'Project Greenlight’ winner Jason Mann: I try to avoid the show 'as much as I can'
After taking in every contentious, passive-aggressive, and mansplaining step of a film’s production, Project Greenlight viewers will now be able to see what the new season of the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon-produced HBO series hath wrought.
EW spoke with director and Project Greenlight alum Jason Mann, who won the fourth season and gets the chance to debut a feature film on HBO. Read on for his thoughts about the process, whether he was portrayed fairly, and what’s next for him after The Leisure Class premieres on Nov. 2, the day after the season finale of Project Greenlight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What have you been up to?
Jason Mann: There were a handful of projects that I had been preparing before this whole thing got started, so I’m going back to those and just writing and writing and prepping the next thing to go right away.
What’s the backstory of the film?
The short was an exercise for Columbia University for the MFA program. In the first year at Columbia, they do this exercise where you swap scripts with another student. I made two films back-to-back, and I ended up collaborating on the one that I wrote, which ended up being The Leisure Class. I had cast those actors and worked with the actors. I found [actor] Tom [Bell], who I love.
Did you speak with your Columbia classmates before making the feature?
No, it was entirely mine. The people that I had collaborated with, I had spoken to them about it, and we made sure everyone was cool with it. It was my script to do what I will with it. There was, especially with the actors in the original short, so much creation in the moment. That movie was made almost like a home movie, where we had a script, but we just were making it up as we went along… with a consumer camera, shooting in a house with a few actors and hardly any crew. [It] is very different from the short film, Delicacy, which was made right before and had a full crew and everything like that.
As the show airs, what has been your level of participation? Are you watching? Have you kept tabs on the conversation?
I try to avoid it as much as I can. I’ve had to watch all of the episodes in order to do the inside the episodes thing. It’s a little bit frustrating to see the way that things have been altered to suit the drama. The show isn’t like a piece of journalism. It’s more of a dramatic presentation on its own. It creates its own story in a lot of ways, but that makes for entertaining TV and addictive TV.
Was that a compromise you made with yourself going into it? As a filmmaker, you had to be aware of that.
Yeah, it certainly was. I was very reticent to get involved from the very beginning. I was about to be making a short film with a producer friend of mine named Ilan Amouyal. We were trying to make this really expensive short film, and he said, “Well, they’re starting up this Project Greenlight thing again. If you happen to get high up in the running for that, maybe it would help us raise movie for this film we’re making.” I said, “I don’t if I would ever want to be a part of a reality show or something, but I’ll submit to be a team player.” I submitted, and I was kind of ignoring the emails that I was getting as I was getting higher up in the running. Eventually, I got a call where they were essentially telling me to take the contest a little more seriously because I had gotten quite a lot of votes for my submission. Ultimately, I had to make this short film that the Farrelly brothers wrote. I was incredibly skeptical about walking into a reality TV situation, but I was being assured that it was more of a documentary than a reality show. I think that might be kind of pushing it, to call it a documentary necessarily, but that was the thought behind it going into it initially.
A big part of the show was your adjustment to making a feature. Do you think that the pains of that adjustment were unavoidable or enhanced by the show?
If the apparatus of making this particular film weren’t the way that it was, everything would have gone so smoothly. If someone had just handed me and my producer friends the budget of this film and said, “Go off and make a movie,” it would have been the smoothest thing imaginable. The nature of the show… it’s hard to know what elements were put in place in order to create drama. Sometimes it really felt like, “God, the only reason that this could be happening to us right now in this production is in order to create drama for the show.” It’s just kind of crazy to have such a short pre-production and such a short writing period, everything. I really feel that making a feature film is not really all that different from making shorts. It’s really just taking more time. In a production sense, it’s usually pretty similar.
When you came onto the show, you had The Leisure Class in your back pocket. Without the show, do you think that the feature would have ever come to fruition for you?
