The impending disaster of Project Greenlight.

The impending disaster of Project Greenlight.

The impending disaster of Project Greenlight.

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July 3 2003 7:39 PM

Greenlight Means Caution

The impending disaster of HBO's indie-film series.

"It was just funny that it all came down to me," says Efram Potelle, a serious young man with well-defined eyebrows.

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Alone in a vacant theater, confiding to the camera, Potelle seems honestly bewildered. Why should it all have come down to him? Why should he have to decide whom to cast as the lead in The Battle of Shaker Heights, a Miramax movie?

Virginia Heffernan Virginia Heffernan

Virginia Heffernan is a contributing editor at Politico. Follow her on Twitter.

Because you are the director, no one tells him.

Potelle needs reminding. Having had greatness thrust upon him in the form of the chance to co-direct, with Kyle Rankin, his first feature film on the second season of HBO's Project Greenlight, Potelle has already patented—in a mere three episodes—a style of leadership that might be called capricious indifference. On the one hand, Potelle, who's from Maine, doesn't want to "hold up the process" of Hollywood movie-making. On the other, he has stubborn desires: to make a movie that "screams realism," to edit it himself, to see auditions by famous actors who refuse to audition, and to get the studio to lend him a nice car.

As Rankin looks on, occasionally making excuses for his longtime collaborator, Potelle is huffing and puffing his way through pre-production, apparently trying to sort out where from beta to omega he might fall in the manly hierarchy of show business. It goes without saying—here, at least—that the producer Chris Moore, who created Project Greenlight with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, has the alpha slot.

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Potelle and Rankin aggravate Moore, who, though prone to tantrums, seems to have discovered anger management or Klonopin since last season. In the studio offices, he struggles to find a way to "pull Kyle and Efram out of their little tortoise shell." And although Project Greenlight is meant to promote independent films, Moore spends much of the show trying to teach his two amateurs the Hollywood way—how to delegate, how to schmooze, how to work decisively and cheaply. And in return what does he get? Silence, ambivalence, and spazzy demands! ("I can't believe that this guy's asking me this question right now," he says of Potelle's request for a car. "The balls of it, but also just the stupidity of it.")

Though Moore himself seems like a hustler, it's difficult not to share his impatience when the rookie directors decline to speak up to actors, request script changes, or make known their casting preferences. "They're on the fence, and the fence is no place for the director to be," says Moore; they're "pussies." Publicly, Moore describes Potelle and Rankin as "relaxed" and "non-opinionated." These are almost certainly Moore's words for weak.

But what's the point? What is this movie? Viewers of Project Greenlight, who don't have the Shaker Heightsscript, must deduce from script meetings the story that everyone's so eager to bring to the screen. We do know that it's by Erica Beeney, a pretty and self-possessed 28-year-old screenwriter who is the show's other winner. (Beeney beautifully navigates the politics of the production; with no on-camera wrangling, she managed to score a BMW convertible from the "product placement" people.) We also know that Shaker Heights concerns Kelly, a kid who endures bad luck, possibly including a Jeep accident,  and perseveres.

Viewers who visit the Project Greenlight Web site also know that Moore preferred two other finalist scripts to Shaker Heights: one about a strip club and one about a guy who only dates girls on the rebound. He wanted a story with a plot and foolproof marketing hooks. Shaker Heights, he feels, lacks both.

Thus, with a vague script, shiftless personnel, and a red-faced manager, Project Greenlight now has some of the bumbling charm of BBC's The Office. It's a workplace drama with considerable suspense, as a small disaster—a "low-budget" $1 million disaster—now appears almost definitely in the offing. But that's nothing to Miramax, since, in partnership with HBO, they're still running a neat little outfit.

Yes, Shaker Heightscould come in on time and on budget and pack theaters with moviegoers concerned about Kelly's plight. And Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris Moore could be wholly vindicated. But if The Battle of Shaker Heights tanks, just as Greenlight's first movie, Stolen Summer, did, Moore fears that Miramax will cancel Greenlight altogether.

And if that happened, we'd all have to concede that indie filmmaking is over, and that movies are best left to professionals. Like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris Moore. Nice, right? Either way, the house wins.