Entertainment Geekly: Reality TV as personality test.

By Darren Franich
Updated October 05, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Jason Mann/HBO

An outsider with a bold vision struggles against a bureaucracy designed to produce mediocrity. A naive innocent receives absolute power, gets absolutely corrupted. A wise, experienced craftsman has to work for a thoughtless-maniac new boss. A careerist hack embedded in a corrupt system struggles to crush a newcomer’s big dreams. A true individual refuses to conform. A true douchebag makes life hell for everyone around him.

As a window into how Hollywood works, the new season of Project Greenlightis a very twisted and very unlikely fairytale. Nothing on a reality show ever needs to be real, but the original three seasons of Greenlight at least nodded toward a recognizable cultural context. Those early seasons presented themselves as a window into the indie-film frontier, a notion popularized throughout the ’90s by Miramax and its affiliate press-friendly filmmakers. This was a show on the hunt for the next Quentin Tarantino, the next Kevin Smith, or Robert Rodriguez, or Damon-Affleck in their screenwriting phase. Miramax even distributed the first three Project Greenlight films. (Technically, it would’ve made more sense for Miramax to buy all three movies and put two of them on the shelf.)

The first episode of Project Greenlight season 4 establishes, quite firmly, that the show takes place in a peculiar Hollywood dreamscape. There is an assembled brain trust of big names: Star-producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, HBO Films President Len Amato, mentors/godfathers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, journeyman-looking producers Marc Joubert and Effie Brown. The season premiere established two facts:

1. This brain trust really wants to make a movie out of Not Another Pretty Woman, a “broad comedy” script.

2. The brain trust uniformly agrees that Not Another Pretty Woman is not a script they are particularly happy with.

So it’s actually not that surprising that the brain trust decides to hire a director who specifically doesn’t like the “broad comedy” genre. And it’s even less surprising that the braintrust decides to make a completely different movie, called The Leisure Class, when the director brings in his own script (which is thematically similar, although the title sounds like whatever “broad comedy” isn’t.) And it’s not surprising at all when benevolent dictator Len Amato declares that the movie needs to go into production in just a few weeks — as if the whole engine of HBO’s corporate structure depends on this not-so-broad comedy getting finished in time for a Q4 release date.

On some of my favorite reality TV shows, the narrative is less interesting than the metanarrative. What the show is telling you is never as interesting as why the show is telling you that, and what it isn’t telling you. This is something that we as a culture all accept, even though most of us aren’t pointy-headed enough to use a word like “metanarrative.” The Bachelor can work as a fairytale — who will fall in love? — but it works better as an interrogative thriller (who, I ask you, who is actually here for the right reasons? (This is the core realization of UnREAL, which uncovers the devastating nigh-existential psychodrama lurking under The Bachelor‘s neo-Victorian melodrama.)

And the best thing about Project Greenlight is how — halfway through this eight-episode season — it has become a Rorschachian window into viewers’ own thoughts and biases. You can pick your own metanarrative, your own embedded story. The show is savvy about providing just enough context to prove or disprove any theory. Director Jason Mann demands to shoot on film, even though it’s more expensive. “Shooting on Film,” and the raw authenticity that concept suggests, has lately crossed over from cinephile obsession to the mainstream: This December, JJ Abrams’ 35mm Star Wars VII will open just one week before Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight teaches people under 50 what “70 mm” means.

Film, we are told over and over again, isn’t financially feasible; it would eat up a tenth of the movie’s budget. This news gets delivered (frequently and with increasing blunt force) by self-designated bad cop Effie. Effie could be the symbol for the harsh realities of business versus Jason-as-symbol for big dreams of artistry. This dichotomy gets hazy upon closer inspection, at least partially because Effie is a charming professional and Jason is a self-righteous ass. Jason throws tantrums and end-runs around Effie, enlisting Affleck-Damon and Peter Farrelly into his pro-film cause.

This is either noble or petulant. The week after Greenlight debuted, I saw Tangerine, a movie shot mostly on the streets of Los Angeles on an iPhone, made for approximately 1/30th what The Leisure Class will cost Jason. In that context, some of the moves Jason makes start to look privileged, even decadent. Leisure Class is mostly set in a rich family’s mansion, but Jason can’t sign off on a setting, because none of the mansions in the Los Angeles area look old enough or grand enough.

