Throughout November, HBO will continue airing “The Leisure Class,” directed and written by Project Greenlight’s fourth season winner, Jason Mann. The film centers around a loosely wound brother from Britain upsetting his rogue sibling’s scheme to bilk a senator by marrying his daughter. Set in Connecticut, “Leisure” takes place in just a 24-hour span, on the eve of a wedding one doesn’t know will take place or not.
Its talented director is a California native who did his undergrad work in LA; he’s now a Brooklynite, after receiving his MFA in directing from Columbia in New York City.
Mann was kind enough to sit down with the Examiner, if only virtually, to answer some of our questions. Yesterday he shared details of his writing process, providing some background on his filmmaking career. In Part Two, he shares more behind-the-scenes details of the PGL production, including why he was shocked to see how he was sometimes depicted.
After all, the documentary-cum-reality show was often over-the-top dramatic, with Mann seeming to come to fisticuffs with producer Effie Brown – arguing over how many times they could afford to shoot a car crash scene (once), and whether this mansion or that mansion was right for the look of the film, and so on. (Hey, they were scouting in LA and Beverly Hills, but it needed to look like the poshest part of Connecticut; who could blame Mann for being persnickity?)
Following is part two of our emailed conversation.
In “The Leisure Class” a couple of the character arcs were striking, perhaps particularly those of the mother and perhaps Fiona. Would those changes be something the writers debate or, as we saw in the PGL documentary, occur more during the production process?
Well, the way the reality show is edited is extraordinarily misleading. They have taken enormous liberties with the documentary footage. They even make alterations in the editing that insinuate that I’m racist and misogynist, which I find extremely troubling, to say the least. For instance, after I was shown an early edit of the sixth episode there was a sequence added at the last minute about the casting of an African American man as a chauffer. The editors made no attempt to clarify that the choice of the background actors, particularly in that case while we were under enormous time pressures, was the responsibility of our Assistant Director department. In this instance, our 1st AD Van Hayden was most likely just trying to diversify the casting of the background actors, but we see on the show Effie, rightfully, making the change to a Caucasian person in the subservient role. By excluding any context surrounding the AD department’s choice of this actor, the edit encourages the audience to interpret the choice as my intention.
I suppose the editors of the show were doing anything they could to create an adversarial dynamic between me and producer Effie Brown. But it’s unfortunate that in order to do this they felt they needed to try to make me into a villain. There are countless moments on the show that make me think of this clip from “The Simpsons” where Homer is made to look like he molested the babysitter.
I suppose I didn’t give them enough cat-fighting to work with, so they had to manufacture tension from looks and silences. They would often send over lines they wanted me to say in interviews and I almost always had to refuse to say them because the stuff they wanted me to say was sometimes entirely mean spirited.
I should clarify that HBO is not responsible for these edits or these suggested interview lines. Neither are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. By the time they were seeing footage they were probably already seeing close to finished versions of the cuts and they couldn’t know what was really captured in the 20,000 hours of material. There was an outside company that was in charge of actually creating the show.
The character arcs, like Fiona’s, were arrived at in the writing. (Although our amazing actress Bridget Regan had some terrific contributions to her character.) What actually occurred in our pickup shooting for the movie was a moment of clarification for Fiona’s turn, so that the audience would fully understand what is happening with her. The character arcs themselves were built into the whole structure of the screenplay. It would be pretty drastic to have to create them while shooting.
The editing in the eighth episode of the show pieces together several notes about the movie surrounding the character of Fiona. They show part of a comment that Effie makes about this and then we are shown three other comments about the Fiona character, one being from Len Amato at HBO. In actuality, the comments after Effie’s were merely about clarification. But when edited together like this, it manufactures an impression that there was a consensus about overall problems with the way the female characters were written, as though Pete Jones and I were unconscious of allowing the primary female character to have any authority in the story, which is quite the opposite of the truth. The construction of the script was designed to have Fiona become the most powerful character by the end of the story.
Were conflicts on set as bad as the documentary showed us, and if so, does something like that hurt the final product or does it help? From the viewer’s standpoint watching “Leisure Class”, it seemed to have all worked out.
