Heaven-Bound Heartwarming Case File #186: Project Greenlight Presents Stolen Summer

Heaven-Bound Heartwarming Case File #186: Project Greenlight Presents Stolen Summer

Project Greenlight, the filmmaking reality competition sponsored by Miramax and produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris Moore, was supposed to be a winning proposition for everyone involved. One lucky filmmaker would receive a million-dollar budget and the promise of a theatrical release from Miramax. Audiences would get an inside look at the gritty details, fierce infighting, and mind games of independent filmmaking. At the end of the day, Miramax would release the product to critical acclaim and boffo box-office. 

Project Greenlight would be show-business democracy at its finest. It would be the movie America—with the help of Miramax—had chosen, and as history has shown us, Americans are always right, especially when it comes to their entertainment choices. Nepotism, connections, and money wouldn’t be a factor; this would be a pure meritocracy, where the best guy wins. Or the guy with the most commercial screenplay. Or maybe the guy who would make for the best reality-show protagonist. You can see where a simple premise can get fuzzy and good intentions can go astray. 

For instance, instead of giving audiences a glimpse into the creation of the next Clerks or Good Will Hunting, the show illustrated how an affable mediocrity comes into existence. Instead of chronicling the birth of a masterpiece, Project Greenlight performed an autopsy on a failure.  

Project Greenlight was rooted in Miramax’s carefully crafted image as the home of cinematic renegades and rebels too wild, young, and unruly for anyone else. In the ’90s, Harvey Weinstein reigned as quasi-independent film’s kingmaker. He had the power, muscle, and iron will to transform a scrappy kid with a funky little script into a major Hollywood player. The mythology of Miramax is intertwined with the mythology of Harvey’s pet filmmakers: Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. These self-starters didn’t wait for the system to comprehend their brilliance; they went ahead and made movies by any means necessary. Filmmaking almost became an outlaw act, something quick and dirty you did on the fly when respectable people weren’t paying attention. Damon and Affleck didn’t quite fit the paradigm, being dashing movie stars and all. But the story of how a pair of struggling actors wrote a screenplay to give themselves juicy parts to play and ended up penning an Oscar-winning smash still fits snugly into the rags-to-riches Miramax mythology, the idea that a co-sign from big ol’ Uncle Harvey made you the entertainment version of a Made Man. 

That was the heartwarming story of Miramax in the ’90s, or at least the sanitized, PR-sanctioned version. When Project Greenlight was released in 2001, Miramax’s reputation had lost some of its glow. It wasn’t an upstart underdog anymore, and the independent film boom of the ’90s had fizzled out. Miramax looked more and more like a bloated major studio each successive year. Yet the dream persisted that Harvey could make an unknown the next Quentin Tarantino. It was so resilient it essentially became the pitch for Project Greenlight. To its credit, Project Greenlight goes about dismantling the Weinstein-as-kingmaker myth as soon as it’s introduced. 

Great reality-show characters generally come in two varieties: There are the big-hearted dreamers we identify with and root for; then there are the screaming divas, noxious narcissists, and various other aggregations of psychological maladies we leer at with trainwreck fascination. Pete Jones, the winner of Project Greenlight and director of its first film, Stolen Summer, belongs unmistakably to the first class. He’s a corn-fed family man from suburban Chicago who risked it all on a crazy dream because he had a furious passion to tell stories. If Project Greenlight were turned into a narrative film, Parks And Recreation’s Chris Pratt would be the perfect actor to play him. 

Project Greenlight affords Jones a night of exuberant celebration—woo hoo! He did it! He’s gonna live his dream and make his movie for the fucking Weinsteins, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck—before hurtling him into the brutal realities of low-budget filmmaking like a toddler tossed into the deep end of the pool. Jones quickly learns one of the hardest lessons of first-time filmmaking: Making this film might be the realization of a lifelong dream for you, but for nearly everyone else on the crew, it’s just another fucking job. And when your director is a complete neophyte, your budget is low, and the producers and DP are embroiled in a never-ending power struggle, it’s not even a particularly good job. 

Project Greenlight made the mistake of putting a film full of nothing but delicate subject matter—children, God, faith, cancer, inter-faith relationships—into the hands of an amateur constitutionally and professionally incapable of delicacy. The producers seem to realize this early on, yet they proceed all the same. In a prescient moment, Affleck frets that if they screw up the tone of Stolen Summer, they’ll be left with a glorified after-school special about tolerance. In a more delusional moment, he thinks he has another Stand By Me on his hands if they get the tone right. 

No one at Miramax seems to have had high hopes for the film. Affleck may have been a Miramax golden boy, but Harvey Weinstein isn’t about to throw money at some novice director making a sappy melodrama about a dying kid trying to get into heaven or something. Even at Sundance, the reception is relatively muted. In a setting where anything shot in focus is all but promised a standing ovation, the diplomatic praise the film gets from random festival-goers almost qualifies as an insult. 

It’s easy to see why the Sundance crowd was measured in their response. Before the opening credits of Stolen Summer have ended we’re subjected to the following: a red-headed moppet lisping adorably, a bad-acting-off between the film’s pint-sized protagonist and a woman stiffly portraying a nun, and a busy Sunday straight out of the Big Book Of Poor But Proud Working-Class Irish-Catholics.

The tone is almost nauseatingly nice; everything about Jones screams Norman Rockwell All-American, from his name to his photogenic family. His film follows suit: Stolen Summer seems to belong to an earlier, more wholesome age, a pre-Pulp Fiction universe, ironically enough. 

