Jim Cummings – The Beta Test (Interview in Strasbourg, 09/18/2021)
This is the english-text version of the interview. Pour lire cette interview en français, cliquer ici.
Gilles Vaudois – Hello Jim. We met three years ago in Paris almost to the day, for the opening of Thunder Road in France, on September 12, 2018. We didn’t know at the time how the film would be received. It was a huge success in France and around the world. How did you go, then, from Thunder Road to The Wolf of Snow Hollow [Jim’s second feature film, a werewolf movie]?
Jim Cummings – I had written The Wolf of Snow Hollow a year before I had written the feature of Thunder Road. So, when we had won Deauville and South by Southwest (SXSW) and had gotten into Cannes, and Thunder Road became this cultural phenomenon that it is, we were speaking about making this movie, this werewolf movie, and knocking on people’s doors and saying « hey, would you let us do this film? ». And doing so, MGM and Orion Pictures said: « yeah, we want that film. » And so, it happened very quickly, where we got greenlit to make the film, but the script wasn’t very good at that time, because I had written it a year before I was a succesful filmmaker. And I went: « oh, fuck. Now I have to make this script good. » And do I spent like the next six months just changing it and making it as good as I could. And we shot it with the same team as Thunder Road in Utah, in America, with Robert Forster and it was a much bigger movie. A $2 million-dollar-movie, which was a dream come true that I got to pretend to be David Fincher for a month in making this film. But it was also very difficult to make the film any good, because there were so many different people around making the film. I had to answer to so many different people, it was very unlike making Thunder Road, where I had complete creative control.
GV – After the experience of your second film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, how did you come up with the idea for The Beta Test?
Jim Cummings – I was in a grocery store and I had the idea for the enveloppe service and I called PJ McCabe and said: « What would you do if this happened, if it landed in your mailbox, you got this letter. And he was like « oh, I wouldn’t do it, obviously. » « But would you do it? » I said: « No! Of course I wouldn’t ». It just became this interesting idea like a Twilight Zone episode or a Black Mirror episode or something like that. And we just talked about it for the next seven months.
And then, we realized it was about lying and cheating, and we just wanted to make something about that, too. Like, people have this facade where they’re pretending to be someone that they’re not in business… in Hollywood. And it just kind of worked together. Then the data idea came in, how you would actually do the letter service and scrape people’s data. And so, really it was about a year of workshopping until it felt like, « yeah, this is a movie. »
And then, we wrote it in about 3 months or something like that. That was a very quick process.
GV – But how do you find the people who would answer to this kind of letter? Does it have anything to do with the I love you virus/mail (a virus spread globally using spam mail titled « I love you » back in 2000)?
Jim Cummings – Yeah, the spam mail. Yeah, I mean, it feels like that. We wanted it to be kind of like spam mail where it’s like, you know, « Hook up with this beautiful Russian woman » and people would go down and have all their money taken away from them. We wanted it to seem like that, but it would be very different if it was an enveloppe and it landed and it was directly to you. It would feel different. And I just thought it was funny, it’s a crazy idea.
GV – Because it’s by name?
Jim Cummings – Yeah, it’s by name and it seems like a wedding invitation. It seems like a proper thing. That would make me very upset. « I don’t know what this is. What the fuck is this thing in my life? » It was just an interesting idea and we just kind of went away with it. I thought it would be neat to find people who would be perfect for each other because of their public profiles and connecting people through the internet.
GV – On this movie, you share directing duties and you co-star with PJ McCabe. How does that work?
Jim Cummings – PJ is my best friend un real life. We have the same sense of humor, and we have the same sense of what’s gonna be cool in a movie. So, we’ll write the film out loud, we’ll stand in a room with two different laptops. We have an outline. We’ll go through the outline and act the whole thing out. We go through the scenes, « oh it’s really good » and we write it down. Throughout the process of the writing, it really does feel like directing a little bit. So we ended up co-directing because we’d already directed the movie in the writing process. And then, we just had to enact and make visual what the screenplay was.
