When the film finally came out earlier this year, "Stolen Summer" debuted to mixed reviews and an approximately $120,000 gross on a matter of only 13 screens (according to the Internet Movie Database), which seems like hardly enough for viewers to find it at a theater near them.
However, to back-up a bit, I'll discuss the general information: a couple of years ago, actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (along with producer Chris Moore) decided to start "Project Greenlight", an internet-based contest where 10,000 screenwriters submitted their screenplays on the net. Said screenplays were voted on and soon enough, various groups of finalists (250 down to 10 down to 3 down to 1) were chosen, with the eventual winner being Pete Jones, a jolly average guy. Soon enough, Jones finds himself with an HBO series documenting the triumphs (and more often, the horrors) of being a first-time director who's just been given one million dollars and a solid cast to make his own picture.
First, to discuss "Greenlight": there are several characters involved. Creators Ben Affleck and Matt Damon seem like a couple of normal, down-to-earth people who just happen to be remarkably funny together. Affleck, the more talkative of the two, riffs here as much as he does on the often downright hysterical DVD commentaries for the Kevin Smith (who makes a small appearance in the show) films he's starred in. Then, there's Chris Moore, who is the producer and really must be concerned with all of the goings-on of the show, but won't always be there during the filming. There's the film's two on-set producers, Jeff Balis (new) and Patrick Peach (veteran) and there's Jones himself, who - to his credit - looks unexpectedly calm under fire. There's also the supporting players, including execs Michelle Sy and Jon Gordon, cinematographer Peter Biagi, first assistant director Bruce Terris and many others.
The first couple of episodes are fascinating viewing - truly, truly involving television. Damon, Affleck, Moore and a series of Miramax executives (including Jon Gordon, who was also included on the commentary for Smith's "Chasing Amy") seemed to think that the choice for the final winner would not be that extremely difficult. As the hours pass and little in the way of a decision has been made, nerves start to get a bit frayed but eventually, Jones is declared the winner. Those who lost are given very genuine goodbyes and best wishes. The fact that they all seem like sincere, hard-working people with a dream makes that all the more difficult (according to the Internet Movie Database, "Speakeasy", another entry, is getting produced by Miramax).
As the planning of "Stolen Summer" begins, things start to get problematic. Pete Jones, although he seems like an awfully nice and intelligent person, had never previously directed a picture before "Summer" and there are nerves on display about whether or not Jones will realize the immense difficulty of even a million-dollar production. Affleck and Damon fade into the background (although both occasionally reappear in interviews) and the focus then falls upon Jones, two producers who do not get along and a mix of relatively new and somewhat experienced crew as they put the production together.
The third episode of the series makes the right opening note: "everything you write costs money." Miramax agreed to put one million dollars on the table and things start to unravel - the movie is 1976, but it starts to appear as if the money isn't going to be there to produce '76 in the final film. While Jon Gordon and other Miramax execs are worried that they'll be painted as "villians" in the series, they're reasonably worried about giving a million dollars (or more, as the $1.5m final budget turns out) to someone who essentially has no experience as a director who's making a story that is not entirely easy to market. While admittedly art vs. commerce issues come up, there's also real concerns about where money is going when it's in the hands of a novice. It's a definite credit to this series that both sides (Miramax and Jones/Moore) are allowed to clearly state their case and the series portrays the very legitimate concerns of both sides very well without turning either into "villians".
The first thing that I thought while watching "Project Greenlight" is that maybe it should follow a more experienced director trying to direct the winner's screenplay, with possible active input from the writer. Although the budget eventually gets solved, there are some serious issues that arise as the shooting continues. A lot of first time directors, including Kevin Smith and Brett Ratner (two very different examples), have surrounded themselves with very knowledgeable crews for their early features and both have obviously learned a good deal about their craft since their first movie. Ratner, in particular, got to work with incredibly talented cinematographers Russell Carpenter ("Titanic"), Adam Greenberg and Dante Spinotti (Michael Mann's films) on his first three pictures.
Jones, on the other hand, finds himself with a mixed band of a crew, from two on-set producers who do not get along to a first assistant director who's sharp and smart, but can't always keep the chaos together to a cinematographer who starts to become a problem later in the shoot. Producer Moore visits the set early on and seems horrifed by the events taking place and resented by the crew, if only because everything that he says seems painfully right.
In the middle of the chaos is an extremely talented cast, including Brian Dennehy, Bonnie Hunt (funny), Aidan Quinn (who championed the project from early on and gained another few days for the shooting schedule) and Kevin Pollack (a brilliant improvisational actor who has some very funny moments in the documentary). With all the comedians on the set, maybe this film should have went another way.
