HBO recently aired a documentary based on the fourth season results of the Project Greenlight filmmaking competition. Executive producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and the Farrelly brothers were the money behind the production, which was dramatically depicted with a “cast” that included a rather spirited producer, Effie Brown, and this year’s erudite winner, Jason Mann.
Mann’s film, “The Leisure Class”, is peppered throughout HBO’s November schedule (next showing on the 18th), and capped the series finale of the documentary – punctuation that felt more like an ellipsis than an exclamation mark. After all, in 2015, for better or worse, our culture is so addicted to reality television that we’ve allowed Donald Trump to make it to the top of the pack.
Is there, then, a place for real art?
If he has his way, director-hyphen-writer Mann will see that it prevails, and it was his deep artistic gifts that helped him pluck this prize. He had to beat out some stiff competition, notably (in this examiner’s view), a writer, Taylor Engel, whose short film, “The Pavement”, reminded one of an almost Hitchcockian take on film noir. Yet, that’s how good Mann is: his own short, used to judge his qualifications, was called “Delicacy” and was so far out of left field that it’s tough to describe. Journalists, after all, aren’t filmmakers.
You can see it for yourself on the Project Greenlight site, though, and check out the other finalists’ as well.
He ultimately directed a film he co-wrote with Season 1 winner Pete Jones, a lengthened version of Mann’s slightly twisted comedy of manners, “The Leisure Class”. Set in Connecticut, the film takes place over one 24-hour period at a senator’s home. A loud and unpredictable brother shows up from the UK in time to blow his sibling’s cover on the eve of his marrying into this subliminally deranged or at least deeply dysfunctional political family. “Keeping up Appearances” meets “The Stepford Wives” meets “The Wedding Date” (that madcap Debra Messing vehicle – oh, miss it? See Netflix.)
The Examiner feels fortunate to have secured an interview with Mann. Here is part one of our e-mailed conversation:
Back in 2001, when Matt Damon & Ben Affleck started Project Greenlight, the contest was set up to award a winner for their screenplay. It seems it’s evolved to award the director, is that correct?
Yes, the initiative was established to find a writer/director. But they have had to get away from that idea as the seasons have progressed. I had never seen the show until right before I went for the interview, but I watched all the seasons as soon as I knew I was going to be brought out to Los Angeles for it. The second season found a winning screenplay and director separately. And then, for the third season, they had a professional writer’s script and they found a director. That was the plan for this season as well, but we ended up not using the script that was being proposed.
Were the finalists chosen based solely on directing or directing and writing? Has it evolved to be a directing-cum-writing contest, and if so, do you have insight on why the contest has evolved over the past decade?
Well, they weren’t asking for writing submissions necessarily. Part of the thinking behind this is most likely that it gives a commercially unproven director a better chance to make a successful film if he or she isn’t tethered to a script by a non-professional writer. Although, on the other hand, the trouble they’ve had has also been finding good scripts that could be made in this unusual context.
You quickly discarded the script, “Not Another Pretty Woman,” that you were asked to direct. Was the writing poor? Or you just didn’t like the subject, tone, what? (Note: Jason told us, ‘The script they were wanting to do is actually titled “Not a Pretty Woman.” The other title is used on the show, but it’s not correct.’)
I don’t know how to make a film out of something if I don’t believe in the concept. The concept is the foundation upon which everything else is decided. So it’s incredibly crucial. I felt that I didn’t know how to make the concept for “Not a Pretty Woman” into something that would be interesting. I had a lot of ideas that I brought up in my second interview for how I could rewrite the script completely, but I was still worried that we would be on a less-than-sturdy foundation for the type of dark comedy I was proposing to make. Something that’s not really clarified on the show is that neither the Farrelly brothers nor Pete Jones wrote the “Not a Pretty Woman” script. But the Farrelly brothers had been attached to direct it at one point. I’m sure they could have made something great out of it in their voice. But it didn’t seem right for me to try to copy what they might do. I had to make something that would be within my own sensibility.
Tell me how one lengthens a short into a feature, such as you did for “The Leisure Class.” What are the basic elements of doing this, and what’s the biggest challenge?