That oppressive wholesomeness extends to its take on religion. Stolen Summer offers a child’s-eye view of faith that’s naïve to the point of being offensive. With visions of fire and brimstone blazing in his fertile imagination, Stolen Summer’s protagonist (Adi Stein) sets out to emulate Saint Paul in word and deed by converting a Jew as part of his sinister scheme to sneak his way into God’s good graces. So he heads over to synagogue and announces to rabbi Kevin Pollak, who plays a rabbi blessed with superhuman patience and tolerance, that he has a sacred “quest” to help Jewish people get into heaven. His plan: get them to stop being Jews. Spain did something similar a few centuries back. It was called The Spanish Inquisition. It was not the least bit heartwarming. 

The same cannot be said of Stolen Summer. It starts off sappy, then keeps adding “aw”-inducing elements until it’s testing the gag reflex of even the most sentimental Hallmark denizen. Early in his quest, for example, Stein goes to the synagogue and sets up a “Lemonade/Free Trip To Heaven” stand with the saintly approval of Pollak. What religious leader wouldn’t want a small child trying to convert his congregation into a different religion? It just makes sense. In Stolen Summer, Pollak’s rabble-raising rabbi is tolerant to a masochistic level, but in his mind he’s not encouraging conversions to Christianity so much as he’s encouraging free thought and open communication between religions about the path to salvation.

There’s a wonderful moment midway through Project Greenlight where the cast is filming a scene at a rainy baseball game and Pollak explains that Aidan Quinn decided that his working-class character would be too tough and macho to use an umbrella. With a little professional respect and a whole lot of derision for the fancy artiste, Pollak mockingly hails Quinn’s willingness to risk pneumonia “for the three fucking people” in the film’s viewing audience who would actually notice such a seemingly inconsequential detail. That seemingly insignificant moment defines both actors.  Quinn is the guy who’ll stand out in the freezing rain for hours like some sort of messhugenah schleper for the sake of his highfalutin art, and Pollak is the guy who’ll head inside or grab an umbrella because there’s no fucking use killing yourself over something the vast majority of the audience will probably never even notice anyway. 

Both men are right and wrong in their own way. Within the class-charged universe of the film, it does make sense that Quinn’s painfully proud character would find using an umbrella feminine or weak. And Pollak is right that in the long run it doesn’t really matter whether Quinn uses an umbrella or goes umbrella-less, because nobody is going to see it anyway. Pollak gets the last laugh: The emotionally charged baseball game didn’t make it into the final film, so Quinn’s suffering was for naught. 

Those antithetical approaches to their craft inform their performances as well: Quinn is all angry blue-collar intensity, to a melodramatic degree, while Pollak wisely underplays the innately ridiculous role of a rabbi who doesn’t raise too much of an objection when a precocious eight-year-old spiritual seeker decides to convert the rabbi’s dying son to Christianity to win points with Jesus.

It’s never easy for a child actor to carry a film, especially with a first-time director. The task goes from difficult to impossible, however, if the child in question is a terrible actor, and while it gives me no joy to say horrible things about small, defenseless children, Stein squeaks all of his lines as if reading them off cue cards for the first time. Forget conveying his character’s fierce religious convictions; Stein’s accomplishments as an actor end with remembering his lines, then delivering them as if auditioning for a Smucker’s commercial. Stein’s performance amplifies rather than undercuts the film’s cloying sweetness. 

Since the adult actors are all infinitely more experienced than the flopsweat-drenched man behind the camera, Jones’ primary job as a director involved coaxing natural performances out of his child actors. When the film focuses on Stein however, its flimsy façade of professionalism begins to fade and the film begins to feel unmistakably like the student film or senior thesis it probably should have been. Sometimes the pros cover for the amateurs: Pollak’s easy, unforced delivery makes dialogue like “You should know your bravery has been passed on. He may be one of the more earnest young men I’ve ever met” sound as natural as it could possibly sound. Ignore for a moment the clumsy, stumbling cadence of that dialogue. What is Pollak even trying to say? Who compliments an eight-year-old for being earnest? Why does being earnest make Stein brave? 

Stolen Summer has so many elements working against it and so few working for it that the fact that it’s merely uninspired and muddled rather than egregiously awful qualifies as an accomplishment. Yet Stolen Summer is not without its moments of quiet assurance, subtle little scenes where Jones trusts his cast enough to simply let them live onscreen and bring back some of his childhood in the process.  

Jones’ film is at least an honorable failure, a sincere attempt to make the kind of perversely small, working-class drama about faith, class, and family they just don’t make any more and probably never really did. He wanted to tell a small story that was important to him. He succeeded. He wanted it to resonate with the general public. In that respect, he failed. But we had not seen the last of Pete Jones.  

Late in the series, long after dreams of Oscars and blockbuster openings and minting the next Tarantino have been forgotten, Matt Damon maps out a realistic goal for Project Greenlight: to greenlight a movie for a complete amateur who’d still be making a living in films a decade later. In that, it succeeded. Not too long ago, I sat down in a Chicago hotel room with Pete Jones and Bobby Farrelly to discuss Hall Pass, a huge mainstream comedy based on a story and screenplay from Jones. Fans of Project Greenlight will be happy to hear that the big guy is doing just fine. It’s been a rocky, circuitous road, but he’s still lucky enough to be living out his dreams, with or without a camera crew chronicling every moment.  

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure