Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Red light, (Project) Greenlight

Producer Effie Brown, writer-director Jason Mann, and actor Bruce Davison on the set of The Leisure Class.

We have seen it all now – or at least, everything they are going to show us. Season 4 of HBO’s Project Greenlight ended Sunday, and the film it produced, The Leisure Class, debuted last night. If you are unfamiliar with the Matt Damon- and Ben Affleck-produced documentary series, it follows the journey of an untested director as he, always a “he” so far, attempts to make a film. This year’s “lucky” winner was Jason Mann, and for eight episodes this season, we watch as he navigates the world of Hollywood moviemaking.

Both as a film fan and an aspiring filmmaker, I find this show fascinating. It is a treat to step behind the curtain and really see the process of creating a movie. I think most of us are long past the stage where we imagine films or any other creative endeavor springing forth fully formed from the minds of brilliant artists. Like all other things in life, it is hard work, and it is likely we would all benefit from learning the hard work behind most people’s jobs. Honestly, for the impact they have on my life, I know next to nothing about the day-to-day lives of my grocer or postman.

Mann directs The Leisure Class for Project Greenlight.
This is about movies, though, and this season of Project Greenlight was an illuminating look at the gritty details of what makes movie magic work – or not work. In addition to Mann, the series stars producers Effie Brown and Marc Joubert, as well as co-writer and season 1 winner Pete Jones. Affleck, Damon, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, and HBO President Len Amato show up from time to time, but it is really about those four people.

The show has been in the news a bit during its run, primarily early on for some comments Damon made to Brown about diversity. Now that the show has ended, Brown has been the participant whose profile has risen the most, as opposed to the ostensible star of the show and director of the movie Mann. That heightened profile is hard won as Brown tries like hell to keep the whole enterprise from flying off the rails. Hers is a valiant effort, thwarted at almost every turn by Mann.

There is much agreement that money has been damaging to the art world and the film business in particular. No one is here to argue that point. The last thing we need is another superhero movie or big-budget shoot-’em-up or lowest-common-denominator comedy. When a genuinely talented writer, director, or producer shepherds something truly visionary to the screen, it is to be applauded.

After watching him on eight episodes of television and a feature film, it is apparent Mann is not one of those people. Throughout the series, Mann steadfastly refuses to put himself in a position to make a good film, and The Leisure Class turns out to be a bad, bad movie. He and Brown butt heads constantly over budget, shooting, and story issues, and the interesting thing is Mann almost always wins these battles.

He wants to shoot on film instead of digital. Brown tells him it will be too expensive, so he goes over her head and gets his way. He refuses to choose a location that does not match what he has in his head. He finally settles for a house he was shown early on but chooses so close to shooting it creates further problems. He claims he cannot shoot the script he is given, so he convinces HBO to let him make his own script. Time after time after time, he gets his way, and ultimately, this is the best thing that could have happened.

If he had relented in any of his battles or agreed to compromise his vision in some way, he could have claimed the end result was not his fault. As it is, he got everything he wanted and made a terrible movie. There is no one to blame but Mann. Though some viewers will disagree with this assessment, Brown did all she could to help Mann and prevent him from hurting himself, but at the end of the day, he could not collaborate. He was determined to live or die on his own. Creatively and artistically, he dies.

Ed Weeks and Tom Bell star in The Leisure Class.
At 86 minutes, The Leisure Class is either way too long or way too short. Perhaps its distressing lack of character development could have been addressed by giving the scenes room to breathe or providing some semblance of backstory. However, since the plot is utter nonsense to begin with, this film, adapted from a short Mann worked on, probably should have stayed a short. A group of talented, game actors, including Tom Bell, Ed Weeks, Bruce Davison, and Bridget Regan, is stranded by an underdeveloped script and amateur direction.

Cinema fans like you and I, we want to root for art and artists. It is our natural inclination to cheer on Mann as he fights the good fight against corporate giants (HBO) and their moneymen (Brown and Joubert). It can be painful, then, to realize: Sometimes the giants and their moneymen are right. No one gets into the film business because they want to make bad movies, though Mann seems suspect of any non-artist. These are people with experience, talent, and knowledge, particularly Brown and Joubert, and Mann willfully ignores them to put out the worst possible product. It would be wrong to cheer on such hubris.

The final episode contains two quotes that sum up what went wrong with The Leisure Class. As Mann is being given final edit notes by Amato, he says in a talking-head interview: “I would love it if I could make movies in the future where I don’t have to debate the logic of my opinion on how something should be. Ultimately, it should be kind of a personal art form.” This is perfectly in keeping with the Mann we have seen through Project Greenlight.

Amato, without meaning to, provides the rejoinder to Mann’s sentiment, saying in his own interview: “Jason’s not as open as he should be to different input from different people. If you try to do everything yourself and you’re not getting the input of all the other artists and craftspeople around you, you’re not really making as good of a film as you can make. That’s the lesson he hasn’t been able to learn yet.”

Ours is a culture that lionizes lone wolves and mavericks. We abhor group think and committee decision-making. This is what makes someone like Steve Jobs so popular. In reality, the genius of individuals is at best a myth. In filmmaking, especially, collaboration is essential. Through the failure of The Leisure Class and the success of Project Greenlight, this lesson is spelled out, for Mann’s benefit, in both celluloid and digital.

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