‘Project Greenlight’ Started A Conversation About Diversity, But Effie Brown Brought The Real Talk

After a decade in hibernation, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck brought their re-tooled Project Greenlight reality series back to HBO this year. Like the three seasons before it, season four once again highlighted the challenges behind-the-scenes for a first-time director (or screenwriter) working with a limited budget, and once again, the end result — in this case, Jason Mann’s The Leisure Class — was an underwhelming and forgettable film. In fact, in the three previous seasons of Greenlight, the talent to come out of the series hasn’t exactly shaken Hollywood. First-season winner Pete Jones wrote the Farrelly Brother’s underperforming Hall Pass, while Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton — the screenwriters of Feast in season three — have since written two sequels to that movie, as well as several Saw sequels and The Collector. The results, thus far, have been lackluster, and Jason Mann is not likely to change that.

In the intervening years between season three and season four of the series, however, the cultural landscape has changed significantly. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck probably did not anticipate that issues of diversity would play such a large role in season four, but it was Damon himself who put that issue front and center in the first episode. While choosing a director, Damon suggested to the movie’s producer Effie Brown (Dear White People) — the only other black person in the room — that “diversity” is something that is considered “in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”

The internet’s reaction to Damon’s tone-deaf comments was swift and unmerciful, as the previously beloved, politically progressive Matt Damon was criticized for whitesplaining and for letting his white privilege show. Even Damon himself conceded that he came off sounding like “an asshole,” admitting later that it was an insensitive thing to say.

To his credit, Damon could have had the conversation edited out of the episode, but he was a man of his word when he suggested in that first episode that he wanted to “start a conversation” about diversity on Project Greenlight. That conversation dominated much of the season, thanks to the conflict between producer Effie Brown and the director who Affleck and Damon chose to direct the film, the bristling and arrogant Jason Mann, described as “pretentious as hell” by one of the film’s producers, Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber).

Farrelly wasn’t wrong. Mann came into the competition exuding a sense of entitlement, as though it were an honor for the series to have him instead of the other way around. Within minutes after being announced as the season’s director, Mann cornered Matt Damon and Ben Affleck backstage and insisted that the writer of the screenplay, Pete Jones, be fired and that he be able to shoot on film instead of digitally.

The first issue resolved itself fairly easily: Mann was able to successfully lobby the producers to drop the original Pete Jones’ script, Not Another Pretty Woman (in part because of issues of diversity) and use Jones to help Mann rewrite and extend one of Mann’s short films into a full-length feature film, The Leisure Class. Jones, ever the professional, took no offense to having his original script canned. In fact, he embraced the rewrite. (The resulting script, unfortunately, was more dismal than Hall Pass without the benefit of Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis to elevate it.)

The second question — whether to shoot digitally or on film — dominated the first half of the season. Mann insisted on shooting on film, no matter the cost, while his producer, Effie Brown, fought against it, not for artistic reasons, but because of the cost. It would add an additional $300,000 to the film’s budget. Ultimately, Mann would win that battle, but lose the war. He sought to do an end-around on Brown first with Farrelly and later Affleck. Farrelly, for his part, attempted to convince Mann that shooting digitally could be just as effective as using film, but his ex parte conversations with Mann upset Brown. Brown thereafter took issue with Farrelly, who was advising on the film pro bono. He quit the project as a result, because he had no interest in engaging in an argument with Brown.

Affleck was more diplomatic. He agreed to give up part of his fee, as well as Damon’s, to allow Mann to shoot on film, although he also set Mann straight on whom he was to take orders from: Effie Brown. She’s a hard-ass because it’s her job to be a hard-ass, Affleck insisted. The relationship between Mann and Brown, however, remained strained.

In fact, it got to the point that Mann seemed to tune Brown out whenever she brought him news he didn’t want to hear. For much of the series, he continued to treat her demands as loose guidelines and waited for his wishes to fall into his lap, whether it be in casting, location, or shooting schedule.

