Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on September 6 at 11/10c—is both a documentary reality series and a competition, so one might be tempted to refer to it as a reality competition series. However, at its core The Chair—which chronicles two filmmakers, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, as they each make their own movie based on the same script with the winner earning $250,000—is a filmmaking experiment, similar to producer Chris Moore’s earlier—and soon to be revived, without Moore—series Project Greenlight. The difference is that instead of having a competition to select the filmmakers involved, Moore hand-selected his filmmakers to create the most interesting competition for the documentary, and to develop the movies with the best chance of succeeding as low-budget independent features.
I spoke with Moore about how he went about developing the series, the decision to turn this into a formal competition (rather than just a filmmaking experiment), and how his experience with the series has evolved as the experiment continues into distribution and promotion.
Cultural Learnings: From a “casting” perspective, were you ever considering other options, or did you land on Anna and Shane fairly early?
Chris Moore, Executive Producer, The Chair: I did have a list, although I will take a little bit of issue with the term “casting.” The biggest issue with this—and when we did Project Greenlight years ago—was that we need people to want to see the movies. And The Chair was not designed to be a first-time director thing, so some of the other people on the list were experienced directors, or second- or third-time directors. And I couldn’t talk any of them into it because of the competition nature, and because of the super low-budget nature. And the hardest part of it was that I had to raise all the money independently because people were like “I get the documentary, that’s genius, and I think the idea of two directors making the same script is awesome too, I would watch it.” The thing that I couldn’t get is movie companies, because they would say to me “Dude, how are we going to get our money back on two movies? It’s hard enough getting people to go see one movie, how are they going to go see two?”
And that was similar to the directors, so what I would say is that once it became obvious that I was going to be in the first-time director game, I had actually already started working with Shane and Anna on separate projects. So I gave them the script, and I gave three other directors the script, and I said listen: “here’s my idea, I love this idea, and I think it would be fascinating, and fun, and maybe you’ll do it because I’m willing to give you final cut on your first movie, which most people don’t get.”
And out of the five, Shane and Anna had really, really good takes. They were different takes, they were very passionate about it, and I find them as filmmakers to represent very different sides of the spectrum being a big YouTube star and an NYU film school graduate. And I thought that they would make very good movies, but they would be very different movies as well because part of this experiment is to get people to go see the movies. For me to get to do Chair 2 I need people not just to watch the show, but also to see the movies, so I can go back out to the film finance community and say “Look, this worked! How about we do two $5 Million movies? Let’s get a couple of people who’ve made really cool festival movies, or something.” It’s not all about first-timers, it’s about the storytelling of what’s the best way to tell this story.
You said you went into the experience knowing their takes: What made you confident about each of them taking on this challenge?
It’s really funny, and I think this is true of lots of directors and it’s actually one of the classic questions that producers ask directors when they’re thinking about hiring them. And the question is “When all the shit’s going on, and you will have times when that happens, what part of the process of being a director are you going to rely on the most to get you out of the weeds?” And there’s usually three areas that directors can answer. For some directors, they’ll say “The camera. I’m just going to have a beautiful fucking shot, and I’m going to shoot the hell out of it, and I’m going to make everybody forget about how bad the dialogue is, or how bad the actor is, or whatever, because it’s going to be beautiful.” And then you get other people who will say “I’m going to go with the performance, I’m going to go with the actors.” I have one director I work with who says “Actors are little saviors: they can save any movie when they put in a good performance.” And others say it’s the script, that they’ll go home and rewrite the fucking script and make the movie better if they start realizing shit’s bad.
So, in Anna’s case script is what she’s really confident with: she came up as a writer, she had written other movies, so she knew what the hell she was doing. Anna really believed in her script, and if she every got a little confused or worried, she’d go back to the script to try to do it. Shane is a performer, he’s been putting these characters up on YouTube for six or seven years now, and he’s gotten some pretty positive feedback about him as a performer (what with six, ten million fans). So Shane would say “Look, I’m going to get a great bunch of actors, and they’re going to do it,” and they did great. The movies reflect this, and they did solve their problems, and they made really good films out of this in very different ways.
