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Feast or Famine? Why Reality Television and Filmmaking Don’t Mix

Last weekend marked a dubious footnote in movie history.

Feast or Famine? Why Reality Television and Filmmaking Don’t Mix
Photo: Dimension Films

Last weekend marked a dubious footnote in movie history. After nearly a year’s worth of delays, Feast, a.k.a. “The Project Greenlight movie,” was finally released in theaters. Not that you heard about it. The movie was barely advertised, with much of the heavy lifting done by niche media and the internet; it was booked onto a handful of screens, predominantly in small art-house theaters in major cities. If hadn’t been charting its release myself, odds are the film would have come and gone without my realizing it.

In an industry climate where $60 million productions are left for dead by their distributors after a disappointing Friday opening, there’s nothing surprising about an inexpensive movie with questionable financial upside like Feast getting less than first-class treatment. But this is no ordinary act of disrespect. Feast was’t just dumped, it was buried—given a two week release, playing just two days of the week (Friday and Saturday) for one show per day (the latest one theater owners would allow).

Granted, each year hundreds of features—a great many better than Feast—are never even projected in front of a paying audience. Films that five years ago might have gotten snatched up for theatrical distribution after a decent debut at Sundance or Toronto limp along unnoticed before collapsing onto a shelf at Blockbuster. This article won’t address whether the treatment of Feast by its distributor was fair, but whether Feast—or for that matter, any film produced under the microscope of television cameras—has a chance at any sort of success, critical or financial.

Serving the twofold purpose of discovering new talent and providing material for an unscripted HBO series, “Greenlight” was created by actor-screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck along with producer Chris Moore (American Pie) to prove that there really were talented writers and directors outside of the Hollywood system, and that given the right guidance and resources, they could make a viable motion picture which would then be released by now-defunct Disney subsidiary Miramax. Themselves the subject of a Cinderella tale thanks to their Oscar-winning collaboration on Good Will Hunting, Damon and Affleck’s vision could have been—to borrow a hack screenwriter’s lingo—Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s Drug Store meets the Powerball Lotto Jackpot.

Unfortunately, Greenlight was mostly a disaster. The three features produced by the contest—in order, Stolen Summer, The Battle of Shaker Heights and Feast—generated no buzz apart from their connection to the TV series; the first two were critical and box office flops, and the third movie’s prospects seem no less grim. The careers that were supposed to be launched into the stratosphere went down in flames, with Stolen Summer auteur Pete Jones and Shaker Heights co-directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle reduced to walking punchlines. Even the modestly-budgeted series that chronicled the productions was a financial loser: HBO it eventually dropped the series after season two, and Bravo picked it up for one more year, then cancelled it in May, 2005. The only Greenlight legacy is the fact that it made for addictive TV, earned three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Reality Program and confirmed for people across the nation that actors and filmmakers can be just as petty as the co-worker who stole your parking spot.

After cultivating two DOA titles (both glorified afterschool specials about middle-class white kids coming of age), Greenlight restructured for its third season. The mandate was sent down from on high (and you don’t get more higher than studio cofounder Harvey Weinstein): if Miramax was going to continue to bankroll Matt and Ben’s pet project, it would have to pay for itself. That meant retreating to the safer waters of genre, where budgets are capped, stars are less important and teenage boys provide a built-in core audience. Miramax’s horror division, Dimension—run by Harvey’s brother Bob Weinstein—was put in charge of Feast, while day-to-day producing duties were entrusted to Joel Soisson and Michael Leahy, veterans of such direct-to-video horror sequels as The Prophecy 3: The Ascent and Children of the Corn: Revelation. Recurring Greenlight producer Chris Moore, who ruled the previous two productions with an iron fist and a husky drawl you couldn’t help but imitate, gladly joined Damon and Affleck as an executive producer (along with grand horror Pooh-Bah Wes Craven), and seemed delighted to stop holding neophyte filmmakers’ hands.

