“This movie could taint my career for the next 40 years,” is not the kind of summation Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and the Farrelly Brothers probably expected to hear when they asked a first-time filmmaker for his opinion of the $3 million comedy they’d tasked him with directing.
It happened anyway.
“The Farrelly brothers wanted to see somebody who appreciated the opportunity, and they didn’t get that,” says Project Greenlight producer Marc Joubert.
Actually, lots of things don’t go as expected in HBO’s reality-based filmmaking contest, which returns Sunday for its fourth intermittent season, fueled by a rich supply of unpredictable creative friction. “This is a high impact, high collision process where everyone wants to make a great product but the way they want to get there differs wildly from one person to the next,” observes executive producer Perrin Chiles.
The 2015 Project Greenlight edition follows in the footsteps of previous seasons, offering squirm-worthy variations on the question: Why is it so hard to make a half-way decent movie? In 2001, Chicago first-timer Pete Jones tried to coax a charismatic performance from a child actor who appeared in nearly every scene of Stolen Summer. Next, two co-directors from Ohio struggled to harness the volatile talents of a baby-faced 16-year old actor named Shia LaBeouf in The Battle of Shaker Heights. In the third season, eccentric contest winner John Gulager campaigned to cast his own family members in the cannibal horror flick, Feast.
This year, camera crews follow 13 rookie filmmakers who’ve made the finals on the strengths of clips they submitted on Facebook. Once the panel of experts make their decision, the eight-episode series tracks the impact of a first-time director who hates compromise. “Movie making is not a bunch of people getting in a room and agreeing on everything,” says Joubert. “People disagree, and you see a lot of disagreements play out on this show.” Adds Chiles, “We did not have to manufacture any conflict. This kind of drama goes down in the majority of the movies that are made today.”
Moments after learning that he’s won the contest, rake-thin New York director Jason Mann buttonholes Affleck offstage urging him to fire Greenlight alum Pete Jones, who’s supposed to help him do re-writes. Further, Mann declares that he needs to shoot the movie on celluloid film despite strenuous objections from budget-conscious producers. Mann’s power play kicks into overdrive when he rejects the assigned script Not Another Pretty Woman and pitches a rough screenplay based on his own dark comedy short The Leisure Class.
After lecturing a clearly uncomfortable Jones about the boring “predictability” of three-act structure, Mann converts the affable Project Greenlight alum to his cause and together they surprise the producers. “That whole process did not sit very well with me,” says Joubert. “On top of that, they’re doing essentially a page one re-write and Jason’s still worried about wanting to shoot on film. I’m sitting there going “We’ve got deadlines. Get the script done. Don’t worry about that other shit right now.”
When the quickly re-written Leisure Class passes muster with HBO executive Len Amato, Mann clashes with his line producer Effie Brown, whose resume of 17 indie films including Dear White People fails to make much of an impression. “Effie’s produced a lot of independent movies so she knows what it’s like to get down and dirty in order to make movies on a low budget. Jason has not been down that path and that’s where those two starting butting heads.” Joubert sighs. “I did not go into this thinking I was going to have to play referee for eight months.”
As the season evolves, issues of casting, tone, final cut and marketing come into play, which Joubert describes as a non-stop balancing act. “You’ve got a director’s vision. You’ve got a producing team that’s trying their damnedest to stay on time and on budget. And then you’ve got the X factor of Matt, Ben, and the Farrelly Brothers trying to help lift up this filmmaker. In that way, what you see on the show is very similar to studio projects in the sense that you don’t know whose vision or idea is going to win out on any given day because there’s so many competitive ideas at play.”
When the first Project Greenlight aired in 2001 in the pre-YouTube/Vimeo era, opportunities for unknown filmmakers were severely restricted. But as Chiles sees it, Project Greenlight still serves an important role amid the proliferation of Internet outlets. “Social media is great in terms of democratizing the opportunity to get distributed, because now you can do that yourself,” he says. “We see Project Greenlight as that bridge between social media platforms, where you can get some eyeballs for your work, and that place where you can actually make a career in Hollywood as a result of your creative talents. Even though people can show their work on YouTube, they still want validation, and being on this series is an opportunity to get instant Hollywood validation. The intention of bringing the show back was that we wanted to spotlight a whole new generation of filmmakers.”
It remains to be seen whether Project Greenlight‘s end product, The Leisure Class, will succeed with audiences or critics. But even if it fizzles, the man who made the movie seems likely to persevere. Joubert says, “I would have liked him to pick and choose his battles rather than battling for everything. I wish he would have taken advice from people who had more experience. But Jason’s a stubborn SOB and he did not come into this with the mindset of a first time director. He came in with a shitload of confidence knowing exactly what he wanted. That’s what you need to succeed in Hollywood. You need entrepreneurial chutzpah. Jason told us he had every frame of this film playing in his head and even if he didn’t always achieve that, he was going to fight for it. Having that kind of moxie is very important to making it in Hollywood.”