I’m not sure. The Leisure Class was something that I had just been working on… I had written a full script of it, but after that, I had been going back to tearing apart the structure and starting it over and tearing it apart again and really trying to make it work. At the time that this all got started, I was not really assuming it might ever work, that the concept would ever be something that would functional. When I eventually sat down with Pete Jones, and we really, really started thinking about it… we arrived at something that we really felt strongly about. The structure of it seemed to work for us at least. It’s hard to say… No one wants to give millions of dollars to someone who is unproven in the commercial realm. That really is the great thing about Project Greenlight. They’re giving this opportunity to someone who wouldn’t get that otherwise.
EW: You struggled with compromise throughout the production, but what was ultimately the most important element of The Leisure Class to communicate? Do you think you did it?
JM: I’m very happy with the movie. Through all of the insanity that was the periphery of actually making the movie, I think we were able to hold it together and make it what we wanted it to be. We were trying to make something that was unusual. I always thought of what this movie would be as a kind of chemical reaction, where we would take this very formal world and bring in this outsider and let this chemical reaction take place. The style of the movie was meant to be exactly the same, where the formalism in the use of the camera would be combined with this spontaneous, rough, and crude style that would hopefully create that dynamic and chemical reaction. I think we achieved that, and I’m happy about that. I don’t like to philosophize too publicly about all of the meanings of the film. I think that that’s important to leave to the audience, but I’m pleased with what we made.
How do you think people watching the production happen will affect how they view your film?
I think it is probably a valuable thing for audiences to recognize that when you see a movie — when it’s done — it could be something that has gone through quite a lot of processes to become what it is. Sometimes those things are fighting against what may have been the initial conception of what it’s trying to be. That sometimes leads to unfavorable things ultimately, but part of what a director’s job is, so far as I’m concerned, is to stand up for what seems to be the best version of the movie and not allow it to become something that commerce would dictate.
Going forward, do you think you’ll be more aware of how much control you’re likely to have in a given situation?
Yeah. I just personally appreciate the types of films that feel like they come from a singular voice, so to speak. My personal preference for movies is not the factory-made, industrialized, homogenized franchise studio films necessarily. I think it is incumbent among young filmmakers now to create the types of films that preserve the artform of cinema while also appealing to audiences who have, for such a long time, been getting acclimated to movies that will only please them on the basest levels in some ways. That’s the goal as far as I see it: to make something people can enjoy and be entertained by, but will also be an intelligent experience and something that will be thoughtful and maybe push audiences to challenge something they’re thinking about or push the boundaries of the medium as much as can be done.
Ignoring the budget, it felt like you were thrown into a microcosm of the studio system.
Right, and the funny thing was that we didn’t have the budget to make a studio film, especially with the cameras on us, but we couldn’t go cutting any corners. There was no getting around any of the rules that might make it harder for a very, very small movie to be made. We had to follow everything to a T. That was difficult, concerning our budget was a fraction of what you might make a Game of Thrones episode for.
Did you regret the 35mm fight in light of the car crashing not going as planned?
I don’t want to throw the show completely under the bus, but I did multiple answers in my interviews that the money that’s left over from production is the same amount of money, basically, that was what we had to ask HBO for in order to shoot on film. It was very possible for us to have done that without even asking for additional money. The truth of the matter is that something with that car accident, I think HBO just didn’t want to have anything that would potentially be very dangerous being shown in such a public setting if something went wrong. I think it was decided to not let us go through with it. We had the money, but I think they didn’t want us to do something that would potentially be dangerous.
Are you feeling the effects of the show? Has the plan changed from what you were doing before the show?
With the attention of the show, it’s opened up a flood gate of opportunities and makes it very, very possible to make a film, whereas before I was just hoping I could make something. Now it seems very possible to get another movie made. It sort of opens up your thinking in terms of what you can do and what is actually possible to do. At the moment, I’m getting a lot scripts sent to me that I’m not very interested in. The things that I’d like to pursue are the ones I’m developing myself.