Well, every script and every movie is different. But, again, the concept is the foundation and the starting point. For “The Leisure Class”, the most challenging thing, really, was imagining the new story in the very short amount of time we had. The first thing I felt we should do to make it into a feature was throw out the short almost entirely – at least at first. What co-writer Pete Jones and I ended up doing was stripping the concept all the way down to its essential, basic elements and asking ourselves what remained that we wanted to keep. We were drawn to one character in particular, the character of Leonard. This character is something of an id. He’s completely impulsive and rather dangerous, while also being quite lovable, as Pete and I see him. So this character had a lot of potential for us, especially since we had an incredible actor, Tom Bell, to write for specifically. From there we wanted to place this wild and unpredictable character within a similar world as in the short, where he would be confronted with characters who are basically his complete opposites, which is a fairly traditional dramatic and comedic dynamic. But we wanted to take this traditional comedy of manners approach and let it spin out of control. We wanted to explore the darker side of characters who are otherwise one-dimensional on the surface. So we used a rather simple construction that would allow Leonard to come into this very rigid and formal family and affect all of them. Having that simple structure allowed us to see the whole movie in our minds very quickly and shape it into something that could take place almost entirely in one location and over the course of just one night, which theoretically was going to help us keep the script reasonable for our budget and as well as being dramatically palpable.
The Season 1 winner Pete Jones was brought in to help you with this. Why? And what did Pete bring that you felt you may have lacked, or was it more a question of two heads are better than one?
Pete had been brought on to provide the insight of a professional writer. He has gone through the process of studio notes several times and has collaborated on some big budget films. So the thinking was that he would rewrite the original “Not a Pretty Woman” script and get notes from whomever was chosen as the director. But when Pete and I started working together, we quickly found a lot of commonality in how we wanted to approach making this movie and decided to write it together. I had brought up the Leisure Class short to him and showed him the first draft of the feature screenplay as a means of helping him see where I thought we could possibly take the “Not a Pretty Woman” concept. But it was Pete’s idea to scrap the “Not a Pretty Woman” script entirely. I figured that would be going against the rules of the contest, but it was a pretty practical solution considering we could save quite a lot of money if we didn’t have to pay for that script.
For those of us who haven’t collaborated much, tell me how the process works. What happens if you like a line or shot and he hates it or vice-versa?
I’ve collaborated on several scripts and each relationship has been different. “The Leisure Class” was the sixth feature-length script that I had written. There were two features I didn’t intend to direct myself that I wrote with a writing partner named Jonathan Dee, who is a great filmmaker. He and I have collaborated on quite a few things, including several shorts. As we’ve progressed in our collaborations, we often wind up at impasses because our individual tastes are so similar but differ ever so slightly in particular areas. With Pete Jones, there were two things that made the collaboration process particularly harmonious. The first was that we have completely different sensibilities and therefore we each came with entirely different ideas to solve each problem. The second thing was that I was going to have to direct the movie ultimately. So if there was ever a disagreement about something, we could just fall back on that. In the end I would have to take enough ownership over each idea to be able to actualize it. As Pete says, this is the worst thing about writing with the director. From my perspective, it’s the best thing.
You got an MFA at Columbia in directing. Did your curriculum also include a screenwriting course or two?
Yes, I technically graduated from Columbia while we were in post on the film. I also studied film production at Loyola Marymount University as an undergraduate. Both programs had many screenwriting courses. Although sometimes the courses that are the most informative for screenwriting are focused on directing. That’s especially true at Columbia. When you’re tearing apart the mechanics of the directing in an entire movie or an individual scene, a lot of what you uncover is how the writing is functioning.
How do you envision your future playing out? Will you focus on directing or directing and writing?
The kinds of movies that I love most are the ones that come from a singular, personal perspective. The Greenlight TV show has really opened up a floodgate of projects coming to me and I’ve been reading quite a few scripts and books that have been sent my way. But the things that interest me most at the moment are the films that I’ve been writing for myself. There are a few that I thought I might not be able to make for another ten years, at least, [but] that seem possible now. But even though these are personal films, I think it’s extremely important for independent filmmakers to find ways to interest the audiences that have become acclimated to movies that only appeal to them on the basest levels. There’s a corporate mentality that’s persisting in theatrical cinema that needs more resistance in order to preserve independent cinema on a theatrical level. Watching a film in a theater with an audience is the only way to truly let it come to life and it would be a shame for that form of exhibition to become impossible for anything other than franchise films.
In part two: Jason Mann discusses the PGL edits and why he respectfully disagrees with Affleck’s assessment that the film is a farce. “The Leisure Class” stars Tom Bell and Ed Weeks as the brothers, with Bridget Regan in the lead female role of “Fiona,” the impending bride.
Correction: The original article misstated that Project Greenlight bean in 2004. In fact, Project Greenlight first aired on HBO for two seasons (2001–03) before going to Bravo for season three in 2005. The series returned this year for a fourth season, on HBO.