Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. The episode of the week for October 3 through 10, 2015, is the fourth episode of Project Greenlight, season four, titled "Duly Noted."
Oh, how I hate Jason Mann, like I've never hated a TV character.
I'm aware that the fledgling director at the center of Project Greenlight, season four, is being made to look like an uncompromising, self-obsessed wannabe artiste by the series' producers and editors. I'm sure that in real life, he's a much more complicated, interesting person.
But Jesus Christ, every time he sniffs about how he insists upon filming his very first feature film — which will air on HBO, rather than being released theatrically, no less — on film, rather than digital, I want to drag him out of the screen and strangle him. "How few people get this opportunity?!" I would ask, shaking him by the shoulders. "You're going to waste it all on pointless bullshit!"
The fourth episode of the show's fourth season might be Peak Jason, both the moment of his greatest triumph and the moment when I most felt the telltale migraine of dealing with the truly uncompromising developing behind my eyeballs. It is, in short, a perfect encapsulation of everything Mann stands for and everything that makes a great reality show.
Jason neatly embraces a central American contradiction
At the center of Jason's journey this season is the simple fact that Americans claim to revere uncompromising iconoclasts who stick to their guns — especially in the fields of art and business — while simultaneously living in a country that ostensibly fetishizes the art of compromise.
When 40 members of the House of Representatives freeze up the organization because they want Planned Parenthood defunded (among other things), it prompts fretting about the state of the art of compromise. But when a David Fincher insists on take after take after take of whatever film he's shooting at the moment in order to get exactly what he wants, we celebrate his vision.
Granted, there are problems with scale here. If the House simply stops functioning, the US is in a world of hurt, whereas if Fincher makes a shitty movie, people just won't go see it. But it still grasps something very human in its central contradiction — we want people to insist upon their grand visions, and we celebrate them for doing so, until precisely the moment when it adversely impacts us.
What's so enthralling about Project Greenlight, season four, is how it puts us on set with someone who actually embodies that uncompromising nature. As Scott Tobias notes at GQ, the show's first three seasons saw directors too willing to compromise get ground up by a system designed to produce primarily mediocre movies. (The films were only too happy to oblige.)
But in season four, the things Mann is standing up for are legitimately important to his artistic vision of the film. Tobias writes:
Through the third episode, Mann has pulled off the remarkable creative jujitsu of convincing Jones, then Brown and Joubert, and then HBO to dump [original script] Not Another Pretty Woman in favor of The Leisure Class, an expansion of a short he's previously directed. He seems to be losing the film-versus-video battle with Brown, who bristles at the added production costs. But he's currently digging in on the primary location, a mansion that's supposed to suggest old-money Connecticut but the possibles so far are looking more like nouveau-riche Los Angeles. So to recap, Mann has been a pain in the ass on three fronts: The script, the look of the film, and the setting. For even a half-decent director, these are all hills worth dying on.
Is this the only way to make a film?
The natural question the show asks, then, is if the only way to make a good movie is to be an uncompromising jackass. We don't know yet if Mann will make a good movie — based on the handful of excerpts we've seen, I have my doubts — but at least he's doing his damnedest to make something.
The problem is that he's rolling over essentially everybody else in his path, many of whom are women or people of color. When he finally wins the battle to shoot on film, it's largely because it's been his single-minded obsession, and it's over the frequent protests of Effie Brown, the producer of the film, who's helping him navigate the troubled waters of preproduction. (I wrote much, much more about this element of the show here.)
When Brown gets briefly angry about this endless process with consultant Peter Farrelly (co-director of There's Something About Mary, among others), Farrelly eventually quits the reality show entirely. When Mann sticks to his guns on something that the show largely treats as inconsequential (though it obviously isn't to him), he eventually gets his way after eating up roughly three episodes' worth of screen time on the same problem.
But "Duly Noted" also shows why Mann is such a maddening figure, when he finally chooses the location where he wants to film — which is one of the very first he was shown in the process of location scouting.
You can see the people he's forced to bring location after location to him hold tight-lipped grins when he finally realizes what they did weeks earlier. As the episode ends, Brown is pointing out that the film is just days away from shooting, and so thoroughly has the fight over film versus digital eaten up Mann's time that he's failed to prep a shot list or anything similar.
What's fascinating about this is my fervent hope that Mann crashes and burns. The show is setting him up to be a massive failure, to get his comeuppance. Greenlight essentially hasn't bothered to explain why Mann cares so much about film versus digital, which suggests to me a payoff down the line where his insistence on film ultimately bites him in the ass, possibly because he runs out of budget or time. Reality TV's editing process means everything is guiding viewers toward particular ends, and this seems the most likely one here.
I still intellectually understand that filmmaking is a series of compromises and knowing when to stick to your guns. Maybe Mann made far more compromises during preproduction, and all we saw was the endless fight over film versus digital because it made for better TV. In fact, I would bet good money on that being the case.
Filmmaking is never easy. Even the best films result from chaotic processes. And, yes, there are filmmakers, like Robert Altman or Mike Leigh, who have much more open, collaborative sets. But the vast majority of our great filmmakers are people who know, with exacting certitude, what kind of movie they're making. Project Greenlight is just showing us what that can look like up close, to the people who have to work with such a person, and not those who only get to enjoy the finished product.
Watch Project Greenlight Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.