The most obvious risk in making a show like Project Greenlight, that follows the process of creating a work of art (or, at least, a work of entertainment), is that said process could end up being quite dull to watch. Last night’s episode, which focused on preproduction tasks such as casting and location scouting, certainly flirted with boredom. Unfortunately, what saved it from that fate was the way it escalated what is becoming the season’s defining conflict: Effie Brown vs. white men who question her expertise.
The episode begins on a promising (if, again, somewhat boring) note. After delays caused by the shift to producing director Jason Mann’s feature-length script, The Leisure Class, Effie has less than a month for preproduction. As she explains, bigger-budget films would have ten weeks. But she pulls it together, hiring what she notes is a diverse crew.
Of course, Jason remains as stubborn about his vision as ever. (“I’ve been living like a cinematic monk for the last 11 years” is his quote of the episode.) He wants to shoot the film in a mansion that looks like an old-money Connecticut estate, so Effie hires a location scout to find the closest possible thing in the Los Angeles area. Clearly, though, the mansions in Southern California are largely 20th century or newer. As they review photos and then walk through each house, Jason is firm in his rejection of every single one. He may be a great artist, but he’s also a producer’s worst nightmare.
Casting, at least, goes a bit more easily. Jason wants Tom Bell, the actor who starred in “The Leisure Class” short, to reprise his role in the feature — and the suits immediately support his decision. An attempt to find a bigger star for another role results in pass after pass: Albert Brooks, Jeff Daniels, Kevin Kline. But they do succeed in casting Ed Weeks, the funny British actor who’s currently being wasted in an inconsistent Mindy Project role, opposite Bell. (Well, until they learn that the show legally has the right to keep Weeks off their set for over a week after production begins. That issue isn’t resolved by the end of this episode. I guess we’ll find out what happens next week.)
While all this is happening, the conflict between Effie and Jason over whether he’ll get to shoot on film — thus going $300k over budget — is still simmering. He still hasn’t taken “no” for an answer, and the next person he appeals to for support is Peter Farrelly. In what may be a genuine attempt to help out the producers, Peter plans to give Jason a demonstration of how closely video can resemble film after postproduction… which is, of course, exactly what Effie did last week.
Coming on the heels of Peter’s earlier pronouncement that it shouldn’t be hard to find a location Jason likes in LA and subsequent suggestion that they just move the whole production to Georgia, this doesn’t go down well with Effie. She thought her decision not to shoot on film was final and feels undermined by a “mentor” who hasn’t had to deal with this difficult director on a daily basis. Not only is she right, but there are so many other things happening under the surface of this interaction: For one thing, Effie has to be exhausted, immersed as she is in a rushed preproduction schedule that Jason feels perfectly comfortable delaying over small disagreements. And then there’s all the historical weight of Hollywood’s racism and sexism, which casts her colleagues’ intrusions into Effie’s domain in a particularly harsh light.
What’s really depressing is that — because she’s often the only woman and the only person of color in any room where she didn’t do the hiring — no one around Effie seems to understand this. “We all have the same goal, Effie: to make a good film,” says Marc Joubert, who brought Peter Farrelly on board Project Greenlight and immediately sides with him. Then Peter decides that “Effie wants drama,” so he up and quits the show because “I don’t want to engage.” According to Marc, this means “we could be fucked.” Not because Farrelly left them in a lurch, mind you, but because he’s fragile enough that one tense interaction with Effie soured him on a project he’d already committed to.
All of this lends credence to some of my worst fears about what an uphill battle the film industry can be for anyone who isn’t a white man. You’ve got to be as tough and assertive as they are to win any respect, but when you are, they start to bristle. And that’s painful to watch. But I went into this season of Project Greenlight doubtful as to whether the series would do anything to challenge Hollywood norms. As it turns out, whether the show means to or not, it’s illuminating what all the depressing statistics we’re always reporting about race and gender in Hollywood look like on a human level, and that makes it compulsory viewing.