Co-written, directed by, and starring both Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, The Beta Test casts a spotlight on the toxicity of the Hollywood machine. The plot follows the decline of a Hollywood agent who, after receiving a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter, becomes ensnared in a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data. Though a twisty and seductive thriller, it is The Beta Test's frankness about the film industry that really lands. Whereas the topics of many films are rendered obsolete or outdated by the time that they are released, The Beta Test appears to become more and more relevant as time goes on. Since its debut at TriBeCa in 2021, the industry has undergone a massive upheaval, and to some extent The Beta Test predicted those events.
With The Beta Test recently released onto Blu-Ray by Arrow Films, FILMHOUNDS sat down with Jim and PJ to discuss its prophetic nature, the current state of movie making, the freedom of short format films, and exactly how they follow up this sexy little number.
The Beta Test highlights how broken the film and TV industry is. This message seems to be becoming even more relevant, especially with the strikes happening at the moment. Do you think the Hollywood machine is capable of change?
Jim Cummings: I think it's f*cked!
PJ McCabe: I think it has to. I don't see how it goes back. I don't think they have a choice.
JC: How they'd fix it is by making movies more indie. The thing that is forcing these places that were juggernauts to collapse, is gluttony. It's trying to make and grow at such a pace to compete with each other, and it's all slowly falling apart now. Even if you do a little bit of an Adam Curtis style history lesson of what the growth period of Netflix and the internet streaming age was about, right now it is a recession of quality of content and a disconnect from audiences. Meanwhile, the Daniels are winning Best Picture. You don't need to make a $150 million dollar movie to connect to people. It's very evident you just need to give money to young people who are talented.
It was weird to be in the editing room for Beta Test and to watch 500 people get fired from CAA. The strike was still going on; the WGA packaging fight was still happening. So we were making the movie in real time with this thing that was happening and could have possibly uprooted and changed the history of Hollywood for the worse, but the WGA won. Now, there's moments, when you're watching Beta Test, where PJ's character comes up and he says, “make it a network television deal, not streaming. There's no money in streaming.” It's so funny to look at because that was something that we did in the writers room being “this might be niche, I don't know if anyone's gonna get it,” and now you watch it and it's prophetic.
PJM: Yeah, it feels like where there was smoke, there was fire. I didn't think it was going to escalate this quickly. I think just a chain of events occurred that had led us to a place where things are truly in more flux than I ever could have imagined.
The Beta Test features an A.I. capable of tracking down people's ‘perfect' partner. Again, since the film released A.I has become a big issue. What are your feelings on the technology? Is Skynet going to take over Hollywood?
JC: I think Skynet has already taken over Hollywood. So many of the movies that are made are already very formulaic and based on algorithms mandate and taste clusters. I think that we make films independently as a reaction to that. I think audiences can tell when something is mandated, or driven by something that is not craftsmanship or care for an audience, but I think we are a bit doomed… I don't know. I think artwork will get exponentially better. The ceiling was raised on what is possible for artwork because of A.I. I think it will give the power to people in their garages to make something that competes at the visual and auditory level of Marvel, while also having sex scenes, and cursing and violence, which is all I want to see on the big screen.
Skynet will do the Skynet thing, and I think in the next 10 years it would be very possible to compete with Skynet from a garage just like Johnny PayPal does in his basement in the film.
PJM: On the technology side of Beta, I never foresaw it happening this quickly, where now, a lot of the algorithms of technology in Beta are so outdated because the AI has become a thousand times what Johnny PayPal is doing. It's happening all over every industry and every part of the world, and that's really frightening. I think that's why a lot of people are having this existential angst right now, not just in the film industry, in every industry. I think it's a thing where you have to either learn how to use and embrace it, or you're kind of out.
I think it might be harder to work in big Hollywood because of course, they're going to embrace this and try to do everything they can to muscle out of paying artists and writers. You're going to have to do it yourself, because they're going to be less inclined to bring other artists in to work for them..
JC: Yeah, I think unfortunately, Johnny PayPal in the film is right. I think he is this young anonymous dangerous threat, like Anton Chigurh, and is pushing the old system out. What's different about A.I now, and what Johnny PayPal is doing in the basement, is that he had to write the Python code and had this brilliant idea. Now you could ask an A.I to build the code for you and do this criminal malware stuff on your own.
PJM: You don't have to be a hacker genius to build an algorithm to do something like in The Beta Test. Anyone can have an idea and say “help me execute it.” So anyone can be Johnny Paypal.
You've been doing promotion for The Beta Test for a while now, is there anything that you haven't had the chance to discuss that you'd like to?
JC: It's been a year since we've done promotion for it, I'm trying to think of what has changed in the year… I think something revelatory is how many people saw it and really dug it and got it. We've had celebrities reach out, who have always felt this way, I won't name them, but that's a great feeling to be, “okay I know we got it right enough for these people to reach out and say that they're in solidarity.” It's a good feeling that we made something that feels taboo, where people can like it from the privacy of their homes, but then because of the power dynamics in Hollywood, they're nervous to say that they like it on social media or in public.
I feel like one of the best things is that we didn't get into any trouble. I think we were so nervous about getting into trouble, and although I got dropped at my agency, it didn't really do anything, and so many people loved the film so it doesn't it didn't really matter at all. If anything it allowed us to get a bit more powerful so that people would take us more seriously because we were honest.
The recent Arrow release is super comprehensive and even includes a variety of short films. The preservation of short format stories is so often overlooked, and yet that is where so many storytellers begin their journey. Why is it important to celebrate this format too?
JC: I think it's very important. We started in shorts. I made my first real short – PJ and I acted in it together – called This is Jay Calvin. We put it on Vimeo and it was the first time I'd ever edited anything that was decent. Learning how to edit that I was able to go into the Thunder Road short without any edits as a single take because I knew how the thing had to be cut together, I just cut it together in the rehearsal process.
Short films are incredibly important. It is a real voice to people who can't afford to make something that is a feature, and it allows a much more diverse set of voices around the world to compete in the marketplace of attention. I think it's incredibly important and I'm very thankful that Arrow is including so many of our short films.
I just wrapped two short films that P.J and I did together, one of them is about Marvel and the other one is about a brunch. I got made fun of by feature filmmakers being, “why are you going back to shorts?” because I want to try out stuff. I want to try out lenses. I want to do something inappropriate that I shouldn't do as a feature. I think short form is very underappreciated and any short film maker will tell you that.
PJM: It's a great way to stay sharp in between bigger projects. It's just fun to go shoot and execute something. Shorts are hard. It's hard to write and execute a really powerful short, but it's so satisfying when you see a short that just works, in just a few minutes.
Earlier in the press tour you mentioned a Victorian-set script; how's work on that one coming?
JC: So it's done. It's written. It's really good. It's our favourite thing. Kat, it's unbelievable. If we're allowed to do it, or if we buck it and say we're just going to do it anyway, it would be the best movie ever made, I think. It is everything. It feels like Parasite and Tess and Get Out. It's all of the things that we love about movies and life and Amadeus and all of that stuff together. We've written it, and we've done it as a podcast. We've sent it to some heroes of ours, and we want to do it, but we just haven't had the chance to do it just yet.
PJM: We don't want to do it unless we're sure we have all the time and resources to do it right. This is one that we have to be sure we have the time and resources to do correctly. It's too important. So we'll get there.
JC: Then PJ and I are working on an exorcist film that we were planning on shooting in October. So knock on wood we'll be back in England, with an exorcist film in the next year and a half.
The Beta Test is out now on Digital and Blu-ray.