“There’s an art to compromise,” says Pete Jones in the latest episode of Pete Jones States the Bloody Obvious, aka Project Greenlight. This week’s episode is all about how the filmmakers and producers populating that hyper-tense and slightly insane emotional minefield that seems to exist around every Hollywood movie manage to find a way to compromise, or at least deal with the compromises of others.
Last week we saw the departure of the Farrelly Brothers from the film being produced (titled The Leisure Class) and this week even more upheaval is in the cards. After a senior producer with “name value” walks away from a film due to personality conflicts and a bad working environment, surely at least some of the team figured things would get better. Instead, if anything, the situation gets worse and the personality problems that led to this situation (essentially young professionals overcompensating and being needlessly rigid) become even more pronounced and entrenched. The war of attrition between producer Effie Brown and writer/director Jason Mann definitely steps up, with Brown ultimately throwing up her hands and calling the whole film a trainwreck, but a trainwreck that she’ll “present to him tied up with a little bow.” She clearly disagrees 100% with just about all of Mann’s management decisions and it definitely feels as if any chance of a healthy working environment is out the window. Mann, for his part, is no less guilty of tidily making his own bed, and preparing to lie in it. Having successfully campaigned for his own script to be adopted, this week he gets the cast he wants, the location he wants and wins another important battle. But these “wins” are coming at a steep price to him, personally and professionally. A director needs friends, and he is losing them fast, including his closest friend on the production, season one winner Pete Jones.
Fifteen years ago, when Jones was the first Greenlight winner, he fought similar battles to the ones being fought by Mann. He had a script (Stolen Summer) that needed to be set in 1976, and in Chicago. During pre-production, moving the location of the film to LA and setting it in 2000 was most definitely “on the table”, since it would much cheaper to produce that kind of film. But Jones fought hard for both of those expensive concessions, and thanks to the behind-the-scenes help of Ben Affleck, who phoned Harvey Weinstein personally, the money was made available. Here in season four, Mann is fighting to shoot on film rather than digital (ironically, there was no debate at all back in 2000: Stolen Summer was shot on film), in the right sort of manor house rarely seen in LA and for just about every other aspect of his film, up to and including writing the script himself. So far, as Brown points out during this episode, he’s won each and every battle. In Mann’s mind, he’s constantly making compromises and concessions. But from Brown’s perspective, he’s made no concessions at all, and has in fact gotten his way every time, the same way Jones did, by playing the Affleck/Damon trump card. One big difference between the situation in season four as opposed to season one is that back in season one, the producer was Chris Moore, a close personal friend of Affleck and Damon, who worked closely with Jones (often putting his foot up the young director’s ass, always with love), whereas in season four, Effie Brown is most assuredly not the industry equal of Affleck and Damon, and thus can be outmaneuvered and out-ranked at any given time. For a Hollywood producer, used to sitting on top of their own little mountain, that situation is almost unbearable.
It would be very wrong to characterize this season as “mean old Effie stomping on Jason’s dreams,” though. Brown is simply realistic about how much time and money it takes to produce a Hollywood film, and knows exactly how tight the budget and schedule is. She’s thinking of this film, and how to make it as good as it can be, within the restrictions of the industry. Mann, on the other hand, seems to be more preoccupied thinking about the next ten films he’s going to make, and how this one will stack up against them, retrospectively. He’s already acting as if he’s an auteur with a long history. In fact, he seems less interested in The Leisure Class as a film and much more interested in Jason Mann, the director. We can almost see him already re-framing this whole experience as “his Alien 3”, meaning “the compromised film with too much producer interference that has flashes of his later style, but ultimately doesn’t fit nicely with the rest of his prestigious oeuvre.” While Hollywood energy swirls around him, he stands still and fusses with the colour of his leading lady’s earrings. He can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. Case and point: when HBO finally offers him the opportunity to shoot on film, they also make him a counter-proposal in which he could shoot on digital but get three extra production days. For a producer, whose primary goal is to “make the day” and keep the studio happy, that decision is a no-brainer: cut the artsy crap and take your extra days. But for a true artist, a real director from the indie world, aesthetics trumps everything. He chooses film, and in the process essentially loses Brown as an ally (and probably much of the rest of the production team), forever. That one choice, of a nitpicky, minor and probably imperceptible tiny difference in the visual patina of the movie vs having more time and more chances to create better performances and better shots, defines his artistic character. He really isn’t that interested in making the movie good. He seems to be mainly interested in making it look good, and making himself seem like the noble auteur, fighting bean-counting corporate Hollywood autocrats for his “vision”. There is an art to compromise, and whatever talents Mann has as an artist, that particular art form seems beyond his comprehension. It’s quite a handicap in his industry of choice.
Compare this to Jones, who in the fifteen years between his winning season and the current one, has learned to butter up the right people, be polite and play the game. For him, the strategy is working: he has a career in Hollywood. He isn’t a star by any stretch of the imagination, nor is producing “Great Films”, but as Kevin Smith often says: everyone working in the film industry, regardless of how many trophies are on their shelf, has won the biggest award. They get to make movies for a living, instead of (in Jones’ case) selling insurance or some other day-to-day job. Jones, the good Catholic family man, is absolutely satisfied with that, as are most people. Mann, the sharp, driven, uber-artist, will never be. For him, anything short of being a “Great Filmmaker” represents failure. As tempting as it is to write off their differences as generational (the industry has changed a lot in fifteen years), it seems more like a difference of goals and priorities. Mann is aiming for a very small target.
Now having alienated those who should be his closest collaborators behind the camera, Mann has to work with a diverse group people on both sides of the lens as The Leisure Class goes into production in the next episode. Lucky for him, he’s assembled what looks like a great cast, and actors who understand his sensibility and can conceivably deliver very entertaining scenes. The question is, with all his handicaps and a shrinking list of production allies, Mann can string those scenes together into a film that reaches a certain level of production competence in a tiny amount of time.