Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with filmmaker Jim Cummings about the responsibilities and stress of tone management as performed in The Beta Test.
Do not tell Jim Cummings that a movie has to be any one thing. Action. Horror. Comedy. Drama. Every flick plopped into those categories does not adhere to one singular vibe. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is terrifying as hell one second and equally as funny the next. No movie is its label.
Smashing tone is what Cummings races to accomplish with each of his projects. Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow are not defined by the first giggle or jolt they elicit. They tear through emotions as quickly as they tear through their audiences. The Beta Test, which Cummings co-wrote and co-direct with P.J. McCabe, is no different. If anything, it’s this dizzying mash-up sensation cranked to an even more cataclysmic extremity.
In the movie, Cummings plays a Hollywood agent who receives a purple envelope in the mail. Inside is an invitation to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter. Despite his wedding on the horizon, the character partakes. His life spirals into madness from there, but in the spiral are brutal indications suggesting the greater darkness that already consumes his industry.
The Beta Test opens with a horrific encounter. There’s no reason to spoil its exact details, but it’s a sequence designed to smack the audience. Wake up. Pay attention. And while you’re still savoring the sting of its attack, you’re immediately propelled into Cummings’ oddball introduction. What the hell are you about to watch?
What Zodiac Can Do, The Beta Test Can Do
I first saw The Beta Test at the Lost Weekend Film Festival at the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia. The audience there was already in the bag for the Jim Cummings experience. A Thunder Road Q&A from a few years back cemented the crowd as unshakable Cummings fanatics. But The Beta Test was their first real test. After the movie’s first few minutes, many heads stiffened and swiveled to eye their neighbor.
Hearing this reaction, Cummings laughs.
“So Zodiac does it worse,” he says. “I think Suspiria is worse. Maybe. It’s pretty intense. I mean, our scene is one of the most intense scenes in any movie, and we opened the movie with it on purpose, obviously to get the pressure cooker started — the ticking clock.”
It’s like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil: “You plant a bomb in the trunk. The audience is nervous as to when the bomb’s going to go off. We knew we wanted to open with this kind of cautionary tale about somebody who did the letter service, and it went terrible, reaction-wise, from their significant other. And boy does it. And then, we also just loved the idea of having it be this comedy.”
Cummings found the seriousness of the violence to heighten the film’s humor. After the opening, a nervous energy zips through the audience. The buzz puts them on edge, but when a joke fires off, it lands somehow harder. There’s a push and pull release in motion.
“When you do that opening scene,” he explains,” and then you hit the title scene, The Beta Test, you go ‘That’s a crazy opening.’ And then it cuts to me getting the letter, and I’m just like goofy and stupid. The audience should be like, ‘Okay, well, what is going on?’ So, it’s a bigger laugh. This is a weird Jim Cummings movie.”
It’s a brilliant way to kick things off, as Cummings attests, especially for the delayed pay-off.
“People kind of forget that it happens,” he acknowledges. “They get halfway through the movie, those characters come back, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, they opened the movie in the most graphic way.’ I don’t know, we thought it was funny.”
Filmmaking Through Podcast Perfection
With such an emotional seesaw in action, Jim Cummings and P.J. McCabe cannot afford to find the tone on the day or in the edit. It has to be there in the script. To not have it perfected beforehand would be irresponsible. Blockbusters can freeball it. Indies have to have the science down.
“The movie is basically done by the time we show up on set,” Cummings explains. “There’s very little improv in any of our films because of the budget. We shot Thunder Road in 14 and a half days for $190,000. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is the longest we’ve ever had. We shot 23 days, and still, that’s almost no time at all.
He says Natalie Metzger, Ben Wiessner, and Matt Miller at Vanishing Angle organized the shoot around how tight the script is. “They’re always asking some questions like, ‘What is exactly in the frame?’ They need to know that in order for us to deliver the film on such a small budget, on such a small schedule.”
With the first draft script complete, Cummings and McCabe appraise its success via podcast. They make a mini-production out of it, surrounding the dramatic reading with music and sound design. After one go-around, they record another podcast based on their next draft’s revisions. And so on.
“We make sure that the genres are fluid together,” he says. “We check that the tone is working, the comedy is working, the horror is working. And so we know that it’s all working in audio format, and then we try to partner with all of our department heads to make sure that they speak the same language of the film. Before we show up on set, everybody’s heard the movie a couple of times in podcast form. So all it takes is us executing it in video format.”
The Beta Test Lives or Dies by its Actors
With the Beta Test podcast complete, no one can argue about the final product. Everyone has heard what they’re chasing. All they need to do is replicate it on screen. That being said, while improv is not a factor, execution absolutely is. With such a clear vision of what they want to achieve on record, a different type of stress comes into play.
“It has to be that way,” says Cummings. “There’s never a time that we had any liberty or time on set to say, ‘Let’s just get this in case we need it.’ It was like, ‘No, we know exactly what we need.’ Then, all of the actors are there to elevate each of those moments. So it’s very high pressure for the actors and the talent in the film to make sure that their performances are coming across inside of this thing that’s already built.”
Jim Cummings is a confident filmmaker. He can’t afford to be anything else. Where the true mystery resides is in the film’s reception.
He loves The Beta Test. He knows it works for him. Now, he witnesses how others receive it. Mild anxiety swirls around him. But he can’t focus too hard on that either. He and P.J. McCabe are already well into the process of making their next film together.
The Beta Test is now playing in select theaters and streaming on VOD.
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