Issa Rae offers aspiring female directors a chance to shine on rebooted 'Project Greenlight' series

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This image released by Max shows Issa Rae, left, Kumail Nanjiani, center, and Gina Prince-Bythewood in a scene from the series "Project Greenlight: A New Generation." (Max via AP)

LOS ANGELES – From Issa Rae’s perspective, there’s plenty of talented female filmmakers willing to work. However, she knows most haven’t been afforded the same support as their male counterparts.

Now, Rae feels compelled to create a supportive platform for aspiring women directors through the reboot series “Project Greenlight: A New Generation,” which premiered this month on Max. She brought back the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon series that debuted in 2001 on HBO about unproven filmmakers directing a feature-length movie. It was canceled 14 years later after a controversial fourth season, which included a heated discussion between Damon and producer Effie Brown over diversity.

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This time, Rae puts a spotlight on the next generation of women who are tasked to direct a full-length film too.

“The series shows that there are a lot of women out there who are interested. With proper resources and given a chance, they can absolutely deliver,” Rae said in interview before the actor’s strike. She is a mentor in the series alongside actor Kumail Nanjiani and “The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Rae witnessed Greta Gerwig direct the big budget “Barbie” film, which had 2023's biggest opening. Gerwig shattered the first weekend records for a film directed by a woman. The “Insecure” creator appeared as President Barbie in the movie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

“I saw it even while promoting ‘Barbie,’” Rae said. “I’m working with a director who’s one of six to get a $100-million budget. Six women. It’s an industry-wide issue where there are limitations for the opportunities that women get. I think this series shines a light on a very small area that needs improvement.”

Rae said the idea to revive the series was originally presented to her by Montrel McKay, who is featured in show and serves as the president of development & production at her Hoorae Media production company. After the company approached Max with the idea to highlight first-time female directors, she said the streaming service was “enthusiastic” in what she calls the easiest greenlight from them.

Rae and company filtered through 10 finalists before selecting Meko Winbush, a writer-director who mostly had experience making trailers and short films. The 10-episode series pulls back the curtain on the entire filmmaking process that shows the challenges each team faces while guiding Winbush — who is a Black woman — into making a successful film project.

Prince-Bythewood said it was important for the series to specifically highlight female directors, who weren't hardly featured — if at all — in the original series.

“I used to love the show. I used to watch every season. And there was such a normalcy to the winners always being ‘white men.' I don't even remember a person of color even being in the running. I don't remember a woman," she said. "I didn't even question it back then, which is crazy. Being a part of it now, this reboot is way more reflective of what the industry is and needs to be.”

Throughout the process, Winbush was under constant pressure and struggled at times to execute her vision. She had less than 20 days to direct the science fiction thriller called “Gray Matter.”

The cameras rolled from pre-production along with casting through principal photography and post-production.

“Women aren’t given a chance to direct genre movies,” said Rae, who initially had some reservations about selecting Winbush. “In hindsight, it’s ambitious to try to make a genre movie in 18 days with a very limited budget. But I give props to Meko for doing just that. This is a hard experience to do with a camera in your face. She did it and handled it with grace and was enthusiastic about the process.”

Prince-Bythewood sees herself in Winbush, who has become her mentee of sorts. As a fellow introvert, she tried to instill more confidence in Winbush’s stature as a leader.

“I thought about myself and given the situation, I could empathize with what she was going through,” said Prince-Bythewood, who made her directorial debut with “Love & Basketball” and known for other films such as “The Secret Life of Bees” and “The Old Guard.” The director said she was determined to help Winbush learn the importance of communication, swagger and inspiring the crew.

“The confidence in her abilities was always there. My thing was she kept calling herself a first-time director,” she said. “I told her you can’t think of yourself like that, because then everybody else is going to think about you like that as if that’s a negative thing, like you don’t know what you’re doing as opposed to you being a director making your first film. … You’re on the frontline.”

Regardless of how Winbush’s film panned out, Rae said the process was very beneficial. She has hopes for a second season to introduce more female directors, including some of color.

“If we get another opportunity, we kind of want to start smaller, make sure the script is in shape,” Rae said. “We want to give an opportunity to another director out there who needs a support system. Gina, Kumail and I lament the fact that our time was sucked by respective projects. We want to operate as even better mentors to the next hopeful and be more hands on with the project throughout.”