"Are we gonna play chicken here, Robert? Who's gonna go first?"
That's Chris Moore talking, from the other end of a cell phone--the preferred means of communication for the Hollywood producer too afraid of standing still. Moore--a producer of Good Will Hunting and the American Pie films, partner with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in the LivePlanet production company and, these days, a man best known for playing himself "as an ass" on HBO's Project Greenlight series--has misunderstood a question I've asked him. He thinks I've just called him a failure, in so many words. He doesn't want to answer the question posed to him over the speakerphone in his ride. And it was such a benign question to begin with.
Simply, it was this: What is Moore's assessment of the success of LivePlanet almost two years since its official inception in June 2000? It's a fair enough question, and it's asked with all due courtesy and consideration. Upon its formation, LivePlanet--which "creates integrated media, a new kind of entertainment experience that combines traditional media, new media and the physical world," according to the company's Web site--was heralded as the dazzling debut of four would-be visionaries, two of whom happened to be Oscar-winning writers and actors.
In September 2000, the 34-year-old Moore, Affleck, Damon and Sean Bailey appeared on the cover of Fortune, beneath a headline offering them up as "the future of the Internet"; inside was a story that insisted "there's good reason to believe that this company is more than just a vanity project for young men of a generation that considers startups cool." Last year, both The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly chimed in with their own huzzahs--even though, to that point, LivePlanet was still more concept than company. They were going to create all kinds of motivated programming, including a series for HBO--Project Greenlight, which would document on camera a first-time filmmaker's 2-million-buck outing on Miramax's dime--and another reality show for ABC called The Runner, heralded by the Times as "Hollywood's most ambitious attempt yet to integrate the Internet into mainstream programming."
Thus far, LivePlanet has only the engrossing, well-viewed Project Greenlight to show for its efforts. The Runner, intended to present a nationwide manhunt for a player armed with only a credit card and a car and a cell phone, was set to debut last fall but now lingers in the blocks, still awaiting the starter's pistol.
"I am sure if you read those articles, you have a point of view," he says, "but I hear your point. But let me ask you: Weren't we also going to talk about the Joy Ride DVD." (Christ, that's right. I almost forgot. This interview was arranged so we could talk about the John Dahl action-thriller-comedy that Moore produced last year, which comes out on DVD next week with four alternate endings. Dude, we might get to it later.)
"OK." He laughs. "Well, I think we've actually done a really good job. I think those articles, particularly being on the cover of Fortune, were premature. My partners tease me, because I have a phrase saying, 'The most success you have is when you sneak up on somebody.' My success in my career, whether it's American Pie or Good Will Hunting or Project Greenlight, were all projects that were on the edge--so much so the companies involved with them weren't even sure they were gonna be successful, and then they turned out to be successful because they were actually really good and interesting and people got a chance to discover them. What I would say is if you're holding us to this sort of 'These are the new geniuses' articles that came out in The New York Times and Fortune, we're not smarter than anybody else, but we're still out here. There are a lot of companies we were compared to that don't exist anymore, and we have real results."
Yes, LivePlanet has real results: The 12-part Project Greenlight, which debuted in December, provided the best kind of cheap, voyeuristic thrills ever proffered by so-called reality television. It began as a contest in which 7,000 aspiring filmmakers submitted their screenplays for consideration and ended up with a single would-be auteur, former Chicago insurance salesman Pete Jones, getting $2 million from Miramax to make his movie, Stolen Summer, about a Catholic boy who tries to convert a rabbi's dying young son so he can get into heaven. The film premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival to decent reviews--decent, perhaps, because the series portrayed Jones and the film's producers, including Moore and people he hired, as bumbling, backstabbing bastards and promised little more than a mess made by doomed dilettantes.
The intentions behind Project Greenlight were indeed noble, if one believes the proselytizing Moore. It was to provide entertainment for casual viewers and education for would-be filmmakers; it was to prove that anybody could make a movie. Nobody escaped Greenlight's glare: Moore, barking orders and firing underlings, came off as an "ass," to use his own word; Jones, hiding behind apple cheeks and aw-shucks mannerisms, turned out to be a master of manipulation; stars Aidan Quinn and Kevin Pollak and Bonnie Hunt were cast in varying shades of petulant; and the movie's producers came off as incompetent, in-over-their-heads boobs.
