Q&A: ‘Project Greenlight’ Legend Chris Moore on Shia, Competing With Matt and Ben, and His New Show, ‘The Chair’
On September 6, Starz’s new reality show The Chair brings Chris Moore back into our lives. We first got to know him on Project Greenlight, the ahead-of-its-time HBO/Bravo reality show in which Moore — plus his pals Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (they’d all done Good Will Hunting together) — tried to find talented, anonymous young people to write and direct their first movies. The show was always a bit of a lovable mess, and Moore — in turns hectoring, exasperated, and totally, hilariously locked-in — would turn out to be its perfect frontman. The show died a quiet death in 2005, but not before giving us one important pop culture artifact. In its second season, Shia LaBeouf, then still a Disney Channel star, showed up to do a coming-of-age’r called The Battle of Shaker Heights. And while the movie was ultimately forgettable, young Shia was totally charming on the show, which seemed to augur great things. Nowadays, if you find yourself in a conversation with a forever-dedicated Shia apologist, they were most likely Project Greenlight fans. To make things more confusing: Affleck and Damon are now bringing back Project Greenlight, but without Moore.
The Chair is also about watching movies get made, but the concept is different. Moore gave two directors the same script and small budget, and the same shooting locations in Pittsburgh, and had them each make their version of the movie. The two directors are Shane Dawson, a YouTube megastar who tells us over and over how he’s waited his whole life to make his first movie (he’s 26), and Anna Martemucci, a much more straightforward indie-festival-circuit type. And their two movies — Dawson’s Not Cool, a Superbad-aspiring broad comedy and Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg, a quieter drama — will ultimately compete, through a combination of voting and ticket sales, for a prize of $250,000. Ahead of the show’s premiere, we got on the phone with Moore.
On Project Greenlight, there’d be tweaks to the format every season, and so there was always this interesting thing where it felt like you were still figuring out exactly what the hell you were doing. Now with The Chair, and this new format, it almost feels like you’re continuing that Project Greenlight trajectory all these years later.
Honestly, I’d never disagree with someone when they’re doing an interview, but — this, to me, is a wildly different idea. We didn’t have a contest for the directors, we didn’t have a concept for the script. This is actually about storytelling. I’m glad they’re doing Project Greenlight, and the search for the next great director is always gonna be interesting. But that’s not my purpose. My purpose is I’ve sat on a bunch of sets with a bunch of different directors and enjoyed watching them and realizing how different they were. The choices they make, that’s fascinating. It’s about realizing what goes into making those decisions. I think about, what would Stanley Kubrick’s version of Gone With the Wind have been? What would Michael Bay’s Wizard of Oz be like?
Where did the idea start?
I’ve been working on this concept for three and a half years. And the hard part is getting someone to make the movies. The documentary made a lot of sense to people. “Hell yeah, make two versions of the same movie. That’s genius!” The problem was, “How’re you gonna sell two movies? How you gonna make money back on two movies?” I’m sort of sad [the directors] were first-timers. The goal was to have experienced directors, but I couldn’t raise enough money to get somebody experienced. If I’m lucky enough to do The Chair 2, we’re gonna get experienced directors.
But yeah, I had a lot of networks interested and I wanted to go with Starz because I think they’re doing really cool stuff right now. And I can cuss, so that’s better for me. There is no frontal male nudity, in case you were hoping you were gonna see my balls. You’re definitely not gonna see my balls.
How’d you land on your cast?
I didn’t set out to do a competition to find the next great director. I think that directing is a real skill. We need to know you can do something, right? They don’t have open tryouts for the NFL. I knew these directors. Anna, she had actually written on another project I’d worked on. And Shane’s people had called me and said, would you help find Shane a movie? I love his videos because he created characters, he tried to tell stories. It wasn’t just standing in front of the fucking camera doing dumb shit. Shane has the rare weird skill of being able to do gross-out but to also be heartfelt. We had that with American Pie. We had a guy who drinks cum and girls still wanna see that movie!
I also gave them final cut. Most people would not give first-time directors final cut. But my view is they’re being nice enough to let me follow them the fuck around and make a documentary, and they’re not getting paid shit. But I’ve worked most of my career with directors who basically have final cut. I think it’s the better way of making movies.
What’s going on with this dueling revival of Project Greenlight? Any beef?!
Well, look. We’re all friends, we’re all supportive of each other. And there certainly have been many attempts to bring back Project Greenlight, and to be honest, I gave up trying to figure that shit out years ago. But it was not a surprise that they finally figured it out. The truth of the matter was, I wasn’t available. I’m trying to show how complicated and diverse storytelling is, and it’s totally different than Project Greenlight. But of course I’m happy for them and I’m happy they got it sold and I hope audiences are ready to watch both shows. Those guys are still good friends of mine, but there was no way I could work with them on it.
