Starz's terrific reality series “The Chair” – in which two first-time filmmakers are picked to direct their own take on the same script – just concluded, with an hour looking at the premieres of both films and with the winner of the $250,000 prize being announced. I spoke with Chris Moore – the “Project Greenlight” alum who dreamed up the series and served as a backer and producer of both the show and the films – about the results of the contest, the transparency of the project, Zachary Quinto (whose production company helped fund both films) hating one movie so much that he took his name off it, and more, coming up just as soon as I identify all the TCA members shown on camera…
So, as pretty much everyone – with the possible exception of Chris Moore himself – figured going in, Shane Dawson's gross-out comedy “Not Cool” ended up beating Anna Martemucci's “Hollidaysburg” for the grand prize. When you're doing an online poll involving one contestant who has over 6 million YouTube followers, and one who… does not, it's going to be very hard to get a different result, even if Moore and company instituted safeguards that required knowledge of both films to make votes count. And that is, of course, where I started when I got on the phone with the always-talkative Moore.
Let's start with the results. I assumed going into the series that Shane was going to win, but I'm told the results were “close.”
Chris Moore: It was closer than I think all of us (expected). And I'm one of the people who didn't think it would be that obvious, or I wouldn't have chosen the two options. I felt like the effort we put into making it hard to take the survey, the effort that we put in to creating questions to make sure you watched both movies, would make it a fair thing. I don't know how to answer that question, because I was not one of the people who thought Shane automatically would win. In fact, I thought there might be a backlash – which certainly, there was. I'm not really a believer that there's a lot of those YouTube fans who really travel. I think they usually stay on YouTube. I'm not surprised that Shane won, but he made a movie that panders to a larger audience. It's a broader comedy. I think the audience saw both movies and decided for whatever reason that Shane won. I don't think it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to win. He also could've made a dog shit movie.
Well, there's shit in the movie…
Chris Moore: That's true. It's not dog shit, though.
Can you tell me how close it was?
Chris Moore: We don't actually have real numbers yet. They're still tabulating the specifics of it. It's two surveys, so the way we balanced it was the average of the two surveys – who got the higher score. We know which surveys got the higher score, but that's not the way to tell how close it was, meaning which surveys were really close, and which weren't. Hopefully, I'll have all of the numbers by next week some time. But in general, it was closer in the sense that had all of his pre-existing fans showed up, it would've been a wipeout. And it was not a wipeout.
What impact do you think his success and the show in general is going to have for him, and for Anna, in terms of what they can do next in the business?
Chris Moore: I think there's two answers to the question, and I tried to get it across in the doc. You phrased it very specifically: “What's next for him in the business?” In the business, he's made a movie and she's made a movie. They have a resume thing to talk about, and they have people they know like me and Zachary Quinto and Neal Dodson and Josh Shader and Starz, who know them now and who will be part of their resume forever. Zach obviously has a strong point of view, and Neal, about Shane's movie. I think there are a lot of industry people who watch the show and understand what they're good at and what they're bad at, and are interested in meeting them and talking to them about what they're interested in doing next. I think both of them showed they can execute making a movie, so in the business, they've made themselves directors. People have opinions either way, but they've gone from being “I would like to direct my first movie” to “I am a young director in Hollywood.” They both have agents and managers and PR people. They have a system to be in place to make that happen.
I think the other answer is what happened in the audience. They probably have more people wondering what their second movie is going to be than probably anyone else on the planet right now. It's very hard to get a lot of attention as a filmmaker early in their career. Like, “What's the next Wes Anderson movie going to be?” One of the things we've been researching was the guy who made “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” That movie couldn't have gotten a better response, and you haven't seen another movie from that guy yet. I just wonder why, and would probably watch it if he made another one. But there's not a lot of young directors that I could name off the top of the head where I'd go, “Yeah, I want to see that guy's next movie.” I'd certainly like to see Shane and Anna's next movie. I'd like to see what idea they chose, what story they decided to tell. I, obviously, having done all the “American Pie” movies, am probably much closer to Shane's sense of humor than some of the other producers we worked with on the show. But in my opinion, that's just a matter of taste.
