Based on the memoir by Greg Sestero, played here by Dave Franco, The Disaster Artist charts the exploits of would-be Hollywood auteur Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs), am man of mysterious origins, unshakable self-belief, and minimal talent as he attempts to make a feature film. The world knows the result as The Room, widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made and beloved by trash cinema connoisseurs around the world.
James, do you naturally gravitate towards material that is looking to get a reaction?
James Franco: No, no, not to get a reaction. I mostly do the things as bizarre as they are because I’m interested in them. Certainly, with this movie I was attracted to the fact that this was a bizarre Hollywood story and that this is a character unlike any other human being on the planet, but I also knew that underneath it was a very universal story, that it was about dreamers. I thought if we can get both of those elements in this movie then we would have something interesting.
When did you first see The Room and what did you think?
James Franco: I, as Seth [Rogen] likes to point out, am actually probably the only human to read the book (The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made) first before I saw the movie. I was certainly aware of the billboard on Highland. I’d been living in LA since 1996 and that billboard was up for like five years in the early 2000s and I saw it, but it just didn’t penetrate my consciousness. There was a phone number on it and I thought it was like a cult or something.
Did you call the number?
James Franco: No! I didn’t want to be in a cult! I thought you call it to hire this guy to be in your movie like Angelyne, who had those billboards. Whatever it was I was not interested and then I read the book and before I was halfway I just knew, I was like “This is such an amazing story!” and I went out and saw it in Vancouver (where) I was shooting The Interview with Seth at the time and it was an amazing screening and I was sold.
How did Tommy respond during the process of making the movie?
James Franco: Tommy is, as you can imagine, a very interesting guy that works in unusual, unexpected ways. While we filmed the main part of it he was not very involved at all. We used the book as a guide, and for my own personal research getting into the character I had these recordings that Tommy had made. He would drive around in his car – we’re talking 20 years ago, before The Room – he would drive around in his car and talk to himself on these mini tape recorders. Greg had taken some of those tapes a long time ago and gave them to me. And Tommy knows that I have them; they were very valuable because he was having very intimate, personal conversations with himself, so I could get into his head that way. But he just didn’t want to be involved; all he really wanted was to have a scene in the movie – that was in his contract that he’d have a scene.
The bonus scene?
James Franco: That became the bonus scene [giggles]!
On our part we really tried to figure out a scene that we could put him in that would actually stay in the movie. I thought it’d actually be a cool kind of thing, like a little Easter egg, “oh there’s the real Tommy.” There was originally a storyline where Greg (Dave Franco) goes to shoot a movie in Romania. We thought if Tommy was on the crew in Romania or something that would kind of make sense. It was a movie called Puppetmaster. And Tommy said “No, it has to be a scene with James.” So we ended up writing this little scene at this party that could be disposable, just because it just wasn’t the kind of movie that we were making where Tommy could then be talking to himself. That just didn’t make sense and he just wouldn’t be talked out of it.
So, we shot it, we did intend to put it in the film and then later we had to renegotiate for The Room footage. And, while we were in those renegotiations he asked somebody, “How’s my scene?” and they told him that it was out, and so he said, “If you want my footage from The Room you’d have to put my scene back in.” I’m so glad he pushed, forced my hand, because then we were allowed to put it at the end of the credits, which is the perfect place for that scene.
The movie is an homage to everybody who came from another country, never gave up. It is also a movie about making a movie. Did you have any references in terms of other films?
James Franco: Jason Mantzoukas, who plays a little part in it, has a great podcast with Paul Scheer, who’s also in it, and June Diane Raphael called How Did This Get Made? And Jason was saying that this is like the ultimate American Dream story with a guy who refuses to admit that he’s not from America but that’s also part of it.
What I love about Tommy is that in a lot of ways he is very similar to James Dean… they talk about it a little bit in the book when they talk about his history. Tommy has shadowed his past and made it blurry. They kind of say “Imagine this boy maybe in an Eastern Bloc country and he sees these American films and he’s just entranced and he starts to equate escaping and going to America with breaking into the movies; they become the same thing – going into the movies suddenly becomes his life goal which is also to belong, to be loved, to have a family and to be able to express himself among like-minded people.” And that’s sort of how James Dean saw it too – his mother died when he was eight, his father rejected him and so then he kind of looked at movies, “That’s my salvation, that if I become successful there, I’ll be loved, that will fill the hole.”
And movies that were references: obviously Boogie Nights, Sunset Boulevard, Ed Wood, and then the James Dean films because Rebel Without A Cause and East of Eden paralleled his life so closely in the same way that The Room is very closely tied to Tommy’s feelings about his life.
How much fun did you have playing these characters, and also how far would you go given that they’re actually are real people?
James Franco: Tommy is so fun to play. He’s very infectious. The other actors will tell you that I stayed in character even when I was off camera and directing them – that was for several reasons. Maybe the main reason was just fun to be that character but also, it’s maybe the only time in Hollywood history that somebody’s directed himself in a movie where he’s playing a character who’s directing a movie and acting in it as well. So, there were a lot levels there, it was just easier to simplify and just be – once I got the prosthetics and the wig on – just to be Tommy for the day.
Usually when you’re playing a real person there are parameters – you don’t want to distort the character, you want to honour the real person, so that’s certainly what I did with Tommy. But, actually, some people that didn’t know The Room thought ‘wow James really went over the top here.’ But there wasn’t really a danger of going too far with Tommy and it’s one of the main reasons we have side by side at the end is to show, no, this is real, this is exactly what it was like [laughs].
Dave Franco: Greg is obviously not as much of a character as Tommy, so I was more just trying to capture his essence. The most difficult part of playing Greg is that he’s making pretty poor decisions throughout this entire film and I needed to find a way to justify that and to make the audience understand why he continues on this journey with this guy who, from the outside, seems like a crazy man. I was just trying to find those nuances and that was hard. I sat down with Greg a handful of times to try to pick his brain about that very thing and he just didn’t have a great answer and so [giggles] it was just me trying to find myself. And then just leaning into the fact that Greg is just a very loyal person, he’s a very kind-hearted person and I like to believe I am similar in my real life, so that wasn’t a huge stretch.
How bizarre would it be if you got an Oscar nomination for this?
James Franco: How bizarre? It would be very bizarre. Tommy, when he made the movie, distributed it himself, he paid for the movie to be in theaters for two weeks to qualify for the Oscars….
And you’re going to do the same?
James Franco: Well, hopefully it will be out for two weeks, but I won’t be paying for that (laughs). The fact that people are asking me about [that], that there’s even that kind of question being asked to me is already so gratifying, makes me smile that 14 years later Tommy’s story is now even being talked about in that way.
You won an award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. How do you feel about that?
Dave Franco: The fact that they’d never screened The Room in Spain until the week before we arrived and so 99% of that audience had never even seen The Room and the fact that they still reacted that positively says a lot about what my brother did with our movie where he just made it very relatable and really leaned in to the idea of the fact that this is a movie about dreamers that don’t take no for an answer and we can all relate to that.
The Disaster Artist is in cinemas from November 30, 3017.