Starz’ The Chair comes to an end tomorrow night, with either Anna Martemucci (“Hollidaysburg”) or Shane Dawson (“Not Cool”) winning $250,000. But despite that large prize, the contest has truly been secondary to the reality series’ extraordinary ability to capture the filmmaking process.
I talked with Anna last night, and she offered a lot of candid insight about The Chair, its accuracy, her film, the contest, collaboration, and creating art. “Overall it was such a beautiful experience,” she said. “I’m thrilled because I think I’d be a fan of the show if I wasn’t a part of it, just as a TV and film junkie.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.
What drew her to the The Chair, and what scared her
“It was the opportunity to make a movie because that’s what I love doing,” she said. “That was really the motivator.” The fact that the process would be captured by cameras for a documentary film “was terrifying. It first it was a detractor, and then once I realized I was going to do it, I reframed it for myself to make it a positive. I told myself that it was not a reality show, it was a documentary about creativity, and that really helped me to feel positive about that aspect of the show rather than fearful of it.”
Breaking the fourth wall, and becoming a character
“The moment a camera begins to role, and there’s editing involved, it’s not the truth, it’s a story,” Anna said. No matter how much truth is in the story, it’s still a story. I have no beef about the show itself being terribly inaccurate. Did they leave out so much of life? Of course, because you can’t possibly put it all in there. They had to make acrs for both of us, and being a writer, I know how this stuff works. It’s really fascinating and disconcerting to see my personality being manipulated into a character arc. I don’t think that it’s the healthiest thing in the world for the psyche.”
Breaking the fourth wall
Anna (and Shane’s) anxiety about the reality TV part of The Chair became part of The Chair itself, because the show constantly broke the fourth wall, sometimes in fascinatingly self-referential ways. During tomorrow night’s finale, for example, there’s an entire act about promoting the TV series, which then becomes part of the TV series. (Watch for an artful shot of my plaid shirt and the back of my head while I’m interviewing Chris Moore.)
“I was advocating for it, to be honest,” Anna said. “Once the cameras started rolling, it was such a disconcerting experience that I made a point almost to reference them.” She added later, “I’m so glad Tony Sacco went in that direction and, now, I think it’s something to be proud of. My biggest fear was that I would be ashamed of it, and I’m absolutely not ashamed of it at all. ”
A lot of what happened during pre-production on the series and films wasn’t shown, and Anna said there was a pivotal moment then. “At the beginning of the process, the cameramen were really jovial to us, and we were all filmmakers. There was unspoken friendliness–like, we’re all making stuff, and these are my kind of people. We started to become friendly with them–with the DP, Dan Kavanaugh, and all the shooters. And then, a week and a half in, after we had established these relationships, and we were constantly referencing them. I was hoping the documentary would be a fourth-wall-broken thing, then they were instructed to stop speaking or making eye contact with us. So our discomfort ramped up at that point, because we were like, Oh, shit. The whole thing was fraught with uncertainty and fear as to what this doucmentary was going to be like. To this day, I don’t know if it was a genuine mistake. I was told it was a misstep on the part of one of the producers, and the actual director of the doc didn’t want that to happen. But it really served its purpose in terms of ramping up our discomofrt, so I think we were more freaked out than we would have been, which probably made for better television. Awesome.”
Giving feedback on rough cuts of The Chair
One thing The Chair does not reference is that the directors each had the ability to affect its content. “Part of our deal is that would we would see rough cuts in advance and have the chance to argue our case,” Anna told me. “There were a lot of moments where I was like, ‘That just totally manipulates–you can’t do that, that’s not what actually happened.’ I tried campaigning for certain moments … So I won certain things and lost certain things, and Shane had that same deal.” She said that deal with the directors “was Chris Moore’s way of really committing [to the way] he just wanted to tell the truth.”
Collaborating with Victor, Phil, and others
The major storyline for Anna was her relationship with her husband, Victor Quinaz, and her brother-in-law, Phil Quinaz, and the relationship they had behind the camera. “I’m super-collaborative and they depicted that well, and I was extremely neurotic at the beginning of that, and then I gained confidence. So, all that stuff is true, they just made it dramatic–way more dramatic than it was in real life,” Anna said when I asked about that.
“Collaboration is the most necessary ingredient to being a director, to telling stories on films. It’s just one of those things that requires more than one person,” she said. “You just cannot physically do it alone, which I love about it. It’s a lesson I had to learn from being a very isolated writer who came out of NYU and was intent on writing some perfect screenplay, and it wasn’t happening for me because I was so in my head. It wasn’t until I started working with Phil and Victor making short films that I realized how fun creativity could be. It doesn’t have to be this sad, alone, precious thing.”
In other words, the process was deliberate and worked quit well. “I was so inspired; I learned so much from working with Victor and Phil that it was only natural that I would use the model we had come up with, only putting myself in the directorial position,” she said. “And it worked out great. To me it was a total success. They made a huge deal out of it on the show. They made a huge deal out of my relationship with my husband which is funny to me because he was a huge part of things, but he was very much living in LA while we shot that movie. He would come in for 48 hours whenever he could, and it ended up being this huge storyline.”
