Lit Up

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.

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 Greenlight but 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky