Guilty Pleasure No. 26: Project Greenlight


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Project Greenlight may be the most guiltiest pleasure to be found on television right now.

The show, which is currently airing its fourth season on HBO, was one of the earliest reality shows.  The concept behind the show is deceptively simple.  Every season, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have held an online competition for aspiring filmmakers.  The winner of the contest gets to direct a feature film, with the understanding that there will be TV cameras present to record every decision, argument, and screw up.  At the end of the season, the film is released and hopefully, a major new filmmaker is discovered.

The pleasure part is obvious.  If you’re like me and you love movies, there’s no way you can’t be fascinated by the chance to go behind-the-scenes of an actual production.  It’s always fun to watch as the director struggles to maintain his (so far, all of the directors have been male) vision against the whims of studio execs who, often time, seem to be annoyed by the director’s very existence.

As for me, I’ve always been fascinated by the casting process.  (Don’t believe me?  Check out this post that I wrote about The Godfather.  And then check out this one too!)  My favorite part of Project Greenlight is always the episode that deals with the casting.  I love seeing who auditions, who gets turned down, and who decides that they want nothing to do with the film.  It’s a lot of fun!

As for the guilty part of this guilty pleasure, it comes from knowing that a show like this thrives on conflict.  As much as Ben and Matt may say that they are only interested in selecting the most talented director, it’s also obvious that the director they pick has to make for good television.  If production on the film goes smoothly, that’s good for the film but it’s not necessarily good for the show.  That’s just the truth when it comes to reality television.

Hence, watching Project Greenlight always leads to conflicting emotions.  On the one hand, you want the movie to turn out to be a good movie.  You want the director to be up to the task.  On the other hand, you’re specifically watching this show to watch the director screw up and make mistakes and piss people off and get into fights.  Gossip lovers that we are, we love the behind the scenes drama but it’s rare that drama actually leads to a good film.

Check out Project Greenlight‘s track record.

Season 1 started way back in 2001!  (Both this season and season 2 are available on DVD and I recommend checking out both of them.)  The winner was Pete Jones, a friendly nonentity who went on to direct the extremely forgettable Stolen Summer.  There was a lot of behind-the-scenes conflict, mostly due to a clash of personality between certain members of the crew.  From the minute the season started, it was obvious that Pete was a nice guy but essentially in over his head.  And, in many ways, Season 1 taught viewers an important lesson: when it comes to the film industry, nice guys get screwed.

However, as chaotic as season 1 may have been, it was nothing compared to what happened in 2003 when season 2 aired!  Whenever anyone wants to make the argument that Ben and Matt purposefully pick directors who are totally wrong for whatever film is being made, they usually point to season 2.  Season 2 featured the directing team of Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle directing The Battle of Shaker Heights.  The Battle of Shaker Heights was supposed to be a quirky coming-of-age dramedy and a character study, so, of course, Ben and Matt selected two directors who were apparently incapable of human emotion.  And the end result was pure chaos!

Now, I will say a few things in Kyle and Efram’s defense.  When you watch season 2, the overriding theme is that these two directors totally ruined a great script.  Just in case we missed that, the show even featured screenwriter Erica Beeney complaining that these two directors were totally ruining her great script.  Well, sorry — the script for Battle of Shaker Heights was never that good to begin with.  (“It’s about this kid — Kelly — who is really pissed off,” Erica would tell us at the beginning of every episode, as if she was the first person to ever write about a kid who was really pissed off.)  I doubt anyone could have made a good movie out of that script.  Picking two directors who were so totally wrong for the material only served to compound the inherent suckiness of the material.

Season 2 has got a true train wreck appeal to it.  It’s one of those things that you watch with horrified fascination.  (Incidentally, Shia LaBeouf is heavily featured in season 2 and I have to say that he fits right in.)

The third season of Project Greenlight aired in 2005.  It was broadcast on Bravo and it’s unique in that it actually featured a good director (John Gulager) making a reasonably successful film (Feast).  As such, it doesn’t quite work as a guilty pleasure because, from the minute Gulager starts directing, you don’t feel any guilt about watching him.  Instead, the most interesting part of the third season comes early on when a bitchy casting director continually tries (and succeeds) at sabotaging Gulager’s attempts to get a cast with whom he feels comfortable.

(Season 3 has never been released on DVD but, the last time I checked, it was available on YouTube.)

