[The following contains some light plot spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s American Vandal, with more specific spoilers in the observations at the end.]
Nothing about the premise of American Vandal prepares you for American Vandal. It is easy, even once you flip to Netflix and start watching the show, to imagine it to be the ultimate fool’s errand: yes, true crime documentaries like Serial and Making a Murderer are inviting subjects for parody, but an eight-episode series about an investigation into spray-painted dicks?
There are elements of American Vandal—including most of the clips featured in the show’s trailer—that are what you would expect from a short sketch on this topic: aesthetic tropes of shows like Making a Murderer or The Keepers carefully recreated, but this time about lewd vandalism and lakeside handjobs. And for the most part these jokes are pretty funny, and helped by the fact that everyone involved is taking this so seriously. The show commits to the thoroughness of those investigations despite the inherently shallow nature of the crime in question, and that commitment never wavers, which is the central joke of the piece. At one point, Peter—the documentarian—explains what he’s doing to someone consulting on the legal elements of the case, and an outside observer remarks on the stupidity of the project, and it’s funny because it’s true.
But where American Vandal succeeds is in the fact it isn’t actually about #WhoDrewTheDicks, conceptually speaking. Yes, the fact that its characters are earnestly investigating graffiti genitalia is a joke, but the characters themselves are not turned into a joke in the process. The majority of the show finds its storytelling outside of the inciting incident, cobbling together glimpses of high school life grounded in realism despite being predicated on penises. And for a show with such an absurd premise, American Vandal shows a deft hand at capturing the nuances of teenage life, providing a strikingly authentic portrait of the mediated world of its subjects that builds to a closing sentiment that both pokes fun at the likes of S-Town while also tapping into their emotional power.
In the early episodes of Starz’s The Chair, which debuted OnDemand and on Starz Play today and makes its linear review at 11/10c, neither director making their own versions of the same script are intended to be experts. Anna Martemucci is as much of a first-time director as Shane Dawson (who I spoke with earlier this week), and so the cameras capture lost of the initial uncertainty that comes with stepping behind the camera for the first time for her film, Hollidaysburg.
At the same time, though, Martemucci is also positioned as the insider, whose existing relationship with Zachary Quinto’s production company and her Periods. Films collaboration with her husband Victor Quinaz and brother-in-law Philip Quinaz fit into more traditional models of how independent films get made. Her story is therefore less about shaking an existing professional identity in favor of a more legitimate one, as is the case with Dawson, and focuses more on her self-identification with the role of filmmaker within the context of this rather strange experiment that nonetheless offers a valuable opportunity.
I spoke with Martemucci about what made her take on this experience, how it made her reflect on her place in the industry, and how the series’ narratives fit her conception of her work and her goals as a filmmaker.
Cultural Learnings:When I spoke with Chris Moore he mentioned you had been working with him on some other projects before this came up—what made you ultimately agree to be a part of The Chair instead?
Anna Martemucci: If I remember correctly, I think I had about a month to think about it from the moment that Chris really looked me in the eye and was like “I’m serious, do you want to do this?” And I was like “Oh shit, okay.” [Laughs] I knew it would be an incredible opportunity, but I definitely took my time, and I remember telling my family on a trip—anyone I love and trusted, basically, I ran it by them, and it was funny because they all got the same kind of pained expression on their face when I said “reality show.” And they all said the same thing, which is “Don’t trust Chris Moore.” [Laughs] “He’s going to want to make a TV show and not a good movie, just remember you’re special, and blah blah blah blah blah. Don’t lose your mind and give them a good TV show and in the process ruin your life.” [Laughs]
So it was scary when people you love and trust are giving you stinkeye and being like “Maybe don’t do this,” but at the end of the day it was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. And I say it in the show, but I know so many people who have spent many, many years being frustrated in the business and wanting so badly to get their first movie made. And anyone, including people who aren’t trying to be directors like writers trying to get their first screenplay made, it’s not an easy business. So the fact that my creative dream had appeared, and I had the opportunity to make it come true, and the only thing I had to do was allow myself to be filmed? I was like “Well, alright.”
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?”
When Starz made two episodes of documentary series The Chair (debuts September 6 at 10/9c) available to critics, I was unaware the series existed. After watching the two episodes, I was aware the show existed, but I still didn’t necessarily understand how it worked.
The Chair, as a television series on Starz, is a documentary about two filmmakers—YouTube personality Shane Dawson and independent filmmaker Anna Martemucci—who are each making a movie in Pittsburgh based on the same initial script. It’s an experiment both in terms of understanding the way a script changes depending on the creative forces bringing it to life on screen, as well as considering the specific contrasts in filmmakers who emerge in wildly different creative environments.
However, in addition to being a documentary, The Chair is also a competition, which is the element that was dramatically unclear in watching the series. Although a $250,000 prize is on the line, there were no specific details on how this prize would be awarded. There was the insinuation it would involve some form of audience voting, but the lack of clear details meant I had a wide range of questions about the series’ structure for Starz’s Summer Press Tour session about the project.
I’ll likely talk more about the series itself as we get closer to its September premiere, but the answers to some of those questions are more pertinent in the leadup to the premiere and the promotional campaign around The Chair. At the core of my question, in truth, is not only how this is going to function as a competition series, but also why it is going to function as a competition series. The answers to both questions were vague, but they speak to a project that shares a rather strange relationship to its stars, its network, and to the communities it seeks to draw interest from.