Do you like going to the movies, but always wonder how they're made? Are you interested in the process that goes into the creation of art — any art? Do you just want to see engaging, creative people butting heads while they try to accomplish the impossible? Then Starz's new reality series, The Chair, which debuts at 11 p.m. Eastern Saturday, might be for you.
I'm not usually a huge fan of reality TV, but The Chair sucked me in from the word go. It's from Chris Moore, whom you might remember as one of the major figures of the late, great movie-oriented reality series Project Greenlight, and depicts two different first-time directors making movies from the same script, examining their approaches to the material and to filmmaking itself. One of them will eventually win a $250,000 prize when all is said and done, but it's not the (largely superfluous) competitive aspect that makes The Chair so much fun.
Here are four other reasons the show is one of the best reality shows in years. And if you're intrigued, check out my full interview with Moore.
1) It really digs into how differences in creativity drive artists.
The two directors Moore and his team selected couldn't be more different. Anna Martemucci is a screenwriter who rose out of the world of independent filmmaking and now wants to try her hand at directing. Her approach to the central script — about a bunch of friends gathering during their first Thanksgiving weekend home from college — is deeply personal, much more in line with acclaimed indie comedies that sweep awards at Sundance. Meanwhile, her competition comes from Shane Dawson, a YouTube star who wants to turn the film into a bawdy comedy with big gags.
Yet even in the midst of those overriding tones, Anna and Shane find room for other thoughts and ideas. Their backgrounds and ideas of what makes a successful film couldn't be more different, but they're both strong storytellers, and that comes through in every frame, even when they're having the inevitable reality show meltdowns.
2) Moore remains a fascinating presence
Plenty about the film industry has changed since Project Greenlight was on the air, but the lively, irascible Moore is much the same. Now, however, he has to hustle harder to find the money to put the films together, which means we get to see even more of him at his best. (There are frequent moments in the first two episodes where Anna and Shane wonder if the money to make the films will ever show up.)
Moore is perhaps less immediately prone to irritation than he was in Greenlight, but his new avuncular nature has made him even more unpredictable and fascinating. When the camera captures Anna talking smack about Moore in episode two and she realizes she's being filmed, it's a legitimately queasy moment. It's all in good fun, but you always wonder when Moore might finally decide he's had enough of this.
3) The show is smart about how gender affects things in Hollywood
Without turning into a treatise on the subject, The Chair has substantial insight into how men and women approach the creative process differently and how Hollywood is subconsciously skewed toward a male point-of-view. The show never turns Shane or Anna into symbols of how men or women approach these projects, but it's interesting to see how Shane settles much more easily into the role of chief decision-maker than Anna (who's naturally more collaborative) does.
And while collaborative filmmakers like Robert Altman and Mike Leigh have had long, successful careers in film, the medium is skewed much more toward those who can step up and start making the vast majority of the calls. In its own subtle way, The Chair suggests that might also mean the industry is tilted toward men in general.
4) It's beautifully paced
Though every episode takes its time to make sure you understand things, it also keeps the story moving forward. Greenlight could get bogged down in minutiae from time to time, and that's never a problem on The Chair. This weekend's premiere deals with Anna and Shane working on their versions of the script — and their clashes with the screenwriter over same — while next week's episode digs into the pre-production process.
It's deep enough to be catnip for movie fans, but it's also inherently intriguing to neophytes. Things move on The Chair, simply because there's no time to stop and think too hard about what's next. There's always another crisis around the corner.
The Chair debuts Saturday night at 11 p.m. Eastern on Starz.
Chris Moore has produced many films, but his name will forever be most associated with Good Will Hunting, the film that launched Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to super-stardom and that gave Moore an entry to the level of Hollywood's top producers. Since then, he's produced many films with Damon or Affleck — including Reindeer Games and The Adjustment Bureau — and many without — including the American Pie movies. But for many TV fans, he's perhaps best known as the grouchy central figure of the three-season early '00s reality series Project Greenlight, where his producer's acumen frequently came into conflict with the first-time directors who won a chance to make their debut feature on the show. Now, he returns to TV with the similarly movie-themed The Chair, but the film industry has changed around him. He talked to Vox about the changing face of the business and why he doesn't mind his directors giving him shit.
