It’s been a decade since season three of Project Greenlight and viewers could be forgiven for giving up the series for dead. As we’ve written here, the series and the concept seems to come from another place and another time in film history, when the final target was creating a Hollywood film that would play in mainstream theatres. In 2005, that was getting to be an outdated concept, and in 2015 it’s downright quaint. With so many options for distribution and production available to filmmakers, and digital production bringing down costs significantly, the old carrot (“You can get your movie into theatres!”) simply doesn’t match up with the old stick (“But don’t go a cent over budget with your large union crew or you’ll be fired!”). In today’s world, films can be made on an iPad and instantly shown just about anywhere.
But those who wrote off the show as a relic of a bygone era (present company included) spoke too soon. Project Greenlight is back for the new era, and rather than repeating the mistakes, and the triumphs of the past (such as they are), creators Matt Damon and Ben Affleck loosen the reigns on this season of the show, and take bigger chances than ever before. No longer simply an “internet contest” that gives a struggling filmmaker “the chance to have your movie play in theatres”, season four of Project Greenlight is billed as no less than a candid exploration of the process of filmmaking itself, albeit Hollywood filmmaking. In previous seasons, the Glimmer Twins of 90s indie film explored giving amateur screenwriters and directors the chance to realize their personal visions within the Hollywood system (seasons one and two) and made a clumsy stab at the horror and exploitation market (season three). In this season, the script contest is moot: as in most Hollywood productions, the winner of the contest will be obliged to produce a ready-made script, in this case a broad Farrelly Brothers comedy with supposed commercial potential in the streaming market. But the search for a director follows the pattern established in seasons two and three: candidates are given a short script and asked to produce it, and the final selection is based on a review of that film, the candidates’ other work and a personal interview. But right from the first episode (there have been only two so far), Damon, Affleck and their new team of collaborators take big chances with the format and hit notes this series hasn’t touched before.
The first episode opens with Damon and Affleck, back together again on screen after a prolonged absence. The friendship between the two is palpable – they have been working together for 20 years at this point. Those who might worry about Affleck’s status as the director of an Oscar-winning Hollywood film, and Damon’s status as a bone fide movie star affecting their relationship need not fear. Other than a touch of grey and a ton of new muscles (Affleck has definitely bulked up for a Zack Snyder film), the two are as we remember them. A classic Affleck quote about shooting on film reminds us that once upon a time he was the star of Chasing Amy: “Citizen Kane was shot on film. All the President’s Men was shot on film. Porky’s was shot on film. Need I say more?”
But as before, Affleck and Damon must also deal with collaborators, producers and studio bosses with different and sometimes conflicting agendas. This time, HBO will show the final film and is funding it (with a $3 million budget – ironically what the first movie wound up costing way back in 2000), so they have a big say in how things proceed. Another strong voice is producer Effie Brown, a smart, capable and experienced producer of films such as the indie gem Real Women Have Curves. Brown brings up important issues that neither Damon, Affleck, nor the audience would like to contemplate, but kudos to her for making sure that diverse filmmaking voices aren’t lost in the Hollywood din.
The controversy over a brief moment in the first episode of this season has brought the series a great deal of mainstream media attention over the past few weeks, and that argument has brought some issues that Hollywood (and America in general) would rather not think about to the forefront. The essential facts are these: the script chosen, Not Another Pretty Woman, has some racially sensitive and potentially offensive aspects in it. Brown expresses a concern that female and ethnic minority characters not be handed over to yet another white male to give them voice. One of the directorial candidates, a team consisting of a woman and Vietnamese-American man, is promoted during the process by Brown as an example of a different approach: having a directorial team that understands what it is to be marginalized. The script does appear to need something different in its execution, full-stop. No one associated with the project seems to particularly like it. Damon fires back at the assertion, accusing Brown of promoting tokenism. The spat blew up in the media and Damon was forced to issue an apology, which raised more issues than it settled. For the record: Damon and Brown do operate in an atmosphere of mutual respect for the two episodes released so far, and by the second episode the whole point is rendered somewhat moot anyway, by one of the most daring choices the show has ever made.
Brown’s point, that other voices give different and interesting perspectives to cinema (or any other art), is hard to dispute. All charges of tokenism aside, it’s downright interesting to see films in the creative hands of people with a different worldview. Think of the recent Australian horror film The Babadook, directed by a woman and finding a fresh and wonderful perspective on the genre. And if that original script did indeed feature a problematic black female character, it would make the final product more interesting to have it in the hands of someone other than a white American male. It’s not the only consideration, of course, in selecting a director, but Brown is entirely correct to say that this issue should be in the mix, and on the table. It’s only the sensible, logical and frankly creative choice. The controversy around the issue seems to focus on Damon’s admittedly ham-fisted attempt to wade into the issue and shut down any talk of race or gender in the selection process. It wasn’t the wisest choice, and Damon would do well to learn something from the experience, but that doesn’t exactly make the actor Donald Trump. One would hope that, in time, he will concede that Brown raised a valid point.
In any case, the director they choose is a white male, Jason Mann. A New York-based writer and cinematographer, Mann is experienced in the world of indie film with a strong track record of short films. Right from the start, he’s a daring choice: for one thing, he sits down for the final interview and tells all assembled that he doesn’t like the script. This offends Peter Farrelly greatly, used to dealing with desperate supplicants tickled pink by the chance to work in Hollywood. Mann, on the other hand, waltzes in as if he has nothing to lose and everything to gain (which is arguably true), and expresses grave doubts about the script itself. He also pushes hard for his film to be shot on film, rather than digital, an “expensive luxury,” as Brown puts it, in today’s world. Mann’s ultra-picky artistic sensibility gets on the nerves of Brown and other producing partners for a while, until something unprecedented happens in episode two.
After dismissing the digital video demonstration Brown arranges for him, and working on the Not a Pretty Woman script with, of all people, Project Greenlight season one winner Pete Jones (15 years older and 20 pounds lighter, but otherwise the same good-natured guy we remember), Mann takes a bold proposal to Brown and the producers. He shows them a short film of his titled The Leisure Class, which resembles British comedies like The Ruling Class and Wes Anderson films, tells them he has a draft of a full-length script for the same concept and proposes that they toss out the Hollywood script previously developed and just make his movie instead. While the reaction is initially, and understandably, one of horror and revulsion on the part of the Hollywood insiders, once they see Mann’s film and read his script, they concede that it would make a better movie. Most shockingly of all: Mann actually wins the day, and for the rest of the series, the crew will produce Mann’s full-length take on The Leisure Class. That decision, besides being momentous for the series, is significant because it defuses much of the controversy from episode one. All of Brown’s concerns about race and gender representation essentially disappear with the old, problematic script. And having chosen yet another white male as director, she concedes that having him make his own script will make for a better, or more singular film. It doesn’t make any of her points less valid – she’s still correct that different perspectives make for interesting films – but it does take that issue out of the equation for the remainder of this season of Project Greenlight.
In only two episodes, we can see that Greenlight is ready to toss out formula, embrace controversy head-on, highlight a smart, fascinating young director and a no less smart, fascinating young producer and potentially produce a good film, which would arguably be a first for the series. Far from being tired and stale, Affleck and Damon remind us that once upon a time they made movies like Good Will Hunting, and grey hair and reading glasses aside (it’s jarring to see Damon with reading glasses, we must admit), they still have some of that 90s spirit, brought forward into the digital age. Episode three will be eagerly awaited.