LIZ SHANNON MILLER: Okay, so. When I first started watching “Project Greenlight” this season, I didn’t have huge expectations, but I really got sucked into it. Beyond the fact that it’s really compelling reality television (a genre that’s not as easy to pull off as you might think), the producers this year took on the issue of diversity head-on, letting first Matt Damon, then anointed director Jason Mann become the representation of white male privilege within the Hollywood system. Whether you saw him as arrogant or passionate, there’s no denying that through stubborn negotiation and determination, Mann did everything in his power to make the movie he wanted to make; which meant, for “Greenlight” viewers, the actual completion of his first feature film, “The Leisure Class,” was loaded with huge expectations. That is, of course, if you watched “Project Greenlight.”
KATE ERBLAND: I, on the other hand, did not watch “Project Greenlight,” though my (initially accidental, then later purposeful) avoidance of the series certainly doesn’t mean that I missed out on absorbing plenty of the controversy surrounding it. For me, those controversies became “Project Greenlight.” I don’t mean that in a negative way in the slightest. I think some extremely important discussions have been sparked by this season, and it’s unearthed some damn hard truths about the industry — and I mainly forgot that there would be a film at the end of all this, to the point that I watched about 20 commercials for “The Leisure Class” as pre-roll in our very own Indiewire video player before even realizing that’s what was being advertised. “Oh, right,” I thought, “there’s a film at the end of this.”
LIZ: And that’s always been what is supposed to make “Project Greenlight” different and/or “better” than other reality shows; because it’s not a reality show, as Ben Affleck reminds us at the beginning of every episode. It’s a “documentary about what it really takes to make a movie.” Every minute of on-set drama, every ruined relationship and hurt feeling, is theoretically in service to creating something of value.
Of course, the first three films made under the “Project Greenlight” banner were completely inconsequential (if you can name all three without looking up their titles, you’re doing better than me), adding yet another level of tension to the proceedings. Would “The Leisure Class” be the film that makes “Project Greenlight” relevant on a whole new level? Would it have value for someone who didn’t see a single frame of the “documentary” about its making?
KATE: There was that one film about…streets? Did it somehow involve streets? Help me out here.
Knowing that “The Leisure Class” was created in an environment that seems to have zoomed between “chaotic” and just plain “fraught” certainly adds an interesting dimension to the final product, and I think probably makes it a touch more compelling to watch. Is it evident that there was behind-the-scenes drama when watching the film? Well, not really, at least for the majority of its runtime as it sort of skips along like any other sort of low-to-mid-budget dramedy starring some somewhat recognizable people in limited settings, before suddenly going certifiably off the rails into who-knows-what territory. It’s the kind of film that opens in limited release every weekend of the year, something you’ll likely catch on television many months later and wonder how you missed it, and the most interesting thing about it might be that it was borne from a docu-series that stirred up controversy.
LIZ: Maybe instead of streets you’re thinking of Shia LeBeouf? Basically the same thing. (Shia starred in the second “Project Greenlight” film, “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” which is literally the only thing I know about “The Battle of Shaker Heights.”)
What’s interesting about your categorization of “The Leisure Class” is that it was not the original plan for this season. Originally, they were just looking to pick a director for a Ricky Blitt script called “Not Another Pretty Woman,” which sounded a) like a really broad comedy, and b) really awful. Then Mann came in with a first draft of this script, which was based on a short film he’d made that everyone involved really liked, and they tossed aside “Not Another Pretty Woman.” It’s a pivot which makes a lot of sense, as at the very least “The Leisure Class” fits a lot better with the HBO brand.
That said, marketing a comedy of manners (or lack thereof) that stars the British guy from “The Mindy Project” and the dad from “Harry and the Hendersons” isn’t an easy sell. Are these sorts of movies typically to your taste?
KATE: Yes, that was it! “Streets,” “Heights,” potato, potato.
I noticed after watching “The Leisure Class” that it was based off a previous short, but this is the first I am hearing about the original script (see! I really didn’t know anything about this season!), which seems like such a cop-out. Why make a show about making a movie that already has a script from a professional screenwriter? Pffft. But I digress! Based on its logline, “The Leisure Class” does sound like something I would enjoy, as I tend to like films that toss a group of weirdos into a tense situation in a limited location and then see how everyone behaves. It seems like jolly good fun, really, mostly harmless but good for some laughs. And, for the first 20 or so minutes, “The Leisure Class” actually is just that — jolly good fun, not very objectionable, mostly amusing, basically fine. But then it starts to drift into real problem areas — like its mangled grasp on characters and their motivations — and starts showing hints as to the ugliness that awaits us by its final act. That’s when I started to get a little queasy.
LIZ: Yeah, let’s dig into the actual film a bit. My perspective on it is totally skewed, because while I knew a lot of behind-the-scenes details behind its making — nearly an entire episode is devoted to the production drama around a car crash, for example — the show did do a nice job of keeping some mysteries intact about the story. And I found myself really responding to something that, while watching the show, I was skeptical about; the loose, improv-y style of the performances, which had a lightness to it that seemed to play pretty well.
Actually, in general I liked the performances, even when — as you say — things seemed to go off the rails. Did they work for you?
