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Producing, up close and really personal

HBO's warts-and-all, behind-the-scenes show reveals filmmakers' love-hate relationship.

August 20, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

To hear Chris Moore tell it, part of the proof that "Project Greenlight" -- the HBO series he's producing -- tells it like it is about making "The Battle of Shaker Heights" -- the Miramax film he's producing -- is the day a chair collapsed under him during a script meeting, a moment captured in all its comic glory by the TV crew.

"Hey, I wish there hadn't been a camera there," admits Moore, whose lumberjack frame can now be said to work equally well for intimidation and slapstick. "The one thing I promised the people making the show is they will have all access, right? So when they showed me the chair footage, I was like, 'Yeah, OK, that happened.' "

"Thank God for that," says Jeff Balis, Moore's fellow "Shaker Heights" producer, who along with Moore is being interviewed at the Miramax screening room, the site of so many notable confrontations in the TV series. This deadpan bit of needling causes Moore to scrunch up his face in a soundless laugh.

A nationwide TV viewership familiar with the love-hate relationship between two low-budget movie producers sounds absurd. Yet one of the ongoing pleasures for fans of HBO's and Miramax's let's-put-on-a-million-dollar-movie series "Project Greenlight" is the middle-management-style interplay between the burly Moore, 36, and his curly-red-haired sidekick Balis, 28. With Moore the exasperated, badgering one and Balis the punching bag with a coating of dry wit, these two have the unmistakable air of an old-fashioned comedy team (albeit without the literal smacking around a vaudeville duo might have utilized).

Last season, while making the ill-fated nostalgia piece "Stolen Summer" -- the first "Project Greenlight" film -- Balis was a novice co-producer who had the unenviable task of going through a trial-by-fire experience, shepherding a beginner filmmaker through the minefield of a meagerly budgeted location shoot, in front of cameras. The culmination of his mistakes was a memorable berating, firing and rehiring by a hotheaded Moore during one particularly contentious 24-hour span. Great television, but a questionable reputation builder for both.

"I had only watched 10 minutes of the first season prior to signing on," says Erica Beeney, whose screenplay for "The Battle of Shaker Heights" won her the screenwriting portion of this year's contest. "My joke is that it's probably why I signed on. But I knew all the rumors, which were that Chris was a monster and Jeff was a bumbler."

When it came to her own experience, though, Beeney saw those reputations vanish. "I think Chris is a visionary and Jeff is great at executing the details of that," she says. "I feel incredibly lucky that the first experience I had was with the two of them."

Miramax is hoping that with the conclusion this weekend of the second go-round of "Project Greenlight," which uses an Internet contest co-sponsored by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to give film aspirants the opportunity to kick-start their careers, this process might actually have yielded a movie people will want to see. (2002's "Stolen Summer" was critically drubbed and barely released.)

A breezy coming-of-age yarn, "The Battle of Shaker Heights," which opens Friday in Los Angeles, chronicles the maturing of a discontented teenager named Kelly, played with star-making verve by "Holes" star Shia LeBeouf. It's a fitting complement to one of "Project Greenlight's" own story lines, the maturing of Moore and Balis as a well-oiled team.

Learning curves

When Moore, who was also a producer on all three "American Pie" films, watched his tempest-filled footage from last season, some things crystallized for him. "Because I'm such a forceful person, I can be very disruptive to a process by coming in," he says. "What you're saying may be the right thing, but nobody's listening to you."

Moore says that on "Shaker Heights" he learned to not "kill the message" by yelling whenever he had to crack the whip. As for Balis, while he acknowledges it may have been ill-advised for higher-ups to marry his lack of producing acumen with a first-time director on "Stolen Summer," the experience prepared him for the daily problems on "Shaker Heights."

"The one thing I learned is to be able to step back and get some perspective on it," says Balis, who produced two low-budget movies in between the "Greenlight" movies, and in last Sunday's episode emerged as a last-minute hero, helping bridge a widening chasm between Moore and directing contest winners Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin. "I was more comfortable making bigger decisions and then stepping back, instead of micromanaging.

"Also, I worked with Chris a whole lot better," adds Balis.

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