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Project Greenlight

     Ben out of detox, and involvement with Gwyneth, and slumming by starring in Pearl Harbor. Matt tanking in The Legend of Bagger Vance and no longer with Winona or Penelope but dating Ben's publicist. Typical starry sagas of Hollywood, but what happened to our two bright Cambridge kids of East Coast integrity and left-wing politics? Is anything still there of roots in the six years since they got to LA with their Good Will Hunting script in hand?

     Based on the totally engrossing first seven episodes of HBO's 12-part Project Greenlight (Sundays at 10 pm in December, at 9:30 in January), I'm thrilled to report that our home boys are good guys, and much in touch. This documentary series - the best record I've ever seen about the filmmaking process - shows us Affleck and Damon, unbroken pals, thousands of times more shrewd and experienced than in Beantown days, determined to give back to the idealist-minded community from which they sprang. They persuaded Miramax Films to let them sponsor a screenwriting contest, Project Greenlight, for filmmaking novices, the winner of which would direct his/her indie script in a one million dollar movie, paid for and distributed by Miramax.

     The HBO series shows that 10,000 bushy-tailed answered the September 2000 call, the unofficial Guinness record for a screewriting contest. Bit by bit, the numbers shrank who were still at the table: to a hundred asked to submit a video bio, to ten given cameras and tape to shoot a scene from their script, to a final three sweating in their LA hotel rooms while, in a nearby suite, Ben, Matt, and a coven of Miramax executives argued which screenplay would translate into the most appealing movie, which of the three survivors was most capable of helming an indie feature.

     After a marathon pow-wow of Twelve Angry Men intensity, the judges invited into their chamber the winner: Pete Jones, an apple-cheeked Chicagoan (think the Hardy Boys' pal, Chet) with a wife and baby and a past career as a corporate insurance salesman. Affleck and Damon would Executive Produce, along with their Fusion Studios partner, Chris Moore. Jones's film to be: Stolen Summer, set in Chicago 1976, and something about the friendship of a little Jewish lad and a little Catholic lad. A mini-Chariots of Fire? The HBO publicity kit describes it as "the story of an eight-year-old boy's search for the meaning of life."

     The first few episodes of Project Greenlight are deft and entertaining. (Who directed them? There is no name on the whizz-by credits.) But the series becomes truly amazing and revelatory from the moment we watch Jones sit down for his first pre-production meeting. Step by step, through two horrific days of actual shooting, we see Stolen Summer explode a hundred excruciating ways, from casting to money matters to relations with Miramax, where power-game people vaguely mind the ship, all the psychotic abnormalities of a low-budget (translate: severely underbudgeted) independent film. As I said earlier: there is no better visual record ever of the hour-to-hour travails of making a little movie. Yes, quote me: this series should be mandatory viewing for all film students and all I-think-I'll-be-a-director people.

     "Directors work so hard. He's going to be fried!" Damon predicts correctly of poor Pete Jones. Our virgin cineaste is seen visiting Kevin Smith for advice. "Be prepared to gain weight," the very portly Clerks' director told Jones of the filmmaking experience,"And it will never go away."

     A Miramax happy ending? Apparently, Stolen Summer was finished, and Jones, looked at suspiciously as a first-time director, kept intact his testy veteran cast including Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, and Kevin Pollak. It's scheduled for a February 22 Miramax release.
We'll see.

(Boston Phoenix - December 2001)


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