Todd VanDerWerff: This is such an unconventional way of doing both a reality show and making a movie. How did you convince anybody to do this?
Chris Moore: It's one of these ideas that sat in my head, probably for the last five years. Then about three years ago, I started pitching it. There were a lot of networks who were psyched to have the documentary, given my experience on Greenlight and some of the other stuff I've been part of. They're like, "That would probably be a good show."
There was a ton of people who, right away, thought the idea was really cool. Like in the business, people love the idea like, "Yeah. Let's see two people do it." They even love the sort of competition nature of you know somebody's out there trying to win the money, because to some extent that's our job everyday. I know when I try to get a movie made, that there's 10 other producers trying to get movies made that day, and every studio knows there's other movies.
So that part of it was easy. The hardest part was, nobody wanted to pay for the movies, because there's a sort of conventional way to them. It's hard enough to get people to come see one movie. How are you going to get your money back on two movies, particularly when people know it's the same story, right? I say that's the whole conceit. The whole conceit is, you're interested in seeing both people's version of the story.
So to some extent, I was like, "It seems to me, that because there's two movies, we have a better chance of getting people to see both movies, right? Or at least, they'll go to the person they like better in the show and see their movie, right?" I never understood that, to be honest. That's probably why I'm a lowly producer and I'm not a giant studio executive, is because it made no fucking sense to me that this wasn't a no-brainer.
And it wasn't also designed to be first time directors — when I went out to sell it, I had some experienced directors who were interested in doing it. They wanted to do it if they can get a little bit more money than what we ended up with. And so I ended up with first timers because of the budget level. It was very difficult to convince people to do it. But my goal for The Chair 2 is to have, "Here's Popeye the Sailor, everybody knows who he is, we haven't seen a movie in a long time. Here's David O. Russell's version of Popeye and Kevin Smith's version of Popeye." I'd watch that documentary, and I would see both those movies. And I bet they'd be really different.
Todd VanDerWerff: What do you find so interesting about the differences in directorial spins?
Chris Moore: It's all about storytelling for me. And I love a good story. I love being told a good story. I grew up in the generation of movies. I love movies and television. I had a TV in my bedroom, which is probably bad parenting from my parents' point of view. But I just think stories are a great way to escape your life, they're a great way to learn about stuff.
I think storytelling with a camera and a microphone and all of the special effects software that exists today, is really fun. I heard a quote once from Spielberg where he said, "Well, we had to wait until they could make it look like it was real dinosaurs, before we could do Jurassic Park." To me that's the right answer, which is you want to tell the story in the best way it can be told.
So I'm always fascinated by watching, and I'm inspired by watching great directors tell stories in different ways, and to some extent, tell very different stories with the same base material. I would say if you watch the three Tim Burton Batmans, they're totally different than the three Christopher Nolan Batmans. Right? And to me that's just as interesting as seeing the brand new movie from Alexander Payne.
Todd VanDerWerff: What do you think has changed the most about how independent films are made and financed, since you made Project Greenlight all those years ago?
Chris Moore: Sadly, the industry as a whole has made a decision that there's no business in it. When we were doing Greenlight, Harvey Weinstein was out there, and he obviously was our partner in it. Fox Searchlight was just starting up. Paramount had its own division. Warner Bros. had its own division. There were like five other independent companies, Thinkfilm and October Films and Good Machine. There was a lot of people. The film festivals were going gang-busters, Sundance and Toronto, and Telluride, and Cannes. People were interested.
And my personal opinion — and I'm sure this is not what I should say if I care about my future — but to some extent, the bankers and the MBAs and other people took over, and every movie has to on paper look like it's going to hit a given margin. And as soon as you start applying margins to creative conversations, it's very hard.
