Project Greenlight

Halfway through the second episode of this season’s Project Greenlight, co-director Efram Potelle asks if he can have a new car. Right in the middle of an important pre-production planning meeting, he blurts out that he wants a car. Potelle isn’t interested in the pressing matters at hand, namely that his movie has no cast, he still needs to hire a crew, and Erica Beeney’s script still needs major changes.

No, Potelle just wants to know if he can have a new car.

Viewers don’t have to be Hollywood players to know that asking for bennies in the middle of a major meeting with the boss is both clueless and tactless. Faithful viewers of PGL, as it’s known to fans, also know Potelle is becoming famous for behaving more like Homer Simpson than Steven Spielberg.

Before a single frame of film has been shot, Potelle and partner Kyle Rankin have distinguished themselves with a wide range of bizarre, seemingly bi-polar behavior. They either affect total indifference or demand absolute control. In the final moments of Episode 3, they threaten to quit over a casting decision offered up as an 11th hour solution to the casting crisis.

Producer Chris Moore and his LivePlanet staff are incredulous. Walk away from the film they competed against 7,000 others to direct? What are they thinking? You just want to shake some sense into these guys. It’s amazing the famously volatile Moore hasn’t already done this, but then again, the series just started. “I guess we’re learning how much power we don’t wield,” Rankin says early in the series, but they press on and are, by turns, stupid, silly, arrogant, conciliatory, and astonishingly clever.

Project Greenlight is the brainchild of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who reportedly conceived it as a way to give unknown screenwriters and directors and opportunity to make a small feature film for Miramax. In this second season of the series and the contest (2001’s production was Stolen Summer, and, barring unforeseen disaster, indie filmmakers Potelle and Rankin will direct Beeney’s The Battle of Shaker Heights, the script selected by the PG team. Everyone putting money behind this contest and the film is hoping The Battle of Shaker Heights (unlike Stolen Summer) will mimic the success of Affleck and Damon, who won Academy Awards for their first screenplay, Good Will Hunting (1997).

We’ll never know for sure if either Affleck or Damon ever interrupted a script meeting to ask for a new car. But Potelle plainly has a lot to learn, not just about Hollywood, but also office diplomacy.

Beeney, a dark-haired college student from Columbus, Ohio, comports herself a bit better. She negotiated her car deal off camera, never once mentions it on camera, and saves her anger and frustration with the process for the confessional cameras. She wants to be involved in every step of the filmmaking process and her face falls each time she is told that this is a “director’s medium,” but she appears to take the almost daily criticism as well as a novice screenwriter unused to daily criticism possibly can.

This is the kind of emotional drama that Affleck, Damon, and all the A-listers involved in PGL want viewers to see. In the opening credits, Damon says they want to show what goes on “behind the scenes,” to illustrate the messy business of making films. And here it is: bad decisions, no decisions, foolish demands, seething co-workers, and veiled threats. And they haven’t even started shooting yet. However, this “darker side” — all the fighting, whining, backstabbing, and office politics — presumably teaches novice filmmakers (and anyone at home with a screenplay on her hard drive) that moviemaking is more complicated than red carpets, magazine covers, and cavorting with J.Lo.

It falls to executive producer Moore to guide the beginners through the industry’s shark-infested waters. Potelle, Rankin, and Beeney may have won the contest, but Moore is the real star of the HBO series, just as he was in the first PGL. He’s got boyish good looks, undisputed insider status, and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Those qualities, combined with the fact that he knows what he’s doing, have endeared him to viewers and colleagues alike. Last season, Moore was the man PGL fans loved to hate for his short fuse. Moore is smart enough to know that he’s becoming a small screen star (Affleck’s hilarious impression of Moore on the Stolen Summer DVD attests to Moore’s charisma).

With Stolen Summer, Moore apparently learned that an arrogant, confrontational style made good television, but a lousy movie. As he writes on the PGL website, he knows that another flop from this series and the project is out of business. Not to mention that two high profile failures won’t be good for Moore’s future, in front of the camera or behind it.

He’s a perceptive guy, but not much of a mentor. He does most of his complaining to the camera. He knows the directors are behaving badly. He knows they don’t understand the process. Does he tell any of this to the wayward newbies? No, he doesn’t, and he observes them with a mixture of annoyance and bemusement. He says he wants to “pull them off the fence” and “bring them out of their little tortoise shells,” but he’s not getting anywhere. In meeting after meeting, he tries to put the team at ease with calming words of advice and wry observations, but his laidback style may be the undoing of this film, just as his quick temper didn’t help Stolen Summer. Potelle and Rankin don’t pay much attention to what he has to say. For these movies to succeed, Moore needs to find some kind of middle ground between know-it-all blowhard and laissez-faire administrator.

Just what he’s working with — aside from the directors — is uncertain, so far. We haven’t heard much about the plot of Beeney’s script, which can be downloaded and read at the Project Greenlight website. It’s a coming of age drama about a teenager who takes part in military re-enactments in Shaker Heights, Ohio. And somehow, despite all the fits and starts, The Battle of Shaker Heights was completed. Whether it was completed under budget, on time, and without incident or major changes to Beeney’s initial vision is what PGL will reveal in upcoming episodes.

Despite the rough production process, Moore also has to worry about the marketing of this film, and in a column on the Blockbuster website, he expresses concern that Shaker Heights could be the kind of film critics love, and mass-market moviegoers avoid like the plague. Moore writes that there were other contestants and other directors who could have “given him something he could put on a poster.” For instance, he liked Cheeks, a script about a waitress in a strip club penned by two women, and The Rebound Guy, about a man who dates women recovering from broken relationships, for money. “I thought they had plots and marketing hooks that you could really sell,” he writes. “And even if we did make a good movie — can we sell it?” he asks himself.

Will Potelle and Rankin learn to when to stand up and when to shut up? Will Beeney have any control of her script? Will Moore finally explode in a fit of aggravation and rage? Will he be able to sell this movie and make Miramax happy? Will anyone come away from this project smarter, savvier, and maybe a little bit richer? Right now, it’s too soon to tell.