Turning the original script into Hollidaysburg
Watching the series, my impression was that Anna, Victor, and Phil essentially rewrote Dan Schoffer’s original script, while Shane added his comedy on top of the original script. Anna confirmed that was the case, but also wondered “if people think that Hollidaysburg was [Dan’s] script and then Shane changed it into [his version.”
Anna said that she responded to the original script because “I love teen movies, and I just love coming of age stories in general; they’re my favorite. That’s what really drew me to it. I went into the process with the knowledge that I would be allowed to hire my own team of writers and rewrite the script, which I did [with Phillip and Victor].” (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently requested a copy of their script to add to its permanent collection.)
“We knew that we wanted to rewrite it and make it a new movie, but we wanted to keep it similar enough that the show would work–which is so weird! Never again will I deal with that as a writer,” she added. “Really, really interesting. There was some great stuff in there; it was easy to keep that stuff in, story elements like Scott getting hit by the car, and going over to play some kind of game. There were elements that we kept in place to kind of tether the movie to the other movie.”
The contest and its fairness, and learning whether she won
Anna found out via e-mail on Monday about the result of the $250,000 contest. “The cash would be awesome, let me tell you, especially right now,” she said. (If she wins, Anna announced she’d give $20,000 to two organizations after distributing “bonuses for my tireless creative producers … [who] were majorly underpaid”)
But she also went into the contest knowing that she wasn’t on the same playing field as Shane, despite the attempt to not make it into a popularity contest. What drew her to it was the film. “I was given an opportunity to direct a movie and a budget to make that movie. Being in the business for a while, I knew how precious that was. I knew that it would take a long time to generate that opportunity again.”
“I made it clear to Chris Moore that I thought it was kind of ludicrous when he told me who my quote-unquote opponent was.” Anna told me that Chris Moore tried to convince her that she had online fans, too. She told him, “‘Chris, I don’t have fans like that.’ And he said, ‘I think you have more fans than you know.'” And I was like, ‘No, I don’t! I don’t have more fans than I know. You can see the numbers online. We live in an age where you can see who cares about who, and there’s just not as many people who care. And this is just not going to be a contest.”
Interestingly, Anna said that she requested a different format for the contest, one that “just never materialized”: “a panel of experts. … I went in knowing [the contest and vote] was a weird thing and it continued to be a weird thing and it’s a weird thing still,” she said. “I’m really not upset about anything really, I’m just super grateful that I got to make a movie.”
Feedback from anonymous Internet users
“Getting strangers opinions directly to me is probably the hardest part–and the best part, because there’s some positive stuff in there,” Anna told me. “I wasn’t prepared for it because I wasn’t an internet personality before this started; I was a totally non-famous person, so having that has most definitely been an adjustment. ”
“Anonymity does really strange things to people. It’s sort of terrifying. I didn’t see that coming, really. I remember having a thought, a very far-away thought, in the middle of this entire process. Like, ‘Oh yeah, people are going to say mean things about me on the Internet, and then I dismissed it immediately because I have to keep making a movie,” she said.
Anna’s future projects
PERIODS. Films‘ third feature comes out in December, and will be released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. “It is a history of the world filmed in line with Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, and History of the World, the Mel Brooks movie. It’s God taking you through different epochs of history and educating you about the world, in a humorous manner,” she said.
Anna is now looking to create television, too. “I’m working on a TV idea, and Victor and Phil and I are working on a really interesting online series,” she said. “The reason that I’m going toward the TV thing is just because this is the golden age of television, at a time when nobody seems to be able to figure out how to make money on film, people are finding ways to do such interesting things on television. Like, Louis CK, Lena Dunham, Jill Soloway–those are my huge inspirations.”
Her favorite reality series
That would be AMC’s Small Town Security. “I love that show more than life; I loved it so much, and I’m so sad it’s over. If I could ever come up with something that amazing than yes, I would do reality–I would pitch a reality show. That thing was artful. It was so cool.”
There’s even a connection between the Starz series’ and an AMC series: “Victor was working on Game of Arms–that’s what got us through the winter financially,” Anna said. “That’s why he wasn’t there to shoot Hollidaysburg, except when he did come, because he was working on an AMC show, which is now defunct.”
What Anna hopes people take away from the series and films
“My biggest hope is that a conversation is started about content, and I hope that everybody does become aware of Shane Dawson’s material, his fanbase, and I just hope a conversation is started. I was unaware of him before this project and then I became aware, and I found it really fascinating,” she told me. As to his fans, and viewers of the reality show, Anna said, “I’ve just been exposed to a section of humanity didn’t know that was there on the Internet. The whole thing is really, really interesting. It’s interesting culturally, it’s interesting from a filmmaking perspective for sure, for people in the business, and I just hope people talk about it.”
Anna said response to Hollidaysburg has been “astonunding and wonderful; it seems like people are really connecting to it, and that’s really the broader context for what I’m trying to do is make people feel connected to each other through story. If I had to say my life’s goal, that would be it.”
“My greatest hope is that people can see how scared I was and how ridiculous my fear was. I was terrified to live my dream and then I just did it, and it was an incredible experience,” she said. “If hope if anyone takes anything away from the show is that you can be really terrified and really insecure, and still put one foot in front of the other and get your work done and achieve your dreams, whatever that may be. The lesson for me was that if it means so much to you that it makes your blood run cold with fear, the idea of actually doing it, then it’s probably what you were meant to do. It’s a good thing to dive into the fear.”