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Lit Up

It's more fun watching the movie get made than watching the movie

On Sunday, HBO will air the final episode of what has been the most consistently entertaining--and aggravating--show of the summer television season. Project Greenlight will fade to black, and the people who populated the series--the first-time screenwriter who's had the optimism beaten out of her, the rookie directors who've had their unwarranted hubris removed with rusty pliers, the irritated producer who wanted to quit his own project, the nay-saying number crunchers breathing fire down all of their necks--will continue their lives without cameras in their faces and boom mikes down their throats. We are not quite done with writer Erica Beeney, directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle and producers Chris Moore and Jeff Balis, as the film they made together, often just barely, opens August 29. It's called The Battle of Shaker Heights, but the making of it might as well have been titled The Battle of The Battle of Shaker Heights: The series, which aired while the film was still in production, was not a pleasant experience.

The show, which debuted last year with the making of rookie writer-director Pete Jones' saccharine cyanide pill Stolen Summer, seems a noble endeavor on the surface. Miramax and HBO hold an Internet contest, which thousands of aspiring writers and directors enter, and the winners are chosen by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Moore and other studio execs and given $2 million to make their first feature, which Miramax will distribute. There is a catch: The directors will not have final say over the hiring of actors (or anyone else, for that matter), nor will they have final edit unless they want Miramax to dump their film direct to video or a dusty shelf. It is, as Beeney says during our interview, a "deal with the devil, as it were."

In the end, The Battle of Shaker Heights, a coming-of-age tale starring Holes' Shia LaBeouf as a sarcastic, picked-upon high school student, is not quite the movie Beeney or the directors thought they were making, nor is it the film Moore necessarily would have released. It runs a scant 72 minutes, and most of the drama has been excised to make it lighter and therefore more marketable, not something to be shuffled into tiny art houses.

The battle of The Battle of Shaker Heights: from left, Kyle Rankin, Efram Potelle and Chris Moore, smiling when they weren't yelling
The battle of The Battle of Shaker Heights: from left, Kyle Rankin, Efram Potelle and Chris Moore, smiling when they weren't yelling

As revealed in the August 10 episode, the film tested poorly because an audience did not know whether it was intended to be a wisecracking comedy or an after-school melodrama. Many of the dramatic scenes, which we saw being shot during the run of Project Greenlight, wound up deleted, among them a tearful three-way hug between LaBeouf, Kathleen Quinlan as his boho-artist mother and William Sadler as his ex-junkie-turned-do-gooder dad. As the show has well documented, the movie has been edited and re-edited so many times it was less a film than a jigsaw puzzle to the directors. Editor Richard Nord, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 for his work on The Fugitive, finally shrugged in last week's episode that he was doing nothing more than shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

"This is a business; this isn't a college project, which I said earlier in the show," says Moore when asked if the film being released next week is the version he would have made without Miramax's interference. "This isn't, 'Go out and make the coolest movie you want to make yourself,' right? This is, 'We've hired you to come make this movie for us so we can all make money.' And maybe that's wrong. Maybe we should have a government-funded film business, what they have in Australia or the U.K. I don't know. I'm making this movie for everybody at the cineplex to like it and see it, and in my opinion, the first test of it is the 12 people who are working on it. If you can't get those 12 people to like something, then how are you going to get the 5 million you need to go see it to like it?"

The affably garrulous Moore will not say on the record just how unpleasant the making of the movie was, but it's not necessary for him to say so when the show said everything: At various points during Project Greenlight, he would refer to Rankin and Potelle as passive-aggressive, naïve and "manipulative fucks." Sunday after Sunday viewers watched them write new scenes without informing Beeney, offer conflicting suggestions to stars LaBeouf and Amy Smart and shrug off the helpful suggestions of Moore and Balis. In one early incident, Rankin interrupted a meeting to demand a new car; it was a harbinger of awful things to come.

Rankin insists things weren't as dramatic as the show makes it appear--though, he says, he has not seen Project Greenlightbut merely heard about it through friends and family. Beeney, on the other hand, has not only watched the show and seemingly read every word written about it but tried to make sure she didn't say or do something in later episodes that contradicted her actions in earlier ones.

Co-director Rankin takes issue with the way the show was edited to make things look worse than they were, specifically a meeting between the directors and former N.Y.P.D. Blueco-star Sharon Lawrence, who auditioned for the role that eventually went to Quinlan. It appeared as though the directors did nothing more than stare at Lawrence; the awkward moment revealed the rookies as know-nothings with even less to say. But Rankin says the interview with Lawrence actually went well and that it was edited to make it look like a disaster.

