The Battle of Project Greenlight
Thoughts on Kyle and Efram's Movie

Gonna be a short one this time. I’m exhausted from work – we initiated our “5-S” program this week. Oh, let me tell you about that.

First, you should know that 5-S is just another way of emulating the Japanese method of production. We’ve been doing that for a while now in the manufacturing world: rather than actually make better parts, which the Japanese seem to do with ease, we focus on the minutia of Japanese workplace culture. Hence, the 5-S program, which takes five Japanese words, loosely translates them into five English words that start with S, and calls it a way of life. The words are shine, sort, select, something, and, um, something else. I don’t know the words because they don’t mean anything.

Basically, 5-S can be boiled down to “clean up your shit.” That’s it. It’s like what your mother used to tell you – put everything back where it goes. Only in the case of a manufacturing plant, we need signs and stencils and arrows and painted circles and stripes and labels to make sure we know a) what everything is and b) where everything goes. 5-S assumes that if you approach a rack filled with supplies, you won’t realize that it’s a supply rack without a large painted sign telling you so. It also assumes that people need painted caution lines to tell them that big (I mean huge) metal obstacles, like cabinets and steel racks, are in their way. Seriously, if you can’t avoid a 15-foot-tall, eight-foot-wide, bright blue metal rack without walking into it, I don’t think a painted yellow line is going to help matters.

So I’ve been painting and moving things and painting some more, just in case we hire a Special Olympics team to staff the plant and give them no training at all. And yes, the past two days have produced no good parts from our plant – something that will no doubt go unrecognized when we end up behind schedule again at the end of the month. But at least we’ll know what and where the trash can is. Not because it’s self-evidently a trash can, mind you, but because we have both a stenciled sign on the floor and a label on the thing itself, both of which read “trash can.”

As you may imagine, dealing with such redundant stupidity is quite tiring. Plus, I’m also in the midst of trying to get my car registered in Maryland, which is much more of a chore than it should be. Because of their asinine regulations, each of which cost money, my cash flow is a little tapped. There’s lots of great new music coming out from the likes of Beth Orton, Seal, John Mayer, Tuatara, A Perfect Circle, David Bowie, KMFDM, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright, Dave Matthews, Neal Morse and OutKast, to name some, and I can’t buy any of it. (Uber-fan Shane Kinney pretty much smacked me over the head the other day with news of the new Iron Maiden, and I can’t buy that for a while, either, but his exuberance was appreciated.)

Which leaves me with only a few scattered things to talk about, and only one I really want to get into. I recently took a trip to Boston, and while I was there, I saw The Battle of Shaker Heights.

Shaker Heights, if you recall, is the film produced by the winners of this year’s Project Greenlight competition. Each year, the PGL team picks a winning screenplay from thousands of entries, and a winning director from considerably fewer entries to direct said script. This year’s winners in the director department just happened to be a couple of guys I’ve met – Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle, who comprised pretty much the whole independent filmmaking scene in Portland, Maine while I lived there. They also used to write for me, indirectly – Face Magazine printed their movie reviews for a few months before I left, and probably for a while after that.

Because of the personal connection, I watched this year’s Greenlight show avidly. If you’re not familiar with the concept, basically Miramax Films funds the movie, and an HBO documentary team films the process and turns it into a documentary series, airing during the weeks leading up to the film’s release. This means, of course, that HBO gets to pick and choose the moments of reality it wishes to highlight, and it should be no surprise after last year’s Pete Jones debacle that Kyle and Efram came off looking like schmucks for most of the show’s run. Needless to say, they’re not schmucks – the crew of Shaker Heights, for example, reportedly respected the hell out of them, and they took on a cramped, insanely rushed schedule and made every day’s shots.

Regardless, we watched as the directors clashed with the writer (the amazingly irrepressible Erica Beeney) over her role on set. (Here’s a quick clue – on most movie sets, the writer doesn’t have a role at all. They sit home, collect their check and dread the day they get to see what the studio made of their film, and that’s about it.) We cringed as Efram demanded a car. We squirmed as the duo passive-aggressively changed whole scenes without running them past the producers. And we died a little with them when their cut, a more dramatic version than the final one, received abysmal test scores from the first preview audience. That score, in fact, resulted in Miramax marketing execs taking over the film’s direction – the final cut of Shaker Heights is 79 minutes long, with nearly all of its dramatic heart carved out in favor of a madcap comedic pace.

