The first season of the Starz TV series The Chair came to an end almost a year ago, yet it seems to have generated very few ripples of lasting influence, if the blogosphere is any indication. Growing out of Project Greenlight (which, by the way, just started its fourth season), The Chair was the brainchild of producer Chris Moore, who broke with his partners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to create a different sort of reality-TV filmmaking show, and a different sort of contest. Unlike Project Greenlight, which painstakingly selected a script and director from vast talent pools and then challenged them to make a movie on a minuscule budget and schedule but still conform to the rigid union rules of a big studio (a formula almost guaranteed to produce stress, hardship, and compromised films), The Chair puts the emphasis on the film itself. Or, rather, the films, as the idea here was to select one script and two directors before the show even began, and have the two directors both produce finished versions of the same script. Audiences would then vote on which film was best, and the winner would get a $250 000 prize. The experiment was essentially designed to answer the question of how differently two directors could realize the same script. For those wondering exactly what a director does, this would be a great illustration.
Moore and his colleagues, who included actor Zachary Quinto, fitting the show in around his own busy shooting schedule, selected filmmakers Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci as their directors, and a script entitled How Soon Is Now, which had been in turnaround in Hollywood since 2010, for them to shoot. The story told in the script is indie-film 101: a popular high school-aged guy, now in his first year at College, comes home for Thanksgiving and over the course of the weekend falls for a girl, and learns about how much his life has changed. To call it unoriginal is something of an understatement. Full disclosure: the film I myself wrote and directed in film school was titled The Christmas Party and told basically the same story in 10 minutes (although, of course, not as well). Both Martemucci and Dawson were given a modest budget of $600 000 – $800 000 each for their film, 20 days to shoot and were obliged to use Pittsburgh as a location. In the dead of winter. But other than those stipulations, both directors were free to rewrite the script and were assured final cut and creative freedom.
[Since it has indeed been over a year since the show was wrapped and both films were released, and this article is largely about the final outcome, I advise any reader to stop here if they wish to be kept in suspense about who won the contest and what the films were like. In other words, “Spoiler alert”.]
Dawson and Martemucci were interesting choices as artists. If the idea was to hire artists who would generate two films as different from each other as possible from the same material, then mission accomplished. It would be difficult to imagine two directors with more differing sensibilities, with Martemucci a more conventional, but professional, indie film director with an eye for honesty and storytelling as well as how to get the most moody shots on no budget, and Dawson a completely over-the-top You Tube star with an extreme, cartoonish style in the vein of Sacha Baron Cohen or Australia’s Chris Lilley. Dawson has a large cult following in certain demographics who love his raunchy You Tube shorts, filled with gross-out humour and broad stereotypes, so he had something of a built-in audience. Martemucci is more of an unknown quantity, although she is a highly qualified and skilled writer, making her directorial debut.
Both directors made substantial changes to the script, and both fought for a co-writing credit, in vain. The WGA has extremely rigid and specific guidelines governing who gets writing credit in Hollywood, and this being a mainstream venture, re-writing the entire script got neither director a credit. (The actual writer worked with both directors, and even he admits in the show that Martemucci completely altered the original script beyond recognition. But still, no co-writing credit.) Dawson’s changes were more in the area of tone, adapting an earnest indie rom-com into his own brand of over the top madness, complete with projectile vomit and feces-eating homeless people. Both directors changed the title, with Martemucci’s final film titled Hollidaysburgh and Dawson’s titled Not Cool.
As the show proceeds through its ten episodes, we see the usual behind-the-scenes tension that’s always present in Project Greenlight and other such shows. No less than two one-hour episodes, and possibly a third, deal exclusively with the challenges of “making the day”, that is, shooting as many scenes and scene fragments as are on the schedule. Watching this familiar drama played out yet again, with Directors trying to do their job while Producers hover in the background, anxiously talking on cell phones, grumbling about “making the day”, one can’t help but contemplate how much of that represents wasted energy. I seriously doubt, in over a century of cinema history, a single audience member pointed to the screen and said, “Wow, they really made their day in that shot!” This is drama for the sake of drama, and a tool Producers use to remind Directors how little power they have, but it only matters to those stakeholders, in that situation. It’s easy fodder for reality TV, but it doesn’t mean much in the end. All of that anxiety and tension can’t help the quality of the film, but it helps maintain the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that Hollywood seems to require on every set. (Compare this to a filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman, who once famously said that he makes his films on a relaxed schedule in a creative environment with “the same fifteen friends” every time. But Hollywood, as usual, would have us believe that there’s only one way to make a movie, and it’s their way.)
The final products are often lost in the shuffle in a show like this, and in this case, neither film was ever going to make history. But the differences between Hollidaysburgh and Not Cool speak volumes about some important aspects of the film industry, and the public’s taste. In post-production, executive producer Zachary Quinto was appalled by the scatological and borderline-racist and homophobic humour of Not Cool and demanded that his name be taken off the finished product. (He must not be much of a South Park fan, which is no more and no less offensive.) The question humour, satire and good taste vs political correctness is at the forefront of today’s cultural conversation, and Quinto’s rejection based on being personally offended by Not Cool speaks to how the forces of political correctness rule the roost. (For the record, I long ago developed a philosophy about taste and humour, and it’s simply, “I’m not offended by anything that’s funny.” There’s plenty that offends me, don’t get me wrong, but anything that’s funny, truly funny, gets a pass as far as I’m concerned.) Hollidaysburgh, on the other hand, was accepted by pretty much everyone on the production side, but even before the premieres, there’s a sense that the film simply doesn’t excite anyone. It’s a technically well-made, competent “dramedy”, an easy slow pitch right down the middle of the Garden State strike zone, with lots of white people in cozy sweaters being introspective. While Not Cool aims for a specific slice of the marketplace, Hollidaysburgh is so neutered that it aims for all audience groups, and winds up satisfying none of them.
Small wonder, then, that when the two films were released, on the same day on opposite coasts, Hollidaysburgh takes in a paltry four-digit box office haul, a catastrophic failure by any standards, not even covering the cost of one day of shooting. But Not Cool doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, pulling in a five-digit take before completely disappearing from theatres on the west coast. Dawson’s film would go on to attract viewers amongst his undeniably vocal fanbase on You Tube, but as an attempt to broaden his appeal to a wider audience, it fails in spectacular fashion. Critics, on the other hand, give Hollidaysburgh the kind of reviews that indie films of its nature have come to expect: respectful, generous and, while not exactly glowing, certainly positive notices. Not Cool, the more successful of the two failures, on the other hand, is given some of the worst reviews ever written in the film industry. The New York Times wrote that no one involved in that film should ever be allowed to work in the film industry again. And that sentiment is typical.
Here is where it gets interesting: the comments sections on any review of Not Cool tells the story. Have a look, and you’ll see the angry, shrill vox populi screaming disdain for film critics and film criticism, calling them “old” and “out of touch” and “stupid”, and all manner of horrible things. How dare a critic dislike something they love so much! And on the critics’ side, there’s a sense that they are appalled that the film exists, full-stop. Anger and outrage on both sides, but at least it’s some sort of energy, which more than anyone can say about the release of Hollidaysburgh.
The Chair gave its creators, and the general public, a good lesson in how the modern film industry works. Earnest, modest indie films will never have a broad appeal, and raunchy, race-to-the-bottom comedies have a built-in and vocal audience. Neither film was going to advance the art of cinema, and neither was particularly masterfully made. But there’s no denying that they’re different, and in so much as the point was to demonstrate how two different directors can produce two very different films from the same material, The Chair was probably the only successful thing to emerge from the whole project. There’s no talk that I can find about the second season of The Chair, but perhaps its point has been made. Directors shape films, and this is how they shape them. If only the resources were available to pick an interesting script that tries to do something new, and then give the filmmakers the time to develop their ideas in an artistically satisfying way, rather than rush into a frantic production schedule, some interesting films could emerge from future seasons. Because if it’s the “final product that matters” (those words are spoken more than once, by more than one person throughout The Chair), then new production methods are needed before a show of this nature is going to be anything other than a curiosity.