Post-Mortem: Can We Watch ‘The Leisure Class’ And ‘Project Greenlight’ In Reverse To See What Went Wrong?

11.09.15 1 year ago 25 Comments
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HBO

I’d been meaning to watch Project Greenlight all season, but I put it off, and somehow, I still hadn’t seen a frame of it (save for Matt Damon’s now infamous mansplaining bit) by the time The Leisure Class came out this past week (The Leisure Class being the movie they made during Project Greenlight). I ended up watching them backwards, The Leisure Class first, which, in retrospect, is probably the best way. Plenty of films make you wonder “How could this happen?” Rarely can you flip on six hours of reality television detailing exactly that.

The Leisure Class, Pre-Greenlight Viewing

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HBO

The odd thing about The Leisure Class is that it’s almost unwatchable, yet it’s not bad in many of the traditional ways. It’s not maudlin. It isn’t hokey or convoluted. It doesn’t make bad creative choices. It’s almost as if it doesn’t make creative choices. It feels like a school assignment where a directing student had to work with a script in a foreign language. At worst, it’s tedious, the kind of story where you can’t stop breaking in to ask “Wait, why are you telling me this?”

It feels like someone took the script from Houseguest starring Sinbad and shot it like it was The Firm. Or tried to remake Wedding Crashers with two uncharismatic English guys and shot it as a drama. It’s truly odd. Not so much an unfunny comedy as a thing that doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy. It ends up falling into the same maudlin third-act trap as many Adam Sandler movies, only without the jokes in the first two.

Having seen my share of “tweener” indie movies — movies that aren’t especially good or bad but just feel like failed attempts at something — there seems to be a common thread. They play like they were created under the assumption that there’s some “secret” the audience wants to know, and that just setting it up and withholding it from us is enough to create compelling action. A lot of bad Hollywood movies overexplain, a lot of bad indies underexplain.

The main character in The Leisure Class is a British guy named “Charles” (we later find out his real name is William, who is played by Ed Weeks), who has apparently lied his way into an engagement to Fiona, the blandly beautiful daughter of a blue blood politician. The film’s big secret is who Charles really is and what he’s hiding. Trouble is, this Charles also needs to function as our ambassador into this weird world of old-money politics, and the film’s so busy withholding his backstory that we never get any sense of him. He’s vaguely cute in an utterly generic way, like a royalty-free Hugh Grant. Imagine Meet the Parents, only instead of Gaylord Focker, the neurotic male nurse, it’s about Nigel, who uses hair gel.

Having a lead who’s a cipher doesn’t really work in a comedy (?) of manners (??). It doesn’t help that the world into which Charles/William has insinuated himself is as stock-photo bland as he is. When bland infiltrates bland, what do you get? Not much.

“Charles” has a “wacky” brother, Leonard (aka Dean, played by Tom Bell) who Shows Up To Wreck Everything. Is this guy crazy, drunk, or both? Charles and Leonard are doing this delicate dance where Leonard subtly threatens to reveal Charles in front of his new family, and Charles subtly begs Leonard to leave, while none of the other party guests are the wiser. Only, the least subtle version of that imaginable, where everyone would have to be lobotomized baboons not to immediately demand to know what’s going on. There’s no tension and everything is so far removed from the way you might expect real humans to act that it’s confusing without being intriguing.

It’s strange yet predictable, and nothing much happens that you wouldn’t have assumed from the first 15 minutes. The wacky guy wrecks everything but fixes it in the process, family secrets are revealed, blah blah blah. It felt fundamentally disjointed, like the director didn’t understand the script, or had no attachment to it.

Project Greenlight, Or How Did This Happen?

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HBO

Turns out I was way off. I never would’ve guessed that the director — Jason Mann, pictured — not only came up with the idea for The Leisure Class on his own, but that it was something he’d been working on for years. It ended up feeling like a director working on someone else’s script — which actually was the original plan, for the winner to direct a Farrelly Brothers-chosen script, Not Another Pretty Woman. But in the second episode, Mann, with the help of Pete Jones, successfully sells the producers on switching instead to the feature-length adaptation of Mann’s own short, which he’d already written (Jones, possibly in the depths of an ether binge, thinks the short is incredible). Which you’d think would make it an incredibly personal story.

What jumps out most watching this show in reverse is how, at least after the second episode, none of the reality show’s big conflicts had much of an effect on the film’s outcome. Mann and the Greenlight producers argued about digital vs. film, the number of shooting days, the car-crash scene, the set, diversity, reshoots, edits, etc., and none of it much mattered. The shooting-on-film argument was a source of drama for a good four episodes. Looking back, what needed major work was the script, and it’s hard to tell from the show whether any of the producers actually read it (the scene where the otherwise delightful Effie Brown didn’t seem to know The Leisure Class had a roller-skating scene, for instance, seems to suggest they didn’t).

Which isn’t to blame them, entirely. At the time, the producers letting Jason Mann shoot his own script seemed like a reasonable attempt to solve what I thought was the problem with The Leisure Class — the director not having an emotional connection to the script. It was practically the first thing they did, yet the finished product felt like that anyway. Maybe it was predestined, like a Greek tragedy.

The Wrong Winner?

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HBO

Peter Farrelly: “I think Jason is pretentious as hell.”

It’s hard not to pick on Jason Mann, because he looks like a Nightmare Before Christmas character and seems to lack human emotions. In retrospect, that he seems like he’s never made a joke in his life (does he say a single playful thing the entire season?) and yet he’s supposed to be directing a comedy should’ve been a red flag. You can understand why they let it go — a lot of great directors seem like intense weirdos in life — but you have to think they chose poorly. (Incidentally, this also describes most of my roommates.)