Beyond opinions on his movie, there was a sense late in the season that Shane was shutting down any attempt at feedback, and any attempt to change his movie in any way that would make it the slightest bit more appealing to people beyond his – admittedly already large – pre-existing fanbase. Do you think that might be a hindrance to him, or will people just look at the raw numbers and not be concerned about that?
Chris Moore: It's a hard question. If Shane has a property that somebody thinks they can make a lot of money off of, Hollywood has a lot of whores. We're all whores. We want to make the most money for what we do. If Shane is just out trying to get hired on someone else's movie? Yeah, maybe they'll say they don't want to deal with this guy, and make the movie they want to make. That's sort of true of every director. But I would also say he said that in some of his most vulnerable moments, when he thought the movie was finished, and I've had that conversation with some of the sweetest directors, too. They sort of run out of steam at some point. I think it's also very well-known that some of the greatest and most successful directors of all time weren't easy people to work with. With that said, Shane was really easy to work with. I had a great time and would work together with him in a second. I think he is still deciding inside himself on whether his next project should be going after his same audience or whether he should try something else. But on this movie, he was trying to get that audience to come out, and he decided to dress up in drag, and he cast himself in the lead, and he did that kind of stuff. And all that is because the guy's got 6-8 million subscribers. That's pretty good!
The films got very different receptions from critics. I know Shane wasn't necessarily interested in making a critically-acclaimed film, but some of those reviews, like the New York Times review, had some really rough things to say about the film and the people who made it.
Chris Moore: Look, the LA Times said I should never be allowed to make a movie again. I don't know why that happened. Shane's movie is not offensive. I have young kids, I'd let them see it. I know the LA Times one better, just because we repeated it to ourselves, those of us who worked on Shane's movie, as a joke. That I'm “a rapist and a sociopath” is not something I know to be true to myself, unless I'm a genius sociopath. I just don't know that movie reviewers should be going all the way to the place of saying people who made movies who are those people. In some ways, that person revealed a deep hate for this type of humor, or hates YouTube humor, but in my opinion, there was something a lot bigger going on than just ” Not Cool” in that person's mind. It hurts. Of course it hurts! It's some of the worst shit I've ever seen! And, again, I made the “American Pie” movies. I've also made some movies that turned out poorly. I'm not really sure. When a project like this happens, there's always a little bit of backlash, because in essence, they won a contest to get to direct a movie, and there's all these people out there struggling to try to make their first movie. Sometimes, people are just mad from the beginning. I don't know, but I don't know any of these reviewers. I also know that if I was going to pick who's going to review a teenage R-rated comedy, I'm not sure the New York Times or LA Times' audiences are the ones who are going to see that movie, anyway. They also may have been writing something for their audience by saying, “Why are these movies even getting made anymore?” And I feel like there's a lot of people that like them. I am upset that they called me out, that they called him out. I don't think movie reviews should be censorship. I don't think it should be saying, “Hey, you should never be allowed to make a movie again.” The point in America is that they have the right to say “Don't go see this movie.” I just don't know that we want to get to a place where the New York Times or LA Times will tell people, “You're not allowed to make movies anymore.”
But it wasn't just film critics having that reaction. Zachary Quinto was so angry with the movie that he took his name off of it. What was your reaction when you learned he was going to do that, and when you saw the footage of his reaction to it?