But even at the outset of production, the Faustian bargain brokered to bring back Greenlight visibly rubbed Damon and Affleck the wrong way. As the executive producers, Soisson, Leahy and Dimension suits gathered to pick a screenplay from the top three finalists, it was universally understood that Feast—by first-time scribes Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton—was not the most original script, but represented the easiest job for Dimension’s marketing department. When Damon protested the project’s apparent compromise so early in the process, he was shouted down with taunting reminders of what happened the last time they went “all artsy.” It’s common knowledge that Hollywood lets potentially good projects wither on the vine while embracing clearly inferior ones. Project Greenlight’s choice of Feast does, however, remind us that bad films are made not just made by dolts or vulgarians, but by pragmatists angling for a sure thing. It also reaffirms that screenplay contests rarely produce great material (this is from someone who has been an administrator for years on one such contest). It’s no mean feat to circumnavigate judges with divergent backgrounds and interests who are often required to read dozens of scripts a week; a screenplay generally won’t make it to the finish line unless it’s as lowest-common-denominator as possible.

Damon (and the audience) may have been stuck with Feast, but he’d have the last laugh on the money men yet. When it came time to select the Feast’s director, Damon put his foot down and insisted on John Gulager, a chunky fortysomething wedding documentarian who used his audition time with the producers to demonstrate sound effects with his mouth. His saving grace was his reel, which demonstrated an eye for lighting and composition that clearly trumped the competition. Was Damon championing a diamond in the rough, the only candidate who could save a generic horror script obnoxiously pitched by its writers as “Evil Dead meets Diner?” Was he sabotaging the project once he realized his altruistic vision had become corrupted? Or was he acting in the show’s best interests by picking a protagonist who guaranteed nine episodes of conflict? Maybe a bit of all three—but in the end, only the last angle panned out.

Like all unscripted series, Greenlight was cast to maximize drama, something which anyone who’s spent time on a set can attest is never a given in filmmaking. Enter Gulager, whose first initiative was to pack his cast with friends and family who had acted in his short films. It takes a special kind of naïveté to think a major studio film would bankroll a film with the director’s middle-aged, live-in girlfriend as its female lead and his brother as the comic relief character, but God bless the man for trying.

However, just as Gulager was chosen partly for his on-camera eccentricity, he was also cursed with a crew and support staff guaranteed to make his life hell. First among equals was casting director Michelle Gertz (American Pie 2, Donnie Darko), who flashed a Beverly Hills smile while undermining Gulager at every turn. At the peak of her hubris, she ignored the wishes of the film’s producers and its director and offered the lead female role to her best friend, The O.C. costar Navi Rawat. (The conflict played out with underhanded behavior and throw-your-popcorn-at-the-television melodrama. Still, though, you had to wonder: on an untelevised film shoot, would a casting director be allowed to cut her bosses off at the knees?) When another actress, Krista Allen—a one-time staple of soft-core “Skin-amax” films—refused to do a nude scene, Gulager was tasked with coaxing her out of her clothes (it never happened). The film’s script supervisor Harri James, a friend of Gulager’s, was unceremoniously fired after butting-heads with the production’s smarmy assistant director. Gulager’s relationship with crotchety cinematographer Thomas L. Calloway was depicted as contentious. Why was the production allowed to carry on this way? Why did neither Leahy nor Soisson (both who struck me as even-keeled, decent men) step in to smooth things over?

Of course, that’s simply how the footage was presented. So-called “reality” series may be unscripted during shooting, but they’re scripted after the fact through editing, with raw footage assembled to reflect the preferred narrative of the show’s producers. But is it possible to put this knowledge aside when watching a series? And at what point does the editing room construct “John Gulager, bumbling director” become reality? He might have been even worse at his job than we saw, but he might also have been much better. We’ll never know, but it doesn’t matter; after watching Greenlight 3, it’s hard to imagine any producer rolling the dice on Gulager again.

When the Weinsteins parted ways with Miramax last year, they took Feast along to their new company, then bounced it around the release schedule, saddled it with the abovementioned bizarre screening pattern, and scheduled its DVD release about a month later. The movie’s producers claim the limited screenings are meant to galvanize the film’s core supporters and raise awareness for the DVD, but I’m not convinced that it’s anything more than a contractual obligation being carried out in the most perfunctory way imaginable.

After all that televised drama, Feast itself is an afterthought: a by-the-book horror film that repeatedly and pointedly reminds of of its place within “horror filmmaking mythology” (thanks a million, Kevin Williamson). Its “plot” consists of colorful stock characters getting killed in fiendish ways, and the movie remains so detached from said characters that it can’t be bothered to name them beyond vague labels (Hero, Heroine, Bossman, Grandma, etc…) that flash onscreen along with “fun facts” (”…is going to have a gruesome onscreen death in 70 minutes”) and presumed life expectancy based on genre tropes. (Needless to say, the film’s sole African-American character isn’t given the same odds as the gunslinging, stubble-faced Kurt Russell type.)

