“People don’t seem to recognize when they’re watching the show that what we’re trying to do in the making of the movie is make something for an audience and it has nothing to do with what I want for me personally. I’m trying to create something for an audience and really, the only barometer I have is my own personal taste,” Mann said. “I’m trying to make a movie that, if I had nothing to do with it, I would appreciate the choices that were made. That’s such a frustrating thing to see that people feel like that.”
Mann, 30, spoke to The Post by phone about “Project Greenlight” and the making of “The Leisure Class,” his movie that airs Nov. 2 on HBO.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Have you been watching “Project Greenlight” week to week?
I have been watching, mainly because if I didn’t actually see the final cuts and someone were to ask me a question about it, I would be somewhat confused because what becomes the story on the show is very different from what really happened. So it would be confusing to hear someone ask a question about something and I would be like, “What are you talking about?”
Have you been paying attention to what people have been saying about the show online?
Not enormously with that. I’ve sort of peripherally seen things and heard about things. Obviously it created some kind of buzz, especially that first episode. It seems like it caused this whole thing. It’s so strange, especially for Matt, who is the kindest person and most inclusive person imaginable I would think to be thrown into the mix of someone who’s getting painted, I think, unfairly in this sort of debacle.
You see him as the most inclusive person imaginable?
That’s not to say he’s more inclusive than other people who are also inclusive, but he is an incredibly magnanimous person and a very intelligent person who — I think his comments were taken a bit out of context.
Did you guys have a conversation about this? Because you weren’t in the room when this happened, right?
I found out that that conversation took place after the whole process was already done. I saw it on the show. After the movie was pretty much done, I started seeing cuts of the show. That’s when I saw that conversation for the first time. I will say one thing about my reaction to that conversation, if you were willing to not take pieces out of it, to leave this as a whole.
I feel that what Matt was talking about makes sense in theory that you would want everyone to be judged equally in something like a contest, and to have it not have anything to do with someone’s ethnicity or gender. But obviously what Effie’s side of it brings up, this notion that of course the system is not actually fair, and statistically in the industry we have an imbalance that’s not representative of the world, so it would just make sense for the next season of “Project Greenlight” to be only for female directors and people of color. Statistically, those are the people who are not represented in the industry and not given a real chance in the same way. So for “Project Greenlight” to give an opportunity to someone who might not have an opportunity, that would make the most sense.
In a way that feels like one step back in order to go two steps forward because in order to be more inclusive as an industry, we would have to begin that initiative by, in a sense, being … you would have to judge people based on their ethnicity or gender, which shouldn’t happen at all.
So, it sounds like you believe you were portrayed unfairly on the show. Why?
Well, I definitely see the necessity of the editors of the show to create something out of the footage they have that will be entertaining. The sort of aim of the show is to be as entertaining and addictive as possible in the tradition of reality TV. Which is a very, I think, different thing than documentary. In order to create those things, a lot of things have to be manufactured in the editing. I get it.
If it was not my own personal involvement, it would probably be different, but I definitely get frustrated in the character that they’ve created out of me.
Is there something specific you could point to that you would say was manipulated or manufactured?
It’s kind of a dense conversation to start because it gets into the nuance of their cutting, but, for instance, there’s a degree to which I feel they’ve systematically gone through and shaped my own character into sort of like the cold, heartless jerk who only has the film in mind and they’ve very carefully removed any kindness that was involved in the process and made it all about the logistics of it. The interests of the show are not to have an appreciation for the art form of cinema, but rather they’re to have a fascination with the bickering of people. In order to create the dynamic that they want, it is understandably stronger to make my character really, really dictatorial or something as a stronger dramatic play against Effie, who is telling my character I can’t have things we need to make the movie.
At the beginning of the series, it seems as though you were apprehensive about even taking on the project, almost as though you had to be convinced, or worse, that you deigned to say yes to “Project Greenlight.” You realize that seems a little bizarre, right?
To me, the only reason to make a movie is if you really believe in making it. I don’t really have a commerce-driven sense of making films. I really believe in them as pieces of art. Before entering into “Project Greenlight,” I had been trying to raise money for a film I had been working on for awhile. Nobody wants to take a risk on investing millions of dollars in a commercially unproven filmmaker.
I was about to be making my thesis for Columbia [University film school] and a producer friend of mine … suggested that I submit to this “Project Greenlight” thing. I had heard of it but had never seen any of the series, and I just assumed, well, of course I don’t want to be a part of that. Why would I want to be a part of something that’s a reality show? I assumed it was more of a battling filmmakers sort of thing, which I think maybe is a different show? So I just submitted to be a team player with my producer, and then eventually I started getting all these e-mails. I made this bio video where I didn’t address any of the questions they were asking me to on the video and I essentially was giving them something they thought was a little bit crazy and they had to call me and say “Hey, what’s going on with this bio video?” They had to let me know I should take this seriously because my first submission had gotten some of the highest votes out of any of the submissions they had gotten. They really had to convince me that “Project Greenlight” was more of a docuseries than a reality show.
Do you think you bear any responsibility for the way things turned out during production? Especially with regard to picking a location at the last minute? That really seemed to set off a domino effect when it came to everything else — from permits for night shooting to how much time the production designer had to dress the set.
What they have right now in the show — this is kind of a complicated thing — but what they have right now in the show is the first meeting about locations and I decline them all and encourage us to find something else. What they don’t show is that we found some great locations and I was really excited about them.
