Rejoice: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck Are Rebirthing the Amazing ‘Project Greenlight’

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Calling something “ahead of its time,” usually, is pretty pointless: It’s a phrase tossed out for little-watched critical darlings, and so translates most of the time, roughly, in nonpolitic terms, to “YOU DUMMIES WHO DIDN’T WATCH [THING X] ARE ALL A BUNCH OF DUMMIES!” But in the case of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Project Greenlight, which was unexpectedly given a belated second life by HBO on Wednesday, there’s really no other way to put it. “Project Greenlight was ahead of its time,” Affleck said in a statement. “Now that technology has caught up to the concept, we thought it was a perfect time to bring it back.” And guess what — he’s totally right!

The premise of the show, which ran for three seasons (the first two on HBO, the third on Bravo) in the early 2000s, was simple enough: Find talented newbie directors and writers online, and watch them make a movie. “We did it in sort of that naive belief that if Good Will Hunting had been out there and we had submitted it to Project Greenlight, then people would have gotten to watch us make Good Will Hunting, which would have been an amazing documentary,” Chris Moore — who produced Hunting and became Project Greenlight’s most recognizable onscreen persona — told Vulture recently. “That was our initial thought process. And, honestly, we never found the scripts that were as good as Good Will Hunting.” (Side note: To me, strictly physically speaking, Moore always looked like some strange, more-than-slightly-off hybrid of Affleck and Damon. Anyone else see this??)

On the face of it, Moore is right to identify that as a failing. None of the movies that came out of the show — Pete Jones’s gauzy kids-and-the-afterlife flick Stolen Summer, John Gulager’s Evil Dead homage Feast, and Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin’s The Battle of Shaker Heights, a coming-of-age tale starring a young Shia LaBeouf — were good enough to establish an identity beyond “the movies that came out of the show,” and all made very little money. But for fans of Project Greenlight, rooting for the movies’ success was an afterthought. The primary concern was the gleeful joy of watching everything, again and again, fall apart.

Bonnie Hunt, who was in Stolen Summer, once explained on Dinner for Five that the dramatics were exaggerated: “There was a lot of harmony and productivity and teamwork on the set, but that doesn’t make for good television … I really was naive enough to believe they were gonna make a documentary on how a movie is made. They made more of a TV show out of it.” (Side note: While we’re at it, bring back Dinner for Five, too!)

And, like, OK, sure — certainly, selective editing and ominous synthesizer plonks made everything seem rockier than it was. But this was still reality TV in a way we might never understand it again, in that scenes, characters, and dialogue were not being fabricated. And there would always be a central conflict, in a manner that Moore, Affleck, and Damon most likely did not anticipate, because they thought they were finding young versions of themselves. And that was the friction between the online contest winners — who, whatever talent they displayed through their submissions, were still out-and-out amateurs — and the professionals working as assistant directors and line producers and directors of photography. It was fascinating.

The difference this time around will be that the unknown filmmakers will almost definitely come in with a higher degree of know-how. In 2003, the fear that appearing on a reality show could taint your credentials was very real, and so all kinds of ascendant talent surely scoffed at Project Greenlight as a realistic avenue; by now, with years of American Idol, Project Runway, and Top Chef–bred stars behind us, that’s laughable. Also: These days, it takes far less money, equipment, and technical expertise to create high-end product; that’s clearly displayed by the wealth of truly beautiful micro-indies and web series out there. (For proof, go no further than the brilliant, weeded-out High Maintenance.)

Gareth Edwards made Monsters, an innovative alien-invasion movie, more or less on his laptop, and now he’s directing Godzilla. Lena Dunahm made Tiny Furniture for $65,000, and now she’s Lena Dunham. When Affleck says “technology has caught up to the concept,” that means both that finding talent will be an easier, more natural process and that, once the talent is found, it will have had the experience to more gracefully make the leap into full-fledged movie production.