Once shooting got under way, however, the tide began to turn, and it was Effie Brown — with the backing of HBO President Len Amato — who began to win most of the battles. It quickly became apparent that Mann was not the next Wes Anderson — no matter how much he believed himself to be — and both Brown and the other higher-ups refused to continue indulging his demands. Shooting on film cost him a much-needed extra two days on his shooting schedule. Moreover, on the last day of filming, when Mann demanded an expensive car-crash sequence, he was rebuffed. In fact, when the alternate fender-bender sequence didn’t go as Mann had hoped on the first take, he was refused another. (The sequence was an underwhelming afterthought in the eventual film, just another dud scene in a series of dud scenes.)

Matt Damon’s argument that diversity show up in the casting rather than behind-the-scenes would reveal the greatest irony of The Leisure Class. There were no people of color cast in the film, but thanks to Effie Brown, the crew working on the film was more reflective of the diversity of society. In fact, in a later episode, the diversity question played central again when Mann and the casting director essentially ignored Effie Brown’s instructions not to cast a black person to play in a subservient position. “There are no people of color in this movie,” she said. “So, when you do see someone of a non-dominant culture, they stand out. The only black person in the movie is not going to be a chauffeur… It’s time for us to tell a different narrative.”

Effie Brown put her foot down, but she shouldn’t have had to. It shouldn’t have been a battle in the first place.

HBO got in additional hot water over that episode in which Brown caused “unneeded drama” — as her co-producer Marc Joubert called it — by titling the episode “Hot Ghetto Mess.” The network would later apologize, explaining that the title referred to a line uttered by Brown that was edited out of the final cut.

The conflict between Mann and Brown finally came to a head in the final episode of Greenlight. During the editing process, several people — including HBO’s president, a test-screening audience, and even Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — had issues with the director’s cut of the film. Effie Brown was leading the charge to improve the story, and revealed that she’d miraculously saved money in order to do another day of pick-ups.

Rather than being thankful for an opportunity to fix the film in reshoots, Mann complained that Brown had withheld money he could’ve used to improve his car-crash sequence. However, once he turned to reshoots, he again ignored Brown’s issues with the story — in particular, his weak female character — and prioritized reshoots for technical reasons over reshoots for story reasons. Left with a mess, Mann chose to make his mess look prettier rather than try to fix it. He remained obstinate until the end, refusing to listen to Effie Brown. It’s evident in the final product.

Meanwhile, the drama over the diversity issues also played out in the press. For his part, Jason Mann has taken issue with the way the season has been edited to highlight the conflict between him and Brown. “The contention on the show is much more severe than the reality of it,” he told the Washington Post. “We were having our disagreements, but they made it seem like the world was falling apart practically.”

For her part, Effie Brown has had some issues with the editing as well. For one, she said that the infamous conversation with Matt Damon in the opening episode was edited to make it come off more favorably to Damon than it actually was. “That was not the full conversation, to be real. That was a more polite version of that exchange,” she told Indiewire, adding that “word on the street is I’m not [Matt Damon’s] favorite person.” She’s also admitted that her relationship with her co-producer Marc Joubert was in “tatters” following production on the film.

Ultimately, however, Project Greenlight did what Matt Damon said it would do: Start a conversation about diversity. What it confirmed, however, is that it’s still difficult for a black female to be a “hard ass” without being perceived negatively by her peers, as she suggested to Indiewire:

“I did a good job. I’m not a man. That’s the thing. I’ve never been anything other than a black woman. I learned what I learned: to reach your goal, you can take several paths. I’m used to taking the direct straight path. If I felt I was not looked at through the male gaze as a female, you bet it would be different. I have to think, the people I’m working with, they don’t think they are misogynistic.”

Is there a winner and a loser in this? Look at it this way: Jason Mann’s film is a mess that’s already being derided by critics as “terrible” and only worth watching as an incidental footnote to the series. On the other hand, at least it got in on time and under budget. Effie Brown even saved money for Mann to try and fix his mistakes, money he didn’t use wisely. She succeeded in her job.

The biggest loser here, however, may be Project Greenlight, which continued its streak of churning out unexceptional films. No one will remember The Leisure Class a year from now. Few will likely remember Jason Mann. Everyone, however, will remember Effie Brown. Whatever else you want to say about her, she got sh*t done.

(Via IndieWire, the Washington Post)