"What frustrated me is I had really good people around me, and it looked like a clusterfuck," Jones says. "There were moments when it was that, but there were many more when it wasn't that. They thought the truth would get in the way of the drama."
As a result, Moore's regularly accosted by people who've seen the show and think him a vengeful, Machiavellian sumbitch--which, he insists, is fine with him. All he wanted to do was pull back the curtain and show hopeful moviemakers how damned easy it really is.
"That is my greatest hope," he insists, "and what I say to people when they hassle me on the street is, 'Go out and do it, dude. Go out and do it better than I do it. Or don't yell at me. If you think there's a better way, go out and do it, dude.' There are 10,000 other guys out here doing what I do. You'll see, though, the hardest part is getting the movies made. And I just think it's fun. I really love the challenge. There's nothing better...I love the actual moment when you give someone the chance to live the dream they wanna live.
"I have a good life. I'm not gonna lie to you. It's fun, and I make more money than I probably would if I did some other job, and I got no complaints, and I like sharing that with people. So if that means some people think I'm an ass--and, quite frankly, I think I was an ass a number of times--well, I can't blame anybody."
Part of Moore's charm is that he's as jovial as he is gruff, as funny as he is fuming. "Chris," Jones says, "is an affable guy who's tough as nails...There's nothing I would want more in a producer than a guy who would say to my face what he'd say behind my back." He's even become something of a star himself: Some 2,500 contestants entered Greenlight's so-called Chris Moore Challenge, offering up their own videotaped impressions of the producer for the chance to hang with him at Stolen Summer's premiere. (The film debuts in four cities, including Los Angeles, on March 22; there will be a larger rollout later.)
The son of a Maryland labor lawyer and a Harvard grad (he attended the school with Damon, though they barely knew each other then), Moore quit his gig as an agent to produce 1996's Glory Daze, starring Affleck. Talk to him long enough, and he comes across as a regular guy with a million-dollar gig. He says "fuck" a lot--as in, "one more Arnold-Schwarzenegger-saves-the-day movie is just boring as fuck"--and punctuates his sentences with "shit" and "dude." He's the antithesis of Jerry Bruckheimer, the silent shark in black leather. Moore's the frantic frat boy, easygoing till the check arrives. Unlike his immediate producing predecessors, he's the insider who still posits himself as something of an outsider.
When asked the status of The Third Wheel, a Luke Wilson-Denise Richards romantic comedy Miramax keeps yanking from its release schedule, Moore plays the part of the aggrieved producer--despite the fact Affleck and Damon have small roles in it, and all three are tight with Miramax bossman Harvey Weinstein. "If you get anybody from Miramax on the phone, call me back and tell me," he says. "They don't like it very much--and I'm not gonna lie to ya, it didn't turn into fuckin' Harry Met Sally--but it still deserves to get released, so we're beatin' on 'em." And Harvey Weinstein is not a man who likes anyone, even his favorite sons, beating on him.
At the moment, LivePlanet is in production on several other films entered in the initial Greenlight contest; Moore takes pride in the fact he and his partners picked up not only Jones' movie but others, proving their commitment to young comers. The Runner may debut in the summer of 2003 and run for six to 12 weeks; Moore says all discussions about the series remain tentative. Push, Nevada, a treasure-hunt pilot for ABC, likely will air sooner, and it could be the biggest test of LivePlanet's potential for cross-pollination between media, since you can either watch the show passively or log on and join in the quest. Moore, who expected to be tied up working on The Runner these days, can only work and wait and let others pass judgment.
"John Frankenheimer, who I did Reindeer Games with, he said to me, 'Chris, if it were easy, everybody would do it,'" he says. "So I don't ever get beaten down, because I love the battle. What I hate is the same battle over and over again about stupid shit, and that happens sometimes in this business, because some people love the same battle about stupid shit, and you get bored with that. You reach a certain level where hopefully most of the time you're dealing with smart people, and you go from there. I'm someone who has the choice to go back to just making movies and livin' a good life, and I still believe we have a lot more things to prove but have proved enough that I wanna stick with it."
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