Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe Interview

So i had the wonderful opportunity to interview the directors of The Beta Test, Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe. This was my first interview ever so i was very nervous, but we talk about a wide variety of topics from The Beta Test to the people of Glasgow. Feel its important to mention that there will be minor spoilers for The Beta Test if you want to go into the film completely blind, then go watch the film before reading this interview! Well if you are not afraid of minor spoilers or have seen the film here is my interview with the directors in its entirety.

JC – Hi Robert.

RE – Hi Jim Hi PJ.

JC – how are you doing?

RE – I’m good, very nervous but good.

JC – don’t be nervous, you look like you’re getting ready to do an open mic night I will expect you to do stand-up this is great.

RE – every time I use this mic, I always get are you going to sing us a little shanty or have a little sing song.

PJ/JC – it’s funny that we straight away think you’re going to do stand up and not a karaoke.

RE – thanks for having me for this interview, I am very honoured.

I would just like to say that The Bata test is a very great movie, and I had a great time watching this movie, I love all your movies Jim and PJ as this is your first feature it was really interesting to see you collaborating on this project and this leads me to my first question.

PJ how was it writing and directing for the first timeAnd Jim how was it working and collaborating with someone instead of doing it on your own?

PJ – it was great, honestly it was nice to work with someone like Jim who has so much experience and it’s like I always recommend anyone for their first feature to direct it with Steven Soderbergh who knows how to do everything, it makes it much easier to jump right to a big feature for your first directorial debut which is nice.

It was great, Jim and I have been best friends for over a decade like forever and so it just felt like making a movie with your best friend.  It was so much fun, and it didn’t feel like work it just felt like it wasn’t a slog, we are just such a good team and our instincts and how we want to do things are we had such a blast, it was a suspiciously good shoot I feel in general it was just really nice.

JC – yes we lucked out, suspiciously is a word I would use we got away with everything, we got all the footage and I don’t know how it was so easy, we shot the movie in 17 days and it was great collaboratively working with PJ, we had written it together kind of out loud which is how we like to write and so it was immediately  we are already directing the thing, all of the performances are so dialled in from the writing process (oh someone has set off a car alarm outside, I am so sorry) but yes it felt very fluid it was so much easier doing it this way where there were 2 directors you could ask questions to instead of just 1 it was really nice.

RE- yes you could really see, I am coming at this from more how much I love film making and the craft of filmmaking and Jim correct me if I am wrong, but you are also the editor on this film aren’t you?

JC – yes.

RE –so when you direct these did you know pre-production that you were going to be editing the film or was this a last minute?

JC – No I knew I was going to be editing the film by myself before we started shooting and then because of that we were able to pivot so much to make the movie a lot smaller and easier and faster like we didn’t need to do coverage, we didn’t need to do inserts, I knew what we were able to get and there were some times like for the party scene we had 18 shots to get that night and we were only going to get 15  and it was like which ones can I shoot in my garage and fit into this scene later, it made it so much easier to make the movie knowing the editor was on set 24 hours a day.

RE- yes, I had a feeling that was the case I was going to ask did you do deliberate things like you knew you weren’t going to use a shot, so you knew there was no point even having it in the editing.

JC – yup yes and that’s how you have to make smaller budget movies and that is my favourite kind of film making its forensic filmmaking the film is already edited to look at Bong Joon Ho notes for Parasite it was like everything was storyboard, he had that thing done before they shot it which is insane and that kind of film making is my favourite kind as it shows of the craftmanship instead of it being shoddily put together.

RE – so we talk about it being a tight shoot and without spoiling the film there was really intense scenes in this movie, so I wanted to know what was your approach to shooting those intense scenes as a director to make sure it was a comfortable set? like specifically the opening scene as a viewer you go like yikes this.

JC- yes very luckily PJ and I we are both not acting in that scene so we had complete ability to watch the monitor but still it was a half day shoot, so we had shot all the other stuff at the Swedish house earlier that morning and we had to shoot the night stuff later, so we broke for lunch in the middle and got that stuff, the murder scene late at night and again we had 15 shots to get and we were only going to get 12 so the last 2 shots of the evening the one of Christian picking up the cell phone that has fallen on the ground and then tilting up to him and then her head going through the wall were done in about 5 mins so it was like we had no time at all, but Charlie our production designer was like “I can do it, I can throw this wall up it will take 2 seconds, we can hold the wall and we can get the shot it will be like a Dario Argento Movie” and I was already in my head thinking how we were going to cut it without that stuff, so I was like we will get it and I am so glad that we did that scene is brutal but even then on set we weren’t allowed to use any real blood like because the people we were renting the Air B&B from wouldn’t allow us to use fake blood on the marble for obvious reasons and so all of that had to be comp’d in afterwards so it was like and the couple Christian and Malin and the 2 Sweeds in the opening are a real couple in real life and so like so many times PJ and I were watching the film laughing as we know Christian and Mal and they are the nicest people ever and we make them murder each other it’s such a fun and crazy opening so many times people watch it and gasp like I can’t believe this movie opens so brutally, it’s a joke it’s a fun thing.