So, it works really well. I’ll be on set and I’m acting the scene, and he’s on monitor, watching me on frame. And I’ll fuck something up and he goes: « No. Come back and do it again. » And so, we’re constantly criticizing each other and trying to make the performances better. Really, my favorite part of directing with PJ was when we didn’t have to act in the scenes. When it was like one of the murders, and we both got to hang out behing the camera and make it good. The opening scene is one of the craziest scenes in the movie, and so violent. But we really did get to pretend to be David Fincher on that night, like doing all the fun Zodiac-style cinematography and things.
GV – How did you cast Virginia Newcomb and Jessie Barr, your wives in the film?
Jim Cummings – Virginia Newcomb was in a film called The Death of Dick Long. And I know the director of that because we went to the university together, Emerson College. And she’s amazing. She’s such a talented actress, she’s from Alabama and I always wanted to work with her. In fact, I wanted her to play Riki Lindhome’s character in The Wolf of Snow Hollow, and the studio said « she’s not big enough ». And, so because of that, when I wrote The Beta Test, I thought this could be the opportunity. Wirginia could Caroline in the film. Immediately, I knew she would be perfect for it. So I was like: « Cool, you got the part. »
And Jessie Barr is a filmmaker. She made Sophie Jones, that was at Deauville last year (2020) and she’s also an actress. When I was writing the script for Lauren, PJ’s wife, I was thinking about « who could this be? », and I said: « Oh, I think I’ve been writing this for Jessie Barr. » Kind of by accident. And then, she came in to audition, and she’s a perfect actress. She knew everybody’s lines better than we did, and she was able to do the monologue perfectly, without changing it, every time we shot her. She was amazing.
I was very lucky to be able to find people who are perfect and so interesting to watch. I felt very, very lucky.
GV – There are two composers credited for the music of this film, Jeffrey Campbell Binner and Ben Lovett. Two very different profiles, one young and one more seasoned. How did you work with them?
Jim Cummings – Jeff Binner came on very early on when we were writing the screeplay. We wanted it to be very like Italian, Giallo, 1970’s horror movie; like Dario Argento music with harpsichord and all kinds of stuff. And so, Jeff was doing all that stuff very early on. And then, when we were editing the film, we sort of incorporated all the classical music, all of this Vivaldi, that was making the movie work better. But there were certain things like the opening titles where I thought we should get Ben Lovett to do some of this stuff. Ben had done the score for The Wolf of Snow Hollow and it’s so big and so impressive.
And I was really in a jam, getting close to the deadline and we needed these big opening songs and stuff. And Ben said: « Yeah, I can do that. » So we sent him his scenes and he loved the movie. He does the kind of girls humming at the beginning, that feels like Rosemary’s baby. And that becomes the bigger music throughout. he did a effing* phenomenal job
So it’s really Jeff Binner, Ben Lovett and Vivaldi. They really are as good as Vivaldi.
GV – Let’s talk about editing. Did you have trouble editing with all that music?
Jim Cummings – Yeah, because we knew we wanted it to be what it is, this kind of fun, constantly interesting musical film like a giallo Oui, car la musique devait être omni-présente dans le film, à la fois drôle et intéressante, dans la tradition du giallo. We knew that we wanted it to be that big and exciting from the opening credits.
GV – It sets the bar very high.
Jim Cummings – Yeah, it’s so crazy, it’s so big and so spooky, so it had to live up to that. In the edit, it took 16 months. I was editing by myself in my garage. It was hell, constantly trying different things and trying to see if it would work. So much of the movie was found, the language of the movie was found in the edit.
GV – Can you provide a full timeframe from begining to the end for The Beta Test?
Jim Cummings – I called PJ McCabe with the initial idea in late 2018, probably December of 2018. And then, I went off to do The Wolf of Snow Hollow, that was in March of 2019. And we shot the Wefunder video, we were talking about for the previous four months, on set for The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Then, we were writing the script. And when we raised the money, the script wasn’t done. It was like kind of halfway done. But then, we got to finish it together in a rush to then shoot The Beta Test in October of 2019 and i’m so glad we did it that way. The film wrapped on November 25, 2019. And I finished the film by February of 2021.
GV – It was very quick.