Had I not seen the process, I probably would be less than interested in the film. It’s a sweet coming of age story, and I have a soft spot for those, but this one plays like a quick sketch of one of those films, a flimsy skeleton without much meat. Because I watched the show, though, I know that huge chunks of important character development are missing. The problem with this is that when the big moments arrive at the film’s end, the movie hasn’t earned them, and we don’t connect with them as well as we should.

All the elements of a great ’80s teen comedy are there – so much so, in fact, that I began to imagine John Cusack in place of Shia LaBoeuf in the lead role. No disrespect to Shia – he was wonderful throughout, making his Kelly Ernswiler more believable than, perhaps, the film deserved. Kelly is a misfit with an interesting hobby – he re-enacts World War II battles when he’s not at school. He has a crush on an unattainable girl, completely ignoring the sweet yet plain other girl that secretly adores him. He has out-of-touch parents who don’t support his war games. He gets picked on by a two-dimensional bully, and gets his revenge. See? All the elements.

And yet, Shaker Heights, at least in this cut, plays like the radio edit of a longer and better song. It’s light, it’s funny, it moves, and yet it wafts away before the credits finish rolling. There are moments I love, most thanks to LaBoeuf. (If the HBO show is to be believed, he’s just as warm and funny in person. This kid is going to be a star, like Cusack, and this film is his Better Off Dead.) Those moments barely hang together, though, and one can sense a longer and better version yearning to come out.

Shaker Heights did well in its first week of wider release. It’s on 12 screens in 10 cities, and it pulled in more than $100,000 in three days. Really, that’s not bad. It’s not, however, what Miramax was looking for, and I hope Kyle and Efram aren’t made into the fall guys. Even HBO couldn’t hide the fact that their movie was hijacked by marketing, and while it’s possible that the 79-minute version is better, I somehow doubt it. Hopefully we’ll get to see the directors’ version on the DVD. For now, though, this Shaker Heights isn’t bad. It’s light, funny, and likable. Plus, it ends with “When You’re Falling,” Peter Gabriel’s collaboration with Afro-Celt Sound System, a perfect concluding song.

The problem with Project Greenlight is this – Miramax will probably never get what it wants out of the deal. Think about it. They pick a screenplay from an untested writer, give it to novice directors, budget it at only $1 million, give the team six weeks to throw it all together while being followed by a documentary crew, and then expect a smash hit they can market to America. If they do this 100 times, I’ll be surprised if they even once get the Clerks-style smash hit they’re seeking. Most independent films, even those produced under conditions much more conducive to creativity than these, die on the vine. Of the very few that snare distribution, only a small percentage make their budget back. Yet Miramax expects the Greenlight films to perform like the American Pie movies. Not gonna happen.

It’s much more likely that we’ll keep seeing movies like Shaker Heights – confused little pictures with flashes of brilliance buried within them, made by talented people barely treading water in the silly studio system into which they’ve been thrown. Hopefully this experience won’t derail Kyle and Efram (or Erica Beeney, for that matter). If nothing else, PGL shows us just how difficult it is to make a good movie, under any circumstances. Our intrepid trio plainly demonstrated throughout this season that they all deserve better circumstances than these, and they’re all capable of better than Shaker Heights.

But the movie’s not bad. Really.

On the other side of the coin, I saw American Splendor, the best film of 2003 thus far. It’s the story of comic book author and file clerk Harvey Pekar, who appears in the film as himself, and is played by Paul Giamatti. And he also appears as animated comic book drawings. The structure is a marvel, similar to Adaptation, but it’s the sweetly genuine heart at the film’s center that makes it shine. It’s fantastic.

Hopefully, next week I’ll have some thoughts on the new Sloan album, Action Pact.

See you in line Tuesday morning.