Billed as “an original filmmaking experiment,” Starz’s engrossing new docuseries The Chair, from Project Greenlight’s Chris Moore, examines what happens when two aspiring young filmmakers are each given the same shoestring budget, the same script and the same Pittsburgh location and asked to make wholly original theatrical releases.
Mentored by the amiable Moore, his co-executive producer actor/producer Zachary Quinto and others, excitable YouTube superstar Shane Dawson and sensitive indie filmmaker/actor Anna Martemucci display fascinatingly disparate constitutions and sensibilities on their way to creating works that will, through multiplatform viewer voting after each film debuts, earn one a $250,000 prize.
“What The Chair is trying to capture is the transition of people from expert amateurs to professionals,” Moore explains, noting the proliferation of self-styled auteurs in the social media universe. “For me in life, and I think for movies, it would be a lot better if we all understood what the difference was between professional and nonprofessional.”
I recently sat down with Moore and Quinto — with the series’ cameras prowling the room — to talk about The Chair, Dawson and Martemucci, the process and more.
Channel Guide Magazine: I’ve seen the first two episodes and as I began to watch, I thought I was getting into a really intriguing look at the filmmaking process. But early in episode 2, I was so invested in Anna and Shane themselves that the filmmaking aspect, while no less fascinating, became almost secondary. Were you aiming at the outset to tell an intensely human story — not just the story of indie filmmaking, but of these indie filmmakers?
Zachary Quinto: I think the process of filmmaking is inherently very human. What is revealed about someone’s character through the onus of having to dictate exactly what’s going to happen and how people are going to have to do what they’re going to do — it inherently reveals that kind of humanity. And I also think the way in which the show was shot, which is in a very unobtrusive, non-manipulative way [turns to Moore] — I mean how many hours of footage do you guys have?
Chris Moore [laughing]: This is 2,400 [laughs].
Zachary Quinto: As a result of having so much to choose from, you don’t really have to craft the story as it’s being told. You just capture what is happening and then figure out what narratives emerge. I think that’s what [The Chair director] Tony Sacco has done such a great job of — identifying that it is a character-driven show. I watched the first episode not knowing what to expect and I was a part of it! And by the end of it, I was like, “Why don’t we have a second episode to watch right now?!”
Channel Guide Magazine: That Shane and Anna are different genders is obvious, but their priorities, and their approach to life and to filmmaking and their senses of self, are so strikingly different. Were you looking for that when you cast these particular two directors?
Chris Moore: We didn’t cast them. There was no casting. When we decided — and this was a little before Zach was involved — so I’ll just say that part of it was that I had been approached by a number of agents with their clients wanting to become directors. Because it’s hard out there right now, and a lot of times a producer can be very helpful when you need a piece of material and you try to get it going. And the situation was that they — Anna and Shane — were both, in their own ways, getting very close to directing a movie.
I think that there are some qualities that you have to have to direct a movie. I’ve been part of some other competitions in filmmaking and I think that directing is a professional choice. So I don’t think it should be an online competition for who gets to direct something.
The analogy I always use is that the New England Patriots aren’t going to put up four quarterbacks and say let’s let the Internet pick who’s going to start today’s game! Team people are going to decide who the quarterback is. And the director is the quarterback. So I wanted to do it that way — and I really liked Shane and Anna.
Channel Guide Magazine: How many other directors were considered?
Chris Moore: I also sent it to three other directors, so I sent the script to five directors. I’m not telling anybody who the other people were, but Shane and Anna came back with the best reaction to the script, and the most interest in doing it, and the willingness to be part of the documentary. And quite honestly, they had such different visions for what they wanted to do that I thought that for the story of how two directors can make a movie, that would be a really good story.
Zachary Quinto: And that’s the really great thing about the format of the show. In future seasons, assuming that this season goes well and Starz wants to keep it going — which we really are hopeful will be the case — you can use different criteria. The diversity between each of the directors is what is compelling. Not only is it a male and a female this season, but it’s someone who has a more classically trained background — Anna went to NYU for screenwriting, has been filming short content and wrote a feature film that we were part of producing and she starred in [2013’s Breakup at a Wedding, directed by Martemucci’s husband, Victor Quinaz]. And then you have Shane, who comes from a much more contemporary, of-the-moment kind of background online with an Internet fan base of 10 million subscribers to his channel, but hasn’t really gotten outside of that — or had the opportunity to get outside of that.
We joke around that one season I’ll direct one of the movies. Well, I joke around …
Chris Moore: I’m not joking! [laughs]
Zachary Quinto: So we could do two celebrities, for example. Or two actors that have never directed before. Or two women. Or two men. There are so many different versions. And whatever that dynamic is, it’s a great launching point and a great place to start with this exploration and this experiment, if you will. I think it really worked on a lot of levels in this case.