Chris Moore: I've gotta be honest. I was really happy. I was very glad Zach was going to do it. One of the scary things about doing a documentary is that people won't be honest on camera. I'm sure in your job, when people say, “Is this on the record?,” you immediately know they're going into 50 percent honesty mode. When you turn the cameras on somebody, and you say you're going to do a documentary, you go into 25 percent honesty mode. So when Zach called me, I said, “Dude, you've gotta say it if that's how you feel. I'm sorry if that's how you feel.” I understand that in Zach's mind – and this is what I respect about Zach and Neal's position, and that's why it's different from the reviews – is that in his mind, there's a limited amount of resources to make movies, and a limited amount of resources that audiences have to watch movies. In his mind, it's not censorship. He knows the movie got made, he knew who Shane was when he signed up for the project. And Zach, it must be said, came in after I picked Shane. He had the right to take that point of view, because he wasn't part of giving Shane the opportunity. His biggest reaction was that he didn't want anyone in the world to think that he made a decision of all the young directors in this world, that this dude should have gotten the chance to make a movie. Zach doesn't want anyone to think that if he ever had the chance to give someone the opportunity to make a movie, it would've been Shane. So when he actually saw the movie, he was pissed, because now he knew it wouldn't have been Shane. That, to me, is very different. That's him saying, “Chris, what are you doing? You had 800 grand to give somebody, and you gave it to this guy, and this is what he put out.” We disagree on it. I'm not as embarrassed or upset about it. I'm okay telling people that if you want a raunchy teen comedy, this movie will make you laugh. And there's a lot of people who like the movie. Where I agree with Zach is all of us, we have a limited amount of shelf life to help get movies made, to support young talent, to pick stories that we think should be put out into the universe, and we do have an obligation as professionals to try to use those resources on the projects we most like and would most like to see get made. And Zach's problem is that there is no version of the universe in which he would have liked to see “Not Cool” get made. But Zach didn't have any of those controls. He entered the process after all those decisions had been made. But I do. And I felt very much sad, and sort of attacked by Zach in that moment. But I think he has the right to attack me. That's why I told him, “You should come out against me! You should say, 'Chris Moore's a fucking idiot! He shouldn't have done that!'” That's what's beautiful, in my opinion, about this documentary, is we're all telling the fucking truth. Zach's mad, and Neal's embarrassed, and I'm not. That's the way it is. So you can now go out in the world and make your judgments. Does that make me a fucking lowbrow asshole? Okay, maybe it does. Does that make you like Zach better because he really doesn't like this shit in the world? Yeah, if you're a certain kind of person. I don't think there should be any judgment on that. The point is, I like Zach very much, I had a great time working with him on this. He is one of the most talented, professional people I've ever been around. He would never, given the time I spent with him, probably make a raunchy, R-rated sex comedy. The irony is, he liked American Pie! His comments aren't against the genre as a whole. He just thinks Shane went way too fucking far, and was way too juvenlie, and we should've stopped him from doing that. But the decision to give Shane final cut was made by me before Zach entered the process. In all honesty, I give Zach a lot of professional credit to even call me ahead of time and ask, “Am I going to fuck up the whole thing if I share my honest opinion?” I think he would have sat there and just said nothing, but I said, “This is the whole point! When you set out to make a movie, you're going to end up in front of the whole world, and you've gotta be able to stand up next to the movie and say, 'I did this.' And you don't want to stand next to do that. So don't! I'm not asking you to! That was never our deal: that you had to pretend to like something you didn't like.” I think Zach owned it. He was very honest about it and very smart about it.
It felt, even more than “Greenlight” all those years ago, this show was very transparent, not just with Zach's reaction to “Not Cool,” but to the fact that Anna got picked in part because she had pre-existing relationships with the money people, that the reality show cameras were causing problems for both filmmakers, and that the show and the films were out of money at different points. There are a lot of things that in the current state of reality TV would not have been dealt with, and you put all the warts up there for people to see.
