No other working actor has been as intent on turning his celebrity into an art project as James Franco. Which is why he’s probably the only actor-director alive who could pull off the meta-somersault of making a movie about the making of the modern cult classic The Room (known to its many fans as the greatest bad movie of all time), while also playing the movie’s eccentric creator and star, Tommy Wiseau. The result, The Disaster Artist, just played at SXSW, and it may soon join Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in the ranks of great movies about terrible movies.
It also may be the most James Franco thing James Franco has ever done. “He did direct the movie in character,” producer Seth Rogen told the audience after the SXSW screening, “There were scenes where [he was] playing Tommy directing a movie as Tommy directing a movie as Tommy. That was when we were like, This is fucking weird, man.”
If you live in New York or L.A. or anywhere with a vibrant midnight movie scene, you probably know about The Room, an overwrought tale of human relationships with unimaginably clunky dialogue written by, directed by, produced by, and starring Wiseau, an affable man with the long hair of a vampire rock star and a vaguely Eastern European accent. Wiseau is also, somehow, rich, and managed to self-finance The Room’s $6 million budget. After a comically chaotic shoot, he distributed it to two theaters in Los Angeles in 2003, where it made $1,800 during its two-week theatrical run. Then something miraculous happened: Audiences began demanding a chance to see it in theaters. Midnight screenings became communal events on par with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Paul Rudd and Kristen Bell were vocal advocates. People started doing live readings, and adding choreography. It turned a profit.
But you don’t have to have seen The Room to appreciate Franco’s making-of movie, which is at its heart a tribute to those who dream so big and fail so spectacularly that they actually triumph. Another filmmaker might have turned the story ironic, or come from a place of ridicule, but Franco is a go-big-or-go-home experimentalist who appreciates effort perhaps even more than results. His movie, based on a book by Wiseau’s best friend and co-star Greg Sestero, holds nothing but love.
The Room is so beloved, in fact, that it’s hard think of a celebrity who didn’t clear his or her schedule to pop up in The Disaster Artist. J.J. Abrams, Adam Scott, and Kevin Smith appear as documentary-style talking heads attesting to the movie’s significance. Dave Franco is perfectly cast as Sestero. Ari Graynor has a wonderful turn as Tommy’s movie love interest, Juliette Danielle (of “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” fame), while Jackie Weaver shows up as Carolyn Minnott, the actress who has that line about breast cancer. Seth Rogen, who is also a producer, plays a beleaguered script supervisor dealing with a leading man who can’t remember any of his lines or his marks.
The entire project is imbued with that affection. “We love The Room!” said Rogen. “I’ve seen it more than I’ve seen, like, Network. And that’s what we talked most about while we were putting this movie together: Why do we love The Room? What’s great about this movie? At the end of the day it was the earnestness of a guy who put himself out there, who made the thing. And made a great thing.”
Wiseau was in the audience, seeing the movie for the first time. Franco told the story, in Wiseau’s voice, of how Wiseau had wanted Johnny Depp to play him. When it became clear Franco had to do the part, Wiseau accepted it with a shrug: “Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen some of your work, James. You do some good things, some bad things.”
Franco clearly loves playing Wiseau, from his opening scene screaming “Stella!” in an acting class, to every amazing thing that comes out of Tommy’s mouth in that insane accent, usually sounding like he’s talking through a scuba mask and missing some basic element of grammar: “Bring football”; “Don’t look at rock crab”; “I want my own planet”; “Be my guest like Beauty and Beast.” There’s also an amazing early scene of him throwing a football like no other human has ever thrown a football — pure genius.
The SXSW screening was dubbed a “work in progess,” just like Rogen’s Sausage Party last year, but the only real tweak I think it could use is on length. There are so many minutes devoted to building up Tommy and Greg’s friendship and establishing Tommy’s eccentricities that by the time they start shooting The Room, with a time-marker “Day 1 of 40,” I had one of those, Jesus Christ, how long is this thing? moments.
Still it’s hard to fault Franco for indulging in such juicy material; he’s so good in all of it. He told the audience he’s been working on this movie ever since reading Sestero’s book on the set of The Interview a few years ago. (“This is the only good thing to come from The Interview,” Rogen joked.) To nail Wiseau’s voice, Franco listened to it obsessively in his car, just as he did when playing James Dean, Wiseau’s idol, for a 2001 TV movie. “It was basically the same thing,” he said, “playing James Dean and playing Tommy Wiseau.”
Franco said he saw in Wiseau a kindred spirit: “I really respected that he came out to Hollywood like so many millions of people have done, and he got this movie made.” And while he thought Wiseau’s behavior on set, like showing up four hours late for his own movie, or insisting his naked butt be prominent in sex scenes, seemed insane, he later realized, “I am Tommy Wiseau. So much. In ways I don’t want to admit.”
Wiseau, after all, is nothing but dedicated to his craft, so it’s fitting that Franco insisted on staying in character as Tommy while directing this movie about Tommy directing his movie. It was so bizarre that Rogen and Dave Franco had to issue a warning to any outsider visiting set. “We had to be like, ‘It’s one of those things you read about, like Daniel Day-Lewis,’” said Rogen. “It’s exactly the weirdest thing you’ve heard about. My actual grandmother came to set and was there for several hours, and then she turned to me and said, ‘Where’s James?’ I was like, ‘That’s James. Also, you are not going to like this movie.’”
Plenty of people at SXSW did, though. And after the standing ovation, we were left with the very James Franco–esque revelation that making art about great bad art doesn’t necessarily mean you have to lose the earnestness and humanity that made the bad art so compelling. So many filmmakers think irony is the default for comedy. But as The Disaster Artist proves, it’s not true. It’s bullshit. It’s not! Oh, hi Mark.