RE – I generally love the opening, I like dark horrible things I love the Takashi Miike movies, Battle Royal is one of my favourite movies of all time, I love really dark and gringy stuff, but one thing you do well with the darkness is that you have moments of levity and how important to that is your writing well we need to have a joke or something cause then right the next scene afterwards is the dinner scene with PJ doing the whole monolog about going to we got the Venmo? How important is it having those scenes back-to-back?

JC – it’s funny were like in writing the thing it is this rollercoaster that your sculpting, we write the scenes and then record it afterwards as a podcast so we can hear if its going to work, having those in such close proximity, it is bringing levity to the scenes and there are times when we would do something like really graphic and then immediately have a joke afterwards and the audience kind of wants that  Pj and I always say if we don’t make jokes throughout our movie the audience will  and our experience of starting off in film was as audience members of watching mediocre things and making better jokes than the film makers were making and so really us putting these jokes throughout the movie is that it feels like mystery science theatre when your writing this thing making it bulletproof and providing audiences with better jokes than they would be able to make in the moment.

PJ- yes putting in structurally building out a more dramatic narrative to make it a better story but finding the jokes inside of these scenes because your right as Jim was saying it’s what the audience does, they laugh along with the movie if you’re not doing it so you bring the audience along with you so they feel like part of the movie and part of the joke is what helps to make these movies work.

RE – specially the monolog scene is just excellent after the whole gratuitous scene in Britain we don’t have Venmo, I live with my mum and she said what’s Venmo?

JC- aaa we were going to use PayPal, but we used PayPal later on in the film so we thought we would just use Venmo.

RE- what you do expertly and especially in all of Jim’s filmography you do so much with so little, especially like in Thunder Road, which was Jim’s first feature, so I feel it’s safe to say there is like a negative stigma around low budget films being like it will be cheap and not cinematic so how do you guys try to overcome that stigma that is unjustified?

JC- I was very lucky, I grew up watching movies that looked so much worse than the technology these days can provide, so like I grew up watching the Duplass brothers like puffy chairs? Shot on one of the first 24P digital cameras and it looks shit it looks worse than 16mm and they didn’t care it was like cool we are just going to tell the story and make the film we are not really going to worry about what it looks like and nowadays you can shoot on a red camera and most people, like we had so many people around Hollywood world neighbours of ours that had them and we could say “hey on Facebook we are trying to borrow a camera to make something” and now the technology allows independent filmmakers to shoot at such a competitive quality with Hollywood that it actually can blend in we have finally met this Uncanny Valley of not being able to tell the difference of what is a Hollywood movie is and an Independent film, and like narrative in the independent sensibilities are so much stronger than those of Hollywood where you can show cursing, real sex and real violence  and audiences are like this is a real big movie despite the fact that you shot it for a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I think that’s a nice thing that you can make something very small that still feels very big is the only way we have been able to make movies.

PJ – there are so many little things we have done that I am actually really proud off, like were really small and we didn’t and we didn’t put any time or money into it and some of my favourite stuff are things that we shot without having to put a lot of money into it so I think if you just have something like fun, a good story you believe in friends that you trust and just have fun with it you are going to come up with some of your best stuff so I don’t think you need to put a lot into it.

JC- and yes that not having a budget to do anything but having the quality of technology to look like a real movie you are forced to be creative whereas if we had a huge budget we would have been resting on our loreals instead of actually trying to weave a story to compel an audience at every minute and like that has been helpful for us, and I’m glad we have made 3 feature films for nothing and I hope we don’t forget that and like you constantly need to win the audience’s attention at every step of the staircase so we have been very luck to not have had a lot of money to make movies starting out.

PJ- yes it forces you to focus more on the narrative and the craft as you can’t get away with throwing a lot of money at it, it has to be great from the ground up, story, character performance everything as it’s the most important thing anyway and good we were forced to do it early on.

RE – even when you do stuff to rival big pictures like you said the blood was digital in the opening scene I could not tell, I thought it was real blood, we have all watched action movies where there is noticeable fake blood at times and what you do with so little doesn’t pull you out the movie and I think that is what you achieved very well in this movie and even though it is a low budget you are never pulled out  by this looks cheap and cause you’re in LA and I believe you were in LA for the entirety of this movie and even if you can’t get the noticeable shots that people expect there to be of what LA.

JC-We were very lucky we were very very lucky our cinematographer is amazing  and it looks like a multimillion dollar movie and we shot it for $250k-$350K something like that an astronomically low figure but because we were very thought fully about what would be in the frame at every moment we were able to make it seem like a bigger movie than it really was, it was great as so much of our future films will be that too

RE – so I am a computing science student as well as doing film reviews so a big part of the film is about digital data like the Sony hacks and all this in the film is there any other like more tech related issues or other related issues you feel you guys would like to explore or would like to see explored in movies because the internet is always growing?