"They needed a bad one," he says. "Actually, there was one with Catherine Manheim that didn't go well." He is referring to Camryn Manheim, formerly of ABC's The Practice. And he wonders why it didn't go well. Continue, Kyle.

"I think Efram and I hadn't eaten, it was like low blood sugar, and I think Catherine came in and made some kind of allusion to something like, 'You know you'd better be careful, kids and guns, you don't want another Columbine or something,' and I was like, 'Oh, God.' She didn't seem right for the role; she wasn't in the correct mind-set. It's just funny because Catherine Manheim was smart enough to say, 'Well, I don't want to be on tape unless I get the role.' So what they did was, they were like, 'Well, we need to re-edit one of these to make it look like it went bad,' so...The show is a brilliant marketing tool, but it is not a correct reflection of [our] reality. What I hope is that the movie will just speak for itself and the show will be quickly forgotten."

To which you feel it necessary to say to Rankin, And good luck with all that.

The movie's not the disaster Stolen Summerwas, if only because LaBeouf's engaging enough to drag you through a movie that has less a narrative arc than a storytelling valley. His character, Kelly, doesn't evolve so much as change his mind for no reason; one second he's a sarcastic and selfish twerp, the next he's a loving son and boyfriend. Miramax likely knows what it has, something perfect for Saturday-afternoon cable, which is why the film is scheduled to open in only 10 markets. If it does well, only then will it roll out into wider distribution.

Beeney said in the August 10 episode that an early test screening was a "first cousin" of her screenplay; now, she likens the final film to the script's "perky younger brother." Which means, more or less, she likes it. She's also been fond of the experience, perhaps because, unlike Potelle and Rankin, she's come off looking pretty good--more beleaguered and less bitchy than the men trusted with her script. She's even relished seeing herself described in newspaper pieces as "earnest" and "hapless" and someone who will one day make a fine studio executive.

"I really wouldn't trade it for anything," she says. "A very rare part of the screenwriter's dream has come true for me at a very early stage in my career, which is that I get to see all these amazing people that brought this thing to life. That's worth a lot."

Rankin says that just after he and Potelle and Beeney were selected as this year's winners, during the Sundance Film Festival, Moore took them aside and said that Project Greenlightis not about setting up people to fail but instead about making the best film possible. Rankin believed it then and all the way through the making of the movie. But, he says now, Moore was "serving two masters": Not only did he want a good movie, but he wanted a great TV show, which, as far as the filmmakers were concerned, meant creating conflict whenever possible.

Even now, Rankin says, "Chris is still trying to keep the tension up: Is the movie going to be bad? Is it going to tank or not? That will probably get people in the theaters, I think."

Moore is not at all pleased with the insinuation that he would have sacrificed the film to make the show more entertaining.

"Kyle's sort of implying there wasn't that much conflict," he says, chuckling. "I can tell you that there was 200 times more conflict. I mean, they pissed off Jeff, Erica and me and Andrea Wortheim, who was the post-production supervisor, and Richard Nord, who was the editor, and Pete Solder, who was the music supervisor, and Dan Perry, who was the titles guy. He pissed all or one of us off every day. And I'm not talking just a little bit frustrated; I'm talking super-pissed-off, like I want to quit the project because I can't take them anymore. Right? So the point is, for Kyle to indicate that there wasn't tension is more of an indication of Kyle than it is of the show or the process."

Ultimately, Project Greenlightplays like a junior-varsity version of the great behind-the-scenes books, among them Lillian Ross' Picture and Steven Bach's Final Cut, filled with gossipy accounts of the making of movies and the breaking of those involved. But this is more interactive, not just a history but a peek into the present: You've been allowed to read the screenplay (posted on the Web site) and watch the process, the butchering and backstabbing and bitching. Good Lord, who cares in the end if the movie sucks?

"I'm expecting that people carry a lot of baggage into the theater," Moore says. "What I'm hoping is it's baggage that makes the movie a shitload more fun. You sort of watch it and you're like, 'Oh, yeah, I would have done that.' Or, 'Yeah, if they'd had the group hug, it would have really sucked.' Or you dislike me: 'Chris was an asshole, it should have been a fucking drama, and I don't care about this funny shit and he's just stupid.' Whatever it is, that's the kind of thing I hope people bring in. I hope it doesn't distract them from watching the movie. I hope what it does is make it much more fun for them to do it."

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