Chris Moore: That was the idea. “Greenlight” was before reality television. We were one of the early shows. That's why we used the term “docu-series.” We didn't produce any of this shit. We didn't go, “Oh, Zach, we didn't get that. Go say that shit about Shane's movie again!” We were shooting a documentary. The point is, people are passionate about making movies. What you just described, I don't consider warts. That's how the business works! You don't think there's a director who's ever gotten a job because they had a previous relationship with somebody else? I'd have to say you're living in a very Pollyanna world if you don't think that's true. And if you don't think someone's gotten a job because he can market to six million fans? That's, again, Pollyanna. The point is, people get their chance to direct movies or be in movies for many many different reasons. I made the choice for two reasons: I wanted people who I knew would make good movies, and people that could potentially get people to come watch this whole thing.
Let's talk about the runner-up for a minute. Early in the series, Anna's presented as very neurotic, very much stuck inside her own head, and part of this hivemind with her husband and brother-in-law that drove everyone else on the film pretty nuts. But in the end, she made a movie that everybody was pleased with. Do you think she's ultimately going to look back on this as a good experience, and the show as a good calling-card for Anna Martemucci, young director?
Chris Moore: Yes, of course. We talk all the time. I really believe in Anna, I was working with Anna before “The Chair” happened, and I still like Anna. I think she proved she can be a director, and she has a point of view. Phil says it in the show: she got a hell of a lot better in the last 15 days than in the first week. She got confident, she figured out those relationships, she knew the movie she was trying to make. She did great. To me, Anna has a big future, and really knows what she's doing. She likes to write stuff, so I think she wants to write and direct, so I think she'll most likely be doing the things she writes and creates, more so than people calling her up to hire her. As for how she was portrayed, I let everybody see the episodes before they went on TV. She had the right to tell me “That was bullshit, and that wasn't true,” and we changed stuff that she felt was unfair. But that's what I love about the show: people wanted a show that was warts and all, and this was us being ourselves, and that's how hard it is to do this. Again, is she super upset about how she was portrayed or what happened? I have not heard that. The show's over, there's no reason to pander. I know she's very upset in general about what it says about the world, that a movie that review-wise, and is in many more circles liked better, didn't win. There's a statement being made by that, that maybe the audience doesn't give a shit about the way movies are made or that they're more serious or less gross. My personal opinion – and I tried to tell her that – is that it's not a statement from the overall society. It's just that Shane's movie is aiming at pleasing more people. And by definition, it did. And the people that went out and made movies for themselves, to tell stories they want to tell like Anna, sometimes, that gets a smaller audience, but that audience is way more passionate. I would say Anna is in a great place professionally. And I think she comes across really well, especially in the last few episodes, where Shane starts to get fired up and, like you said, he's not listening to people. Though I would say he came around and listened by the end. I think Anna is relatively happy, and certainly there's more people who know who Anna is no than there was before. I do think that matters in today's world.
You made most of this first season on spec, and at times had to put expenses on your credit card just to keep things going. Starz didn't come in until much later. Having done it once, and now having this partner, is it going to be easier to get future seasons and films made?
Chris Moore: That's the idea. You get it off the ground once and you show people how much people like it. It remains to be seen. I think a lot of people are waiting to see who won before they determine whether they liked it or not. The good news is, almost unequivocally, anyone who watched the show loved it. The big reason we haven't announced about season 2, a lot of it has to do with the movies. There's probably film fans who would love to watch a show about movies being made, or even two directors making the same script, but the idea for them of watching a teenage comedy is totally uninteresting to them. That's probably my fault. I probably shouldn't have picked such a specific genre. If we had done a thriller or a romance or something that's more universal, it may have gotten much bigger numbers on the movie side, and that would have changed the economics. But the truth of the matter is, we're still doing pretty well, and people like it a lot. We're not at the stage of my credit cards anymore, and that's good, and I thank Starz for that. Everyone I've talked to is proud of the show and thinks we did something different. I think Shane and Anna are grateful they got to do it. In one case, he got buried in the reviews, but he won, and in the other case, she got a lot of positive feedback but didn't win.