JC- This movie particularly was about agency world the agency world was usually about connecting people it was about packaging and putting things together to then get money and then like  using your rolodex to do stuff, and have power in the industry but now a days with digital technology you can get in touch with anyone you want through IMDB pro and we wanted to make a movie about that and it had to be an agent being replaced and made redundant  based on technology  and so that was speaking to us, so that was like cool this is the perfect example of how the internet can destroy an entire industry and it was also very funny to us and poignant as its about Hollywood, but no we feel we are like Johnny Paypal in the basement making these movies that are very small we can compete at a level to replace this shittier system that is powerful right now so for now the big data stuff was just helping us to tell the story it was this thing we were using to make a point and it was poignant and topical, and I would love to do something more about big data and like but the thing we found to be most poignant was writing it in this film was that all it takes is a few rouge actors working together to derail people’s lives and how scary that can be in the nature of the internet and all it takes is a few people to completely uproot some previous power system and that was interesting to us.

PJ – yes this felt like of all the big tech scary horror thriller movies you can do this felt more like something kind of grounded and relevant that we could actually take a narrative out of, and it just fit so well with the whole agency modern world, this one felt realistic enough to really dive into, there is plenty of big AI stuff I would love to do but this made sense.

RE- yes, my honours project on if an AI could write a film script just as good as a human, so I really love it when people try to do realistic tec stuff and show tech realistically as there are so many times when we don’t see that.

JC- yes we are working on something similar about an AI pretending to be human and kind of how close you can get it is very fascinating to me, “we are wet robots” to quote Sam Harris but yes I find it to be both very scary and also humanising that we are like simpletons in comparison and how lovely that can be.

PJ- maybe we are all binary it just more complicated.

RE- you have talked about how like the big studio system, that are not the greatest, how do you feel about going up against those big budget movies like your Marvel movies or are you just like people will see my movie that want to see my movie?

JC- yes, I’m scared, but it is a complete non overlapping audience, in Marvel movies there is no cursing in them, they are not allowed to show real violence and they are not allowed to show sex at all they can tease it but they are not allowed to show anything were as we are.  We are making movies for people of our age whereas they need to make them for the broader audience. I don’t know I think that right now is a wonderful time to be independent and to make independent films on the side.

PJ- the bigger these big giant commercials are that they are making is just better for us and our crazy stories as its just creating such an underbelly apatite that is going over people, people have such a hunger for other grittier better realistic stuff and I’m hoping that is what we can provide down the road.

RE- to go a bit personal no movie in the last 10 years has affected me like Thunder Road did.

JC- oh whow really.

RE- yes because a little thing in my life, my Grandma died in 2016 so I thought it would be funny, as we had a CD of music to play when we were leaving the church and I thought it would be funny to put Hallowed be thy name from Iron Maiden on there, it will never get played , people were walking out saying that was a very interesting song choice, and I was part of me was thinking I hope my grandma would find it funny, so I really resonated at the main character dancing because his mum was the dance teacher and stuff and so many other aspects of it.

JC- That movie was so,  I watched it again recently for the first time in years and it so brutal and I kept on crying while watching the movie and thinking why did I make it so sad, it’s so brutal this poor guy, and because we made this movie so many people would come up to me afterwards with stories like yours like they watched the film and I then become this lightening rod for grievers of people being like no one is making movies like this, thank you make the film so for years after making this film  I had people coming up to me in the street crying and stuff and I thought I didn’t sign up for this , but I realised that there are so few movies that talk about human grief and what a hell it is to go through it, it’s such a difficult endeavour and I am very glad that I made that film and for many years it was a burden but now I see it as a wonderful thing.

RE- I feel like my last question to wrap up this interview is I was going to make a joke about how Scotland is famous for 2 things trainspotting and rain, but it has been raining today but it hits to hard , but my last question would be like if it is a rainy day what is your go to film to put on to just sit and relax and forget about stuff for a couple of hours?

JC- Oh man so we had that yesterday it rained in LA for the first time in about a year and a half, so im in the same boat and I remember the last time I was in Glasgow, I was there for the Thunder Road tour and it was not raining and it was a 2 days of solid sunlight and everyone was walking about without t-shirts on all these pale Scotland people walking around with their shirts off it was funny, but no there is a film I really love call Little Forrest it’s a Korean movie from 2018, or 2017 I want to say and its really well directed and well-crafted and it’s about this woman’s year a young woman’s year taking over her mums farm in South Korea it’s just this wonderful Ghibli style life pornography which is always my go to on a rainy day.

PJ- I mean I don’t know what stuck in my head was so obvious if it’s just a full rainy Sunday I am just throwing on all 3 Lord of the Rings extended editions.

JC-depending on how long the storm is if we have 21 hours of storming, we can watch all the extended editions of Lord of the Rings.

JC- I always remember seeing this picture on Reddit where this was this guy and you could see the top of the ticker on the back of the airline seat and it said a 9-hour flight and then it was 3 Lord of the Rings movies and he was like I know what I’m doing, I’m not sleeping on this flight.

RE- well thank you so much for having me it was a wonderful interview; I am excited to see what both of you do in the future.

JC- thank you it’s been really great I am so glad we got to talk.

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