Once we hit episode five and are into the serious depths of pre-production in Chicago, we find Jones becoming increasingly stressed. At the same time, one has to feel that Jones has underestimated his place in the world; while he's gotten a remarkable opportunity, he has to realize that things are not going to always go his way. Opening episodes show a director who passionately fights for the right issues that are essential for his picture, but he also starts fighting for the issues that he really should have been more flexible on. When actors pass (Emma Thompson doesn't want in), he doesn't seem to understand how they can do so. This happens throughout the series, as while Jones may be a talented enough writer to complete the screenplay, he has seemingly not done much research into how the system generally works and sometimes can't comprehend why all the pieces aren't falling into place in front of him. To further the pressure on himself, there are moments where he tries to pull in responsibility for errors that aren't his. With a tight budget and and an even tighter shooting schedule, things must push forward - there's no time for any errors and any sort of disputes further drain valuable moments. After watching the entire "Greenlight" series, I think Jones will really know how to approach his next production very well, but he learned some very difficult lessions on his first one in front of a very large audience.
Episode six closes out the first of the two "Greenlight" series discs in the set and focuses on opening up the production itself. Although I will not give away each of the many problems the production runs into, I'll discuss a few examples: the first day of shooting involves Jones directing two children in a scene under one of Chicago's "L" trains, which rumble overhead every five minutes, ruining audio. The big "swimming" scene starts up and the crew finds that the kids can't swim (and on other days, have problems with dramatic acting) and the water is about fifty degrees. There are points where you almost want to cheer when the crew gets things together, but for the most part, things seem like varying levels of disaster. The final couple of episodes take viewers into post-production, as Jones works through editing, premieres the film at the Sundance Festival and tries to fight for money for reshoots and corrections.
Watching "Project Greenlight", I started to understand how it may have possibly worked against the film. The way the production is presented here, I'm sort of amazed that there was enough footage to cut together into a full movie. This cuts the audience into two groups: people who see this and are either entertained or not by the TV show and think it's going to be an awful movie that they'll never see or people who were entertained or not by the TV show and want to seek out the movie to see how in the world this chaos actually came together into something. While I believe more of the latter group existed than the former, I still think there might be people out there who may have found "Project Greenlight" entertaining television and also were totally turned off to the idea of seeing what looked like a disaster.
Will people who have no idea what "Project Greenlight" is want to see this movie? Admittedly, not many people are going to find it on 13-or-so screens, but I'd be interested to find out Miramax's thoughts on the film's potential after they viewed the final product and "Greenlight" and tried to decide how to distribute and promote. Although those processes are understandably kept under wraps, it would have been interesting to see those discussions at the studio, as well.
Simply, for those interested in the production process of a film, there is no greater thing out there than "Project Greenlight". There have been a lot of great additional material included on DVDs that take viewers behind-the-scenes, but this series really takes the viewer into the meetings, the obstacles, the shooting and just about everything included in the making of the film. The final product may not be entirely worthwhile viewing and the production is often presented as a pressure-packed disaster, but I think future filmmakers can take something away from this and film fans both hardcore and casual will be informed and likely, highly entertained by it. I have to say it's the one of the most watchable TV programs I've seen in years. I almost watched the entire six hours (12 episodes) straight in one evening before I decided to continue on the next morning. Even after finishing, I could have watched another six hours or more.
That brings me to the film itself, which is located on the first disc of this four-disc set. Thankfully, "Stolen Summer" is not the disaster that the show would suggest. It is a considerably flawed movie that often falls into the "Afterschool Special" trap that was suggested it might in early "Greenlight" episodes, but it's at least fairly professional in appearance. The film takes place in Chicago in 1976 and tells the story of Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein) and Danny (Mike Weinberg). Pete, who is Catholic, is told by his teacher that he must change his ways over the Summer or else he's headed for trouble - or worse. In his own rather innocent way, he decides to try and convert Jewish people. Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak) allows him to say what he has to offer, even if no one listens. Still, Pete makes a friend - Danny - out of it and decides that his quest can be to get Danny into heaven. Watch for the melodrama: Danny has cancer and may not survive, but both can learn about each other's religion and background in the time they have. Both Pete and Danny's parents (Pollack and Hunt/Quinn) disagree about how to handle the situation, but may have things to learn themselves.
It's interesting to see "Greenlight" and then go right into the final product. Some of the problems that occured on set are visible in the final film, but there are also some general concerns that the film suffers from. Jones has picked two child lead actors who, while occasionally providing good performances in some scenes, often seem to handle the drama awkwardly and don't always seem entirely sure of their lines - although to their credit, Jones's screenplay is too overwritten. Yet, Quinn, Hunt and Pollak go a long way towards salvaging this picture. Quinn contributes a superb, subdued performance and Hunt/Pollak contribute some much-needed sharp humor to an otherwise sappy story.
Production issues arise, as well. Director Pete Jones and cinematographer Peter Biagi offer a visual style that's about as basic as it gets, although some of the locations are nice looking. The screenplay, which was chosen after an awful lot of debate, also has issues in regards to scenes that are sweet-natured, but turn either melodramatic or overly wordy. Pacing is often uneven as well, as some stretches are more involving and move forward more skillfully than others. Even the 70's period isn't particularly well-achieved, although it's expected, given the discussions on budget that occured.
Danny Lux's score pulls back some of the sappiness in scenes, offering a sincere background tone to the emotion. The score, much like some of the adult actors, saves some scenes. While "Stolen Summer" certainly isn't without moments that show potential, one has to wonder if, out of 10,000 screenplays, more different/unusual material didn't exist. Even though I'm not entirely positive on "Stolen Summer", I still think it has strong aspects and is certainly interesting to view as the final chapter of what "Project Greenlight" started and maybe the opening chapter of Jones's career.
