For nine weeks and counting, the HBO series "Project Greenlight" has been exposing the filmmaking process in a way akin to demonstrating how sausage is made: You're seeing every distasteful ingredient that goes into the final product.
The show has been fascinating, but the ultimate question is would anyone want to eat the sausage?
The filmmakers behind "Stolen Summer," the Chicago-based movie being made on "Project Greenlight," got a taste of the answer at the movie's premiere Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
Of course, the HBO crews were there following Deerfield native Pete Jones' every move, as they have been since his screenplay was chosen early last year as the winning entry in the "Project Greenlight" online contest launched by Live Planet (the production company run by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and producer Chris Moore), Miramax Films and HBO. Jones won the right to make his own movie and, in the process, to become the star of a reality-TV series.
"If I start whining, you might recognize me from the HBO series," Jones said ruefully as he introduced "Stolen Summer" to the Sundance audience.
Many of the actors and crew members involved in "Stolen Summer" are less than enthusiastic about the series' focus on interpersonal conflicts and screw-ups, such as decisions to shoot under "L" tracks during morning rush hour or to film a baseball scene when rain has been forecast. The first 10 episodes don't include one day where everyone just nails their jobs.
"Unfortunately, they decided to go with the reality-TV version of what went on," Jones said a few days before the premiere. "It's all drama for TV."
"It's not a true documentary because they've edited things out of context to create Shakespearean drama where it simply didn't exist," complained Kevin Pollak, who plays the warm Rabbi Jacobson in "Stolen Summer."
If the show makes the movie resemble a car wreck, what does that do to audience's expectations?
"I think it sort of levels the expectations, actually, because there's so much turmoil that I think people would expect the movie not to turn out so well," Pollak said.
The screening took place in the 360-seat function room of the Prospector Square Hotel, and hundreds of people were crammed into the T-shaped lobby outside the auditorium fruitlessly hoping to enter off of the wait list. Jones seemed relatively cool beforehand, perhaps owing in part to his months of being the center of attention.
"There's a lot of people here, and hopefully they'll enjoy the movie," the apple-cheeked filmmaker said, scanning the crowd.
"We did 'Chasing Amy' here. It's a good omen," Miramax distribution executive Jon Gordon told him, referring to the 1997 Sundance premiere of Kevin Smith's most acclaimed film.
"That's great news," Jones said.
"Stolen Summer," set on the South Side in 1976, is about an 8-year-old Irish Catholic boy, not coincidentally named Pete (Adi Stein), who decides he can get to heaven by convincing a Jewish person to convert to Catholicism. He takes on Rabbi Jacobson's leukemia-stricken 7-year-old son, Danny, who participates in a "decathlon" of physical tests that the two kids devise.
It's an alarm-bell premise, and a delicate balancing act must be performed in terms of tone. The potential offensiveness of Pete's "quest" is offset by the boy's youthful naivete; the adults, particularly the rabbi, realize that Pete is acting on a sincere desire to understand the two religions. Also, any movie involving dying kids risks being extremely manipulative.
Yet at Sundance at least, the movie played well. There were sniffles all around, and the specificity of Jones' vision -- especially involving the dynamicsof Pete's large family and the anti-Semitic impulses of the firefighter father played by Aidan Quinn -- trumped the awkward elements.
After the cheering died down, Moore, who comes off as a hard case on TV, told the audience: "If this is the price, to be hated by everyone, I'll do it again and again . . . . Please, if you're out there in the world judging Pete, look at the movie. Don't look at the show."
Cast members Quinn, Pollak, Bonnie Hunt (who plays Pete's mother) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (who plays Pete's oldest brother) greeted Jones on stage with hugs. Affleck, who kept a low profile in a black-and-blue ski cap, and Damon didn't join the group.
"Pete Jones was so wonderful to work with," Quinn, a vocal critic of the series, said during the post-screening Q&A. "We had so much fun. We were laughing all the time. This may come as a great surprise to many of you."
Exiting the theater, Jones was swarmed with well-wishers, including actress Shannon Elizabeth. Walking up Main Street to a crowded after-party in a restaurant's basement, Jones called Los Angeles, where his wife, Jenny, was home with the couple's two daughters, and told her, "It went well."
"It played great, didn't it?" Moore said. "If you can make them cry and you can make them laugh, you're doing all right."