When producer Effie T. Brown ("Dear White People") signed up to produce the indie movie being shot during "Project Greenlight" Season 4, she had no idea she'd be front and center on the show. She had produced four films for HBO, including "Real Women Have Curves" and "Rocket Science," so HBO exec Ginny Nugent knew her well, and told her that while she might be on camera, the focus would be on the director of the movie, Jason Mann. "It became apparent that the entire series was about me and Jason," she told me in a phone interview. "If I would have known that I would never have done this for free!"
Brown was paid the SAG day rate for the first day of shooting the series along with her producer's fee plus two points on the back end for the movie: "It was a shitty deal. I only got paid to do the film."
That's Brown. She tells it like it is. As this compelling season of "Project Greenlight" unfolds, Brown is the star of the show. Now she's back in LA, the show is shot, the movie premiered in mid-July at L.A.'s Ace Hotel Theatre, and will show in theaters and screen on HBO right after the November 1 series finale.
Brown first met with Adaptive Studios partners Marc Joubert and Perrin Childs, who brought "Project Greenlight" back to life; Joubert knew Damon and Affleck from working on the previous iteration of the show when it was at Miramax. Brown asked Joubert if they had intentionally chosen the initial script "Not Such a Pretty Woman," which includes black prostitutes, to be controversial. Nope. "I’m going to speak freely," she decided, figuring she had already lost them.
In her direct way she told them: "These are the movies I’ve made. I've never gone over budget or schedule. I have always delivered a quality movie. My crews look like America, everyone is qualified."
Joubert asked her: "You know how to say 'no,' right?"
She replied: "I'm not afraid of saying 'no' and holding a tough line. You haven't researched me at all! If there’s anything that I could work on, it's being a little kinder and gentler. I’ve been stuck in impossible situations. I’m an army brat. So I lead, you follow the chain of command, or get out of the way."
Within two hours, they hired Brown to produce the movie. And she delivered exactly what she promised.
Even in the first episode, Brown pops. During the meeting to pick the director for the season, with executive producers Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, producers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Joubert, HBO's Len Amato, and Jennifer Todd, president of Affleck and Damon's Pearl Street Films, Brown defends her choice of a directing team comprised of a Vietnamese man and a white woman, challenging Damon about the importance of the show reflecting some diversity. She points out that a room full of white people is about to pick a white director to shoot "Not Such a Pretty Woman," a script written by a white man about black female prostitutes. When Damon argues that “when you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show," Brown says, "Wow, ok." Damon insists that merit should finally win out.
What really happened: an African-American woman argues her case with a powerful Hollywood movie star who is accustomed to obsequious, deferential behavior. What Damon doesn't factor into the equation is how this candid exchange will play to viewers at home. (He eventually apologized for his remarks.) "It did feel like an intimidating room to walk into and be part of," said Brown. "They had already met and hung out and picked the first 13 contenders. I was the last person coming in. They know each other. That was not the full conversation, to be real. That was a more polite version of that exchange."
Why did you argue with Damon?
"I had no choice really. I’ve been black and a woman all my life. I have worked in this business for 20 years. I’m 43. It was one of those things. Literally in that moment, was I going to risk public humiliation, bringing up this opinion, or deal with shame and excuses: 'You let that go by?' That’s a big responsibility. I was more afraid of my mother: 'That’s how we raised you and sacrificed, that’s it? When the time was for you to stand and be counted?' That’s all that went thorough my head: damned if I was going to do that. At the same time, Matt was the biggest movie star in the world, he could win the Oscar with 'The Martian,' he's incredibly thoughtful, so smart, so sensitive. Before that all happened, I am with Jason Bourne and Batman, I loved it. It was disheartening, to be 'Oh, like, ok.'"
It felt to Brown "like, they are, 'What the fuck are you doing here?' To my chagrin, when you're in that room, you have to validate yourself if no one takes you seriously: 'Listen to me, I know what I'm doing.'"
What's your relationship with Damon now?
"Word on the street is I'm not his favorite person." (Brown promises more reveals in later episodes.)
As soon as the team inevitably announces white Jason Mann as the winner who will direct the "Project Greenlight" movie—the one auditionee who does stand up for his strong vision—he walks off the stage and pigeonholes Damon and Affleck about shooting on 35 mm. Brown argues that filming on celluloid will take $300,000 out of the limited budget. But she happily backs Mann's choice to go with another, better script, "The Leisure Class" instead of "Not Such a Pretty Woman," and so do HBO and the other producers.
Throughout the first five episodes you see a clear demonstration of how Hollywood men function with each other, what their internalized rules and assumptions are, how they instinctively work around a woman who is perceived to be in their way. Brown, a veteran of 17 independent productions, is fair and professional, even if she tends to be straightforward and direct.