Stolen Summer: ** 1/2
Project Greenlight: ****
Disc One: Feature
Disc Two: Project Greenlight 1-6
Disc Three: Project Greenlight: 7-12
Disc Four: "Greenlight" Extras
VIDEO: "Stolen Summer" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, while all of the episodes of "Project Greenlight" are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. "Summer" generally looks fine, although has a rough-around-the-edges appearance that does take away from the presentation somewhat. Sharpness and detail on "Summer" are passable - the bright, outdoor sequences are crisp and well-defined, while some of the indoor scenes can look a bit murky.
"Summer" faces some issues in regards to the film itself and some from the transfer. Light grain does appear in some of the indoor scenes, while there are also a few minor traces of pixelation. Edge enhancement becomes noticable in a few scenes, while the print used also shows some minor specks and marks. "Greenlight" episodes do suffer from some minor artifacts, but still look strong.
Colors on the feature film look pretty good; while the film's somewhat low-key color palette usually look crisply rendered, some of the darker colors can occasionally look the slightest bit smeared.
SOUND: "Greenlight" is presented in stereo, while "Summer" is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1. "Summer"'s 5.1 mix is actually much better than I'd expected. While I'd have thought the film's audio would be considerably front-heavy, there is actually a respectable amount of well-done surround use for crisp, clear ambient sounds, such as one sequence where the "L" train rumbles over the characters and through the listening space. The stereo soundtrack of "Greenlight" is crisp and clear.
MENUS: The main menus have slight animation, but most of the menus are non-animated, sleek and easily navigated.
EXTRAS: Neither of the two "Greenlight" series discs offers supplements, but there are a lot of supplements included on both the first disc with the film and the fourth, extra disc.
Commentary: There is a commentary on the first disc along with the feature by director Pete Jones, producer Chris Moore and producer Jeff Balis. Browsing through this commentary, I thought the track that the three provided was excellent and quite funny. All three spend a great deal of the track offering their perspective on the production and technical details about how some scenes were finally accomplished. Otherwise, they do provide a solid amount of very amusing comments about what went wrong during the shoot and even some thoughts about what they'd do differently. As good as this commentary is, producer Affleck (given the fact that he's recorded some of the most hysterical commentaries ever) should have been involved.
Scene-Vs.-Scene: Viewers can choose to watch a scene from the film and the scene from the rough video version that Jones filmed to enter.
Deleted Scenes: 2 deleted scenes (including the "Baseball Game" featured on one episode of the show) with commentary by the director and producer. The commentary by Moore and Jones on the second deleted scene is priceless, as Moore goofs on himself.
Jump To A Scene: There is an option (can be turned on/off) where viewers can click on a logo during various points of the movie and watch scenes from "Project Greenlight" about the making of that sequence.
Also: Also on Disc 1, there's trailers for "Stolen Summer" (which seems more concerned with "Project Greenlight" than the movie itself) and Miramax's "Pinocchio" remake.
The Contest: This is the first set of supplements on the fourth disc of the set. While there's a whole lot of great information packed within, the most entertaining section is the "Chris Moore" contest, where Project Greenlight asked 500 people to send in their one-minute taped imitations of producer Chris Moore. The top 25 (the majority of which are very funny) are available for viewing here, along with Affleck's "How To Imitate Chris Moore" featurette, where he Affleck offers his take, which is priceless. The other extras on this section include noteworthy filmmaker videos (where the filmmakers who were in one of the final rounds were asked to discuss their ideas and sort of present themselves in a short video); the top 10 filmmaker videos and the top 10 3-minute scripted scenes by the finalists.
Project Greenlight Experience: This section offers seven featurettes that fills out some of the aspects that the show did not cover. The featurettes include: "The Press Junket" (Affleck and Damon meet with reporters and generally say the same thing over and over to journalists who all ask the same questions); "Crew Profiles" offers short featurettes on the main crew members, who describe their career and their role in the production; "Fix it in Post" (where Damon sits with director Jones and the editor to give notes on how to fix the film); "Find A Mentor" (more of Jones's discussion with Kevin Smith); "Festival Circuit" (Q & A at Sundance); "The Little People" (producer Chris Moore treats an entire neighborhood to ice cream - see, he's not the villian of the piece, as some viewers think) and "Being Watched", as members of the crew discuss the problems of being filmed during a production.
Project Redlight: This is an incredibly funny parody of "Greenlight", which shows the making of a direct-to-cable feature starring Corey Feldman.
Also: DVD-ROM weblink.
Final Thoughts: Tense, terrifying and totally entertaining, "Project Greenlight" may not have told the whole story (somehow this film came together, even if it looked from the series as if it wouldn't), but it's fast, extremely involving and informative. "Stolen Summer" may have faults, but it was a tremendously difficult experience (as the series shows) and the movie certainly isn't without moments that show potential. Miramax's DVD set offers good audio/video quality, along with a lot of very enjoyable supplements. This is one of my favorite DVD releases of the year and I recommend it highly.