There’s a great underlying tone of East-West snobbery underlying Jason’s role in the show. He’s a Columbia film school grad with skyscraper-shadow pale skin, and so Jason is also the vision of the uncomfortable New Yorker in La-La Land. Without fail, he’s the most dressed person in any room. (Compare his black-shirt-and-blazer combo to Matt Damon, presented herein as a Hollywood god who only wears your little brother’s knitted beanie.) And so I have to believe that your reaction to Jason’s time on Project Greenlight depends, at least slightly, on where you fall in the New York/Los Angeles debate. Jason is Woody Allen in Annie Hall, a talent among hacks. Or, maybe: Jason is the arthouse snoot, a self-deluded “cinema” guy pretentiously going Full Kubrick on a goofy comedy script.

Much has been made this season of the identity politics of Project Greenlight: The show re-entered the zeitgeist with Matt Damon explaining diversity to a black woman. That’s not precisely what happened, but again, reality never matters on reality shows. The #Damonsplaining conversation is the show’s stickiest talking point, and it reflects a broader subtext running through the show. Maybe Jason isn’t the outsider. Maybe he’s another white dude who talks a big game — and white dudes love other white dudes who talk a big game. Viewing Greenlight through this prism offers plenty of metanarrative thrills. Not Another Pretty Woman was going to star a black woman; The Leisure Class stars two white guys. (But, also, this: Not Another Pretty Woman‘s black female character was a prostitute.)

Later, when Effie chastises Peter Farrelly for overstepping his bounds as a mentor, Farrelly quits the project. Apparently, Farrelly feels like he can’t be himself around Effie. “I’ve never had a conversation with him alone,” says Effie, smiling but not smiling. “I will not be painted as, like, the Angry Black Woman.”

Adding to the surreality, the departure of the Farrellys gets treated as a major event in the show’s universe, even though they were just just Jason’s “mentors.” (Bobby only appeared in the first episode.) Project Greenlight is overpopulated with people with vaguely-defined powers and easily-ruffled feathers: It’s a goofily twisted vision of Hollywood that feels applicable to any job with too many middlemen. (In its own strange way, you could argue that the unlikely power dynamics of the Greenlight braintrust actually do capture Hollywood’s current post-apocalyptic moment, where TV network HBO is one of the leading purveyors of original movies, and every actor is a part-time producer, and even a shortlived reality TV franchise can get rebooted 10 years later.)

I tend to find myself on Effie’s side. Maybe it’s because I respect her basic problem-solving professionalism, the willingness to get stuff done. But liking Effie also means, on a certain level, respecting filmmaking more as a skilled-craft business than an artistic endeavor. I keep trying to figure out how the Effie archetype would react to Francis Ford Coppola in the ’70s, or Stanley Kubrick forever. (Then again, the Effie archetype probably would’ve prevented Heaven’s Gate.)

And as a filmmaker, Jason says all the right things. He loves film and he believes in the power of film to create genuine artistic statements. (The subtext of his initial introduction was: “I don’t want to make a Farrelly movie.”) But siding with Jason means siding with a petty tyrant who is either the next P.T. Anderson or just some pretender who thinks he’s already the next P.T. Anderson.

Will The Leisure Class be any good? It’s impossible to say now. Jason is a genius or a madman; his collaborators are competent or incompetent; his producers care about the final product or they’re just phoning in from the set of Batman v. Superman. Even if Leisure Class is bad, there will be some people — probably Jason himself! — who will claims its failure as an example of systemic corruption, the inability of Hollywood to support an original vision. The irony is that everyone on Project Greenlight has constantly deferred to Jason’s vision. In episode 4, Affleck offers to throw $100 thousand of his own fee into the 35 mm fund, before Amato just shrugs and raises Jason’s budget to $3.3 million. So if Leisure Class is good, you could argue that its quality demonstrates the triumph of an efficient system over a struggling individual — the New New Hollywood where every low-budget filmmaker is suddenly great at digital effects, when a studio gives them an expensive digital-effects team.

We’ve never known more about the production of movies. Casting news; pictures from the set; meanderous musings on the future of billion-dollar franchises. This season of Project Greenlight feeds into that fervor. Every conversation could make or break the movie. Every person involved is brilliant or terrible. The show doesn’t tell. You have to decide for yourself.