The Leisure Class officially moves into production on this week’s episode of Project Greenlight, and writer/director Jason Mann continues to act as an uncompromising and determined filmmaker, even as the realities of time and budget close in around him. Making compromises is what allows films to get made, in the Hollywood system. Very few films ever make it to the screen precisely as the director intended, especially when millions of dollars are at stake. And oft-made point about the American film industry that defines the way it developed as a medium on every level, including technical and artistic, is simply that it’s expensive. If it weren’t, the history of film in the 20th century would have been very different. But the fact that it does cost quite a bit to produce one of these products, and more still to ensure their exhibition, colours everything about Hollywood movies. They can be quirky, but not too quirky. They can employ great actors and technical staff, but only for a short schedule. Where a great director with absolute freedom could shoot a scene 100 times and pick the best moments (Kubrick did this, for example), most Hollywood directors need to operate more like TV directors: just get the lines and the marks and move on. Jason Mann, from his insistence on shooting his film in a certain house, and on film, rather than the standard HD video, has so far won just about every battle. He might not see it this way – in fact, his comments from last week’s episode indicate that, from his perspective, he has made many compromises – but the reality is that he’s gotten his way on just about everything. That might be changing.
It falls to producer Effie Brown to be the perennial bearer of bad news, a role that she admits freely that she doesn’t relish. She’s constantly having to tell Mann and other creative elements on the film that one thing or another isn’t possible. The major battle this week (there are no less annoying minor ones) is over exactly when the film is going to be shot. The story of the The Leisure Class takes place over the course of a single night, in a single location. One would think that this is an ideal scenario for an indie film producer, as, from the outside, it seems like a simple proposition to find one location and shoot entirely at night. But pesky municipal bylaws are in the way. The house selected for the film is in a neighbourhood with other homes in Beverly Hills, and in order to carry on potentially noisy activity all night, the production has to get written permission from the owners of all the surrounding homes. The production manager works tirelessly to get those permissions, but in the end, she simply can’t either contact or secure permission from several of the neighbours. Which means, to be brutally honest, the film can’t take place at night.
Mann, asserting his authority over the crew, collaborating well with the cast and, despite taking some liberties with shooting that he can’t afford (such as doing too many takes or being overly specific about dialogue), proves himself a capable director in his first week on the job. He appears to be holding up his end of the proverbial bargain, insulated from many of the burgeoning production issues. (A tiff between the camera crew and the first assistant director is particularly uncomfortable to watch.) One great advantage he has, creatively, is a wonderful cast and, from what we’re shown, a good script with some moments of inspired weirdness such as having veteran character actor Bruce Davison take a break from playing Senators and authority figures and become completely unhinged. But Mann remains prickly and difficult, from the producer’s perspective.
There are ways to deal with bad news, and ways to not deal with bad news. Jason Mann only seems to know the latter. In the final scene this week, when he’s told he’s not going to be able to shoot at night, he reacts not like a responsible struggling first-time director, (which would be to say, “Great – now how am I going to adapt to this?”) and instead narrows his birdlike face and stares into space with grim determination. It’s an open and interesting question: exactly what does he think he’s going to be able to do about the lack of night-shooting permits? Go door-to-door himself? Somehow magically turn day into night a la Mr Burns? Or does he think that calling Ben Affleck will solve the problem? (As if Ben and Matt could, by their star power, somehow change Los Angeles bylaws or the laws of astronomy.) The smart thing to do just here is to creatively adapt: re-write the script where it needs it and come up with some brilliant improvised solution. That’s what Welles would do, or any of the truly great directors. Instead, it seems as if he will childishly dig in his heels and defy common sense. Every week of this Project Greenlight season, it’s been the battle of Jason Mann vs Reality. It appears that, in the coming weeks, reality will get its say.