Writing about the movie “Steve Jobs” recently in the New York Times, columnist Farhad Manjoo concluded that the film “ultimately suggests that the deeply unpleasant behavior of people in the tech industry may be worth putting up with because of what they sometimes manage to create, often in spite of themselves.”
That same cliche has long shadowed a number of personalities in Hollywood, and there’s a certain amount of it on display in the current season of the HBO series “Project Greenlight,” which documents — or, purports to document — the behind-the-scenes process of making a movie.
What can we, as TV viewers, learn about moviemaking when we watch a reality show like this? Is it really accurate? Not everyone is convinced. Consider a recent tweet from director and screenwriter Craig Mazin, whose writing credits include “The Hangover” sequels: “This has been coming up a bit lately. Questions starting with, ‘Well, on Project Greenlight …’ to which the answer is: NO. FAKE. STOP. NEXT.”
On “Project Greenlight,” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are the executive producers who select, with a small group of executives, an unknown, unseasoned director from a pile of submissions. The winner this year was Jason Mann, who is quietly precise and particular and passive-aggressive and seemingly quite willing to fail on his own terms while driving everyone around him bonkers. Unlike past seasons, HBO has committed to broadcasting the finished product, which will air next month at the conclusion of the series.
“It’s a chance for an audience to see first-hand what somebody goes through when they direct a big movie,” Damon says in the opening credits. Actually, no. The budget is $3 million (later bumped to $3.3 million to accommodate Mann’s insistence to shoot on film rather than digital). Is the film a big deal for the director? Yes. The guarantee that HBO will air it? Also big. But no matter how you slice it, $3 million is not a “big movie.”
It’s actually a weird hybrid, a quasi-studio film (the producers and director are answerable to a studio executive at HBO) with the budget of an indie (and a hefty budget at that; many independent films are made for $1 million or substantially less).
Nothing on the show seems scripted exactly, but you wonder about the editing. You wonder if certain decisions are being made to juice conflict. Even Mann seems dubious about how “real” this opportunity is: During an “Inside the Episode” clip available on YouTube, he talks about “how frightened I was that this is a project that seems kind of set up to fail.”
The drama inherent in making most low-budget films is typically how to make it all work with limited time and money, which can spark ingenuity and inventive workarounds. That’s not quite what we’re watching here.
Much of the show’s energy so far has centered not on the director but on Effie Brown, the movie’s line producer. She is confident and experienced and brash and the sole woman and sole person of color in a position of authority. She is willing to speak her mind, which leads to some conflict with her colleagues, notably Peter Farrelly who, after a tense phone call with Brown, decides to “quit” his on-camera role as mentor. (As Jennifer Lawrence put it recently, echoing Brown’s sentiments: “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable.”)
Brown and Mann have some real personality conflicts, but she is the only one calling him out on his irrational expectations. The guy appears to have zero understanding of how limited resources are, judging by his refusal to make the sort of compromises all indie filmmakers have to swallow. Regardless, the rightness or wrongness of Effie Brown is what has been featured prominently and what’s garnered the most Monday morning quarterbacking.
The question never addressed on the show: Who is in charge? We, the idiot moviegoers, have bought into the mythology that the director is the boss. And yet, Brown is making certain decisions on “Project Greenlight.” So what’s the deal?
Jacqueline Ingram is a veteran Chicago-based line producer who worked on Kris Swanberg’s indie “Unexpected” (starring Cobie Smulders) and the upcoming film “Operator” from director Logan Kibens (starring Martin Starr and Mae Whitman).
“The line producer’s job,” she said, “is to make sure a film gets made on time and that it comes in on-budget.” So the line producer works for the director? “I wouldn’t say the line producer is below the director. I see them as equals because the line producer has a dual job; you have to answer to the director and support his or her creative vision, but you’re also responsible to the producer (and by extension, the money people) and making sure everything comes in on time and budget.
“So what happens is, the director makes a bunch of demands that the line producer has to somehow figure how to make happen within the confines of the schedule and the budget. You’re the one that has to say ‘no,’ so a lot of the time your job is to be the villain of the production.”
That’s true enough on “Project Greenlight.” Mann is fresh out of film school and should probably follow Brown’s guidance, but the hierarchy is confusing — and in Ingram’s experience, not typical. (Usually a director and producer decide together who to hire as the line producer; in this case, Brown was already on board and she and Mann were “assigned” to one another.)
By the way, in an interview this week, Brown told Indiewire’s Anne Thompson that she was unaware the docuseries would be edited to feature her so prominently and said she was only paid the Screen Actors Guild day rate for one day of shooting the weekslong TV series, along with her producer’s fee and two points on the back end of the movie. “It was a (bad) deal,” she told Thompson. “I only got paid to do the film.”