Jim Cummings – Yeah, it was, but the entire year of 2020, I was editing film.
GV – Since you make the movie from the writing to the editing, with the expectations rising, how do you manage all these duties which can be opposite at some point? Is the editor fighting with the writers? comment gérez-vous toutes ces tâches successives qui peuvent être en opposition? Le monteur se dispute-t-il avec les auteurs (which is you)?
Jim Cummings – Yeah, he does.
GV – Are you becoming crazy?
Jim Cummings – Yeah!
GV – And since you were two on this film, you and PJ McCabe, how did it work?
Jim Cummings – PJ was with me in the edit the whole time. I would send him this cut, he would watch it and have a bunch of notes, so really we were together in making this edit and it was great. Although I was doing all the clicking and stuff, he was very helpful and advising on how to make each moment work, which is very valuable, that I didn’t have really on Thunder Road. But yeah, it is difficult to make movies this way.
GV – You had people around on Thunder Road.
Jim Cummings – We had producers, we could have a screening, have people come in and watch the film, and then give notes and I could go away and edit the film. But, with the Covid, we couldn’t do that, so it was litterally just me and PJ doing this. And he would get tested and then come and stay with me for a week, and we would just edit the films for a full week and he would go away. But yeah, it’s hell making movies like this. It’s torture to make movies like this, when you spend two years working on a project, constantly doing all of that, doing every particular thing in a film, all of the sound design, all of the tweaks, are done through my hands. These two hands exclusively. And if I’m in a bad mood, or if I’m hung over, nothing happens with the movie that day.
So it’s really brutal to make movies like this. I think this might be the last movie that I make this way. For my own health, it’s not worth it. So, it’s fun to be Jackie Chan, it’s fun to do everything, but it’s exausting.
GV – So you wouldn’t recommend it to people reading this interview?
Jim Cummings – I’d recommend it to everybody. I think everybody should do it. I think everybody should make movies. You can do it right now. We’re shooting with two different cameras, and it’s incredible footage with great lenses that are accessible to people. And you can tell your story. It’s never been easier to make a movie. And you’ll learn and feel so much more confident in yourself by doing it on your own.
GV – That’s the thing: at the same time, in the same breath, you say it’s hell, but it’s never been easier. So, what is it?
Jim Cummings – Look at me! I’m in France, being interviewed with a team about a goofy joke that I made with my friend PJ. And I’m on the world stage playing at Deauville. This is the dream, right? When everybody’s making movies, they want to have their friends be famous. Abd it feels weird that I’ve reached that. I’m dead inside. It’s very painful to mak movies this way, it’s exausting. But I get to be Jackie Chan. I get to be this writer / director / actor and I get the shit kicked out of me in the film.
GV – But you stil got yout teeth.
Jim Cummings – Yeah. That’s true. I didn’t break a bone on this film. I did on Thunder Road, but I didn’t break anything on The Beta Test.
GV – So it’s hell, but it’s worth it.
Jim Cummings – Yes. And I’m saying that now, that it’s hell. And if you ask me in three weeks, after all of this, I’ll go « yeah, I’ll do it again. Let’s do it again. » It’s like gambling addiction. You’re addicted to this thing, it’s terrible. Because when you’re not making movies, it’s very lonely. You can become lonely when you don’t have the crew and you’re making things on your own. And then as soon as you say « let’s do it! », it feels like going to summer camp. You get to see your friends again. It’s very addictive.
GV – Knowing that you are in total control.
Jim Cummings – Yeah, I mean that’s the important thing about maing smaller films, is that you have complete control over them. Every decision that went into The Beta Test was me and PJ’s and that was it.
The Beta Test opens in French theaters from December 15, 2021. The film has been available in theaters and on demand in the USA since November 5, 2021 and in the UK since October 15, 2021. Check out the film’s website.
The Beta Test, directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe (2021, 1h31). With Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe, Virginia Newcomb, Jessie Barr, Malin Barr, Jacqueline Doke, Wilky Lau, Christian Hillborg. A Vanishing Angle film, distributed in France by New Story Films. Opens in theaters December 15, 2021. Photo credits: New Story / IFC Films – All rights reserved.