Why The Disaster Artist Needed the Franco Brothers

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Photo: Justina Mintz/A24

The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s telling of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, is a lot of things. It’s a big, loopy comedy about a strange movie that shouldn’t have existed, let alone found love. It’s the best thing our ever-restless boy Franco has ever made. It’s the first time Franco has acted alongside his brother Dave, the adorable baby Franco. And in part, The Disaster Artist can be read as a spinoff of the real, public relationship of James, the oddball, and Dave, the cheery all-American.

On the press tour for the movie, Dave has explained why he staged a moratorium from working with his brother for the decade or so he’s been acting professionally. Understandably enough, he never wanted anyone to think he was riding coattails. “But, after a while,” he’s said, “it felt like the right time.” The right time, certainly: Dave has indeed managed to establish his own name. And maybe, also, the right project — one that centers on a much-exaggerated, fun-house-mirror version of the Francos’ own bond.

The facts of The Room are remarkable enough: Very much despite itself, it would make Wiseau — a cracked auteur and deathless dreamer — famous. But what really animates The Disaster Artist is the beautiful union between Wiseau and his lead actor, a Neutrogena-clean California kid named Greg Sestero. And that’s where the real-life Francos come in: To portray this kind of twisted bond, maybe you needed brothers. Maybe you needed these brothers.

The Disaster Artist is adapted from Sestero’s memoir of the same name (subtitle: “My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”). The book was written with the great nonfiction practitioner Tom Bissell, one of the millions sickly enchanted by the cockamamie charms of The Room. (In 2010 in Harper’s, Bissell wrote the definitive piece on The Room, charting how it went from a deeply failed dramatist masterpiece to a midnight-movie phenomenon.) When Sestero approached Bissell to write the memoir, Bissell demurred, assuming at first it was to cover fairly standard on-set travails. It turned out, however, that Sestero and Wiseau had a bizarrely compelling, totally unlikely friendship behind them.

As the book recounts, Sestero met Wiseau when he was 19 or 20, in an acting class. Sestero was an unthreatening handsome young white man in the heady days of One Tree Hill, and so situated for success. Wiseau was, and is, a strange man of indeterminable age and vague Eastern European descent, obsessed with Hollywood dreams that would look, to anyone but him, preposterously out of his reach. The two would end up living together in L.A. and falling into the kind of mutually beneficial, mutually destructive intimacy rarely seen out of, say, long-term wedlock. Sestero would briefly enjoy the inklings of a career: For one, he had the starring role in Retro Puppet Master. But when both of their careers stalled, they’d collaborate on The Room, a movie in which everyone involved was sure it would end in ignominious obscurity.

Casting himself as Wiseau, surely, was a no-brainer for James. The role allows him to play big, trotting out a caricature of an accent, a look, an identity. (All three are actually faithful to the real Wiseau.) Which is perfect, because ever since pivoting from would-be star into the multi-hyphenate whatever the hell he is today, James has more or less been playing an outsize character. It’s unclear what exactly the character is, even to James himself. Fundamentally, though, he’s a happy-go-lucky experimentalist weirdo. How could James not love Tommy Wiseau? He’s a maniac who rejects a polite society he barely understands; he has no discernible skill, no particular artistic bent. It’s unclear if he’s ever even seen a movie. He is redeemed, however, by his unquenchable desire to make one. Early in James’s career, we saw him as the kind of guy to get plugged, willy-nilly, without much choice, into this or that Hollywood franchise. The whole time, though, what James saw was someone with his own volition. Someone a lot more akin to Wiseau: a man who is an artist, if only because he says so.

And so casting Dave as Sestero, too, must have made perfect sense. All these years, through talk-show appearances and magazine interviews, Dave has basically been playing the straight man to James. Over and over, with a big grin and oodles of reserves of love and pure good will, Dave has deflected questions about James’s various personal and creative dalliances. For Dave, the story of Sestero has parallels, too. Early in his career, Dave paid rent with small bits on Greek and 7th Heaven, the exact stuff Sestero was aiming for. Dave would go on to prove he had a scrappy, subtly dark screen presence all his own. But every working actor knows the sting of casting-room rejection. And every working actor imagines the version of their lives in which the rejections just kept coming, steadily, forever. There but for the grace of God go I, starring in Retro Puppet Master, and then never working again.

When siblings make movies together, they almost always work behind the scenes. The practice goes back decades and spans genres, from David and Jerry Zucker’s slapstick to the tragic city stories of Albert and Allen Hughes to the blockbustering of Lana and Lilly Wachowski. A look at the contemporary landscape produces all varieties of examples, too. Like Jay and Mark Duplass, the once and future kings of mumblecore. Or Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the Rodarte designers behind the Kirsten Dunst mindfuck Woodshock. Or Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who make critics swoon.

Any given creative duo has a past; a sibling duo has one that goes all the way to birth. Josh and Benny Safdie, who made this year’s kaleidoscopic crime movie Good Time, split their childhood between a responsible mother in Manhattan and a manic father in Queens who introduced them to stuff like A Clockwork Orange way too young and purposefully blurred the line between reality and fiction after viewings of Kramer vs. Kramer. “He’d say, ‘I’m Dustin Hoffman, she’s Meryl Streep,’” Benny told me, when I interviewed them for the Fader. “We’re 7 and 9 or whatever it is. We’re going back to our mom like, ‘You’re selfish and you just wanna live your life and you don’t wanna be our mom …’”

What makes a collaboration between siblings so compelling is exactly that kind of shared history. It forever defines aesthetics, ambitions, influences, dynamics. For the most part it’s implied, informing the work quietly. It’s rare for siblings to direct each other, as James does with Dave here, and also to co-star alongside one another. But it’s what makes the Franco x Franco collab work. The particular thing that The Disaster Artist is adding to the annals of sib flicks is a winking riff that’s palpable.

While they’ve never officially worked together, James and Dave have appeared together onscreen before, at least once. It was back in 2008. James was still doing the Tobey Maguire–era Spider Mans. Dave’s IMDb was a bare cupboard. The bit was a short video series for Funny or Die called “Acting With James Franco.” In the garishly lit living room of an abandoned McMansion ready for squatters, James stands cocky, with wild hair and a leather jacket. Dave, giddy next to him, wears a polo, a shaggy haircut, and what might be bootcut jeans.

For a few gleeful minutes, James hectors his little brother to dredge up emotion by recalling the death of a pet cat Dave apparently never really knew. Then they start recalling the time Dave walked in on James pleasuring himself. Winningly, Dave never breaks character. He’s the sane man in an insane world. Even in this short, dumb video there is a beautiful bit of connectivity. You can see it, there: Dave’s been preparing to be the Greg Sestero to James’s Tommy Wiseau for years.

The Disaster Artist is the story of a movie called The Room and the legacy it somehow won. It’s the story of Sestero and Wiseau and how sometimes the hardest friendships are the ones that mean the most (Honestly: when the title card came up saying Greg and Tommy still talk every day, I damn near cried). Somewhere, a few layers underneath all that, maybe, a little bit, it’s the story of the brothers Franco as well.

Why The Disaster Artist Needed the Franco Brothers