When Chris Moore produced Good Will Hunting, lots of directors wanted to take a crack at the material. Mel Gibson and Michael Mann weighed in with their takes on Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s script, but ultimately Gus Van Sant got the gig and delivered an Oscar-winning hit. Still, Moore remains fascinated by the directorial roads not taken. “I can think of five movies I’ve made where it would have been genius to have two people’s versions of the same script,” he says.
On September 6, Moore launched The Chair, a reality TV experiment in comparison shopping that tracks two first-time directors as they try to stay cool under pressure and deliver their own versions of the same story. The 10-episode Starz series follows Shane Dawson a brash YouTube comedian/hearthrob with more than 6 million followers, and Anna Martemucci a wry NYU Film School grad who co-wrote and acted in indie film Breakup at the Wedding. Both first-time directors were given an identical script, $600,000 and 22 days in Pittsburgh to put their own stamp on Dan Schoffer’s rom-com screenplay. At series’ end, viewers decide which version they like more, with the winning auteur receiving $250,000 cash.
Moore conceived the series as an experiment in competitive filmmaking. He explains, “Part of the inspiration for this concept came from HBO series 24/7, which follows boxers before they have a fight, and then the boxers fight each other. I knew I couldn’t have a real boxing match between filmmakers, but I could put two movies out into the world and have audiences fill out test screening surveys to determine who made the best one. People don’t understand how hard it is to make a good movie, how risky it is, how much passion you have. I want to pull back the curtain on that process.”
Martemucci and Dawson re-wrote dialogue, cut characters, re-titled Schoffer’s script and assembled different casts and crews to tailor the same basic plot to their own sensibilities. “Tone is the biggest decision directors have to make early in the process,” says Moore. “It affects how they shoot, how they cast and how they cut. Shane started out much broader comedy and Anna went much more realistic. Then, during post-production, Shane threw in more drama and gave it more heart while Anna wound up having a few more gross jokes and funny shit that make her version very lively. They’re still very different in tone but Anna and Shane both came back to the center of the story.”
The Chair draws much of its dramatic friction from the collision between the filmmakers’ DIY aesthetic and the movie-by-committee dynamic that figures into commercial motion picture production. Moore explains, “One thing that comes into play when you’re making professional stuff — granted this was low budget but we did it professionally — is that there’s a committee of what I call the Judgers.”
In The Chair, they include producer Zachary Quinto, who, early on takes a break from his acting projects to advise Dawson that he should consider toning down the raunch in his re-write.
“Shane had been making these YouTube videos and basically doing it all alone while Anna had her husband and her brother-in law so everything from a creative decision making standpoint stayed within their circle. But when you go make a real movie, at some point some studio marketing executive you’ve never even heard of walks in and says, ‘Can we keep this scene in the movie because its going to work better in the trailer?’ Or, ‘We don’t want this to be R-rated, we told you that at the beginning, it’s got to be PG 13.’ Later in the series, these issues become a big part of the documentary.”
Moore, whose producing credits includes Reindeer Games, American Pie, Promised Land and The Adjustment Bureau, believes his series illustrates essential qualities every good director needs. “One, you have to communicate what you need done. Anna and Shane both have trouble getting their vision across to people, they both end up trusting or not trusting certain crew members. But the big directors are great at motivating people, managing a team and nudging talented crew members like production designers or casting directors or editors in the way they want them to go. Some people do it with an iron fist and others do it with the sugar, but you’ve got to be a leader.”
“The second thing is you’ve got to have as a director is innate security,” says Moore. “You have to stand in a room after a test screening when eighty people tell you this movie is dog shit and then weed through the comments and figure out ‘How do I protect my vision and get it done even when everybody else is disagreeing with me?'”
Moore continues, “Anna reveals a lot of her neurosis on camera but that actually proves she has some level of security: ‘I’ll show you who I am, warts and all, because I’m good at what I do and you’re going to like my movie.’ Where as Shane’s immensely confident because he’s one of a handful of people putting stuff up on YouTube who has a multi-million following. It’s not arrogance. You just need to be very confident that you can figure out how to get it done.”