The Disaster Artist: An oral history

The making of the making of The Room, starring James and Dave Franco, Tommy Wiseau, Seth Rogen, Greg Sestero, Ari Graynor & others


THE DISASTER ARTIST directed by James Franco, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, with James Franco, Dave Franco, Alison Brie and Ari Graynor. An Elevation Pictures release. 103 minutes. Opens Friday (December 1). See listings. See review.


Prologue

In the summer of 2003, filmmaker Tommy Wiseau released a movie called The Room. The aesthetically singular, dramatically incomprehensible tale stars Wiseau as a happy-go-lucky fellow named Johnny, whose relationship with the devoted Lisa (Juliette Danielle) is destroyed by his obsession that she’s cheating on him with his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). 

JAMES FRANCO, who plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, which he also directs

I don’t know that he made the movie he wanted to make. 

DAVE FRANCO, who plays Greg Sestero in The Disaster Artist

He was definitely proud of it and he still is. Don’t you agree?

JAMES FRANCO

Yeah, but there’s a lot of weird mental gymnastics that go on and a lot of rewriting of the history, you know? The original poster said: “Tennessee Williams-level drama.” So that’s what he was aiming for. But he added a lot of crazy, dark comedy. When he was making it he said to Greg, “Nobody will be able to sleep for two weeks after watching this movie because it’s so dramatic.” But he says now, “The Room is a safe place, you can do whatever you like. You can laugh, cry, whatever you like. Just don’t hurt yourself.” So he’s, like, taking ownership and getting credit for making this comedy, but I don’t think that’s what he intended at the start.

TOMMY WISEAU, writer/director/star, The Room 

But you don’t know what happened.

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Tommy Wiseau (left) and Greg Sestero, the original stars of The Room, mug for TIFF cameras.

1. In the beginning there was Wiseau

Who is Tommy Wiseau? How old is he? Where did he come from? Where did he get the money to make The Room?

JAMES FRANCO

Well, he’s obviously from Eastern Europe. Maybe there was some weird activity there, I don’t know. He does have very valuable real estate in San Francisco. And how he got that I don’t know. 

ARI GRAYNOR, who plays Room co-star Juliette Danielle in The Disaster Artist 

This is a really interesting diagnostic test about people. Some people are fascinated by the idea of finding out the real story. “Where is he from? How did he get the money? What does he do? What’s going on?” I’m happy to take the mystery as a mystery. I love that I have no idea. And I sort of don’t want to know. Not because I think it’s going to be something horrible I just love that in this day and age where we know too much about every person, someone exists as a totally unique character with a story and historical information that, like, nobody can figure out. 

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Ari Graynor in The Disaster Artist: “I love that someone exists [like Tommy Wiseau] as a totally unique character with historical information that nobody can figure out.”

2. The Room

The Room was a critical and commercial failure – until people started treating it as a cult object, a movie so bad that it was actually brilliant. And right around that same time, Wiseau started telling people he’d intended it to play as a comedy all along.

TOMMY WISEAU

When I study literature or film, I would say, you know, “How you do original stuff?” So I say, okay, first you need characters: what they talk about, the situation, and that was thought, like, it’s also imagination, etc., right? So I think that’s when the creation come, when you have this element. And in my case I create The Room. I was so happy to actually say, “This [is] real people,” you know what I mean? And that’s making me very happy. Also make me happy, like, to analyze that character. Who is Mark, who is Johnny, etc.

JAMES FRANCO

He was aiming for the stars. And in a way, he kind of pulled that off – at least if you measure the amount of passion behind it.

PAUL SCHEER, co-host of the podcast How Did This Get Made, who plays The Room cinematographer Raphael Smadja in The Disaster Artist

The interesting thing about The Room is it’s kind of like a drug. It’s, like, “Hey, you ever heard of this thing?” And at first it’s weird. You think, “What am I watching? Let’s turn it off.” And then you get into it, and as soon as you’re done watching, your immediate reaction is: “I want to show this to somebody else! I want to share this with somebody else!” 