After that third season, Project Greenlight went away for a while but now, 10 years later, it’s back!  It has returned to HBO and, after three episodes, it’s starting to look like this season may be the guiltiest and most pleasurable of all!  Ben and Matt were producing a comedy called Not Another Pretty Woman this time around.  (Pete Jones even returned to write the script.)  Not Another Pretty Woman has been described as being a broad comedy.  So, of course, they selected Jason Mann, an extremely intense elitist film snob.  One of the first things that Jason Mann did was try to fire Pete Jones and replace him with the screenwriter of that well-known comedy, Boys Don’t Cry.  When that didn’t work, Mann abandoned Not Another Pretty Woman and instead requested to make a film called The Leisure Class instead.  And, amazingly enough, he got HBO Films to agree, which means that either nobody had any faith in Pete Jones or everyone has total faith in Jason Mann!

Will that faith be rewarded or will The Leisure Class be another Battle of Shaker Heights?  Will Jason Mann be another John Gulager or will he fade into the same obscurity in which Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin currently reside?

As of right now, I don’t know.

But I can’t wait to find out!

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Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly

Back to School #61: The Battle of Shaker Heights (dir by Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin)


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“When you’re 17, every day is war.” — Tagline of The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

Anyone here remember Project Greenlight?  It’s a show that used to be on HBO and Bravo, in which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would arrange for a director and screenwriter to get a chance to make their low budget feature film debuts.  The catch, of course, is that a camera crew would then follow the director as he (and all of the Greenlight “winners” were male) struggled to get the film made.  Mistakes would be made.  Money would be wasted.  Producer Chris Moore would randomly show up on set and start yelling.  In short, it was typical reality show drama with the catch being that the film itself would then be released in a theater or two.

Well, after being consigned to footnote status for the past nine years. Project Greenlight is coming back for a fourth season and a lot of people are pretty excited about it.  And why not?  I own the first two seasons of Project Greenlight on DVD and I’ve watched the third season on YouTube.  It’s a lot of fun, mostly because all of the directors, with the exception of season 3 winner John Gulager, turned out to be so incredibly inept.  (Gulager is one of the few Project Greenlight success stories — not only did his movie, Feast, come across as being made by a professional but he’s actually had a career post-Greenlight.)  It all makes for good televised drama.

However, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie.

Case in point: 2003’s The Battle of Shaker Heights.

The Battle of Shaker Heights is about a creepy 17 year-old named Kelly (played by the reliably creepy Shia LaBeouf).  His mother (Kathleen Quinlan) is an artist.  His father (William Sadler) is a former drug addict who, despite having been clean for 6 years, still has to deal with his son’s constant resentment.  Kelly is a high school outcast who spends all of his spare time thinking and talking about war.  Every weekend, he takes part in war reenactments.  At night, he works in a 24-hour grocery store where he doesn’t realize that he’s the object of Sarah’s (Shiri Appleby) affection.

(Why Sarah has so much affection for Kelly is a good question.  Maybe it’s the scene where he throws cans of cat food at her…)

At a reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge, Kelly meets and befriends Bart (Elden Hansen), which leads to him meeting Bart’s older sister, Tabby (Amy Smart).  Tabby is an artist, because the film isn’t imaginative enough to make her anything else.  (We’re also told that she’s a talented artist and it’s a good thing that we’re told this because otherwise, we might notice that her paintings are the type of uninspired stuff that you can buy at any county art fair.)  Kelly decides that he’s in love with Tabby but — uh oh! — Tabby’s getting married.  Naturally, she’s marrying a guy named Minor (Anson Mount).  Imagine how the film would have been different if his name had been Major.

As a film, the Battle of Shaker Heights is a bit of a mess.  It never establishes a consistent tone, the dialogue and the direction are all way too heavy-handed and on the nose, and Shia LaBeouf … well, he remains Shia LaBeouf.  In some ways, Shia is actually pretty well cast in this film.  He’s an off-putting actor playing an off-putting characters but the end of result is an off-putting film.

Of course, if you’ve seen the second season of Project Greenlight, then you know that The Battle of Shaker Heights had an incredibly troubled production.  Neither one of the film’s two directors were particularly comfortable with dealing with the more low-key human aspects of the story.  Screenwriter Erica Beeney was not happy with who was selected to direct her script and basically spent the entire production whining about it to anyone who would listen.  (Sorry, Erica — your script was one of the film’s biggest problems.  When you actually give a character a name like Minor Webber, it means you’re not trying hard enough.)  Finally, Miramax took the completed film away from the directors and re-edited it, removing all of the dramatic scenes and basically leaving a 79-minute comedic cartoon.

So, in the end, Battle of Shaker Heights is not a very good film.  But season two of Project Greenlight is a lot of fun!