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Hooray for Hollywood?

Pity poor Pete Jones. The 31-year old Chicago insurance salesman had a simple dream: write a script, send it off to Hollywood and maybe, just maybe, make a movie. After a little help from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Pete can now live his dream.

Jones' efforts to bring his script to low-budget life are the focus of the terrific new HBO series Project Greenlight. Affleck and Damon, you may recall, are past darlings of the low-budget film world for their own Oscar-winning script, "Good Will Hunting." Now rich and famous, the two conceived of Project Greenlight as a contest to give talented amateurs a shot at the big time. It's a fine idea: anyone who has ever tried landing a Hollywood gig knows access, not talent, is what determines who moves to Malibu and who stays put in Chicago, selling insurance.

The eponymous reality show began with Damon and Affleck picking the winner and now follows the ensuing journey from script to screen. It's a fascinating look behind the scenes at a world most would aspire to yet few could actually stomach. Indeed, the main moral of the story seems to be: watch movies, don't try and make them.

Jones was one of thousands who submitted a script to Greenlight and it was his story, "Stolen Summer," that made the final cut. His prize includes one million dollars of financing from Miramax which then gets to distribute the film how it sees fit. There is a catch, however. See, Hollywood may be great at creating dreams, but it's even better at crushing them. So it's probably safe to say Pete's movie-making fantasies didn't involve scrimping pennies, battling over cranes, and Aidan Quinn.

Ah yes, Aidan Quinn, lead actor. "Stolen Summer" is a semi-autobiographical tale of Pete's Chicago childhood, circa 1976. Apparently his upbringing was quite the Irish one and that has a large part to do with the casting of Quinn. Now, I'll be the first to admit Aidan Quinn looks vaguely Irish. And after all, this is a low-budget indie. It's not like Jim Carrey is banging on Pete's door. But still, Aidan Quinn? What, was Ted McGinley unavailable?

Apparently all those stereotypes of actors as obnoxious, thin-skinned, pretty-boy, control freaks are actually true. And Aidan Quinn is the prototype stereotype. First of all, the actor demands he be given some "control" over the film. What exactly this amounts to is unclear so far, but it definitely includes approval of his female co-star. Apparently, Aidan has been dumped or rejected by actresses all over Los Angeles, because he nixes every one of Pete's suggestions, especially the director's choice of Marg Helgenberger.

Quinn actually takes time out of his busy shouting schedule to spend a paranoid couple of minutes telling the camera he doesn't trust Pete or any other crew member before haranguing the costume director about her 1976 Sears catalog clothing options. Quinn takes one look at the 200 or so catalog pages carefully assembled by this poor woman before storming out, yelling that his character would never dress in Sears' clothing, only Salvation Army.

Perhaps somebody forgot to tell the man his career highlight is... um, is... well, just what the hell is Aidan Quinn's career highlight? "Stakeout?" "Desperately Seeking Susan?" Go ahead, ask 100 Americans "Who is Aidan Quinn?" and 99 of them will say, "Wasn't she that Medicine Woman?"

It's not just Aidan Quinn making Pete's life miserable. Jones' own production staff seems determined to make his first movie his last. After finally wrangling an approval out of Quinn, Pete chases down Helgenberger, who would love to do the movie. The only sticking point is she wants a few days off to go see her kids back in L.A. The line producer agrees to five days. Marg wants a couple more. The line producer, either unaware or unwilling to admit Marg Helgenberger stars in a top ten TV show while he is working on a no-budget film with a rookie director and Aidan Quinn, refuses. Next thing you know, it's seven days before shooting starts and the movie has no female lead.

In the middle of all this is poor, poor Pete. Here is a genuinely nice guy -- some cruel and vicious people might go as far as to say "sap" -- who is handed the opportunity of a lifetime only to see it nearly ripped to shreds by the very people who are supposed to help him. Jones is pure Midwest farm boy: a roly-poly sort with a crooked grin who nearly wets himself while meeting Marg Helgenberger and declaring his everlasting devotion for "CSI."

He's also in way over his head.

Jones repeatedly lets us know Helgenberger's exactly who he wants for the pivotal role. Yet he stays on the sidelines during the haggling over Marg's proposed schedule and tiptoes around all of Quinn's insane ramblings. His production designer and his director of photography are repeatedly ripping each other's throats out while he smiles politely and nods his head, unwilling or unable to speak up. Granted, most people thrust into this situation would be intimidated at the thought of helming a motion picture, but that doesn't prevent us from yelling at Pete through the TV screen: "Goddammit, grow a pair!"

Especially when the new director starts to cry. Which he does, twice, in the most recent episode. Once when the actors have finished their initial rehearsal and again later, when he finally talks to Bonnie Hunt, who has agreed to play the female lead a mere ten hours before shooting starts. Is it just me or is it hard to imagine Sam Peckinpah or Alfred Hitchcock shedding a few tears over Ernest Borgnine or Janet Leigh?

Even if you don't know the difference between best boys and craft services, Project Greenlight is another example of HBO appointment television. The Greenlight producers have skillfully crafted a large but easily recognizable cast of characters and the grand prize -- the premiere of "Stolen Summer" -- is a much more compelling than a cash payout.

But Pete is still the reason Project Greenlight stands alone as the only reality TV series worth watching. Whereas the Survivors or Elimidaters are already human scum that force the audience into rooting for the hungry lions, Greenlight is an old-fashioned good versus evil story. The rookie director and his innocent vision versus a corrupt Hollywood system that treats newcomers like the Borg welcome the Enterprise. We know part of the ending already -- "Stolen Summer" completed filming in July -- but we don't know whether our hero is still our hero or if he's just another Locutus, already working on "American Pie 3."


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