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Seth Rogen (centre) and Dave Franco (red shirt) recreate the making of The Room.

SETH ROGEN, who produced The Disaster Artist and plays Wiseau’s script supervisor Sandy Schklair

Yeah, it was exactly like that. Paul Rudd was maybe the first guy I knew who had seen it – he would always tell us to go see it, and then eventually I saw it with my wife and Jonah Hill and Ed Helms. We became obsessed with it. For comedy people it was like a new category of thing: there was just nothing like it. When I was in high school we’d just rent every crazy movie that there was, and they were bad, but it wasn’t like this. This was just next-level shit. 

MICHAEL H. WEBER, who adapted The Disaster Artist for the screen with Scott Neustadter

The Room led itself to be like a shared experience among people. You pressed it on them: “You have to watch this with me.” You gathered more and more people, like a virus. 

GREG SESTERO, who played Mark in The Room and wrote the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Film Ever Made about his experiences making the film with Wiseau

It was organic. People just genuinely loved it. It wasn’t like something that would just go through them. It stayed

SCOTT NEUSTADTER, co-screenwriter of The Disaster Artist

People are always talking about the death of cinema and how you can watch a lot of movies at home or on your computer. But there are other ones that really are so much more special in a group setting. And so the cinema will always live, as long as there are movies like this. Movies that you want to feed off the crowd, for their energy.

DAVE FRANCO

I met with the real Greg several times before we started filming and I kept asking him, “Did you think at any point that The Room could be good?” And he kept saying no, but there was something in his inflection that I didn’t fully believe. As a young actor, you’re just excited to be on a movie set, and you kinda go into it with this blind ambition and you have to believe this thing could be good. I’ve been in that scenario where I’ve been doing something and I’m like, “Oh my God, we’re going to win awards for this!” And then it comes out and it’s awful.

PAUL SCHEER

Give Nicole Kidman these lines and she’s not going to give a better performance than these people in The Room. Because the dialogue is like Tennessee Williams through Google Translate. [laughs] It’s hard to make it work, and I think that was the thing that’s so interesting in watching it and getting it.

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Samuel Engelking

Paul Scheer, who plays cinematographer Raphael Smadja in The Disaster Artist: “Give Nicole Kidman these lines, she’s not going to give a better performance than these people in The Room.”

3. The adaptation

Sestero and co-author Tom Bissell published The Disaster Artist in 2013. (Wiseau called the book “about 40 per cent accurate.”) Brothers James and Dave Franco immediately decided they wanted to turn the book into a movie, in which James would play the driven Wiseau and Dave his younger, more innocent co-star.

SETH ROGEN

We were making The Interview in Vancouver, and [James] was reading the book. He’s the only person I know who read the book before they saw the movie, because that’s just a very Franco thing to do. And then he saw the movie at the Rio on Commercial [Drive] while we were filming, and he became even more obsessed with it.

JAMES FRANCO 

Davey and I had done these YouTube videos where we were giving these stupid acting classes. And I was sort of the insane one and he was the straight man who was just, like, “This is insane, what you’re doing is insane.” I knew we had a really good dynamic that way. So I had in my head that we would be these characters, but then I had to get the life rights from Tommy and Greg.

GREG SESTERO 

I always wanted it to be a film. I was always picturing characters when I was writing it. “Who’s going to play Sandy?” And people thought I was nuts. “Sure, dude, a movie about your book about a movie.” 

JAMES FRANCO 

I remember the first phone call I had with Tommy and Greg, I didn’t want to say, like, “It should be me and my brother,” because we didn’t have a contract and what if he didn’t like that idea? And so he says, “Who play me?” And I said, “I don’t know, Tommy.” And he said, “Well, how ’bout Johnny Depp?” And I start laughing, and he said, “Why you laughing?” and I said, “He’s a big movie star. Biggest in the world.” And he’s like, “Yeah, you don’t go down that road you don’t know what’s at the end of the alley.” I learned later [that] the two people he was actually thinking about were Johnny Depp and me, strangely. So, like, it was in the stars that we would come together on this project. 

SCOTT NEUSTADTER 

Neither of us had actually seen The Room when we started reading The Disaster Artist. So we approached it very much from a perspective like this: These guys are us. We all kind of have the same dream to [create art], movies just happen to be like, the milieu of the thing. When we were talking about it early on, outlining and really fleshing it out, at no point were we talking about it as if, “Well, our movie is going to be a Rosetta Stone that sort of decodes The Room.” That was not the goal or even the lens we used.

TOMMY WISEAU 

I was afraid that, by the way. “Ah, they want to duplicate The Room!”

SCOTT NEUSTADTER 

We couldn’t have done that even if we tried. That’s what makes The Room so amazing. People will still be watching it 50 years from now because you can’t penetrate it in that way, to totally demystify it. So why try? The more interesting story, the more human story, is the story of the friendship [between Tommy and Greg].

4. Production

Once the script was ready, the Francos and producers Rogen and Evan Goldberg assembled a dream team of actors to play the various cast and crew in a production that included elaborate re-creations of key scenes from Wiseau’s film.

JAMES FRANCO 

We treated The Room with the same amount of respect as we would if we were doing a movie about Hitchcock making Psycho. 

ARI GRAYNOR 

It was just wild, because when we would be reshooting those scenes, we would just be studying them and studying them and studying them, and then we would do them. And it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because it doesn’t follow any of your instincts. It’s like moving your body in a way it’s never moved before.

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Samuel Engelking

James (left) and Dave Franco: “[James] stayed in character the whole time so it was like being directed by Tommy Wiseau.”

DAVE FRANCO 

I love working with my brother. He stayed in character the whole time, so it was essentially like we were being directed by Tommy Wiseau at points. That’s something you get used to after a few days, but then there were so many cameos in the movie people would pop in for one day and you would kinda have to prep them. “You’re not going to be directed by James Franco today. It’s essentially going to be Tommy Wiseau.” It’s a hard concept to wrap your mind around.

PAUL SCHEER 

I think it’s one of the best-cast films because it’s one of those few films where every part – even just a two-line part – it’s like, “Oh, I know that person! Oh, that’s so cool!” And I think that was one of the cool things that the excitement of The Room brought to this. People wanted to be involved in this thing. And it’s really neat to feel like every day no matter who you’re doing a scene about, it’s like, “Whoa! Zac Efron’s here today! Megan Mullally is here! Bryan Cranston is here!”

SETH ROGEN 

The movie’s mostly filled with people that either we’re friends with, or people we had read liked The Room. [laughs] 

JAMES FRANCO 

Bob Odenkirk is a huge Room fan.

DAVE FRANCO 

He got J.J. Abrams to be a part of this.

5. Reception

The Disaster Artist screened as a work in progress at South By Southwest in March and then premiered in its final form at TIFF six months later to a rabid Midnight Madness audience.

DAVE FRANCO 

We brought Tommy up onstage for our TIFF Q&A, but we didn’t give him the mic because in the worst-case scenario he gets on the mic and says, “This is bullshit, none of this is true, I don’t endorse this movie.” Tommy is famous for saying that Greg’s book is only 40 per cent accurate. So after the Q&A we were, like, “Alright, Tommy, what did you think?” And he said, “99.9 per cent accurate.” And we thought, “We should have given him the fucking mic!”

ARI GRAYNOR 

James was like, “What’s the 0.1 per cent?” And he said, “Well, I think you need to talk to your DP or the lighting director.”

GREG SESTERO 

You don’t have to have seen The Room to watch this film.

TOMMY WISEAU 

The Disaster Artist can stand by itself. 

PAUL SCHEER 

I think it works as a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never heard of The Room, it’s a great introduction to it. And if you’ve seen it, it’s an amazing side of the story that you’ve never seen before.

MICHAEL H. WEBER 

We’re looking forward to the movie about the Francos making the movie about making the movie. Tommy can play James.

TOMMY WISEAU

Ha ha haaaa.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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