Did they end up hitting the kind of problems you were preparing them for?
They both hit the normal amount of problems, and they had creative inspiration along the way where they realized some of their plan might not have been perfect, or because of new information they changed their plan. But ultimately they handled it very professionally, they did a great job of turning in really good movies, and I think they’re both going to have really big fans, and it’s going to be fascinating to see who actually wins.
I had asked a version of this question at press tour, but I’m wondering as you get deeper into the post-production process how you’re reflecting on the decision to make this a competition. What do you feel is gained by providing a cash prize?
I think it makes people try harder. [Laughs] I think it makes people work. I think it creates a goal. I think it also became in their heads: they were thinking “There is two people making the same creative decisions at the same time in the same place, and that’s weird.” And it was in their head, and in future episodes you’ll see Anna talking about Shane, and Shane talking about Anna, even though they’d never met each other. I think it just creates more drama.
I also quite honestly felt like they deserved to win something for going through this whole process, and I think it makes sense to the audience. Now, I’ll tell you there’s a subversive side to it—and you’re the only person who ever asks this question, so you get to tell me if this is an interesting answer, but it’s true. I also wanted to show the people that I don’t actually think there’s a winner. Meaning, you can tell two different versions of the same story really well, and one isn’t better than the other one. So what I think people are going to do when they fill out the survey—there’s a giant survey with ten questions like you’re going to a test screening, and whoever got the highest score wins. If you’ve ever been to a test screening, you’ve seen the forms: “Would you recommend this movie? Would you rate it excellent or good.” But the point is, I think people are going to be torn, and they’re going to see that survey and not know how to answer it because they loved things about both movies.
And so to me, part of making this a competition and hopefully engaging people enough to actually go take the survey is because I think it’s fascinating to realize that there isn’t one way to make a movie.
Do you think you needed the money and the competition to accomplish that?
I think you needed to have a goal that mattered at the end. It’s so hard to release independent movies right now that to have it be a box office or to have it be on download or iTunes felt unfair because they’re going to also then be compared to 200 other movies. And also they might end up with $4 and a pat on the back in that market. So for me, I felt we had to keep it contained in the Chair community, and we had to have it so that if you watch the show, and you watch the movies, you deserve to be a part of who wins. And we hope you know what the fuck you’re doing when you fill out the survey so when the person wins they feel like they won because people liked their movie better than the other person’s movie.
How much will that distribution/promotion side play in the series itself?
It’s the last three episodes. It’s a big fucking deal, and we’re still shooting because it’s happening right now. The movies come out September 19 in theaters, so we’re making those decisions, we’re cutting trailers, we’re making ads and promos. Starz is helping out: they’ve been an unbelievable partner. They came in after we started shooting, looked at some of the footage, and said “We’d like to air this.” We’re so lucky they’re putting it out and giving us a chance to broadcast this documentary, because without a big company like Starz it would be hard to do the other shit we’re trying to do. You probably wouldn’t be calling me if it wasn’t on Starz.
You mentioned The Chair 2 earlier—you’re interested in doing a second season of the series?
I want to do this for the next fifty years. I want this to be one of the ways that new stories and new storytelling gets done. I think that there’s no reason it shouldn’t be as cool and as popular as something like American Idol or at least the cooking shows that are out there. [Laughs] To me, how many times can you watch somebody cook a casserole? But it seems to happen every month. So for me, I would like to do it forever. I think it’s fascinating to watch people tell stories, and then to watch the stories. So yes, I want to keep doing it.
The Chair debuts on Starz at 11/10c on Saturday, September 6—I’ll have interviews with the two filmmakers, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, in the next few days, along with a review of the series at The A.V. Club on Friday.