I was encouraging us to film in Connecticut, where the film is actually set, but we did find some houses in Los Angeles and one of them was probably going to work out. Effie loved this place as well. We were both really happy with it. But they had one day that they were having a wedding during our dates and we couldn’t use the house on that day, and we already had such a short schedule that was going to be a problem, so we had someone who knew the homeowners go in and negotiate with them to see if something could be worked out. When they came back from the negotiations, the homeowners told us, “Okay, you can have it, but it’ll be $1 million.” Way, way beyond our price range [one-third of the film’s budget]. We had been pursuing this location for such a long time, and then suddenly it dropped out and we were left with having to be forced to go with a location that was somewhat subpar and required us to do a lot more heavy lifting in the way that we shot the movie. But in the show they make it look like I was procrastinating on the decision to do this and in my mind, that’s a pretty different kind of allegation against a filmmaker because being decisive is a pretty important trait really, especially when you’re dealing with time pressures and all of that. They really do run with an entirely different representation of the facts.
I know shooting on film was really important to you and you talked about that in an interview you did about your short, “Delicacy,” which was shot digitally, but do you stand behind your decision to use that $300,000 for film instead of two extra days of shooting? Especially when considering the car crash?
Yes. Again, it was a very complicated thing that they had to simplify for the show. We did have the money it would have taken to do that car stunt the way it was scripted. But because the logistics were being waited on and waited on in order to actually enact them, they decided not to attempt it because it was getting close to the day and HBO didn’t want us to have someone get hurt. When you have very little time, there’s just more possibility for someone to get hurt. Ultimately, it really was just a question of that when the production team left this to the side and didn’t put the logistics in place to make it possible, so when we were just a few days away from doing it, it got kind of shut down.
I absolutely stand behind shooting on film and I will continue to shoot film as long as it is available in the world and feasible. I wish that we could have done more photochemically. I wish we could have finished the coloring photochemically, but HBO was not going to allow that.
Do you see why some people might think you were doing end-runs around Effie to get what you wanted?
That’s sort of a case of whoever’s going to be loudest will be heard in reality TV. That was sort of Effie’s opinion of what was happening.
It was particularly strange because I was surprised to see on the show that Effie felt that I was going around her because she always told me that she was in favor of film. Maybe that wasn’t true. But she consistently told me if we had the money, it would be fine. I couldn’t imagine if Ben Affleck were to bring in more money to allow us to do it why she would feel as though that were a problem. It would seem like we’re helping the movie. We’re getting more money for the movie. Great!
It seems as though a lot of the conflicts came down to good old-fashioned pragmatism versus idealism.
I would imagine those are always going to come up with studio projects because, well, studios try very hard not to be in the business of losing money. But you’ve been described on the show as “uncompromising.”
That’s another thing that feels quite manufactured on the show — that there was this tension. From my view, when we’re actually making scenes and really making the movie and making choices that end up on screen, there was none of this peripheral stuff going on. What was in reality, say, 5 percent a stressful, dramatic scenario where things are falling out of place, that was such a tiny percentage of what was going on. But what happens in the editing of the show, they make it look like that was the entire experience. It was really much more pleasant and creatively fruitful than it might appear on the show.
Are you happy with the finished product?
I am very happy with the movie. I can’t wait for this very strange and idiosyncratic thing we created to be unleashed on people.
… I’m sure it’s going to be extremely polarizing. It’s not a movie for your grandmother. It’s a movie that’s willing to go places a traditional movie might not necessarily.
What sparked your interest in film?
I was really just tinkering with making little films growing up. I never assumed that making films was a realistic option in my life. I was connected to music growing up.
There was something very palpable about the kinds of aggressive music I was interested in growing up because it had an ethos of questioning the culture around you and questioning authority and things like that. It was very direct and connected to the audience. Music was something that I felt had a very direct connection to an audience. I kind of grew up with films that were somewhat removed from that, that were more about entertainment. As I got older, I found a link to the way films can be more subversive and more motivated to connect to an audience and be socially conscious as well as artistically vibrant.
Are there any directors in particular that you feel fall into that model of subversive filmmaking?
Two of the filmmakers who were a big influence on “Leisure Class” were [Pier Paolo] Pasolini and [Luis] Buñuel. Their approach to comedy was something that was very important to the thinking of this movie. The structures and the feelings of “Teorema” and “The Exterminating Angel” were both big influences on the structure of “Leisure Class.” It’s kind of a massive question because I don’t even know where to begin to talk about it actually.
A lot of them were esoteric particularly to the Bay area. The Bay area of San Francisco is a very fertile place culturally, I feel. It’s somewhere where, unlike Los Angeles, it’s somewhat less commerce-driven in terms of art. It’s just a great culture artistically. There were a lot of great bands I grew up with. One of them was How Fortunes Fall but you would probably never — I’m not sure if you would be able to find anything online for them necessarily.
Have you spoken to Matt, Ben or anyone else from “Project Greenlight” since everything wrapped?
I met up with Effie in New York the other day [Saturday]. She was giving a talk on diversity in the movie industry.
Are you a spoiled, rich brat?
I hope not. I definitely don’t think of myself that way. I happen to have very supportive parents in the sense that they have been very encouraging in what I have tried to do artistically. But we definitely were not the type of people to have everything we wanted, to put it mildly.
It’s weird to be confronted with that sort of thing. The majority of the world is not living as comfortably as they probably should be. I’ve made films in South Africa and in Nigeria, all over the world where you see the kind of poverty that is obviously — any of us in the United States enjoy a kind of lifestyle that could be called almost shameful by comparison to developing nations. By comparison to that, you always feel guilty that you have a comfortable bed to sleep in and you’re not having to worry about the basic necessities of your life. That is what gives someone the time to become someone who makes art, not having to focus on, “My god, where is my next meal going to come from?”