This week, after the documentary series The Chair—which I reviewed for The A.V. Club and covered with multipleinterviewshere at Cultural Learnings—reached the wrap of production on the two films based on the same script, Starz has made both Shane Dawson’s Not Cool and Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg available on its Starz Play streaming site and On Demand. Viewers who watch both films can then register to vote for who wins The Chair’s $250,000 cash prize, with the results announced on November 8th.
While both films had brief runs in theaters in Los Angeles and New York—and Pittsburgh, where both were filmed—and have been available for digital download since late last month, this marks the best chance for those who have been watching the documentary series to see how the decisions made by Dawson and Martemucci actually influenced the final product. As much as one continues to presume that Dawson’s extensive fanbase will tip the scales in his favor in the end, the survey nonetheless raises a more interesting question of how our reception of these films is shaped by both the broad terms of the experiment—two versions of the same script—and by the behind-the-scenes knowledge we have about how these projects came together.
Accordingly, while the following are reviews of the films themselves, they are also inevitably reviews of how the films function as the “climax” of the “filmmaking experiment,” which is a distinct mode of evaluation that frames the films for better or for worse.
There’s a moment in Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on Saturday at 11/10c—where one of the two directors making a version of the same script in a competition for a $250,000 prize is scouting locations at a middle school, and he’s approached by a group of young students who ask to take a picture with him. Taken out of context, it would seem strange for teenage girls to treat a director like a celebrity, but Shane Dawson is not a traditional director. His filmography largely exists on the web, on YouTubechannels with upwards of 6.1 million followers, and his involvement in The Chair is about testing how YouTube creators are able to transition into a more traditional filmmaking environment.
Accordingly, there’s more at stake for Dawson in the project than the $250,000 prize—Not Cool, his version of Dan Schoffer’s original script, is a major transition outside of YouTube, and one of the central narratives of the series is Dawson’s efforts to maintain appeal to his young fanbase while nonetheless meeting the expectations of the producers and financiers of the project. Recently featured in a Variety cover story confronting a new era of online content creation, Dawson is also among a group of YouTube creators who are expanding outside their channels in an effort to stretch themselves both creatively and financially, a test of how audiences built in the space of web video can be translated across platforms.
After speaking with Chris Moore, and before speaking to his fellow filmmaker Anna Martemucci, I spoke with Dawson about his decision to be involved with The Chair, his identity as a “YouTube star” in the context of this and other projects, and how the experience has shaped his future plans both on and off YouTube.
Cultural Learnings: In the series, you’re really held up as a representative of the new vanguard of online creators, which is further reinforced by the Variety cover story. Are you comfortable being held up in this way?
Shane Dawson: I think I’ve been around for so long—I mean, it’s only been seven years or something, but YouTube years are like dog years. [Laughs] I think it’s cool that people kind of look at me as one of the originators of online video and one of the pioneers of YouTube because I’ve worked really hard to build an audience and make content that I’m proud of. A lot of the things I was doing on YouTube nobody was doing at the time, and now everybody is doing them, and I think making movies—I know a few Youtubers have done it, and hopefully this movie does well and more YouTubers want to take a risk and make movies, and I’m excited about it.
As your comments suggest, the YouTube form has its limitations, and you naturally want to push beyond it to expand into other creative outlets. What made this the right form of expansion for you personally?
I’ve wanted to make movies ever since I was a kid. I knew that was my goal. I had wanted to make a movie for the last five years, really trying to get funding, and nothing was working out. And then Chris Moore came to me wanting to do something, and then this came up and he said “Hey, maybe this would be great.” And so the thought of having final cut, and it wasn’t my money that I had to put up, I mean—I think I signed up without even writing the script, I was like “Done! Put me in!” [Laughs]
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.
It’s a familiar story by now: like a large number of other critics, Torchwood was pretty far off my radar until Children of Earth (which I reviewed here), the show’s third series/season that took the critical world by storm. In fact, I saw Children of Earth before I started watching Doctor Who, so it also stood as my first engagement with Russell T. Davies and the somewhat spirited debate that surrounds his televisual output.
Miracle Day, the subtitle for the show’s fourth series/season (although I guess season might be more apt given that it is aired in the U.S. ahead of its U.K. premiere), comes with a great deal more baggage. While I believe Children of Earth would stand on its own merit, I do think that the element of surprise was part of its appeal two years ago. Not many shows suddenly make a dramatic leap in quality in their third season, and the unique miniseries structure (five parts airing over five days) made for a real sense of “Event” programming that stood out in the crowd. It wasn’t just that Children of Earth was good, it was that it seemed perfectly designed to make a real statement, a statement that creates definite expectations for Miracle Day.
In truth, those expectations are sort of unfair for two reasons. The first is that the show is returning to a weekly format, and a ten-episode format, which means that the pacing of the show will be dramatically different – this isn’t going to come out of the gates with the same swagger, which will likely dampen its impact. The second, meanwhile, is just a matter of hype: thanks to the increased attention created by Starz’s involvement in the production and critical appreciation of Children of Earth, this project has been on the North American cultural radar. Going into tonight’s premiere, I pretty much knew everything that was going to happen, meaning that “edge of your seat” was transformed into a much more passive viewing experience.
This is not to say that “The New World” isn’t good television, or that the show is heading in a weak direction, but there’s just nothing here to really make us sit up and take notice – instead, we’re meant to sit back and enjoy the ride, which does reveal some of the procedural mechanisms that get Miracle Day off and running…or, more accurately, jogging. However, at the same time, there are some questions related to the production of the miniseries that are somewhat intriguing in their deployment here, which is what I want to discuss in relation to tonight’s premiere.
I’ve been following along with the news out of the Television Critics Association Press Tour through Twitter, but to be honest there hasn’t really been anything that’s caught my attention: while I’m incredibly wary of the changes being made to Human Target, I’ll save any judgment until I actually see them in action, and since I haven’t seen the fall pilots I can’t really offer any opinion on how the panels seems to have changed my view on each series.
However, on the final day the HBO executive session ended up being a really interesting one: not only did HBO programming guru Michael Lombardo confirm that Entourage’s next season will be its last, but he also offered up some intriguing quotes about their planned Spring launch of Game of Thrones as well as a curious statement regarding the network’s approach to scheduling. With the networks, there’s this sense that they’re there to sell the critics on their already announced lineups, but with HBO there’s a laid-back confidence which could be read as cockiness, and it makes for a more interesting environment in terms of the kinds of discussion it creates.
So, let’s take a gander at what an Entourage movie and a question of genre vs. storytelling tell us about the channel’s approach as compared with its pay cable counterparts.
The Atemporality of The Pillars of the Earth and its Impact on Game of Thrones
July 23rd, 2010
I have never read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, but I have a feeling that it would be a very different experience than this Miniseries.
I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight, even if it may read as one for fans of the book: I can’t know whether or not the miniseries, co-developed by Canada’s The Movie Network and American cable’s Starz, bastardizes Follett’s epic tome, but I do know that the story has been given a linear form which I can’t imagine exists in the original novel. Of course, considering the talent in front of the camera – with Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew MacFayden, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Pill, Donald Sutherland and Gordon Pinsent in prominent roles – the miniseries is watchable, and has moments which hint to a greater depth which the series’ pace simply can’t indulge as often as one might like, but in the end one can’t help but feel that this is a miniseries produced by individuals who have too little faith in television as a medium for telling complex stories, choosing to boil down a narrative which would have likely been more engaging had it been left in its original form.
I think this is partially the result of the limitations (or the supposed limitations) of a plot-driven miniseries like this one, but it raises concerns about another upcoming adaptation, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which on paper would face similar problems. That being said, I think that the approach being taken with Game of Thrones is set to face the challenges of adapting this material, while I feel like Pillars of Earth cuts its losses at an early stage and fails to take off as a result.
In some ways, there could never be a perfect finale for Starz’ Party Down. The show is about people confronting the fact that they might be living their finale, that working for a catering company may be the highest rung they will climb in southern California, and so “endings” are inherently unnatural. Instead, the characters are in a constant state of waiting to become, working hard or hardly working towards the end goal of achieving great success in their chosen field. And so while this may well end up the series finale (due to Starz reinventing itself as a genre network under new management and the middling ratings for the series) of Party Down, it is an episode about failed beginnings more than endings.
While very funny and quite poignant in a number of areas, “Constance Carmell Wedding” suffers a bit under the weight of those final moments, unsure of who would be returning for the following season or if there would even be a following season. Constance’s return is most welcome, and the focus on career goals is well met, but there’s a point where a half-hour comedy just can’t carry the weight of beginnings, endings, reunions, unions and everything else in between.
However, let’s not pretend this means I won’t miss the show should it truly be done, or that I didn’t find the second season to be particularly strong: while it may not have all come together perfectly, it was a confident second season which built on the first season’s success without abandoning its winning formula, and I sincerely hope that the show gets a reprieve if only to see what a third season would look like for these character I’ve come to admire.
I told myself I was going to be content with just a Twitter conversation about this week’s superlative episode of Party Down featuring Steve Guttenberg as himself, but then I actually started to have that Twitter conversation and realized that I was going to need to write something down.
Specifically, I want to discuss what it is that makes “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” so fantastic, because it isn’t just Steve Guttenberg. The episode is entirely atypical, eschewing the traditional catering setup for a more casual atmosphere, and the trade of the show’s usual employment drama for more complex interpersonal drama is really well handled. It raises an interesting question for a series which relies so heavily on formula: is it possible for the show to veer away from its structure more often, or would episodes like this one become overbearing if they become too common?
It’s complicated enough that I want to spend a few paragraphs talking about it, plus I’ve got some thoughts on whether the show could live on without half its cast.
When we write about Party Down, we tend to focus on the premise over the characters. Part of this has to do with the fact that we’re all preparing for the fact that the show might lose many of its characters if it gets a third season, so there’s a vested interest in emphasizing its revolving locations and the general focus on struggling actors/writers/show business folk working to support their dreams over Henry or Casey. While we’re attached to the characters, who were certainly one of the most important parts of the hugely enjoyable first season, it’s the diverse engagements that really set the show apart, and which have formed the basis for its most enjoyable episodes.
“Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” reminds us that these characters are very funny, but it also reminds us that the show isn’t used to handling quite this much character. While the dynamics of the first season cast took some time to develop, they eventually formed into something truly fantastic; however, it was rare that the show seemed like it was really spending a lot of time introducing, or renintroducing, or “changing” character dynamics. The second season premiere has to go through a lot of exposition, which keeps the humour from rising to the level achieved last season, but the central premise remains strong, and the changing dynamics work in the show’s favour at the end of the day.