What else makes the two shows different?
None of the actors in either of the movies give interviews. Project Greenlight, we had Shia in the second season; with The Chair, we might have another Shia, but you’re never gonna know it watching the show. The Chair is about the making of the movie, the making of the storytelling decisions. I love Project Greenlight, and I’ll watch that fucking show. And I hope they’re looking at what we did well in those first three seasons. But for us it’s a very different thing: We’re trying to keep the balance between Shane and Anna and show some perspective of what they’re going through. And it has an ultimate goal at the end, which is to win. To get the quarter of a million dollars.
I know it’s been a while, but I assume people still always wanna talk about Shia?
I mean I get a lot of [questions about] Seann William Scott, Shia LaBeouf, Tara Reid, and Matt and Ben. Honestly I haven’t seen Shia in 15 years, we never worked together again. I love him as an actor. I think he’s one of the most talented actors around. I have no idea what’s going on with him. If it’s performance art, he’s a genius for his commitment. If he’s gone off the rails a little bit, then that’s too bad. I root for him.
Matt and Ben, I still work with and see them, and there’s no good stories there. They’re married, they got kids. I think Ben’s turned into one of the best American directors alive. And Matt remains one of the best movie stars on earth. There’s not a lot of stories. I did get a few calls and gave a few answers to people when Robin Williams passed away. That was really tragic. But I haven’t seen a lot of those people in years. When you work with somebody it’s like going to camp. You’re not becoming best friends, you get to know them for a period of time, you have this special experience, and you move on. I’ve done four American Pies, so Seann and I have done a fair amount of movies together. But it’s always been with Stifler, not Seann.
You’re getting back to being onscreen. Was there anything you learned from your first time around as a TV star?
I can say one thing: I understand vulnerable actors now because I am one fat guy at this point. I have a very personal reaction when I see myself. Honestly, I actually think that over the 25 years that I’ve been doing this, I have picked up one or two things that are worth sharing with people. I see myself [at times] and think, “You know, I’m glad I said that.” I don’t think I always sound like a jackass.
And I’m not gonna pontificate. I didn’t figure it out better than anyone else. It’s just that this is really cool. And there’s a place for different kinds of stories. And I do wish the world cared about the writers and directors as much as they cared about actors. Actors don’t have quite as much bearing at the end on what the movie turns out to be.
Has doing these shows made you a better producer?
Well, I would honestly say that it happened more during the Greenlight process, where I realized the fury and the screaming at people and the bullying people — which, because I happen to be 6-4, 280 pounds, can be intimidating — isn’t necessarily the way to get something done. Working on those projects, and also all the movies since then, there’s a real role that a producer can play in holding it together. I mean I don’t know — what the fuck does Tom Brady says when he gets to his next Super Bowl? He’s still just a fucking good quarterback … I don’t think I’m the Tom Brady of producers, but I still do it similarly [as in the beginning]. I get passionate about the characters and the crew. I love doing this because it’s the greatest job on earth. I love telling stories. Just ask my wife.
What are your hopes for the show?
It’s funny because originally, like three or four years ago, we had some lofty goals. The business is so dependent on stars getting things made, so I thought, you should know who directors are, and try to get them to be marketing tools. In today’s world you can show yourself to a lot of people. There wasn’t YouTube when we did Project Greenlight. You have the opportunity to go and make stories on your own.
However you write this up, this interview that we are doing right now, it’s storytelling. You’re gonna tell it your way. And The Chair is one way to realize that, there’s the first decision of deciding to go into a story, and then there’s the second decisions of — are you any fucking good at that? Let’s go with Tom Brady, let’s stick with that. I would love to be the quarterback of a football team. That would be a great life. But I played one year of little league football and I sucked. So, yes, you wanna do it, and you can do it.
And The Chair shows us a couple of people who’ve actually landed at this job of directing a movie, which is pretty cool. They’ve finally worked their way up to this point, and they’re pretty terrified and excited and all that.
Yeah, I mean I’m sure you’ve had some dumb shit jobs, getting people coffee and writing articles about some shit you couldn’t give a shit about. But you keep doing it because you know that one day, you’ll get to write an article about The Chair and Chris Moore and he’s fucking cool!
Oh, absolutely. It’s all been leading up to this moment.
Amos, I’m really glad you got here! I’m really proud of you.