Interestingly enough, just a few weeks ago, Starz announced The Chair, a Project Greenlight–like reality show created by our old pal Chris Moore. The idea is that two newbie directors are given the same script to produce, with the same budget and in the same city; eventually, both movies will air on Starz, and voting will determine which nabs a $250,000 prize. The directors, says Starz, are Shane Dawson, an “internet superstar whose YouTube comedy channels boast more than 10 million subscribers and over a billion views,” and Anna Martemucci, a “writer, actor and filmmaker who most recently received critical recognition for her independent film Breakup at a Wedding, which she starred in and wrote.” And odds are good that those are exactly the kind of overachieving wunderkind credentials that the eventual directors on the new Project Greenlight will have.

And so if PG 2.0 does end up being a different, sleeker, higher-end beast, then this is as good a time as any to recall the shambling original. In fact: If you’ve got the time to fall into a YouTube sinkhole, you can go ahead and dive into some of Season 3 right now.

That was the season John Gulager, a portly, mild-mannered 45-year-old prone to too-tight short-sleeve dress shirts, got the nod for the director’s chair. As he explains in his submission video, he was working as a cameraman and an editor and had shot wedding videos beforehand. Also: “I drink a lot of coffee. I stay up all night. I go to bed so I can wake up and drink more coffee.” It appeared he was somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. That he actually completed Feast, without getting fired or having a nervous breakdown, seemed like a minor miracle.

Originally in the season, Gulager really wants to cast his brother and girlfriend, both of whom give what appear to be great screen tests. But he’s outfoxed by a casting director, who goes around his back and lands what was considered a “name,” Navi Rawat (possibly still best known as Ryan Atwood’s old jump-off from Chino). Also in this thing: Krista Allen, Jason Mewes, Judah Friedlander, and Eric Dane (then best known for Gideon’s Crossing, and not what he’d later be best known for, which is coining the sex phrase “quality hang”). It’s mildly heartbreaking that Gulager doesn’t get his way, but it’s also pretty hilarious: I’d like to believe that, these days, a low-budget studio production wouldn’t be as nonsensically obsessed with the most piddling little amount of “name recognition,” but I truly have no idea.

The happy ending is that John Gulager is still working, as are the Feast screenwriters, Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. The three of them made two Feast sequels (Feast II: Sloppy Seconds and Feast III: The Happy Ending), and then moved on together to another schlocky sequel with Piranha 3DD. Last year, Gulager also directed the Syfy network’s Anthony Michael Hall–starring Zombie Night. Pete Jones is still employed, too: In 2011, he wrote the Owen Wilson/Jason Sudeikis sex comedy Hall Pass, which at the very least should get credit for introducing a popularly dumb phrase into the lexicon.

And then, there’s Shia LaBeouf. Already an established actor at the time of the show, LaBeouf plotted on using it to get past his clean Even Stevens rep. As he once explained in an interview with Stumped, “to get out of the kiddy shit, I did Project Greenlight … the show is where the priority was, and the movie was secondary … Shia [on Project Greenlight] was a character and that character got me out of the Disney channel vibe and the business looked at me like ‘here’s this smart-ass, wise-assed kid.’ I cursed as much as possible, I had no writers telling me what to say.”

To promote Shaker Heights, a then-17-year-old LaBeouf went on Craig Kilborn, in all his huckster glory. He break-dances, he freestyles, he spits out a manic torrent of precocious charm. At one point, he refers to his look as “Disco Screech” and Kilborn takes the bait, in an ominously prescient kind of way.

Kilborn: “What do you think you’re gonna look like when you’re 25?”
LaBeouf: “Oh, god. I don’t wanna think about it.”
Kilborn: “Good?”
LaBeouf: “Like a bag of Legos.”

Chances are, if you’re meeting LaBeouf defenders these days, it’s because they’re still pining for the sweet, weird kid they met on Project Greenlight.

That’s only one of the many things that have since changed, of course. Matt Damon was Jason Bourne, then he wasn’t, then he bought a zoo. Ben Affleck directs movies that win Best Picture Oscars! And Chris Moore is … the competition?! (Can we get a ruling on this, by the way? Is there beef or what??)

And so, by way of wrapping up, let us now flash back, one more time, to the good ol’ days, when Shia was delightful, Damon wore Livestrong bracelets, and Affleck was just a goateed goofball who liked to do kind of mean impersonations of his friends. Let’s flash back to this —

Oh, and welcome back, Project Greenlight. May you never leave us again.

Filed Under: TV, HBO, Project Greenlight, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad