They Are Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small.
The first lesson I learned in film school is that a plus-size ego is a director’s most important asset. Films are unwieldy, expensive and time-consuming monsters. In order to create the impression that, say, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are having a heart to heart on a South Boston street, sizeable loans must be taken out, permits secured, traffic diverted, local businesses closed, and a hundred technicians must channel the electrical output of a thousand windmills—all for five seconds of screen time. To think that whatever story you want to tell warrants all the fuss, you need unquestioning faith in your abilities.
Project Greenlight both builds up and brutally breaks down the “Let’s put on a show” can-do-ness of aspiring filmmakers. As executive producer Chris Moore says about the first season on the Project Greenlight web site, “The show helped people see how hard it is to make a movie, how stressful it is to make your first movie, and finally, how rewarding it is when you show it to your first paying audience.”
The series loves to highlight its big break premise—frequently evoking the Ballad of Matt, Ben, and Good Will Hunting as its touchstone—but it functions as a cautionary tale more than anything else. The “paying audience” or the first two Project Greenlight movies was practically nonexistent.
Apparently Project Greenlight‘s backers also noticed this. HBO dropped the third season, and Bravo picked it up. The production headquarters have moved from Miramax to Dimension, Miramax’s pulp film division (Scream, Spy Kids) and the Greenlight team is under strict orders to make a profit. Instead of amorphous art-house fare, Dimension wants a genre film.
The first episode introduces Wes Craven as the new production team member. Everyone knows that horror movies are cheap to make and almost always make money. But the only people who like the chosen script, Feast, by Midwesterners Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, are the Dimension heads, a tension that sets up what Moore calls “a central problem in the film business—money versus art.”
The strict demands of commerce are represented by Andrew Roma, Dimension’s co-president, who has the pinched facial features and disposition of a perpetually uptight asshole. He shills for Bob Weinstein like Darth Vader for the Emperor, pursuing the studio’s “enthusiasms” with cruel put-downs and fierce condescension. “Why don’t you go down the hall to Miramax to make an artsy fartsy movie,” he threatens at one point. While he’s clearly set up to be the villain, I’m not knocking that: behind every successful film stand at least three talented assholes and, as Roma says, “We have to be brutally straightforward with each other.” Whether or not his attitude is appropriate for a show whose stated purpose is to make films outside bottom-line-obsessed boardrooms is another issue.
Damon plays the fair-haired hero. When it becomes clear that Roma will only accept the horror hackery of Feast (described by Craven as “not that good of a script” and by Affleck as “one of those things where you read it and think, ‘Is this interesting and creative and unusual or is this just dog shit?’”), Damon becomes furious. “Making cynically made low-budget horror films for the purpose of making a small profit is not the reasons that I got into Project Greenlight,” he announces, then delivers his coup de grace: “The most miserable people I have ever met in my life in this business are the people who have made movies that they think are going to be financially successful and then they’re not, and all they have to show for it is a vacuum of six months of their life.” Following what looks like an awkward jump cut, one of the producers says, “Done deal. There it is.” What? It seems we missed some back-door bargain, which Affleck hints at when he says, “At least we’ll be accurate to the world of Hollywood…The studio does what it wants.”
Damon gets his revenge during the picks for director. The choices are whittled down to three: two competent directors with experience and one apparently talented, depressed 40-something oddball named John Gulager. His final interview with the Project Greenlight team goes horribly awry. His communication skills are abysmal and he devolves to making popping sound effects with his hands. After the interview, Damon says he wants Gulager to be the director, since, based on his video entry, he’s the most “talented.” Then, much to the Dimension reps’ horror, he convinces a majority of the Greenlight team to side with him.
Thus starts what we can only hope will be a pattern. The studio takes a profit-minded approach that squelches any creativity and fun. The artists respond by demanding concessions that, in their disregard for the practical demands of filmmaking, could be setting up a production disaster. (And Damon flirts with cloyingly naïve self-righteousness; at one point he yells, “I’ve never made a movie based on marketing materials,” and there are several audible off-screen chuckles.)
While the romantic in me roots for Gulager, he does not have the best personality to deal with the corporate environment of a studio film shoot. In the second episode it becomes clear that Gulager doesn’t care what Roma or Damon thinks. He won the contest and his attitude seems to be that he also won the right to make whatever the hell film he wants to make in whatever goofy manner he wants to make it, which includes not communicating with disliked staff members and casting his family members and friends in the lead roles. This ballsy disregard for the traditional production process is a completely foreign concept to Dimension’s milieu, and it’s no wonder that the next episode preview hints that Gulager may be fired.
The great irony is that the drama that erupts when these high-profile overachievers are put in the same room is far more entertaining than the movies they produce. I’m surprised that such a well-made show involving two movie stars hasn’t been more popular. This is what we want but so rarely get on the big screen, what every screenwriting teacher pounds into his students’ brains: you need to create strong characters with strong goals, and dramatize the inevitable disasters that erupt when they get in each other’s way. If the situation is so suited to the narcissistic wonderland of reality shows, so much the better. I propose, as correlative to the movie business’s current ills, that all film productions have television cameras follow them around. We’ll sate a thousand hungry egos and, unlike a film, it takes something far less than a miracle to get a greenlight for a reality show.