Project Greenlight closes one chapter of the making of The Leisure Class literally with a crash in episode 7. It’s the last day of production, and director Jason Mann has essentially alienated all his key crew members, including his First Assistant Director, who limp rather than sprint to the finish line. Producer Effie Brown is just happy that the nightmare is coming to an end. Ben Affleck drops by to give Mann support, illustrating that the only true friends Mann has left seem to be those who don’t have to work directly with him. There’s a sense, in the final scene of tonight’s episode, when Mann sits down to watch the first complete cut of his film, that his whole “I’m a struggling auteur” act is growing increasingly desperate and sad. Given the number of headaches, fights and broken relationship the film has produced, one can almost hear Peter Cushing growl, “This had better work…”
The final night’s shooting is concerned with the big car crash that is supposed to represent a key emotional turning point in the film, and in the previous episode we saw how much Mann was willing to fight for his singular conception of the sequence. This episode picks up where we left off, with Mann rejecting all of the proposed crash locations out of hand, just as he rejected additional shooting days in favour of film, just as he rejected all of the locations initially, and just as he has rejected the help offered to him all along by industry professionals throughout his journey as a first-time director. It’s important to note that fighting for a vision, and being contrary, is something all directors have to do, in the Hollywood system. HBO President Len Amato notes that he would worry if a director didn’t get a bit difficult at times. Affleck agrees, saying, “His job is to have strong opinions.” But surely there’s a limit.
Film is a collaborative process, and is always made under certain constraints. Sometimes directors have to accept what they can and cannot have. Mann isn’t making Citizen Kane, here – The Leisure Class is just a low-budget HBO comedy, in the end. If it weren’t connected to Project Greenlight, it’s fair to say that many wouldn’t pay any attention to the film at all. But perspective gets very narrow on film sets. Getting just the right car crash at just the right location becomes far more important than anyone outside of the situation would make it. That’s part of filmmaking, too, or any difficult, intense project. (Years ago, my whole life revolved around getting a certain gene to switch on and make a reading in a luminometer – I would have killed to have the display read “1.2” rather than “0.12”, so I understand how life sometimes narrows into absurd specificity.) The lesson for Mann is that he’ll get 80% of what he wants, and that’s more than most people ever achieve. Alas, there’s little evidence he will be satisfied with that figure.
Structurally, the actual documentary Project Greenlight has been quite skillful in the way it’s manipulated our sympathies as an audience. At first, the show was all about Damon, Affleck and Effie Brown. Then it was Brown vs Mann, with Mann the struggling director earning our support while Brown alienated producers like the Farrelly Brothers. But for the past few episodes, it’s become clear that the real problem (or asset) with Greenlight this season is Mann himself. From a reality-TV dramatic standpoint, it’s great to have a villain. One needs only to think of Richard Hatch: the first big reality-TV star. Pete Jones certainly wasn’t the villain of season one (that distinction went to Line Producer Pat Peach), but season two’s directing team of Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle played that role with apparent relish. Season three once again focused on an auteur, John Gulager, being difficult and stubborn and emotionally cut off. The dynamic here in season four, however, is more electric, tense and alive than in the previous seasons. Part of that has to do with the relatively short (25 minute) running time in each episode. But Jason Mann himself seems to make his own reality-TV gravy. The basic lesson he hasn’t learned is that he has to make this movie right now, with the limitations as they stand, not think about the ten other movies he’ll make in the years to come. Ego and Hubris are nothing new to Hollywood, and perhaps part of the reason why the production team finds Mann so difficult is that he wears those traits on his sleeve. It’s an uncomfortable but valid reminder of what it takes to make a career in that industry.
Meanwhile, Effie Brown chain smokes her way through the end of production, probably sorry for getting herself into this in the first place. Little micro-aggresions or offences that may have gotten her gander up in previous episodes are allowed to pass now, since they’ve become so commonplace. Now she just wants to get a film, any releasable film, in the can. Her hand-picked crew still has a great deal of loyalty to her, and her to them, although she seems to have fallen out with her co-producer Marc Joubert. (Joubert, for his part, looks like the whole thing has aged him ten years.) Brown long ago declared the whole scenario a train wreck and retreated into simply performing her professional function. Whereas she may have made attempts to be nice to Mann at an earlier stage, here she actually doesn’t want to hear his opinions at all. When picking a location for the car crash, for example, she just picks one and declares it picked. When the crash doesn’t go the way Mann hoped, she and her crew simply call cut and move on, with Mann pathetically trying to ask favours and shoot another take. One has to wonder if, in that moment, Mann realizes that alienating these people for a month wasn’t the smartest strategy, given how much he needs their help now. But it’s too late. No one on the crew seems to want anything to do with him anymore. It’s a bit of a moot point. As Brown points out during the final night shoot, when the sun comes up, it’s a wrap.
Previous seasons of Greenlight have spun a great deal of creative dramatic tension out of the post-production process on their various films. Season two, in particular, highlighted the acute conflicts over The Battle of Shaker Heights as the directors struggled, in editing, to create a coherent tone. Mann’s footage, so far, seems to be quite good despite all of the behind-the-scenes tension, but one suspects that his micro-managing and ultra-picky instincts will be brought to bear on the film in this stage as well. Luckily his editor seems to be an agreeable professional, satisfied to give his director what he asks for and let the chips fall where they may. With considerably less money at stake, day-to-day, editing can be the most rewarding creative process in a Hollywood film. Or, it can be an absolute nightmare over creative control (just ask Orson Welles). If the previous seven episodes are any indication, we know which alternative Mann will choose.