“Movies are all about power,” Chris Moore said way back in Project Greenlight season one. That was fifteen years ago, when the issue of shooting on film vs digital wasn’t even on the table, and moving a production from LA to another location (in the case of that first season, Chicago) for creative reasons was seriously considered. Some things have clearly changed in this, the show’s third season, and ironically those two issues, and the meta-issue of power, is at the heart of it.
Moore, quoted above, is not incidentally a producer. If you ask the average person what the producer of a film actually does, most would probably draw a blank, or mumble something vaguely about money. Since the earliest days of the studio system, films have had one director, but several layers of producers: Assistant, Associate, Supervising, Executive… and on and on. (David Mamet’s State and Main sums up the glut of producer titles with the zinger, “What’s an associate producer credit? It’s what you give your secretary instead of a raise.”) Ostensibly a producer is there to watch the money, protect the company’s investment and ensure that work on the film, before, during and after shooting, proceeds in a timely manner. Even directors who also produce tend to have at least one other producing partner, if only just to have one person who is thinking about budget and schedule 24/7. But, as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s sometime-director Kevin Smith has said, “No one goes to film school to become a producer”. The tension caused by taking a creative personality and placing them in a managerial role is at the heart of this week’s episode of Project Greenlight.
The “producer” of the film being made (titled The Leisure Class) is Effie Brown, who has already been a very strong voice in the first two episodes of the behind-the-scenes TV show. A confessed “military brat”, Brown likes to operate in an environment of strict ranks, established hierarchy and deference to authority. She’s an extremely tough-minded, stubborn and commanding person, though she wraps those tendencies in a veneer of “group workshop” phrases and gestures such as prefacing her statements by saying, “With love in my heart,” and “I want to hear everyone,” before saying exactly what’s going to happen and basically shutting down discussion. There isn’t anything unusual about that style, by the way: most successful Hollywood producers are exactly that personality. Corralling all that sometimes-flaky artistic talent as well as balancing larger corporate imperatives and dealing with sometimes-difficult unions probably requires a core of steel. But producers like that function best when everyone around them gets “on board” with the structure, and the style.
If Brown is an unstoppable force, she has to reckon with an immovable object in the form of writer/director Jason Mann. As opinionated and stubborn as ever, Mann still seems to take the attitude that the producers should be grateful they have the chance to work with him, rather than the other way around. Mann simply doesn’t act like someone who won a contest. He acts as if he has been hired to do a job, and is doing it the only way he knows how. His style, from how he dresses to what he eats, is almost unbearably picky. In this episode, he’s shown several amazing-looking homes to consider for the starring role of the main set in his manor-house comedy, and rejects them all. One could argue that Kubrick was finicky as well (that’s something of an understatement), but Mann isn’t Stanley Kubrick. Nor is he Michael Cimino on Heaven’s Gate, with an Oscar in his pocket and a critically-acclaimed film behind him. Still, he acts as if he is entitled to that amount of power and control.
Things come to a head over the issue of shooting on film, rather than digital. Only the pickiest of purists at this point can honestly argue that the film “look” is impossible to replicate in the age of 4K high definition video. There is, of course, still much to be said for those who shoot on actual film, but it’s a luxury, and it’s a difficult and expensive one. Mann refuses to give an inch on the issue, however, and after being told several times by Brown that the decision has been made and they’re shooting on digital, he continues to raise the point with other producers higher up the food chain, namely executive producer Peter Farrelly. Farrelly is credited as a “producer and mentor”, and he is excited to be a part of helping a young filmmaker get his start. Other executive producers Affleck and Damon are also supportive of his shooting on film, for creative reasons. It falls to Brown, and she is supported by the executives at HBO (one can see how this is already a crowded producer’s room), to insist that for reasons of budget, this isn’t an option. In the previous episode, when Mann meekly (for him) wondered out loud, “Surely we can find some money in the budget for this?”, he was cut down instantly by Brown, sensing a challenge to her competence. She’s extremely sensitive to anyone questioning any of her decisions. Mann, in that situation, backed down. And took the issue to Farrelly.
In this episode, we finally see Brown take off the gloves, drop the focus-group corporate-workshop speak and almost reach her tipping point. Farrelly calls her and suggests showing Mann some digital vs film comparisons to help him get on board with the idea of shooting digital. On a rational level, Brown should welcome his help: they’re both trying to convince this nit-picky young perfectionist that he can make this one compromise. But Brown doesn’t respond rationally. Instead, she views the whole episode as an end-run around her personal authority and lashes out at the completely unsuspecting Farrelly. Brown’s producing partner Marc Joubert has to act as her fire extinguisher, but it’s too late: Farrelly is so shocked at being slapped in the face for trying to help that he backs away from the project. This is not an insignificant change: having his name attached to the film, for one thing, is an incredibly valuable marketing perk. The situation is left unresolved, but the whole event raises more issues than it solves.
Like many people from a military environment (at least one of Brown’s parents was in the service, and one can’t help but see the influence of that parenting style), Brown is all smiles and cooperative as long as people “stay in their lane”, as she puts it. Working as a team, in that sort of structure, is essential and valued and even celebrated. Collaboration is, in a sense, what the military is all about. But it’s collaboration under very specific guidelines. Hollywood, to say the least, is not the military. People have conversations and take decisions without following any sort of written procedure. A certain amount of ebb and flow is allowed during production. And it’s the director, if anyone, who is traditionally the absolute authority on a film. (Orson Welles described the job as “The last real dictatorship left.”) Mann is acting like a director, albeit in a quieter way than Welles. He isn’t a shouter, but take one look at his lean face and one sees a person of intense will. Brown is the producer, not the director, and while she may say that it’s her job to manage the resources for Mann, she doesn’t really seem to believe that. If anything she seems to view him as a “difficult employee” of a business she’s running, and she isn’t going to let this underling, or the daffy old founder in the corporate head office (in the person of Farrelly) tell her anything about what will or will not happen on her turf.
Because movies, particularly Hollywood movies, are indeed all about power, when the other shoe drops on this incident in the next episode, we can expect there to be (metaphorical) explosions and, almost certainly, casualties.