And she is fearless. When she tells Peter Farrelly—another Hollywood talent accustomed to sycophants—on the phone that Mann has already been shown the ropes of 35mm vs. digital and doesn't need a tour of the FotoKem lab, Farrelly abruptly calls Joubert and quits the show. He no longer wants to deal with Brown. Damon, who helped to bring the duo onto "Project Greenlight," loyally sides with them against her. And Affleck, to his credit, says she should just continue to do her job, as her producing partner Joubert constantly worries about how Brown is registering with the various powers that be. She's focused on making the best film possible on budget. Of course, Mann goes around her again and convinces Affleck and HBO to give him the extra $300,000 to shoot on film.
At this point, Brown has seen most of the episodes but can't watch the show anymore. She had to fight with the series producers to make sure she was treated fairly and accurately. She demanded to see the first cut of the controversial Episode 3 and lobbied to change how she was portrayed. "I was upset with how that Farrelly conversation was cut," she said. When she argued with him about taking Mann to FotoKem, "which is the last film lab in America, it would be like taking a kid to a candy store and telling him to eat his vegetables."
She found out what was being said about her only by demanding to see the episode. The Farrelly brothers quitting was "so hurtful," she said. "I get them coming at me. I never talked to Bobby, we were cool, I saw him when we had that one conversation that one time, and I made him quit? Tying it up with pretty bow? So I’m sure they were going over every angle to figure it out, which was so hurtful. Not one of them called me to say what happened. I said, 'I'm not going to do any more on-camera interviews until I know what was being talked about.' I found out when watching. At that time it was a different cut and I fervently had to get into it, because it was a lie. Someone was saying an untruth. I went to the powers that be about that last cut of Episode 3. I told them, 'I will have to defend myself. I will talk about what really happened with Peter Farrelly. This could be damaging to my career.' I could handle it if I'm mean and aggressive and weather that storm, if at the end of day, I was good at my job."
HBO fixed it. "Len Amato is cool," says Brown. "HBO has been great. I am grateful Len Amato was there. He was a producer, not always a suit. He recognized that Jason was the bad-ass director, he delivered, and he was an obvious—difficult—choice. He will aways back the good director and the vision, no matter how difficult it is. That’s what you sign up for at HBO."
As far as reality show rules go, HBO stayed on the up and up. "They never put words in our mouth," said Brown. "Nothing was scripted. Jason is a purist. He would never have stood for it either. Everything that happened, I can honestly take that. But I can't watch it and hurt my feelings again, honestly. I can’t get bent out of shape and cry in my cups about it. I have to keep moving forward. When it was happening my goal was to care about the people who are relying on me to keep it moving forward."
Even though it holds final cut, HBO still had to deal with powerful Damon and Affleck. "Pearl Street could have kiboshed it," said Brown. "They all saw all these cuts and approved them. Ben Affleck was the cat who had my back. Ben is down. All right, good! That was surprising to me, I thought it would be Matt, who has this liberal reputation. Honestly, I'm grown enough to say, 'I'm not for everybody, not everybody likes me, and he may be one of those who just can’t stand you.'"
After watching the show, what would you change?
"I could have handled [Farrelly] differently. I could have done it with a softer approach. I was told, under no circumstances were we getting more than $3 million. You just cut my legs off from under me and you know it. What became apparent was not, 'everybody’s out to get me,' but I am so used to fighting to be heard, and to do my job, to be treated fairly, sometimes I come off harshly, when it’s like, 'Yo, no one is trying to fight you right now!' That’s what I saw. I could probably get the same effect and have reached the same outcome, if I'd come at them a little differently, and be just as effective. I learned a lot from this experience."
"Was I fabulous, always in the right? Heck no. I did a good job. I'm not a man. That’s the thing. I've never been anything other than a black woman. I learned what I learned: to reach your goal, you can take several paths. I'm used to taking the direct straight path. If I felt I was not looked at through the male gaze as a female, you bet it would be different. I have to think, the people I'm working with, they don’t think they are misogynistic."
Meanwhile Brown is moving on with her already flourishing career. She's doing the paperwork on a forthcoming announcement, is prepping Lionsgate's "Flyy Girl," adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher from Omar Tyree's novel and starring Sanaa Lathan, and has an upcoming black horror movie on Lifetime. "I’m waiting to see what other opportunities come my way from this experience," said Brown. "I'm learning the ways of Twitter."
Are you glad you did "Project Greenlight"?
"I'm waiting it out until the end. I'm happy with the experience. I'm super grateful that at the end of the day, no matter what, the show showed a beautiful, qualified, inclusive crew making a great movie. On the TV, you see people reflecting African-Americans making a movie, so that many people can join the experience. That was important to me, one of the reasons I did it. We accomplished that.
How's your relationship with Joubert?
"Marc and I had a great relationship at beginning. It's now in tatters. He has a real hard time with conflict. You can’t win them all: Matt Damon, Marc Joubert. Life is long."