I say to people all the time, "There's no chance in Hell Matt and Ben and I would have been able to get Good Will Hunting made now." It might be hard to get American Pie made now, because there were no stars, and it was a $10 million movie. Like now, if you go out, you're either making a $2 million movie or you're making a $60 million movie. The reason is solely based on, "Well, for $60 million, we can increase our margin." And at $2 million, what that really means is, there is no margin on this movie. But that cost is so low, we might as well make it anyway. To me, it's a totally different time, which is why the studio in this story is me. It's me and a bunch of brave interesting people from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who decided to back me on this.
Todd VanDerWerff: So what do you think has been the impact of different revenue streams like VOD or streaming surfaces? And is that something you take into consideration as The Chair goes forward?
Chris Moore: I think that all of those were examples of the larger behavior model of humans, which is that everybody loves the concept of anywhere, any time, on any device. And so the problem is, that spreads out your audience. So you have a bunch of different collections you have to do to get your money back. Whereas in the old days, there were like three. There was home video, there was foreign, and there was domestic box office. So from a business point of view, it's a lot more complicated with all those things you're talking about.
The other problem is, I don't think humans are going to have all of these different ways all of the time. I just don't think they can afford it. In the case of The Chair, for instance, you've got to subscribe to Starz to watch the show. I would be willing to bet there's a lot of Shane Dawson fans who are not subscribers to Starz. And the question is, are they going to add another way to watch content to watch this? I think that's part of the problem right now, is a lot of the content that's being made also has to carry the burden of the business model behind the content.
To me, the business models are still trying to figure themselves out, and I don't envy the people that are trying to figure it out. Because it's probably a scary proposition when you hear things like "cut the cord," when you're like, "Well, I'll just get in on Apple TV."
Now, for content creators, I think we're in a really great moment, only because enough of the business models have proven themselves successful enough that you have a bunch of new players. You have Amazon paying for stuff. You have Netflix paying for stuff. You have different ways that people are getting their money back. So as a pure content player, where I'm not invested in the business model, I got more people I can go to sell stuff to.
But I think in general, I hope we narrow this down and we get through it. I am also old enough to remember very clearly two other moments in the industry when this exact same thing happened. One was when home video started in the first place. There was a shitload of these small home-video companies, like Dirty Dancing, a big movie people know was made by a little company called Vestron. Rambo is made by a home-video company called IVE. There are other ones like Hemdale and other stuff. They all got weeded out by — what's the biggest home video company on the world now? — Warner Bros. The point is, they get weeded out once they figure out the business model. The same thing happened in cable TV. There are all these channels and all these original programming, and all these other stuff. And they all sort of got weeded down to the ones we can both name.
So we're going through that right now online. People are figuring it out, and they're seeing what happens, and a lot of those people are coming into business. But Warner Bros was probably one of the biggest movie studios back then; now they're the biggest home video player. And let's not be surprised that in the next five years, they become the biggest provider of content. That's the way the game gets played.
So for me, I like it right now because I have enough experience to go sell stuff to some of the new people, but I also have the experience to sell into the old process. And I think it's going to be a marriage, like what we're doing with Starz, where you watch the shows on that, but you're going to be able to get a bunch of other content at Starz.com and at other places. Starz has Starz Play and Starz-On-Demand, so you don't have to watch it on Saturday nights at 11:00. You can watch it when you want. It's a combination of those things that is going to be really fun.
Todd VanDerWerff: So when you were entering this process with Anna and Shane, what did you find immediately interesting about the difference of their approaches to this material and the filmmaking process?
Chriss Moore: I got to say, the first thing was the shocking revelation that there is no sort of movie-flagpole for the first Thanksgiving after college movies. Like Shane and Anna both had realized they weren't competing against any other movies that have done it. Like when we did American Pie, there's been 700 movies about people losing their virginity.
So both of them looked at that as a real opportunity to create sort of a real coming-of-age thing. I think that the fascinating thing was that Shane really looked at it from a comedic point-of-view and Ana created a much more personal story. What was really fun for me was watching them make that decision about why one would be better than the other. I think part of it is because Shane never went to college, and he never had the experience of coming home on Thanksgiving weekend, or what that was like. Whereas, Anna did. So I was amazed at that level of personal relationship to the material that they put into the process.
