to watch somebody pretending to be someone that they’re not and have the audience in on that joke. At the end of the film, we have [my character] admit to every lie [he’s] told throughout the previous 80 minutes, and the audience is like, “Yeah, fuck this guy.” It’s great.
AVC: Were there any other figures, real life or fictional, that you had in mind when you were playing this character?
JC: [Chuckles.] No comment.
AVC: It’s a spicy question, I know.
JC: There’s a joke of Conan O’Brien’s—he made this character called “television executive” when he was getting kicked off of the air, where he put on this bald wig and was playing this character. And he said, “Most people think that I’m playing this one person. It’s not based on a single person. It’s based on two.” I feel the same way.
We talked to so many people in the agency world about what it was like [to work there], and we built an amalgamation from this testimony that we had. We wanted to make someone that was obviously stupid, who was a bit of a clown and bit of a tramp character, so that people in this world would see it and say, “Oh, I know someone just like that,” instead of saying, “Oh no, this might be me.”
So many people in that world are so toxic and so awful, and they’re so cruel to so many women in the workplace. So fuck ’em—yeah, it’s based on real people!
AVC: You mentioned that you designed it so they wouldn’t go, “Oh, this is me.” But the thing is—would a guy like that even have that lightbulb moment?
JC: I’m glad that you brought that up, because there’s a moment in the film where I’m shouting at my assistant, and [the dialogue is] almost verbatim from testimony from an assistant at one of the top four agencies in Hollywood. It’s something she heard an agent shout at another assistant. We shot the scene and I immediately called the source and said, “Hey, I’m so sorry, we just shot the scene and it’s almost verbatim from the testimony that you gave me. I’m nervous that the agent might find out about it and realize that it was him.” And the source said, “He’ll never remember. He does that all the time.”
AVC: Another broad question: Why do you get cast as a cop so much, you think?
JC: I think it’s because I did it very well in the initial short film that I did of Thunder Road. And so because of that, not only do I get cast as a cop in stuff like Halloween Kills, but I get offers to play a cop in so many things. Someone will reach out and say, “Oh, I would love for you to act in this film. I think you’d be really great for it.” And it’s just another cop character! I’m like, “You know, I think I could do better than that.”
But now, for the most part, nobody knocks on my door. Nobody asks me to act in anything. Nobody asks me to direct anything. It’s a very lonely experience making movies as an independent filmmaker. Every independent filmmaker will tell you that. But then David Gordon Green called and was like, “Hey, I need you to act with Michael Myers. Would you mind putting on the uniform again?” And I was like, “Absolutely.”
AVC: It sounds really fun!
JC: It was. [One of the] dude[s] who plays Michael now is this younger guy, his name’s Airon. And he’s a practicing Buddhist and a yoga instructor, but he plays Michael so well. It was a dream to be there in early October, right before Halloween, in Wilmington, hanging out with my favorite filmmaker of all time, a guy who got me into making movies, another Southern dude making movies. It was a dream come true. I’ll always see that week as this lovely chapter of me actually having made it in Hollywood.
AVC: The last three films that you’ve made are all takes on different movie genres. Is there one that you’re secretly dying to do? Maybe a Jim Cummings sci-fi epic or a ghost movie?
JC: We’re writing a TV show with Warren Littlefield, who did The Handmaid’s Tale and Cheers and Seinfeld and all this other incredible stuff. It’s about astronauts coming back from the moon and reintegrating into the suburbs, and it’s loosely based on the James Halsell trial. He was a five-time astronaut who killed two girls in Alabama. We’ve been researching it for the last seven years, and PJ and I have been co-writing it in hopes of acting in it together.
But we’re also writing this ghost story Victorian horror film that we’ve been researching for the last year and a half about Victorian-era Virginia and electricity being installed in a Victorian mansion. It’s this interracial buddy comedy/romance film, and it’s very different from any of the other genres that we’ve done. We’re trying to do Jane Austen in Virginia in the 1890s. It’s beautiful and poignant and perfect, and I feel like I need to make it. It would be a departure, doing romance—I haven’t done that yet. But I think I could knock it out of the park.
The Beta Test is playing in select theaters and on VOD now.