Channel Guide Magazine: As you said, Zach, it did appear that Shane was really consumed with the idea of blowing his chance to break free of his “Internet sensation” reputation in general, while Anna seemed more tuned in to all the things that could — and did — go wrong in the process of making a film and sharing her feelings about that.
Chris Moore: Some of the stuff you don’t know until you get into the middle of it — which also speaks to the concept of casting — you don’t know how people react to the stress. And I’ve seen experienced directors not react well to the stress of making a movie. Or worse — when something goes wrong, it’s sort of like a Jenga game. If you pull that one certain thing out, their vision of what they’re doing can get a little fumbled for a little bit. So that was part of it, too.
I think you’re right, though, that their backgrounds allowed them to look at it from different points of view and I want the audience who chooses to follow along to realize how personal even professional storytelling is. It’s not like where you color in the dots that some guy created and this is how you make a romantic comedy — you’re making very personal decisions. You’re picking actors that somehow relate to you. You’re picking out lines in scripts that you like. And I think the world doesn’t appreciate the level of work that goes into directing. And I think that Anna and Shane really represent that in a really great way.
Channel Guide Magazine: I was also surprised at how comfortable both Shane and Anna were with rewriting Dan Schoffer’s “How Soon is Now” script. Which promptly made Dan one of the most entertaining people on the show …
Chris Moore: Hollywood is filled with a lot of deals with the devil in the sense that you probably moved here from somewhere else and you’re trying to make something happen and you’re doing your thing. In Dan’s case, he’d already sold the script once, and it sat in what is affectionately called “development hell” for a while. He couldn’t get anybody to want to make it. I thought it was a pretty interesting idea — and I was also pretty surprised that no one has made a coming-of-age movie about that first Thanksgiving back from college.
So I go to him and say, “Hey! Guess what? I’m gonna make your movie!” And he gets all excited. “But also another person is going to make your movie at the same time. And I’m gonna give the two directors final cut — which means they get to make their version of your movie.” [laughs]
And I think the directors handled it differently. In the case of Anna, she’s a writer and a lot of her confidence comes from rewriting the script to become “her” movie. And in that case, Dan had less of a role. He sort of represented the more “regular” process of making movies where the writers can get rewritten or they can get put in different places.
I personally haven’t produced — and I know neither has Before the Door (Quinto’s production company with fellow The Chair executive producers Corey Moosa and Neal Dodson) — movies where I’ve replaced writers. I think having the original vision is very important, and I think if you fell in love with it, that’s the movie you should make. Bigger studio movies, sometimes they force it. Sometimes they do weird passes where they will do a comedy punch-up and they’ll go get three funny guys and sometimes it works. But most of the time you want the person who created the story.
So Dan’s gone through a lot and you’ll see in future episodes there’s a lot of story. Even in that trailer, there’s a part where he got very nervous about Anna’s version and what was going on. He really didn’t think she understood the story and it created some tension between them.
Channel Guide Magazine: I think I’d be more nervous about Shane’s version, since we see him obsessing about naughty bits and the nuances of fake vomit, while Anna’s waxing rhapsodic about the beauty of her locations and lamenting how much she misses Victor …
Chris Moore: [laughing] I have to say that, even though I’m a part of making this, I still have moments where I get really happy, and one was the decision Tony made to shoot that shot in slow motion so you could actually see how the actress’ eyes closed before the vomit showed up. And they were having a whole conversation about “How are we going to get her to keep her eyes open while it’s happening? There’s no way!” Because it’s a human impulse to shut your eyes when you know something is going to hit you in the face.
Zachary Quinto: That’s, by the way, my favorite part of the first couple episodes — when Anna discovers the recording herself and then she just keeps doing it and doing it and she’s like in the airport and people are waving behind her. [laughs] I love Anna and I love that aspect of her, which is that she really does bring her whole emotional experience to her process and to the journey.
And I think Shane shouldn’t be underrated in that because he cares as much as Anna does and in a different way and he executes his vision in a different way, but he’s no less invested in the movie. He’s no less invested in his vision for it and his belief in his ability to do it and I think that’s really important. I think it’s part of what makes for compelling storytelling and I think just because it’s maybe not so like reflective or slow or esoteric or thoughtful, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less invested in.
That’s an important distinction and it’s an important lesson for everybody.
The Chair premieres Saturday, Sept. 6, at 11/10CT on Starz.
Photo credit: © 2014 Chair One Productions, LLC