KATE: The real stand-out for me is lead actor Ed Weeks, who managed to maintain his character’s tone and motivation even when the very film itself was unable to do just that. His style is extremely well-suited to a loopy comedy of manners, and he was my touchstone during the rougher moments. Tom Bell’s wacky ham-brother was mostly fine for me, though I stopped liking him around the time he asked the sisters to get naked for no good reason, and Bridget Regan was fine — just fine. I had less fun with Melanie Zanetti, who was doing a bad Isla Fisher impersonation in the middle of a film that’s sort of a bad send-up of “Wedding Crashers,” and I have zero idea what was going on with Scottie Thompson’s Allison, who I could never get a handle on.
LIZ: Yeah, she seemed like she was supposed to add some extra drama to the basic premise — Weeks playing a man who’s trying to keep his past a secret on the eve of his wedding — but it didn’t go anywhere. When you say that the film lost its sense of tone, though, is there something specific you’re thinking about?
KATE: I think there were hints that something more nefarious was lurking throughout the first act, with all the sisters exhibiting some form of “daddy issues” that initially seemed easy enough to brush off as lazy writing meant to lampoon the wealthy and powerful (like Fiona, Allison and Carolyn’s family), until everyone started to get a little tear-y and very “but you don’t understand!” But the real break with a mostly slap-happy tone comes in the third act, when Daddy Edward suddenly reveals himself to be a violent, alcoholic sexist who doesn’t seem particularly put off by the idea of murdering people in his home. The laughs are suddenly gone, and we’re left with Bruce Davison threatening a pair of brothers with death unless they perform a sex act on each other, while also making it plain that he hates women, even the ones he’s related to. Fun!
LIZ: The one thing I’ll say in defense of that is — based on watching Davison’s audition as well as his on-set interactions — I think I was expecting a much more over-the-top performance, and I admired that he was by comparison more restrained. Also, I like the fact that Fiona was given some decent amount of depth — or at the very least, that she had some sign of having a life of her own — but that’s me having extremely low expectations for these sorts of movies.
There are a few big questions I want to ask you, as someone who doesn’t know many of the specifics behind the scenes. What did you think of the overall look? If I told you it was shot on film, not digital, would that surprise you?
KATE: One of the few pieces of “Project Greenlight” that did make its way into my brainbox before watching the film was Mann’s demand (his deMANNd?) to shoot on film. That’s not at all evident in the final product, which looks totally respectable, but absolutely in a mid-budget digital feature way. Why he felt that would add some level of craftsmanship to the film is beyond me, because it doesn’t shine through. Did you think it did?
LIZ: Of course you heard about him wanting to shoot on film, because half the Goddamn show was about that. (Applause for that Mann pun, by the way.) And no, I don’t think it really added anything beyond the realm of digital, which is disappointing. Some of the things Mann talked about wanting to do with film — plans to manipulate the film stock, specifically — were really exciting, but I saw no evidence of that on screen… Probably because there simply wasn’t time for him to do that stuff.
Which is something you might not have heard about: Basically, he was presented with a choice between shooting on film or getting two extra days of shooting. He of course picked film. Do you think he chose wisely?
KATE: So the show was him yelling about using film and then everyone being dismissive of Effie Brown? Got it! Sounds fun!
I’m not sure the issues I have with the film — the just-okay performances, the wild shifts in tone, the sexist underpinnings, the inability to keep motivations straight from act to act — could have been solved with two more days of shooting, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt to get some more time in front of the (digital — egads! not that, anything but that!) camera instead of filming what is literally a television movie on film.
LIZ: He didn’t yell so much as he pouted, but yeah. Admittedly the pair is some of the best reality TV casting I’ve seen in a while. He’s such a weird guy, but well-intentioned, and she’s a likable character, but definitely escalates a few situations that could have been resolved differently.
You bring up a really interesting point about the fact that this is a “television movie.” In past seasons of “Project Greenlight,” the films all received a box office release (and not terribly successful ones. I think the first three films earned about a million bucks, total, at the box office). Here, they didn’t even bother with that path. Then again, though, this is a new era of distribution, which leads to existential questions like, “What is a television movie these days, anyway?”
KATE: Was a theatrical release even discussed on the show? Or was its just never on the table?
I often see people use the term “TV movie” as a pejorative commentary on quality, but I think it’s more about scope and budgetary constraints. You can’t make a $100 million TV movie — why would you want to? — but you can make something low to mid-budget that looks good enough and certainly doesn’t seem slapped together. The film really does look “good enough” and the limited sets and locations only help that along with still more ease.
LIZ: I don’t think it ever really comes up, the theatrical question. Mostly because of the fact we live in a new age of distribution is a real thing, where Netflix vies for an Oscar and so forth. Also, it’s a movie that probably wouldn’t really move the needle, box-office-wise, because even the adult-themed dramas starring legit movie stars like Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper don’t do well.
Ultimately, here’s what it comes down to, the existential question behind every review of every movie ever: Was this worth watching? Was this even worth making?
KATE: Was it worth making? Yes, I think so, if only because of the insights that the show seems to have stirred up and brought to the fore. Worth watching? Eh, for me, not so much, if only because the film limps along for so much of its time before just getting ugly, and by the time it finally wrapped up, I was actively angry and annoyed.
LIZ: I, meanwhile, found myself moved by the final shot…but otherwise underwhelmed. And knowing everything that went into it…I guess the show was more interesting. Because I’m not sure that the movie, in the end, was worth everything that went into making it. Something I wouldn’t have known about, had I not watched “Project Greenlight.”
KATE: Even without watching “Project Greenlight,” it seems clear to me that, as it applies to the final product, someone should have pumped the brakes a long time ago.