I didn’t watch the first season of HBO’s Project Greenlight, the TV series about the making of a low-budget movie. How dull would that be, I thought, since most New Yorkers encounter movies being made all the time; we are frequently menaced by walkie-talkied toadies who send us scurrying across the road like confused pigeons. Besides, the first Greenlight film, Stolen Summer, was both a critical and commercial flop.
Yet friends assured me that the series based around Stolen Summer was one of the year’s most engrossing televisual experiences. Unlike your average reality show, Greenlight bears a noble premise: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the show’s executive producers, offer an aspiring screenwriter and director the chance to make a first movie, handing the winners a $1 million deal with Miramax. Once a screenplay and a director have been chosen, Project Greenlight morphs into a cinematic peep show. We watch these amateurs negotiate the interstices between their dreams and the Hollywood studio system, with all the compromises, mind games, and anxiety that entails. And we instantly become a nation of backseat producers, cattily second-guessing every casting decision and clunky script change. The series wraps in late August, at which point this year’s feature, The Battle of Shaker Heights, opens in theaters. It will inevitably be warped by the demands of two different media: The producers need to stir up enough backstage drama to satisfy TV audiences while still bagging a good film. What decisions might’ve been made differently, I wondered, if it hadn’t been commissioned for delectation by HBO viewers?
To help navigate the undercurrents of Greenlight, I invited my neighbor, producer Christine Vachon, to watch the series with me. Vachon is queen of the shoestring-budget indie movie (Boys Don’t Cry, Safe, Happiness) and her company, Killer Films, just released Camp, a feature film similarly made for less than $2 million with a first-time director and an unknown cast. Vachon speculates that without this contest, The Battle of Shaker Heights might not have been made at all: “It seems like a small, character-driven movie, which is great, because those are the ones that slip through the cracks. They are really hard to get financed, and they have to be amazing to do well at the box office.” She also points out that low-budget debut films are usually made by writer-directors: “Why would you go through the agony of the million-dollar movie unless it was a story burning inside you? You inevitably lose something when you separate writer and director.” Which is what Project Greenlight did this year, presumably hoping to fuel dissension between the camps. The panel of judges (which included a marketing director from Blockbuster Video along with Damon, Affleck, and Miramax honchos) picked two smirky guys, Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, to direct a subtle coming-of-age story penned by a dewy-eyed ingenue named Erica Beeney.
Here’s Vachon and me propped in front of the tube.
PRESS: How could they pick these snarky buffoons over other, more interesting directors?
VACHON: Erica is obviously very sensitive, and these guys seem more like exploding car, postmodern gore directors. Put them together on an intense little coming-of-age story and let the fun begin!
PRESS: This series is supposed to reveal the machinations behind the scenes, so it would’ve been useful to hear the judges discuss how the decisions got made—how much of it was chemistry or talent or provocation. Instead, they just offered stock lines about how incredibly talented these directors are . . .
VACHON: Those two boys are being so set up. Kyle’s got one of those little ponytail things and . . . oh my God, is that a soul patch? I wouldn’t want one of my directors to walk around looking like that. But frankly, the two never had a chance after Efram demanded a car.
PRESS: He was so jealous that Erica wangled a BMW convertible he couldn’t think straight. Can you believe he asked for the car in the middle of a crucial production meeting? And when the producer offered to try to get him one similar to Erica’s, Efram whined, “Nnnn—her car’s very feminine . . . it’s, like, purplish.”
VACHON: In my experience there are two kinds of difficult directors. The first is a gigantic pain in the ass about perfection—these directors have a clear sense of their vision and won’t compromise, but it’s all about making the movie as good as it can be, so I can handle it. The other kind freaks out about the perks—their trailer isn’t as big as it should be or their ride to set isn’t good enough—and that I can’t brook. If I had a director complaining about a car being too purple, I’d just be like, Are you high?
Greenlight is so brilliantly manipulative it flips even the most ingrained sympathies. In early episodes, Erica exuded innocence and integrity, while Kyle and Efram played evil cartoon characters scheming behind everyone’s back. The duo seemed to think they could forge ahead without Miramax, Erica, their casting agent, an editor, or anyone else. But now that Shaker Heights is in midshoot, things are going awry, and suddenly Kyle and Efram look like the embattled ones as everyone else on the set gangs up on them.
PRESS: Kyle and Efram pissed everyone off by acting so power hungry, but now that they have a modicum of control they’re totally clueless. The two of them are standing on opposite sides of the car giving Amy Smart contradictory advice on her acting performance, and . . . look, she just gave Efram the finger through the smoked-glass window!
VACHON: It’s like a dog smelling fear on you. Being on a set where the director has lost control is just sickening. No one goes the extra mile, there’s a lot of eye-rolling . . . it just breeds inertia. If a director is in control, the crew follow their leader. But the second anyone senses the directors are not sure, people just swoop in.
PRESS: They sure are swooping in, like vultures with headsets. The producers and Erica and everyone else are badgering the directors with criticism. What would you do?
VACHON: Run? I hopefully wouldn’t have gone down this road with these guys. But say I did, I would never ever criticize them in front of anyone else, because if the crew and the actors don’t respect the director, you’re screwed as a producer. Ultimately when I throw myself behind a movie, I have to really believe in that director’s vision.
PRESS: Throughout the show the executive producer has mocked Kyle and Efram in front of the camera. It’s enjoyable to watch but not always fair. He’s dissed them for being too passive and too aggressive; he urged them to be more vocal in the casting process, but when they spoke up, Miramax overruled them.
VACHON: You could say that these guys got handed an incredible gift and they’re walking around like spoiled white boys. But they could argue back that they were given responsibility with no authority. When you make a movie for this little money, your only perk is usually some autonomy—freedom from the breathe-down-your-neckiness that is happening to these guys.
PRESS: I have a feeling that you’re starting to feel sorry for these guys too. Does that have anything to do with the fact that Kyle has ditched the little ponytail?
VACHON: And the soul patch is gone! Much, much better.
For another kind of low-budget film, check out Josh Pais’s intensely personal documentary about the Lower East Side, 7th Street, which airs on the Sundance Channel after a fleeting appearance on the art-house circuit. Josh spent his childhood surrounded on one hand by his mom’s artist friends, and on the other by his “street family,” which insulated him from drug violence. Filmed over a decade, 7th Street captures a neighborhood in constant flux-from Hungarian-Jewish slum to Puerto Rican ghetto to the gentrifying hodgepodge that it is today. Pais tries hard not to pass judgment on the new kids on the block. Instead he creates a document of the vibrant community he once knew.
Michael Atkinson’s review of Project Greenlight