Thank you. I’m glad you feel that way! The conflicts on set were certainly played up to make the most sensationalized reality TV possible. The editors of the show have taken the small percentage of the process that was dramatic and spread it across everything, making it look as though the whole production was a disaster. When you delete almost any instances of kindness or gratitude or good will or humor and only show moments when people are having to be stern, it makes for a rather unbalanced portrait. In this case it also doesn’t leave in anything regarding the actual process of making a movie, aside from the logistics.
It’s unfortunate that the editors felt the nature of reality TV is such that people bonding and collaborating well wouldn’t make for addictive viewing. That’s probably the majority of what they had to work with. But the show is really a testament to the power of editing because it shows you can create absolutely anything you want. Effie and I met up a few weeks ago in New York and commiserated a bit about how the show has portrayed everything. That being said, Effie and I certainly had disagreements and I don’t think those disagreements helped the final film. But I think if you watch the movie before watching the show, you wouldn’t think twice about any of the things that these disagreements affected, like the car crash or the transition into night.
How did you get the details of Connecticut just right? Did you visit the tonier areas of Southeastern Connecticut to establish a basis for how you wanted the film to look? You spoke frequently in PGL about looks not being quite right, particularly the houses you were scouting.
I have been involved with shooting films in Connecticut. Also, while writing the script, Pete (Jones, the co-writer) and I were going through hundreds of photographs of houses in the area and other houses we thought were relevant. The most integral element became the fact that this family came from a kind of money that was passed down through generations, thus making them a part of a profoundly exclusive club. That was something that felt especially appropriate for a story about the discrepancy between wealth and poverty in America, that the system is so deeply engrained it’s not necessarily realistic to penetrate that inner circle.
Why did you make the main character and his brother British? I understand William/Charles was trying to bilk the senator of money, but why was he British? There are plenty of bad actors – meaning individuals, not thespians – hanging out in Fairfield County as it is!i
We already had our Leonard. We wrote the whole film around Tom Bell, who is a Brit. But whereas the short was set in England, in the feature having these outsider characters as literally being from a foreign country played into this idea that the film could be about America’s exclusive upper echelons of wealth and what the wealthy would do to protect their power from outsiders. Keeping the brothers British also had a relevance to the films and plays from which we were taking tropes and playing upon them.
You were raised in Burlingame, Calif. Have you written/directed any films, even short student films, in your own backyard? And do you see “home” as a future setting for your films – why or why not?
The San Francisco Bay Area was a very artistically fertile place when I was growing up there. I think this is because culturally it was less driven by commerce than Los Angeles. People seemed to have a real appreciation for countercultural art and music, from what I experienced. Perhaps that’s evolving into something new with the tech boom, but it’s still a place that’s very open to exploration and subversive ideas. … Maybe someday I’ll return to a subject in that area. At the moment, everything I have planned is set elsewhere.
“The Leisure Class” showcased something that as you know is a bit of a stereotype, that of the elitist New Englander. What I liked, though, was how you exposed the underbelly of this. Any thought on returning to this oeuvre?
The conceit of the movie was to take stereotypes and burrow into them. We took traditional caricatures and a traditional comic set up and let them take us to unfamiliar places, to delve into what’s real underneath the comedy.
Finally, Ben Affleck called your film a “farce.” I called it a “dark comedy of manners.” What do you call it?
What we tried to do is take a farcical comedy of manners and turn it upside down by taking it to a darker, realer place. So it doesn’t really have a genre classification unto itself that I’m aware of. Genres and classifications get restrictive very quickly.
Catch ‘The Leisure Class” on HBO on Nov. 15, 18, and at other times throughout the month; check your local listings. The film stars a phenomenal cast, starting with Tom Bell and his on-screen “brother,” Ed Weeks from “The Mindy Project”; as well as Bridget Regan as the bride-to-be, the fabulous Bruce Davison as the polished but subversive senator and “wife” Brenda Strong, who lives up to her name.
Read more about the Project Greenlight competition and this season’s finalists, including seeing their brilliant short films. Follow Jason Mann on Twitter.