When the first season of Project Greenlight was announced in 2000, I remember anxiously loading up projectgreenlight.com on a Bondi Blue iMac in my school's computer lab. I read over the rules and regulations repeatedly, obsessively, each time hoping they might have changed the age restrictions on the script contest. (I did the same thing on the Survivor website; I had diverse ambitions.) I dreamed of being the 15-year-old wunderkind whose dialogue and rich storytelling knocked Matt and Ben off their director's chairs; I imagined being followed around by fascinated cameras as I made my first feature film, an army of crew members and producers at my disposal. I imagined doing talking head interviews, expressing my gratitude at being selected with just the right amount of ingenuous fluster — "I sent my script completely as a lark! I never even imagined..."
I never ended up sending my script, and I never watched the first season of Project Greenlight, because we didn't have cable TV, much less HBO, and this was before I could have just borrowed an HBO Go password from a friend. Secured behind that paywall, I imagine season one winner Pete Jones executing his vision for an audience of affluent pay cable subscribers all primed to root for a Midwestern dream plucked from obscurity by Hollywood's favorite golden boys. It was a Cinderella story; a chance for a young white man to finally tell his story and have his voice heard.
Young men who believe that Scorsese homages and sick dolly shots are a point of view
HBO hasn't provided numbers for the fourth season of Project Greenlight, which just wrapped up last night, but one has to assume far more people from far more diverse walks of life were watching — for far more negative reasons. The first episode caught buzz after Matt Damon showed his ignorance in a major way during a discussion with producer Effie Brown about on-set representation. It continued to draw attention for the numerous clashes of personality and principle Brown had with director Jason Mann and mentor Peter Farrelly. I'm glad I didn't see it at age 15; it might have scared me away from the film industry permanently (though maybe I would have dug it; it certainly had more in common with Survivor than one would expect).
Instead of waiting for Matt and Ben to hand me my millions, I went to film school — as it happens, at Loyola Marymount University, in the same graduating class as season four "winner" Jason Mann. This is not a tell-all about Mann's college days; I honestly don't remember ever meeting him in LMU's vast film department (the bar for entry, if I recall, was checking off "Film Production" on the list of majors on the application), and I ended up transferring to UCLA anyway. But it doesn't need to be a tell-all, because in my four years of film school, I met more Jason Manns than I could ever hope to count.
I respect Effie Brown, even if I didn't always agree with the way she did her job (from what we could see on the reality television show that depicted it) because she had a point of view. She was trying to affect change in the industry she worked in, using the power and the position that she had. Every year, hundreds of kids graduate with film degrees and pour into the industry with no real point of view or artistic purpose to speak of, other than "be a badass director." I spoke to someone recently who had been on a student film shoot where the director's main note to his crew was to "make it look like Goodfellas." These young men (and they are still very frequently men) are allowed to believe that homage and sick dolly shots are a point of view, because they are surrounded by peers who are just like them. Argh, I wish I had a citation for this observation other than the majority of the product put out by the industry every year!
Even if Jason Mann was a hack, he could at least be a grateful one
It's for that reason that most film programs discourage undergraduate students from even applying to their programs; advising them that it's highly unlikely they have the life experience or know themselves enough artistically to really be able to take advantage of the resources that film school offers. (Yeah, I was one of those ding-dongs who ignored this advice and jumped the gun.) I thought of this when we were introduced to Mann, now 30, who after getting his BA went to Columbia's graduate film program, and described his life as living, breathing, and eating film — in an early episode, the gangly director said he tried not to indulge in junk food, alcohol, or other distractions that would detract from his dream of being a filmmaker. It certainly takes all types, but I'm not entirely sure I'm interested in the vision of a man who only lives film. I want stories by filmmakers who eat, drink, fall in love, lose control, have emotional breakdowns, go to far-flung places, meet people who aren't anything like them, change their perspective, change it again, and finally regain control and write something down.
And that's the main problem — anyone with a heart should watch a show like Project Greenlight and want to root for the first-time director who's fighting for his vision. But the show ended without us having any idea what Jason Mann believes in. When the producer (the money person!) is more passionate and has more of a vision for the universe than the director does, that's a problem. Without knowing anything about Mann's background — what gives him goosebumps, what inspires him, what kinds of women or men he's drawn to, anything besides DIGITAL BAD, FILM GOOD — we're left watching a man playing in a $3 million sandbox, with no real stakes to speak of.
I can't hate Mann for wrangling the show into submission — I'd probably try to do the same thing!
And even if Jason Mann was still a hack (let's all watch The Leisure Class on HBO tonight and find out for sure!) he could at least be a grateful one. In the denouement of last night's episode finale, all of Mann's support staff, bleary eyed and exhausted, expressed their amazement at the fact that the film was finally completed, and took a few minutes to reflect on the experience. Mann, meanwhile, even as the inspiring outro music played, didn't show an ounce of appreciation for the insane opportunity he had been given — $3 million, guaranteed distribution on HBO, a crew of industry pros at his beck and call — still focusing on all the things that didn't go exactly the way he wanted. It's been long enough now that you might have forgotten The Leisure Class wasn't even supposed to be the film — Affleck and Damon had wanted to focus on vetting a hired-gun director to realize a prewritten script; Mann managed to turn it into another auteur season by bringing in his own story. Again, an insane opportunity.
I can't hate Mann for wrangling the show into submission — I'd probably try to do the same thing! But I can cast judgement on him never saying thank you (again, at least in any of the footage we saw) — to Effie, to Marc Joubert, to anyone but his good cop celebrity dads Matt and Ben. There has still never been a female Project Greenlight director, and it would be fascinating to see, because most women, no matter how formidable professionally, are more socially conditioned to say thank you, to be pleasantly surprised when they get their way as directors of any sort, to have to apologize at every turn for the wacky accident that put them in a power position. Being difficult, stubborn, and cocky, meanwhile, are often seen as virtues for directors — Affleck, Damon, Farrelly, and even Marc Joubert state this time and time again, but I'd love to see them defend such behavior in a first-time female director. And I'm not being facetious — I would love it. But there's a way to be all those things and still be grateful to all the people who help make your vision a reality.
Of course, who cares how a person behaves if they're a genius with a vision? (Right, Woody? Right, Roman?) After The Leisure Class premieres tonight, we'll be able to see what exactly Jason Mann was fighting for, and if it was in any way worth it. There's a possibility it was all justified, though he's set a pretty high genius-to-asshole bar to clear. I, for one, am keeping an open mind. And I can't wait for the part where the one guy defecates on the Bentley!