“Project Greenlight” was a show that a lot of people loved, but nobody went to see any of the movies that came out of it. You were able to get through three iterations of it before everyone gave up the ghost, though Matt and Ben are bringing it back in a new form. With this show, what matters more to keeping “The Chair” alive: the show or the movies?
Chris Moore: Honestly, it's both. What's going to drive it is the movies. The show delivered: people liked the show and they got the show. I don't think if we go out and do two first-time directors getting the same coming-of-age R-rated teenage script again, anybody cares about that. The point is, we need to come out and tell them what the movies are going to be. The concept of two directors having the same script and trying to make a movie really worked. People liked that a lot. The issue is what are the movies? The conversations I'm having with Starz about a second season is just about what are the movies. They're really trying to up that ante a little bit, trying to up the budget, up the talent level. Imagine if we'd had an actor you'd heard of in it. Imagine if one of the directors had at least had made one movie that was selected by the Toronto Film Festival. It changes what the show is like, because it's up another level. So I'm trying to put that together.
Having been away from this docu-series format for a long time, how was it being back on camera so much? There seemed to be less of you shouting than in the “Greenlight” days.
Chris Moore: My therapist will be very happy to hear that. What I would say is that first of all, I had a little bit of a different role, because I was more the money and “the studio” in this one. Second, we gave the directors final cut, because there was less for me to yell about, because I was letting them go make their movies. The truth is, I'm always awkward when I'm on camera, and I feel weird watching myself, but the feedback is always positive, in that I sound like a guy who knows what he's talking about. People say they would work for me. That's the funniest comment, when someone stops me on the street and goes, “I wish you were my boss!” I don't quite get that one, but it's flattering. I love making movies. I love this process more than anything in the world, and I hope that comes across. The hope – and this is where I really become pretentious – the more the audience knows about what goes in in how to do it, the more discerning they'll be, and the more telling good stories will matter. Right now, I think our industry has been completely swallowed up by marketing. If Matt, Ben and I went out and made “Good Will Hunting” today, nobody would find it. I have a friend who made this movie “St. Vincent,” and I think it's awesome. He's got Bill Miurray and Melissa McCarthy and the same distributor, Harvey Weinstein. And it's not breaking out. And I think it's great. There's a whole group of people out there who would love that movie. It's really hard right now to sell stuff to people and get them to go see it.
You said before that you would show each subject the episodes ahead of time and allowed them to request changes. Why did you do that, and can you give me an example of something they asked to be changed?
Chris Moore: A lot of it was just their personal life stuff. On Shane's side, he had some conversations with his mom about their family life, and he did it while he was on set and he had to, and we had it on camera, and in one of the episodes, there was a piece we were going to use just to show how much stress Shane was under, and he didn't want anybody to see it, so we took it out. With Anna, there were some conversations that Phil had with Victor that weren't about the movie, or even about Anna, but in our opinion contributed to the triangle that is the Phil/Anna/Victor relationship. We had some of them in there, and they said, “We'd rather people not know that,” and we took it out. Not because it had anything to do with making the movies, but it was about their personal lives. The show isn't about their personal lives. You asked me what's changed; the thing that's changed that's made me the saddest is that people don't trust anything that's reality. They think they're going to be edited and produced into being a jackass, which is why I told them they could watch the episodes ahead of time. “If you think there's anything that's false, if you think there's anything in there that's going to be bad for your family or whatever, tell me. That's not what this show's about.” We were trying to live up to that, and in my opinion, the only way to live up to it is show it to people and then listen to what they have to say.
Finally, this has nothing to do with “The Chair,” but as a longtime “Project Greenlight” fan, I have to ask: are you still in touch with John Gulager?
Chris Moore: (laughs) John and I will share a friendly text or email when something reminds us of each other. We are not in any sort of active communication. I root for him out in the world. I like him very much, and was really happy Bob Weinstein wanted to keep making movies with him.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org