For a season that crackled with energy and drama, the finale of season four of Project Greenlight ends on a note of resigned exhaustion. All the participants in this project, from executive producers on down to contest winner Jason Mann, are consistent in their reactions to the challenge of editing and post-production. Producers do amazing work and get no respect for it. Mann obsesses over irrelevant and trivial little technical details while ignoring huge basic dramatic flaws in his film. No one, in the end, seems to like the movie very much, once you peel back the obligatory Hollywood glad-handing and fake-hugging. (The title of the episode is “Hug and Release”.) What we’re left with in the end is a film with deep flaws and a problematic target audience, a director who’s managed to burn every single bridge and alienate people who should be his closest allies, and a producing team with personal relationships in tatters. When Mann and his editor hug at the end, saying, “We did it!”, it’s more than a bit like the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “There was much rejoicing. Yay.”
In most behind-the-scenes documentaries about filmmaking, the villains are the producers, particularly the studio executives, who make it their business to deny the creative “genius” directors the resources to realize their vision. But here, it has to be said that, at least based on what we’re shown in the TV series, that equation is turned on its ear. Jason Mann is the single biggest problem in this whole situation. His sense of entitlement, his towering ego, his utter lack of ability to make any sort of compromise for his audience and the sense that he’s not even making this film for any audience other than himself and the other self-appointed film gurus who will, he thinks, one day write long, thoughtful articles about his great body of work: these are not the qualities of a truly great filmmaker. HBO President Len Amato, the sort of character who in most films would be the big bad guy, cutting costs and forcing directors into compromises, actually comes across as a committed artistic producer, determined to use his power to salvage some sort of marketable product out of this torturous process, right down to spending time in the editing room, dictating cuts on a line-by-line basis. Certainly Harvey Weinstein had that sort of involvement in some of his company’s films, but it’s still very rare for someone with that amount of business responsibility to spend days in the trenches with the creators of a relatively small film project. He certainly comes across as a non-nonsense, clear-minded and very capable film producer. If he had been the producer of the film, rather than the executive producer, perhaps things would have been different. (Perhaps, for example, Mann would have been fired early on in the process.) But the fact that Amato’s involvement grows as the production gets closer to picture lock is an indication of a film in serious trouble.
The real question is if anyone actually thinks this film is any good, and whether it will reach any sort of audience. Pete Jones is the most effusive in his praise, which suits his generally warm, supportive personality. Both Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are more guarded: neither of them care for the film personally, but recognize that there are good moments in it. Peter Farrelly, returning for the final stages of editing after walking out early on due to a clash with producer Effie Brown, is supportive as well, although, one senses, more supportive of Mann as an artist than The Leisure Class as a film. When the film screens tonight on HBO, most viewers will be tuning in out of curiosity rather than enthusiasm.
Producer Effie Brown finally reaches her personal limit in the season finale, walking entirely away from Mann and the film, a move that will come as little surprise to any of us who have been watching the show since the beginning. What makes her action fascinating is noting that it’s twists like this that differentiate a reality-TV show from a scripted show. Consider, if this were written as fiction, and particularly for Hollywood tastes, Brown would have been obliged to return at the end for one last group hug, finally seeing eye-to-eye with Mann and completing a film of which both can be proud. The actual ending, in which Mann is not redeemed and Brown does not forgive or forget, is straight out of real life. However much reality-TV and documentary TV is criticized for being artificial and manipulated (there’s no denying that the shows are edited for maximum dramatic effect), the actual course of events is not scripted. In a sense, having such a downbeat ending is a considerable dramatic risk on the part of Project Greenlight, a show that in previous seasons contorted itself in the editing of the final episodes to bring some sense of positive ending to each of their dysfunctional stories. The finale here in season four makes one reconsider those previous endings, which, when glossy TV layers are peeled off, are more similar than they seem. Season two ended with the directors not speaking to the executive producer, Chris Moore. Season one spared us the deep criticism and contempt many on the production team had for Pete Jones’ Stolen Summer, and the indifference of audiences to his heartfelt but trite after-school special. The ending of season three was marred by business decisions involving the sale of Miramax that confused and muddled the fate of Feast. (Ironically, that season three horror film was a success, and spawned two sequels, but all of that took place after the TV show had completed its run.) Objectively, none of these endings is a resounding triumph, but in season four, the creators of the show have had the courage to let things end with a whimper rather than a bang, which is probably exactly how the previous seasons’ endings felt to those participating in them.
Looking back over all eight episodes, the clear meta-story being told this season was the battle of Effie Brown vs Jason Mann. In just about every way, these two people are a study in contrasts. Physically it’s hard to imagine two people more different, given the range of human body types. And this difference is matched by a difference in personality; the warm, passionate, strong, sarcastic and witty Brown trying to somehow find a connection with the painfully thin, incredibly fickle, birdlike Mann constantly evading all of her attempts at friendship like an eel in the weeds. The one trait they share is a towering stubborn force of will. Neither is willing to give an inch to the other in any negotiation, a trait that conflicts with the basic nature of their relationship. Brown sees Mann as a difficult director for whom she is putting in many hours of work, doing favours, saving money in the production where she can and fundamentally acting as the senior partner. She is experienced in the film industry and expects that Mann will welcome the benefit of that experience. (Amato makes a similar point later on about Mann’s inability to recognize the talent that surrounds him.) Brown is understandable and sympathetic both as a person and a professional. Mann, on the other hand, starts his character arc as a stubborn and introverted brat, and heroically fails to evolve over the course of the filmmaking experience. His attitude in this very last episode, when offered the chance to re-shoot certain scenes and shots of the film for narrative clarity, shows how little he has learned from the experience, as he puts all of his energy into fixing tiny technical flaws rather than listen to what’s being fairly yelled at him by everyone else in the room about character and plot problems. Mann’s commitment to his artistic vision seemed all well and proper early in the season, but his failure to respect anyone else’s opinion, over the course of seven more episodes, ultimately erodes our sympathy. Once again, if this were a scripted show, Mann would have been obliged to at least demonstrate some sort of character arc (previous Greenlight directors have), learning to compromise and work with others well. But it’s reality-TV, which means all the editing and music cues in the world can’t change what really happened.
The questions left at the end of this season are essentially whether The Leisure Class will be any good (we can all find out tonight), and whether Jason Mann will ever work again in Hollywood. That’s probably what Mann never considered, unlike, for example, season three’s John Gulager, whose family has their eyes squarely on his future by the end of the series. Everyone else on the show has a job to go back to on Monday, regardless of how well the film does. Amato, Brown, Marc Joubert and everyone else (including a man-bunned Matt Damon) are not risking their careers on this project. Yet they all seem much more concerned with its outcome than the person who has the most to gain or lose. Perhaps Mann is independently wealthy, or is possessed of such a towering ego that he cannot fathom failure. I think, whatever happens to Mann, the real triumph this season of Project Greenlight is its commitment to such an unlikable anti-hero at its core. They could have called it Project Greenberg. Certainly other shows like this have central characters who aren’t warm and fuzzy, but Mann is a pretty extreme case. It might not have ever been that enjoyable to spend time with the director this season, but it was tense, dramatic, insightful and never less than fascinating.