At the very least, the process turned out to be deeply flawed. Project Greenlight‘s producers chose a list of finalists based on a short they all submitted. They then gave those finalists the same three-minute script to see what they could do with it.

Ben Affleck: “I would’ve picked Chris [the director of “Living With Jigsaw”] hands down. But that was his idea.”

They made the decision to go with Jason Mann largely on the strength of his unique take on their three-minute script assignment, valuing the director-for-hire assignment more highly than the original story. Which is an odd choice. They were going to surround the winner with a professional crew regardless — why choose based on look? In retrospect, this may have been a great way to end up with a director who rarely joked but cared deeply about anti-helation layers.

To say nothing of the fact that they hired a director largely based on what he could do with someone else’s script, and then immediately turned around and let him shoot his own.

The original Leisure Class short, incidentally, is available online.

When the Project Greenlight producers were laughing uproariously at clips of this on the show, I thought maybe we were missing something. I like the short version’s lead actor better, but other than that, they feel fairly similar. I guess it’s funnier when the guy who wrote it is sitting right there in the room with you. One aspect the show glossed over is that Jason Mann didn’t direct the short (only wrote it), but that’s another story.

There’s also the age-old problem of having to take comedy seriously. The subtitle of Project Greenlight was “go inside the drama of making a comedy.” Which is to say, the eventual film was always meant to be a comedy. But even when they were choosing a winner of the contest, you could sort of sense them gravitating towards the most “serious” submission. A “contest winner” sounds like it should seem “important” in some way, even though comedy, almost by definition, generally doesn’t seem important. It’s meant to be laughed at. It’s the same reason comedies rarely win best picture Oscars. It’s hard for most people to square “meritorious artistic content” with “funny thing that makes me laugh.”

Whither Fiona?

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HBO

Early on and throughout, producers seemed concerned about The Leisure Class‘s vacuum in the female lead.

Len Amato: “I’m not comfortable spending money yet, because I’m not seeing a story building, especially in the character of Fiona.”

They’re right, but a crappy Fiona character seems more like the symptom than the disease. I think Matt Damon came closer to the truth when he told Mann that the audience needs to understand Charles/William. If we don’t care about this guy’s story, none of the rest of it works. We don’t really know much about him other than that he’s a bland Englishman, and we never find out. What did he do to infiltrate this family? (He changed his name? Why would he need to change his name?) Why did he do it? (For money, apparently). Who was he before? (???) Why didn’t the background check turn up anything? (????)

Having a Fiona character would’ve helped, but only insomuch as having any characters would’ve helped. The Leisure Class mostly just has a plot, and some vaguely sketched cogs who move it forward.

This is partly the producers’ fault, but it also seems like an inherent weakness of the “pitching” process. Everyone is too busy to read an entire script. (Not that I entirely blame them, have you ever tried to read a less-than-great script from start to finish? There is no greater waste of time.) And so Project Greenlight‘s producers, like many, rely instead on the pitch: the filmmaker trying to explain the movie he or she wants to make, over a lunch or a phone call. The pitch inevitably involves a scenario: “There’s these people, and this thing happens, and then this other thing happens, sex scene, training montage, Shia LaBeouf shows up, the bad guy is a horse, blah blah blah the end.”

The problem with that is, there really aren’t that many plots. Seven, according to a popular book. As such, someone explaining more or less which of the seven plots his or hers follows probably isn’t a great indicator of whether it’s going to be any good. If you don’t read enough of the script to know whether it has any characters that you care about, you’re probably not going to be able to know much about the finished product.

Is This Any Way To Make A Movie?

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HBO

Effie Brown: “All the shots that you want to do, all these nuanced performances, all these things that really show off what film can do, you don’t have time to do it. You have time to tell your story.”

Reality shows twist and manipulate reality in all sorts of ways, but Project Greenlight all along painted Mann as a director who cared more about film stocks and exposures than story. Given that The Leisure Class is a film that looks great without much else going on, you have to think there’s at least a little truth to that depiction.

Which, of course, makes Project Greenlight that much better. If its goal was to show the average moviegoer how hard it is to make a movie, it’s a success. A harder question to answer is, does being on Project Greenlight make the moviemaking process harder? Making a movie is always hard, but plucking someone out of relative obscurity, giving them a bigger budget than they’ve ever worked with and a team of intimidating famous people and Ben Affleck’s incredible chin, and shoving them in front of some cameras can’t make it easier. But other than the cameras part, is it really that much different than any director working on her biggest project to date?

Over the course of the show, they’ve kept tweaking the formula. The biggest difference between the show and other filmmaking seems to be that the reality show makes the movie’s goals murkier. Are they trying to make a good movie? A popular movie? A good movie that makes back its budget? In the latest iteration of the show, the winning film was automatically destined for HBO, which may complicate that question even further. What does a successful HBO movie look like? Knowing that going in might make some of the later decisions easier.

Critically speaking, here’s the track record for the movies that came from the show:

Stolen Summer: 36% on RottenTomatoes
The Battle of Shaker Heights: 41%
Feast: 56%
The Leisure Class: 0%

And of course, none of them have been financially successful so far, at least not counting the success of the show. That’s a pretty bad track record, and you could blame the show for that. But is it any worse than any other way of making movies? M. Night Shyamalan is like two for 12 now. Making movies is hard. At the very least, Project Greenlight is a fun cooking experiment. You just might not want to taste the results.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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