The surprisingly successful return of ‘Project Greenlight’, which shows that a more diverse Hollywood is just as soul-destroying as ever
I was surprised that Project Greenlight, the reality show which features a first-time director and chronicles their filmmaking journey, was making a comeback. Eight years ago, the show seemed to have run its course. Besides that, most of the films it produced were turkeys. (Feast, which spawned two sequels, was the exception.)
The PGL reboot arrives with new leadership. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are out. Issa Rae (Insecure) and her fellow mentors, Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Woman King) and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) are in. Good news: The new crew has breathed new life into the series. I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum because it’s a compelling watch.
This time around, PGL wanted a female director, a first for the show. Meko Winbush, a veteran trailer editor, doesn’t do the best interview, but she delivers the best scene, and this wins her the job. In general, Hollywood people want someone to light up and own a room with their “vision” like, well, Obama. Vision is mentioned a lot in PGL. If an alien were watching all this, they might think this is an optometry doc. Winbush, an introverted, self-proclaimed sci fi nerd who is very, how shall we say, efficient with her words, is not big on articulating vision.
After winning, there’s no honeymoon for Winbush. The script, Gray Matter, is a fixer upper, requiring triage. Unfortunately, Winbush doesn’t have an immediate cure. Emergency measures are taken. The screenwriter is flown in. A roundtable of consultants consult. Producers relentlessly furrow their brows. There are so many chefs on this thing, it should be a cooking show. Still, the script remains problematic, and everyone’s looking for, yes, vision.
But Project Greenlight does not become Project Redlight.
And there are other issues. Winbush’s overruled regarding a crucial casting decision. And then there’s the elephant on the set: Diversity. Everyone’s down for hiring a diverse cast and crew… at least in theory. But things get, uh, interesting when Winbush wants to hire a key crew member who doesn’t fulfill the diversity agenda. It’s all very messy but, of course, it makes terrific television.
Alas, shooting of the actual film begins. Gray Matter has a tight 18-day shooting schedule and a relatively small budget (3.5 million). The days are endless, and there are many grueling overnights. Lead actress Mia Isaac suffers a breakdown performing an intense scene. The crew look like zombies during a day shoot on a farm. Eventually, the two crews–the Gray Matter crew and the PGL crew, who is filming them, get into it with one another. First assistant director Danny Giles, who essentially serves as the director’s enforcer, is at the epicenter. It’s Danny’s job to make sure the trains run on time. Danny is a physically imposing man, and sometimes he has the touch of a lovable hockey goon, not the worst trait in a first AD. I looked forward to every Danny appearance and hope he appears in any future PGLs. The film’s producers tangle as well, with one team of producers suggesting that the other team is stirring up drama for the benefit of the television show.
Even after wrapping, script issues still remain. At this juncture, I’ll play the annoying role of Monday Morning quarterback. The Project Greenlight mentors, particularly Issa and Gina, shouldn’t have allowed it to get this point. They should’ve staged an intervention and assisted with what was on the page. As stated throughout, the script is the film’s foundation. You don’t build Mar-a-Largo on quicksand. I hope that Gray Matter doesn’t sink and finally comes together. But if it doesn’t, it at least made wonderful television.