James Franco: Inside the Making of 'The Disaster Artist'
Inspired by Tommy Wiseau's disaster-turned-cult classic 'The Room' and the book 'The Disaster Artist' by his co-star Greg Sestero, Franco stars in and directs one of the best films of the year
Published Nov 01, 2017It's virtually impossible to exaggerate when describing Tommy Wiseau. His dyed black hair evokes a costume pirate wig and his eyes are almost always wrapped in enormous, out-dated sunglasses. For an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wiseau swoops in with the swagger of a Johnny Depp impersonator, complete with flowing silk shirt and his signature set of two studded belts across oversized trousers.
Wiseau's dizzying energy is infectious. The Room, the cultishly adored 2003 film he wrote, directed, self-financed and starred in, is considered the (best) worst movie of all time. The Disaster Artist, a memoir about making The Room from Wiseau's co-star and former roommate Greg Sestero, demonstrates just how unpredictable (and manically creative) Wiseau really is. Now, both projects have culminated in a fantastic James Franco film that stands among his best work. Wiseau might be a weirdo, but he's also a catalyst for creativity.
No one really knows Wiseau. "His defences are impenetrable," Franco says. "He's been asked every silly or probing question, and he just knows how to duck and dodge." Wiseau's age and ethnicity are a secret (he insists his accent, which sounds like an amalgamation of exaggerated Eastern European dialects, comes from his supposed upbringing in New Orleans), as is the method with which he amassed his enormous wealth (some speculate that he was a Levi's bootlegger, an accusation he vehemently denies).
Whether it's a result of unintentional comedy chops or pigheaded confidence, there's something special about The Room. Sure, it's a bad movie, filled with idiotic misogyny, dead-end subplots, seemingly alien dialogue and transcendently stupid scenes like the one where four men toss a football in tuxedos. Aesthetically, it's also a nightmare — as The Disaster Artist reveals, Wiseau filmed it on digital and film simultaneously, rendering it nearly impossible to light.
"That's one of the great conversations around this whole thing," Franco says. "Because yes, we can say that his sets are cheap and the lighting is terrible and the acting is ridiculous and the writing is horrible, but on the other hand, it's endlessly watchable. How many Oscar winners do you watch over and over again 14 years later? For some reason, we watch The Room over and over again. So undeniably, there's something special about that.
"There's something underneath," Franco continues. "And — I'm being completely earnest right now — who's to say that there's not value to that? In a way, it checks off all the boxes of a piece of art: Tommy put a lot of passion into it; it's very personal; and viewers get something out of it. And then on a success level, people watch it. I think it's, by now, made a profit. So it's sort of a success on all levels."
James Franco's seemingly endless resume includes something for everyone. He's starred in stoner comedy Pineapple Express and been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 127 Hours. He's a writer, actor, director, producer, musician, artist and academic, with an MFA from Columbia and a PhD in the works at Yale. And he's particularly adept at showcasing the inherent value of bad art.
In 2014, Carl Wilson's 33 1/3 book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste was reissued by Bloomsbury Publishing in an expanded edition that included a series of guest essays. Still framed around an attempt to understand Celine Dion's cultural value, the guest essays explored tangential topics. Franco, for his turn, wrote an essay explaining how A Journey to the End of Taste inspired him to volunteer for a role on General Hospital at the height of his acting career, subverting expectations as he slummed it on a soap opera in the name of art. Whether or not that was a success, one thing is clear — Franco staked an essential spot in the taste debate, and it primed him for the best film project of his career.
Adapting Greg Sestero's memoir of the same name, The Disaster Artist is, on the surface, a comedy about the making of Wiseau's notorious movie. But peel back its layers even slightly and the film provokes discussion about creativity, ambition, intent vs. interpretation and, ultimately, friendship. It's a piece that successfully merges the various Francos — method actor, art academic, comedian and director — and in doing so, stands on its own as a work of sheer brilliance.
When asked if A Journey to the End of Taste played into this project, Franco says it's most likely why producer Sandy Stern sent him Sestero's book. "I'm sure there was a connection there," he says. "It definitely falls in line with all of that — the journey to the end of taste, or sort of weird meta flirtations with lowbrow art — but I took this one to a whole new level. And it wasn't all on my own."
The Room co-star Greg Sestero wrote The Disaster Artist with journalist Tom Bissell and the memoir received instant critical acclaim, in part for laugh-out-loud stories that were far weirder than anything in Wiseau's film. More importantly, the book contextualized The Room in Hollywood — land of heartbreak and yearning, where dreamers endlessly pine for a chance in the spotlight. Sestero, disarmingly handsome with a calming Owen Wilson drawl, says he wrote the book with the hopes that it would one day become a movie like Ed Wood or Sunset Boulevard. ("I'm not Ed Wood, okay! Let's stress that. I hate when people say that," Wiseau mutters.)
"My goal with the book was always to tell something inspiring and heartfelt," Sestero admits. "My friendship with Tommy — obviously, you would say it's a rollercoaster ride, but it's been an amazing experience. I knew there were going to be some things that were uncomfortable, but ultimately I think Tommy knows that I did it for the right reasons."
When the book came out, Wiseau said he only approved of 40 percent of its contents. (He loves to talk in percentages, telling us that he approves of Franco's film 99.9 percent. A blogger had recently chalked up the .01 disapproval to a lighting issue, but as usual, Wiseau claims he was misquoted. Instead, he objects to the feeble football throw that Franco's Tommy completes in the film — for the record, it looks identical to the way Wiseau throws a football in The Room.)
Asked if his overwhelming disapproval of the book put a strain on his friendship with Sestero, Wiseau once again gets worked up. It's a funny aside, but like all things Tommy, it also carries a strangely poignant truth. "People are misleading about friendship," Wiseau says, growing increasingly impatient. "Like I say, very publicly about Greg, 'Oh, I approve this book 40 percent, whatever.' But this is my choice to say that. When you have two friends, they can say whatever they want and maybe hurt the other person, but still they can be friends."
Sestero and Wiseau's enduring bond is the emotional core of The Disaster Artist, and the humanizing element that prevents the project from veering into parody. "We were very clear from the beginning — this is not a satire," Franco says. "We are not going to make a movie where we just poke fun at these guys. What we want to reveal, and we really took our cues from the book, is a universal story. Through a comedic lens, but a story about outsider artists, about people with dreams, about people that have been told 'no' their whole lives and will a piece of art into the world."
Franco's filmography features upwards of three dozen director credits, but on The Disaster Artist, he's operating on another level. "Whatever wiser part of my brain did a couple things right," he admits. "I brought in my brother [Dave Franco, who plays Sestero], who is much more discerning than I am and very methodical. [Producer] Seth Rogen knows how to work with studios and still make the movies he wants to make. This subject matter has everything that I want — it's an examination of the artistic process, albeit through this very lowbrow lens. I think I did a lot of things to balance out my interests and proclivities and take a subject that I'm interested and then elevate it with these collaborations."
On screen, one sees a consummate professional. Franco somehow embodies Wiseau's ridiculous personality traits with energy, subtlety, and occasionally, empathy. That he directed the film without breaking character further suggests his mastery of the project.
Wiseau agrees that it's an impressive turn. Mostly. "James did very good job, I give him credit for that," he says. "I think it's very difficult, as a director right now speaking, to go into someone else's shoes. Because you have to actually study person and emotion, and all that stuff is there. Except the accent, I think, is a little too much."
Wiseau's status as a highly private yet endlessly interesting character raises familiar questions about outsider artists — how do we engage with the person's work without exploiting them? Is it possible to laugh at The Room without bullying its creator?
"Here's the thing — Tommy embraces the laughter," Franco says. "When he made the movie, his take was 'Tennessee Williams-level drama.' After he realized that it was going to be a comedic phenomenon, he added to the poster [that it was] like a dark comedy or something. But he kept the original on there, so he can play it both ways. And he says 'The Room is a safe place, you can laugh, cry, do whatever you like, just don't hurt yourself.' He's done these weird mental gymnastics where he can embrace both of those things, and understands people laugh at it but can still believe he's the 'greatest director in world.'"
Franco did not spend much one-on-one time with Wiseau prior to shooting, but he had access to the character through more voyeuristic means. "Tommy, at least in the past, recorded everything — every phone conversation, just like in The Room. He really did that. He would also record himself, just talking to himself," Franco says. "The weirdness on Greg's part is he stole some of those tapes years ago. But it was great for me because Greg gave me those recordings. So I have those recordings of Tommy in his most private moments. He never thought anybody would ever listen to this but himself. He's pouring his heart out, and it's weird, it's moving, it's sad. And I feel like I got an unfiltered glimpse into Tommy's soul."
From its beginnings as a drama to its current status as a cult comedy, The Room is a perfect example of failing upwards. As Franco puts it, Wiseau constantly "rewrites history and rewrites his intentions" to make it seem like he's been in control all along and, well, it just might have worked. After all, it looks like Tommy Wiseau's career has accidentally redeemed itself.
"One of the beautiful things about the SXSW screening, which was the first time we showed it to a public audience and the first time we showed it to Tommy, was that we got a standing ovation," Franco recalls. "I realized later — that was the first time in Tommy's entire life that he got unadulterated support and applause. It wasn't ironic, they weren't laughing at him. They were cheering for him and his story, and that he accomplished this. That was beautiful. That's what we were aiming for."
Thus, the story of The Disaster Artist is at once post-ironic and profound — the world's worst movie inspired a book that has re-emerged as a film masterpiece.
The Disaster Artist opens in Toronto on December 1 and across Canada on December 8.