Advice and insights from a fascinating Fantastic Fest genre thriller.
After making its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, The Beta Test made its way to Austin, Texas, to screen for a slimmed-down but raucous crowd at this year’s Fantastic Fest.
As we’ve covered on No Film School in the past, Cummings has made a new name for himself in the world of indie filmmaking with his heartfelt comedy-drama blending shorts and features.
From the Thunder Road short (which won Sundance) to his Thunder Road feature (which won SXSW), to his more recent indie horror The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings has demonstrated that indie filmmaking has moved beyond simple genre classifications.
Which, from a filmmaking perspective, is what makes The Beta Test so interesting as it definitely feels like a hard genre film—yet one which you’re not quite sure what to classify as.
To discuss these genre trends, blends, and bends, we chatted with Cummings and McCabe at Fantastic Fest to explore how future filmmakers should try to work within these genre styles and techniques, while still trying to tell fresh and interesting stories.
No Film School: First off, how did this writing/directing collaboration come together for you two?
Jim Cummings: So PJ and I have been friends for 16 years, way too long. If you need a best friend, you can steal this man! No, PJ and I became co-writers a hundred years ago making stuff and doing funny bullshit, and then PJ chose to act more, and I moved into producing for six years.
But we were always working on productions together and stuff, so after I won Sundance for the Thunder Road short, PJ had the best idea of all time for a space TV show which we went out and pitched and then we quickly became professional Hollywood TV writers. We spent five years writing this show kind of off and on and back and forth in different ways.
And during that development period, and while I was making my movies like The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Minutes, we had the idea for The Beta Test through manifest and were like, let’s just do it. So we talked through it a thousand times and did a big outline and we wrote it over a year in 2019.
NFS: IMDB classifies The Beta Test as a “horror thriller,” but it feels like it's much more than that. How do you both classify the film? And what were your genre goals for the project going in?
Cummings: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a weird one. I always say whatever genre Parasite is, that’ll be us. But I mean, to screen the movie at Fantastic Fest, it plays like an out-and-out comedy, but then when we screen it in France, it’s a horror film and more of a cautionary tale. I guess it’s both, you know. It depends on the crowd.
PJ McCabe: Yeah, I don’t know either, although I always like to say it’s a goofy Chinatown, or like a funny L.A. Noire-style thing, but then of course there’s a lot of angles you could go. There’s a bunch of jokes throughout the movie though so it also could be a bit like 50 Shades of Grey as a comedy, or Eyes Wide Shut as a comedy because it’s also an erotic thriller-comedy of sorts.
NFS: I’m a big fan of a film being "a goofy Chinatown." Did you all specifically look to draw inspiration from any films or directors when you were writing and directing it?
Cummings: I mean, PJ and I’ve seen a thousand movies, 10,000 probably, and we always talk about Fincher.
McCabe: Yeah, this one was the closest we’re going to get to being David Fincher making a Fincher movie.
Cummings: I think The Wolf of Snow Hollow had a bit of Zodiac as a comedy in it, then I feel like this one is a mix of David Fincher and the Coen brothers with a little Terrence Malick for some sequences here and there. And the editing was a bit more like Casino and some of the Scorsese films.
McCabe: I do feel like we were certainly inspired by all of those films by those filmmakers because we’ve seen them all a thousand times, but when we started on our film it really just became its own thing and its own language. It just became a mix of everything and we’re really glad people have had a hard time placing it because that means it’s unique to us. So it’s kind of like starting our own genre.
NFS: Speaking of film genres, it’s interesting that while the film explores darker genres and themes like erotic thriller, night slasher, and Fincher-esque conspiracies, it also brings in some well-timed comedic elements. How do you find that tonal balance specifically between comedy and these darker more serious themes?
Cummings: For us, it’s all out loud. I remember hearing that Peter Jackson shot The Fellowship of the Ring with little green army men to help with his pre-viz by laying out these little action figures just to see if it would work and if the camera moves were right. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s cool.”
Then for the Thunder Road feature, we tried this recording the movie as a podcast idea and put in music and sound design and everything to see if the movie would work in audio form.
And when you’re hearing it out loud you’re going, “Eh, it’s kind of boring here, it could be faster here, this scene might be too long or need to be fused with this one.” It’s a great way to get a preview of your movie. By the time you get to the movie, you’re already directing the roller coaster of where the audience is going and when you need to place a joke or a scare or whatever because you’ve already worked it out.
NFS: The podcast idea is a great idea (and you’ve spoken about it before on the No Film School podcast). However, when it comes to production, how do you find that right look and balance for the film with your camera choices and direction?
Cummings: So we shot the film mainly on the Alexa Studio, you know the big body one, not the Mini, and then we shot some of the 360-degree shots of the bar with the Mini just for the weight of the camera. We also actually shot some of the pickup shots with my Sony A7rii with Nikon lenses that we matched in color correction to look like the Alexa.
When it comes to the visual style, though, the way we wrote is thinking more about how it would sound, so for the look, we brought in Ken Wales as our cinematographer. He’s a real master and, while this was his first feature, he’s been shooting great commercials and everything for years—and was even a gaffer for 10 years before becoming a DP.
We talked with him and had the same sense of humor and we went through the visuals taking some inspiration from like the Coen brothers for some wide-angle closeups and like going less with two-shots and leaning more on singles as long as the eyelines match. It was really just a thousand little narrative conversations as we walked through the whole movie scene by scene as we worked off of this giant white psych wall where we laid out our script and storyboards.
NFS: Finally, since this is for No Film School, if you both were to speak directly to anyone who’s interested in making shorts or feature films of their own, what advice would you give them as they wrestle with deciding on genres and style?
Cummings: I think the main thing that I wish I had been told before doing my first feature or venture in film is never assume that the audience is going to be interested. It’s up to you to make sure the audience is invested, and you have to win the audience’s interest. If that means blending as many genres as possible go for it—Hitchcock did it, Bong Joon-Ho’s doing it all the time.
And blending genres works too. Audiences these days usually appreciate it rather than see it as a subtraction. If there’s comedy in your horror film it can work as long as it's good.
I’d also say that it always helps to work on things out loud. I always say it’s easy to misinterpret a text message, but if you can record your script as a podcast or in some audio form you can be certain that every moment is going to work. It doesn’t have to be a Speilberg movie on a Speilberg budget you know, you can make a movie for no money in your backyard and it counts.
McCabe: And yeah, add genres if it makes it better! If you’re making something dramatic but it’s boring, make it funnier so that audiences can care more. I’ve always said there are no rules to filmmaking anymore. If you can make something that people laugh or cringe or jump or gasp or whatever at, as long as they can feel engaged in some way, they’re going to be interested. If you’re gonna wield an audience’s attention for over 90 minutes and it’s working, it doesn’t matter what genre you’re stealing successfully from. If you’re successfully telling a story just do it.