Two directors in search of a character

"Project Greenlight" makes for sometimes thrilling TV. But it -- and its resulting film, "The Battle of Shaker Heights" -- shows why some aspiring auteurs really don't deserve the support of a major movie studio.

Published August 22, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

There's a plague on this land of ours, one that few dare to face: Our cities and towns are absolutely filthy with aspiring directors. You may not have noticed, but look a little closer, and you'll see them: tapping away on their laptops at the corner table of the cafe, arguing about their favorite directors over pints at the local pub, aiming their digital video cameras at anything that looks edgy, from pigeons to homeless guys sleeping on benches. Middle-class parents nationwide have unknowingly raised a blight of self-proclaimed geniuses, the sorts who treasure the idea of being in charge of a film crew and a bunch of movie stars, who adore the notion of creating art that costs, oh, around half-a-million dollars a pop, at least.

This pompous breed is immune to practical discussions of getting a film funded, or the difficulty of getting it distributed once it's funded (no, Sundance is no guarantee), or the real possibility that, despite all their hard work, their film still might suck.

Finally, there's a cure for the misguided dreamers who've been frightening the public with their pretentious film jargon and their espresso halitosis for decades now. Despite its stated aim -- to discover talented writers and directors -- the HBO series "Project Greenlight," which wraps up Sunday at 9 p.m., is surely a government-funded plan to nip the dreams of deluded young filmmakers in the bud. While Miramax goes through the poker-faced motions of releasing the product of this season's show, yet another flaccid coming-of-age movie called "The Battle of Shaker Heights," their real aim is to stomp out this blight of glassy-eyed Hollywood hopefuls, thereby freeing countless innocents from having to sit through tedious discussions of imaginary casting choices ("I'm seeing a younger Kathy Bates in this one ...") and countless screenings of self-indulgent short films about pigeons.

True, "Project Greenlight" has always been painted as a deeply humane effort by young screenwriters/studmonkeys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to bring gifted aspiring filmmakers to Hollywood. A screenwriter and a director are selected out of a teaming mass of hopefuls to make a $1 million film, compliments of Miramax, and the whole thing is documented on the TV show, compliments of HBO. Despite the fact that no one is typically more discouraging about the odds of breaking into the business than Hollywood insiders, you have to admire those pretty, earnest faces in the opening credits, dreaming big: We figured, if we could just demolish the barriers to entry, well, golly gee, just think of all those talented folks out there, just waiting for their big break!

Unfortunately, though, when an amateur painter wins the lottery or a trust fund kid picks up a digital video camera and some editing equipment, the odds of great art emerging are alarmingly slim. Throw in some cameras that follow you everywhere and silently second-guess your every move, and you've got a recipe for a fascinating TV show (HBO wins again!), and a disappointing made-for-TV movie (Miramax loses again, how long are they going to keep this up?) -- which is exactly what those crafty devils behind this secret plot are after! And so, a nation of dreamers turns its starry eyes to the small screen ...

Enter Chris Moore, executive producer and resident dominatrix of "Project Greenlight," hell-bent on schooling the "winners" of the contest on The Tragic Realities of Low-Budget Studio Filmmaking. Within the first few minutes of the first show, Moore was already gazing google-eyed into the camera and working himself into a lather of proactive annoyance over what ingrates the prospective winners might be. Soon after, we're introduced to a quirky assortment of aspiring screenwriters and directors, all of whom seem to scream "I'm no Pete Jones!"

Pete Jones, you see, was the winner of last year's contest, an amiable guy who proved himself to be far too blandly likable and Midwestern to make an interesting lead character and tragic hero for the show. On top of that, his movie, "Stolen Summer," was about as interesting as a Disney movie of the week. Forget the fact that Ben 'n' Matt 'n' Co. picked Jones' script, a dorky, on-the-nose tale that featured a cloyingly sentimental premise and one endless, overwritten scene after another. Forget that the crew didn't even work with a shot list, and the results played like a Lassie movie without the dog. The major tragedy of "Stolen Summer" was that director of photography Pete Biagi, perhaps one of the first season's most controversial, cocky characters, had the kind of rare talent that more than justifies a little slice of that self-proclaimed genius pie. Biagi endured a very public lashing on the show for being a prima donna, but in the end, his work was the most inspiring aspect of "Stolen Summer" -- he single-handedly demonstrated that low-budget films don't have to look like crap if you hire a good enough DP.

It wasn't exactly surprising, then, when the honchos at "Project Greenlight" ignored the remarkable directors' clips they received from Jessica Landaw and Joe Otting, and were instead wowed by the flashy special effects and hammy charms of Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle. These two seemed destined to be the anti-Petes. Screenwriter Erica Beeney was maybe a little less entertaining, but her screenplay, "The Battle of Shaker Heights," appeared to be the undisputed favorite. With a dynamic duo of directors, the producers must've imagined that "Project Greenlight" would offer a steady flow of slapstick moments. And -- bonus -- these guys are just cocky enough that, not only were they sure to argue amongst themselves, but they would almost certainly provide a painful demonstration of Moore's Tragic Realities from Day 1.

At first, it appeared the producers' dreams would come true. Kyle and Efram flaunted their cluelessness like dirty drawers, wondering out loud why they needed a production designer, or becoming confused when they were told they couldn't edit the movie themselves. But when Efram demanded that he, too, get a complimentary car like Erica did, you could almost see Moore salivate. "I can't believe this guy is asking me this question right here," he told the camera later. "I mean, the balls of it!"

Sadly, though, Kyle and Efram quickly became an irritatingly indirect and vague blob. Instead of openly discussing their concerns, the pair bitched to the camera, then avoided all direct conflict in person, until the rest of the crew were pulling their hair out trying to guess what they really wanted. They were indecisive and squirrelly at every turn during the shoot, offering countless conflicting notes for the actors and refusing to trust the expertise of those around them.

