Coming soon to a multiplex near you is Stolen Summer, a cringingly earnest, totally unremarkable fable about an eight-year-old Irish-Catholic boy, Pete (Adi Stein), who tries to convert Danny (Mike Weinberg), the dying son of a rabbi (Kevin Pollak), so Danny can get into heaven. Pete's mom (Bonnie Hunt) and his fireman dad (Aidan Quinn) put in their two cents, along with the parish priest (Brian Dennehy). But Pete, living in Chicago in 1976, is wiser than his elders in the way of right-minded, tear-jerking movies whose moral truths seem excerpted from Hallmark.
Stolen Summer would hardly be worth comment were it not for the story of how the film got made. Pete Jones, the film's first-time writer-director, won a contest put on by HBO, Miramax and LivePlanet co-founders Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore, awarding him $1 million to make a film that Miramax would release. And every step of the process, down to the last tumultuous days of shooting, would be chronicled in a twelve-part HBO series called Project Greenlight.
For my money, Project Greenlight is the smartest, scariest, bitchiest and most informative piece of reality TV ever. Forget Fear Factor. Getting lowered into a nest of snakes is nothing compared to what happens to Jones, 31, when he gets thrown to the Hollywood wolves. At a budget meeting, Jones is told it will take another million to make the film as he wrote it. Losing the Chicago location and the period setting would cut costs. "Over my dead body," says Jones. It almost is. Affleck gets on the phone to pry cash out of Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, who is never seen but, like Marlon Brando's don in The Godfather Part II, makes his presence felt. Jones shoots a Little League game in pouring rain. Actors bitch nonstop. Producer Chris Moore encourages dissension in the ranks. For added drama? Maybe. But the agony of filmmaking has rarely been so authentically captured. With only five hours a day to work with the child actors (the legal limit), Jones lacked the time to shape their performances, and the film suffers accordingly. It's sad but instructive that all the sweat produced so tepid a result. Back in Episode One, Miramax exec Meryl Poster told Damon and Affleck, "I don't like Stolen Summer." Savvy lady. But Project Greenlight is one for the time capsule.