At first it’s to watch Feast subvert its own self-aware groundwork; being an adorable child or a devoted mother is no guarantee of survival. But the premise wears thin when you realize it’s the film’s sole distinction. Feast is essentially 99 minutes of the infamous Samuel L. Jackson scene from Deep Blue Sea. It wears its emotional detachment on its bloody sleeve; not only does it refuse to name its characters properly (with one notable, famous exception, which I won’t reveal because it’s the film’s best gag) but there’s no pretense of explaining what these creatures are, how many there are, or where they came from. Feast pays lip service to the standard scene where the oldest person in the joint reveals that he knows how to defeat the monsters, but the setup never pays off. That’s Feast in a nutshell: smart enough to realize how crummy it is, but too lazy to do anything about fixing it.

Most irritating of all is the film’s willingness to anoint itself a cult classic before the audience can even voice an opinion. Every visual gag seems pitched at the gorehound and stoner sects. An Ewok-sized creature humps a mounted moose head in extreme close up. One creature’s excommunicated genitalia (yes folks, a monster cock cameo) provides the lubricant for a slip-and-slide scene. Two of the creatures screw against a car, setting off a predictable car-alarm joke; how depressing is it that in a film with three beautiful actresses in cleavage-busting outfits, only the monsters are game for gratuitous sex?

It’s hard to fault Gulager for the film’s too-cool-for-school posturing (Sam Raimi on his best day couldn’t make Judah Friedlander’s Beer Guy into anything but a shrill target for gross-out gags), but his alleged strengths are nowhere in sight. It’s a lurching film that’s never quite able to pull off a set-piece. Gulager’s action scenes are often geographically incoherent and unimaginatively staged, with the camera whipping around while the editors vary the frame rate to make things even more chaotic. Gulager also never exploits the script’s few clever elements. For instance, we see the creatures can re-spawn and multiply immediately through monster sex, yet aside from a brief “Boo!” scare, this bit of information leads nowhere.

Unsurprisingly for a guy who seemed more comfortable hosing his actors down with goo and fake blood than talking to them, Gulager seems to have let his actors do whatever they wanted, even if what they wanted was to be obvious. The latter’s ranks include John Gulager’s father Clu (one of two relatives the director managed to sneak into the film) whose shit-kicking bartender barks out an unending stream of profanity and grizzled cowboy-speak with all the conviction of an old lady waffling between two soups of the day at the deli counter. (At least Rawat’s performance as “Heroine” affords Gulager a rare bit of vindication. She delivers every line in a detached, valley girl accent that begs for derisive snickering during serious scenes; when an unpleasant fate befalls her, applause may follow.)

I don’t know if Feast would have been a good movie without a video crew documenting the production’s every move, but I know I wouldn’t have spent so much time monitoring the varied lengths of star Balthazar Getty’s hair or whether Krista Allen’s nipples were poking through her tank top (I know that makes me sound like a perv, but honestly, it was a plot point on the the show). The filmmakers’ missteps would have remained speculative rather than being enshrined on a sitcom with no laugh track. It could be argued that without Greenlight, Gulager and writers Melton and Dunstan would never have a career—but between the series and the movie, what career would that be?

Moore has speculated that Greenlight is dead at this point, not because the Weinsteins are unwilling to finance the films (masochists that they are), but because no network will air the show. This is a loss for television and a bittersweet victory for movies. Aware as I am of Greenlight’s potential to harm unknown filmmakers, I could watch another 10 seasons of of Moore blowing his stack and threatening to fire the director; but as a film fan, I know this contest, in its current incarnation, will never produce a great feature (or even a good one). I love the idea of guys like Damon and Affleck helping newcomers break into the business, and I hope Greenlight’s failure won’t deter them from doing so. But some things are not meant to be dissected, manipulated and repackaged for the viewing public. If filmmaking was so inherently thrilling to observe, people might actually watch those “making of” documentaries that they slap onto DVD’s. Making a movie is hard enough without having to play to the cameras. Let’s limit reality television to less important subjects, like building houses, choosing pop singers, eating cow uteruses, and politics.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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