In one particularly excruciating scene, the directors went into a meeting with Erica intent on getting her screenplay on disc so they could rewrite it themselves. But they were far too passive-aggressive to just ask her.

Kyle: "We all know that you created Kelly, but the problem is, for us to direct and bring life to Kelly, you need to introduce us to Kelly, and then let us take him away and form our own opinion of Kelly. I mean, I know that it's painful ..."

Erica: "I didn't know this was a discussion about that. Maybe you guys should just write it, you know? I mean, is that sort of what you were saying here, or what? Because if you're saying you can't direct this, and we can't have a discussion about it ..."

Kyle: "Oh, no!"

Erica: "So what are you saying?"

Kyle: "I'm open to writing a version of this, and giving it to you ..."

Efram [eagerly]: "Would you be averse to us, like, if we each did a version and just brought it to the table? Just to give us something to talk about? I think it would better inform the discussion."

Far from the unconventional clown presented in his clips, Efram seemed to fall back on corporate speak whenever he was being particularly manipulative. Pretty soon, everyone appeared annoyed by him, but no one wanted to come across as an asshole when he couched all his gripes so diplomatically.

The exception was casting director Joseph Middleton, who stated outright that he didn't like the two directors one bit and, in one memorable scene, took joy in giving them bad news. Moore appeared to hate them from Day 1, but he would dutifully play the role of the outraged and befuddled Greek chorus regardless, egging on our wishy-washy tragic heroes to their downfall. Still, everyone else -- producer Jeff Balis, Erica Beeney -- mostly resorted to eye-rolling and long, dramatic sighs.

Unfortunately for the show, Kyle and Efram got along just swell. Their relationship had a co-dependent grace to it, with all of their passive-aggressive tricks perfectly in sync and attuned to each other. When Efram left the office to pick up the Range Rover he finally secured (after learning Erica got a Beamer) and didn't come back for several hours, leaving his co-director and writer waiting all afternoon, Erica was clearly furious. She called him an asshole, said it was way too late to start, and left. Efram then turned to Kyle and asked, "Now, you're not pissed at me because I went and did that today, are you?" Kyle demured, "No, it was just a lot longer than I expected."

After watching these two pussy-foot around, self-consciously change their minds, then sulk quietly when things don't go their way, the weaknesses of "The Battle of Shaker Heights" weren't exactly a surprise. It is clearly a well-written script, a traditional Bildungsroman with flair, and they scored a coup by casting the extravagantly talented young actor Shia LaBeouf as their lead, Kelly. But the film was directed without a passionate vision or a distinctive perspective. Just as they revealed little of themselves on "Project Greenlight," Kyle and Efram didn't seem to inject anything personal or unique into the film.

Instead, they allowed for an inconsistent tone, playing up the absurd one minute, then laying the melodrama on thick the next. When Kelly, a wise-cracking teen, goes from openly despising his dad to engaging in a tearful group hug with both his father and his mother, even the crew members standing by were flinching.

Miramax's test audience agreed. When the time came to edit the movie, all Miramax and the producers could do was lobby to chop out the really embarrassing melodrama.

Chris: "I would rather mine for more comedy, lighten it up ... "

Efram: "I'm all for making the film not be a heavy film, and for it to be light, but in our efforts to do that, we have really damaged what drama was there."

Chris: "But I don't think he can break down and hug his mom and start crying in the version of the movie that at least I'm arguing for."

Later, Chris tried to pull a little ill-will out of Erica, who was clearly tempted to let loose a tirade, but mustered up as much self-control as she could in explaining her disappointment.

Erica: "The dramatic stuff is tonally different than I imagined it."

Chris: "Lighter?"

Erica: "No, just ... cheesier."

The problem, though, is that, once the melodramatic scenes are surgically removed, what you've got is a mildly funny drama with very little dramatic weight to it. LaBeouf gives an incredible performance, but his perpetual wisecracking and fidgety stance throughout the movie imply that the emotional weight of each scene is roughly equal to the next. As a result, the rising action is undercut by an emotional stasis.

As a result, what could have been an interesting, distinct film is watered down into an after-school special. No matter how much you enjoy the scenes where Kelly charms his friend's WASPy parents or pulls a prank on the class bully, the film has no dramatic center. Why is Kelly angry at his dad, aside from the fact that he was once a drinker? When Kelly's dad goes into the hospital, has he relapsed, or is he just sick? Huge chunks of the plot seem to be missing, and it's not clear what Kelly wants, beyond his friend's engaged older sister. In Wes Anderson's "Rushmore," an even more impossible crush actually seems plausible because the twisted tone and strange worldview of the movie are so evident in every scene. "The Battle of Shaker Heights" doesn't inspire nearly as much of an emotional investment, because it doesn't feel nearly as personal or distinct.

But audiences aren't the only ones who aren't invested. "I think I have, to a certain degree, disengaged emotionally from 'The Battle of Shaker Heights,'" Erica laments, and from the miserable look on her face over the past few episodes, we know that she's putting it mildly. Her screenplay, which maybe she hoped would spark the next "Ghost World" or "Election" or "Igby Goes Down," has instead launched the mediocre.

Still, the nice thing about seeing so much time, money and effort go into a bland film is that it makes you appreciate truly inspired filmmaking even more. When you think about how filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Jane Campion, Spike Jonze or Terrence Malick manage to combine an interesting plot, great performances, breathtaking cinematography, a memorable soundtrack, and countless other pieces to form a cohesive, compelling experience ... well, it almost makes you want to buy all those dreamers a triple cappuccino, and maybe even fund a few short films about pigeons.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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