Stolen Summer

| May 8, 2002

By rights, you would expect Stolen Summer to be a disaster of a film. Directed by the winner of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s PROJECT GREENLIGHT internet-based screenwriting competition, the film became the subject of a Real World-like behind-the-scenes HBO documentary series. When taken together, the film and series serve as evidence of both the best and the worst aspects of Hollywood filmmaking.
You have to admire the strategy. HBO and Miramax have hedged their bets by making it almost impossible to talk about the film Stolen Summer without talking about the documentary series, PROJECT GREENLIGHT, and vice versa, creating the ultimate marketing ploy and DVD packaging. They’ve even combined the titles of the TV series and the movie for the film’s release, changing it’s name from Stolen Summer to Project Greenlight: Stolen Summer.
Let’s face it, it’s doubtful that the film would make much of a ripple on its own. By creating and airing the “making of” series, they’re hoping for a built-in movie audience driven by morbid curiosity. Like the adage says, there’s no so thing as bad publicity. And after watching this fiasco unspool on television for 13 episodes, I did hear a number of people say they’d go see the film just to see how bad it is. [And to save you a little suspense, it’s not as bad as one might think from watching the series.]
Even craftier, this marketing strategy corners the film studies and amateur filmmaker market. How long do you really think it will be before there’s a multi-DVD package of the series and film, advertised as a “Hollywood case study.”
So what do we learn from this case study?
Contrary to common sense or even good business practices, the entertainment industry (particularly film and music) regularly eschews experience and expertise for what in painting would be called the naïve artist – an untrained novice. As in fashion, this search for the “next new thing” is what makes entertainment by turns exhilarating and frustrating. Subtextually, it aligns with the attitude that’s implied occasionally in the industry that anyone can direct (think of Academy Awards given to actors-turned-first-time directors or teenagers making film deals – this is not to say that said winners or teenagers aren’t talented or deserving).
The fact that Pete Jones had no film experience made him the perfect choice in this kind of system – in the final judging of the PROJECT GREENLIGHT award, everyone present in the room acknowledged that his was not the best script nor was he the best director. But he won.
Lesson number one. The best scripts do not necessarily get made.
His winning seems to be in response to an impassioned plea in the middle of the night when the judges are hours late in announcing a winner because they’re still struggling to make a final decision. The other contestant was more reserved (more professional by business standards), but Pete Jones was more passionate.
Lesson number two. Passion for a project means more than experience.
So off he goes to make a movie. One cannot really blame him for making the simple blunders that most beginning screenwriters make – whining “but that’s not the way it happened” when confronted with actually adjusting the material for filming. Did this film really have to be set in the 70s? Watching the TV series, I had a good guess – which was confirmed after watching the movie: No. But Jones wouldn’t budge because this film is autobiographical, and therefore it has to take place when he actually experienced it. As a result, the budget became a major issue – period pieces cost more to make. In trying to re-negotiate the budget and the schedule (so Aidan Quinn would join the cast), Miramax’s representative primarily shrugged his should, didn’t return calls, said, “hey, we’re not a bank,” and said it was someone else’s decision.
Lesson number three. Pass the buck.
Hey, and we haven’t even started filming yet. For those of you who have seen the series, you already know how the Production Manager tells co-producer Jeff Balis not to call LA for advice but to come to him first with anything. Of course, producer Chris Moore (back in LA) gets royally pissed off that no one’s calling him and that he finds out major decisions after the fact. Then the Production Manager makes calls to LA talking about how Balis is screwing up – but he’s screwing up primarily because he’s listening to the Production Manager’s advice.
Lesson number four. Trust no one.
Unfortunately, PROJECT GREENLIGHT did not air while it was being shot, so the people involved were not able to make “in flight adjustments” like the sudden personality shifts that always occur on Real World (most notably in NY2). You can usually tell at what point during the filming of Real World that episodes start airing (and the “cast” get to see how they appear to others) because suddenly people who were total bitches suddenly breakdown and confess, “that’s not how I really am” and “I’m going to change.” All the PROJECT GREENLIGHT folks get to say after the fact is, “that’s not how I really am.” Sorry, but that is the cinematographer on camera saying “shooting lists are for wimps.” No one misquoted him because we see him say it himself. Same with the folks at Miramax. And Chris Moore seems at some points less interested in fixing the problems than playing power games. But it would be naïve to believe that PROJECT GREENLIGHT is a completely balanced portrait of what went on behind the scenes – it’s definitely biased towards the dramatic; it’s a TV series after all. On the other hand, that whole contest of “who can give the best impersonation of Chris Moore?” That’s our next lesson in action:
Lesson number five. Save face.
So 13 episodes later, the film is shot, edited and screened at Sundance. People are all smiles, all compliments, all “aw shucks.” Filmmaking is a funny thing. It’s kind of like summer camp as a kid. For weeks you’re miserable, but when it’s time to leave, suddenly you’re crying and swearing that you’re going to really miss that bully who beat you up daily. Okay, maybe it not quite like that. But I’ve sometimes thought that the crying and pledges of “let’s work together real soon” at the end of a shoot are inversely proportional to the actual enjoyment of the shoot. Several years ago I line-produced a Korean film with a mixed language crew, one translator and a hellacious shooting schedule. The American crew was trashed daily by the Korean crew as lazy and unskilled; the Korean crew was trashed daily by the American crew as difficult and mean. Yet when it was all over, you would have thought that lovers were being torn asunder. So there is some sort of ‘trial by fire’ bonding that happens. Or maybe everyone’s just relieved that it’s over, and so generosity is a bit easier. Or more importantly, it may be the idea that you never know whom you might work with again. Hence…
Lesson number six. Don’t burn any bridges.
[Hmmmm. Maybe I should be learning my own lessons; hey guys, I’m just reporting on what the series showed, not making declarations of how you really are. I swear. Huh? What do you mean “lesson number three?”]
Uh oh. Okay. Forget everything you just read. The above lessons are old hat for all but the most naïve film aficionado, and ultimately what your average audience sees when it sits down in front of the big screen is a movie, not how it was made.
With that in mind, Stolen Summer holds its own. It’s certainly not the best film debut by a new director, but it’s far from the worst. In fact, the story is ambitious in questioning the role of salvation in one’s everyday life, especially from a child’s perspective.
There are really only two elements that keep this film from being quite good. The first is that the film walks an uneasy line of prejudice and stereotypes, with some of the more offensive things being said about Jews. But this film’s biggest problem is the casting of the two young leads, protagonist Adi Stein and his dying friend, played by Mike Weinberg. First, in a film where the entire climax is based around swimming out into Lake Michigan, didn’t anyone during casting ask if either of these kids could swim? But for all the great acting by the over-14 crowd in this film, the performances of these two kids is the center of the whole film, and they’re not convincing.
With all that said, though, the good far outweighs the bad here. The film has several moving moments. And the adult performances are exceptional. Bonnie Hunt is at her best giving an excellent performance, as does Eddie Kaye Thomas who plays the oldest son with dreams of college rapidly being dashed. Aidan Quinn has a complex role that doesn’t quite gel – his father seems a bit inconsistent – but he’s good. Kevin Pollak is great.
So for all the angst shown in the behind-the-scenes TV series, Stolen Summer delivers. Pete Jones has made a film. And a pretty good one.
Lesson number seven. All that matters is what’s on the screen.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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