Todd VanDerWerff: There are lots of moments in the first two episodes that deal with how the industry and filmmaking process in general differ for men and women. Did you find that illustrative at all?
Chris Moore: Absolutely. But what I would say is, the illustrative of the fact that I don't know that gender is actually a specific factor in being a good storyteller. Meaning that, there are certain things, like if you want to be a weightlifter, most likely the man's going to be able to lift more weight. There's also things like sweetness or — I don't know, just romance or sappiness or whatever — maybe the girl's going to understand that better than the guy, but Shane has got some of the most moving scenes in a movie I'd seen. And Anna, gross-out humor. They call it fraternity humor, that's locker room humor. As if it's boys, Anna has some funny nasty shit in her movies. That only a woman could write but it's funny and nasty.
Again, some people have asked me, did I do that on purpose? Did I pick a man and woman? Honestly, I didn't. And I'd love to take more credit for having seen how different that would be. But the truth of the matter is, I find them both really talented and I really thought they had great takes on making the movie. I live and am married for 25 years to a woman who's a bad-ass producer, probably a better producer than I am.
So the gender thing in this, I don't think has a big effect. The thing I'm always surprised by, is how few women there are who are big directors. I don't think it's because they can't do it. I think it's something about the lifestyle. I think it's something about what you have to do to get the jobs. It's something about the people hiring directors are all men. So it's weird. I don't know. You know what I mean? It definitely continues to be part of the story.
In Anna's case, she also is in this sort of three-man creative team with her husband and her brother-in-law, which even adds to the dynamic of sort of her being the woman and the director, and the two of them being men. And we've had some people who've worked on the show who feel like sometimes Victor and Phil can be overbearing unfairly. We believe that there'll be some social media when the episodes run about, "It's just unfair." Or "That would never happen to a man." I would say that I agree with that. There's some shit that happens that I don't believe would ever happen to a man.
Todd VanDerWerff: Project Greenlight was very clear about how you picked the scripts, how you picked the director. Here, we just get there and we have the two directors and the script selected already. How did you make that choice to do that with this show?
Chris Moore: For me, it's not a show about finding the next great American director. That's what Greenlight was always about. It's really a storytelling comparison. It's an idea of, there are many decisions you can make every time you tell a story, and my loftier, making me sound more like some asshole reason for doing it is, I really want the world at large to become much more appreciative of directors and writers. I think that when you love a movie, you actually love their work more than you love the actor's work. I think actors are really, really important and I love them. I obviously came up with two big ones. But I think that if we can move that pencil, it would be great.
So for me, it's a very different thing than the Project Greenlight experiment of going out and giving people first chances, and they were trying to break through the walls of Hollywood. I'm not trying to break through any walls. I'm picking people already in the business. These guys already had agents. They'd already made stuff. I'm trying to show the world how fucking hard it is to make a good movie. And every time you find one, you should scream it at the top of your lungs that this one's really good, and maybe go on IMDB and learn who that director was. Because that should be important to you. That's really my loftier goal. I think that we ended up with first-timers just because of the budget level, but that wasn't the goal of this was to do first-timers.
Todd VanDerWerff: There are scenes here where both Anna and Shane are caught shit-talking you. What did you think as you saw that footage come in, and did you just accept it as part of filmmaking process?
Chris Moore: My kid shit-talks me at school. Probably right now.
The point is, look they were honest. Obviously, I'm involved in the show. So if I thought it was bullshit or they were being super mean or whatever, I wouldn't have let it be in the show. The point is that's how they really feel, and the truth of the matter is, I didn't have the fucking money. So in a lot of those scenes, it was 100 percent true.
Luckily, I did have the experience of three years on Greenlight, so I want it to be honest. And that's why the thing I love about the show more than anything else, is the vlogs. We had no idea how honest Shane and Anna were going to be when they put themselves on camera. And I think it works really well in the show.